30 June 2009

The 2009 heat wave — déjà vu...

We are having what passes for very hot weather here in Saint-Aignan. Our high temperatures are above 85ºF/29ºC, and our lows are in the high 60s F/high teens C. It's very warm, and in fact, very pleasant unless you go out into the glaring sunlight. Depending on where you live, you might not think that kind of weather is very hot, but for us it is. It all depends on what you're used to.

This morning's low: 19ºC. Today's predicted high: 31ºC. That's basically 70º and 90ºF.

In 2007 and 2008, our summer weather was rainy and cool — I almost said "chilly." Yesterday morning I walked Callie at 7:15 a.m. and it was warm and gorgeous out in the vineyard, even that early. The ground is dusty dry and the grass is parched. I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt. Callie got stung by a bee (she's fine). It's pretty warm when insects are active that early in the morning here.

7:00 a.m. in the vineyard on June 29

The most pleasant thing about this weather is that we can sit out on the front terrace in shorts and T-shirts until very late at night. In fact, the sun doesn't go down until about 10:00 p.m., and total darkness doesn't fall until 11:00. By then there are bats swooping through the air around our house, gorging themselves on insects. We are located at a very northern latitude — north of Quebec City, for example, and Duluth, Minnesota — that explains the late sunsets.

We haven't had any measurable rain since June 13. That's amazing. This is a temperate climate, with frequent rains and moderate temperatures. You wouldn't know it right now. We're having a heatwave. Our weather seems to be coming from the Sahara.

Bugs being active at 7:30 a.m.

The garden is growing great. Weeds took hold, however, under the sweet corn and lima beans that we planted from seed back in May, and rain earlier in June only encouraged them. Yesterday morning, I spent a couple of hours on my hands an knees out in the garden, pulling deep-rooted grasses and other invasive plants that had started to crowd out our garden plants. I had to dress in long pants and a long-sleeve shirt to avoid being eaten alive by bugs.

Roses in our yard, with bright sun before 8:00 in the morning

I swatted gnats and flies the whole time, sweated until my clothes were soaked and my glasses were dripping perspiration, and wondered if it was really worth it. I ended up with bug bites on my face and ears! Only good crops of corn and lima beans later this summer will make me feel better about all the trouble and effort. And I didn't finish, so I'll have to go and do more weed-pulling this morning.

This cactus plant that CHM brought us from America
is loving the current hot spell.


All the doors and windows in the house, with the exception of those facing west into the afternoon sun, are wide open all day now. It was 28ºC, or 82ºF+, in the house yesterday afternoon, but there was a breeze. At 6:00 this the morning, we opened everything wide again to let in as much cool air as possible.

Early on a June morning on the paved route touristique
through the Touraine vineyards, a mile from our house


This weather is starting to remind me of the summer of 2003, when we first arrived in Saint-Aignan. It was hotter than hell that summer. We had been living in the San Francisco Bay Area for nearly 18 years — most of that time in San Francisco itself. If you know S.F., you know that there is basically no summer weather there. It's foggy, windy, and cool in June, July, and August. We weren't used to heat.

The neighbor's roses are looking especially good right now.

In the great French dog days — La Canicule — of 2003, at some points we thought we might not survive. It was 90 to 100ºF every day for weeks on end in July and August. The ground and all the vegetation was parched. The house didn't ever get a chance to cool down. Many older people died, all around northern France, of heat exhaustion. Not many houses have air conditioning here. I hope our weather moderates just a little for the rest of the summer of 2009.

28 June 2009

A cherry cordial and some hummus

When Susan and Simon came to visit last Tuesday, they brought us several nice presents: a little cherry cake, some plants, some saffron (crocus) bulbs, and a little bottle of home-made cherry "cordial."

We enjoyed some of the cherry cordial in white or rosé wine this weekend to make a non-traditional Kir (pronounced [keer]), that ubiquitous French apéritif drink. Kirs are usually made with white wine and black-currant liqueur (crème de cassis), but can also be made with other wines (red or rosé, still or sparkling) and with other liqueurs (peach, raspberry, and so on).

Cherry cordial made with home-grown cherries from Preuilly

One thing we don't know is how Susan and Simon made the cherry cordial. I've looked through their blog and see it mentioned, but without a description of the process. Of course, cherry season is nearly over, but the cordial is something we might want to make next year or even this year with other fruit. I'm thinking we are going to have a big crop of plums...

