The Loire Valley is the final stop on this mega spirit quest through France. We began the trip with bubbles and now we end with bubbles, seems fitting. And though the process for making bubbles in Loire Valley is exactly the same as that of Champagne, it can’t be given the iconic name and must settle for ‘sparkling wine’, joining its fine brethren from Napa Valley, northern Italy, and several other lovely locations.
It was a sultry morning, never a finer day for castle hunting. Though we had seen many wine makers disguised as mini castles and seen random ruins in the distance, while driving we had not actually visited any real live working castles.
The first on our list was Chateau de Chenonceau, built by women, maintained by women, and fought over by women. Originally built in the 13th century, the location was razed twice before built to its current magnificence in the early 1500’s. King Henry II gifted the castle to his beloved mistress, Diane de Poitiers, who began a Renaissance-like transformation. Built on the edge of the River Cher, she expanded the castle so it spanned into the river, adding open air spaces and magnificent gardens on one side of the river. As legend goes, when the King died, his widow, the Queen Catherine de’Medici, strong armed Diane to cough up the castle, and kicked her out. Catherine quickly set about making the castle even more grand, exchanging the bridge Diane had built for a covered gallery that spans the entire river, adding rooms between the chapel and the library. Effectively, she created the first party castle in France. It was here that all the great fetes of the time were held, even the first to display fireworks launched over the river when her son, Henry III, took the throne.
I couldn’t leave France without seeing the castle that Leonardo da Vinci so loved, that he asked to be buried there instead of sending his remains home to Italy. Chateau d’Ambiose is located in the heart of the village of Ambiose. Set high above the city and overlooking the River Loire, it gives magnificent views of the town below and countryside. An incubator of kings, this residence has hosted a flood of French monarchy over the centuries. King Francis I, enamored of the Renaissance painters and thinkers he found in Italy, lured several back to his court at Chateau d’Ambiose, including the famed Leonardo da Vinci. At the time, da Vinci was in his sixties and spent the remainder of his years teaching, painting and creating for both the King and his court. When he died he asked to be buried in the Chapel of Saint-Hubert that adjoined the castle. His wish was granted, but eventually the chapel had to be taken down and now only a bust of his memory remains.
The final castle on our great tour was Chateau de Villandrey. This is the one castle lacking kings and a court. Built by Jean Le Breton, the Controller-General of War for King Francis I in 1536, it is the last of the large castles to be built in the Renaissance. And though the structure itself is beautiful, people come for its gardens. Massive rectangles of green imbedded with meaning and significance sprawl outwards from the river. There is a garden representing love and all the different types: tender, passion, fleeting and even fickle, with each new owner expanding upon the garden until you have an overwhelming sprawl of colorful and well-maintained wonder. A massive pool and man-made lake run the length of the property, shielded by cool trees and populated with fish. There is even a massive vegetable garden, crafted as much for beauty as for consumption.
After all that walking and picture taking, it was time to find bubbles and visiting Domaine Vigneau Chevrau did not disappoint. Instead of Champagne’s massive Roman dug chalk mines to house their aging bottles Loire Valley ops for limestone. The main building material of the area, it boosts countless miles of mines that have been repurposed as caves to store their wares at the prefect temperature before they can be sold to people like me. Loire Valley is where most French buy their bubbles. Champagne country has a price tag of luxury, which means if you are economically minded, you turn your head to Loire Valley where superb bubbles can be bought at a fraction of the cost. If only I had access to 8 Euro bubbles all the time, but then, how would I get any work done? Maybe it is for the best.
Finally, check out this funky three hundred year old house we stayed in, resplendent with a slightly sagging roof and breaking all the codes of OSHA. Though beautifully done inside, we often had to bend low to enter rooms and there wasn’t a single flush doorframe in the place.