Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Tour de France: Mont St Michel, Tours, Châteaux de la Loire, Rocamadour

Bright and early we packed up on Sunday morning and left after another lovely breakfast put on by our hosts. We drove on tiny back roads through to Mont St Michel, which loomed up out of the mist as we approached through cornfields and hamlets.

How do you describe the experience of a place like that? Built sheer from its base on a rock in the sea, it is a functional town, even if overpopulated with tourists. Soaring halls stacked atop one another culminate in a high church with an angel on its tall spire - Michael, for whom the place is named. We ate Galette Normande (crepe with ham and potato) for lunch in a glassed restaurant overlooking the tidal flats and returned to the bus via the ramparts. A bit more time could have been spent here as there were museums and gardens to see.

Pics: Cloister garden high atop the Mont, with tidal flats and salt plains beyond; and me on the ramparts

< View from the ballroom of Château Chenonceau, which spans the river Cher

We then commenced the four hour trip to Tours, again mostly on back roads which made some of the girls feel sick, but we did see a lot of pretty little villages, each with their church in the middle. Once in Tours we took a brief walk at the riverbank before eating at a little restaurant around the corner, in the heart of the old part of town. Feta quiche, steak with stuffed baked potato, and apple and rhubarb tart. Back at the hostel everyone was complaining about the sanitary facilities and overnight the locale did prove to be quite noisy.

In the morning a very tired bunch drizzled in to breakfast and we set off afterwards for Azay le Rideau, the first of our castles for today. It is a country manor set in a lake, complete with fairytale turrets and loggias. The second castle was Chambord, which we only looked at from outside - the best view apparently. We didn't get to see very much as we only stopped for a few minutes and everyone was hungry and keen to get to the next stop where we were to eat - Clos Luce, where Maestro Leonardo lived. This proved to be one of the best visits of the day, as the house and gardens gave many insights into the character of Leonardo. All around the rooms were framed quotes from him in French, and the girls went around dechiphering them with great gusto. Prior to the visit we ate on the terrace overlooking the city and chateau of Amboise: mushroom omelettes and then I ate my first French crepe of this trip: with almonds and chocolate.

Amboise and Blois both looked like pleasant towns worth a visit on another day, but we could only pass through this time. Along the road we passed a tractor with a deep trailer full of ripe grapes, losing red grapejuice through the cracks at a rate of litres per second. The sun grew hot as we drove on to Chenonceau, the palace that spans the river Cher with its ballroom. As we prepared to leave, a hot air balloon with a huge basket took off from behind one of the buildings belonging to the castle. The drive back to Tours included a short stop at a supermarket so everyone could buy munchies for the long bus trip tomorrow. In the countryside we spied several different carloads of people enjoying a roadside picnic, complete with tablecloths and wine.

Next day from the bus we viewed hazy horizons as they became first rolling hills, then sharp inclines and valleys and cliffs. Here and there, tantalising glimpses: a thatched shed tucked into a tree-line, baby goats in a field, a stone wall covered in moss, and high viaducts over forested valleys. Interestingly, these valleys mostly have flat grass at the bottom rather than streams as I would expect.

On the approach to Rocamadour we had to take a narrow road in the side of the cliff because it seemed the only way in. Part of it was even a tunnel, hewn in rock and only just big enough for the bus to get through.

In Rocamadour we went up as far as the churches and grabbed a sandwich and ice cream, but not in that order. Peering straight up or straight down for such heights is pretty amazing, especially from the church terrace where the cliff hangs over above you and the birds are always circling.

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