At 8AM as the train to Tours still sat in the Gare de Montparnasse the seat beside me remained empty. I watched and waited for Wendy to arrive and sit down, but she didn’t. I didn’t know her yet but I was worried that she was lost. Perhaps she had trouble retrieving her ticket at the machine at the station. I don’t even know if you can put the thing in English. Or maybe she couldn’t find the track or the car number. Eventually an old man with old man morning breath sat beside me and filled the seat, much to my annoyance. I realized perhaps Wendy was in another car and that we would meet for the first time on the platform upon our arrival in the Loire. Or maybe she would miss the train altogether and I would take this journey solo. I had no way to reach her. And then at the last minute just before the whistle blew, the tiniest woman with the biggest suitcase I’ve ever seen boarded the train and sat several rows ahead. I was almost sure it was her.
I had seen Wendy in photos and despite her size she is hard to miss. As a cheery petite Taiwanese American, she stands out in a train car of grumpy morning Parisians. Relieved having seen her board, I decided to be a grumpy morning Parisian myself and keep to my corner with the old man, staring at the window with my music for the next hour and a half. Every time I board a train I have big goals — I’ll do some work, write a bit in my journal, come up with my next big idea. Inevitably all I end up managing to do is stare out the window, hypnotized by the world moving past outsized thinking about yesterday and tomorrow. Today I thought maybe I would even steal a little sleep before the long days and drive ahead. I assumed I would be at the wheel for the duration of this trip upon reaching Tours, as it wasn’t my first trip to the Loire region, I knew my way around a bit and somehow felt responsible like a guide to Wendy on her first journey here. I didn’t sleep at all.
I’ve been to the Loire four or five times now. Once upon a time we used to come here for weekends at the Chateau du Portail, but a few years ago Claude, the owner, moved on and shut it down, much to our despair. Then there was the summer I decided to take Audrey here, to a work stay in an old mill. It was a beautiful week, but filled with a particularly strange cast of characters and plot twists that really came out of left field, stranger than fiction, the only thing that was missing was a crime. Maybe someday I’ll write that story, on another train to another place.
The first time you come to the Loire though is really something. All the things you thought existed only in fantasies and fables are somehow real here.The hundreds of chateaux throughout the region, some famous and some forgotten, are right out of a storybook and there is no shortage of stories to fill its pages. But when I received the invitation to come back here I almost said no. I had been traveling a lot those days and I thought “I’ve been there so much, do I really need to go back?”
By the time we got off the train it was late morning in Tours. I approached what I thought was Wendy and sure enough, it was. After introductions I realized it had been foolish of me to worry about her making her own way. The seasoned traveler that she is, she pulled out her international driver’s license at the car rental declaring “No problem, I can drive!”. But I insisted. Most of the joy of driving around the French countryside (unless you are at the wheel of a fine curve hugging luxury german automobile) comes from looking out the window, and I wasn’t about to let her miss out on that from the peace of the passenger side. I live here after all, and Wendy had come a long way from New York. Plus, I like driving because after all I am still and will always be from Southern California.
Immediately Wendy’s excitement rubbed off on me. It was only her second time in France and her first trip outside of Paris. Her enthusiasm made me remember what it felt like to come to this place for the first time and I liked that. As we drove along the Loire River that gives the valley its name, Wendy told me all about her adventure of the last year — leaving her relentless job in New York City after ten years, packing up her apartment, consolidating life into one suitcase, and hitting the road…indefinitely. Traveling with people is the best way to get to know them, and Wendy is a winner, a total optimist, and a really brave spirit. She is throwing out positive energy left and right, at times I thought she would float right off the ground from it all and sometimes she did, but she always came back down, safely. Although I had my doubts once or twice. Like when she danced on the wall of the moat at the Chateau de Chenonceau to get the perfect picture, and when I had to talk her down from trying to dangle her feet out of the hot air balloon. As we passed a chateau nestled in the hill on the other side of the river, Wendy perked up asking “Which one’s that?!” The truth is I didn’t know. Like I said there are so many chateau in the Loire region that not all that is beautiful is necessarily known. Chateaux are expensive to maintain. Most people couldn’t afford such a thing. Sometimes even kings and queens couldn’t find the cash to keep them up and running. So over time, many have fallen into disrepair. Now that is another kind of chateau tour of the Loire altogether that I would like to take.
