Monday, May 14, 2007

Logbook: French Road Trip III

FrenchroadtripiiiSaturday was indeed an “easy” day for me. In fact, it turned out to be a total “day off” -- no exploration, no chores, no web work. I did take a fairly lengthy walk around Blois in the afternoon, but beside that I totally chilled out. I watched a few episodes of TV that I had downloaded from iTunes and a movie that I had ripped ages ago, read a book and took a nap. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a day like that and it was really good for me. As a result of my “lazy” day, I was up pretty early -- very early by French norms -- on Sunday morning and decided to make the most of it by hitting the road for a day of “Castle Quest.”

I got my car and headed out of town, more or less directly finding my way to Chambord Castle which is a truly massive structure set on a huge estate. Pulling into a completely empty parking lot was my first clue that I had arrived too early to really check it out, and looking at the info board informed me that I would have to wait a few hours to go inside. So, I walked around a little bit, admired the incredible 15th century construction, took a few photos and got back in my car. My next stop at a much smaller castle also turned into a “drive by” because of my early arrival time, as did my intended visit to Cheverney. I wasn’t really too disappointed because I’m not all that into looking at “inside” stuff. Once you’ve seen a few tapestries, some huge fireplaces and a couple of small, short beds I think you’ve pretty much seen them all. What I find so fascinating is the sheer scale of the buildings in the context of when they were built, without the aid of building machinery as we know it. Trying to imagine how many people were involved in the construction is a fun game for me, as is trying to reconcile that they often took as long as a century to build. Another thing I personally enjoy is seeing how the castles are situated in the landscape, how long the “driveway” is and how imposing the structure is when viewed on approach. The rich and powerful have always emphasized their wealth and power, their buildings and sight lines are an important part of that.

I wanted to spend some quality time in at least one of the castles, so I decided to let the French clock catch up with me by stopping at a cafe/bakery for the usual bread and coffee. I find it very amusing, by the way, to watch the stream of people who work their way through such places in the morning. Most of them are obviously “regulars” -- who invariably give an “outsider” like me the odd look or two -- and they similarly have their “regular” drinks. Many of their drinks include some kind of alcohol, and whether that is a “Sunday morning” thing or an “everyday” thing I am still not sure. Apparently, man really can’t live by bread alone!

With the clocks somewhat more synchronized, I drove some lovely back roads to Chenonceau Castle. As it turned out, I’m glad I pretty much skipped the previous castles because this one was by far the best for making a full, proper visit. Built in the 16th century, the castled was constructed on the piers of a formerly fortified mill in the middle of a river. The surrounding gardens -- as you can see in a few of the photos -- are simply stunning and the entire setting just reeks of wealth and power. Although the castle is not as big on the inside as it looks from the outside, the quantity of stone work, art, furniture and architectural detail is very impressive. With that said, however, I have to admit my favorite aspect of the castle as it is presently managed is that they offer iPods for rent which have an audio-visual guide loaded onto them. There were literally hundreds of people walking around with iPods!

After spending a good couple of hours touring the castle, the gardens and the grounds, I got back in my car and worked my way back toward Blois, making brief stops or drive-bys at a handful of smaller castles along the way. All in all it was a very good and interesting day which I would recommend doing. After parking my car in Blois, I walked the few blocks to my little hotel along completely deserted streets. I dumped my pack in my room and immediately went back out to see what that was all about. After standing on a corner for about half an hour among various people who were obviously volunteers of some kind, a trickle of runners came down the main street. I realized immediately, of course, that this was some kind of road race. What I couldn’t figure out was exactly what kind of race it was. You see, the first few runners looked completely wrong to be leading a foot race. They were mostly old, obviously out of shape and clearly struggling. In due course, more and more runners came along, some of whom were very fit and very fast. I never did figure it out, but my best guess is that it must have been some kind of “handicapped” affair where the able bodied had a delayed start. Either that, or it is just “French.” Either way, I quickly lost interest, got my book and headed out for dinner.

Yesterday morning I packed up and checked out -- How many times have I written that in this Logbook? -- then got my car and headed out of town. A typical drive of several hours and a few stops later, I arrived here in Limoges where I easily found a place to park near my little hotel and checked in. I went out for a little walk, but it started pouring down rain so I stopped in a cafe and had coffee while I finished my book. When the rain let up, I went back to the parking deck to get a new book out of my car and was met by a young couple who asked if they could borrow my tire iron to change their tire. To make a long story short, by the time the ordeal was in full swing there were almost a dozen of us trying to figure out why the wheel wouldn’t come off their car even though the lug nuts had all been removed. After a great deal of confab, the car was lowered down off the jack -- with the lug nuts loosened but still in place -- and the driver turned the wheel sufficiently to put enough pressure on the rim to loosen the rust and corrosion that was holding it in place. I don’t know if you can visualize all that physics, but I’m sure you can enjoy the thought of a dozen strangers speaking several different languages, strategizing how to change a tire and doing an “international happy dance” upon success. Just another of the great little moments that makes The Voyage of Macgellan so special.

I finished off the day with dinner and an early bed time, and have gotten up early this morning to update this website, check various web stuff and hit the road. If all goes well, I will be meeting my good friend Mark somewhere along the road near Toulouse and we will caravan to the little town of Agel where he has rented a small chateau for a week long reunion of some friends. As usual, I don’t know what internet facilities will be like when I get there, but I will do my best as always to keep you up to date. With that, my ten day “French Road Trip” has come to an end, and I am the better for it. Stay tuned!

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