Monday, April 25, 2011

Storming the Castle

Yesterday, in the spirit of putting the three-day weekend to good use, we accomplished a rare and commendable goal: we got our lazy selves out of bed before 11am on a Saturday morning.

In fact, we got up at a time that experts refer to as "ass-early" to catch a pre-dawn train to the provincial town of Amboise in the Loire. Here's what Amboise looked like in the early morning light as we walked across a double bridge from the train station to the town center:

Close-up of cool river seaweed (or, as I called it, Ophelia's hair):
And here's the town itself, with a cute central marketplace and medieval, fortified Chateau on the hillside (whose cool, stony basement caves now host local winetastings):
We rented bikes and set out along a low-traffic country road, riding between fields of yellow-flowered fields rapeseed crops and endless rows of stumpy black grape plants sporting newly-sprouted vines.Although the ride was only about 15km each way, I found myself out of breath and struggling with my French-food padded tummy through the uphill portions. I definitely need to exercise more. Tom found the journey challenging for a different reason: it was one of the first serious bike rides of his life. He started out a bit shaky, but by the return journey he was switching gears and coasting to a stop like a pro.
Our destination: the Chateau de Chenonceau! Spanning a river, this Chateau was built on the foundation of a medieval castle that made use of the protection of a natural moat. François I reclaimed it as his own in the 16th century, and it was in use as recently as WWII (as a hospital for injured soldiers and as a strategic river crossing point from occupied to free territory for allied forces).
The first thing we did was park in the picnic zone for a cold roast chicken feast that Tom had prepared the night before. Mmm.
Then, with our bikes safely tangled in the anti-vole ('anti-theft', the French word for a bike lock), we set off to explore the grounds.
Gatway to Catherine de Medici's hedge maze:
A pair of sphinxes guarded the Chateau entrance. I felt like Atreyu passing through them; I kept a close watch on their eyes.
The Chateau itself had some standard, castley-fare, like gargoyles...

...and celebrations of chivalry... a few more unique offerings, like this very DaVinci-looking bust of the Virgin:
Most of the original tiles inside the Chateau have been worn down and erased by centuries of scuffing feet. However, I managed to find an intact, hand-painted bunny in the corner of one of the rooms:
Here's Tom, peering out onto the river from atop the arch-supported hall you can see in the earlier picture of the Chateau. The area below this hall was a kitchen, with a door providing direct river access for easy delivery of groceries.
The Castle is covered in this symbol, the conjoined initials of King Henri II, and his wife, Catherine de Medici, which combine to not-so-subtly produce the initials of Diane de Poitiers, a court widow who was Henri's long-time lover (and who had her own room right across from his in the Chateau, while poor Catherine was on a separate floor entirely).
A royal salamander and stoat. Bonus nerd points to any history majors who can identify the kings they represent.
The castle gardens, as seen from the Chateau:
And again, from the inside:
All in all, a fantastic day trip.

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