After a few days in Paris, we caught the fast train from Bercy station and two hours later we arrived in La Charite Sur Loire, a lovely old town with an ancient cathedral and a handy train station. Our friends Olivier and Stewart picked us up in their rented car, and drove us through the pastoral landscape to the nearby village of Giverney. They have just bought a 16th century chateaux in the next village along, but it is currently an ancient relic and it will be years before it is ready for habitation. So to get themselves in the mind set of being lords of the manor, they rented a fully restored 4,500 square foot chateaux for the summer. We had no idea what we were in store for when arrived. We were enjoying the drive across fields of wheat, corn and sunflowers when we saw the towers of a castle in the distance. Freddie joked that he hoped that was where we would be staying. When the car pulled into to the village, and we crossed the stone bridge over the moat, we almost had a heart attack. This storybook castle was to be our home for the next few days, and I immediately felt like a queen.
In ancient times, the River Loire was the natural highway from the Atlantic to the middle of France. It was the essential route to transport the hugely valuable wine crop that grows along the valley. When the Romans conquered the region in the first century, there were already prosperous towns along its banks. In the Middle Ages the French and English Crowns both claimed the region and the fabled 100 Years War kicked off in 1337. The English had gained the upper hand ninety years on when they successfully sacked and occupied the city of Orleans. The tide began to turn when a 17 year old virgin heard voices from heaven telling her to drive the English out of France. Joan of Arc with the blessing of the young Charles VII, gathered a rag tag army in Tours and entered the city of Orleans. With this strong willed young girl, the French had found the leader that helped them drive the English out of the Loire Valley for good on May 8, 1429. (This date has been celebrated as a day of Thanksgiving in France ever since). She was rewarded for her efforts by being accused of witchcraft, and was handed over to the English who burned her at the stake at the age of 19. Five hundred years later, she finally got her recognition and was declared a saint in 1920. Joan of Arc is the national heroine of France and monuments to her can be found throughout the Loire Valley.
During the Renaissance the Loire Valley became the center of Royal Court life when The Duke of Orleans was crowned King Louis XII in 1498. He was followed by Francois I in 1515 who invited his favourite Italian artists to the Loire including Leonardo Da Vinci. The great man arrived with three paintings strapped on the back of a mule. One of these was The Mona Lisa, which Francois purchased from him for 4,000 ecus. (I have no idea how much an ecu was worth, but needless to say, Francois made a very good investment. It was a well documented and legal purchase, which is why the most famous painting in the world remains the property of the French, much to the Italians chagrin). When French politics required the Royal Court be moved to Paris at the end of the 16th century, the Loire fell back into its age-old role as an economically stable agricultural region with a taste for the good things in life. And there it has comfortably remained ever since.
We got our first taste of the French countryside that evening. A bounty of local root vegetables were spilling over on the heavy wooden kitchen table, and dozens of bottles of wine were stacked in the corners. Olivier's auntie was busy tending bubbling pots and slicing baguettes that had just been delivered from the local boulanger. An oversized apricot tart baked in the oven filling the entire ground floor with its heavenly scent. We opened some local sweet wine on the terrace behind the chateau and threw bread to the carp in the moat below. The big outdoor table was decorated with vases of lavender and a frisky kitten came for a visit when he smelled the rabbit stew being served. The seven of us happily chatted in a mixture of French and English and we savoured the multi course meal over several hours. By the time we went up to bed, the dark night sky was alive with shooting stars and I was totally won over by the earthy charms of the "Garden of France".
The area where we stayed is famous for two things: white wine and goats cheese. Both are favourites of mine, so I was very excited to go out on a tour to find the best on offer. We drove through acres of well tended vines of Sauvignon grapes and pastures where plump red goats were grazing. The landscape is quite flat with just a gentle slope of a hill here and there. The town of Sancerre is the exception, as it is perched on top of a domed hill that can be seen from many miles around. This exceptionally pretty town has steep and narrow cobbled streets and rows of pale stone houses that are five centuries old. In the center of town is an open square with tables and parasols where visitors and locals sit down to sip wine and nibble sharp little goats cheeses called Crottins de Chavignol. Surrounding the square are small, family owned wine shops offering tastings. Madame poured the wine and showed us pictures of her strapping sons who work in the vineyards. She was rightfully proud of them and the wine they have produced. The fragrant white wine is named after the town (or perhaps it is the other way around). Sancerre is exported in small amounts, so if you see some on the shelf, by all means, grab it. Afterwards, we walked to the edge of town to look over the ancient walls for a rare birds eye view of the meandering River Loire.
The Loire River is one of the few in Europe that has no dams, and is essentially still wild. It freezes in winter, and is prone to flooding. The towns along its banks are some of the most welcoming in France, as the people are close to the land and far removed from the brusque demeanour of the Parisians to the north. But just as the Royals built their chateaux in the past, now wealthy Parisians are flocking to the area to buy second homes. They come for the same reasons as the tourists: The fresh food, the delightful wines and slow pace of life. Even by lofty French standards, the Loire Valley is a foodies paradise. The sweet life in the Valley has inspired some of France's most famous writers: Balzac, Proust and Jules Verne are all from the region. Another local was Rene Descartes, the philosopher who gave us the celebrated line "I Think, Therefore I Am". Sitting back on the terrace of the castle, I am sure I am not the only one who has raised a glass of sweet Sancerre to Descartes and proclaimed: I drink therefore I am.