Tuesday 20 February 2018

Loire Valley: Historical Loire gives flat packs good name

Fairytale castles, scrumptious food and a rich history makes the Loire Valley well worth a visit, says Anne Marie Scanlon

Anne Marie Scanlon

EVERY time I've struggled with the hell that is flat-pack furniture I've cursed the Swedes, believing that nation to be responsible for this blight of modern times. But, it seems the torture of flat-pack is one that extends back at least as far as the Middle Ages (a time when they knew quite a bit about torture). I found out about the medieval equivalent at the stunning Chateau de Chambord, one of the must-see attractions in the Loire Valley (about an hour from Paris).

When you approach the castle, which is situated in the middle of a 5,540-hectare parkland reserve, it is so fairytale-like that you'd be forgiven for thinking it was a big Disney fake -- all that's missing is a maiden in a conical hat hanging out of a turret. But it's very much the real thing, as a trip inside soon reveals.

The chateau, which King Francis I began work on in 1519 (and which wasn't completed before his death in 1547), is an astonishing combination of medieval fortress and Renaissance architecture. It's most famous for its internal double-helix stairs which may have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci (but there is no proof).

But back to the flat-pack furniture -- the French court regularly moved from castle to castle (and who can blame them?) but with each move the entire contents of the chateau had to be dismantled, moved, and reassembled at the next location. Many of the tables and chairs of the time were designed to simply fold up -- but beds are a different matter. I can only imagine what the poor servants uttered on a regular basis when faced with the task of turning several bits of wood and pegs back into a functioning four-poster bed.

Chambord is only one of many fairytale castles that litter the Loire Valley, which covers 280km from Sully-sur-Loire to Chalonnes-sur-Loire and has been a UNESCO World Heritage-listed cultural landscape for the past 11 years. My friends were all amazed at my choice of destination, as I don't drink. Yes, the Loire Valley is deservedly well known for its wine but there is still plenty to see, to do and to eat apart from testing the local vin. The scenery is spectacular -- not just the natural landscape and the amazing castles but the pretty little towns along the river which are like illustrations from a vintage story book. Even the bridges crossing the Loire itself are things of beauty.

Being a lover of history and an avid consumer of historical fiction, I was thrilled to visit places where so many important historical events had taken place. But even if you'd never heard of Francis I or Eleanor of Aquitaine you couldn't help but be impressed by the turrets and towers of the Castle of Sully-sur-Loire, built at the end of the 14th Century, which if I were forced to pick out one, is the perfect example of a medieval castle. With the moat still full and the graceful turrets reflected in the water, you just cannot help conjuring up visions of knights in shiny armour, ladies in flowing gowns and pointy hats and horses cantering over the drawbridge. Chateau de Chamerolles, although built at the beginning of the 16th Century, is another fine example of a turreted medieval stronghold, with moat, drawbridge, wonderful gardens and walks and the added bonus of a perfume museum. (People had some very interesting notions about personal hygiene in days of yore.)

To make the best use of my time and see as much of the area as I could, I opted for the Odyssee in the Loire Valley customised tour, during which I covered a small section of the Loire Valley between Tours and Sully-sur-Loire, staying at a different location each night. My first billet was at the wonderful Manoir de Clenord, a French country house guesthouse, near Chateau Chambord, where guests have a choice of magnificent suites in the house itself or rental of an on-site "gite" (cottage) with three luxury bedrooms. Having breakfast the following morning next to a huge log fire made me feel very regal.

In four days I managed to see five castles (a fraction of the number in the area) and quite a number of churches including the famous Abbey of Fleury, the Benedictine monastery founded in 650 AD, where you can visit the relics of St Benedict himself in the crypt. Benedict isn't the only saint associated with the area, as Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans (the capital of the Loire Valley region), visited many of the castles and churches in the valley during her fight against the English in 1429.

Yet despite following in the footsteps of saints I remain a mere mortal, and gave myself wholeheartedly to greed and gluttony, as the food in this part of the world is so good that it would be a sin not to indulge.

I'd highly recommend the four-course Sunday lunch at Le Clos du Vigneron, in Ousson sur Loire, which costs €30, including coffee. In Blois, the Cote Loire Auberge Ligerienne, a small but fantastic bistro, is the perfect lunch venue. Blois itself is well worth a visit and a guided tour, as it is a fascinating city, both beautiful to look at and steeped in history.

The French have a reputation as arrogant and unwelcoming, which going by my experiences in the Loire Valley is wholly undeserved. Whether it was the owner of Manoir de Clenord telling me that French people don't make enough effort to speak foreign languages -- this in perfect English to a woman who can barely say "merci" or negotiating an embarrassing purchase in the chemist in the small picturesque town of Meung sur Loire where, when I indicated that I was mortified, I was told by the lovely woman who served me "but you are in a pharmacy, not on the street," the people could not have been friendlier or more welcoming.

With such lovely people, great scenery, wonderful food, history, turrets and flat-pack furniture that stands the test of time, the Loire Valley has it all.

Getting there

AIR France and Aer Lingus fly to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport from Dublin, Cork and Shannon. Direct trains are available from the airport's TGV station to St Pierre des Corps (near Tours) with single fares starting from €57.10 at www.tgv-europe.com.

For more information on activities and accommodation in the Loire Valley region visit the Centre Val de Loire Regional Tourist Board www.visaloire.com or www.rendezvousfrance.com www.odysse-valdeloire.com A full-day guided tour (eight hours) €250 daily (€360 Sunday and holidays).

Rooms at the Manoir de Clenord start from €99 www.clenord.com

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