We went to see some caaaaastles! Part 1

Trip Start Jan 25, 2010
Trip End Jun 09, 2010

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A hot, miserable bus.

Flag of France  , Centre,
Sunday, February 28, 2010

France isn't France without seeing the glorious châteaux of the Loire Valley, or so I was told. So, when the school offered an excursion to see 3 of the most famous châteaux in France, I was sold. The price was included in the admission of the school for Ashley, Kalani and I, as we had already paid Niagara at some point for all of the excursions. Therefore, we simply signed up and then hopped on a bus at 7:45 in the morning on Saturday. 

So, I'm not going to lie. The castles were pretty far and the bus was kind of miserable. The AC wasn't on all of the time and at times it was pushing the temperature of the sun. It got so bad, that at one point, the AC came on and the entire bus cheered. While somewhat amusing, it was somewhat frustrating. The roads were windy and therefore required a lot of stopping suddenly when another car turned the corner. When the French designed their cities and the roads that connected them, I don't think that they planned for charter buses to take up the road. Now, this makes sense as many of these cities were mapped out hundreds of years ago, so I won't hold it against the French for their small roads. However, sitting in a bus for three hours while stopping suddenly and taking a sharp right repeatedly does not go over well with your stomach. Conversation was good on the bus, and sometimes we played some road trip games, so it passed the time. The good people made up for the lack of comfort. 

On the way to the first château, Mark Melin, the president of CIDEF gave us an audiovisual tour of the country side. He sat at the front of the bus, and like with the previous trip to Mont St. Michel and St. Malo, he would randomly come on the loud speaker and say "if you look to your right..." (in French, of course) and he would explain things about the region that we were in. We saw a lot of castles off in the distance, for example on the other side of the river, or on top of a small ledge, etc. We also got to go past Gerard Depardieu's house, but we didn't really get to see it. You know, that guy in any french movie any made-- the one with the big nose? (He's basically the symbol of France).One of the first regions that we passed through was Samur, which was famous for three things: Wine, horses and mushrooms. We passed a well-known cavalry school here and we got to see some of the horses and the tracks that they trained on. Apparently every July there is a very popular showing of the horses, etc. Also, like most regions in France, Samur was famous for their wine. I'm not entirely sure which type or taste of wine, but most places in France that you go to are going to be famous for some type of alcohol. Lastly, the mushrooms. Apparently, this region supplies all of Paris with their mushrooms. "Les champignons" are big in French cuisine and this is a big deal for Paris. If something were to happen to the mushroom supply in the Samur area, Paris would be without mushrooms. That's like saying Buffalo would run out of wings-- kind of. Not as drastic, but you get the picture. We passed the Champignerie, which is the place where the mushrooms are processed and packaged to be sent throughout the country. 

There was also a rather famous church in Samur. Apparently, the story goes that there was this man that was working in a field and he found a small statue of the Virgin. He thought that this was rather curious and exciting so he brought it home and put it on his nightstand before he went to bed. When he woke up in the morning, he saw that it was gone, so he went back to the worksite and found that it was where he had found it the first time! This was a dream (I think) and it was one that repeated often. He would dream that he would find this statuette of the Virgin and bring it home, only to have it disappear again and again in his dreams and he would always find it in the same spot. Therefore, finally he realized that this was a sign for him to built a church here, and of course he did.

We also passed through Montsoreau. Some of you may know this name from reading Alexander Dumas' book Dame de Montsoureau. We then passed through Candes and then La Deviniere. The latter is the birth place of Rabelais, an extremely famous writer in French history. You can find his old house here, which is now complete with a museum for your viewing pleasure. If you don't think you have heard of him (if you have had Dr. Borgstrom in the past, he's probably referred to him!), the names Gargantua or Pantagruel might sound familiar to you. If this is the case, then he's your man. 