Cherry Kirs made with white wine from La Gourmandière
near the Château de Chenonceau


That's the drink part. The food part is hummus. One of the ingredients in a traditional couscous is chickpeas, and I cooked a whole kilo of them last week because we had a kilo bag of dried chickpeas in the cellar. We have enjoyed them with the couscous, and as an ingredient in what I call "couscous soup" made from the leftovers.

Making tahini and hummus

But there were a lot of chickpeas (a.k.a. garbanzo beans) left at the end of the week. Walt decided to make hummus out of them. Hummus is a Middle-Eastern dip or spread made from pureed chickpeas with herbs, spices, and some tahini paste.

Hummus

The first thing Walt had to do was make the tahini, which is toasted sesame seeds pureed in a little oil and water. That makes a kind of nut butter. You add the tahini paste to the pureed chickpeas to make hummus. Recipes and proportions are all over the map; you just need to search for hummus on the Internet to get a lot of ideas.

How our garden grows! Great year so far, with hot weather
predicted for the rest of this week. Many tomatoes on the way.


The other good ingredient we had for hummus was a nice bunch of fresh basil that J-L and S. gave us. Garlic, green onions, a little hazelnut oil, a pinch of cayenne — hummus is a nice spread to put on toasted slices of country-style bread (pain de campagne) and enjoy with those glasses of cherry Kir on a hot afternoon.

A pot of collard greens

We've gotten back into the garden. There's a lot of weeding to be done. Luckily, we are having hot, dry weather, and that makes it easier to keep up with it all. There's also a lot to harvest already, especially greens like chard and collards.

Yesterday morning I finally got out there to start thinning out my two rows of collard greens. The problem with that kind of work is that you can't just pull out three of every four plants. You have to trim, wash, and cook the plants you pull out. At least I do. I can't bring myself to just throw them into the compost.

Our "greens patch" — chard, collards, and mustard greens

So it takes a good part of the day to process the greens you get from thinning just one row. This morning I have to go out and thin the other one. Thinning out the plants also means pulling all the weeds that have taken hold under them and between the rows. I hope the remaining plants will grow strong and bushy.

A chair on the deck is a good place to sit while you
sort through collard plants, discarding wilted and
blemished leaves and cutting off the roots.


Walt and I love greens of all kinds. I thinned out a row of mustard greens a week or 10 days ago. We cooked those, packed them into plastic containers that we've been saving for a couple of years, and put them in the freezer. There were two or three quarts of them once they were cooked.

You end up with a big "bouquet" of collards
and some trimmings for the compost pile.

Don't eat the geranium.

Now I have three quarts of cooked collard greens ready to go into the freezer too. Collard greens require long, slow cooking — even for the tender young leaves I picked yesterday. I put them in a big pot with a little water, a little white wine (for sweetness), some salt and pepper, and some duck fat.

Wash the leaves in a couple of waters to remove sand and
bugs. There's nothing worse than eating greens and
feeling sand crunch between your teeth.


I also had a piece of smoked ham that Martine (Ladybird) brought us from Belgium last week. I put that into the pot with the greens. The pot stayed on the burner on low for about four hours. At the end of the cooking, I shredded the ham and mixed the meat in with the greens.

These collard plants were so young and tender that I put the stems
and ribs right in the pot with them. Using kitchen scissors, I finely
chopped it all up after it was cooked so that it didn't look so stringy.

I suppose collard greens are an acquired taste. If they aren't cooked right, they can taste bitter. Some people add some sugar to them as they cook, but I prefer wine. And in the U.S. South, greens are cooked with bacon grease, which gives them flavor and good texture. I often use duck fat here in France because that's what I have.

27 June 2009

More about Noirlac and the Cistercian order

The monastery at Noirlac, south of Bourges, was founded in the 1100s. The buildings were constructed over the decades between 1150 and 1200, and the religious community at Noirlac was in its glory days by the year 1250. In the 1300s and 1400s, it went into decline.

By the end of the 1300s, there were 343 Cistercian monasteries operating in Europe. Some of the best known include Sénanque, Sylvacane, and Le Thoronet in Provence, and Cîteaux and Clairvoix in Burgundy. All are worth a visit. Walt and I have beautiful memories and photos of Le Thoronet, especially, from a 1993 trip to Provence.

The stark outlines of the Abbey of Noirlac in the Berry.

The Cistercian movement was a revolution within the Catholic church, and a reaction to the worldliness of the medieval church. Cistercian monks rejected everything they thought might interfere with their quest for God. They got rid of all riches and decoration, including elaborate stained glass windows. They wanted plain stone buildings, unadorned walls, and an austere existence. They were purists.

