Memoirs of a Francophile: The Loire Valley

Bonjour loyal readers! Before we get into another scorching post on the Anglo Saxons-yes I’ve NOT forgotten- I’d like to say my apologies for neglecting this blog in recent times. Things have been a little chaotic and, unfortunately, I’ve been a bit distracted and have not necessarily had the time to get all historical in my writings. In the space of my time away from the virtual world I’ve been back to France and already booked another trip back! How the other half live right?  I’ve also done an interview for the lovely Book Trails blog (thebooktrail.wordpress.com) about my own historical writing and of course my travels around France. The blog which focuses on travel writing and history got me thinking: I’ve totally veered off topic when it comes to writing for Plantagenet Lions! Not that it’s a bad thing as I’ve had nothing but good feedback from readers *coughboothancestrycough* however I did originally promise to write about Plantagenet Europe and…well I’ve written about pretty much anything I want.
On that garbled note I’m going to go back to this blog’s routes and actually talk about travelling for the next few posts, I’ve mentioned Angers and Chinon but since then I’ve been to: Saumur, Fontevraud, Le Mans, Tours, Chenonceaux, Rouen, Caen, Bayeux, Paris, Liseux, Limoges, Bordeaux, La Rochelle and am planning to go to Caen (again), Nantes, Rennes, Falaise, Pontorson (via Mont St Michel), St Malo and Orleans. Deep breath! So as you can see I’m WAAAAAAAY behind. To make these recaps more bearable I’ll split the cities and towns into their respective regions so Saumur, Fontevraud, Le Mans, Tours and Chenonceaux will fall into the Loire Valley/Anjou e.g. the best bit. Rouen, Bayeux, Liseux and Caen will be grouped together in Normandy, while Bordeaux and La Rochelle are firmly in Aquitaine. Limoges, a place I have rather dubious feelings about-I was only there for nine hours-may or may not be mentioned!
Like my taste in monarchs, I always play favourites, so I think I’ll start in the region where it all began: The Loire Valley. Situated under Paris and on the borders of Brittany, Poitiers and Lower Normandy, the Loire Valley is known as the Garden of France, due to its lush countryside and many vineyards. Historically, this region has been important since the late 900s, as it borders 3 great powerful regions, most of which at one point or another, were controlled by the powerful Counts of Anjou. In the late 900s, there were a series of great rivalries between the Angevin overlords in the Loire and the warlike Normans. Historians trace the roots of the Angevin to the early 870s, to the Ingelger dynasty and the future Fulk I of Anjou. Despite a blip in 1050s/1060s, the family on the whole were defined by strong and calculating leaders with an appetite for power. We start with the fairly unknown Fulk the Red whose son, Fulk II would begin an era of wars with Brittany and Normandy. Through marriage to the Duke of Brittany’s widow Adelaide, Fulk II gained considerable influence in Nantes, a city whose location in Brittany/The Loire is STILL contested. Later Fulks and future Geoffreys (this dynasty had little imagination when it came to names) expanded their power throughout Anjou, Maine, Touraine and in the 12th century and most notably, Normandy.

TGV selfies!
TGV selfies!

LE MANS:

The Roman walls that even Henry II couldn't burn down!
The Roman walls that even Henry II couldn’t burn down!

The strong ties between Angevins, Plantagenets and the English monarchy has not been forgotten in the region and the Loire is perfect for an medievalist or history enthusiast. Le Mans, the birthplace of Geoffrey La Bel, Henry II and the marriage venue for Empress Matilda and Geoffrey are very proud of their Plantagent routes. Le Mans is not the biggest city and is usually used as a stopping over point for people travelling to Angers, Tours and Nantes, with that in mind it’s a great place for a weekend stay. Like many of the Loire cities and areas of Normandy, the ‘old city’ or ‘cite Plantagenet’ is the main draw of Le Mans apart from those who travel to see the formula one race there…seriously that totally baffles me. NOTE: like almost all old cities Cite Plantagenet has been protected by the French government so there are no modern buildings which in turn means no modern roads. Seriously wear decent shoes cobble stones HURT

