Sunday, April 19, 2015

Frolicking Around France Part 2: Gettin' Classy in Tours

Before I start this: I am unapologetically just going to say that there are way too many photos, and even so I only attached a small chunk of the ones I took, which killed me. It's not my fault everything was so amazing. I'm also only going to divide the week into two big posts, so to the two people reading this, just know there will be a lot. It's going to go like this: writing at the top, meticulously-labeled photos at the bottom. Now that you have been well-informed on how to navigate this thing (because it's a long thing), you may proceed. 

I couldn't have chosen two more different cities to visit in France. If it wasn't for the language I would have sworn I had flown into a different country. I went from a city reputed for its gangs and violence, which, while beautiful, made me a bit nervous after 7:00 pm, to Tours, which felt so... well-groomed and classy. In the plane on my way over I kept expecting to step out of the terminal and be greeted by classical music and the kind of people who donate to museums and have wings named after them. No, there was no music playing (although the tram did sing...I'll explain later), but it definitely felt more classy. The lack of cheap places to stay solidified my assumption that the Loire Valley is generally a rich person's vacation spot. No sleazy guys casually calling out "eh, madame" to me (although there was a drunk guy who woke me up from a nap in the park and said I was belle...I'll explain later).

Tours Day 1:

I found my Airbnb pretty easily once I got off the plane, but because of a slight misunderstanding, the host, Cécile, wasn't going to be home until that evening. So, I hoisted all my crap on my back and took the 20-minute tram ride downtown. The first thing that struck me about Tours was how clean it felt. There was a lot of shops, a couple nice churches, and a really nice tram that, at three of the stops, actually sang a melody. When I first heard it I thought the girl behind me was singing, but nope, it was the tram. Weird. My favorite part of the city though, was being along the gorgeous Loire River, which was classified as a UNESCO world heritage site a few years ago.

After some time walking around with two backpacks and a purse and a bag of groceries I felt like my shoulders were going to fall off, so I headed back to the river and walked across a bridge to one of the islands in the Loire that the city turned into a really nice park. I unloaded, threw all my crap down, and let my inner-française come out as I feasted on a baguette, a container of goat cheese, and some cookies. I took out my book, kicked my feet up, and went to heaven. This is how I ended up spending every evening in Tours: eating a simple dinner in a grassy park along the Loire, reading a book as the sun went down. I stayed there until some men on motorcycles told me the park was closing.

Cécile was amazing. I had a really big, comfy bed, breakfast every morning, and the first night she shared her dinner with me then gave me dessert. It was all good until... the cat. Listen, I've always identified strongly as a dog person, and the only cats I've ever liked acted like dogs, but it wasn't until this experience that I realized that I'm actually kind of terrified of cats. It would be sitting in a corner and then all of the sudden freak out and leap across the room like it had just been electrocuted. I'm pretty sure that thing was hallucinating. Before I went to sleep, Cécile asked me "you're not afraid of cats are you? Because if you want I can take him in my room."

"Oh, no, no," I said, too enthusiastically, as I tried to casually pet it without flinching. It swatted at me.

That evening the Great Feline War began. The cat was in my room (also the main living area, so all the cat's stuff was in there), staring at me with its big, dead, soulless eyes like it was ready to kill me the moment I fell asleep. I looked for a way to lure it out (because there was no way I was picking that thing up) but the only thing I could find resembling yarn was my headphone cord. So I tried to get the cat to follow that while simultaneously trying to stop it from breaking it. It took some time, but eventually I got it out...only to have it squirm its way back in, riled up and jumpy at this point. I had to repeat this dance again before I finally succeeded. Ugh, cats.

