The trip started out great: we checked in at O'Hare and they upgraded us to First Class! We had big seats with footrests, and personal TV screens to watch the movie(s) of our choice. They gave us a bag with special socks, an eye mask, and toiletries to freshen up with in the a.m. For dinner they served salad with lobster tail, caviar (we passed), and a choice of chateaubriand, veal, or salmon. For dessert there was a selection of cheeses or an ice cream sundae. YUMSTER! Neither of us slept very well.
The plane arrived at 8:00 am, right on time. We went to the Avis counter to get our rental car. There was a line and the woman took forever to do each person. Questions, stamp, questions, stamp, questions, stamp. Finally it was our turn. She asked our name and.....what...wait! A bunch of gendarmes came rushing into the area and said "There is a bomb threat! Everyone must leave immediately!" We looked at the Avis agent, she looked at us. STAMP...STAMP...STAMP! "Go get your car!". And out the door we ran.
We zoomed directly to Versailles. Since it opened at 9:00, we were one of the first ones there when the gates opened up. Parked in the big parking lot and went in.
WOW! it is beautiful and huge!
We took an audio-cassette tour of the main living chamber wing which includes the Hall of Mirrors. Awesome!
Then we took a tram ride to get an overview of the entire grounds (gardens, fountains, other buildings).
Both of us kept dozing off during the ride, so when we got back to the starting point we decided to head to our first hotel. We walked back to the entrance and...uh oh! The parking lot was full! Where was our car? We were in a total jet-lag daze. We knew it was a gray Citroen, which helped, since there were only about 500 other gray Citroens in the lot! We walked around for about 10 minutes and eventually found it. Whew!!!!
Our hotel was near Orleans, and we estimated it was about a 2-hour trip. AAARRGGHHH!!!! We got on some road and ended up back in Paris, driving in circles on the ring roads, going past the airport! We had to stop and ask for directions...twice! Good thing Wendy speaks French!! Then (of course) there was a "deviation" (i.e., a detour...sounds so much nicer in French). After many, many wrong turns we finally pulled into the driveway of our "hotel"; actually a charming old chateau in the little town of Vitry aux Loges. But the drive was not all bad: we heard James Taylor sing "Up On The Roof" and we heard "Summertime Blues" (The Who) sung in French. We also saw a car, driven by a teenager, with an "Auto-Ecole" ("Driver's School") sign on top.
Anyway...we are now at Chateau du Plessis, run by Monsieur and Madame Beauregard. They were very nice and had lots of good suggestions. Their family has been in this house for over 240 years! or, as Monsieur said: "Since before the Revolution"!!!)
We got in at 4;30 and after Madame and Wendy discussed the dinner plans, we both crashed on the oh-so-comfortable bed, with the windows wide open (though it is chilly) and the sounds of birds and church bells wafting in. Two hours later (!!!) we got ready to go to dinner. We had directions, but got a little lost, but eventually found the place: La Croix Blanche. It was a restaurant / dining room in a hotel that's been there since the 1700s. We started with eperlans (tiny fried smelts - like French fries) - which we couldn't identify until after we had eaten some and then noticed the little eyes. Continued with lobster bisque (for Wendy) and a salad with shrimp wrapped in pastry (for Wayne). We shared a beautiful fillet of grilled turbot. Then Wayne had chocolate mousse cake (but of course!) and Wendy had melon with raspberries. Merveilleux!! All this plus wine, beer, and mineral water for under 420F ($85!!). Things are so relaxed here. Tomorrow we are off to several Loire valley chateaux; real castles!!!
Friday, June 23
Today was "Let's visit the Chateaux Day"! We started by sharing croissants and baguettes wit hour hosts. They gave us good maps and good directions. In fact, madame had us follow her almost to Orleans to make sure we got onto the right road. Wayne had a real hard time keeping up with her - she was doing 90 kph on a narrow 2 lane road! It was even worse once we got on the highway. There, the speed limit was 110 kph in many places. We were going 140 and cars were still blowing past us! Luckily, the roads were in great shape. We went through many small towns. In most, the main street is wide enough for two cars! Unfortunately, there are usually cars parked all along the right side. So it is a cat and mouse game to see who gets through when someone comes from the other direction. And on the 2-lane roads, regardless of the speed limit, cars will be passing on the left (going both directions) all the time!
Side note: About the small towns: these people are big on shutters! Every house and store has shutters on all the windows. And they all work! There are very few signs on the stores, hardly any neon. And the buildings are all drab grey, cream, dust - very little color. When the towns close up (literally) it's like driving through a ghost town. No people, no windows, no lights, no movement. Even during the day, we drove through many towns and saw only 1 or 2 people moving. And another strange thing: the stop signs all say "stop", not "arret". Even though they are red octagons like we have, our hosts told us that "stop" is international! And when you enter a town there is a sign with the name of the town; when you leave, the name is "slashed" out:
We kept looking for good radio stations as they faded in and out. When we found ones that played music (there was even a French-country-Western station), they would usually play 2 or 3 French songs and then an American one! It was weird hearing something completely unintelligible followed by Aretha singing "You better think (think think)"....or "I heard it through the grapevine" or the Doobie Brothers!
Anyway....it took about 1 hour 15 minutes to get to the first castle: Chateau de Chenenceau. Wow! Awesome! A real moat and a drawbridge!!
