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February 25, 2016

Discover the Romance of The Loire Valley

Text and Photographs by Mala Vaishnav

Grand old chateaux dot stretches of green, home-grown wines flaunt their fruity flavours – two neighbouring regions of northern France flourish along the country’s longest river

Trundling along on its hourly round, the elephant suddenly halts mid-stomp, raises its trunk and sprays a jet of water onto unsuspecting children who shriek with delight as they run for cover. A young mother pushing a pram shakes off a few drops and glares at the creature who just bats its eyelids, almost like a little wink. The tourists riding atop the 40-foot-high pachyderm are completely occupied with their cameras, zooming in and zooming out while the driver effortlessly controls the manoeuvres. It is not a real elephant of course. We are in the mechanical universe of science-fiction guru Jules Verne, conceptualised by architectural designers Francois Delaroziere and Pierre Orefice. Les Machines de l’ile, fabricated on the unusual site of former shipyards, is a gigantic contribution to the urban redevelopment of the island city and features museums, parks and carousels, one of which functions like a deep-sea odyssey at three levels where you can ride in giant crabs, manta rays or storm boats, all made from discarded bits of machinery.

Nantes, the largest city in west France and the capital of the Pays de la Loire region, has shaken off its devotion to a historical love affair with Brittany and its own dubious 18th-century links with the slave trade. Located on the banks of the Loire River, Nantes has risen from the devastation of World War II bombings to emerge as a city of innovation encircled by a green mantle and artistic extravagance. Follow the green line and discover the Zebra Crossing by installation artist Angela Bulloch, L’Absence that resembles a moving, living mass by Van Lieshout, the deeply disturbing video projection Nymphea by Ange Leccia and Metre a Ruban (Tape Measure), a supersized essential everyday tool by Lilian Bourgeat among a host of other public works of art. In this open-air modern art museum along the Loire also stands Le Pendule, an enormous clock with no hands. Created by Roman Signer from disused cement works of the ’60s, it is a permanent installation in the languorously paced former fishing village of Trentemoult where we stop by at La Civelle to relish the authentic flavours of sole meuniere and profiteroles complemented by the first vintage of the home-grown Muscadet.

In the waning light of a summer sun, we soon find ourselves hopping on and off smoothly running trams in an exploration of a medieval city which centres itself around the 19th-century fountain at Place Royale, a popular square that was rebuilt after the war. The Gothic cathedral of St Pierre and St Paul reigns from the trendy Bouffay Quarter that boasts an Indian restaurant, no less. And at Le Lieu Unique (LU) which is an old biscuit factory revamped into a buzzing hotspot, we sip hot chocolate while gazing upon the quietly flowing river as a startling variety of accents whirl around us. Dinner at the aquatic-themed, floral-patterned Brasserie La Cigale (opened in 1895) ends with a scrumptious strawberry dessert, the taste of which we carry back to our quaintly modern rooms at Hotel Sozo on rue Frederic Cailliaud.

Here too, heritage and New Age make for a fascinating merger. The charming owners Benoit and Adeline have transformed a former chapel into a stylish, minimalistic residence that now comfortably nudges ancient stained glass windows and centuries-old arches. The nuns still live next door!

Taste the traditional Gateaux Nantais, richly flavoured with almonds, butter and rum.

Wander through Nantes’ Passage  Pommeraye, the 19th-century architectural gem that links two streets of different elevation.

Stop at the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery at the quayside, a sad record of every ship that ever left Nantes shores.

In Veigne too — our next stop, 10 kilometres from Tours — we step into the pages of history when we check into the picture-perfect Domaine de la Tortiniere. The 19th-century chateau built on the site of a 16th-century castle is owned by present-day scions Xavier and Anne Olivereau who, over well-shaken martinis, share the spirit and legends of the 30-room property. The hotel, ensconced in a 15-acre park overflowing with vintage foliage that includes flowering lime trees and a 200-year-old holly hedge, a favourite with villagers during Christmas time, has seen the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Francoise Sagan, Gerard Depardieu and French political titans relaxing around the marble fireplaces, hand-picked antiques and traditional rugs, while revelling in the sounds of silence. As I do in my cosy Renaissance-inspired room in the pavilion, the former hunting lodge of the estate.

