Day 2 saw the advent of an oddly gorgeous, sun-drenched morning in the tranquil town of Bourg. We had decided we would breakfast early – well before 9 – to enjoy a full morning touring about the small scenic village, the riverside and the nearby sites. And while we did manage to extricate our sleep-laden bodies from the snug bed sheets (each of us with our own set mind you) on time – which is a feat of its own right considering two of the explorers are Spaniards – we squandered our time happily chatting around the breakfast table with the only other guests of the logis, a couple from Britanny (which incidentally happened to be the hostess’s home region).
My fellow friends managed to capture a word here and there and piece back together a puzzle of a conversation to make sense of what we were bantering on about. Not mentioning the breakfast itself would be an injustice to our hostess as she had provided us with ample fresh bread, croissants and other palate-teasing pastries, which surpass those Danish phonies one can acquire at Delifrance, UK. The choice of jams was rather delicate as we were offered a palette of flavors and colors. And we could coalesce saucy strawberry with pale peach or raptuous raspberry.
At last, we were all packed and on our way. JuanLu’s Ford Fiesta pulled out of the manor and after a wrong turn that took us back to where we came from, we eventually found the riverside road where we stopped for a few picture sessions, just a few snaps to get Leopard (not Cohen) framed. November had all but vanquished the last few hours of October and the leaves’ rich hues reflected the victor’s mood. The salty air was rich in this typical humid dirt scent which so often teases our olfactory senses. Had it not been so cold and crisp, we would have surely gone about running through the vineyards like 15 year-olds rolling about in the leaves, but of course we are responsible adults. Besides temperatures forbade we even considered exploring the countryside for more than a handful of minutes.
And so we took the car over to the next little village, Plassac. The previous night, in the logis, I had read there were Roman ruins in that village, ruins of a villa. My vivid imagination had taken on from this little fact and had constructed a lavishly decorated villa with crimson frescoes reminiscent of Tuscany landscapes. An inch of imagination more and that little grey matter would have had its way with a couple citizens of Latium lazily lunching in a triclinium whilst local slaves – Gauls most likely – poured them the bacchic essence of the best local grapes.
I had whetted my friends’ appetites to convince them this was the way to go. They would settle for no less than grandeur: what a disappointment it turned out to be. We soon realized that in lieu of frescoes, we found a field full of fern. In lieu of foot-thick walls of antique plaster and stone, a few solitary stones timidly sprung from the ground erratically. And in lieu of audio guides, tourists, and a new-age museum, we found a closed door and a sign that read ‘musée fermée jusqu’en avril 2009′ which of course for non French speakers was as good as greek. But for the rest of us, it painted gloom all over the place.
After our close shave with the fourth century BC, we decided to jump forward a few centuries and soon enough we were on the road to Blaye, a village known for – surprisingly enough – its wines. What else would one expect in this region? It’s a bit like gaping in awe at a flock of sheep in Wales. Well what on earth else did you expect? Shaun?
Now let’s be truthful. Blaye is a fairly sized village – bigger than Bourg (and not as picturesque) and has a couple other attractions including a Vauban fortress and a basilica (Saint Romain). The fortress was built on the site of several castles the oldest dating back to Roman times (if memory serves correctly). Its situation was then of military importance strategically overlooking the Gironde and thus controlling all boats going upstream. What is left of the fortress spans a good deal across a hill and one had soon got lost in its walls. The view from the walls was most breathtaking with the horizon out west and North west hiding the ocean.
An interesting thing about the fortress is that it has a sign which reads ‘basilique St Romain – tombe de Roland’. Reading this had the effect of a lightning bolt. All little French boys and French girls, when at school, learn of the heroics deeds of a young man, Roland, who died at a brave young age while fending off an attack of ignominous barbarians (possibly the Maurs) in the Pyrenees. It is said Roland hurled his sword at the ground thus splitting it and creating a passage way through the mountain. Clearly a sane mind can then detect a hint of folklore and not factual history. But go explain that to a dazzled little child carving for knight & princess happy-ending stories. And to be perfectly straight, Roland is said to be the nephew of Charlemagne, one of the greatest Emperors Europe has known. The French claim him, so do the Germans. He was a Franc (a Germanic tribe – this three-word phrase being somewhat an oxymoron), converted to Christianism, and was crowned in Reims (modern-day France) where traditionally all other French kings were henceforth to be crowned.
With this background in mind, knowing that I was within yards of a shrine of French (or German) history, made me like a little puppy on his first walk round the neighborhood: as excited and jumpy as a circus flea. Again disappointment reached the pinnacle of the expectation. As it happens, the basilica is no longer open to tourists – not that it’s in the hands of an evil private owner who refuses to open the site’s doors to eager eyes – but rather that there are no doors left to be opened. As a matter of fact, there are windows, walls, pillars, altar, choir, pews left. Actually, come to think of it, there were more ‘leftovers’ at the Roman place earlier on. If we carry on at this speed, what will Chenonceau (our touristic aim for Day 3) be? A minimalistic grain of sand in a cubic inch glass exhibit? This is where D&K guides come in handy – they show you what to expect. One should redub them the WYSIWYG tourist guide. It avoids tears welling up the history-avid guide.
