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Sunday 8 January 2006

The Loire

Friday morning, I awoke at the crack of dawn (actually, before dawn, but it's pretty far north here) and got onto a slow train to Tours. It's 1 hour by TGV and much cheaper and 3 hours by the slower train. I arrived in Tours early in the afternoon and walked to the tourist office to get a hotel room. They highly recommended a hotel in the center of the town for 20€/ night. That's cheaper than the youth hostel! Oh, but it's closed. Why is it closed? Because nobody travels after new years. It's the lowest season of the year. We asked the tourist office folks about wine tasting. "Take the #61 bus to Vouvray" they told us. They don't run tours from Tours. Also, they warned, a lot of things will be closed for winter.

After getting our room in the one star hotel, we went to look at the Cathedral. It's really really really old. There were a series of stained glass windows from the 13th century describing the life of St Martin of Tours. He used to be the most important patron saint of France. He converted pagans, lived as a hermit and as a bishop, all that good early christian stuff. After wandering around the inside of the cathedral, we went to look at the cloister. One must purchase tickets, but it's free to students. "Are you a student?" the ticket seller asked. "I am, but she's not." I replied. "Oh, what do you study? History? The Loire valley? This region?" errr "music." Her enthusiasm subsided. The cloister was cool, though.

Then, walked along the Loire. It was a bit chilly. (brrrrrrr) We crossed the Pont de Fils to the north side and walked along the river a bit. Descartes used to stroll along the river, but as it's become less important for trade, the town doesn't pay much attention to it anymore. It didn't look navigable. There's a point where it's possible to see ruins of a medieval bridge into the city, but, the placard explained, only when the water is really low. We saw the ruins, so maybe that's why it looked like you couldn't boat up the river.

Then we looked at the remains of the castle at Tours. It had two towers (in french: tours) left standing and that was about it. Still, cool looking.

We went back to our hotel room so that Cola could borrow some of my thermal underwear. All the Parisians I talked to before leaving kept saying "It's going to be SOOOOO cold" So I packed three pairs of long johns and a bunch of sweaters. Cola thought they were exagerating (they were) and packed some light sweaters and springtime wear. Alas! So she put on some of my warmer stuff and I pondered what makes a hotel only receive one star. Maybe it was that the room was kind of cold? Was it the peeling paint on the ceiling? Naw, that's not so bad. The room's not even that small. Oh, it's because the people walking around above us are shaking the chandelier! They sound like sounded elephants! Anyway, if this is the standard fron 1 star, then go for it!

The next day, we went to look at the medieval section of the city. Oh my god, it was cold walking down the empty narrow streets. There were pictures on the walls of the closed cafes, showing how it's bustling and exciting in summer. Nothing was open. We went to the bascillica of St Martin. In the crypt, there was a chapel where mass had just let out. Every catholic church must have a first class relic (an actual piece of a dead person who is a saint) in the altar. This chapel just went ahead and used a coffin for an altar. Weird weird weird. It was kind of a cheerful crypt though, and a lot warmer than anyplace else I'd been that morning. The bascillica was built I think in the 19th century. It's too bad the older one got knocked down. The new one is not very exciting except for the weirdness of the religion.

Then we got on the #61 bus to Vouvray. It's about 10 km away from Tours. On the way, we passed oodles of Troglodyte dwellings including a troglodyte hotel! (Some of you are clicking away to a dictionary. Others of you (like me) learned this word when you watched the movie Delicatessen (a fine film!). "Troglodyte" mean 'cave dweller' with connotations of being prehistoric. However, some of these caves were obviously inhabited. Chimneys, emerged from grassy hills and belched smoke!

