Salut de Tours!
First, we want to say "merci" to Sarah for recommending a wonderful area of France for us to visit. We've had so much fun here despite the tragically dismal weather. It's been overcast during the past 10 days we've spent in France and usually rains two or three times per day. (I really wanted to go to Provence, but, in case you haven't heard, they're having deadly floods down there right now, so we should consider ourselves lucky.) Here, the air is perpetually misty, and it's cold enough to wear a jacket and a scarf...but that just makes me look more French, so it's not so bad. Anyway, Tours is really our first French experience outside of Paris. To be sure, visiting Paris is a lot like visiting New York City; you don't necessarily get a feel for the common people. As I mentioned before, people in Tours are very friendly and easy-going, and the food/beverage scene is great, much less expensive than Paris. What makes the Loire region truly unique is the plethora of castles (chateaux) located in the countryside. The landscapes around here are also quite beautiful -- very green, lots of open space, beaucoup de vinyards.
Tours is a beer drinking city. Yes, there are a variety of excellent wines to be had in this region (we've sampled a few), but this is a college town, and the pub is king. Let me tell you again about the pedestrian city centre here...it's fabulous. Tucked away amidst a few narrow, medieval-feeling streets, between buildings varying in style from Gothic to modern, lies an entire district of bars, shops, and restaurants. Here in the oldest part of the city, appropriately, there are no cars allowed. At the heart of this area is la Place Plumereau (or "La Plum") where businesses literally spill out into the square. The whole place is filled with tables bustling with eaters and drinkers. We've gone out for drinks a couple of times in this district. We've become addicted to native French Belgian style beer called Grimbergen. It's so delicious and on tap at most establishments. It's very refreshing, just the right balance between drinkability and robust flavor. I hope I can get it back home!
Anyway, last night, we headed down to La Plum for dinner, and it was packed with fans ready to watch the World Cup -- France v. Mexico. The French are quite aware that their team sucks pretty bad, so watching the game was more about the partying than the match itself. Two of the pubs on this square had set up televisions facing the central area with all the tables, so everyone could see the game. I was way too busy watching people to pay a bit of attention to the football. I was also starving, and ordered a delicious Pizza Romano -- super thin, snap-in-your-mouth crust (just the way I like it), red sauce, Emmentaler cheese, ham, and (the best part!) an over-easy egg right in the middle. The runny yolk oozing all over the pizza made it taste vaguely like a breakfast sandwich. It was fantastic. John consumed his third French steak, this one with Bearnaise sauce. We also learned a very important French word on this trip, "seignante," which means, "bloody." This is essential vocabulary for us when ordering steak. Compare this revelation to when John learned the word "carciofi" (artichoke) in Italy. Okay, enough about food. We concluded our evening at another pub (the one where we ate only had crappy beer "au pression," which means "on tap," another important phrase!). This one was called Mac Cool's, and they had our Grimbergen. We threw back a pint and watched the rest of the game. France lost. No one seemed to care.
Okay, to rewind, we also did other things besides drink beer here in Tours. We visited two chateaux, Amboise and Chenonceau. Both were quick train rides outside of the city. Amboise is one of Sarah's favorite sites in France, and for good reason. The town itself is absolutely adorable. Imagine a French version of Nashville, IN. So cute! The chateau is the only attraction to speak of, but it draws a good crowd. The chateau overlooks the Loire river, and is situated high on a hill above the village. If you want to know the history of this place, please consult Wikipedia or some other source of information. French history is some confusing shit. There were about eighty million wars and a jillion kings and queens and dauphins and dukes and stewards. Be happy you were never a French school child, I bet learning all that stuff was ridiculous. Anyway, the chateau was beautiful, inside and out. There were some lovely gardens and a magnificent view of the river and surrounding valley. At the moment, I'm writing you from a coffee shop in La Plum, so I can't post any original photos, but I think the generic postcard shots are better than the pictures we took with the overcast sky.