The Loire Valley, famous for its gastronomic indulgences, the longest river in France and umpteen fairy-tale castles, one of which was the fictional setting for The Sleeping Beauty, is also the fabled land of romancing of the wine. In the cool evening light, we find ourselves drifting in a boat, nursing glasses of a silky Cabernet Franc and an aromatic rosé from the house of Domaine de Noire. The dapper Jean-Max Manceau accompanies us on this ride on the Vienne, a tributary of the Loire River and regales us with anecdotes of vineyard trails and wildlife sightings. If you skipped a meal to picnic on the river, then thank Chinon restaurateur Christophe Duguin for a feast fit for gourmet gods that emerges from his kitchen at Au Chapeau Rouge.

On another morning, we are tramping down ‘Wisteria Lane’ overhung with blossoms to meet American chef Esther Francois for one easy lesson in French cuisine! Tours a Table is a cooking workshop where no particular level is required and the teachers adapt to your individual knowledge and expertise or lack of both as it was with one of us. So, here we are, garbed in cellophane aprons, stirring up a storm with bowls heaped with pears and endives. Post the group’s bonding over chopping boards and sizzling woks, we find that bite-size quiches poorly balance our daily count of 13,000 pedometer steps and settle ourselves at Tours’ Place Plumereau for generous helpings of French fries and cappuccinos, and a healthy dose of people-watching. Tours, the 15th-century French capital that was heavily bombed in World War II is today a friendly university town and gateway to the Loire Valley. Our wanderlust soon propels us into the direction of the Aquitaine region in the south. But that is another story….

Stories in Stone
The medieval fortress of Chinon, best known for its legendary tale of Joan of Arc picking out the future king of France through a sea of imposters during the Hundred Years’ War, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was the abode of kings including Richard the Lionhearted. This intriguing bit of history is most aptly captured in the Katherine Hepburn-Peter O’Toole-Anthony Hopkins film, The Lion in Winter. Sweeping restoration has saved the 11th-century ramparts, walls and bell tower from certain ruin and the interactive multimedia kiosks and touch screens give age-old a new edge. A glass elevator too made an appearance five years ago to link the old town below to the fortress on the hill. The narration nugget that caught our attention? That our guide’s mother was born on these historical premises as her grandfather was the caretaker of the castle at the time!

Chambord, another World Heritage site and an international symbol of the French Renaissance, is also known for its 32-kilometre-long wall and the largest enclosed park in Europe. An extravagant realisation of Francis I, the unique 16th-century chateau which also makes a bow to Leonardo da Vinci’s architectural vision, especially the two-sided staircase, is the receptacle of five centuries of history showcasing more than 4,500 works of art and 18th-century stylised apartments. If a few hours is not enough to soak it all in, you can even stay on. The Domaine also consists of cottages on rent, a village, farms and woodland, covering 13,000 acres, roughly the size of the city of Paris!

Salt and Surf
The family-owned 90-year-old Hermitage Barriere overlooking the Atlantic Ocean is the coveted luxury stay at La Baule, the croissant-shaped seaside resort, about 70 kilometres from Nantes. Built on sand dunes, it was a village of shepherds before becoming a weekend retreat and casino haunt for affluent Parisians, a mere four-hour drive away. Most families though are permanent residents and there are generations that belong to the Dolphin Club, the Penguin Club and more such, which are enduring alma maters and continue to nurse a competitive spirit. At L’Eden, the hotel’s seafront eatery, while local diners crane their necks to peek at retired footballer Vikash Dhorasoo dining in a quiet corner, we are given a masterclass in an authentic seafood preparation where the fish is coated with salt and baked. When the hardened salt is broken into, a gently cooked sea bass reveals itself sealed with the aroma of the ocean.

Salt, in fact, is the mainstay of the medieval walled city of neighbouring Guerande, home to salt marshes, salted butter caramels and the rare, naturally white, hand-harvested Fleur de Sel, of which we buy several pouches to sprinkle on our pastas and salads back home. The little town which dates back to the 11th century exudes a laidback vibe with its charming crêperies, castle ramparts and speciality food shops.

Taste the eclectic platters conceived by Pierre-Andre at Tours’ Bistrot des Belles Caves on rue du Commerce.

Wonder at Xavier Veillan’s steel and fibre glass-crafted The Monster at Place du Grand Marche, Tours.

Stop at the magnificent  Cathedrale St-Gatien, Tours.

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