Le splendide voyage

Reflections on exploration & travel


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Roman landmarks, violet blue tufts, spices and other subtle nuances: Provence

After a lingering winter season, the easiest way to improve one’s disposition is to travel toward blue skies and a sun-blessed climate.  From Dijon and then going south on A-31-E17→A6-E15→A7-E15 (passing Lyon), one of the most splendid regions in France emerges in the horizon: Provence, “toujours Provence (Always Provence/Peter Mayle) …”   In Provence everything exudes natural beauty coupled with a native environment rich in regional tastes, bright sceneries and stimulating fragrances. It’s irresistible!

In ancient times, the area was a province of the Roman Empire. As result, the name “Provence” endured virtually intact throughout the centuries. Unsurprisingly, Rome’s historical testament has been permanently interwoven within the region’s landscape.  Hence, Provence should be visited unhurriedly and with a flexible itinerary since there is so much to be absorbed.

I usually try to visit Provence during the spring and summer seasons. My last itinerary started at the city of Orange, a Roman colony founded around 35 BC by soldiers of Caesar’s Second Gallic regiment. In the city center, the Théâtre Antique d’Orange/Ancient Theatre of Orange stands majestically. Built during the 1st century AD, this Roman monument is astonishingly well-preserved and climbing through its semi-circled arena is a notable exercise even as the statue of the Roman emperor observes and guards its realm. A tribute to Roman ingenuity was the removable head of the statue: it changed with each succeeding Roman emperor. During the summer, dramatic performances can be enjoyed as the theater presents an opera festival, the Chorégies d’Orange.  Meanwhile, among trendy local restaurants, the statue of a prominent crusader knight stands alone bearing witness of another time. For history lovers, a rather interesting monument is the Arc de triomphe d’Orange/Triumphal Arch of Orange. Conceivably built during the reign of Augustus (27 BC – AD 14), this monument is fascinating because it chronicles via engravings, prominent military and navel battles scenes including Roman victories over: the Gaul region in France and the Germanic tribes in the Rhineland.  Indeed, a fine historical account!

After, spending a couple of days in Orange, my next stop was the amazing walled city of the popes: Avignon.  Yes, there was a period in history, from 1309 -1378, when the papacy was moved from Rome to Avignon.  Clement V, a French pope was elected in 1305 and decided not to move to Rome. Thus, he moved his papal court to Avignon in 1309. Although Avignon did not belong to France at that time, a total of seven French popes reigned in Avignon (about 67 years) whilst remaining under complete subservience to the ambitious French crown.  Finally in 1376, Gregory XI moved his court to Rome ending the Avignon papacy.  The papal palace is an epic bastion having an imposing presence even from afar. This fortress is the largest Gothic palace from the Middle Ages as it comprises two major segments: the Palais Vieux (Old Palace) and Palais Neuf (New Palace).  Tours can be scheduled with multilingual guides or with an audio-tour device included in the price of admissions.  Another interesting site is the Pont Saint-Bénézet/Pont d’Avignon (the Avignon Bridge), a 12th century structure which was for many seasons the only bridge over the Rhône River south to Lyon.  However, the arches collapsed frequently when the Rhône flooded or when the city came under siege.  Thus, the rebuilding of the bridge stopped around the 17th century and today, only 4 arches remain.  However, the bridge as one of Avignon’s landmarks holds the central theme of a popular song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon”: “Sur le Pont d’Avignon; L’on y danse, l’on y danse; Sur le Pont d’Avignon; L’on y danse tous en rond (On the bridge of Avignon, We all dance there, we all dance there, On the bridge of Avignon, We all dance there in a ring).

