30 May 2006

Montrésor and Grandmont-Villiers

Yesterday we decided to go down to Montrésor, about 15 miles south of Saint-Aignan, to spend the afternoon walking around the village and touring the château. Montrésor is officially "l'un des plus beaux villages de France" -- one of the most beautiful villages in France.

Le château de Montrésor seen from the streets of the village

The château grounds were full of flowers. I took many pictures, but I won't post them all here — with the exception of this example.

We paid the admission fee and wandered around the grounds and through the château. The weather turned out nice, even though showers and clouds were predicted. I enjoyed taking pictures outside, and I enjoyed seeing the inside of the château again. It was refurnished in the 19th century, when it was acquired by a Polish family.

Outside there are flowers and there are some big pieces of sculpture. Here are few pictures.

The fallen archangel

A boy and his dog

A bronze hand

The château sits on a big rock up above the village, so you have good views from up there.

A rooftop from the château grounds

One more beautiful shuttered window

A sign painted on the wall of a building below the château

In Montrésor there is also a beautiful old church that is open to visitors. Here are a couple of pictures.

A painting in the church

In the church at Montrésor

Below the château and through the village runs a little river called the Indrois. There's a walking trail along the Indrois from which you can get good views of the château, the church, the houses of the village, and some "wildlife".

Lily pads floating on the Indrois river

Some village residents watching birds near the river

Mushrooms growing on a rotting tree stump on the banks of the river

A horse grazing in a pasture south of the river...
where is the fourth leg?

When we left Montrésor, we drove east to the village of Villeloin-Coullangé and then a couple of miles south to the old priory of Grandmont-Villiers. The priory was founded in 1157 but abandoned in the 1700s. A few monks returned in the late 1970s and sill live there. They are slowly restoring the old buildings.


Cattle kept by the Grandmont monks

Near the village of Orbigny, just a few miles north, we saw this picturesque field of flax.

28 May 2006

Château de Valmer

On Thursday May 25, which was a holiday in France, we (Walt and I plus four friends from California) drove over to the château de Valmer, which is known for its gardens.

What's left of the château de Valmer

Valmer is also a wine château. The owners produce Vouvray wines, which include still and sparkling white wines made from the Chenin Blanc grape. Vouvray wines run the gamut from very dry to very "sweet" -- that's the inadequate term in English for the French term moelleux, meaning "soft, mellow, smooth".

Arriving at the estate

Vouvray's moelleux wines are produced in very good years and are wines in the same style as Sauternes or Monbazillac from the Bordeaux area. Only in good years can the grapes be left on the vine long enough for the noble rot to develop and concentrate the grapes' sugar.

The grounds and gardens

Château de Valmer is the name of the wine estate, but is now a slight misnomer when it comes to describing the property. The château burned down in 1948, unfortunately. There are some buildings left, and the gardens are intact, but the main building is gone. It's former location is marked by a ring of yew hedges.

One of the 17th century buildings remaining at Valmer

You pay 7.50 euros in admission at Valmer, but at the end you get a tasting of Vouvray wines for the price. We tasted a sparkling that was very good, and a moelleux that I wasn't too impressed with.

The building on the left is the shop and tasting room at Valmer

Between entering and tasting, you can wander around the grounds and gardens at your own pace. The setting is very nice. If you walk down the long tree-lined driveway and turn left, you can climb a gravel road up into the vineyards for a view of the property from above.

View from the vineyard with the the château called La Côte in the background

The whole site is very picturesque. The grounds encompass 200 acres of land, much of it forested, and are completely enclosed by a stone wall. There are formal gardens, an herb garden, and a large vegetable garden.

The remaining 17th-century building (la maison du régisseur) at Vallmer

These hedges outline the shape of the château, which burned down in 1948

There's a rare (according to the Guide Michelin) troglodyte chapel on the estate. It's carved out of a rock cliff near the site of the old château and dates from at least the 16th century.

The underground chapel at Valmer

Madonna and child in the Valmer chapel

A motif painted on the walls of the Valmer chapel

The formal gardens and terraces remain intact at Valmer, even though the château is gone.

A brick and stone balustrade on the upper terrace

Statues like this one decorate the grounds and gardens

Decorative plants in the garden

Outside the tasting room, a wooden wheelbarrow full of gourds from the gardens

Château de Valmer

24 May 2006

Birding in La Brenne

Last Sunday, despite a less-than-encouraging weather forecast, we decided to do a day trip that we had planned weeks ago. It was to be a day of hiking around and bird-watching, so the weather mattered.

The two days before had been very windy. These were winds that blew in gusts up to 60 mph. There were small tree limbs down in the yard and up and down the road. And just to liven things up, when the gusts and squalls blew through, we were also pelted with wind-driven raindrops.

A typical landscape (or waterscape?) in the Brenne

As I said, we decided to go on our outdoor excursion anyway. The weather forecast called for a pleasant Sunday morning, with a new band of rain and wind coming in during the afternoon. We left the house at about 10:30 a.m. and drove an hour south to the area known as La Brenne, which has been turned into a Parc Naturel Régional. La Brenne is a large area of marshes, ponds, and small lakes (étangs in French) that is known for its wildlife. Nearby towns include Châteauroux, Angles-sur-l'Anglin, and Azay-le-Ferron.

Ducks taking flight on one of the many étangs, or small man-made lakes

The ponds and small lakes of the Brenne are not natural, but they've existed for so long that they might as well be. The monks at several nearby abbeys, including the one at Fontgomault that we have visited, worked to drain and improve the marshy land of the region by creating the ponds and lakes starting more than a thousand years ago.

