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Denise in front of the Chateau

Thursday, May 12, 2005:

Hania woke us up -- because we’d asked her to do so -- around 9:00 the next morning.  After a breakfast of coffee and chocolate croissants, Denise and I went to visit the Chateau in town.  There are, we’re told, far larger and more expansive chateaus throughout the area, but this is one of the two largest examples of true Gothic chateaus.  The original structure was built in 1515 (here in the Americas at that time, for perspective, the Aztec Empire was in full flower and Montezuma had yet to meet a European) by Gilles Berthelot, who had become Lord of Azay under François I.  The chateau, with the winds of French political change, passed from owner to owner over the decades, with the Marquis Charles de Biencourt purchasing the languishing estate in 1791 and doing much of the restoration that is still visible today.  It was Marquis Biencourt who built the parkland around the estate, as well as the moat -- fed by the quiet and picturesque Indre River -- that now surrounds the chateau.  

The chateau was impressive, with several of the rooms on display.  Denise and I eschewed the audio tape in English and went through following the written guide in English.  The signs in the rooms were in English and Italian as well as French, so it was easy enough to follow through, and the suggested path was well-marked.  Since this chateau isn’t one of the “big” ones, it’s also not full of annoying crowds of tourists.  There were a couple school groups wandering about, and a small but steady stream of people like us who wanted to see the place.  It was quiet, and leisurely, and very beautiful.

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Grand Drawing Room

Not all the chateau is on display -- a good number of rooms on the first floor, a few on the ground floor, none on the second floor.  (A quick aside here:  in France, if not the rest of Europe, the “first floor” is not the ground floor, but the first floor above ground level.  Remember that when you’re in French elevators...)  Most of the rooms on display were well-restored, in the styles of various centuries.  It was fascinating to glimpse the fossilized remains of a royal lifestyle from centuries ago, and to have a sense of how that culture must have worked -- and to realize the rafts of servants that would have been necessary to maintain this type of life for those on the top.  A few of those rooms (like the Grand Drawing Room above) seemed to have more square footage than our whole house.

It’s the details that I like:  the way the windows are constructed and shuttered, the devices carved above doorways, the construction of the floors and ceilings, the fact that the stone spiral staircase in one corner of the house showed the wear of centuries of feet, most of whom followed a particular path...  It’s in the details that you glimpse the ghosts of the people who once lived here, where you can imagine what they saw and what they felt.  You can place your hand on a polished spot on the central pole of the stair and know that -- nearly four hundred years before -- someone else’s hand was there also, and you can almost feel them...

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Ceiling of main staircase

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Gothic filigree around courtyard windows

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Windows & shutters


Cherub in corner of hallway

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Denise (with Toronto-ites) in Biencourt Drawing Room

We finished the house (after Denise, who amazes me with her ability to meet people and make quick friends, managed to stumble across four women touring the house who were from Toronto, and we chatted a bit about Hania and our visits to Toronto), and went out to the gardens around it.  Again, you can imagine the parties that must have taken place out here, or the Marquis taking his daily stroll around the chateau, or picnics there where the small waterfalls went under the bridge...  

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Side and rear of Chateau

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Tree on the grounds

By the time we finished touring the chateau and the grounds, it was beginning to cloud over.  We strolled up the winding streets to the “good” bakery and purchased a gorgeous looking fruit tart dessert for dinner as well as a couple baguettes -- we were going through baguettes like termites through rotten wood.  By the time we reached ‘home’ the promise of rain had turned into reality, as it was starting to drizzle.  We ate lunch inside watching the rain -- cheese and baguettes and wine.  Our trash was now suspiciously full of dark green bottles.

Gin made lasagna for dinner (with onions that could kill -- I know, since I cut them up...) -- a lovely, improvised dinner with (of course) baguettes and (of course) wine to go along with the lasagna.  Stuffed, we sat around for a bit.  It was all we were capable of doing.

A few early observations on cultural and natural differences between France and the States:

•    There are definitely some different birds here.  On the way in from the train station, a huge black and white bird with an impressively long tail swooped by the car.  I’ve seen a few other of these long-tailed birds in the sky, where they use the tails to great effect for turning and braking, though most of these were dun-colored.  There’s some resemblance to a mockingbird, but larger -- I’ll have to look them up...

•    Speaking of birds, their songs are different here, too.  There’s one around here that Hania describes as “like someone hitting glasses together.”  It’s subtle; you’re aware that you’re hearing birds, but somehow it all seems wrong , because these aren’t the same songs you’ve heard all your life.  Sunday morning, as I was drinking coffee, I heard a cuckoo calling from a nearby tree -- I thought at first there was a clock somewhere, then I realized that I was actually hearing the bird calling out.  On the other hand, doves sound the same everywhere, but these doves are bigger than ours...

•    So where are the rude and haughty Gallic snobs of legend?  So far -- well into the second day here -- we’ve yet to meet a French person who is either one of those.  In fact, they’ve been universally willing to try to help out these poor Americans who know almost nothing of their language...  They smile at our “Bonjours” and “Mercis” and have been exceedingly pleasant people.  So much for stereotypes.

•    I don’t think opening a Hummer or SUV car dealership would be a good idea here.  I dislike the “urban tank” vehicles anyway, but they’d be entirely impractical here unless you want to actually use the Hummer as an assault vehicle and crush the parked cars on either side of the road.  I love the little urban cars that one sees here that are basically glorified golf carts.  We also see lots of bicycles, motorbikes and motorcycles.  Oh, and you walk here, too...

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French Hummer

•    At least here in Azay-le-Rideau, no one mows their grass to golf course perfection... and the place looks much better for it.  For instance, I’m writing this looking out at the expansive lawn of Le Plessi, and I see white and yellow flowers poking up everywhere, and it looks gorgeous and far more interesting than the plain manicured lawns of home.

•    However, the French do not understand coffee.  The coffee here is good and very strong, but...  The coffee cups are all too small.  For coffee, you need a huge mug that holds about three cups.  I’ve seen nothing here bigger than a formal china coffee cup... and it just ain’t enough.  I pour a cup, take it outside to sit on the patio, take a decent sip... and I have to get up to get more.

•    Driving along, you’ll see entire forests where the trees are planted in straight lines.  Obviously, these are not natural, primeval forests but tamed and controlled woods...  It’s strange to be whizzing by and stare down rapidly moving corridors of trees, like grown-up versions of cornfields in Ohio or Indiana.

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Steve at window