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Travels in France: 3
Two Chateaus and Cognac 

by

Arnie Greenberg

We are in Amboise, the last home of Leonardo Da Vinci. There is no time for a sit down lunch as we’re on a schedule. Even here in Amboise, on the Loire, there is so much to see. I marvel at the cave dwellings of the troglodytes and smile as I see the modern satellite dish at the cave door. Progress is everywhere. Yet, at The Clos Luce, where Da Vinci lived, I am reminded only of the past. But I’ve written about all this in a previous article so it’s time to move on. We settle for the drive back through Tours and west to Villandry.

There are good reasons to stop here and they are centered mostly on the magnificent gardens. The renaissance chateau built in 1536 by one of Francis I’s ministers, on the banks of the Loire, is important architecturally, but not one of my favorites. The one exception is the Prince Jerome chamber which is charming. It was named for the brother of Napoleon who once lived there.

     

Even with its arcaded galleries, mullioned windows and sculpted gables, I find it overdone and slightly neglected. I’m here for the gardens and I start with the fifteen-minute slide show of Villandry In All Seasons. It shows the most unique gardens in Europe, laid out on three levels. On the first level there is an ornamental lake in the center. It is wonderful for meditation.

   

Dr Joachim Carvallo, a Spaniard and great-grandfather of the present owners purchased the chateau. It changed hands in 1906. This brilliant scientist gave up his career to devote himself entirely to Villandry. He founded the ‘Demeure Historique’ society in 1924, the first association of privately owned Chateaux.

 

The herb garden, between the kitchen garden and the church, is a splendid example of French architectural and color design. This was a must in the Middle Ages. It provided aromatic, cooking and medicinal herbs. Here, thirty varieties of these beneficial plants provided centuries of residents with items essential to their well-being.

 

The ‘ornamental kitchen garden’ occupies the nine equal squares, each with a different geometrical design. Here the vegetables are planted for their color and looks like a checkerboard. You’ll find blue leek, red cabbage, beetroot and green carrot tops. This was created by monks of the Middle Ages and reminds us of these monastic origins. The Monks left their mark with the planting of standard roses to add to the décor.

 

But there is also an Italian influence here with the fountains, bowers and flowerbeds. The design changes each year and today, the laborious task of watering is done automatically by underground sprinklers.

 

There are definite patterns in the ornamental gardens, behind the chateau. I still remember the first time I say the entire vista from the belvedere. It’s easy to see the various designs but hard to describe them. There are designs called “Tender Love”, “Passionate Love”, “Fickle Love”, and “Tragic love.” This last one is the most dramatic. It represents blades and daggers and swords used during duels, provoked by lovers. The summer red is a flash back to the blood spilt during these fights.

 

Then, in the middle of the farther designs sits the ‘Maltese Cross’, the Languedoc cross and the Basque cross, with the fleurs de lys running along the moat.

 

There is a very old courtyard where one enters the chateau and the inevitable terrace where, no doubt, the ladies took their walks.

 

On certain days each year, there are festivals. Call ahead for the dates. They usually include a sound and light show, a Baroque Music Festival in August and days in September when you can get hints on gardening and share in the work.

 

For visitors there is a restaurant, toilets and the always-present gift shop. But that’s to be expected. It’s a welcome place for those who want to just spend an extra few minutes breathing in the aromatic air.

 

It takes time to do the chateau and gardens properly. Don’t rush. But if there is time, try walking through the interesting maze at the far end near the playground. It’s designed so you can’t get lost.

 

Once you’re in Tours, it’s an easy ride 15 Km west on D-7.Find out more about Villandry by contacting them at http://www.villandry@wanadoo.fr

 

Call ahead. Tel: 02 47 50 02 09

 

If you have the time, I suggest you go 10 more Km south to Azay-Le-Rideau. This is one of the great French monuments to the rich Bourgeoisie. Built on an island, this graceful small chateau was once a fortification and is now a gentle, inviting building with vertical ornaments, pepper pot towers at each corner that overhang the river, and a dominant courtyard with monumental open stairway. There is a drawbridge to the garden and skylights that tower upward. The remarkable decorative latticework is typical of the designs in the region.

 

Azay-Le-Rideau boasts a library with fireplace, and wall furniture of paneling and painted canvas. There is a dining room where gusts ate on service bearing the Biencourt coat of arms. (Charles de Biencourt, the great benefactor, owned the chateau after 1791).

 

There is a billiard room decorated with Flemish tapestries from the

16th century, decorated with biblical scenes. The Biencourt drawing room is open on all sides to the river and park, laid out in the 19th century. There is more and a sound set to help you understand it all.

