Our Trip to France

Our Trip to France
10-17 April 2004

We are really doing our best to take advantage of living "across the pond" for these couple of years. After our little local outings in East Anglia, and our highly successful Christmas week trip to Edinburgh, we finally ventured over to the "Continent" for a week in the Loire Valley during the kids' Easter break. We stayed at Kokopelli, a lovely little gite (small farm) in their relatively young (1880s) farmhouse.

It was a bit of strain getting there due to some snafus on the France side of our travels, compounded by lack of sleep (we all got up around 4.30am). Eurostar through the Chunnel was pleasant enough, but we barely had enough time to change train stations in Paris and were ripped off by a taxi driver... although he did get us to the station with 5 minutes to spare. Then, after a 2 hour crowded train ride to Tours, we find that the car rental office at the main train station had closed in February (despite the map on the website), requiring another frantic taxi ride to the another part of Tours where we discovered the new office was located. It was nice to drive on the right side of the road, at least. We then made what was supposed to be a quick stop for groceries (as we expected shops to be closed the next day for Easter, and possibly Monday as well), but which turned into an hour-long extravaganza at a Carrefour hypermarché (picture a combination of Safeway and Target in a place the size of CostCo). After a fairly uneventful and stunningly beautiful 1.5 hour drive along the Loire and through Saumur, we finally made it to within a mile or so of the farm which is in the tiny village of Foye, but couldn't find the right road. We had gotten off the directions at some point, which didn't have the actual route numbers (but had, instead, things like, "After the small hamlet, turn left at the road with a sign saying 'La Motte'", which means 'sod' in French... you can imagine how many sods there are in France, so the sign wasn't unique), and so we kept driving in and out of the same small village (Nueil-sur-Layon). Fortunately, our cell phone worked in France, so we were able to call our hosts for an extravagant sum and discovered we were only minutes away from the farm. Finally, we arrived around 8.30pm, rather than our projected 5.30pm, so we simply settled in for the night.

Leave it to us to find a farm deep in the French countryside that's owned by a British couple. Not only that, but they just bought the place last summer, and we were their first official guests. It was still a lovely place and we had a great time, despite the disappointment of not having the kids exposed to lots of French all week. The kids got to help search for chicken and duck eggs (we had free fresh eggs all week) plus they got to help feed the goats and play with the farm dogs and cats. There was also a small playground and a playbarn (attached to the main barn, but filled with toys for the kids) for those times that we weren't out exploring.
The weather cooperated almost all week with lovely sunny days perfect for expeditions through lush green countryside. In July/August, Chelle and Andi pointed out, it's very hot and very brown (California anyone?). It was cool enough during our visit that we found a chance almost every day to have coffee and hot cocoa, often accompanied by pains aux chocolats or croissants amandes. Tough life, I know.
Check out the chickens roosting in a tree

We spent Sunday at the farm, as it was Easter and nothing would have been open anyway. Our hosts, Andi and Michelle, organized a small egg hunt for their two kids (Shay and Kaya) and Naomi and Rowyn. One of the dogs found and ate two of the eggs, but the kids found plenty, which they happily exchanged for bountiful chocolate treats.
Kaya, who bears a strong personality resemblance to Colleen P. of the Cardiff Rose

Monday we ventured into the nearby town of Doué la Fontaine, which had a huge fair going on for Easter weekend. Granted, the carnival rides and games could have been anywhere, but it was fun learning to ask for barbe de papa (cotton candy), and the saucisses (sausages) from the food stand were fabulous. Debbie actually snagged a stuffed SquirtTM toy (the kid turtle from Finding Nemo) for Rowyn from one of those three-fingered claw machines (no comment on how many euros that took), and Alan shot three poor, defenseless balloons (they had just run out of Belgians) to win a stuffed ladybug for Naomi.
Round and Round they go!