In the summer, Avignon becomes the center of artistic expression as it sponsors the Festival d’Avignon/Avignon Festival.  For nearly 3 weeks, theatrical performances command the city while musicians and other gifted performers adorn its streets. The productions commence at the center court of the papal palace and extend to unique performance venues within the city’s walls.  Not far from Avignon (about 35 min), there is an ancient structure that should not be missed: the Pont du Gard (Guard Bridge). Built in the 1st century, this 50 km long (31 miles) Roman Aqueduct Bridge, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1985. The Pont du Gard was created to carry water from the springs near the village of Uzès to the Roman colony of Nemausus, Nîmes.  The structure was built with aqueduct stones weighing up to 6 tons which were bonded together with iron clamps. Every day until the 4th century (lesser amount up to the 6th century), the Pont du Gard delivered around 44 million gallons of water to the citizens of Nîmes. After, it suffered accumulating mineral deposits due to the lack of maintenance and eventually the flow of water was obstructed.  The bridge has a wonderful museum with all its history plus you can hike, cycle and stroll through the park and its grand surroundings.

Last July, after losing myself in the hindmost roads of Provence, I finally ended up in an unfamiliar town.   As I open my car door, I became mystified by a subtle fruity fragrance arising from the center of town.  Walking towards “the source,” I found a town decorated with melon signs, melon arrangements, melon tastings, melon pastries and melon “everything.” It was the famous melon festival in the Melon capital of France, Cavaillon!  The warm sun and rich terrain of Provence ensures that the melons from this area have an exquisite taste and aroma.  As a matter of fact, a local anecdote recounts this story: “In 1864, a new library at Cavaillon asked a group of French authors to donate some of their works to the library’s collection. Alexander Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, Queen Margot, Twenty years after, etc.),responded by donating 194 of his published works. He also promised to send subsequent works on one condition: Cavaillon should send him 12 of these succulent melons every a year.  The town honored his request and Alexandre Dumas received his beloved ‘melons de Cavaillon’ every summer until his death.”

Going back to the main road, I followed a country road leading to a village nestled in the Alpilles mountains and listed as “one of the most beautiful villages in France,” les Baux-de-Provence.  At first sight, the ruins of a castle parade on the mountain’s ridge. After, curiosity intensifies as the climb to its gates progresses.  Traces of civilization in this area date back to 6000 BC and during the Middle Ages, the lords of Baux pursued the control of this entire region. Later, the troops of Cardinal Richelieu’s besiege the city as rebels sought refuge within its walls. Afterwards, the town and nobility title was presented to Hercule Grimaldi by King Louis XIII in gratitude for services rendered to the French Crown. Hercule’s title of Marquis des Baux has been passed down through the Grimaldi’s dynasty and currently, the title holder is Prince Albert of Monaco.  In addition to its great historical past, the town is charming with its narrow cobblestone streets, coffee shops providing great views of the valley below, attractive shops, historical churches that give the impression of a beautiful unhurried life. During the summer months, you may also enjoy the rhythmic chant of the “cigales (cicadas)” in the afternoon.  This singing insect signifies happiness in Provence and is often represented in local pottery and textiles. Thus, les Baux-de-Provence is always a delightful village to visit whenever I am in the region.

My next stop is usually the city of Arles. The city of Arles has as appealing history as the vibrant colors of its residences, windowpanes and rooftops. The Romans for instance had their eyes on Arles when it was the Greek colony Arelete.  However, it was Julius Caesar that made Arles a prosperous port town and trade route on the Rhône River, rivalled only by Marseilles.  Once the railroad arrived, its efficacy declined and the town suffered a depression.  Yet, this unusual setting welcomed in 1888 Vincent Van Gogh, the Dutch post-impressionist painter. One of his most prolific artistic periods came to pass in Arles where his creativity depicted scenes in and around the city with raw beauty and bold colors.  The visitor’s center in Arles has a walking tour map showing the places where most likely the painter placed his easels to create his masterpieces. Arles has an impressive Roman amphitheater, Les Arènes, which can be seen in the movie Ronin, with Robert De Niro and Jean Reno.  The theater stages different events throughout the year including the férias with bullfights.