Both JuanLu and Enano smiled at me when we all realized what was left of the basilica. A 40-something woman busy smoking what seemed to be a cigarette enlightened us with a few snippets of local history: «on ne sait pas bien s’il est enterré là mais c’est ce que l’on suppose. Il n’y a pas assez de moyens pour continuer les fouilles.»
A few sandwiches and a couple sips from a cold bottle of water later, realizing how late it was, we decided in unison to ‘hit the road’ and start moving north. We had estimated a 4hr-ride via ‘nationale’ (toll-free) roads. Before we left Blaye, we stopped at a local vineyard we had been recommended in the town centre called ‘Chateau Le Siffle-Merle’. There, we met a young lady perhaps in her late twenties, early thirties who took us on a taste ride of the wines they produce: a white sweet one and 2 reds. Now the Bordeaux area is not very famous for its whites and the production of the latter is fairly recent and confidential. The wine she served was indeed very sweet and palatable. She then made us try 2 reds quite similar with the exception that one was vinified in a nobler way using casks of wood. On our way out we bought a bottle of each, increasing our stock of delicacies meticulously stored in the Fiesta. We all had in mind a dinner we wanted to throw upon our return in Ipswich. And I certainly had in mind Asterix’s tour of Gaul whereby he stopped in different towns to acquire the local specialty.
The rest of the journey was eventless. JuanLu dozed off a bit while Enano drove on the French highway void of any traffic (French holidays had just come to a term and all were but back at work or in school). On the way, we passed Poitiers and its Futuroscope of which we barely caught a glimpse. The Futuroscope is a theme park built around the cinema and image industry. It contains several high-definition screens, animated seats, flying carpets and other technological feats sure to wow the younger minds.
They say in IT & networks that the last mile is always the problematic one. It is also true of driving. Without a decent map of France, let alone a poor one, and no GPS, the only help we had was from reading Google Map’s indications which were necessary to get by but not sufficient. As we neared Amboise, we suddenly had an urge to double check our location and route. Now of course, in the middle of nowhere, with no traffic about, it is easier said than done. But finally thankfully we spotted an IBIS hotel where we stopped for a few minutes.
This is where the story gets very XXIth century-like. Parents and oldies alike please skip ahead if you fear a techie overload. Now most folks would reasonably enter the hotel and ask for directions. After all we were less than 10kms from our destination, it was 9PM or so and pitch dark, and we had no map. The imprudent traveller might indeed have gone in to ask for help but we knew better what with the likes of Norman Bates out and about – such a Shining example of hospitality. So instead, we took JuanLu’s iphone and scoured the ether for a wifi hotspot and surely IBIS came equipped with an orange wifi zone. In less than a minute we were trekking on the web checking Google Maps as to our whereabouts and the directions to take. It couldn’t have been simpler: carry straight on until you reach the Loire, then turn right, follow the river until you reach Mosnes and then turn right again for a few miles until you’ve reached your destination, ‘Le Buisson’ (the bush).
Such said Google, so we did. And twenty minutes later, we had a reached a closed gate, a very dark house, and the dire prospect we had either found the wrong ‘bush’ or simply arrived too late. I pulled out my phone and called the number I had thankfully jotted down, just in case. Several rings later, a woman answered the phone and we were relieved to hear we had indeed reached the right shrub, just a wee bit late as the owner had already called it a night and was no longer expecting us. Soon, she had shown us the way into her house, a refurbished farmhouse along with stables turned into lounge-breakfast area. We were profusing excuses as to our lateness but her cheery mood soon quenched our fears. She kindly gave us plates and silverware to have dinner. WIth the time being so late (flirting with 11PM), we decided to stay in, open a few pouches of chorizo and lomo (courtesy of the Prietos), pop open a bottle of red Bordeaux and drink to the health of our second day out, Amboise, and the lady from the Bush.
The room itself was most cosy with two great sofas overspilling with pillows, cushions, and animal skins (probably sheep). On the far end of the wall, there was a horse manger full with straw and LED lights giving the room a Christmas-like cheer. The table in the center seemed to be made of massive wood and its colors reflected the rest of the room: mahogany; red; brown; rich fall hues. As for the room, it contained 2 single beds and a double bed and again we were impressed with the level of hospitality and comfort. We soon drifted off into a deep slumber after so many kilometers and such a long & filling day out and about. The following day would be about French Renaissance, palaces, the most beautiful avenue in the world, and a late night pizza (or was it dawn?).