Inside they had many authentic tapestries, ceilings, and pieces of furniture that were 300 - 500 years old! There were also beautiful gardens. The castle is built right over the Cher River. It was a private castle, but used by kings, so there was no dungeon. It has a huge kitchen.
Then we went to Chateau de Cheverny. Again, it had beautiful stuff, including a document signed by George Washington and a clock that has been working perfectly (time, day, date, and moon phase) since the 1750s! Mon Dieu!!
But the neatest part was the dogs. This castle was used to stage royal hunts (there was even a 6,000 year old set of antlers on one wall). There is one building with over 2,000 antlers and many deer and boar heads. So they still hunt and maintain a pack of 70 dogs! We were lucky enough to be there at feeding time. The dogs were in a large pen (like in a zoo). The keeper gave a command and the dogs bounded up a ramp to a "balcony". He shut the door to the ramp and then wheeled in a 100 gallon drum filled with casoulet (no...it just looked like casoulet!). He used a long shovel to fill five 8-foot troughs. He then opened the gate and the dogs lined up on both sides of the troughs!
At another signal they began to chow down. Less than two minutes later they were done! He gave another signal and they bounded out of the pen to a fenced-in yard!
By this time it was 5:15, so we had to hurry to get to our last castle: Chateau de Chambord. (Do all the chateaux start with "Ch"?).
The castle (inside) closes at 5:30 and we didn't get there until 5:50, so we walked around outside (everyone said the inside is not so great anyway; that was why we went there last). It has over 400 rooms, so you can imagine how large it is. You have to stand about 1/4 mile away to get it all in the camera's viewfinder.
Side note: In all these public places there is a charge of 1 or 2 Francs to use the public rest rooms.
The temp was in the low 60s all day and very windy; made us feel right at home.
Then it was time to go back to our chateau. We needed to go through Orleans, and were able to do so successfully. Then we somehow managed to get on a bike path / service road (!) with signs reading "Passage tolerated but at your own risk". Oh those French!!!! This road was only about 7 feet wide and though we didn't pass many cars, each time was a thrill. The "road" paralleled the Loire River so it was really beautiful, though scary at times: No intersections, no signs, no indication where it would end. We had no idea if we were on the right road or even going in the right direction, but we sure didn't want to try to turn around! Finally, it widened into a regular street in Jargeau, and we actually knew where we were! A quick turn through Chateauneuf, zip zip through Fay-aux-loges and into Vitry-aux-loges at 7:50. The Beauregards were making dinner for us and had also invited their daughter, son-in-law, and one of their 16 grandchildren.
We had a grapefruit and avocado parfait, followed by veal with chopped meat rolled inside and great green beans, followed by a green salad followed by a cherry tart - all with plenty of red wine and French bread! Ce Magnifique! And great conversation (though mostly in French!). The topics ranged from work to summer camp to Provence to restaurants to Paris to Judaism. We ate and talked until about 10:15, spent another 45 minutes discussing plans for the next day, and then up to bed.
Saturday, June 24
We're off to Chartres! That is the name of the town and also the name of the cathedral there. We are getting better - we only made one wrong turn! It took about 2 hours to get there, but we had a pommes tart from a patisserie to help. We saw the TGV zoom by.
Chartres, the town, is very big. Many new buildings and wide streets. Then we took a walking tour (avec cassette) of the old part of town. Much has been restored, but there are still some buildings and bridges that are as much as 700 years old! Then there is Chartres Cathedral.
It is a classic example of Gothic architecture, though it has been added onto over the years. As we learned from our guide, the cathedral was built as one of the first universities, in the late 12th century, on the foundation of earlier churches dating back several hundred years. The hundreds of stained glass windows tell stories - this was how people who came to the church (especially the illiterate ones) were educated in history, philosophy, and theology. There must be thousands of statues, each one different from the rest. The inside is even more impressive. We were there at 3 - 4 pm (on St. John's Day), so the sun was at a great angle through some of the "clean" windows (only about 25% of the windows are clean. The guide said it would cost F26 million to clean the rest!). The arches and stonework were amazing. The cathedral is the goal for pilgrims primarily because it contains a piece of Virgin Mary's clothes - it's on display and has been for 750 years! After the tour we climbed to the bell tower, several hundred narrow, winding steps. At various levels you step out onto balconies and can look over the church, the red roofs of the town, and the entire valley. We were fortunate to be there when a wedding was going on. Can you imagine being married there?! Then the bride and groom were driven off in an open antique car with the cheers and good wishes of family and many tourists.
We walked around the town and were drawn to some singing. We turned into a little square and it was a school carnival celebrating the end of school. The children were in costumes (Indians!), and singing and dancing and there was a bake sale like you wouldn't believe (we bought a pear tart) and bean bag games and bozo buckets, etc. It was a real slice of authentic French culture. Then, the long drive back, but it was much shorter as the navigator (Wendy) stayed awake and we didn't make any wrong turns. We heard more French music - their taste runs from accordion to xylophone - but then switched to a classical station. The weather was again in the low 60s, but the day was beautiful! For dinner, the Beauregards sent us to Dom de Chicamou, a beautiful dining room attached to a 10-room hotel. Everything was elegant and excellently prepared. We had vegetable potage, lobster pieces with sauce, monk fish, pork with blinis, fruit stacked with wafers and chocolate mousse cake with pistachio sauce (seems to be a local favorite). Then back to Vitry just as the light was fading (10:20) for our last night here.