We were in need of a vacation, a little break. It doesn’t take much; no faraway, exotic location, no beach resort or jet setter crowds. We don’t have to go far, au contraire! Why tire ourselves out with complicated travel plans, long airport waits or unexpected glitches? Free as the wind, we toss the bare necessities, rubber boots, extra coats and snacks into the back of the station wagon, grab a few necessary guide books and leave. On a whim. Our destination is decided upon last minute. Do we want to stay in France or drive south to Basque Country, north to Holland? Do we want mountains or seaside or the hustle and bustle of city life? What we are always sure of is that we crave quiet nights, great meals and a few days filled with history.
An easy getaway is all that it takes to make us happy. An easy drive so as not to arrive tired out, an easy drive so as not to return home exhausted, the purpose of the break utterly destroyed in that long last day of travel. And why bother? We have so much magnificence a mere arm’s length away. We had already begun our Grand Tour of the châteaux of the Loire two years earlier, having visited Chenenceau and Villandry. We have visited Azay-le-Rideau and Langeais draped in beauty and fascination. This was the perfect chance to continue the trail. As the landscape swept by, a blur of green and hazy gray, as the road rushed under our feet, the music blaring from the radio, we hatched our plans, selected our itinerary.
Winding through country roads once off of the autoroute, we were a bit stunned that we could not find the Château de Chambord immediately, its regal white and blue towers standing magnificently above the horizon. Chambord, built – although never completed – by François I in the XVI century is the largest chateau in the Loire valley. This imposing, royal structure was built as a mere hunting lodge, and who but a king would bring Leonardo da Vinci up from Italy to work on the design of the building. Or that could only be unfounded rumor, but da Vinci did indeed spend his last three years in the area. And much of the design is decidedly Italian, reminiscent of the master in all of its Renaissance splendor. The spectacular and confounding double helix staircase is attributed to the Italian master and is the centerpiece of this architectural wonder. We wandered up and down, throughout the rooms and across the grounds, trying to imagine the life lived between these stone walls, within the confines of this domain.
Le Château de Blois is remarkable in that it is smack in the center of the city of Blois, built at its feet, rather than nestled in the countryside. A medieval castle built in the XIV century, the château is where Jeanne d’Arc was blessed by the Archbishop of Reims in 1429 and such kings as François I, Henri III and Henri IV (in all, 7 kings and 10 queens) resided within the walls of Blois. Blois is also where Henri III had his archenemy, the Duc de Guise famously murdered. While we saw the marriage of Anne de Bretagne, Duchess of Brittany, to Charles VIII, King of France, at the Château de Langeais, her second marriage with Louis XII at Blois allowed the return of Brittany to France. Very exciting times….
Blois, as I learn from my well-read, history buff husband, was the home of Robert-Houdin, the famous illusionist/magician (as well as clockmaker and inventor), and from whom Houdini took his name. Stepping out of the Château de Blois, we were greeted by a stunning 6-headed squawking, smoke-breathing dragon automaton coming out of the windows of Robert-Houdin’s home, now a museum.
We wander the streets, the towns, feeling our way through layers of culture and traditions. We spy salamanders and hedgehogs, symbols of kings long dead yet still very much alive in the mythic cities. We follow their footsteps, read snatches of their stories on placards and in books, we see the beds in which they may have slept, husband tells tales of murders and mistresses, assignations and wars. We search out bits and pieces of their lives as they intermingle with the lives of those presently making these places, these cities their homes.
We collapse into bed at the Grand Hôtel du Lion d’Or, a luxurious treat to ourselves, in the town of Romorantin-Lanthenay after a very fine meal by chef Didier Clément. We are, of course, in Sologne, famous for its asparagus and we were treated to three dishes featuring the white stalk.