It is just 33 kms from Amboise to St Aignan where we had booked into a small campsite no more than a few minutes walk from the town. We approached from the north and the view as we crossed the River Cher into the town was of the Chateau de St Aignan. It towered over a line of riverfront properties and filled the van’s windscreen. That would be somewhere to visit in the morning.
We’d done very little research into St Aignan. We simply wanted somewhere to stay overnight that took us further south and was not too much of a drive from Amboise and Vanya reported that the local camp site read well. Having said all that and in hindsight, I think Vanya knew the ZooParc de Beauval, Europe’s fifth largest zoo with more than 35,000 animals, is close by and that will have influenced her thinking as she searched for somewhere to park up for the night. Ever felt had?
St Aignan is a small town in the Loir et Cher Department of the Centre-Val de Loire with a population of less than 3,000 and we weren’t expecting great things of the place; well, I wasn’t. The next two days saw us disappointed on two counts and well pleased on one. The disappointments: (a) we couldn’t visit the zoo because we had the dogs with us (and we weren’t going to leave them for the time it would take to properly explore the place) and (b) it was the final weekend of the school holidays in France and the camp site was packed with kids and far too busy for us. The one positive was that the beauty and character of St Aignan, and especially the Chateau, more than compensated for both disappointments. We each enjoyed St Aignan as much as Amboise.
My initial thoughts as we approached the Chateau early the next morning were that it looked a little tired and somewhat average (especially after Chenonceau) but when you get up close it oozes elegance and style and looks and feels so full of history – I was wholly thrilled by the place and I wanted to know everything about it. Unfortunately, this was not to be. The place is owned and lived in by the de la Roche Aymon family and for that reason we were allowed access only to the main courtyard and terraces but, hey, bless them for allowing that. The place blew me away.
I can’t tell you much about the Chateau except that there are three aspects to it. There’s the derelict Hagard Tower which is all that remains of the original 9th century fortress. Then there’s the Renaissance Chateau decorated with scallop shells and the salamander device of Francis I and it is this part of the Chateau which is most visible from the north and which towers over the town. This was home to the Dukes of Beauvilliers. The third aspect, which sits at the end of the stables, is the Octagonal Tower erected around 1830 by the Prince de Chalais.
Alongside the Chateau is an 11th/12th century Romanesque collegiate church dedicated to St Aignan. I am told it has a magnificent crypt containing 10th century murals but I was unable to gain access because the Sunday morning service was in full swing – next time.
Actually, Vanya and I had forgotten it was Sunday. This is a bad mistake to make in France because most cafes and restaurants seem to shut on Sundays and you generally need to book in advance; this is especially true in August. We could sit outside a bar and enjoy a couple of glasses of wine (which we did) but it would have been something like a two hour wait for food. We made do with cheese and biscuits back at the Boomobile.
We both like Amboise. It is a bit touristy and it was quite busy while we were there but it is steeped in history and well worth a few hours of anyone’s time. Because of the Chateau Royal d’Amboise and what remains of the old town it retains, I think, something of a medieval feel.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see as much of the town as we would have liked. I have long wanted to explore the Chateau Royal and what with doing that and then taking lunch at a small bistro alongside the Loire the time just flew.
People have been living on the site that is now Amboise for well over 2,000 years and there has been a fortress of some sort there for most of that time – certainly, there has been one since Roman times. It was in 1498, however, after fighting his wars in Italy and returning with a love of all things Italian, that the French King Charles VIII began to transform the typically dark defensive medieval fortress where he had been raised into a Renaissance masterpiece. This start was continued by others (notably Louis II and Francis I with Francis in particular excelling as he brought in various Renaissance Masters including Leonardo da Vinci to build on the earlier works) until the Chateau became a worthy palace for numerous Vallois and Bourbon kings. It is sad but, magnificent as it still seems, the Chateau is only a shadow of what it once was (because of destruction caused during the French Revolution and then again under German occupation in the Second World War).