We got to Vouvray and it looked like the town was deserted. We went to the tourist office and they gave us a map and a list of wineries. Wine cellars are called "caves" in French. All of the wine places in Vouvray are called "caves", which is entirely appropriate. We got lunch at a mostly empty braserie and then started walking towards the castle and caves. The castle was closed. Winter? Lunch? Saturday? Who knows. We kept walking towards the wineries and passed a bunch of cave dwellings. I want to go inside of one of them! Some looked cozy. Some looked like the residents had moved to free standing houses and now used their caves as garages. Some looked just like hobbit holes, except the satalite dishes attached to the chimneys. We kept walking, probably half way back to tours and nothing was open. Some places said "open" but weren't. One place said it was open and a guy came out, but when I said something about wine tasting (in my broken terrible french) he told me I had the wrong address. (Oh, that's why there's a giant sign that says WINE TASTING in your DRIVEWAY! Because this is the WRONG ADDRESS!, I did not say in a snarky, sarcastic tone.)

Finally, I walked into the driveway of a place that said it was open and alarm went off. I waited for a moment, wondering what to do when a woman appeared and lead Cola and I into a cave. A real cave! It had a chimney carved into to. There was a carving in the chimney which was dated 1944. The room was darkish (outside was darkish too, to be fair, it was a grey, cloudy day) and rounded on top. It was white, maybe painted, but I think the stones were just a whitish color. There were itty hols in the walls that it looked like water leaked out of. There was moss growing spots. Other stuff growing in other spots. It didn't look cozy and hobbit like from the inside, but this was just a cave de vins and not a living room. "What kind of wine do you want to try?" The woman asked. I dunno, what have you got? I don't know a darn thing about wines from Vouvray. "Are they all white?" I asked, showing my ignorance. Yes. White and something in fast french. uhhh. From this brief exchange I can tell you that Vouvray wines are white and I suspect they specialize in sparkling wine. However, I didn't try the sparking wine. I tried the still wine. She looked at me patiently, while I sipped the dry white wine. She spoke only a smidgen of English. I was having a bad French day (maybe it was the accent). Her whole demeanor conveyed a certain forced patience. I bought a bottle of semi-sweet white and left. "No more wine tasting" I whispered to Cola.

We kept walking up the cold gray street, occasionally, diving for cover as a car careened past at high speed, until we got to the grape fields. We took a walk through one of them, looking at the vines, died back for winter. Crows flew overhead and the dark sky brooded. A dead, twisted tree stood darkly in the distance, at the top of the hill. The icy wind blew. "This kind of sucks" I said. We walked back down towards the village. And saw the first sign of life (aside from speeding cars). A grey haired woman on a bicycle came peddaling up the street. She shouted greetings at her family member, who stood near the entrance of their cave. It had lace curtains in the windows. On the back of her bike was a basket, filled with some groceries and several baguette. here was the heart of France! The deep Frenchness! This woman back from the bakery, ready to do some gardening outside of her cozy cave!

We caught the bus back to Tours and then wandered for a long time, searching in vain for vegetarian food. Half the restaurants were closed and the ones that served vegetarian french fare were all filled up (dear restaurant owners: please note that YOUR restaurant could also be filled up if you served vegetarian food). We got back to the hotel room. "Tomorrow is sunday. Is there going to be ANYTHING open in Chinon?" Cola looked at the guide book. "Um, the castle." But it's all ruins except for like three rooms. And the town is supposed to be cute. The michillean guide, however, advocated spending three hours in Chinon. In the summer. When everything is open. We discussed coming back early. We woke up the next morning (which was this morning) and it was raining, so we walked to the train station and got the next slow train back to Paris.

Yeah, I've never really travelled in the "off-season" before. It's off, though. If you want to go in the winter, you need to go during a festival or other special event or season when things are going to be open. As it happens, the fête of the patron saint of vineyards is on the 22nd in Vouvray. A bunch of stuff will be going on. Contact the tourist office by the 17th to reserve your place. It's not far from Paris by train.

It is way better to go wine tasting in a tour group because somebody will explain to you what's what and what kind of wine to expect and how it's mad and all sorts of stuff. The vinter will give a little speech. People will be expecting you. You will learn something about the region's wines. Bordeaux does tours like that year round, but Tours doesn't, alas. I'm planning on coming back in the summer as a part of my planned summer bike trip, so I'll get another chance to try the wine and see Chinon,

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