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The Loire Less-Traveled.
by Mark Rowlee

The Loire Valley of France is a delight to behold at any time of the year. But only during the Summer months can their full beauty be completely enjoyed. The surrounding forests are lush and green and the light, morning mist lays softly on the delicate gardens and hillsides. The hot Summer afternoon sun seems to provide a reason to relax even if one isn't needed.

Many trips to the Loire are relatively brief. As a result the most frequent stops are at the castles of Chenonceaux, Chambord and Cheverny. Tour buses from Paris and beyond make their way here daily as part of their whirlwind tours. But this playground of Kings and Queens of centuries past offers considerably more. Renting a car and doing a little exploring can reveal a land once laden with opulence and leisure, one that can make the imagination race.

Take, for example Usse, a fortified castle whose bulky walls are softened in appearance by the use of white stone. The story has it that Charles Perrault used Usse as the setting for his Sleeping Beauty story. It sits at the edge of the Chinon Forest with impressive cliffs to its back, its round towers surveying the valley below. The chateau has seen many owners over the years, each making their own unique changes. Antoine de Bueil first sold the chateau in 1485 and it has since changed hands at least 5-times.

Then there is the classic fairy-tale style of Azay-le-Rideau. Surrounded by the waters of the River Indre, Azay-le-Rideau reflects the lifestyle of its' original owner. Gilles Berthelot, the wealthy Treasurer of France, had the chateau built between 1518 and 1523.

The graceful lines reflect the ornate Italian architecture of the day. The reflection of the pepperpot towers in the moat is a joy to behold. On a hot Summer afternoon the cool interiors of this stone wonder surrounded by fine furnishings and a abundance of Flemish tapestries provide a welcome retreat.

The classic fortress-style castle is at Langeais. The oldest existing keep in France, Langeais was actually built as a fortress strongpoint in the 15th century to guard against invaders moving inland from Nantes. It is built in a feudal style with high walls, round towers and a drawbridge over the moat. You'll find more Flemish tapestries throughout.

When it comes to formal gardens the most impressive and unique are at Villandry. They are considered to be the most beautiful terraced gardens in France. Included in the 3-level design is the Water Garden, with the primary purpose of collecting irrigation water. The next level is the decorative Ornamental Garden including the Garden of Love, the Garden of Music with its symbolic patterns and the herb garden with its fragrant designs. Lastly is the Ornamental Kitchen Garden. This garden is laid out in 9-decorative squares that utilize leek for the color blue, cabbage and beetroot for the reds, carrot tops for jade green and many others.

In total there are over 1200 lime trees, 52 km of box hedge and 250,000 flower & vegies...and all this is weeded by hand. The vegitables are completely replanted twice each year. Villandry is the last of the great Renaissance chateaux built on the banks of the Loire, completed about 1536. It is very easy to take too many photographs here as the geometric patterns offer a different view from every angle.

In complete contrast is the stark, monastic style at Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud. Active during the 12th-18th centuries, it is the largest monastic city remaining in Europe and is the burial location for the Plantagenet family and Richard Coeur de Lion. Do to the sheer size be sure to allow time to fully appreciate its significance.

The monastic city covers 35-acres and consists of four priories: nuns working the infirmary and those devoted to prayer were in Le Grand Moutier. Those lay sisters relegated to doing the work were located in La Madeleine. The St Lazare area was the treatment area for lepers and the priest, brothers and other men had the area known as "Saint-Jean-de-l'Habit." At one time there was a fifth area for fallen women at St Mary Magdalene.

Hotels in the two and three star catagories abound in the many small villages around these chateaux. There are also a large number of "chambre d'hotes," or guest rooms in local homes as well as Gites (small cottages) to rent for a week or more. You'll find the gastronomic creations at many of these abodes range from basic country fare to an inspired experience.

Advance reservations are always recommended but for the adventuresome you can always take it day-by-day. Comfortable, clean 2-star hotels with private facilities can start at $45 a night for two including tax and breakfast. Contrary to popular opinion, there are indeed rooms available during the Summer months in most all price catagories.

For negotiating the highways and byways of rural France take advantage of years of experience by using the Michelin maps. The detail is excellent, often showing actual number of buildings in a village. And, of course, the Michelin green guide, "Chateaux of the Loire," can act as your personal tour guide.

For more information online:

Chateaux:
http://www.azureva.com/gb/loire/loire_chateau-les-sites-web.php3

Tourism Info:
http://www.francetourism.com/western_france.asp

Cars, Trains and Hotels:
http://www.virtually-there.com

Contact Numbers for Chateaux:
Azay-le-Rideau Tel 02.47.45.42.04...Fax 02.47.45.26.61
Langeais Tel 02.47.96.72.60....Fax 02.47.96.54.44
Villandry Tel 02.47.50.02.09...Fax 02.47.50.12.85
Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud Tel 02.41.51.73.52...Fax 02.41.38.15.44

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