The "cellar" at Noirlac, where the grains, fruits,
and wines produced by the monks were stored


The Cistercians were also workers and builders. Their motto was "the cross and the plow." The order slowly enriched itself by getting control of the lands around their monasteries and cultivating them. The communities produced more than they needed, and they began selling part of the crops they harvested. They learned how to use and control water for irrigation, becoming even more prosperous. They became landlords.

The cloister around which the monastic complex is built

At Noirlac, the Cistercian community had the advantage of a location along an old Roman road and on the banks of a navigable river, the Cher. Their community started out in poverty, but ended up becoming affluent. It owned houses in nearby towns, and many of the monks had daily contact with the outside world — with all the corruption that eventually entailed.

Noirlac Abbey

It's a story as old as the world itself, of course. I've simplified it, and telescoped centuries of history into a few paragraphs. None of this takes away from the beauty and serenity of the complex of buildings at Noirlac.

There's a long walkway lines with 300-year-old linden trees at Noirlac.

The fact that CHM and I were there on a beautiful summer day and were just about the monastery's only visitors that day made the place especially impressive.

26 June 2009

The Abbey of Noirlac

Noirlac — the name looks like "black lake" but I'm not certain that's the origin — the one of the most beautiful places CHM and I visited during his 2009 visit to the Loire Valley. Noirlac is the name of an abbey — a monastery — located in the very center of France, on the banks of the Cher River about 100 miles southeast of Saint-Aignan.

L'abbaye de Noirlac, dans le Berry

The abbey was founded in the 1130s by Robert de Clairvaux, who was a cousin of the influential Saint Bernard. Bernard had founded an abbey at Clairvaux near Dijon a few years earlier. He was a fundamentalist of his time. He rejected the worldly ways of the 12th century Catholic church and advocated a stern, almost severe lifestyle. He broke with society, took vows of poverty, silence, and manual labor, and tried to live a simple day-to-day life. The order he helped to shape was called the Cistercians, after the name of the Abbey of Cîteaux in Burgundy. Robert de Clairvaux, the founder of Noirlac, was also a Cistercian.

Stark simplicity in art, architecture, and religious ceremony was one of the Cistercians' guiding principles. The Abbey at Noirlac, which has been carefully restored, reflects that ideal. CHM and I were lucky to be there on a bright, sunny day, because the sun makes the local white stone look radiant and creates deep, dark shadows that highlight the architectural beauty of the complex. This is one of the most complete and best preserved monastery complexes in France today, according to the Michelin Green Guide.

More later... busy day today. Off to the bank in Montrichard and then to the supermarket. It's farmers' market day in Montrichard so it will be busy.

25 June 2009

Taking the train from Onzain to Paris

Yesterday I drove CHM up to Onzain. We've figured out that that's the best nearby train station for passengers going to Paris from here. Onzain is on the Loire River just downstream from Blois toward Amboise, and about 30 to 35 minutes from Saint-Aignan by car. The drive to Onzain is on a scenic country road and is very pleasant.

Of course you can take the train from Saint-Aignan all the way to Paris, but you have to change trains in either Tours or Vierzon. Depending on connections, that takes extra time. And you can drive to Blois to get the train there, but that takes longer than driving to Onzain. You can drive over to Tours and get the TGV there, but that takes even longer and the TGV, while faster, is more expensive than the regular trains.

The Château de Chaumont-sur-Loire seen from across the river

The ride from Onzain to Paris Austerlitz station takes 2 hours on the regular train. The full price second-class ticket costs about 25 euros. In February and in April, W. and I were able to get discounted tickets at 10 euros each by purchasing them on-line well in advance. CHM's first class ticket, with a senior discount (which I now qualify for too, because I'm 60), was a little less than 20 euros.

Close-up of the same view — the houses down on the
riverbank show you how massive the château is.


Anyway, Onzain is now our gare of choice for the train ride to Paris. The little town is right across the river from Chaumont, which is the site of a famous château up on a bluff above the Loire. Yesterday, we left far in advance of the time we needed to get to Onzain for CHM's train. I told him we could stop and take a walk (not to mention some photos) in the park of the château at Chaumont. The weather was beautiful.

The SNCF — Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français
is the French national railway system.