It’s a remarkable building, filled with the charm of centuries past. The light lines of the building are worth remembering and you certainly will.

 

 

Once you’ve visited the charming residence, take time to walk around the building and see the chateau from all sides. You will cross a tiny bridge and hear the rushing waterfall as the Indre River runs around this charming site. Bring your cameras. It’s worth it. You can even visit at night. There’s a sound and light show. Just call ahead for times. It’s only half an hour from Tours.

 

Here too there is a well-stocked souvenir shop and clean bathrooms. There are no refreshments but that’s possibly because the town is only steps away.

 

For more information go to http://www.monuments-france.fr 

 

Azay-Le-Rideau is one of the 3615 Historical Monument sites.

 

Their telephone number is 02 47 45 42 04

 

For me it is time for lunch and I’m headed south passed Poitiers and Futurscope, the park of the future. But my mind is set on Cognac and my eventual stop in Angouleme.

 

Cognac is that region center where the spirits of old are the crop of choice. Why not? This is the best region in the world for the manufacture of Cognac. There are many distilleries ready to welcome you. I’ve been to Martel, Otard, and others, but I enjoy the friendly greeting I always get at Hennessey. Here in this age-old depot and modern meeting site, I buy my ticket and wait for the boat that will take me to a place where the air is redolent with the wonderful smells of Cognac. The tour here will explain it all.

 

Small groups are transported to the opposite side of the river where one is told of the age-old traditions of making Cognac. We are shown the hand-made wooden vats containing samples from the 19th century and how the blends create one of the most sought-after drinks other than wine. The casks are hand made by coopers who are extremely adept at their work. The uniformed guides take you through the entire plant and even point out the black lichen stains on the walls and ceilings from the alcohol evaporation. The guide told us that there is a high percentage of evaporation ‘for the angels’.

 

Before the tasting, which is a popular part of the tour, the tour includes a very vivid multi media show, which allows one to see the harvest and the work it takes to create this smooth drink. At the tasting, we were served the newest product, which was a lighter color than normal. This ‘Pure White’ was served with a small amount of mineral water. The guide explained that 85% of all cognac is consumed mixed. I didn’t know that and still take it neat. The flavors seem better and more memorable.

 

While I always enjoy Hennessey, one can visit Martel or another popular site at Otard. This distillery operates from the Chateau where King Francis I was born in 1494. The site’s thick walls are a perfect place for creating a wonderful blend.  It is a true historic monument. They have preserved some of the Renaissance Architecture and that’s a good thing. They too offer a tour and tasting. But it also affords the visitor with a view of the ceremonial Helmet Room where Richard the Lion hearted watched his son get married in 1190. The state Room is for receptions and The Guard’s Room has signs that it was once a prison for Irish and English soldiers during the Seven Years War (1756-63)

 

Quai Richard Hennessey is on both sides of the Charante River. They are open seven days a week from Mid March to New Years Eve from 10 AM daily.  Call ahead for reservations at 05 45 35 72 68

or reserve by Fax. 05 45 35 79 49

 

Otard is on Boulevard Denfert Rochereau, near the public garden.  They open to the public every day from April 1st to October 31st. November and December is Monday to Friday only. They can be reached at 05 45 36 88 86 or by Fax at 05 45 36 88 87 or on their excellent website at http://www.otard.com.  

Here you have a virtual visit with slides and description.

 

Both places have an entrance fee but it is well worth it, especially with the chance to taste something special. If age and blending are the attributes to perfection, these two sites are worth the visit. Bring home a bottle. Buy a traditional snifter and, voila, Cognac at its best.

#   #   #

You can Contact Professor Arnie Greenberg at

Email:  Ultours1@gmail.com

Over the past few years, Professor Greenberg has traveled with groups to France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Prague and both Sorrento and the Bay of Naples plus most of Sicily. His tours traveled to the far reaches of the globe including Italy and most of China (Beijing -Hong Kong) and to Russia where his group cruised the waters from St.Petersburg to Moscow. 

"He took a group to Greece and another to northern Russia. In Nov 07 he took a tour group to much of India and ended his tour groups by revisiting France. He now travels with his wife and friends. They winter in Argentina or San Miguel Mexico.  His newly found spare time is taken up with his painting and writing. "I must write every day." His current work is a cautionary manual for would-be tour leaders..  "So You Want To Be A Tour Leader." 

Arnie now travels with friends. He continues writing Travel articles about unusual places but often concentrates on novel writing. Two books based on French Art will be published this year.  Keep reading his web for travel ideas.  His next novel HELLSTORM'S Folly, will be available this fall. He now lives in British Columbia.

Go to:  www.top-travel-ideas.com or contact him directly at ultours1@gmail.com.

(More about the writer.)

 

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