IMAGINE WAKING UP IN A QUIET, flower-smothered, picture-perfect French village … in a charming, rambling boutique hotel that’s been welcoming guests for 250 years … in a big soft bed beneath dormer-windows that look out onto a narrow cobblestone lane. Imagine that village is called something lyrical and lovely, like Chenonceaux (‘shay-non-so’)… and your little on-the-footpath lodge is called something romantic and evocative, like Auberge du Bon Laboureur (Inn of the Good Ploughman)… and that soft bed is yours not just for one night but for three.
Imagine that barely 10-minutes-walk away, buried amongst ancient trees on the other side of town, is a spectacular 16th century castle, complete with moats and turrets and ramparts and battered suits-of-armour.
Well, I don’t have to imagine it – because, one fine Monday, I went and DID IT! And the experience proved more than a little wonderful, more than a little hard to believe, more than a little like a fairytale.
Our group’s never-ending flight from Godzone touched down, finally, in romantique Paris. And, before we could cry “Oui oui!” we were whisked off for a high-speed ogle at the Tuilleries Gardens … the Arc de Triomphe … the Eiffel Tower … the Champs-Elysees … the Cathedral du Notre Dame … the Louvre Museum … and the Place de la Concorde.
I could parlez-vous for hours about France’s glorious capital, but suffice to say it felt “pinch-me-please” surreal.
We drove next morning to the magnificent Palace of Versailles. The ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV had his hunting lodge converted into this extravagant royal residence, with its glittering Hall of Mirrors. Louis XV and Louis XVI (‘twas a popular name for boys) also made Versailles their home. And, 500 years later, three million tourists per annum meander through its 700 rooms.
We treated ourselves, that evening, to a classy Bateaux Parisienne dinner-cruise on the River Seine, to witness the ‘City of Lights’ lit-up. And our agenda the following day said: ‘Art Appreciation’!
Stop #1 lay 80km out of town in the village of Giverney, amongst house-and-garden scenes (like the waterlily pond and Japanese bridge) captured by Claude Monet’s famous paintings. Stop #2 was the Musée de l’Orangerie – a gallery featuring Monet’s dazzling ‘Les Nympheas’ series, plus works by Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Renoir & Co.
Cast your mind back to the 16th century and you’ll recall that competing French kings, queens, nobles and hotshots chose the lush green Loire Valley (a couple of hours west of Paris) as their royal battleground-cum-playground. They filled the landscape with lavish forts or castles or ‘châteaux’. And more than 300 of them are still standing.
We eager Kiwis toyed (briefly) with touring all 300, but finally settled on five-of-the-best – one of which was near Chenonceaux, the picturesque village I named earlier.
I’ll never forget that peaceful little hamlet set in the quiet, unhurried countryside. And I’ll never forget our three nights in that atmospheric old inn, Auberge du Bon Laboureur. The clatter of horse-hooves and stagecoach-wheels no longer resound in the cobbled courtyard, but the four-course feasts we sat down to in the hotel’s Michelin-Star restaurant were out of this world!
And I’ll never forget the châteaux …
They were simply magnificent, all hundreds of years old, and all very different:
• the massive, chunky, multi-turreted Château de Chaumont with its sumptuous interiors, glorious paintings and tapestries, and expansive gardens …
• the one-time royal residence, Château de Chenonceau, straddling a river, and built, loved and looked after by a succession of extraordinary women …
• the smaller Château du Clos Lucé, stately home of Leonardo da Vinci, his art and his endless inventions for the final three years of his life …
• the Château de Villandry, set in one of Europe’s most photographed gardens; six gardens, in fact, featuring an artistic maze of decorative box-hedges …
• the magnificent Château Azay le Rideau, an architectural jewel, built during the Renaissance on an island in the middle of the Indre River.
La Belle France. It’s everything they say it is. And be warned: when you least expect, it can woo you, seduce you, bewitch you and beguile you.