Tours Day 2

Tours is a nice city and all, but anyone who comes to the Loire Valley comes with one purpose in mind: to see chateaux. The area is littered with over 300 of these castles, some big, imposing, impressive, others small and modest, some publicly owned, some private. These guys say it best: "The chateau has become synonymous with the Loire Valley from the time it was embraced by French Royalty as a safe haven away from the political back-stabbing of Paris and then as a rich cultural playground." (source)

I only visited one castle on the first day: Chenonceau. Built in the 16th century, it's one of the most famous of the Loire castles known as being a castle designed by the women of Chenonceau (Cathrine Briconnet, Cathrine de Medici, etc.). It was passed around a lot during its long and complicated history. The castle itself is stunning, built right on the Cher River, although the inside didn't interest me too much. What I did love was how nearly every window on the house had a view of the river and the impeccably manicured (almost too perfect) gardens, which flank both sides of the castle. I also loved the forest area beyond the garden, which made me feel like I was in a fairy tale and should be in a big poofy dress talking to a deer and getting my hair done by squirrels or something. It was peaceful, bright green, birds were singing, all that crap.

The only problem with this castle was that after a few hours of wandering I got bored, but I had to wait a couple hours for my train back. The castle is basically in the middle of nowhere, the train station didn't even have a guichet (an actual human managing it), just one half-broken machine to buy tickets at, and the "town" was completely dead. It was kind of depressing, actually.

It was then that I decided that this castle-hopping business all felt much too slow and old, too pretentious and fancy. I had to fix this the only way I knew how: do it on a bike. A few years ago a bike trail was established all along the Loire (La Loire à Vélo) which allows tourists to easily get to some of the main castles. I did this the next day, and spoiler alert, it was fantastic. But I'll rave about that later.

I ended the day the way I ended each day in Tours: by eating a hobo meal in a park. I bought some lentils, sauce, and bread (and some broccoli because I'm so frickin' healthy. How many cookies id I eat on this trip again?). Okay... I'll admit, this was one of the few moments I felt like maybe I was too much of a hobo. Eating straight out of a can and a jar is pretty low, even for me. I felt sort of pathetic and lonely. I don't know, that day I would have liked a friendly face, even if that face would have been giving my hobo food a judgmental stare.

On loneliness: besides a couple moments like this one, I was really happy to be traveling solo. I'm actually slightly worried about how good I was at being alone. I loved the complete sense of freedom I had the whole week. I didn't have to worry about how I looked or smelled (it was sunny, I was sweaty, it was gross). I did what I wanted without having to compromise, I could act like a hobo without judgement (this included eating directly out of cans, carrying my own spoon, wearing the same clothes all the time, and taking naps in public), no one yelled at me for getting lost (which happened constantly), I felt more relaxed, I had more time to read. To be honest I almost feel like I've been trained for this my whole life. I've always sort of been a loner, and I tend to do my favorite things (biking, wandering around aimlessly, etc.) alone. I feel loneliness, and I don't like it, but I'm sort of used to it and doesn't have as much of an effect on me.

Okay, okay, enough feelings, moving on.

Tours Day 3:

Bikes!! Renting a bike was unquestionably the best decision I made. You can always Google pictures of Chateaux, but you can't Google the feeling you get biking through the vineyards of the French countryside, listening to birds and ringing your bell for the hell of it because you're alone and you can. After having ended the previous day without the usual exhaustion and with hardly any bodily pain, I craved something more active. Plus, I really, really miss biking. It's been nearly a year since my butt has touched a bike seat.

I started my ride by going to Amboise. At one point I was going up a hill when I heard a middle-aged man behind me encouraging me, saying "allez, allez!" We ended up riding and talking together for the rest of the trip to Amboise. He's one of those awesome people who bikes cross country and camps for weeks at a time, basically living my dream. After a little under two hours I got a good look at the Amboise Castle but didn't go in for lack of time and money (it was fine, I YouTubed it when I got home, nice looking place). I did, however, walk around the cute town of Amboise and go into a cookie store giving out free samples of everything. Yes, I do believe I gained about ten pounds that day. After that I strolled over to Clos Lucé, a nearby castle that I went into. It's relatively modest compared to the others, but I really loved this one. It's basically a shrine to Leonardo da Vinci, to whom the castle was given as a gift by the king of France and where he spent the last years of his life. The top floor is pretty typical: a kitchen, a bedroom, a few of his quotes and a fake Mona Lisa. But it gets really interesting on the bottom floor, where there were models of many of his greatest designs. This guy was really, really ahead of his time, what a genius. Flying machines, war apparatuses, ball bearings and early war tanks, even an idea for the first car. I then walked around the gardens which were beautiful and also had life size versions of a lot of the same designs and huge canvases of his art swaying in the wind.

