It’s official– after our trip to the Loire Valley, (practically) all I want for Christmas is a château. Although 18th century drafty buildings aren’t generally prime real-estate, I promise you haven’t lived until you’ve almost died leaning over a castle rampart, trying to channel your inner Rapunzel. Worth every terrifying second!
Week two of Toussaint Break started off with me auspiciously missing the bus simply because it did not come at one of the projected time slots… Thankfully, I hitched a ride with my friend S.V and half-awake, we joined our classmates, the Solters, J.P (and his son aka my new best friend) on the best bus ever.
The first day of travel trip numero deux took us to the edge of the Loire Valley. There, we ventured into our first two “châteaaaus,” the Château d’Angers and Château d’Azay-le-Rideau. In my opinion, the Château d’Angers was cool but I didn’t like the constraints the guided tour put. I would have liked to explore the gardens and other areas we hadn’t really lingered on but hunger, the cold, a strict no-eating in the château policy and a definite parting time made that impossible. Tant pis! The next château, d’Azay-le-Rideau, more than made up for it. My favorite château of the whole trip, it was intimate and fit my preconceived notions of what a castle would look like, multiple balconies, large towers, moat and all. In addition, it was straight up gorgeous, with autumn leaves framing the building that seemed to float majestically in the sun-dappled water. My classmates and I had a field day exploring the cool exhibition housed inside Azay-le-Rideau on depictions of castles in art and may have gone a little crazy taking pictures against the picturesque backdrop of the regal château.
After spending the night freezing (on my part) in our small hotel, the 65 perpetually-sleepy SYA-ers and our amazing teachers clambered back into the oversized urban assault vehicles for day two of the Loire Valley. Luckily, despite bad forecasts and a cold start, the weather held up beautifully for our visits to Chenonceau and Chambord. At Chenonceau, I wasn’t practically awed by the chateau itself but more by the furnishings inside and the luscious greenery around it. On the castle’s plot of land are a farm, three gardens, a small labyrinth of hedges and a large expanse of wooded paths that made for lots of nature pictures and fun wandering. Between the two châteaux, we stopped for lunch in Amboise. I had a delicious goat cheese, tomato and basil galette. Miam!
Full and content, we bussed to the castle that as a whole we were most hyped for, Chambord. Before this trip, we had spent a week in Art History studying and discussing this chateau, and it did not disappoint. We must have been quite a sight to the other tourists, a bunch of teenagers eagerly shouting things like “Double-Vis!” (referring to the double helix staircase supposedly designed by Leonardo DaVinci), pointing out the former apartments of King François I and commenting on the size of the surrounding park (approximately the size of Paris, something most of us were unaware of until after we got our quizzes back :P). In terms of architectural beauty, Chambord is the clear winner in my mind: the whole thing appears over the top and askance at first glance but a little further exploration shows its meticulous symmetry and precision.
The last day of the trip started off with a little art history review as we explored the cathedral of Tours in all its 13th century stained glass, three rose, open-chœur glory and its adjacent Musée des Beaux Arts. To me, this museum gave off a quirky vibe. How is a museum that houses old prestigious artwork quirky, you ask? Well, for starters, each room was painted and wallpapered in a consciously different color and style, ranging from a slate grey to crushed berry purple and a gold cloth wallpaper to a turquoise room with panels of wallpaper that carried a self paisley-esque pattern. Additionally, the entire second floor was a hodge-podge of modern art, sculptures of snakes, mirrors, chairs with neon boas and some impressionistic pieces (including one Monet).The main attraction was the work of an 18th century artist who had formerly been relatively unknown (and by that I mean that my all-knowing art history teacher who resides solitarily at “the top” had only heard of him thanks to this exhibition’s focus on the artist’s rediscovery). One thing that stood out on the first floor dedicated to this artist was the realism; every taut muscle on the ankles of a legions of foot soldiers and the thumb on a baby whose face was not even visible was detailed and vivid like a lushly colored photograph.
After exploring the museum to our hearts content, we burst onto the somehow sunny and not windy streets of Tours, tasked with finding lunch and our way to the train station in an hour and a half armed with a small black and white map, with only our mood for the next few hours and our chances at independent travel supposedly hanging in the balance. The triplets (that is to say, S.V, N.B and I) opted for baguette panninis and three different desserts because this is France and why not? An almond pain au chocolat, a chausson de pommes (ah the memories!) and a chocolate muffin later, we were seated in a food-induced semi-comatose state on the bus with the rest of our classmates, having all successfully found the glistening train station (personally, I owe thanks to the fabulous signage that directed us once we entered downtown).
Spirits high like the sun in the sky, we slid noisily onto the grounds of our last château of the trip, le Château de Villandry. The castle itself is fine with interesting replicas of small bedrooms that gave us an insight into what it may have been like to be a noble family during this period. However, the general castle-ness simply couldn’t hold a candle to the magnificent gardens that stretch out from the edge of the moat like a nesting doll of perfectly proportioned squares of shrubbery. A waterfall, a “belvedere”, a sun playground, a maze with a shortcut designed for hobbits (shout out to all my hobbit-sized kindred spirits), a lake complete with a pair of swans and even a pumpkin patch- this garden had it all. The pumpkins, a rarity in France, were particularly exciting, and believe you me, many a “plan” was concocted to sneak a little one out in a large handbag 😉 (we were easily foiled by the simple stiung between the openings in the hedge square enclosing the precious orange gourds).
Even after returning to Rennes, weary and further enamored with France (good job SYA, now how am I supposed to go back to the states where the closest thing to a centuries old château is like the Biltmore), pumpkins remained on my mind. Halloween was the following day and in its honor, my friends and I dressed up, made ourselves a pasta dinner, ate candy and watched a Halloween movie. I was a pumpkin. I learned that food tastes better when it’s made together (cheesy but true) and that I have a zero tolerance for anything remotely “scary” (violence I can do, zombies apparently not so much). My suggestions for a Halloween movie were The Nightmare Before Christmas or It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown… Clearly, I focus more on the treat part of Halloween ;).
Post Halloween euphoria, I was up bright and early to head to Dinard and my host family’s beach house for a last farewell to these glorious two weeks of break. Proving that, like Robert Frost said, “Nothing gold can stay,” this lovely little pause is on its last legs. A few châteaus, a French novel (Un Cœur Simple), The Breakfast Club and a lot of brownie cake later, I’m ready to return to Villa Alvarez with an eager mind and tired arms over-flowing with cupcakes for charity.