On a normal week day, Arles may appear subdued.  Still, on Saturday mornings, Market day (also on Wednesday but smaller), the city creates a vibrant and unforgettable atmosphere.  This market runs for more than 2 km along the Boulevard of Lices while extending through smaller streets in the south border of the old city of Arles. When I walk through this market, I usually vow never to enter a supermarket again.  Farmers and vendors all around the city welcome you with broad smiles, samples and great expertise about their products comprising of: a variety of seasonal fruits, olives and olive oils, cheese & meats, incredible spices, breads, sweets, honey, ceramics, wooden kitchenware & knives, perfumed soaps & oils from Provence’s flowers, clothing and so much more. An amusing fact is that in the market, you will often hear the Occitan dialect language spoken in Provence: the Provençal. Perhaps it is a concoction of Catalan, Italian, Spanish, French and Provence’s inherent flavor.  Though I cannot exactly define it, my ears thoroughly enjoy its intensity and melodious resonances.  In Arles, there is an inscription by Frederic Mistral using the Provençal language.  This well-known Provençal writer-poet devoted his life to defend Provence’s language and culture. Moreover, he wrote the lyrics of Provence’s anthem: Coupo Santo (holy cup). Additionally, the region has a well-developed viticulture with one of my favorite’s wines being the Provençal Rosé paired beautifully with the Banon cheese from Provence.  This age-old cheese recipe goes back to Gallo-Roman times consisting mainly of goat’s milk with a touch of cow’s milk. The cheese matures for two weeks followed by a dip in a local eau-de-vie (marc), then wrapped in boiled and sterilized (water & vinegar) chestnut leafs, and ultimately tied with raffia or straw. This process creates a creamy cheese with a slight chestnut scent. A delicious flavor indeed!

From Arles, I suggest a drive to the Grand Canyon of France: Les Gorges du Verdon.  This river canyon possessing an astonishing turquoise hue is considered one of the most beautiful in Europe as it cuts through the gorge for about 25 km.  The area of the canyon between Castellane and Moustiers Sainte Marie is particularly amazing due to its huge drop and dramatic views of the valley. There are many activities facilitating the exploration of this marvelous ecological wonder including: hiking, kayaking, canoeing, rock-climbing, paragliding, horseback-riding, fishing and fly-fishing.  The visit to the Gorges of Verdon is a breathtaking experience that should be included in the Provence’s itinerary especially during the warmer months.

Lastly, whenever I think of Provence, I imagine sweet-scented fields embraced with violet-blue lavender tufts, speckled with orange poppies accents and even bright yellow sunflowers.  Lavender has been a cherished plant since ancient Egypt.  The Romans brought it to the region and soon fields of lavender covered the area.  Monasteries planted lavender in their medicinal gardens since the plant was used to aid relaxation, headaches, insomnia and a state of well-being. Today, the fragrant plant is use for massages because it provides a calming-effect via oils in aromatherapy.  It can be added to herbal teas in hot or cold infusions.  Their glorious bloom can be seen from June through August cresting in July. Their trail can be followed in the “lavender road “on the Plateau of Claparèdes, with lavender fields and dry-stone wall houses “bories,” perfect for panoramic photographs.  Then, on to the Luberon valley where you can  stop at the Musée de la Lavande (Lavender Museum) in the heart of the Luberon Regional Natural Park where the history of the lavender industry in Provence is conveyed in an appealing manner.

The sheer diversity of sites, terrains and historical destinations make Provence an exquisite region to be uncovered.  In my opinion, the best way to experience Provence is to rent a residence for a few weeks and then spend time exploring different villages and natural wonders.  Day-trips crisscrossing themes and directions can be an original way to encounter the fullness of local culture, language, flavors, backdrops and natural ecosystem.

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For the love of French cheese and the Jura Mountains!

In France, the celebrated French love affair with cheese will in due course infuse the atmosphere of an expatriate’s everyday life.  As a matter of fact, a French cheese tray is a permanent fixture in home meal gatherings and restaurants. It is usually served after the main course and before dessert.

The author John Baxter, reveals a well-known narrative in his book “The Perfect Meal:” once, the legendary French general, Charles de Gaulle, while rejecting the idea of France being ruled solely by the communist party, made the following statement: “How can any one party govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheeses?” In reality, food and nutrition data chronicle that the variety of French cheeses seem to run between 350 and 400.  Still, some of my dear French friends love to say that: “There are 365 type cheeses in France: one for each day of the year!”