A blue heron at the étangs de Foucault in the Brenne

There are nature trails and nice birding blinds along the shores of many of the lakes, so bird-watching is easy. We saw laughing gulls, blue herons, mallards, grebes, and red-headed ducks, among many other birds that I couldn't identify. We also saw turtles and frogs. The whole area reminded me a lot of coastal North Carolina, where I grew up.

Red-headed ducks

One of the biggest lakes in the Brenne is called l'étang de la Bellebouche. Around it are California-style campgrounds and numerous hiking trails and birding blinds. Another is l'étang de la Mer Rouge, which was named by a local lord when he came back from the Crusades in the Holy Land in the 13th century. He had seen the Red Sea.

A water-strider on a patch of calm water in a marsh

A green frog I noticed on the shoreline of the étang de la Mer Rouge
and, below, reflections in the calm waters on the same shore

The nicest town we went through (and there were several) was called Mézières-en-Brenne. It was clean and fresh-looking, with old stone and brick houses dressed up with brightly colored shutters. There were flowers in windowboxes all around. We had lunch in an inn there. We picked it because the menu posted outside was extensive and we all saw something we wanted to order and eat.

The World War I memorial in Mézières

The front door put us into the café part of the establishment, where several men were standing at the bar having an apéritif, talking, and laughing. The young woman behind the bar looked at us with wide eyes (omigod, foreigners! I could see her thinking) but relaxed when we asked her in French if the restaurant was open for lunch. She would go find out, she said, and disappeared through a door into the kitchen.

An older woman then came out, all smiles, and said yes the restaurant was open but they were serving just one dish -- pork roast with frites and mixed vegetables. I asked about the extensive menu of steaks, chops, and omelets, but she said that menu was out of date and that they were just starting to set the place up for the summer season. Pork roast sounded fine to us, actually, so we installed ourselves at a table in the dining room. We were the first to arrive.

Pine trees near the étang de la Bellebouche, outside Mézières

A big group of French people came in right behind us, a family. There were seven or eight of them, and they took a table close to ours. Then in came a French couple and another, smaller family. The place was filling up. The front door opened, and from behind a partition that separated the dining room from the bar, somebody yelled out in French : "Y a-t-il quelqu'un ici qui parle anglais ?" Does anybody here speak English? I think they knew we did.

Three cyclists had just walked in, and they didn't speak much French. Walt stood up and told them over the partition what the menu was. They thought that sounded fine and took a table near us. One of the cyclists was from Southern California, he said, and the other two, a couple, said they lived in England. He had an American accent too, I think, but she sounded English. They were staying in a hotel near Châteauroux and were spending the day cycling around the area.

Mushrooms I saw lying on the ground as we walked

When it came to be time for dessert, the woman in charge brought us a handwritten list of ice cream flavors and left us a pad of paper and a pencil. Write down the flavors you want, she said. You get two scoops each. So we did. All the food was good.

A bee and a bug on a flower in the Brenne

After lunch it got a little windy and a few clouds blew in, but it didn't rain. We drove from lake to lake and took short hikes looking for birds. We spent time in bird blinds, taking pictures. Cheryl said she saw several birds that she had never seen before -- birders call those "life birds," evidently. There were other people out walking off their Sunday dinner, but it was never crowded. As you can see from the pictures here, we enjoyed the day.

20 May 2006

The River Walk at Chenonceau

Yesterday was one of those days when you expect it to rain any minute but it never really does. We wanted to get out and do something, but we weren't sure it was worth it to go too far from home. So we drove the 15 miles or so over to the château de Chenonceau to take a walk along the river. We've done this walk several times now, after discovering the path about a year ago.

The château de Chenonceau spans the Cher river.

Chenonceau is one of the most recognizable buildings in France. The château as it exists today was built in the early 1500s and became the property of king François Ier. The foundations of an old water mill underpin the building, which spans the river Cher.
View through one of the arches under the château

If you want to visit the formal gardens and the interiors of the château, you have to go over to the village of Chenonceaux on the north bank, park in the big visitors' lot, stand in line (usually), and pay the admission fee. It is often very crowded, especially when the weather is decent.

The path along the river on the south side of the Cher

If you just want to admire the château from the outside, you can park you car on the south bank of the river and walk up to and past the château without paying an entry fee. As you can see from my pictures, it's not crowded and the walk is very pleasant.

Bouée de sauvetage

Just in case you fall into the river as you are walking by or crossing the drawbridge, there's a life preserver provided. We didn't need it yesterday. We didn't get wet, not even by rain, despite the layers of gray clouds across the sky.

Juvenile wagtail

Our friend Cheryl spotted this baby bird on the path near the château. We took pictures, and we looked it up in our bird books when we got home. It seems to be a gray wagtail. Its parents were alarmed when we approached with our cameras, and they took off across the water, flying low and chirping in protest. They are gray with distinctive yellow markings.

Le malard

A little farther along there was a mallard duck taking a stroll. He let us get pretty close but flew off up the river when he felt threatened.

Detail of the château de Chenonceau

The walking path runs for a mile or more along the river and ends at a bridge. There's a campground just past there. As we walked one boat passed, headed downriver.

A boat on the Cher

The path through the woods east of the château

Guard dog

At the bridge there is a house guarded by a pretty fierce-looking dog. He did a good job of barking to keep us at a distance.

A field of poppies along the river

We crossed the bridge on foot to see what was on the other side. There we found a field of red poppies that was very photogenic. Just past the bridge, the north bank of the Cher is lined with weeping willows.

Weeping willows on the north bank of the Cher

From the bridge we could see another field of poppies up on the hill north of the river valley. There's a big oak tree in the middle of the field.

Red poppies growing around an oak tree