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The town of Usse from the Chateau

Friday, May 13, 2005:

We didn’t care that it was Friday the 13th.  We drove out of Azay-le-Rideau into the French countryside, heading for the Chateau d’Usse.  It took us a bit to get going the right way -- the map failed to indicate that the D7, the road we were looking for, did indeed intersect the road we were on, but only by passing over it on a bridge with no entrance or exit.   So we had to consult the map again, figure out an alternative route, and backtrack, hoping that the alternate route wasn’t simply another bridge crossing.  French country roads are not exceedingly well-marked, and many are just tiny lanes.  Even the larger roads are -- as was true in Ireland -- just barely large enough for two vehicles... and the cars that people drive in Europe, as already noted, tend to be much smaller.  There wasn’t a constant parade of SUVs being driven by suburban moms heading for the mall...

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Chateau d’Usse

Chateau d’Usse is reputed to have been the inspiration for the tale “Sleeping Beauty.”  Charles Perrault, the writer of the tale, stayed here during the 17th Century and reputedly wrote “Sleeping Beauty” after his stay, remembering those turreted towers.  The chateau makes liberal use of that connection (and the animated Disney film), with a corner tower being dedicated to the fairy tale, with dioramas and tableaus set up.  If you climb all the way to the top (and we did...), you find the evil stepmother/witch (the Disney version) concocting a potion in the upper chamber.

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Denise playing Rapunzel in the Sleeping Beauty tower

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From the tower - Hania and Gardens

D’Usse is older and far larger than the Chateau Azay-le-Rideau.  The first owner was a Viking, Gelduin I, who erected a fortress on the land in 1004.  In the 15th century. on the foundations of Gelduin’s fortress, Jean V of Beuil, Charles VII’s Captain, built a fortified castle.  There are three periods of architecture still visible today from the courtyard:  the 15th century wing on the left (which includes Sleeping Beauty’s tower), the Renaissance-era wing on the right, and a pavilion built 1690 for a wedding.

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The Middle Courtyard

The chapel, which is separate from the main buildings, is mostly Gothic, and not in great shape, which many of the gargoyles and much of the outside façade having suffered from the weather  over the years.  However, there was a nice fluffy owl sleeping in the corner of one of the windows, which made for an interesting sight.  There are also caves on the property, which were used for wine-making and storage -- the entire Loire Valley is riddled with caves in the limestone cap that covers the landscape.  The strangest sight on the grounds was behind the stables, where a grove of bamboo was growing -- an odd vision to come across...

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Owl in the window

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Sculptures along front of chapel

As with d’Azay, we were struck by the army of help it would require to keep up a place like this.  Surprisingly, none of the guidebook pamphlets addressed that, concentrating instead on the royalty who resided there and lent their names to the places.  But the royalty could only exist on the backs of the labor force that sustained them, and I’d love to have known more about the staffing that was required -- not only how many, but what type of people, and where did they reside, and so on.  After all, I know my own genealogy fairly well (Irish and German), and it’s obvious that -- unlike seemingly the rest of humanity -- I am not descended from royalty.  Quite the opposite.  I’m descended from farmers and craftspeople, from servants and laborers.  It would have been my ancestors who were tilling the gardens or emptying the chamberpots or serving dinner to the finely-clad guests or breaking their backs hauling stones to build these damned palaces.  What was life like for them , those who didn’t get to live in the midst of this opulence, but who had to create and sustain it for others?

Unfortunately, that’s not usually talked about, nor do the histories tend to cover that.  As I said before, it’s the details that fascinate me.  (A detail:  there were enough feral cats around that you’d occasionally catch the strong scent of cat urine emanating from some of the hollows and crannies outside.)  As a writer, I know that it’s finding the right details that is the essence of worldbuilding.  You bring a setting to life for the reader by describing a few pertinent details and letting their imagination fill in the rest... and now I find that when I look at places like d’Usse or d’Azay, or even the village of Aza-le-Rideau, it’s those little specifics that fascinate me.  Many of the photographs I’ve been taking this trip are of details like this... and you’ll find them -- modified and expanded -- in the next books I write, I know.

On the whole, Denise and I decided that the tour of Chateau Azay-le-Rideau was more interesting than d’Usse -- d’Usse is still being used as a residence, unlike d’Azay, and as a result the tourists are limited to a very small section of the chateau; fewer rooms, it seemed, than at d’Azay, even though the entire place is far, far larger.  In fact, in glancing through the visitor’s book, Hania noticed that someone had written an entry complaining that the price of entry (9 euros) was far too high for the amount of the chateau one actually was able to see.  On the whole, we all agreed.

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Towers on right wing

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Denise, Hania, Gin, and French Chat at donjon door

We headed back mid-afternoon to Azay-le-Rideau, planning to eat lunch at a restaurant there Denise had seen.  But we discovered, very quickly, that one cannot eat in a restaurant in France (or at least in Azay-le-Rideau) at 3:00:  they all, universally, close down from 3:00 until about 6:00.  It was obvious from the the look on the owner’s face when we walked into the restaurant at 2:30 or so that she was appalled at seeing four people coming in at such an awkward time of day...  “There’s not enough time,” she told us.  We tried three other restaurants:  by the time we’d walked to them, they were already closed.  It was also beginning to rain, so, knowing there was plenty of food back at the house, we returned to Le Plessis and had lunch.  The rain had slacked off an hour later, and so we walked back down to Azay-le-Rideau (there was a life-threatening chocolate and baguette crisis in the house:  we had no chocolate and only one baguette, and that was simply an intolerable situation...).  We managed to snag chocolate, wine, and a couple baguettes, along with a birthday present for Denise, and headed back just as the rain started up again.  By the time we reached the house it was raining fairly steadily, enough so that a planned walk to a local ancient cemetery was shelved for the time being.

Instead, we ate a late supper, drank wine, and relaxed...  Damn, it’s a tough life here.  If we had an internet connection, it might have been paradise.  Well, actually, if we’d had an internet connection, it might have ruined it...

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The left wing from the gardens

TO BE CONTINUED...