The cobbled streets of Cite Plantagenet
The cobbled streets of Cite Plantagenet

Le Mans’s main draws are it’s huge cathedral and two beautiful galleries. One is a fine arts and archeology museum, with a breathtaking Ancient Egpyt/Nefertiti themed rooms and the other is Carre Plantagenet (Plantagenet Square) which houses the famous enamel portrait of the head of the Plantagenet family: Geoffrey La Bel or premier historical DILF. Carre Plantagent focuses solely on the history of Le Mans and houses and impressive arrary of Gallo-Roman remains, buildings and sculptures…seriously fans of Asterix will LOVE it. Throw in a cute cafe and tons of medieval clothes, sculptures, swords, portraits and effigies and you’ve got one of my favourite places to be. Le Mans cathedral is home to an impressive history. Like most French cathedrals it’s been built upon, damaged and built upon again, but unlike most French cathedrals it doesn’t subscribe to the Norman ideal of “THE TALLER THE BETTER”. Don’t get me wrong: this cathedral is huge but in width not height. Like the Norman cathedrals in Poitiers the inside is sparse furniture-wise, there is an airiness to the place that is refreshing as sometimes these amazing buildings can feel a little cluttered, though that tends to be the fault of tourists. The cathedral defines itself with its thick white stone pillars that juxtapose its rather dark exterior nicely. I can honestly say it’s vastly different to most of the many, many cathedrals I’ve been in, it even pays tribute to the region’s neolithic heritage by placing one of the stones found outside the cathedral. For non medievalists, a walk around the old Roman walls-which are nicely decorated with various plants and illuminated at night-is a nice area to spend a warm summer’s evening…followed by wine! Food-wise you won’t be stuck for a cheap and satisfying meal as, just a quick walk down from Cite Plantagenet there are an array of perfectly sweet cafés, wine bars and decent joints to get some authentic French food. It won’t be fine dining but there’s still a chilled atmosphere that makes the city so enjoyable.

Papa Geoffrey now resides in Carre Plantagenet. This striking enamel portrait is his only surviving image
Papa Geoffrey now resides in Carre Plantagenet. This striking enamel portrait is his only surviving image

Unless you are a motoring enthusiast I recommend paying  a little extra and staying in Cite Plantagenet as, outside that Le Mans is not particularly spectacular, as I mentioned before it’s a nice weekend break but I wouldn’t advise spending more than two days there.

Hotel: Maison d’ Elise 4.5/5 Ok so I may have paid 101 euros for the night but the place is literally opposite the cathedral and built into an old cottage, what more could you want? I knock a point off because there are very steep stairs to get to the hotel room (that can’t be helped) and, if you’re a veggie, there is no dinner option (again, my hippy eating habits can’t be helped)

Le Mans Cathedral from my hotel...worth every cent
Le Mans Cathedral from my hotel…worth every cent
Cathedral interior
Cathedral interior

Historical sites: 4/5  Cite Plantagenet and the cathedral are a must for any medievalist, I mean whereas can you find a place that housed two Plantagenet births, one wedding one terrible Father vs Son siege?…more on the siege in later posts!
Tourist things to do: 3/5 Besides the art galleries and pretty park there isn’t all that much for non history buffs, unless you’re super into racing

Food: 3/5 Not much in terms of fine dining but pleasant enough  for a well priced snack dinner

General atmosphere 5/5 The people were super nice, friendly and defied unpleasant stereotypes!

 

TOURS:

Hotel de Ville and public garden
Hotel de Ville and public garden

As one of France’s biggest cities, Tours is probably the most visited place in the Loire Valley thanks to its proximity to the châteaux and vineyards that define the Loire Valley. This is thanks in part to its main train stations St Pierre des Corps which deals with TER trains to other regions and more central Gare de Tours (which houses the intercities and TGV trains) the city is the perfect tourist base. Unless you are astoundingly crazy organised, chances are you won’t have planned every tiny detail of your châteaux visits, not a problem. Wander into any touristy shop/hotel or the imminently helpful Office du Tourisme (every French city large and small has one) and you’ll find a cornucopia of free maps and guide books to help you plan a trip. The châteaux in close proximity include:

Chambord
Blois
Chenonceau
Chinon
Saumur
Angers
Chaumont
Cheverny
Montsoreau
de Sully-sur-Loire

Like many of the cities-even the large ones-of the Loire, apart from a tram service, the public transport is not exactly amazing, the citizens relying mainly on tram service that takes you wherever you need to go. While there is a smaller metro service, it mainly serves the needs of the commuter and I found it much easier to rely on the trams and my own feet because not only is it less confusing but you also see far more of what Tours has to offer.

The ever popuar Place Plumereau
The ever popuar Place Plumereau

Now onto some very speedy-non Plantagenet- history! Tours is an ancient city which has housed several wars including the rather infamous Battle of Tours or معركة بلاط الشهداء‎  which history google assures me means ma’arakat Balâṭ ash-Shuhadâ or Battle of the Palace of Martyrs depending on whether you’re a European or Arabic historian. In every crusade the French played-for better or worse-an integral part of the crusade its staunch Catholic monarchy funding expedition after expedition. Before I get bogged down explaining the Battle of Tours (732) I’ll run over the basics: the battle was fought between the then  independent state of Poitiers and the edge of the Frankish Empire, at the time Tours.  The conflict was caused by the Islamic Moors’ steady assault and conquest of Europe and the anxiety that the Franks felt regarding this. Led by military leader Charles Martel the Franks were eventually victorious over the Moors notably winning without any cavalry, something that the fearsome Umayyad army relied on. This heralded as a Christian victory over Islam and, although the Moors briefly retreated over the Pyrenees, conflict between the Islamic and Christian worlds would not cease for centuries. That concludes our Dark Ages history lesson for the days kids! So not only has Tours served as a battleground for some of the many Holy Wars, its also housed many notable figures including: Charlemagne (his imposing tower still stands), the Angevins and the great Capet dynasty, in particular Charles VIII and his wife Anne.
This medieval mark has been lovingly preserved throughout the city the surviving relics of this forgotten age restored and protected by the French government. Past and the present collide nicely in everyday Tours with trendy cafés and bars occupying once medieval homes which is especially noticeable in the city’s le Vieux Tours which serves as their old town. Place Plumereau, a bustling former market square is a meeting point for the younger inhabitants to meet and enjoy a causal drink in the many cafés that populate the square.