When we got there, however, we found big changes. The park is no longer open to the public for free. You used to be able to walk in and walk right up to the château and to the edge of the bluff it sits on, which gave you great views out over the river. You always had to pay to get into the château itself, and you had to pay to get into the gardens. But now you have to pay to get into the park.

For us, because we only had 20 or at most 30 minutes, it just wasn't worth the price of admission (8€ per person) yesterday. So we drove on over the bridge and then along the river road across from Chaumont to get some views of the château in the distance. I took pictures from over there, using my zoom lens.

I like this old silo next to the train station in Onzain.

As we were stopped off the side of the road, a big tractor trailer truck roared by hauling two pre-fabricated homes on its flat-bed. There's a vacation park — a big trailer park, basically — located between Onzain and Blois a few miles from the river. It's owned by a British company, and we know somebody who works there. I figured the truck was hauling those "mobile homes" to that park.

You can see the château from pretty far away
on the opposite bank of the Loire


When we drove into Onzain, we needed to go under an overpass to get to the train station. It turned out that the tractor-trailer had taken that same road, and it was stopped under the train tracks for some reason, blocking all car traffic. Luckily, we had plenty of time.

Again, a closeup of the château seen from
farther back, away from the river


It's always a good idea to allow extra time when you are going to catch and train or plane. You never know what might happen. In this case, a dozen or more cars were lined up behind the big truck and had been there long enough that a lot of the drivers were out of their vehicles, standing in the middle of the road looking to see what the problem was.

I told CHM we would try to go around the traffic jam. We drove west toward Amboise on a little back road, though green fields of corn and sunflowers and barley. The road was lined with ditches filled with bright red poppies. After two or three miles, we found a road going north that went over a bridge across the railroad tracks. Then we backtracked to Onzain, headed for the station. By the time we got there, the stuck truck was gone and traffic was flowing normally. It didn't matter — we weren't late and we had had a nice ride in the countryside.

The train to Paris about the pull out of the gare d'Onzain

CHM got on the train at 11:30. At about 2:30 he called and said he had arrived back at home and was making lunch. The trip had been easy. I think he took a taxi from the Gare d'Austerlitz in Paris to his apartment. He had been here for just short of two weeks and we did a lot of touring around during that time. W., Callie, and I are going to try to get up to Paris to see him later in the summer, before he goes back to the States.

24 June 2009

Wines, pavés, and tiles

One of the side benefits of my trip to Chenonceau with CHM on Saturday was the chance to get to know a new place to buy wine. It's called La Gourmandière, and it's a cooperative located between Chenonceaux and Montrichard.

I'd driven by it many times over the past six years but I'd never stopped in. Now I'll go back regularly because I know they not only sell wine in bottles, but also wine in boxes (called "bag-in-boxes" or BIBs) and in bulk. In bulk means you take your own containers to the cave and they fill them for you from big vats with a nozzle that looks kind of like the one you use at a gas pump to fill up your car.

Cave in French means "wine cellar" and this one, near
the Château de Chenonceau, is called La Gourmandière.


In bulk is the least expensive way to buy wine, of course, because you don't have to pay for the BIB or for bottles, labels, capsules, and corks. You pay for the wine, and that's all. And it's basically the same wine they put in BIBs and bottles. It is often A.O.C. wine, which is the highest standard for a given region. You can bottle it yourself if you have the bottles and stoppers. We have a corking machine (manually operated) and buy corks at the local wine supply store.

La Gourmandière

The other thing that was nice about the Gourmandière wine coop was that on a Saturday morning there was a man there selling local honey and cheeses. CHM bought a little goat cheese called a pavé, a paving stone, that was made in the town of Betz-le-Château, which is near Preuilly-sur-Claise. That's where Susan and Simon live.

The pavé de Betz-le-Château was excellent, as are all the goat cheeses here in the Loire Valley. They are white, tasty, and not too strong. This particular one was pretty dry — in other words, well aged. Delicious.

Going into the cave to inspect the wines

By the way, I was so busy with preparing and serving the food and drink for our outdoor couscous feast yesterday that I didn't take any pictures. You don't have to take my word for it when I say that the weather was beautiful, the crowd was friendly, and the wine flowed liberally — just take a look at Walt's blog topic today. I hope Susan and Simon weren't too shocked. It was a long lunch that was bien arrosé — well "watered" or irrigated with the local wines.

The old tile will need a good cleaning now that
new tile has been laid down next to it.


And a second "by the way" is that our deck is getting retiled to eliminate a low spot in front of the French doors where we would get a big puddle of water every time it rained. Jacques, who was one of the people at our couscous lunch yesterday, is upstairs doing the grouting now. It's going to be great not to have that puddle to sweep off the deck, especially in wintertime.