After that I had been planning on biking back, but then I talked myself into biking to the next main castle, Chaumont Sur Loire, and just taking a train back. It was another hour on bike, but I was really booking it, because halfway there I started to worry I wasn't going to make the train, and would subsequently miss the 7:00 pm deadline to return the bike. The ride was slightly stressful, and once I got there I was only able to catch a disappointing glimpse of the castle which was hidden on a hill behind a bunch of trees. Even if I had more than an hour before my train I wouldn't have gone in, this castle thing isn't cheap. Next time, I guess.

In the end I was exhausted and hungry in the best possible way. It was something like a 30-mile trip under the hot sun, and I'm very much out of shape. And remember that thing I said about my butt? Yeah, well I forgot how hard a bike ride could be on your bum if you're not used to it. Ouch. Still worth it, still worth it. I had another slightly-less hobo meal at the same park, and then I tried to take a hobo nap in the park, when I was rudely interrupted by a clearly drunken man who stood over me and, I think through his slurs told me I was pretty. Then he left to go bother a group of Italians having a picnic.

Tours Day Four:

On day four I was really tired; the week of constant movement and early mornings was starting to catch up to me. I took it easy and caught a train to Blois, where I got a good look at the Chateau de Blois before taking a shuttle to Chambord, which was the most beautiful castle I've ever seen. This one really impressed me, both inside and out. King Francois seemed to be going for that affect: "King Francois I already owned Amboise, Blois and Chenonceaux Castles, but felt the need for a more elegant hunting lodge than the one that originally occupied the setting.  Thus the King acquired over 10,000 more acres to build this architectural jewel." (source)

I won't go into too much detail, see the photos for that, but my favorite part was by far walking on the roof (I suppose it would be called the roof). You walk in a circle through this sort of maze of beautifully designed, blue-dotted towers.

I spent the last night talking with Cécile until nearly midnight about everything from whether or not the Front National is a racist political party, communism, elf art, and our shared annoyance with the Tu Versus Vous battle, which I'm comforted to hear confuses the French as well as us poor anglophones.

Tours City: 
It's so clean!!

The Loire and the park on the island:

I had to carry all this crap the whole day


Chateau Day 1: Chenonceau

All the views from the castle were more of less like this

View from the chateau 

The maze
Straight out of a storybook


Some super random llama farm thing...? I don't know, it was in one of the parks I ate dinner in
Along the Loire, beautiful as usual
Chateaux Day 2: Amboise, Clos Lucé, and a glimpse of Chaumont

I hate selfies more than you can imagine. I am deeply ashamed of this
And from here it only got better
What'd I tell you? It was literally just this and bird sounds

Chateau d'Ambois, YouTube it if you want to see the inside, that's what I did
Clos Lucé
The inside of Clos Lucé, models of Leonardo da Vinci's designs  

 Da Vinci's garden, full of life-sizes versions of some of the same designs and art

Archimedian Screw
Clos Lucé
Better view of Ambois Castle
My disappointing view of Chaumont. An hour of biking for this, meh. 
The train ride back, man I was tired
Chateaux Day 3: Blois and Chambord

Random church in Blois
Chateau de Blois:

Chateau de Chambord

The green room full of dogs killing things and taxidermy

 Aaand, some random assortment of the other rooms

I loved this part of the castle, walked around among these tower thingies

Double helix open staircase, inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci's design, meant to be sort of a game where you could walk down the stairs and see the person going down the other set without ever crossing them
This just made me laugh. And we wonder where they get their ideas of America from.

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