What a difference a week makes……..
Last week I arrived home in the Cheshire countryside after ten days of cycling around the Loire Valley. It was a magical time of fairy tale castles, beautiful gardens and blazing sunshine. In the company of my daughter Lucy we cycled from chateau to chateau, engaging with the locals whenever we got the chance…….We stayed in ‘Bed and Breakfast’ homes where the owners rented out a couple of rooms to visitors. We met Charles in Bracieux, Florence in Blere and Monique in Azay-le-Rideau.
Probably our favourite encounter of the week was with our landlady Florence at ‘Le Vieux Moulin’ in Blere. Florence moved from Paris into the countryside about twelve years ago and has renovated and repaired an old mill and adjacent buildings. We stayed in a smart, well-appointed part of the house in a very comfortable and airy room. Right next door was the old mill, complete with mill pond, mill wheel and the mill race pouring enthusiastically under the property. Breakfast was just across the courtyard in Florence’s dining room. We were made to feel very welcome, like friends visiting from abroad.
The mill is in a brilliant location for cycling. We rode our bikes from here to Amboise, about 15 kilometers north with only one major hill to conquer! The Chateau of Amboise was the home of Francois Premier and is spectacularly located on a bluff over-looking the River Loire. Flags flutter in the breeze above the intimidating wall that rises steeply from the river cliff. The castle itself was the principle residence of the king for many years. The King came to the Loire to escape Paris and to enjoy the extensive forests and hunting grounds of the Loire. In the grounds of the chateau is the Chapel of St Hubert, with a hunting freeze carved in stone above the entrance. Somewhat improbably the chapel contains the headstone of Leonardo da Vinci. Whilst on a military campaign to Italy in the early years of the 16th century Francois met and befriended Leonarda da Vinci, already famous as an artist in his homeland. He persuaded him to decamp to Amboise where he spent his final years. Leonardo arrived in France complete with the Mona Lisa in his luggage. The King gave him the elegant and manorial country house Clos Luce, just up the road from the royal chateau to live in. Leonardo was resident there until his death in 1519. This explains the tomb stone in the Chapel of St Hubert and the Mona Lisa enriching the wall of the Louvre five hundred years later. There’s a permanent exhibition these days at Clos Luce featuring many of Leonardo’s inventions. You can see and touch carefully constructed models of his paddle boat, revolving bridge, various weapons of war, and huge canvasses of his designs suspended in the trees.
From Amboise it is a short and easy cycle – about 12 kms – to Cheonceaux. This dreamy almost surreal chateau is built across the River Cher. Constructed in a fairy-tale style of white stone, rounded corner-turrets and elegantly curved arches rising above the water. You approach down a tree-lined avenue offering shade on the sunniest of days. The Catherine de Medici Garden and the Diane de Poitiers Garden flank the entrance to the chateau. They also neatly summarise the turbulent history of the chateau. Originally built for King Henri ll, successor to Francois l, the chateau was a gift to his favourite mistress Diane de Poitiers. Diane loved the castle and its idyllic setting. On Henri’s death his widow Catherine (of the Medici family of Florence) was consumed by jealousy and took possession of Cheonceaux, forcing Diane to relocate to the Chateau of Chaumont. She then commissioned the construction of a new garden at Cheonceaux to be named after her and to preferably outdo the Diane de Poitiers garden. Curiously the moreorless symmetrical layout of the gardens on both sides of the principal entrance provides an elegant and engaging approach to the property.
The day we visited Cheonceaux was hot and humid and there were many visitors filling the public rooms and gallery of the house. After a speedy visit we were back on the bikes and heading back to ‘Le Vieux Moulin’ for a pre-arranged dinner with Florence. Our dinner was arranged at 7pm sharp and we did not want to keep our formidable landlady waiting. After speedy showers and a quick freshen up we were on the terrace over-looking the mill pond at the appointed hour. Florence arrived with a chilled bottle of sparkling Vouvray and three glasses. As the cork popped from the bottle so the conversation flowed as Lucy and I practised our French and discussed contemporary France with our willing hostess. We ate inside at the dining table. We chatted about life, education, politics and the European Union. Ever since the British decision to leave the EU my European friends have been anxious to discuss with me a decision that they find both mystifying and concerning.
We enjoyed a delicious menu of home-cooked dishes, including ‘champignons farcies’ a local speciality (stuffed mushrooms) using locally produced mushrooms. We enjoyed local wines, desserts and coffee. At the end of the evening as we said our thank yous and goodnights we shook hands and metaphorically patted ourselves on the back for our contribution to the ‘entente cordiale’ The following morning as we were preparing to leave Florence kindly gave us a little gift. A small pot of Kiwi and Orange marmalade. Just about ten days later and back in England, I find myself offering this same Kiwi and Orange marmalade to my very first ‘Bed & Breakfast’ guests at my home in Cheshire.
So how did the Kiwi and Orange marmalade end up being consumed by B & B guests at my house just a few days later. Well, it all started when I got home and looked around my garden. I thought to myself….it’s rather beautiful here, perhaps I could let out a couple of rooms? I’d quite enjoy hosting some paying guests. The next morning I messaged various friends of my kids to see who was available to move heavy furniture. A few hours later Declan and Matt (my nephew) were moving beds and generally shifting stuff around. I started cleaning, throwing things out and tidying like a demented ferret. Forty eight hours later two rooms were ready, a double and a twin. We put the word out locally and went on Airbnb – by the weekend we had five bookings. On Tuesday we’ll be one week in and will have welcomed thirteen guests!
So who’d have thought that an innocent visit to the Loire Valley and a stay at Florence’s B & B would have set in train a series of events that led to me becoming a landlady……. The funny thing is – I like it! As a tour guide, all round travel person and company director, it’s the only bit of the hospitality industry that I hadn’t done!!
With special thanks to:
- Florence Heurtebise of the ‘Moulin du Fief Gentil’ – a lovely lady
- A gracious host. Contact Florence at: Moulin du Fief Gentil
- Motto – ‘action is better than inaction any day of the week’……
- Updated: 27-08-16