23 June 2009

Couscous today

Today is the day we make couscous. The weather is supposed to be warm and sunny, so we'll eat outdoors around our new table. There will be seven of us. Susan and Simon are coming from Preuilly-sur-Claise. J-L and S., who are neighbors, are coming over too. CHM is here, finishing up his visit.

The couscous is the classic one, a Couscous Royal. It includes lamb, chicken, merguez sausages, carrots, tomatoes, turnips, celeriac, eggplant, zucchini, green beans, and chickpeas. Couscous is a big pot of stewed vegetables in a spicy bouillon, served over the tiny pasta bits that are the couscous itself.

One of our cactus plants sports a new flower.

CHM and I drove down to Loches yesterday afternoon just to look around. We stopped in a big supermarket there and picked up the rest of the vegetables and meats we needed for the couscous. We already had chickpeas and a leg of lamb, plus all the spices and a box of couscous.

Here's what the grapes in the vineyard are looking like these days.

We started the cooking last night. The first thing to do was to cut the lamb up into chunks and browned them in oil with onions, garlic, and spices. When the meat was well browned, we poured in water and some vegetable broth and put in the turnips, carrots, tomatoes and celery root, all cut up into medium-size pieces.

The last of the wild orchids of springtime

Now today we have to brown the chicken and then cook it in the bouillon. And put in pieces of eggplant and zucchini, along with the green beans. It won't take long for everything to finish cooking. While it does so, we'll steam the couscous so it is light and fluffy. Then we'll serve and eat it all with the one indispensable accompaniment, which is harissa, a spicy paste of vegetables and hot red peppers that you dilute into some of the broth and pour on at the table.

Callie with her new tennis ball, enjoying summer

Here's a good recipe for Couscous Royal. I've translated and adapted it:
Couscous Royal

2¼ lbs. lamb shoulder or leg, de-boned
1 chicken (or 3 lbs. of chicken parts)
1 onion
4 cloves garlic
12 merguez sausages (spicy lamb and beef sausages)

4 zucchini
4 carrots
2 turnips
1 stalk celery or 1 small celeriac
2 eggplants

3 very ripe tomatoes
2 cups cooked chickpeas
3 teaspoons ras-el-hanout (a Moroccan spice blend)
salt & pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
3 Tbsp. butter
½ cup vegetable oil
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
2¼ lbs. couscous (medium grain)

Cut up the chicken and cut the lamb into big cubes. Brown the meat in oil and butter in a big pot for 5 to 10 minutes with the onion and garlic, chopped.

Add the spices (ras-el-hanout is a blend of cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cayenne pepper, etc.) and the salt and pepper. Put in the tomato paste and fresh tomatoes, cut into chunks, and then add water just to cover the lamb and chicken pieces. Simmer for 15 minutes on low heat.

Peel and cut up the carrots and turnips. Cut up the eggplant and zucchini.

Add the vegetables to the pot, along with a celery stalk, parsley, and other herbs if you want. Make sure the liquid covers all the ingredients. Bring the stew back to the boil and then let it simmer 45 minutes to an hour. Five minutes before serving, add in the cooked chickpeas.

Prepare the couscous grain according to package directions and add butter cut into small pieces to the hot couscous, stirring with a fork to fluff up the grain.

Cook the merguez sausages in a frying pan.

The couscous, the meats, the vegetables, and the broth should be served in four separate bowls. In addition, put a cup or two of the broth in a dish and stir in some of the harissa paste. Serve some of the grain, some vegetables, and some meat on each plate. Moisten with sauce, and then let each person add a few spoonfuls of broth flavored with harissa, to taste.
You can get the recipe in French here. Look for some pictures tomorrow.

22 June 2009

Cherry preserves, and a pastel

I'm making cherry preserves this morning. It's the season. I picked about 4 lbs. of cherries yesterday. I swore I wouldn't make jam this season, because I still have a lot of jars of plum jam and apple jelly left from 2007 and 2008. But these are cherries — and I can't resist.

The recipe I'm using is pretty elaborate. It's from a book by Christine Ferber called Mes confitures (1997, 2002), which has an introduction by Alain Ducasse, no less. The cherries I have are pretty sour.

