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Travels in France: 2

Versailles to Tours

by

Arnie Greenberg

It’s not that I am ever ready to leave Paris but there are other places to visit, other sites to see, different tastes, smells and experience. So I reluctantly pack my rented Renault and head west to the Palace of Versailles. By the way, I recommend a Paris tradition regarding car rentals. They call it ‘achat rechat’ or buy and sell. Here you can buy a new Renault of any size, and return it when you’re through. The cost is less than a rental if you keep it for three or more weeks. Look into it.

But getting back to Versailles. This is no ordinary palace. French kings had been building palaces for centuries. The first ones were in Paris but they were tiny by comparison to Versailles. The reason for the town of Versailles’s existence, or what the French call the ‘raison d’etre’ is the 17th century palace. It has to be one of the most impressive in the world, even today, over tree centuries later.

Consider a few statistics. It took 36,000 workers and 6,000 horses, fifty years to build it. It housed 20,000 people among which were 3,000 courtiers who were used to living in style. Over 225 people died during the construction, which spread out over 280 acres. Even the gardens are special, with small lakes and dramatic water fountains. The cost at 65 million livres was staggering. Today, it would cost that much just to build an aircraft carrier. Consider that in the famous Hall of Mirrors, there were gold candlesticks taller than a man. When Louis wanted to wage war, he would melt one candlestick.

The Hall of Mirrors or Galerie des Glaces, is important to see but don’t leave out but don’t leave out the Royal Chapelle, Louis XIV’s last addition, the Queen’s Bedroom where 19 royal children were born, or The Royal Opera built by Louis XV in 1770.

It’s about 20 K from Paris and I suggest a picnic lunch and a full day to see it. If you find it too much to walk around, you can rent a bicycle, or a rowboat or you can take the small train that offers a tour for a few Euros. You can get off, look around, and get on again. During an earlier time, the lake was filled with gondolas. I also enjoyed seeing the billiard room. There was no table but I guess the King never lost. I for one wouldn’t dare to beat him. Would you?

There are buildings other than the Chateau itself. Visit Le Petit Trianon or Le grand Trianon and see where Louis went to escape the palace atmosphere or where Marie Antoinette frolicked in her make believe world.

To the French, this is hallowed ground, even though it is not original and was built partly with Rockefeller money. When you consider that the Treaty of Versailles that settled the chaos after WWI was signed in the Hall of Mirrors. Also, in that same room with 17 monstrous mirrors and chandeliers beyond description, the heads of the Germanic States knelt and swore their allegiance to Kaiser Wilhelm of Prussia who became the first Kaiser of a united Germany. The German flag, created there after the French were defeated in the Franco-Prussian War flew over the Palace of Versailles for the first time anywhere. One can imagine the slap in the face that was to the French and why resentment between the two nations lasted so long. The building of glass, porcelain, brick, marble, gilt and crystal was the work of an egocentric. But it had a purpose and gave glory to France.

Savor its beauty but get there early before the tour groups and be forewarned, Versailles is closed on Mondays. When you enter through the main gate into the Minister’s Courtyard you will feel that sense of history that is Versailles.

From Versailles I headed south to the Chateau at Rambouillet. This old hunting lodge built at the edge of a forest is hardly beautiful but it is the summer home of the president of France since 1897 and the site for many international meetings for heads of state. You can visit the paneled interior with its rococo bedrooms and Napoleon’s bathroom decorated with neo-Pompeii frescos. But the peaceful grounds are open to the public, only when the President is not there. It is magnificently landscaped with rare trees, canals and islands.

It was here in the 14th century that Francis 1st died. Later it was a favorite place for Marie Antoinette for whom a dairy was built so that she could play act like a milkmaid. Oh, the idle rich. Even with all this, she never appreciated it.