One of Tours oldest attractions: Charlemagne's tower
One of Tours oldest attractions: Charlemagne’s tower

Tours is home to several shopping districts where you can indulge in retail therapy if sightseeing is not your cup of tea, I particularly recommend Avenue du General de Gaulle which is populated with small shops, cafés and also chain stores if you need a shopping fix. It’s worth mentioning that walking down the avenue will lead you to the Musee des-Beaux Arts, St Gatiens or Tours Cathedral. St Gatiens is a must for tourists-medievalists or not-as it is often seen as the focal point of the city. Built in 1170, to replace an earlier site that burnt down in the 1160s, the cathedral is located almost next door Musee des-Beaux Arts and on the southern banks of the Loire river. The present model is a mish-mash of architectural ideals for the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries, more Romanesque than its Gothic Norman neighbours in other regions. Like most cathedrals (excluding freak of nature Salisbury cathedral) this monument took hundreds of years (SC took a mere 35)  to design and build. Early construction started on the towers in 1170 but  the chancel (the bit around the altar) was still being rebuilt from 1236 onwards. By the 14th century progress was made and the aisle, chapel and most of the interior work was finally finished. The inside is impressive, beautiful stain glass paint the tall white walls with lush reds and in a summer’s day it’s truly a sight to behold. The cathedral is home to some impressive monuments including the rather tragic tomb of the two infant children of Charles VIII and Anne of Brittany.

Beautiful stained glass in St Gatiens
Beautiful stained glass in St Gatiens

 

Cathedral Cloisters
Cathedral Cloisters
St Gatien's Cathedral
St Gatien’s Cathedral

 

 

Unlike Caen (which is perfectly pleasant) you do not get the impression that the city has been paved over for the modern age, but then again the city was bombed to oblivion in the 40s. For châteaux hoppers and people on a budget I recommend Hotel Vendome which is a stone’s throw away from Av. du General  and situated just off the perfectly pleasant and restaurant heavy Avenue de Grammont. This three star eco friendly hotel is run by a delightful French couple and was reasonably priced at 125 Euros for four nights, not bad for a central hotel!
Tours is a quintessentially trendy city, perfect for people with interests outside the medieval period and those who want to explore the countryside of the Loire. Clean, friendly and home to the purest form of spoken French, it’s a must for any fan of France.

Tours' beautiful old town
Tours’ beautiful old town

Hotel: Hotel Vendome 4/5 The price was reasonable but unfortunately I have to knock a point off because part of the hotel was still being renovated so it’s a little noisy. The eco friendly aspect means slightly dimmer lights that are on a timer so if you’re a control freak maybe avoid this place. That said the hotel staff were charming and helpful, they even sawed my suitcase lock in half when I lost my keys!
Historical sites: 4/5 The cathedral is absolutely amazing and if I was including the sites around Tours I’d give it 10/5 but I’m not so I’ll knock a point off because some of the sights fall into the look but don’t touch category. That said most people who stay in Tours use the city as a base to go further afield and, having done that myself, I can’t think of a better place to stay.
Tourist things to do: 5/5 Shopping, parks, sightseeing, galleries and river cruises there is really something for everyone in this small Parisian-without-the-snark- city.
Food: 5/5 I…ATE…SO…MUCH. Be warned the French do HUGE breakfasts and lunches but light dinners that they serve at around 7:30/8. Also if you like wine and by wine I mean high quality stuff then the Loire is for you.

Intimidating salad
Intimidating salad

10299100_907515225941030_7875807172481429448_n
General atmosphere 5/5 Again Tours is a very friendly city, the people are quick to help you if you’re lost and the service in restaurants and at museums is impeccable.
WOW. I’m aware this is a super long blog post so I shall split up the Loire even further and compare two castle towns Chinon and Chenonceaux in my next entry which will be asap. Hope this little travel blog gave some people holiday inspiration!

Over and Out

Tired cloisters selfie!
Tired cloisters selfie!

Notes:

Check out the wonderful lady at thebooktrail.wordpress.com for more travel fun and also for an interview with YOURS TRULY http://thebooktrail.com/indie-bookseller-week-starts-here-saskia-van-emden-westendlane-books-london/

Also swing by boothancestry.wordpress.com for a slice of fascinating family folklore!

 

 

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