09 December 2007

Deux Châteaux et Deux Caves

Saturday I went on a trip organized for exchange students to two castles and two wine places. Those are called caves. They chartered a bus for us and we went to Chenonceau and Azay-le-Rideau. We had to leave at 6:45 (translation: got up before ten on a Saturday) and the weather wasn't great (translation: cold and rainy all day), but the castles were beautiful. I don't like wine, but it came with goat cheese. Here are some of my pictures, with rather wordy commentary :)

This is a line of trees by one of the outbuildings at Chenonceau. This type of tree is very common at French castles. As far as I can tell, they cut off all the branches and foliage and get it to grow as knobbly as possible. I think they're nice for the funniness factor, though I don't find them really attractive.

This is a view of one of the turrets (now the gift shop) and Catherine de Medici's garden. Why did Catherine de Medici have a garden there, you ask? Interesting answer. The castles most famous owner and resident was Diane de Poitiers, Henri II's mistress. She was about twice his age, and there are lots of adjectives that I will not use to describe her. She wanted a nice home, so Henri "encouraged" Chenonceau's owner to put the castle up for auction. Lucky for the king, no one else wanted to bid against him. So Diane de Poitiers had her own castle, and complete with incredible gardens. Catherine de Medici, Henri's wife, was not very happy about this. When her husband died, she kicked Diane out and did her best to change all the improvements Diane had made. She redid the whole garden. [Unfortunately, after I took this picture the screen on my camera decided to stop working. It just shows up grey, but the camera functions perfectly well. So after this picture, you can see how good my point-and-shoot skills are, since all I could do was aim as well as possible and guess for zoom.]

This is the chapel. As you can tell, the people who run this place decorated for the holidays. That was Welcoming Factor Number One. Welcoming Factor Number Two was the fact that they still heat the place with fireplaces, so there were crackling fires in most rooms. This was especially nice in view of the horrible weather outside.

Here's me and one of the Christmas trees. How festive. It's in the gallery, which is one of Diane's additions to the castle. She had the brilliant idea to construct an arched bridge over the river to connect the castle to the other side, and build this neat windowed gallery across. In later pictures, you'll be able to see how the castle stretches from bank to bank.

This is a picture of one of the four rooms of the kitchen, which was my favorite part of the castle. Welcoming Factor Number Three was that they didn't rope everything off and turn it into a museum. It felt like exploring a real, working castle. You could go up to things and look at them from an inch away, if you wanted. There was a very impressive collection of pots, a neat display of meat cleavers, and even baskets of oranges and peppers to make it look like a kitchen. It's really impossible to put into words how amazing this kitchen was.

Here's a view of the front of the castle and the turret gift shop.

Here's Diane de Poitiers' garden, which I think is much prettier than her lover's wife's attempt.

This is the side of the castle, which gives a good view of the gallery stretching across the river.

This is the castle again, partially obscured by me.

This is the other side of the castle. I'm very impressed with how well the picture's composed considering that I couldn't tell for sure how I was aiming. There's a little drawbridge, which makes me happy. I like drawbridges.

Here's the labyrinthe, which despite the name isn't really a maze. If you go to a castle in France as see on some English sign that there's a maze, don't get excited. It's basically artfully arranged hedges that make it take longer to walk to the gazebo. Thanks to the Renaissance ideal of symmetry, the openings in the perfectly trimmed concentric circles of hedges are even equidistant. Plus, they're waist-height, so if you "get lost" you can see the rest of the "maze" anyway.

I definitely want to go back to Chenonceau, since there's a lot more to see that we didn't have time to explore. Our next stop was a cave somewhere nearby. I don't know where it is, and I also don't remember the name. It's not a production cave, their business is aging wines. I wasn't particularly intrigued. Then there was a tasting, but I don't like wine. The cheese was good though.
Most of us ate our picnic lunches in the bus, since it had started to rain pretty hard. Some ventured into the deluge to buy food, and came back very wet.

After a "scenic" drive which I slept through, we arrived at Azay-le-Rideau. This was one of the first Renaissance castles in France, and they went overboard with symmetry. Here's a picture of what I will call the front, which is what you see first. The keep is open, which is another sign of Renaissance architecture because it no longer had to double as a fortress.

Here's a picture of the inside of the keep. Admire the symmetry. Ooooh.

We had a tour guide, who in general I really liked. She did, however, have two speech quirks that bothered me: the first is that she asked questions in a manner that made me think she wanted an answer, and then didn't want an answer. The second is that she likes to accentuate important words by separating their syllables, like the "I-tal-ian staircase" and all those "ta-pest-ries." It was a good tour though, because she pointed out the important things without going into details about things no one cared about. One interesting thing she told us was the reason why beds were put on six-inch high platforms: the floors used to be tile rather than the hardwood they are now, and the extra height would isolate the bed better from the cold.

Here is a picture of some incredibly well-preserved tapestries. Most tapestries are very faded, and it's difficult to tell what the original colors, and even sometimes the original designs, were. These were probably never hung for very long in direct sunlight, and may not have been hung for long at all. Even the piece that had been cut out to allow for a door was preserved (trimming tapestries to fit the wall was a common practice, but all too often the pieces were thrown away). It's been rewoven and it's difficult to tell where the cut was made.

Here's a room on the ground floor of Azay.

These two pictures show the "back" of the castle, which looks pretty front-like as well. It's also incredibly symmetrical.

Here's me blocking part of the castle. I put my umbrella down just long enough for Becky to take the picture. It was raining a lot at this point, which made the walk around the grounds rather muddy and squishy feeling.

Back to the (dry) bus for another bit of driving, and then we arrived at the second cave. This one actually produces wine, so the tour was much more interesting. I learned a lot, and now I feel like I have a better appreciation of wine, even though I still don't like it. For example, I learned:
- 20% of the oak barrels are replaced each year, and each bottle of wine has a fifth of its wine from each barrel generation to keep a uniform taste.
- Their wine is basically just like champagne except that it's from the Loire Valley instead of Champagne. There's a special name for it, but I forgot.
- The "small" pressing machine only holds one ton of grapes.
- The pressing machines rotate the grapes so that they don't get squashed too much in one place, which gets too much of the skin-taste in the juice.
- The way they get the sediment out of the wine is really clever. The bottles of double-fermented (bubbly) wine go through a week-long process of spinning to settle all the sediment and yeast into the cap (which at this point is like a bottle cap). Then the bottles are loaded into a machine which exposes the cap to -25° chemicals, which freeze the yeast into the cap. Then a machine pops the cap off, and adds either more alcohol or extra sweet juice, depending on the taste the particular buyer wants.
- The labeling process is the most complicated part, as far as machines go.
Here's a picture of some of their barrels. Each weighs about 250 kilograms when full, and they're priced thusly: if you can carry one away you can have it for free.

There was another tasting, and again I didn't like the wine (not surprising) but loved the cheese. They had a really good chèvre, plus dried ham and some sort of meat spread on bread. It wasn't paté, but it was somewhat reminiscent of paté.

Peaceful bus trip home, and again I managed to sleep a bit. After the morning's ride in a seat with absolutely no leg room, I sat by very-tall-English-boy Michael, who was by the middle door in a seat with an extra six inches of space. Heaven.

So ends my Saturday castles and wine tour.

No comments: