Amboise – the last King of France; Chernonceau – White Queen in black room

A day of Chateaux: Amboise, our homebasecamptown; and Chernonceau, actually within bike-riding distance.

What took us so long? Sunday, the market, of course. Going out this morning, Madame of Hotel Belle Vue advised us to have a look, they have regional foods, French, as if you needed reminding, traditional, to distinguish it from new wave, nouvel vague, non? and coffee, and bread, and cheese. It is the biggest. It is. It was. It had food that made you weep you were not in residence permanently, or at least for a month or so with adequate storage facilities, in order to buy up large and eat it all, all of it. All of it was so edible looking.

Breads, the usuals, but cheap. Cheese counters offering ten small goat’s milk rounds for ten Euros. A Euro each! A fishmonger later shouting: I DON’T DO THIS FOR PROFIT! I GET NOTHING! Perhaps the thought of doing such an honest guy out of his rightful excites the French?

My favourite, where the boy got the other boy, saying, Anglais! We are not, I said. But the other boy who could anglais, did. Quite well. And who were we to refuse him his chance to by speaking French? He smiled broadly when I said his English was good. A bit of a routine you go through with English-speaking French: even if you speak French, they insist on replying in English. And it is as if you’re refusing a favour by continuing in their language when they’ve paid you the personal compliment of learning yours.

At this stall: sausages, pates, pressed meats, jellied meats, brawns, terrines, every variety you could imagine. And degustation plates out with slices and cubes of what was on offer. Blood sausage – which they were wide-eyed at us choosing – to pate-en-croute. Too too good. Duck sausages. All the sausages real, in intestines, hand-tied, chewily knotted. Mixtures of meats. Gibblety bits mingled with parts you’ve never heard of and distinctions between regional meats, beef from Limousin, or …, sharply distinguished tastes. Brawns and. More. The black pudding is called a queen here. We bought only the meagre amount that we would eat for breakfast. Shamefully. I wanted to apologise for taking so little when so much was on offer. I really said, We will be back. When we’ve eaten this!

We weren’t. Back to the funny cafe-stall, where the owner might have been Dutch, resembling a certain cafe proprietor from the old days, a lackadaisical hippy, with his young female sidekick, dub, rather than pouring out or pounding, crackling, seeping out, and M., let us call him that, running between one-station machines, splitting each shot, unevenly, as we discovered, not exactly lost or dithering, but acting in an odd sort of counterpoint to actual demand, while uppity dowagers demanded to be served, whether they would get their coffee brought to them, or ought to wait, waving money, non-plussed by the distracted M. charging up machines, the full cups saved by young female sidekick, doled out, regardless of place in line to whomever might have ordered and claimed the shot. M. sending ice fragments flying as he got a batch of chocolate frappe going, making far too much each time, saved each time by sidekick. It all seemed very familiar. Except that here the service was even more inept than with even the most out-of-it hippy in NZ.

Which might be a sort of rule for the kind of service we’ve received. Last night at Via Roma, it was as if they’d never had people at their restaurant before. Bizarre lack of contact, staff to customer, the communication negotiated more by alien etiquette than the real requirements of either the provider or receiver of service. And I think it would’ve been the same with our uptight tightlipped ladies of the market asking if the coffee would be brought to them: if the conduct of M. had been in keeping with a norm that they recognised as comme il faut, then it wouldn’t have mattered how slack the service was.

Coffee, anyway, Peruvian, one cup weak, one strong – ask for double strength and you get twice the length and half the strength. Strength not being something culturally predicable of coffee. And pate de compagne and an epee loaf and queen blood-sausage and Royal Gala apples and a very tasty little sausage I forget the name of, all cut with a knife bought to replace the one the security outside St. Peters made us ditch.

Apart from gorgeous food, heinous fashion. No. Really.

Up above Belle Vue, Amboise chateau royal, given the lower-case treatment – I don’t know if this is a post-revolutionary thing or not. We climbed the ramp to Francois I’s childhood home. The memory that inspired Chambord.

Maybe a third is left of what once was here, after wars and more wars. It’s charming. The greatest shock being the break in style of decor from the first – medieval to renaissance – to second floors. Louis-Philippe – the last king of the French – was given the chateau by his mum, Louise-Marie-Adelaide de Bourbon-Penthievre. He redecorated in what to us looked like Regency style. One of the table pedestals bore his name, a Louis-Philippe, as you’d say a Louis Quinze. It was almost art deco. He died in exile in England in 1850.

A heartbreaking story: Charles VIII, 7 April 1498, hits his head on a door lintel. He is on his way to see a game of ‘real’ tennis. His Queen, Anne of Brittany is present. He dies, just a few hours later. He is only 28. This happens at Amboise. So a royal tragedy forestalls tennis’s introduction as a national sport.

The garden full of bobbly trees. Formally arranged up the slopes towards the missing wings and bits of the chateau.

The chapel too deserves a mention, St. Hubert’s, built on one of the buttresses on the outside flank of the chateau, which rises sheerly, with this tiny building on its top. Last night at Via Roma, we had plenty of time to look at it, the lights on inside, lighting the stained glass windows. Antlers are built into the design of its spire. And on the tympanum, that odd conflation of medieval symbols: a stag – carved in stone, high relief – with antlers, from between which grows a crucified Christ – antlers and crucifix in metal, rusty.

We chewed on some sweet breads on the lawn in the sun. J. inadvertently got Q.’s hat stuck in a tree. We got it down by tying three bamboo garden stakes together with bits of plastic bag, the lace on the camera bag and an elasticated hair-tie, and poking it. Then we jumped in the car and went to Chernonceau.

What a weird place. The aerial photos, the posing photos, the romantic dressing up of it don’t do it justice. Perhaps they do it the supreme service of making it mouth-watering, the Queen of chateaux, serving as excellent ads. But it’s an anomaly. It crosses a shallow slow-running river and stops abruptly. It’s not even quite a bridge.

The history of it seems complex. I haven’t worked it out. Apart from there being a bedroom each for Diane de Poitiers, Catherine de’ Medici, Gabrielle d’Estree and Louise of Lorraine, thereafter, one named ‘the five queens’ bedroom, for Catherine de’ Medici’s two daughters (Queen Margot, wife of Henri IV, and Elisabeth of France, wife of Philippe II of Spain) and three daughters-in-law (Mary Stuart, wife of Francois II, Elisabeth of Austria, wife of Charles IX, and Louise of Lorraine, wife of Henri III). Also associated with it are Louise Dupin, in the eighteenth century, Marguerite Pelouze, in the nineteenth, and Simone Menier, in the twentieth. It was built by Thomas Bohier in the sixteenth century and the front hall bears the name of his wife, Katherine Briconnet. Hence, it’s known as the ladies’ chateau.

It also has a maze.

We misread the advice in our guide and thinking to approach through the gardens, designed by Diane de Poitiers, came at it upstream, after running around the maze. I’m growing fond of French gardens, with their wild floral borders and formal elements; here a low hedge scribbling curlicues on symmetrical sections of lawn takes up the majority of the space; a fountain playing, marking the centre with chance falls and splashes of water onto a stone bed. The guide said… But then going at it from the other better side, downstream, massive renovation work obscured a major section of the facade.

Inside, paintings by Veronese – the lady’s head I’ve snapped -, Murillo, Rubens, Spraenger, a decor well devised and well displayed, art directed, most visibly in the kitchens. The Russians, though, insisted on touching everything, posing ludicrously with the ornamental gourds. There were more instances of photo-tourism, if not photo-prayer. But it’s an easy trap to fall into. Turn off the brain that it need not engage with what the eye sees; let the camera engage, its digital or mechanical apparatus; let it do the not-thinking that passes for thinking and record. Who is going to look at all the images this era produces after us?

It’s like the book at the Pompidou says: all art is counted as contemporary as if there were no problem with that. What? Should it mean something?

Or as someone put it: After us, the deluge. We are, however, the deluge.

The most extraordinary room is that of Louise of Lorraine, painted a matt black with white chalky motifs on top of cornucopia filled with tears, interlacing thorny branches, and the quills linking her initials with his. She had this room done out in black upon the assassination of Henri III by the Monk, Jacques Clement, August 1, 1589. My leaflet says, She retired to Chernonceau to meditate and pray and was thereafter surrounded by nuns in white habits who occupied the chateau as if it were convent. In royal mourning, she was given the title, The White Queen.

We were lost for a few close – read, tight – circuits of the one-way streets behind Amboise before returning. And were no sooner returned than out again to eat at a Chinese restaurant. The French are averse, it seems, to giving up the knife and fork that they invented. We had to ask for ‘baguettes,’ chopsticks. J. ordered a soup. It arrived a la Western cuisine in a small bowl, not as a meal in itself. Likewise my tasty frogs’ legs in Thai style and a plate of rice: small portions, as if part of a progressive meal, not one of self-sufficient stages. Something about the way the Chinese ran the joint made the place seem more French than anything. Consider the price of the Chinese tea: 2.50 Euros per person; compared to wine, at 2.90 a glass. No refills of tea offered neither.

Accommodation in Moulins booked. Hotel de Paris tomorrow night. The place was picked for being halfway between roughly where we are and Le Puy-en-Velay. No one appears to make tourism from Loire, crossing Massif Central, to Langue D’Oc.