Provincial French Countryside: Part deux (Saumur to Crépon)

Last month I hosted a group of Iowa State alumni and friends, along with four couples from North Carolina State, on a two-week tour of the provincial French countryside. We spent two days in Toulouse in southern France, three days in the Dordogne region, three days in the Loire Valley, three days in Normandy, and two days in Paris. Here’s the second of three installments of my travelogue:

SAUMUR, IN THE HEART OF THE LOIRE VALLEY

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The first thing I noticed when we arrived in Saumur was a castle (the French call them “chateaux”) that looked a whole lot like Cinderella’s castle in Disney World.

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The second thing I noticed, upon checking in to the Hotel Anne d’Anjou (located within whistling distance of the Cinderella-worthy castle) was that my room had a view of the Loire River. Spectacular! I threw open my window and started taking pictures.

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Then I took a walk before meeting our group to have a toast in the hotel courtyard (below) with some local bubbly that we can’t call champagne but looks and tastes like champagne.

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It had been a long day on the motorcoach, and we were tired. After an orientation walk led by our wonderful tour director, Anita, a group of us slouched into a green-awning-ed brasserie and ordered a drink and some comfort food (i.e., pasta) and then called it a night.

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The next morning, we had a late start, so I slept in and then took a long walk after breakfast. Saumur is picturesque as hell…everywhere you look there’s something historic or colorful or fun to photograph. I walked across the bridge that I could see from my room, and looking back, the view of the Chateau de Saumur and its surroundings was spectacular, don’t you agree? I also loved the colorful umbrellas hanging in a couple of areas of town…just for fun.

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Our group gathered mid-morning to drive a short distance to the Bouvet Ladubay winery, where we took a tour of the sparkling-wine-making process inside a cool, damp cave. I’ve never been a huge fan of champagne-like drinks, but after our tour, we were able to taste five varietals, and I totally changed my mind. We tasted three dry and semi-dry whites, a delicate rose, and a fuller-bodied red. All were excellent. And, lucky for me, some of my fellow travelers purchased bottles that I would be able to share later on in the trip.

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After that, we had a free afternoon in Saumur. What to do? We had a lot of options, but a group of us decided to pool our resources and take a taxi out to the Fontevraud L’Abbaye Royale. But first, a smaller group of ladies grabbed a quick lunch at a creperie near our hotel. I ordered a galette (a buckwheat crepe) filled with all kinds of delicousness: mushrooms, emmentaler cheese, leeks, and tomatoes, with a balsamic-dressed side salad.

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Funny story about this lunch: Our group wanted separate checks, but we were having a hard time explaining this to our server, so a couple of French ladies at the table next to us tried to help explain it to her. Well, we didn’t get separate checks, but we did get four large mugs filled with boozy cider! We all had a good laugh, drank the cider, and got our checks split up at the cash register after all.

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Okay, so back to the Royal Abbey (pictured above and below). It’s located near Chinon, in Anjou, which is not terribly far from Saumur. It was founded in 1101 and is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The history is all about Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lionheart, and it was disabled as a monastery during the French Revolution. For some time, it was a prison. Now it’s just freaking beautiful, with tremendous architecture, hallways and rooms that go on forever, little nooks and crannies to peek into, gardens to stroll through, and benches to relax upon. It was a very fun and unstructured visit. There’s even a spooky crypt.

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After our taxi driver delivered us back at the Hotel Anne d’Anjou, I went for another walk, hoping to see The View with evening light (below), and then we had a gathering at the hotel before dinner. Our meal tonight was at the les Ménestrels restaurant located right behind our hotel; the food and wine was superb.

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The next day we headed to the Chateau de Chenonceau, the queen mother of all chateaux. Originally built as a fortress to keep intruders out, Chenonceau is a Renaissance masterpiece considered the most romantic of all the chateaux in this part of France. It’s actually built across the River Cher.

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Inside, I loved the furnishings and the floral decorations (above). But outside…wow! The views of the chateau from every angle! The gardens that out-gardened every garden I’d ever seen before! I was awe-struck. There’s also a maze that I didn’t have time to tour. Everything about this place was spectacular. I could have easily spent a whole day there.

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But we had to depart. We had lunch reservations at a restaurant called La Cave – actually located in a cave. Fun!

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As luck would have it, the weather was nice today, so we got a bonus visit to another garden at Chateau Villandry. These very formal gardens (above and below) were eye-popping from our initial overhead viewpoint, and then we were able to walk among them for an eye-level view. I don’t remember ever seeing such beautiful gardens before…and we got to see two in one day.

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NORMANDY

The next day it rained. And it was cold and windy. I was so looking forward to this day, because we were visiting Mont-St-Michel and then heading to our next overnight location in Normandy.

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Mont-St-Michel is a Gothic abbey that sits on top of a 264-foot rock formation at the edge of the sea. It was constructed between 1017 and 1521 of granite hauled stone by stone from Brittany. It is a sight to behold.

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I’m really glad I was able to see it, but this was by far my worst day of the trip. I was having tummy trouble (I will spare you the details), and coupled with steady rain and hordes of tourists, I spent most of my time hunkered down in a small restaurant drinking hot tea with lemon while others in our group toured the abbey. Sad!

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And then I walked back to the shuttle bus through the rain with wet tourists, most of whom were school children. Someday maybe I can go back and do it right.

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Tonight, we arrived at what might have been my favorite of all the wonderful places we stayed on this trip: the ferme de la Raconniere (“The Farm”) in Crépon. I was still sick upon our arrival, but it didn’t stop me from falling in love with this place. The rooms were adorable, the architecture and landscaping were lovely – flowers everywhere! — and we could see cows across the road. Everywhere you looked was another delightful view. I took pictures of this place for three days.