 We then passed through Chinon, a very important city in French history. Chinon was around in the middle ages and of course, because of this, has it's own château. Now, I didn't really get to see the castle since we passed underneath it, but still its a cool town. Chinon was the birthplace of the Dauphin Charles, who would later become Charles VII. He's a significant kind in French history. History buffs, remember who he was? During the 100 years war, when it was Charles VII's time to rule the thrown, he was chased out of Paris by the English, as they had been in control of the north of France for some time, including Paris (via a Regent). Charles did not try to force the English out and therefore stayed south of the Loire Valley, able to exert some control from Chinon. Now, at the same time, there was this young girl that you might have heard of named Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc to us Americans) raising hell in the East. She claimed to have been sent by God to help the French rid the country of the English. She arrived at Chinon to convince the king to take the throne as the rightful king of France. What followed soon would become legend. Charles had heard that Jeanne was on her way to see him and therefore hid among his court in disguise to test the claim that she came from God. As soon as Jeanne entered the chamber, she picked the king out of a crowd and referred to him as the Dauphin. Now, this might seem easy for you to pick Obama out of a crowd of people, but you have to remember, this was a time where there weren't photos, television, newspapers, etc. and Jeanne probably couldn't read or write anyway. Despite denying that he was actually the king, he finally admitted to the fact that he was indeed Charles the VII. This amazing feat inspired Charles to take Jeanne's advice and become baptised in Reims (a tradition for the kings of France), a monumental moment for the French during the war. 

Now, before I bore you all to death with history, I'll jump forward. Finally we arrived at the first castle of the day, Azay-le Rideau. Azay-le-Rideau was built from 1515 to 1527, one of the earliest French Renaissance châteaux. A unique thing about this castle is that its foundations are built into the water and therefore the castle seems to rise out of the water. The castle was commissioned to be built by Gilles Berthelot. The castle itself was beautiful. The weather had held outt thus far, so it wasn't too cold out, which was nice, since the castle was pretty open. The architecture inside was just as cool as it was on the outside, and we got to see beds that Louis XIII and Louis the XIV slept in. Coming to see these castles excited me because so much history happened in those walls. Sure, the castle has been renovated and fixed up numerous times since the 1500s I'm sure, but still at some point, Louis XIV hung out in that castle and now, so have I. Its a cool idea to think about really. 

The layout of the castle was pretty basic. When you walked into the main entrance, there was a large staircase that went all the way to the top of the castle and on each level you could either take the stairs to the next level or you could continue on into the side rooms, which we did. We saw various bedrooms, living areas, kitchens, dining rooms, etc. It was a very cool sight to see. We climbed up as high as we could and then descended back down to walk around the grounds. This was probably my least favorite of the castles all day, but I still enjoyed it. There just isn't as much history at this castle as with the others. However, a lot of photos were taken and it was an all around good time. Next stop, Chenonceau. 

The trek between Azay and Chenonceau was the worst for the bus ride, really. It was peak time for the sunlight and we were baking. James and Ashley were behind me and they looked both sickly, hot and miserable. It was all I could to keep myself restrained from ripping my clothes off

Luckily, before that had to happen, we reached Chenonceau. We did pass a few interesting things along the way though, one of them being Balzac's country house. Now, here was the biggest disappointment of my day/life-- Chenonceau was under construction and there was a sheet with a fake castle wall painted on it so that maybe we could pretend that it wasn't there. I was pretty upset and I let it be known, probably too much. This was probably the castle that I was looking forward to visiting the most. I love Catherine de Médicis' history and this is where she lived and therefore a lot if took place! She was an awful/interesting woman (however, as Dr. Borgstrom pointed out-- many men have done the same, if not worse and do not have the same awful reputation as she does, AKA its because she is a woman that people treat her so harshly). As some of you may know, Catherine de Medicis (originally from Italy) was queen of France and married to Henri II, the son of Francois I. However, in her marriage, her husband always preferred his mistress, Diane de Poitiers to his wife and therefore Catherine was always pushed to the side. Diane de Poitiers acted like the queen for the most part and was treated like the queen. Dianne did not have any power alongside her husband and any power that was handed to a woman from Henri II was given to his mistress and not his wife. It was common knowledge that Catherine was in fact queen, but many of the allegiances were held with Diane, as she was the favorite of the king. Henri the II also gave his mistress the castle in Chenonceau, even though his wife both wanted it and asked for it. Talk about an awful husband.

However, one day, in a jousting tournament, Henri II got a sliver of wood lodged into his eye and died from infection. Henri's son, Francis II took the throne and the first thing that Medicis did was throw Diane de Poitiers out of Chenonceau. She took back all of the crown jewels, took back Chenonceau (and built the gallery which is the part of Chenonceau that is over the water that everyone recognizes) from her and instead gave Diane de Poitiers the Chateau of Gaumont. She then reigned France as the regent of France (as women were not allowed to rule France at this time) while overseeing the reigns of her three sons (Francis II, Charles IX and Henri III). 