Upon entering the Chateau one of the first sights to be seen is the Chapel of Saint Hubert which sits almost directly above the main entrance and has been described as “an absolute jewel” – it is! This is supposedly the final resting place of Leonardo da Vinci who spent the last years of his life and died in Amboise in 1519.
Put me on the walls of a castle and I am normally looking outwards for the best views. Not so in this case. The views along and inside the Chateau walls are truly superb and the restored gardens certainly do the place justice…
Although this is not to say that there aren’t some views outside the castle wall that are not also worth taking in…
I did a quick run around inside the Chateau (and I could talk for ages about some of the rooms which are in fitted and furnished in late Gothic style as well as Renaissance and; of course, I have made no mention yet of Francis II and his time at the Chateau with Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots – Vanya and I are almost obsessed with the Tudors & Stuarts) but I had to drag myself away to rejoin Vanya who was patiently waiting outside with our dogs.
There was just time left for us to take a short stroll around the pedestrian old town (well worth visiting with plenty of fine old houses and lovely cafes) and stop for lunch in a small bistro along the banks of the River Loire (which in case you don’t know officially separates the north and south of France and also marks the furthest point north reached by the Moors as they pushed up from Morocco into Europe) before we set off for our next port of call – Saint Aignan.
Drove south today, passing through Tours, to the small town of Montrichard sur Cher in the Centre-Val de Loire. We weren’t aiming for Montrichard; it was just that Vanya found a reasonable looking stopover in “Camping Couleurs du Monde” (next to a fair sized Carrefours, which provided an opportunity to stock up on a few luxury items such as basic foodstuffs and essentials such as Vanya’s newly found Cremont wine) and we elected to settle there for a couple of days and “just chill'”. What a great find!
I went exploring that first afternoon in Montrichard and two of the first places I stumbled upon were wineries, Domaine Merleau and Domaine Monmousseau. Time for some wine tasting but which to choose? Because it was 10 metres closer I did what any thirsty Englishman would do and chose the Domaine Merleau and… I did okay. Vanya would get her turn the next day.
That first evening in Montrichard was lazy. I ambled back to the Van – sorry the Boomobile – where Vanya had produced just the right meal to follow white wine tasting – a prawn starter with a chicken salad to follow. Then we sat and drank wine and put the world back into perspective.
The following morning was about properly checking out Montrichard and, especially, the local market which was in full swing that day. It isn’t a big market but you can get just about anything you want up to and including a double bed. The charcuterie stall was particularly appealing – loads of pork and boar! We took the dogs with us (the French seem to love dogs; witness the Michelin experience back in Normandy) and this time even Beanie was sufficiently well behaved that we were able to sit and enjoy coffee at the edge of the market and just watch the world go by.
One thing worth mentioning – As we sat down to enjoy the morning coffee in the market place, I ordered a cafe au lait while Vanya (forgetting that she is in France and not Italy) ordered a Latte and yet; when the waitress returns with our drinks, Vanya swears blind that the cafe au lait is hers and that it was me who ordered La The! To make matters worse La The was Earl Grey and I cannot stand the stuff!!
Vanya went for a short sleep that afternoon and I took the time to walk to and from the Chateau de Chenonceau (that’s about a 20 kilometre round trip) but because we had more wine tasting scheduled for that evening I didn’t have time to enter the Chateau itself.
The wine tasting was fun (we went back to the same place I visited the previous afternoon ) and we came away with another couple of cases of white wine. Then it was off to find a restaurant in the centre of the town for dinner. Sod’s law, the wine served with our dinner that evening was a Monmousseau and Vanya hasn’t yet stopped telling me how much more she prefers it than the stuff I made her try earlier in the day at the Domaine Merleau. No matter, we had a great time sitting outside on a warm summer’s evening, eating huge buckets of Moules and listening to old music covers by a local combo (and, yes, drinking the finest wine I have experienced on the tour so far including the Pouilly Fume).