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Exploring France's Châteaux

Dinner that evening was at Jean Bardet, a Michelin-starred affair in Tours's 19th-century St.-Symphorien district. Bardet's Château de Belmont is a white tufa mansion set amid emerald lawns; inside, creamy yellow dining rooms are set off by spectacular bouquets of anthuriums and white lilacs. Bardet's cooking offers a health-conscious menu--heaps of fresh herbs, stocks in place of cream, that sort of thing--but it does not lack for conceits. Baby eel was glorious in its sauce of red Bourgueil wine; white asparagus topped with a poached egg and crisped Parmesan, even more so. We returned to Les Hautes Roches to discover a light dusting of limestone on the bureaus. It's easier to rationalize a forest, apparently, than the interior of the earth.

Our next stop, 30 miles downriver from Tours, was the Château des Réaux, a 15th-century fortified dwelling near Bourgueil. We crossed the moat to find our hostess, Florence Goupil de Bouillé, paintbrush in hand, beckoning us inside. The wainscoting glistened with a fresh coat of robin's-egg-blue paint: "It's a pretty color, don't you think?" she asked. We stepped over a pair of King Charles spaniels asleep by the doorway and followed her upstairs to our room. Looking around, I realized we were actually at the top of a square tower: the space between the battlements and the roof had been glassed in to make a room. Aperitifs, Mme. de Bouillé informed us, were at seven.

At the appointed hour we found her entertaining our fellow houseguests in the 17th-century drawing room. There was a thirtyish couple from Caen; a lawyer and his wife who'd retired from Paris to St.-Malo; two elderly women from San Francisco on their umpteenth trip to France. The Caennais spoke no English, the San Franciscans no French, but with the aid of Mme. de Bouillé's constant trilling sounds, we all got on famously. Eventually she led us downstairs to the dining room--a sunshine-yellow hall that once had been a stable--and disappeared. Moments later, two cheese soufflés came billowing out of the kitchen, followed by perfectly poached salmon with hollandaise, followed in turn by a heady selection of local chèvres. One of the San Franciscans, her tongue perhaps loosened by the marvelous bottles of St.-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil that kept appearing on the table, started telling us about her amatory adventures with the scion of one of Bourgueil's leading families. Even the Caennais laughed.

The next morning we drove to Chinon, a river town squeezed between the Vienne and the craggy heights that support its château. A few miles away, at the northern edge of the Fôret de Chinon, is the château that's supposed to have inspired Charles Perrault's "Sleeping Beauty." In the fairy tale, the sleeping princess's castle is hidden in a forest so thick with trees and brambles that only the tops of its turrets can be seen. In reality the forest seemed dark and more than a little desolate--the trees almost stunted, the few buildings we saw apparently abandoned. Nonetheless, we left our car by a half-ruined barn and started walking.

We passed an overgrown cherry orchard, and just beyond it, a stone farmhouse that hadn't been occupied in decades, its barns empty and forlorn. We'd been walking for an hour when the woods broke and we found ourselves in the tidy village of Rigny-Ussé. Soon we were staring up at the Château d'Ussé, whose terraced gardens and gleaming turrets stood in sharp relief against the deeply wooded hillsides behind it. At its feet, another road set off across the marshy Indre to the Loire. We continued walking, turning back from time to time to see the view: the pastoral farmland between the rivers, the forbidding forest rising above it, and in the middle the château, a magical hinge between the tamed and the wild. Sleeping Beauty's castle or not, it certainly looked the part.

We had one final walk mapped out: from l'Abbaye de Fontevraud, the 12th-century royal abbey a few miles west of Chinon, across the wheat fields to Candes-St.-Martin. Though the abbey is as extensive as most royal châteaux, its location in a fold in the hills gives it the appearance of humility. From the village you go down to Fontevraud, and the farther you descend the more extraordinary it becomes. Finally, beneath a soaring Romanesque nave, you encounter the polychrome death effigies of England's Plantagenet rulers--Henry II and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, their son Richard the Lion-Hearted at their feet. And it hit me that if it hadn't been for Joan of Arc, the United Kingdom would probably consist of England, Wales, Scotland, and France.

A major hiking trail, the GR3, passes near the abbey. We followed it into the woods and took a farm road from there to Candes-St.-Martin, a mile or so farther on. The road had already begun to drop sharply toward the Loire when a sudden bend brought us to a cobblestone square. At its center stood the 12th-century Church of St. Martin, a shrine to the Roman centurion who gave his cloak to a beggar and ended up as bishop of Tours. The church was small but majestic, with vaulted ceilings, brilliant stained glass, and--more unusually--crenellated towers, added during the Hundred Years' War to defend it from attackers.

It was late afternoon when we left Candes-St.-Martin, and we still had to walk back to Fontevraud. The sky, which had been gray all day, began to spatter us with rain. We were due that evening at the Château de Noirieux, a Relais & Châteaux hotel outside Angers, which looked to be about a 1 1/2-hour drive. I had a vague recollection of being told that the château's gates closed at nine, and no memory at all of where I might have written down the code to get in.

As the abbey church at Fontevraud came into view across the ravine, the trail turned steep. Slipping downhill, we arrived at Fontevraud chilled, sweaty, and smeared with mud. But there was no time to wash up and no place to do it anyway, so we drove across the Loire, picked up the autoroute, and pointed our Renault toward Angers.

It was 8:55 when we pulled up to the château. In the fading light we could make out the river Loir overflowing its banks below us. Yet the grandly proportioned château, with its balustraded terraces, its terra-cotta epergnes brimming with pansies, its poplars in perfect rows, conveyed a reassuring sense of civilization, which we were definitely ready for.

My French, none too good at the best of times, failed me completely in my exhaustion, but the desk clerk didn't mind: "You can speak English now, sir," she said helpfully. Meanwhile, bellhops materialized. Bags were carried off. As the car disappeared, we were ushered to a gabled room in the manor house. A half-hour later, freshly scrubbed, we made our way to the restaurant, which was still busy enough to feel festive. We slept late the next morning, so late that the restaurant was closed when we went down for breakfast. No matter: waiters started carrying furniture into the bar and set up a table for us there. As we sipped our coffee, my wife told me about the dream she'd had: how we had set out on a hike and found at every crossroads a waiter from Noirieux bearing bottles of Perrier, or a delightful little snack, or a beautifully wrapped set of directions for the next stage of our trip. I had to admit, it did sound like the way to travel.

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