Tuesday we visited Saumur, the closest small city, which has a fairybook castle on its highest hill. The castle was closed, but we wandered around the outside a bit, and then headed down into the town. It was our one slightly rainy day, so we didn't walk around for very long. We had hoped to go out to dinner, but we couldn't get through by phone to one place, and every other place we drove out to was closed (for no obvious reason; Easter Tuesday?), so we ended up getting pizza (oy!) from a parked van in the middle of Neuil-sur-Layon, the fairly small village near the farm.
Château Saumur overlooks the town and the river Loire

Wednesday morning we visited the Château Montreuil-Bellay, a medieval fortress that had lovely Renaissance Towers added on later. The girls successfully climbed the ramparts and defended the castle from invaders (fat German and American tourists). After lunch we explored some nearby mushroom caves, La cave vivante du champignon de Saint Maur. Incidentally, Saint Maur is where Saumur gets its name in the typical slurring French fashion; then again, good luck guessing how to pronounce Bicester in England ("bister").
Defending the Ramparts!

The entire region is famous for its soft chalky hills that have been extensively excavated for their "tuffeau" stone, which is used in a lot of the buildings in the area. The resulting caves were then used as dwellings by those who couldn't afford to build regular houses (see Tolkien below). Many of the big caves are now used by wineries for perfect temperature control during fermentation, or by mushroom farmers (see above). A half dozen or so of these caves are now country restaurants, such as Les Caves de Marson where we had dinner Wednesday night. The food was cuisine traditionelle (country provincial) and featured foué, or fouce (a flatbread much like pita) made fresh out of a wood-fire oven (which was carved out of the soft tuffeau stone, of course) stuffed with local foods such as rillette (a potted meat spread) and chevre (goat cheese), or topped with yummy marinated mushrooms and torched (tarte flambé).

[snagged from tourist website: MONTREUIL-BELLAY is the sole remaining medieval, walled town in Anjou. It is also interesting because it was the holiday home of author J.R.R. Tolkien, who used the area for inspiration for many of the concepts in ''Lord of the Rings'' - in particular, for the description of the Shire, which is based on the rural utopia of the region. Any afficionado of the book should be able to match the appearance of the château in Montreuil with the description of a building in the book.]
Also maybe where he got the idea of Hobbits living in caves/hills? Still, aren't we glad he didn't call them "Troglodytes", which is what the French call people who live/work in these converted caves.

Thursday we mostly hung around the farm, as the girls can only take so much sight-seeing at a time. Naomi got in some playground time, and Rowyn helped out in the vegetable garden. Fortunately for us, there's a small winery right next door to the farm. Michelle took us adults over and introduced us to their neighbors, who then very kindly took us into the main part of the winery and let us sample straight from the big metal vats. The classic wine of the region (Côte-de-Layon) is a very sweet white aperatif (we were given a glass before dinner at the Cave de Marson restaurant); in general, the wines we tried in France were very drinkable but not that exciting to our California palates which have become accustomed to strong reds. But we have only begun to scratch the surface of French wines.
Farmer Rowyn learns her trade

Rowyn helped out planting rocket, oregano, courgettes (English and French word for zucchini) and other things. Recently we got an email from Chelle that everything's coming up nicely in their garden. Well done, Rowyn!

Friday is the big market day in Thouars, another nearby small city. This is a huge Friday market, combining elements of a flea market and farmer's market, plus a large indoor space with butchers, fishmongers, bread, cheese, eggs, and pastries. Unfortunately, it was near the end of our stay, so rather than stocking up, we settled for buying our final dinner ingredients and some travel food for our trip home on Saturday. A great way to spend the morning.
Naomi practices her future teenage babysitting profession

Friday afternoon we took in one more castle, Château d'Ussé, otherwise known as the Sleeping Beauty Castle. [snagged from a website: The inspiration for the fairy-tale castle in Sleeping Beauty: Charles Perrault, the author of the popular tale, was so impressed he decided on this castle as the setting of his story.] It really is a lovely castle, with lots of turrets. One of the towers has a Sleeping Beauty exhibit with dressed up manikins scattered through several rooms (up the winding staircase), which totally thrilled the girls.
Château d'Ussé (Photo by Naomi)

We regretfully headed home Saturday morning. Fortunately, our return connections were all smooth and easy (including sitting in 1st class from Tours to Paris because there were no seats in 2nd class - the conductor didn't charge us extra when we explained), and we got home without adventure late on Saturday 17 April. All-in-all, another successful expedition. We all practiced our French and found the people we met to be extremely helpful and nice (even when they knew we were Americans). One final note: for the Paris connection between train stations, we took the Metro and crossed the Seine on an elevated line from which you could just make out Notre Dame. A Paris trip is in the works at some point as the girls want to see the city where Madeline lives in a house covered with vines...