Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A short stay in the Loire Valley

Today was the start of the birthday present and we were now in the hands of River Loire, a small independent travel company that organises tailored tours for their guests.
Thierry Micalet, managing director, came to collect us at 9am. Everything packed into the back of his seven seater and we set out on our trip to Amboise. We began with a drive through the vineyards of the Vouvray and Montluis regions. It was very windy and quite chilly up in the hills, where we stopped to look at the vineyards growing mostly chenin blanc. We also stopped to look at the outside of an unusual chateau that is built of red brick and the usual white limestone. The owner is still renovating it, but it is open for weddings and functions and people can stay there. The chapel is being renovated so that weddings can take place there. We didn't go in.

Then we drove down to the town of Vouvray where we saw all the troglodyte dwellings cut into the cliffs above the river. There is a hotel and restaurant, maybe the one D&S stayed in. There are also lots of very large houses - little castles even, some of the 7-800 in the Loire Valley. Our next stop was at Marc Bredif, a wine cave cut deep into the cliff with kilometres of cellars. They make Vouvray, here, and have masses of bottles stored in the caves, some covered in what I thought were webs, but are actually fungus filaments as it's pretty damp in there, but not dripping. One 'room' was circular and had niches cut into the wall where vintages of note are stored; some over 100 years old. These are astronomically expensive. One of their wines is the sparkling Vouvray that spends two years undergoing a second fermentation in the bottle. These are all set in racks, being turned every week, one eighth of a rotation and are also gradually upended so the extra yeast and sediment collects in the neck. Then the necks are flash frozen with liquid nitrogen, the metal tops they have so far had are taken off, the sediment removed and the bottles topped up and real corks put in. A lengthy process, but well worth it. We tried some after our visit to the caves, in their tasting room. We also tried some Vouvray halfway between brut and demi-sec as well as their delicious 'Nectar', a dessert wine. We also had some of their wine jelly, both red and white. This was very tasty and they suggest adding it to sauces as well as serving with cheese.


 Now it was time for lunch, which we had at the Joli Val restaurant. Tomato and chevre tart with salad, a 'cottage pie' of confit duck with a mashed potato top and a honey sauce, then a slice of pie to finish. A demi-tasse of delicious coffee finished us off. Thierry refrained, but we also had a glass of wine!

After lunch, Thierry took us to the wine co-operative, Cellier du Beaujardin, where we selected a wine to buy, and filled up a small plastic barrel that Thierry had brought with us in the back of the car. He also bought several magnums of the sparkling Vouvray for his nephew's christening - much more economical than that much champagne! We now headed off to Thierry's place where we were ushered into his cellar, cut into the limestone. Another party of four had just finished down there, with one of the other guides, and so we could quietly fill our bottles and cork them in peace. Armed with our bottles, we went up to Thierry's study where we glued on specially prepared labels and hair-driered the plastic cork covers on to the tops. And there we were with two personalised bottles!

 When the others left, Thierry went through the rest of our itinerary with us - entry tickets, car hire, lunch and dinner vouchers etc. It all looked very exciting, and now it was time to go to our hotel in Amboise. We are staying at Le Pavillon des Lys, a hotel in a mansion house with just a few beautiful rooms and some public areas on the ground floor. Worryingly there is a notice warning us not to open the windows due to the amount of little flies that would invade the room if we do! Thierry bade us farewell with the promise of some information for our day on our own on Friday before we return to Tours.

Dinner was booked at Le Lion d'Or, just a short walk from the hotel, so after unpacking, resting for a few minutes and changing, we walked down the road and had a wonderful dinner in the dining room of this restaurant serving traditional regional food.

Monday, May 30, 2011

A short stay in the Loire Valley

After our breakfast in the hotel, we went walking. First objective was to find the Cathedral. This is quite a gothic pile, with high vaulted ceilings and stunning stained glass windows. There is a big renovation going on in the north transept, but we were able to access the very old cloister with it's first floor scriptorium that has it's own special stone spiral stairs.

It had been raining while we were in the cathedral, and it felt quite cold with the wind when we came out. Walking towards the river we came to the Chateau of Tour which is now a museum, then crossed over to walk along the bridge over the Loire. It is very low at the moment. Everyone says it's already down to August levels. We saw terns with their chicks on the sandy islands mid stream.

Now we continued along the embankment to one of the main roads into the town. We found lots of old half timbered houses with small doorways, many with different patterns of bricks between the timbers and also some interesting stone work. In the middle of this old town area there is a roman/medieval burial ground surrounded by tall old houses, just off one of the main squares.

We also found a lute maker. The main square had some tall buildings with pointed gable ends, making us think of Holland. There were plenty of references to M. da Vinci and Dan Brown's fictitious conspiracy!
More interesting buildings, and eventually we came to the relatively modern St. Martin's Basilica, built on the site of an old cathedral. The north and south towers still remain, but most of the old building has disappeared. It would have been huge.

After visiting the Basilica, we went in search of a crepe for lunch - Breton galettes with ham and cheese and very tasty, too. The cafe had it's own old staircase beside their loos, which we were invited to see! Then we made our way across to the Guild museum - thinking of Mr. Pratchett. We were lucky it was open, as the guide book said it wasn't. We saw some beautiful pieces of work made by the top craftsmen on display and a short film, all in French about various pieces. It was very interesting. But it was time for them to close, so we left and made our way back to the hotel. We tidied up and then went off to the bistro of local specialities for a fishy dinner, which was very good, but they were so slow at the end we gave up on dessert and came back for a not too late night.

Cathedral of Tours
St Martin's Basilica
Musée du Compagnonnage