Whenever I visit a new region in France, I make a point to try one of their local cheeses. Apparently the commanding general and emperor of France, Napoléon Bonaparte, followed the same practice. In Burgundy, after learning to bypass the robust whiff of local cheeses, I fell in love with Époisses a cheese referred as the “king of all cheeses” and one of Napoléon’s favorites.  Historically, these cheeses were often produced in monasteries. Hence, it was our “friends,” the Cistercian monks of Citeaux who started the Époisses’ production in the 16th century and later handed the recipe to local families. Thenceforth, between Dijon and Auxerre at the village of Époise, this recipe has been followed whilst creating a most delightful orange/yellow rind cheese washed in marc de Bourgogne and that has a delicious ivory creamy center with rich and uniform taste. It sells inside a charming wooden box and it goes well with Burgundy’s red wines.

In the Loire valley, I tasted an exquisite goat cheese called Valençay.  By tradition, the cheeses of the Loire Valley use ash as a coating. The bluish-gray rind on the Valençay is no exception.  This cheese used to be molded in a perfectly shaped pyramid. However, a local anecdote describes that when Napoléon returned from his unsuccessful campaigns in Egypt, he stopped at the chateaux of Valençay.  When he was served this cheese, he was overcome with indignation by its pyramid silhouette, and so, he chopped off the tip of the pyramid. As result, the cheese has kept this cut-off-tip shape ever since.  Still, Napoléon continued to love this cheese as I do because its taste is slightly citric and it pairs superbly with Valençay Blanc (white) wine also from the Loire region. Another favorite cheese endorsed by Napoléon and Charles de Gaulle is the Mimolette from Lille area, Nord-Pas-de-Calais.  This is a very interesting looking cheese. It has the form of a ripe cantaloupe with a wrinkly crust on the outside and a bright ripe orange color in the inside. Its distinct taste is similar to the Dutch Edam.  A familiar historical account conveys that in the 17th century, Louis XIV, the Sun King, loved the taste of Edam yet he could not tolerate that it was produced in the Netherlands. Thus, he banned Edam from France and besieged his loyal cheese artisans to create the Mimolette. Since then, this new creation has a distinctively stouter appetizing taste plus it looks dashing on a cheese tray while pairing remarkably well with a Bordeaux red.

One of my favorite’s weekend retreats year-round is the region of Franche-Comté. On the ancient salt-trade route, I have routinely visited the quaint Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne village in the department of Doubs. This rural community clings to the widely forested woodlands in the Jura Mountains, a mountain range spreading predominantly from France to Switzerland whilst infiltrating Germany at a lower altitude. The village is idyllic and reserved for countryside lovers while generously offering health-boosting attributes like fresh air, tranquility and beauty just as the visitor’s senses are stimulated to a renewed vitality. Reasonably priced, private and comfortable loft style apartments can be found at “La Maison Rose” at 11 rue du Château.  These facilities present panoramic views of the hillside and cliffs. Another charming place in town is the “Residence de Vaux,” at 29 Grande Rue, an elegant bed & breakfast with period’s rooms and fresh baked breakfast.  Both are excellent based locations to explore the region’s attractions such as: the source of the River Lison (about 20 minutes from the city center) where you will find the cavern of its emerging birth even as the river cascades through a deep wooded gorge.  Well-marked hiking routes provide for a spectacular experience. On the other side of the village, up in the cliffs lies another equally beautiful source of water: the River Verneau with its own waterfalls and nature trails.  Also along the cliffs is a fixed climbing route, the Via Ferrata, a rather popular route with climbers. At Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne there is also opportunity during spring, summer and autumn for: horseback riding, canoeing, cycling, climbing, fishing, hiking, hang and para-gliding.  In the winter not very far from the city center, one can cross-country ski and for downhill skiing leisure pursuits, the ski trails of Métabief are less than one hour away. Other cultural centers nearby is the vilage of Arbois home of renown scientist Louis Pasteur.  You can visit his home and museum where the early experiments of pasteurization were performed on the wines of his own vineyard. Another interesting town is Ornans, where the river Loue runs through it and it is also the home of the French realist painter Gustave Courbet.  His riverside home in Ornans is a delightful place to visit.  Also, Nans (for short) is within a few hours from Geneva, Lausanne, Strasburg and even the Black Forest in Germany.

