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Exploring France's Châteaux

We were in the middle of the woods when I began to comprehend the French passion for order. My wife and I were walking through the gently undulating farm country of Berry, on the upper reaches of the Loire. We had just driven down from Paris (two hours on the autoroute) and were expecting fairy-tale châteaux, rambles through the countryside, maybe a bit of history: Joan of Arc, the Renaissance court of François I . . . But here we were in the Bois de Cléfy, surrounded by a dense grove of chestnut and oak, standing in a grassy circle from which radiated a half-dozen arrow-straight walkways. Perfect symmetry. Classicism amid the trees.

What struck me was how magical it all was--the crazy sense of rationalism run amok. Only later did I realize that in this clearing I'd stumbled across the essence of France. Order, reason, fairy tales, France itself--all emerged from the Loire Valley during the chaos of the Hundred Years' War. In 1428, when Joan of Arc journeyed to Chinon to convince the dauphin to let her lead an army against the English invaders, the region was home to a wandering royal court about to be overwhelmed by its vassals--one of whom happened to be Henry VI, king of England. A century later, when François I restored Paris as the capital, this feeble government had evolved into an absolute monarchy ruling all of France. A century and a half after that, the Loire was a sylvan backwater, its deep forests and turreted castles remembered in the fairy tales told at Versailles--worldly parables like "Sleeping Beauty" and "Little Red Riding Hood" that had a moral at the end, the better to enlighten you with.

The next morning we ate breakfast at the 15th-century Château de la Verrerie, where we were staying, in a salon overflowing with ruffled tulips and purple lilacs. Our hostess, the Comtesse Béraud de Vogüé, offered to show us the rest of the château. In her gray pleated skirt and navy cardigan, the countess was the perfect complement to her husband, who'd strode past earlier in a tweed jacket and hunting boots, a black Lab at his heels. Though his family bought the estate in 1842, she explained, it dates to 1422. In the stone chapel, faded frescoes of the apostles adorned the walls; outside, a witch's hat of a steeple loomed ominously over the gravel courtyard.

Later, as we were packing to go, the count showed me the best route to Chambord, the grandiose hunting lodge built by François I in a walled forest. Leaving the pays fort, the hilly "strong country" of Berry, we would drive 50 miles across the pays faible, the "weak country" of the Sologne. A flat expanse of piney woods and sandy soil, bleak except during a few weeks of autumn color, the Sologne is known for its strawberries, white asparagus, wild boar, and marvelous chèvre. Following the count's directions, we arrived at Chambord on a road that cut arrow-straight through the trees to reveal, perfectly centered, the massive towers and fantastical turrets of the château.

That evening we sat surrounded by gilt and silk as the muddy Loire, swollen by two months of relentless spring rains, surged against its banks outside. Our hotel room at Le Choiseul, in the medieval town of Amboise, seemed a good spot to refine our itinerary. The visit to Chambord had been extraordinary, but a lot of friends had told us they'd come to the Loire only to end up chasing tour buses from one château to another. The valley has too many châteaux anyway; to attempt them all is to miss what makes it special--modest vineyards that have produced superb wines for centuries, platoons of white-jacketed waiters bearing tray after tray of tiny delicacies, the sense of order and humanism you might expect of the region that produced both Descartes and Rabelais. Far better to explore it on foot, we figured, and on our own terms--and if a monument historique presented itself, so much the better.

After dinner in Le Choiseul's formal pink-and-gold restaurant, we ventured out to the quay and saw the town--built, like most here in the Touraine, from the local limestone known as tufa--glowing white in the moonlight beneath the sheer stone walls of its château. The Loire is an aqueous region, adrift on its rivers--the Cher, the Indre, the Vienne, the Loir, the Loire itself. But its fabled douceur, the sweetness of its green fields and fertile soil and languid streams, is deceptive. Despite its bounty, this is a strangely mutable place, its skies unpredictable, its rivers untamed, its history capricious and violent. Take the Château d'Amboise, built as a fortress and transformed into a royal palace by Charles VIII, a vigorous and promising monarch who died at 28 after striking his head on a low beam. Today, little remains beyond the apartments he built in the late 15th century, a broad ramp designed to hold armored horsemen, and an exquisitely ornamented Gothic chapel poised on the ramparts, which for a memorable few days in 1560 were hung with the heads and carcasses of rebellious Huguenots.