Thankfully, I felt better the next morning. After trying not to eat much of anything for 24 hours, I carefully ate a small amount of bread and yogurt for breakfast, and I drank a bit of coffee. It agreed with me!

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This morning our group headed to the Bayeaux Tapestry Museum, home to a famous 1,000-year-old tapestry depicting the exploits of William the Bastard who became William the Conqueror.  It’s really an artistic and historic masterpiece, but I also found it a bit amusing in places and wondered to myself if any of the Monty Python dudes drew inspiration from it. That William was quite a guy.

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Afterwards we had some time to explore medieval Bayeaux, with its elaborate cathedral (above), a poppy-themed shop, topiary knights (below), and cute sidewalk cafes. I drank another coffee to make up for my lost coffee-drinking time yesterday.

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This afternoon we went to the World War II Peace Memorial in Caen. I will have to admit I wasn’t looking forward to the WWII part of this trip, but this memorial was top-notch.

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If you can tour this museum and not become an emotional wreck, there’s something wrong with you. The museum, inside and out, is incredibly well done and very moving. I ate a muffin for lunch in the museum’s cafeteria, and drank more coffee.

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We also had our first look at a D-Day landing beach this afternoon. Juno is a Canadian landing beach (above), and we didn’t spend too much time there.

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We also stopped at Arromanches, a small town between Juno and Gold beaches, where I had yet another coffee with Anita and bought a few gifts at a little art shop.

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Riding “home” in the motor coach, we saw glorious Norman countryside.

Tonight, we drank some of that sparkling wine and ate dinner at The Farm (which looked even prettier than the day before). So I took more pictures.

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We woke the next morning to a forecast of rain, which threatened to spoil our day. Anita and our driver, George, quickly rearranged our itinerary for the day, allowing us to tour the outdoor sites in the morning and the indoor sites in the afternoon to try to thwart Mother Nature.

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We headed first to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, another moving visit (above and below).

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Later, we went to Omaha Beach, the setting for the loss of so many American lives on D-Day (below).

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Next, we visited Pointe du Hoc, with its preserved bombing sites:

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And, finally, we toured Utah Beach (below). Through all of these visits, I gained much more of an appreciation for what really went on during D-Day than I ever had before.

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We ate lunch at the WWII-themed Roosevelt Restaurant on Utah Beach …

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… and then visited the Airborne Museum in St Mére Eglise:

 

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For me, this was one WWII museum too many; I had sort of lost interest by this time and really wanted to amble through the Norman countryside and take pictures of cows. (Instead, I just took blurry pictures out the motor coach window.)

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When we got back to The Farm (more pictures!), I was ready to take a walk. I had a little time, so I walked into the little village of Crépon, with its small shops, pretty church, weird cemetery, and bar.

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Wait! There’s a bar? Like, a real French dive bar? Why, yes, there is. I availed myself of a beer (beer is pretty much beer in any language) and settled at the end of a table, watching the men of the village congregate to drink their own end-of-the-day brews. Unfortunately, nobody spoke a lick of English, and I don’t speak any French, so I was unable to have much of a conversation with anyone. They sort of looked at me like I was from Mars.

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I drank my beer, paid, and walked back to The Farm, only to be lured into the hotel bar by my travel mates for another glass of sparkling wine. And then dinner. And then back to my room to pack for our LAST transfer, because this trip is winding down.

Next morning: Today we go to Paris!!! But on the way, we get to do one of the highlights of the entire trip: Stop at Giverny and tour Monet’s home and garden. Yippee! I’ve wanted to do this for YEARS.

I enjoyed my last breakfast at The Farm. (Goodbye, old friend! You were wonderful!) It rained all morning on the motor coach.

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When we arrived in Giverny, it was still raining, and cold. Heading for Claude Monet’s home with our raincoats and umbrellas, I was thinking, man, give me a break. I want to see this garden in the sunshine.

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And then, as had been our stupendous good luck on this trip, the sun came out and it warmed up. As a group, we walked around the perimeter of the garden toward the house, and it was so hard not to stop a billion times to take photos of the flowers. But Anita wanted us to tour the house first before the crowd was too large, and then take our time in the gardens, have lunch on our own, and meet at the motor coach by 3 o’clock. Got it!

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I walked through the house, taking time to notice the Japanese prints and the other artwork on the walls. This is not a Monet art museum, however – the artwork is not his own; it was just his collection of art. The home is not fancy, but I loved it. Each room is more lovely than the next, decorated in brilliant colors like yellow and blue.

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But the main attraction for most visitors to this place – and there are about 500,000 visitors each year – are the gardens. There are two parts in Monet’s garden: a flower garden called Clos Normand in front of the house and a Japanese-inspired water garden on the other side of the road, via an underground passage. Both are spectacular, huge, amazing, and heart-breakingly lovely. Even filled with tourists taking selfies. I saw flowers there I’ve never seen before.

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The Japanese garden is lush with weeping willows and water lilies, and the little arched bridges look just like they do in Monet’s famous paints. I just kept saying WOW. I loved everything about it.

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Claude Monet and his family settled in Giverny in 1883. Monet died in 1926. The property was badly neglected, and the gardens had to be restored mid last century. The house and gardens were opened to the public in 1980. If you ever get a chance to see this wonderful place, just GO.

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After our visit, which left me exhausted because it was so exhilarating, some of our group ate lunch and then visited yet another garden in the village of Giverny: the flower garden at Musee des Impressionismes, just down the road from Monet’s home. Each garden was planted by color, and if I hadn’t already seen so many world-class gardens in the past 10 days, I would have found this one incredible. But my heart was still back at Monet’s masterpiece.

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Up next: Paris!

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