There are a few basic restaurants if it’s lunch you seek. But I don’t recommend a stay-over, as there are so many more interesting places to visit. My suggestion is the ancient French capital, Tours. This has to be the most appealing of the major Loire cities. Once a Roman town, It was a famous arms and fabric center. Later during Henry IV’s reign, the capital was moved to Paris. Bombarded by the Germans in 1870 and heavily bombed during WWII, the city center was turned to rubble and abandoned as a slum. But it has been rebuilt after the late 1950s and the Place Plumereau in the heart of the old town has enough atmosphere for the whole city. The entire square is built around half timbered buildings, hidden courtyards and interesting facades. Here young people from the universities gather to eat, drink and argue into the night.

Tours is a fashionable city with chic and mod clothing or curios but I use it only as a base. Tours is in the center of the Loire valley chateaux country. You can visit one or more in any direction and never be disappointed.

To discuss the entire valley would be impossible. I selected three that I’d like to familiarize you with. There’s Chenenceau to the east, Villandry to the west and Azay-Le-Rideau to the south. Each can be seen in less than two hours. But I wouldn’t do them all in one day.

Enjoy a relaxing dinner at the family run Brasserie de l’Universe. Their food is outstanding and the atmosphere is turn-of-the-century. There is even a stained glass ceiling to remind you of La Belle Epoque (The Gay Nineties).  I always order the salmon. It’s the best meal in Tours. The city is peaceful after hours and the fountains play on as it gets dark. Here, one finds peace. But it will get more hectic in the morning. We’re off to Chenenceau, a chateau that spans the Cher River.

Chenenceau, one of the more popular places near the Loire. It’s in the Loire Valley, but on the Cher River. And I mean ‘on’.  It stretches 197 feet. The Building was once a bridge to freedom when people crossed the Cher to escape into Vichy France during WWII. It was later remodeled to look as it does today. It is now a picture perfect site with a mirror image in the river below the five wide arches. Even the gardens are famous. Chenenceau was a gift by Henry II to Diane of Poitiers, the king’s mistress. This must have suited Diane, who they said bathed nude in the river. I’m sure Catherine was ‘not amused’.  But Catherine took over when the king died. Diane was banished to nearby Chaumont, hardly as prestigious at Chenenceau.

Built between 1513 and 1521, the building contains a tiny chapel that was damaged by bombs during WWII and a guardhouse on one side of the moat. Today, this tiny turreted building serves as a souvenir shop.

Catherine also transformed the bridge into a gigantic Italian-style gallery. Eventually, the Chateau salon was opened to writers and philosophers. It had a facelift in the 19th century and was eventually purchased by the Menier family of chocolate fame. They still own it.

I particularly like the long walk down the tree-lined entranceway. This dirt road leads through a gate onto the lavishly flowered property.

I often visualize the days when ladies and gentlemen arrived in fancy carriages pulled by well-groomed horses. I see ladies with hoped skirts walking under the trees with their colorful parasols in hand.

Each of Henry’s ladies built beautiful gardens which you can see as you enter. I always take time to stroll through the gardens and take pictures.

Henry’s daughter-in-law, wife of Henry III, retreated to Chenenceau after her husband was assassinated. There, Louise de Lorraine, converted the attic for nuns and painted her bedroom black.

I think of the original owner’s quotation. Thomas Bohier’s wife engraved the words “Vient A Point Me Souviendra”  (‘Come and I shall be remembered’, or the more popular translation, ‘ If it is built, I shall be remembered.’)

I linger under the umbrellas at the concession building and I always take the same photographs. I wouldn’t think of the Loire Valley without a visit to the chateau that Flaubert was ‘floating on air and water.”

Now, I turn my back and think ahead to Amboise, the last place of Leonardo Da Vinci. I will have lunch there in the shadow of the chapel where he rests. (I wrote about all this in a previous article). Then, it’s off to Villandry and the most impressive gardens in France. But that visit is for another day.

Chenenceau, like all chateaus has an admission price and unlike Versailles, which is closed Mondays, it is open daily while it’s light.

For general information email  tourisme-touraine@wanadoo.fr

Next   Part 3 …Villandry, Azay-Le-Rideau and Cognac.

#   #   #

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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