The next morning in the shadow of the château, we discovered the Charcuterie St.-Hubert, where Michel Budts sells rillettes--a wonderfully funky spread of shredded, preserved pork--that has been cooked over a wood fire, as it has been in this region for centuries. We bought some rillettes, picked up a baguette next door, and headed off through town to the Forêt d'Amboise, about three miles away. On Rue Victor-Hugo, a narrow street lined with half-timbered tufa houses backed by limestone cliffs, we saw windows cut into the rock itself, trimmed with prim lace curtains on the inside and draped luxuriantly with wisteria on the outside. At a dip in the road we came to the Clos-Lucé, the fortified brick mansion where, at the invitation of young François I, Leonardo da Vinci spent the last three years of his life.

Leonardo was one of the spoils of war: no sooner had the French defeated the English in 1453 than they launched a series of fruitless military adventures in Italy that exposed them to the civilizing influence of the Renaissance. While the results can be seen at Chambord, parts of which were designed by Leonardo, they are even more apparent at the Château de Chenonceau, six miles southeast of Amboise, which we visited the following day. Built in the early 1500's by a financier of François I, it was transformed a half-century later into a pleasure palace on the Cher--first by Diane de Poitiers, mistress to Henri II, and then by his widow, Catherine de Médicis, who evicted Diane after his death. The only suggestion that it might once have been a fortress is a vestigial keep, marooned in a forecourt, that now houses a gift shop. Otherwise it is protected by water, not by walls: you encounter a moated forest, then the moated gardens, the moated forecourt, and finally the château itself, bridging the Cher.

During the Second World War, Chenonceau's strategic location--facing occupied France on the right bank of the river, its rear doors opening onto Vichy France on the left bank--made it an ideal escape hatch. But what the Nazis couldn't do, the weather had. A sign at the end of the castle's gallery said that for "security reasons"--heavy rains had brought the Cher to its highest level in 13 years--the rear entrance was closed. We looked out the windows at the massive stone piers supporting the gallery, the muddy waters swirling crazily around them. The path on the left bank seemed passable. Why not try it?

We drove a mile or so downriver, crossed a stone bridge, and parked. The path was a dirt road lined with buttercups, a wheat field on one side, the river and its flotsam on the other. Dodging puddles and muck, we made our way back upstream toward Chenonceau. Just beyond the château, we took a trail that veered into the woods. Fifty yards farther on, we found ourselves in a grove of tender young poplars arrayed in perfect rows, their pale green leaves shimmering above us. A light wind blew through the trees, the air sang with bird calls, and as we headed back to the river the sun emerged, turning the pale gray château a dazzling, glorious white.

The best way to experience the legendary white limestone of the Touraine, it turns out, is to sleep in it. Just outside Tours, in Rochecorbon, one of the more luxurious cave dwellings in France has been carved from the cliffs above the Loire. It's a hotel called Les Hautes Roches, and as you drive through the gates the rocks loom directly overhead. Our room had smoothly articulated walls, as if they'd been built of stone rather than excavated from it, and a faint mineral smell. Otherwise, only the rough-hewn ceiling and the extreme depth of the window wells suggested that we were actually inside the earth.

A mile down the road is the village of Vouvray, known for its Chenin Blancs. Like most Loire wines, Vouvrays are simple and unpretentious. The town seemed simple enough, too: a couple of narrow streets lined with modest shops, an old church, some neatly kept houses. Parking our rented Renault at a quiet intersection, we headed for the vineyards on foot. The road took us up past the cliffs to a wide plateau planted with vines. We found ourselves beneath a threatening sky, its towering clouds black and spitting raindrops one moment, peaceful the next. At one point a rainbow appeared, then vanished almost immediately. Here and there the road would pass old farmhouses surrounded by spring flowers--tulips, pansies, hyacinths, and peonies. We'd been walking a couple of hours when, at the outskirts of a hamlet called Le Grand Ormeau, we saw a sign in the middle of a vineyard: CHAMPALOU.

Didier Champalou is among the premier wine makers of Vouvray. Entering a walled farmyard, we found a workman in the barn--an athletic-looking man around age 40, with bristly black hair and deep-blue eyes: Champalou himself. Although he clearly wasn't set up for tastings, he insisted on fetching some glasses from the house. The wines he poured grew more and more intense--first a méthode champenoise, then a dry white, then a semi-dry, then a sweet moelleux--until finally he pulled out his '96 Trie de Vendange. It was a heady wine, richly honeyed, ambrosial on the tongue, and as complex and layered as the Loire itself.

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