Next stop on the Tour de France, the Loire Valley, which saw us based in Noyant, about 45 mins. North of the Loire.
Along the way we made a sobering visit to the village of Oradour-sur-Glane. In 1944 a group of SS soldiers on the way to the Western Front rounded up over 600 townspeople, including more than 200 babies and children, holding them in the local barns and church. They were all later shot and the buildings were set on fire. The homes, shops and streets of the village have been largely retained as they were on that day as a memorial to the dead, complete with burnt out cars, bakeries still with ovens visible, treadle sewing machines etc. There are also items recovered from the scene such as glasses, watches, thimbles and pocket knives grouped together and displayed in glass cases. A very moving and sad place to visit.
The weekend of our arrival was the fourth long weekend in a row for the French, this time a four day one and the towns and streets were eerily silent. Holidays mean exactly that, time spent relaxing mostly with family, business is largely forgotten. Our accommodation in the Loire was at Galmer, the family home of Helene, the ex French assistant at Jim's school. Her parents have a very rustic B&B and made welcomed us warmly although the accommodation was more home stay than B&B. the downside of this was toooooo far from all the things we wanted to see in the Loire and no internet access at all for four days. Yikes!!! However did we manage without this?
Of course we visited lots of really BIG "houses," also abbeys and castles. The standouts for me would have to be Chenonceau with Villandery a close second. Chenonceau with its spectacular location over the River Cher has a fascinating history under the influence of 7 women including firstly the mistress of Henri ll and then after his death, his wife Catherine de Medici. It seems each of these women wanted to make a lasting impression and when you walk through the rooms you can still feel their presence in the furnishings and decorative flourishes. The cavernous gallery spanning the river was the inspiration of Catherine de Medici and used as a ballroom for glittering receptions. However it was the kitchen, actually built around the piers anchoring the Chateau in the river which was the standout room for me. It comprised a pantry, butchery, larder and dining room. The amazing black iron ovens, walls covered in gleaming copper and wonderful floral displays make this a kitchen for serious cook envy. The flowers are provided courtesy of 6 full time florists whose role it is to welcome guests with breathtaking floral displays in every room, all provided from the surrounding gardens. The gardens, featured in Monty Don's French Gardens, are also magnificent however they aren't in the same league as the gardens of Villandery.
This garden takes lettuces, cabbages, beet root and parsley to new levels. Planted out twice a year the vegetables are chosen for their colour and texture, definitely not for harvest. Over a vast and meticulously maintained area is an ornamental garden, water garden, sun garden, maze and the aforementioned vegetable garden. The pictures don't really capture the scale or splendour of what must be one of the world's great gardens.
While in the Loire we also spent some time in its two major cities, Tours and Angers. Both impressed us as very pedestrian friendly, with wide walking areas and efficient and effective tram networks. Angers had an excellent Jardin de Plantees complete with an animal enclosure of goats and rabbits. There were a large number of gardeners busily planting out huge trolleys of seedlings and the peony beds contained some rare and beautiful specimens. There was also an ancient spreading cypress, its limbs supported by an elaborate frame. The town hall, rail station and cathedral in Tours were built on a grand scale and Jim pronounced the Angers fort/ castle one of his favourites in an area providing stiff competition.