For our summer visit to France this year we visited Burgundy and the Loire Valley – very nice for wines. We caught the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo. It was so calm I kept waking up thinking we had parked in the Channel. The weather followed us from England – it was overcast and drizzly, with rolling mist in the evenings making it tricky to drive, and then one day of torrential rain. French farmers were all overjoyed – it seems they have had an uncommonly hot early spring and a long period without rain, and desperately needed it.
We dropped in for a so-called ‘English Tea Party’ and found ourselves stepping back in time. English waitresses with white lacy aprons and starched hats made from paper doilies delivered pots of tea to bemused French visitors. Fairy cakes and small perfectly formed cucumber sandwiches (white bread with no crusts and cut into quarters) were served while the musical entertainment was provided by English morris dancers.
There are about 23 chateaux in the Loire valley, but we visited just two on the River Cher, being as much culture as certain members of the party were willing to tolerate as we were only spending four days in the area.
Villandry, famous for its potager where the vegetables are so perfect – although I have to say they looked slightly less than their best this year, probably because of their recent change over to an organic regime of pest control. The bright blue of the Perovskia set against the vivid emerald green of the box hedges provided a real splash of almost surreal colour. Then Chenonceux for its formal gardens on huge raised islands in the middle of the river. The chateau had magnificent rooms with nice architectural details. Sadly I noticed that the horse chestnut trees over there are as badly affected by the horse chestnut tree leaf miner as over here – so no playing conkers for French school children either.
Everywhere we went Gaura lindheimeri was flavour of the month.
Finally we stayed at Fontevraud l’Abbaye, home of the famous Royal Abbey, one of the largest monastic complexes in Europe. Founded in the 12th century it was clearly very forward thinking as it was mixed order with both monks and nuns, ruled over by 36 abbesses, but perhaps there was a rule of silence! It was closely linked to the Plantagenet family, including Richard the Lionheart, King of England.
It was turned into a prison by Napoleon 1st after the Revolution, and was used for holding German prisoners of war, where many not sent off to concentration camps were tortured. Fench author Jean Genet (Le Miracle de la Rose) was famously imprisoned there as a youngter for being a vagabond.
It had many different gardens: an apothecary’s garden with healing herbs and plants that would have been used for clothing and food in medieval times; various small plots outside the different buildings; a hillside area with a spiral marked out using grasses; and what I can only describe as a walking rollercoaster which was labelled as a sculpture – is that what we would call an installation?
Not far from here we visited a vineyard in nearby St Nicholas de Bourgeuil where they only cultivate one grape variety, Cabernet Franc, producing red and rosé wines. Unlike many other wine growing areas, there is not much difference in the soil so variations in the taste are purely through using grapes which have been grown in sunnier or shadier places. Usually the wine is stored and matured on site underground in a cellar which is called a ‘cave’ in French, but this vineyard stored their wine out among the vines in a series of underground tunnels created by quarrying the local stone for the nearby chateaux.
Previously used for mushroom farming, there are plenty of spores in the damp air so the vineyard owners have to clean all surfaces every three weeks to avoid any risk of contaminating the wine.