Before her death, she had her daughter marry the King of Navarre (a region in the south of France at the time), later known as Henry IV. The two married in Paris, in front of friends and family (Henry's family were Hugenots and Protestants from the south). A few days later, a Hugenot official was attacked. At the time, France was on the brink of a civil war, as there was hostility between the Protestants and the Catholics. So, Catherine, fearing an uprising against her own people, ordered all of them to be killed, thus killing her new son in law's entire family. This event was called the Massacre at St. Barthelemy. This later enabled the signing of  the Edict of Nantes by Henry IV who was now the King of France. Catherine has also been known for poisoning people. It seems to me though, that all of these acts were executed in order to ensure that her family's name continued to hold the throne, which does not seem very unreasonable in retrospect. Yay history!

Anyway, yes, I was a little upset that there was a tarp covering the castle, but it was still beautiful. I think that the interior of this castle was my favorite of the day. Outside of the castle stands the Marques Tower. In order to build the Château of Chenonceau on the River Cher in the 16th century, Thomas Bohier and his wife Katerine Briçonnent demolished the fortified castle and the mill that belonged to the Marques family and left standing just the keep, which they later restored in full Renaissance style. The tower, obviously is still there today.

After taking a few pictures of the outside, we entered into the castle, where we got to see many places where famous people both lived and slept. Now, this may sound lame, but I got to walk around where Francois 1st, Catherine de Medici and Diane de Poitiers walked around, along with many others. Naturally, all of you are jealous right now (haha). But seriously, it was really cool knowing that (even if it was over 500 years ago) the most important people in France were walking the same halls and the same corridors as I was at that very moment. I saw all of their bedrooms, the kitchens, the living areas, the galleries, the chapel and even the stairways that they walked in. As the french would say, super-cool! 

Attached to the bedroom of Diane de Poitiers was the entrance to the famous Gallerie of Chenonceau (as previous stated, the long addition that hovers over the river). It simply was a long hall, with plenty of windows, where Catherine de Medici hosted parties during her final son's (Henri III's) reign of France. Three fun facts about the gallery that I learned: During the 18th century, the gallery was decorated with medals of famous historical people. 2nd, during the 1st World War, the owner of the castle at the time (Mr. Gaston Menier) paid for his castle to be used as a hospital for the wounded. 3rd (and the most interesting in my opinon) was that Chenoceau was on the border of the occupied zone and the free zone. The River Cher corresponded to the line of demarcation. The entrance to the Château was therefore in the occupied zone (right bank). The gallery where the South door gave access to the left bank made it possible for the Resistance to pass large numbers of people into the free zone. Throughout the war, therefore, the German military was kept at the ready to destroy Chenonceau if need be. 

After seeing the inside of the castle, we ventured outside into the magnificent gardens of Chenonceau. Sadly, as it is winter, the garden was not in full bloom. First we visited Diane de Poitier's gardens. At that point in the day, the clouds were pretty grey, and the weather kind of cold. But it was still a beautiful garden. In my head I could see the splendor of it in the summer time. The garden consists of eight triangular lawns decorated with many flowers, hedges and other foliage. In the center is the original water fountain that was placed there. While this doesn't seem like a big deal today, this garden was extremely significant during the Renaissance. Up to this point in history, religion had been a large part of the development of history in France. God, church, religion, etc. During the Renaissance, the focus was less on religion and more on the man-- a humanist era. People asked questions about what a man could accomplish. People were more curious about the sciences, the math, etc. and less curious about what the church was saying every Sunday. These gardens represent this era in time. For the first time, humanity began to manipulate nature. Previously, extravagant gardens such as these were not common. It was not normal to have linear, exact hedges, or flowers that were perfectly trimmed. These gardens represented the humanism of France. People could control nature; control the water (with the fountain).  

We then made our way to the labyrinth. Located in a large clearing, this Italian maze was commissioned by Catherine. It is planted with over 2000 yews covering more than one hectare. At its center is a raised gloriette built according to a former drawing, providing a decent view of the maze. James and I took different paths and raced to see who could get to the center first and yours truly won. Kalani was last. After we spent our due time at the maze, we walked around a bit longer and we ran into a farm which was beautiful. It looked like an authentic 16th century mini-village.

Chambord coming soon. 
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