Once my friends invited me to a Franche-Comté fondue party in Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne. Subsequently, my visit to the Jura Mountains became a deliberate commission bolstering my quest to learn about French cheeses. For many centuries the Jura Massif’s cheese dairies known as fromageries or fruitières have produced one of the most popular cheeses in France: Comté.  You can easily plan a visit to these fromageries and fruitières in the region.  In Nans’ city center, there is such a facility where you can view the production of Comté (usually early in the morning). The cheese is produced exclusively from the milk of Montbéliarde and French Simmental breeds of cattle, grazing at no less than 400 meters of altitude. The Comté is a related to the Swiss Gruyère and is predictably aromatic with an array of subtle tastes such as the “fruitè” Comté which is more elastic to “salé” Comté more brittle.  After production, these cheeses are taken to climate-controlled maturing cellars to age for at least 4 to 18 months.  Certainly, this intricate process create a delicious cheese loved by chefs and gourmands all over the world. Comté also pairs perfectly with a vine from the Massif du Jura:  the regional Vin Jaune (yellow wine). This wine made from Savagnin grapes has a distinct nutty bouquet, with hints of almonds, citrus, salt and even anise and like the Comté cheese it is also aged in cellars in the Jura region.

Another superb unpasteurized cheese from the Haute-Doubs, Franche-Comté region is: Mont d’Or. This cheese was created in the 18th century to make use of the Autumn-Winter milk.  As such, Mont d’Or cheeses are usually produced from the 15th of August to 15th of March and sold during September 10th to May 10th.  This type of cheese is also exclusively obtained from grass and hay-fed Montbéliarde cows grazing at no less than 700 meters above sea level. Hence, when spending time in the region, a visitor will be able to observe these marvelous animals going through town and making their ascent into the hills… and it is beautiful!  Mont d’Or, quickly climbed to my list of beloved cheeses due to its creamy texture, Epicea pine tree scent and its yellow undulated rind, sold in a round wood resinous box.  It can be baked with cloves of garlic thus creating a superb first course. Once again, I recommend pairing this fine cheese with the Vin Jaune of Jura and equally established products of the region.

Traveling throughout distinctive provinces in France and learning about local cheeses can be a pleasurable task. Since an impeccable French meal with all of its many courses cannot be complete without the cheese platter, it is a worthwhile activity to discover how a traditional cheese tray should be displayed.  The tray should present and assortment of types of cheeses, consistencies, color, aroma, milk origin (cow, goat, ewe), and firmness.  Depending on the season it should also include side options such as:  dried fruits, fresh fruits like figs and grapes, nuts, sliced baguette, honey, dried meats, smoked sausages, Dijon mustard and local sauces.  Last but not least, pairing your handiwork with favorite regional wines…  voilà… a splendid cheese presentation will take center stage and delight your guests!


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The Loire Valley: Spellbound by French History & its illustrious Châteaux

As in any city or country, the desire to discover a new region may surface enthusiastically if one is blessed with a long weekend. One such weekend, (from Dijon: going north and then west), to my surprise: I found the middle segment and valley of the river Loire. Visiting the Loire Valley it is easy to grow enamored with its flawless vineyards, traversing smaller rivers (Cher, L’Indre, and La Vienne), orchards, asparagus and artichoke cultivated farmsteads which garland the river’s banks. Further allure may surface while reading the following statement on a local brochure: “Numerous châteaux were built here for multifarious purposes using distinct architectural designs and sizes.”

Traditionally, the region was a magnet for decisive events that change the course of history at manifold periods in time.  Orléans, a celebrated city in the Loire Valley, became a pivotal location for major historical events. In 1429, the English laid siege and controlled Orléans. Later, on the 8th of May 1492, Joan d’Arc “la pucelle d’Orléans” (the maid of Orléans) followed by the French army liberated the city.  It was said that she even went to mass at the Orléans Cathedral (Basilique Cathédrale Sainte-Croix d’Orléans) while the city was occupied. Another historical personage walked through the streets of Orléans around 1525: John Calvin began his law studies at the University of Orléans, later he would become an influential reformer of the Christian protestant faith.

