A note from your favorite Tour-ists
03.06.2015 - 08.06.2015 15 °C
Our respective sojourns in France have come to their bittersweet ends; whether the journey has been a whirlwind of ten or sixteen days, or an extended stay totaling a whopping 281 days, we are all tired, stuffed, a little sunburned, and not quite ready to come back home yet.
The four of us arrived in Tours (pronounced “Tour” – without the “s”) at about noon on Wednesday, June 3. We hadn’t had time to grab breakfast before our train, and there were no food offerings on our five-hour commute, so we were all a bit hangry by the time we got into town.
Unfortunately our trek had not quite ended – we still had an epic walk through town to reach our apartment. (In hindsight, we should have taken the tram, but we didn’t realize at the time just how close it ran by our apartment.) Instead, picture this – Mom and Eva each carrying their own luggage for the week, plus one of my bags; me laden with more of my own acquisitions; and Dad bringing up the rear (at varying distances, depending on traffic) pushing my 100-pound overseas suitcase.
After a delightful meeting with our landlord, it was easy to settle into our lovely little two-bedroom apartment, located in the heart of the old city centre, a block from the Place Plumereau.
By this time, Eva’s hanger was reaching two-year-old meltdown stage, so we stopped off at the first boulangerie we saw. (It had been quite easy to convert everyone to the baguette sandwich lunch club – the infinite combinations of cheeses and crunchy breads fit everyone’s liking, and Eva loves the concept of adding butter to a sandwich that is already mostly cheese….)
Our landlord had recommended that we visit Les Halles, a cool indoor market that offers a variety of regional and traditional meats, cheeses, chocolates, and other artisan foods. We took the opportunity to stock up on some groceries, as we were all looking forward to a home-cooked meal and a quiet evening in the apartment. Eva and I put together a ratatouille-inspired veggie bake, and we sampled a few of the chèvre varieties that are produced in the Tours area.
The next morning, we were ready to do a bit more in-depth exploring of Tours. We hit the Cathédrale Saint-Gatien, which was much more impressive than any church Mom and Dad got to see in Besançon. So we spent about two hours there. To be fair, though, it is considered one of the finest cathedrals in the Loire Valley. The light-colored stone, combined with a stunning variety and multitude of windows created an enchanting space, replete with a full ambulatory and five radiating chapels.
Our next stop was the Musée de Campagnonnage, which was something new for all of us. It traced the roots of the trade union movement in France, with exhibitions dedicated to each specialized craft, from ferriers, to woodworkers, to masons, to pâtissiers. A little something for everybody! In fact, it was so interesting that both Mom and Dad managed to lean in close enough to an exhibit to smack their faces on the glass.
On Friday, we began our quest to explore the Loire Valley. We bought train tickets for the hamlet of Chenonceaux (pop. 325) and set off to explore one of the most iconic of the Loire Valley châteaux. We also discovered, not surprisingly, that it has a rich history to go along with its picturesque gardens (which provided incredible bouquets throughout the castle) and overall architectural beauty. The rooms were elaborately painted floor to ceiling, with many rooms sporting gigantic tapestries, but we found we preferred the kitchen chambers with their plain walls, garlands of garlic and herbs, and plethora of copper pots. We were also fascinated to learn that the grand gallery (the long room that spans the river) served as a military hospital during WWI and as an escape route from the banks of occupied into unoccupied France during WWII. (There was also a little war hospital museum in one of the outbuildings, and we were all slightly disturbed to find that Ben wasn’t in Munich after all – he was chilling at Chenonceau, playing the role of a surgeon-mannequin!)
The next day was another train ticket, this time to the city of Blois (“Blwah”) (pop. 45,000), whose château spanned eight centuries and four kings. We were pleased to find this city a bit less of a tourist destination than Chenonceau. In the morning, we had the château’s lovely garden to ourselves, which of course led to a Kammerer-style photoshoot.
While the château was definitely a highlight of the visit, we were also pleasantly surprised to happen upon a bustling street market where we spent a couple of hours perusing and shopping, then grabbing baguette sandwiches (of course) before château-ing. This town was really cool, because the medieval roots were still evident. The château was up above the town on a rocky outcropping, and the old village was a thriving collection of old timber-framed buildings, cobblestone alleys, and modern shops and businesses.
Then the pièce de résistance of our Loire Valley explorations came yesterday, with a 21 km bike ride along the Cher River to the village and château of Villandry (pop. 1000) and the most spectacular array of gardens to accompany any château in France. We picnicked in a nearby park, and then headed off to the house. It was interesting to learn that it is still privately owned by the family that purchased and restored the property at the turn of the 20th century. The house was incredibly grand and the most interesting from an interior design point of view. (The others were more museum-y, with a lot less furniture, but this one had a very lived-in feeling.)
However, the gardens are the real attraction. Mom got a dangerous amount of “garden ideas” and quickly burned Eva and me out with an intense desire to get “a pretty photo of my girls” in front of every single rosebush.
But then it was all good when, at the end of our visit, we stopped at an ice cream stand featuring an intriguing selection of very summery flavors. We ended up trying hibiscus, coconut, apricot, strawberry-thyme, raspberry-bergamot, and mint-nettle!
After a relaxing ride back into Tours, we all freshened up and headed out for a last night on the town in France. (We had popped into a gourmet kitchen store in our neighborhood a few days before, and were warmly greeted by an extravagant Frenchman in caution-tape yellow pants who was very excited to use his – very good – English skills with a patron. It turned out that he was practically a long-lost relative. He took Dad down to the basement to show him the foundations of the 10th century church that he had found while renovating. Then he took us all across the street to show us his house! It was a beautiful – and huge – renovated structure that dated to the 1500s, complete with a small courtyard, a walk-in fireplace, and antique frescoes. But anywho…he had also recommended a restaurant down the street that we just had to try.)
This was our quintessential French dining experience. Unfortunately, by this time we were all too tired to remember to grab cameras – or even cell phones – before leaving the apartment. So you will never see the beauty that was our dinner – and dessert. We started with an appetizer that was a tower of thinly sliced beets layered with herbed chèvre, and then followed it up with boeuf tartare, lamb steak, cod with kumquat confiture, and the classiest steamed veggies and rice you’ll ever see in your life. We finished it off with chocolate-ginger cake, mint ice cream rolled in cocoa, chocolate mousse, and mint-infused panna cotta. We figured that our 42 km bike ride kind of balanced it all out….
Today, our last full day in France, was spent shopping for souvenirs, taking it easy, and trying to figure how to pack everything back up to bring home. (Not looking forward to the rush-hour tram ride with four people and ten bags….)
This will be the last post on my Besançon 2014-2015 blog. Thank you to everyone who has followed along on this journey. I have really enjoyed sharing my adventures with you and creating this log of memories for the future. As someone who has made multiple failed attempts at journaling, I am very glad to have had the opportunity to put down my thoughts, experiences, and anecdotes in a manner that could interest more people than just my future self. As eventful and exciting as my far-off travels have been, I can’t tell you how much I have loved putting aside a few hours of every week to share stories with you all, and every one of your comments and emails has given me a warm fuzzy. As cliché as it may sound, this blog has served at least half of its purpose well, if only as a way for me to still feel connected to home over the past nine months.
Thank you again, and I cannot wait to see you all so, so soon!