The most interesting part about Amboise is the tomb of Leonardo da Vinci. Here's some history that I was able to grasp. The chateau at Amboise represents the alighting of Renaissance ideas onto French soil. The building itself was originally built in the Gothic style, but was modified according to Renaissance sensibilities by its various inhabitants. Francois I, a king well-loved for his patronage of the arts, invited Leonardo da Vinci (amongst other notable artists) to become a member of the French court at Amboise. Da Vinci spent the final years of his life there, mostly working on architectural drawings, some of which actually came to fruition in the surrounding areas. His body rests in a specially erected chapel which has a lovely, ornate facade and beautiful stained-glass windows. For us, this was the most interesting part of the visit. John thinks that, with this pilgrimage, we've seen the tombs of all the "Turtles" (Michaelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, and Donatello). It was a big moment for him. Merci beaucoup, Sarah. Tu avais rasion. C'etait vraiment magnifique.
Should I go on another food tangent. Okay, just for a second, then back to the castles. At a small restaurant in Amboise, literally at the foot of the ramp leading to the door of the castle, I had a classic French item called a galette, which is basically the savory version of a "crepe." I could not decide on a filling, so I went with the special of the house. It was special, indeed. Basically, the chef took all the ingredients of an American cheeseburger and put it inside a salty pancake...complete with wilted, rubbery lettuce. I should have read the menu more carefully. I'm happy that I had a galette, finally, but I will never be able to think of it, or a cheeseburger for that matter, in the same way again. Maybe next time I'll go for the standard ham and cheese.
Onward, to Chenonceau! This chateau is quite famous, probably due to its immense grandeur. The grounds themselves are much larger that those of Amboise, and the castle is completely magnificent...at least I think it probably is; they had the front covered in scaffolding for renovation, so we couldn't actually see it. Merde. What's unique about Chenonceau is its superlative defensibility, made possible by the fact that the structure itself actually straddles the Cher River. Check out the picture, and you'll see what I mean. It's really, really cool. Throughout the tour, you're essentially on a series of little islands connected by moats. We had terrible, terrible weather this day, but we still had a pretty good time. The inside of the castle was lovely, but, yet again, I had a hard time following the history. There were lots of ladies, most notably Catherine de Medici, who were in charge of this place over the years. We saw them up close and personal in a ridiculous wax museum connected to the cafeteria that I really can't believe we had to pay extra for. Oh, well. At least it was out of the rain. We saw all of the various bedrooms and studies and libraries inhabited by these queens and mistresses inside of the castle. The most interesting part of the tour, for me, were the kitchens. There were lots of original utensils, fireplaces, meat hooks, cutting boards, etc... down there. You could also look out a window down onto the little dock where boats used to pull up to deliver produce. Also, while in the kitchens, I noticed a group of French school children dressed in wizarding robes, complete with the Griffyndor crest! I think they were pretending to be at Hogwarts. It was adorable.
After the castle, we took a walk through an original 16th century farm where we came across a hiking trail leading into the woods. We wandered around back there for quite some time, eventually circumnavigating the castle itself without ever coming across another tourist. John was ecstatic to be off the city streets and stomping around in the woods for a while. It was a refreshing jaunt. We saw about a thousand crazy-looking snails and slugs as we walked. No wonder the French eat so much escargots. Those little guys are everywhere!
Oh, let's not forget...Happy 25th birthday, John! We're spending it bumming around Tours some more. I visited the local H&M and John went shopping at the flea markets in the streets. He found some great pins for his collection. Now, we're drinking espresso and relaxing before the daunting tasks that lie before us. We take a train back to Paris this evening, then it's straight to the airport where we have to wait for our flight that doesn't leave until 6am. Then we meet Zuzka and Vojta in Frankfurt, fly to Finland, take the ferry to Estonia, then ride a bus for 7 hours to St. Petersberg. Hopefully, next time you hear from us, we'll be in Russia, sanity intact. That's all for now. Au revoir, France! Amour et bises!
Go to this website to see what lies in store for us at the Charles de Gaulle airport tonight!