And so let it be known that any chateau we have the privilege of visiting today is not still here alive and well by accident, but rather thanks to the great interest, care, and investment of the people that own them and certainly the historians, architects, gardeners, and more that they employ. Well truth be told, they might owe some of it to accident, or luck I should say, as a few days in the region and you’ll learn just what France has been through. The Chateau d’Amboise, for example resisted the Viking invasions, the attacks from the British in the Hundred Years War, and even the advancement of the Nazis in World War II who managed to blow out its beautiful stain glass windows which have since been replaced by an inferior version. As a side note, a lot of people seem to be worried about France and the events of the last several years. They act as if we’ve been taken over by terror and are on the brink of some imminent ruin. One look at history would help to put these problems in perspective. Not to diminish any tragedy, but France has seen some dark and violent days and always persevered. Worry not, we will be fine.
The silver lining is that it may just have been the temporary drop in tourism that freed up some very important people to show Wendy and I around. Like François Saint Bris for example, the owner of the Chateau Clos Lucé just down the road from the Chateau d’Amboise. I should note, the chateaux of the Loire are largely a mix between holdings by investment groups, properties of the government as national heritage sites, and then those that are privately owned by individuals and families that promise to be grand characters, like François for example. The Chateau Clos Lucé has been in François’ family for several centuries. As the last home of Leonardo Da Vinci, it doubled as his workshop and today houses many of his possessions, including his old notebooks which he wrote backwards so that people couldn’t look over his shoulder and steal his genius. Francois has hundreds of stories about Da Vinci, beginning with how and why he was brought here by the king of France after losing his last patron in Italy near the end of his life. He made the journey on a wagon with the Mona Lisa and a few other priceless masterpieces in tow with his assistant only, through the snowy alps nonetheless. Think about that the next time you stand in front of that little portrait at the Louvre.
But as fascinating as Leonardo Da Vinci is, I was actually more interested in François. He is one of the foremost scholars on Leonardo, and he quotes him at least once every five minutes. He has that old French sophistication that’s marked with a scarf tied around his neck and a massive vocabulary in English pleasantly delivered with a very strong French accent. There seems to be almost nothing he doesn’t know something about, a lot like Da Vinci himself I imagine. And, he has dedicated his life to the preservation of the chateau, which is not easy even when you are the third most visited of all the chateaux in the region. As he shows us around the Clos Lucé, he tells us about nearly every single object, in detail. But the thing I remark on the most he how he pauses after each one to look at it as though it was his first or last time ever seeing it, his hands calmly tucked in his pockets and a contemplative look in his eyes. I think it would take a lifetime to know all there is to know about Da Vinci, but Wendy and I only had a morning at the Clos Lucé and its lush grounds before we moved on to the queen of all the chateaux — Chenonceau.
I was so excited for Wendy to see Chenonceau for the first time. I remember my first time here with my mom many years ago. Growing up there was a round little tower off my bedroom with a slate roof. I loved it. I felt like I was on top of my kingdom when I looked out from the window up there. Now take that feeling and multiply it by one thousand and that’s the excitement of stepping onto the grounds of Chenonceau. It’s easy to spend the whole day here getting lost in this place. One of my favorite things about Chenonceau is something about it feels very open and accessible, more so than any other chateau I have visited in the Loire. There are very few velvet ropes and carpets you must abide by. In fact I’m not sure there are any at all. No guided sense of a visit, it’s so open and thus there is this element of discovery and feeling of free reign here. But my visit this time was unlike any of the others before.
When we arrived there was the limousine of golf carts waiting for us at the entrance driven by Chenonceau’s attachée de presse. Our 110 horse power carriage took us first to the florist’s atelier. One of the special things about Chenonceau is that it is the only chateau to have a full time on site florist, Jean -François Boucher, who is also a recipient of the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France (master craftsman of France) and a one time floral champion of Europe. If you didn’t think fairytales were real enough in the Loire then I ask you to imagine finding a very handsome tall straight French man making the most beautiful floral artworks you’ve ever seen in his atelier in a castle — you see my point. Each week Jean-François makes nearly a hundred original arrangements that decorate the chateau, just one more thing that makes this chateau feel alive today and more beautiful than perhaps any other.
Many of the flowers he works with come from the extensive gardens of the chateau that are actually run by another handsome man who actually happens to be American, the adorable Nick Tomlan who landed this dream job when he relocated his family to France with his French wife a few years back. Nick hails from Longwood Gardens in the states, and now oversees the gardening here at Chenonceau, from intricate designs over the massive grounds to the vegetable gardens in the back. He has seen the gardens through some tough times including the floods of June 2016 across France. I enjoyed talking to Nick so much about life in France and at the chateau. One of the most interesting things I walked away with was understanding the responsibility of the gardens as being a living piece of history, all at once staying true to something they have always been while reinventing them each season as must be done with many of the annuals. Between Nick and his team and Jean-François, Chenonceau is teaming with color and life inside and out.