My journey began by visiting the city of Blois.  Passing the massive cedar trees at place Victor Hugo, I could at last catch my first glimpse of the Royal Château de Blois.  Yet, one cannot grasp the appeal of this remarkable building until reaching the main courtyard. The châteaux has 4 grand wings coordinated with harmony while representing different time periods, kings, and styles. A diagram at the entrance explains the evolution of this amazing structure: the Salle de États Généroux is built in gothic style; the flamboyant gothic Louis XII wing built the 15th century; the François I Italian Renaissance wing built in the 16th century and the Gaston d’Orléans wing built in the 17th century.  The Salle de États Généroux is one of the oldest parts of the château and where the earl of Blois receive its guests around 1214. The equestrian statue of King Louis XII is a prominent marker in the courtyard as well as his royal symbol, the Porcupine: a symbol of invincibility for throwing darts at enemies and its motto, “Cominus et eminus (from near and afar).”  Later in his wing, his wife and Queen Anne, duchess of Brittany, one of the riches woman in Europe at the time, had her own symbol carved and painted: the Ermine, a small animal with silky white fur used by nobility and symbolizing dignity.

King François I was Louis XII cousin who became heir presumptive as the king did not have any male heirs.  He married Louis XII’s daughter Claude heiress to the duchy of Brittany and upon Louis XII death he inherited the throne. King Francis I is a central French historical and royal figure. He initiated the Renaissance movement in France by becoming a generous patron of the arts attracting and bringing to France some of the best artist and architects of Italy, including the great Master Leonardo De Vinci.  In addition, he was also a great patron for the sciences and considered as le Père et Restaurateur des Lettres (the “Father and Restorer of Letters”) for his fervent endorsement of the standardization of the French language.  At the François I wing, his desire for innovation is established. François I assembled one of the finest library for the period (later transferred to Fontainebleau) and the building itself shows the remarkable Italian architectural influence.  During the building and renovation of this wing, his wife Claude was became involved in the decor and refurbishing, including motifs exhibiting François I symbol, the crowned Salamander among the flames with the motto, “Nutrisco et extinguo,”  meaning “I nourish the good and extinguish the bad,”  symbolizing bravery.

Gaston, duke d’Orléans had large aspirations for the building/remodeling of Blois castle and the celebrated architect François Mansart was hired.  Mansart had plans to create a classical structure with four wings around the courtyard.  The construction was never finished, yet one can visit the wing and review Mansart’s plans, the classical columns and staircases.  The entire châteaux de Blois became the stage for dramatic intrigue. Joan d’Arc stopped at Blois castle to receive a blessing from the Archbishop of Reims before going to battle at Orléans; here, King Henry III had his guards attacked and killed his main rival Henry I, duke of Guise, after inviting him for a meeting; Catherine de Medici presumably had within a small parlor her pharmacy of “medicines/poisons” which she dispensed toward her enemies and she also died here.

About 15 km from Blois, are the gaming estates and natural sanctuary of Chambord.  After parking, I strolled peacefully until the panoramic view of this incredible architectural landscape and beautifully kept grounds engrossed my senses.  Indeed, I stood quietly for a moment admiring this enormous structure which from a distance could pass as the skyline of a thriving metropolis. The writer Henry James declared “the towers, cupolas, the gables, the lanterns, the chimneys, look more like the spires of a city than the salient points of a single building.” Chambord is indeed a French and Italian style Renaissance masterpiece and King François I’s crown jewel.  Of noticeable sophisticated maneuver is the double-helix staircase credited to Leonardo de Vinci: someone going up the stairs will never meet another person going down.

As a Renaissance château, the major focus of Chambord was entertainment via hunting of wild games and elaborate festivities.  François I however, spent only a few short hunting trips in this castle before he died.  After François I death, a period of decline ensued.  About 80 years later Gaston d’Orléans directed a much needed facelift and renovation. Afterwards, Louis the XIV, the sun king, decorated the royal chambers.  Sadly, the château was neglected for long periods of time becoming a military lodge at one setting and then during WWII,  art collections belonging to the Louvre museum such as the Mona Lisa were hidden within its massive walls.  Today, this is one of the most visited sites on the Loire Valley.

