The French countryside and castles to visit

  • Europe
  • Wednesday, 28 Feb 2018

The Chambord Chateau was built to impress. Photo: Trafalgar

There was a sharp bite to the evening air as we streamed out of the Lido de Paris theatre after the French dinner show.

It was almost 11pm but the night was still young by Paris standards and another group was waiting in line for the late cabaret show of the Paris Merveilles.

Across the road from the theatre is the distinctive Louis Vuitton store. It had closed for the night but the lights were still blazing inside and it glowed like an expensive jewel. Three times to Paris and I have yet to step inside – something is wrong with me.

Be my guest

The dinner show and the free flow of wine was the finale of our guided holiday by Trafalgar Tours. For its Treasures of France package, the company takes travellers beyond the usual stops and its “Be My Guest” segment is where you get a more intimate glimpse of local life.

Our trip was less about Paris than the sights, sounds and taste of some of the famous chateaux or castles located in the countryside of France.

Chateaux? Castles? I can immediately see thought bubbles with the word “Yawn!” forming above the heads of my friends. That had been my reaction too because I am the typical Malaysian – not too much history during my holidays, thank you.

A beautiful desk at Remy Eporce's Chauteau.

However, the French chateaux are something else. They were built amid spectacular landscapes, surrounded by manicured gardens and, as for the history, not everything about it makes you want to yawn.

Early Hollywood

The French aristocracy was sort of like an early version of Hollywood – they had wealth and titles (the jewellery box of one of the queens was as big as my luggage) and they were very glamorous even though they ate with their hands until someone introduced them to the fork.

And, like Hollywood characters, they were prone to over-the-top, outrageous and scandalous behaviour.

Too bad that much of it came to an end in the French Revolution of 1789.

Former aristocrats now have to earn a living like the rest of us and that was how we arrived at the 17th century chateau of Remy Esporce.

Call me Remy

“Call me Remy,” said the former Count whose family barely escaped death during the French Revolution when the marauding peasants stopped a few kilometres from their castle.

Remy is not exactly poor – he owns some 200ha of land but the taxes are probably draining him. His chateau is now a B&B and he also hosts visits from travel groups. He greeted us looking every inch the lord of the manor – blue checked shirt, tweed jacket and corduroy slacks with expensive-looking brown leather shoes.

The chateau looked plain from the outside but inside, it was as though time had stood still. From the furniture and wall panelling to the paintings and rugs, the interior had a nostalgic vibe.

Remy and his wife, a petite woman originally from Mauritius, had prepared a beautiful buffet lunch. There were cheeses, macaroons, pumpkin soup, fresh fruit and salad, an array of cold cuts, unforgettable pate and lots of wine and champagne.

Pate and cold cuts at the Chateau Eporce.
An apple tart for tea.
Seafood galette is sort of like tosai stuffed with cheese, egg and seafood.

What’s a castle?

The charm of France lies in its picturesque countryside. Our trip took us through the Loire Valley which is famous for its castles. There are some 350 castles in this area but we only had time for four of them.

The Loire Valley is like a painting with rolling hills, trees changing from green to golden and rivers with crystal clear waters unlike our teh tarik rivers back home.

This was where King Francois I (1515-1547) spent his childhood in the Amboise Chateau which sits on a hill overlooking a view to die for.

A dark side

The sites of most castles were not picked for the views but for defence and strategic reasons because early century France was a dangerous state marked by wars. The Amboise Chateau had a dark side because it was also used as a prison and there are stories of beheadings and hangings.

Francoise I, a towering figure with a nose like Pinnochio’s, was fortunate to live in a relatively peaceful time. He was a patron of the arts, initiated the French Renaissance and invited Leonardo Da Vinci to live and work there.

Tourists tend to ooh and aah over a sculpture of Da Vinci, naked and lounging on the bank of the River Loire. Da Vinci is portrayed with the body of a surfer, with muscles rippling from neck to ankle. In reality, though, by the time this genius arrived in Amboise, he was in his 60s with one foot in the grave. His body is buried in a chapel across from the chateau.

Palaces of pleasure

The aristocrats settled here for a reason – these were palaces of pleasure where they could party all day and night, far from prying eyes and the toxic political atmosphere of Paris. Besides, the air was fresh and they could hunt to their hearts delight.

Hunting was a royal sport and Francoise I decided to build a “hunting lodge” in Chambord. The Chambord Chateau was built to impress – 140 rooms of Renaissance architecture surrounded by forested grounds reputed to be the size of central Paris.

It also boasts a double-deck spiral staircase – imagine our multi-level highways – where two people could go up and down without having to meet each other.

The king spent only a few months at the lodge and did not live to see it completed. Perhaps all the hunting resulted in some bad karma.

Getting intimate

The Chambord Chateau was built to impress. Photo: Trafalgar

The ooh la la moment came when we arrived at the Chenonceau Chateau. It was the most beautiful of the castles we had seen thus far, it draws a million visitors a year and was listed as a World Heritage site in July 2017.

One might call it the “mistress chateau” because it was gifted to the enthralling Diane de Poitiers by King Henri II.

The mistress was said to be 20 years older than the king, but she held him by the you-know-what. She also had exquisite taste and the wonderful gardens fronting the castle is her brainchild.

However, the long-suffering wife Queen Catherine had her revenge when the king died. With her son on the throne, she forced the mistress out, took over the castle, built her own garden and threw fabulous parties. But the general opinion is that the mistress’ garden was more beautiful.

Voyeuristic look

The most fascinating thing about all these castles are the interiors where you get a voyeuristic look at how the blue-bloods lived – the beds they slept in, the thrones they ruled from, how they dined, their hand-woven wall tapestries and mysterious passages.

It was fabulously grand but pales in comparison to the homes of today’s super rich.

Moreover, bathrooms and toilets were not a priority for these royals. Henri II apparently bathed only nine times in his lifetime and when he felt like pooping, he would do it on the spot, whether on the stairs, at the fireplace or in a convenient corner of the bedroom.

Historical places like these often come alive when you have a good guide and we did have some of the best guides ever, especially in Giovana Agrawal who is not only sweet and kind but a terrific multi-tasker.

Dark history

Leonardo Da Vinci lounging on the bank of the River Loire.

A break from all those castles came when we arrived in Arromanches in the heart of Normandy, better known as the D-Day landings.

The dramatic coastline here was where thousands of soldiers became ducks when they disembarked from their boats to a barrage of German gunfire during World War II.

History belongs to the victors and the Normandy landings are now regarded as where the liberation of Europe from Nazi occupation began. This place had seen great tragedy and so much blood had flowed here that many who visit find themselves speaking in hushed tones as they walked past deep craters caused by bombs and gun bunkers left behind by the Germans.

Two of the soldiers who died here were the inspiration for the Hollywood movie Saving Private Ryan.

I see dead people

We ended a day of stunning blue skies and crisp weather at the memorial and cemetery for those who perished. A cemetery is not my idea of a holiday and I was thinking of staying back on the bus because I sometimes imagine that I see dead people.

But I am glad I did not because there was something special about this burial grounds overlooking Omaha Beach, the code name for the stretch of beach where the American battalions landed.

Despite the many visitors that day, there was a poignant stillness in the air, a sense that those who died are at peace. All these men died in a war that they did not really understand and it was fitting that they had been honoured in this serene memorial setting.

France truly is more than just Paris.

This trip was sponsored by Trafalgar and Atout France. For details on Trafalgar trips, call Holiday Tours (KL: 03-6286 6220/Penang: 04-238 2828) or go to the Holiday Tours website. Holiday Tours will also be part of the MATTA Fair

from March 16 to 18, at PWTC in KL.

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