Where to Stay in the Loire Valley
We spent so much time enjoying the gardens in perfect weather and talking to the Chenonceau team over lunch at L’Orangerie that we didn’t see the time flying by. I didn’t want Wendy to miss the inside of castle so with only 20 minutes left I told her to make a run for it. I sent her on her way with my tips to head straight to the Great Hall, the kitchens, the top floor balcony…well the list was too long but it’s only her first fairytale so I suppose we will have to come back for her to see the rest. We had to leave for the occasion of our very first hot air balloon ride. It was Wendy’s idea in fact. Wendy is a great example of if you are bold enough to ask the universe for things, you might just get them. She asked and we received a hot air balloon ride over the valley.
An hour before sunset they fired up the balloon, popped us in the basket and we lifted off the ground, ready to go where the wind would take us, this time over Chenonceau to admire the castle and its gardens from above as the sun set over the Loire. As we watched the other balloons in the distance and the castles and rivers across the valley below, I was astonished by the silence up this high, the stillness in the air, the absolute calm that overcame me. The height never scared me. I looked straight down and contemplated the hundreds of meters of emptiness below my feet and the bit of wicker that separated me from plummeting through it to the earth below. Sometimes I do things like that deliberately to see what feelings they will evoke. But nothing could touch me here and I just spent the time gazing out on the horizon, watching the world go by, thinking about yesterday and tomorrow just like in the train.
From high up looking over the valley I wondered how many places here I had yet to see, how many times one would need to come back to know them all. How foolish I was to think I had seen enough of this place. How many places in my life that I had already been for the last time. It’s funny how being so high literally puts everything into perspective, physically and mentally. To see the curvature of the earth, to think of it spinning around at every moment, to think of how fragile and small we are in the scheme of things, how many strokes of lucks and choices between no and yes it took to end up exactly where we are.
Tomorrow would be our last day in the Loire to pay a visit to the Chateau d’Azay le Rideau, a small but beautiful chateau that is a masterpiece of renaissance architecture. At Azay we had the great fortune of visiting during a partial renovation, which some might find a nuisance but I found absolutely fascinating. On the top floor we peered in at the craftsmen rehabilitating a wing of the chateau from the inside out, which once again is a great responsibility as part of a historic monument seeing as these places are treasures not just for what we see with the naked eye but as a time capsule of craftsmanship for the era in which they were built, entirely without the modern advancements of today. To understand how the chateaux of the Loire were originally constructed in an age without electricity, fork lifts, cranes, and computers affords you a whole new appreciation for them as architectural masterpieces.
After our tour we sat in the garden of the café with our tour guide. I’m embarrassed to say that today as I write this I no longer remember her name, but her adorable accent that made her sound like a song and her wavy brown hair…those I recall. With her and Wendy we talked about what it must have been like to grow up in the Loire and how she married a musician and has two little girls. We talked about how even with modest means they travel all the time by car. It just reminded me once again that France is such a wonderful place because one never has to go far to see so many extraordinary things. You could have never stepped foot on a plane in your life and still seen so much here. For that it really is like a fairytale kingdom where somehow every kind of setting you can imagine is just beyond a small mountain range or perhaps across a river. You never know what you will find there but chances are it has another story completely and is beautiful and majestic in its own right.
Talking with her and Wendy on our last day and recounting her all our experiences at Chateau d’Amboise, Clos Lucé, and Chenonceau made me realize that traveling is as much about the people you encounter as the places you see. After lunch she showed Wendy and I a secret garden and we stayed a while here taking pictures and marvelling at simple things like butterflies, the size of pumpkins, and flowers. It was hard to believe I had only met her just a few days before. And while it may have not been my first visit to the Loire, I was so happy I got to play a character in Wendy’s first fairytale here. She and the Loire and all our new acquaintances there have certainly filled some pages of mine.
From My Suitcase
Denim overalls from H&M winter 2016, The Reformation pink linen top from summer 2016, burgundy suede boots from Opening Ceremony autumn 2015, custom made black linen dress by Mona, striped knit jumper from Cap Breton, “Dior Set” earrings from Christian Dior, and pink velvet dress from Style Nanda.