After spending the night in Blois, I drove to my next destination: Chenonceau, the 15th century Renaissance castle inspired by feminine hands and design. Two of the most famous women dominating the course of its early survival were: Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse of Valentinois, King Henry’s II favorite mistress and Catherine de Medici, his wife and Queen.   Diane adjoined an impressive bridge over the river Cher which runs through the property. Diane also made the grounds of Chenonceau a haven for the cultivation of orchards, vegetables and flower gardens.  Upon Henry II’s death, Catherine maleficently banned Diane Poitiers from her beloved château Chenonceau.  Not to be outdone by her rival, Catherine built a three-story addition over Diane’s bridge and created extraordinary gardens to outshine her husband’s mistress.  Catherine also transformed the château into a center for cultural nobility and festive gatherings. One of the first exhibits of fireworks in France took place at Chenonceau thanks to Catherine.  Upon Catherine’s death in 1589, the chateau went to her daughter-in-law Louise of Lorraine married to Catherine’s son King Henry III.  Not long after, Henry was killed leaving Louise who adored her husband broken-hearted and inconsolable. Historical claims testify that she wondered the halls of Chenonceau dressed in white, the mourning colors of queens, and she became known as the “White Queen.”  Like the other châteaux in the area, Chenonceau suffered from periods of neglect, being a hospital during WWI and a prisoner exchange shelter in WWII.  Today, is well preserved and inside there are always grand bouquets of flowers from its illustrious mistresses’ gardens.

After the beauty of Chenonceau, my journey continued on to a delightful chateau on the Loire Valley: Villandry.  Initially, this was feudal fortress on the banks of the Loire where in the 12th century Henry II of England, upon his defeat, signed the treaty “La Paix de Colombiers” (The Peace of Colombiers) before King Phillip Augustus of France.  Fast forward to the 16th century: Jean Le Breton, the Minister of Finance for King François I acquired the property. Breton who had had extensive architectural and financial experience in building castles, including Chambord, planned a marvelous Renaissance château that remained in his family for two centuries. After, Villandry had different owners including emperor Napoleon who purchase it for his brother Jérôme.  Finally, in 1906, Joachim Carvallo, a Spaniard and his American wife Ann Coleman purchased this property pouring a substantial fortune into the renovation of the chateau and its glorious grounds.  The Carvallo family still owns Villandry and the beautiful building certainly exhibits their personal touch and dedication.  Nonetheless, it is the gardens that deeply fascinate me and make this estate a personal favorite!  It is simply delightful to walk throughout the property sensing assorted aromas while admiring the shrubberies shaped with geometrical precision and revealing accents such as a water garden, decorative mazes planted with arbors, colorful vegetables and flower gardens. Garden lovers as well as conventional visitors will completely appreciate the marvelous formal Renaissance gardens at Villandry.

On my last day I visited the city of Amboise. There, the Royal Château de Amboise proudly parades its façade above the city center.  This was one of François I most popular homes.  I did walk through the castles’ ground but my main focus was another residence: the Château du Clos Lucé.  This elegant manor house became the residence of Leonardo da Vinci for the last three years of his life.  King François I who brought Leonardo to France visited Leonardo often at this manor since he was captivated by his genius.  As a matter of fact, there is a secret passage between the Royal Château de Amboise and the manor. Here, Leonardo worked not only on his art but on his inventions and studies in engineering, physics, mechanics, cartography, botany, philosophy and so much more.  There are models of his inventions displayed in 3D format thanks to IBM: the airplane, helicopter, and automobile among others. The gardens are amazing with the two-level bridge created and designed by Leonardo.  There is so much to see at Château du Clos Lucé that I highly recommend spending time to encounter a glimpse into this man’s brilliant intellect and vision.

The Loire Valley definitely takes a visitor through a stimulating intellectual and farseeing journey. Each day, this region brings to life its illustrious past against the backdrop of history, culture, Renaissance and architectural splendor.