We’re in central France, visiting the glorious Loire valley, beautiful landscape of forests and sunflowers, vineyards and cornfields, which runs from the Ardeche to Saint-Nazaire and is dotted with castles, caves and cathedrals, the country’s longest river its beating heart.
This year marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci and the birth (in Florence) of Catherine de’ Medici, both vital figures of the Renaissance period which is being celebrated here in the Garden of France this summer with a rich artistic and cultural programme.
Da Vinci arrived in 1516 at the invitation of Francis I, who made him ‘first painter, engineer and architect to the King’. The Italian polymath died here and is buried in the Chapel of Saint Hubert at Chateau d’Amboise, where we pay homage before heading to the ball to dance the sultry night away.
Earlier in the day we had visited Chateau de Chenonceau, one of the region’s jewels and famous, apart from its spectacular beauty, for the succession of legendary women associated with it. Built by Katherine Briconnet to the plans of a Venetian palazzo, it was given in 1547 by King Henri II to his mistress Diane de Poitiers who created its sumptuous gardens and famous bridge which arches over the river Cher.
When Henri was fatally injured by a lance in a jousting tournament, his widow, the formidable Catherine de’ Medici, removed Diane (though bestowed upon her the consolation prize of Chateau de Chamount). Here Catherine’s son Francois II married Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots.
Arrive early, especially in summer to avoid the crowds and book lunch in L’Orangerie, a gastronomic gem opposite the Green Garden and its collection of remarkable trees.
Queens are everywhere. We spend a great morning at Chateau du Montpoupon in Touraine, where the elegant chatelaine invites us for a mid-morning coup de champagne in her private quarters. Despite having been up since 6am watering her roses, Madame (a stunning septuagenarian) is cool and soignee. Still in private ownership, Montpoupon is one of my favourites because it is preserved with such passion and authenticity.
Each room narrates various chapters from the building’s history: one chillingly was the prison of a nobleman’s wife, who was locked in her bedroom for 15 years for infidelity. Apart from the bars, it is a lovely boudoir. All the outer buildings are filled with antiques and memorabilia, and swallows flit around the eaves of the hunting museum, one of the biggest in the country.
As we’re in France, there are many memorable meals but the loveliest of these is dejeuner sur l’herbe with a group of locals who have prepared a picnic of regional delicacies – terrine, lentil salad, goat’s cheese, and walnut and raspberry jam tart, washed down with crisp cremant.
Our feast happens under the shade of a grove of trees at Valencay, imposing home of the great diplomat and Napoleon’s minister, Talleyrand. This palace is one for the shortlist and our riveting tour takes us from the very depths of its medieval keep to the eye-watering top of the curiously-shaped cupola – I climb 45 steps in as many degrees. In its theatre, we tread the stage’s original floorboards, and are moved by its meticulous conservation, from the fraying backdrop to the original oil-lamp footlights.
In total, we visit, tour or stay in a dozen historic properties, so I can only give you a soupcon of the riches but among those I’ll long remember: the castle of Chamerolles with its perfumed presentation on the story of scent, the strange, avant-garde gardens at Chamont-sur-Loire, where the residence is the inspiration, it is said, for the legend of beauty and the beast. At Blois, where Queen Catherine breathed her last, an exhibition on the history of the children of the Renaissance (with the emphasis on royal progeny) which runs till September 1. Thoughtfully curated, it includes a tiny toy tea set found after Haussmann razed Paris. A wine-tasting at the Caves Monmosseau and at Montresor, which is included in the prestigious grouping, ‘the most beautiful villages of France’, a night walk for its summer son et lumiere show where illuminations beamed on to the castle walls recall the history of the Renaissance.
An unforgettable five days ends with a tour of Tours in a Siberian sidecar driven by handsome ex-military man Frederic. We do a 45-minute whizz around the town and view it from various vantage points but you can hire them (Retro-Tour.com) for the day – or evening – and visit nearby castles and vineyards. It’s a brilliant way to see this university town with its magnificent Saint Gatien cathedral and atmospheric old quarter – I can recommend coffee in Place Plumereau and a wander round the excellent daily market. Tours is also spending the year celebrating its most famous literary son: Honore de Balzac was born here 220 years ago (his contemporary, the novelist George Sand, spent much of her childhood in the nearby Berry region).
Our short sejour has covered much ground but really only grazed the surface of this unique land. The wonder of its cities, the capital Orleans, as well as Nantes, Poitiers and Chartres, the historic towns of Chinon, Saumur and Loches and of course, many, many more castles await for another day. I say farewell to Fred and with that, it’s all on board a TGV for a short hop north to Paris, and my home for the next month. Ah France, comme je t’aime!
■ For more information on France, visit france.fr
■ General information about the Loire Valley: loirevalley-France.co.uk; berryprovince.com (for Valencay, Bouges and Poulaines).
■ For more information and events of the 500 years of Renaissance in France, visit vivadavinci2019.fr/
Sunday Indo Living