The recipe says to de-stem and pit the cherries, which I did yesterday afternoon, after I picked them. That was the tedious part. The cherries I'm using are very fragile and juicy, and the way I pitted them was by squeeze each cherry to make the pit pop out. A lot of juice was squirting in every direction — on my clothes, my glasses, and in my hair, not to mention on the table and on CHM and WCS, who were also sitting at the table.

The cherry pulp after the first cooking, with the juice strained off

The recipe calls for:
  • 2¼ lbs. pitted cherries (1 kg)
  • 1¾ lbs. sugar (800 g)
  • 1 small lemon (juice only)
  • 7 oz. green-apple jelly (200 g)
As I pitted the cherries, I saved as much juice as I could by collecting it and the pits in a bowl and then pouring all that through a strainer, back into the pitted cherries, and rubbing the pits around in the wire strainer to try to remove any cherry flesh and juice that was clinging to them. When I finished, I had 1.7 kg (a little less than 4 lbs.) of cherries and juice.

The preserves ready for putting up in sterilized jars

I recalculated ingredient quantities by multiplying them all by 1.7 because that's the weight of the cherries I was working with.To the pitted cherries, then, I added the juice of one large lemon and 1.350 kg of sugar, or 3 lbs. I let the sugar and fruit macerate together at room temperature for an hour, as specified in the recipe.

Using a jelly funnel to fill the jars

Then I put it all in a pot on the stove, brought it to the boil, and let it simmer for 5 minutes. After that, it cooled and spent the night in a cool place, right in the pot.

This morning, I poured the cherries through a fine strainer to separate the fruit from the juice. I added 12 oz (by weight) of jelly made from green apples to the cherry syrup, poured all that back into the pot and put it on to boil until it reached 225ºF. At that point, I added the cherries back in and let it simmer for five minutes, stirring it carefully. Then it was ready to put into sterilized jars.

Five jars of cherry preserves

Let's hope it's good. Actually, how could it not be?

* * *

Yesterday, CHM gave me a copy of an image showing one of his uncle's pastels. The uncle was the son of CHM's grandfather, who painted the canvas that hangs in the chapel of the château at Blois.

CHM says his uncle's pastels are reminiscent of Gustave Courbet's pastels. I'll let him put more information in comments if he wants to.

21 June 2009

Chenonceau the back way

A few years ago I realized that there was a back way in at Chenonceau, so that you can go to see the castle without having to stand in line, pay the entrance fee, and fight the crowds. There's a hiking path on the left (or south) bank of the Cher River that is free and public.

To get there, you take the main highway, the D976 (it used to be the N76 — it's a long story) which runs from the town of Vierzon over to the city of Tours, along the Cher past the little towns of Saint-Aignan, Montrichard, and Chenonceaux. Coming from Saint-Aignan, you drive past the turnoff signed for the Château de Chenonceau and on past the woods along the right side of the road. Those woods are part of the park that surrounds the castle.

When you come from Saint-Aignan, you come in
from the right side. Follow the red line.


Just as the woods end, you turn right onto a gravel road, and then right again when you come to the river. You can drive a couple of hundred yards down toward the castle, but then the road is blocked off. There are places to park. Then you can walk along the river right up to the castle.

I discovered this road in about 2005. Before that, I thought it was a shame that the only way you could see Chenonceau castle was to pay the entry fee and fight the crowds. You can drive right up to many of the châteaux and see them without paying a fee, if you don't want to go inside. Chambord, for example, is an impressive château to see and you can park and walk all around it for free.

Now that I can just drive over to Chenonceau and walk up to the castle sans hassle, I go there more often. It's a nice promenade. It's only 25 km from Saint-Aignan. That's 15 miles and it takes about 20 minutes to drive over there.

So I was surprised when I mentioned Chenonceau to CHM on Friday, for whatever reason, and CHM asked me if it was far from our house. I said no. Can we go? he asked. Of course, I said, haven't we been before. No was the answer. I couldn't believe it.

We went yesterday morning. The sun was shining and there was a slight breeze. As we walked along the river, we saw a few other people, both hikers and cyclists. But there were maybe a dozen of them in all during the hour or so we spent out there taking pictures and enjoying the views.

If you've never been inside the Château de Chenonceau, you'll want to park on the right bank of the river (north side), pay the entrance fee, walk the half-mile or so from the front gate to the castle, and see the grande galerie, the library, and the kitchens. You'll also get to see the two formal gardens that flank the château.

But if you've seen all that several times, you can still enjoy a nice river walk on the opposite bank of the Cher, with pretty views of the château, which spans the river. I recommend it.