Loire 7 - Backyard Villandry

Walking through the garden complex at Château de Villandry, Michele’s attention fell on the geometric patterns, the different colours, and the soft smell of the flowers.  

My eyes rested on the poor schmuck hunched over the shrubs grooming them with a handheld trimmer.

Shaped like a horseshoe, he looked like the bad example in an occupational safety poster.  I could not imagine how his future would not hold crippling pain and surgery.

Days before, we sat in a park outside another castle watching Millennial-age groundskeepers scurrying around with strapped-on, gas-powered trimmers, ear buds, and straight backs.  In contrast, the older staff at Villandry seemed more traditional, artisanal, and nuts.

Gardening has always struck me as hard work, and the intricate, structured form it takes in France seems especially so.  

I favour the English garden: wild, informal, and unkempt.

“It became popular in the 18th century, right around the time they started freeing the slaves,” I noted.

These thoughts occupied my mind when Michele suggested that we try to recreate a little bit of Villandry in our backyard in Ottawa.  She visited the garden shop at the Chateau, stole some ideas, and expanded on her plan the rest of our holiday.

My contribution to the conversation was a bias for those English gardens and, if necessary, planter boxes that were waist high.  I also argued for more, but smaller boxes that made it easy to reach the plants or to weed.  I did not want Villandry-style bending and straining in my backyard.

So, we approached the project from two interests. Her aesthetic one.  My anesthetic one.  

Within this frame, we crafted plans for building our mini-Villandry and kept talking about it after we came home from our holiday.  The first step meant weeding and prepping our existing garden.

“Doesn’t it make you feel younger – the fresh air, the exercise.”

“Yes,” I said, feeling a growing kinship with the younger French grounds crews, the ones who favoured  strap-on, gas-powered equipment. 

Then, we visited Ottawa garden shops and home renovation stores.  We measured our garden and measured things in the stores.  We bought seeds, and we nurtured them in pots. We were ready to implement our fully developed plan. Then, I added up the cost.

Ouch.  It turns out my mix of ideas were a lot more expensive than the straightforward, though labour intensive, Villandry-style garden.  Maybe back pain wouldn’t be all that bad. 

That Sunday as we worked in the yard, I considered withdrawing or adjusting my demand for waist-high planters and English garden elements. But, before I could raise the question, Michele decided to move a heavy wheel barrow around the corner of the house by hunching over in the shape of a horseshoe. 

She lies recuperating and looking at pictures of waist-high planters, electric hedge pruners, and English gardens.  

I’m looking again at images of Villandry.

Loire 8 - Azay-de-René

René Descartes makes me laugh.

Not his writing and not his philosophies; just his name – when printed on Loire Valley tourism brochures and websites.

The Loire likes to celebrate its literary connections, and often it seems valid.  Rabelais regularly teased his home town of Chinon in his books, and Honoré de Balzac wrote many novels and swaths of La Comédie humaine at the Château in Saché.

But Descartes, though born in the Loire, didn’t hang around long, leaving forever while still a child. He never wrote or said much that betrayed his Valley roots and wasn’t even all that firmly French. He spent much of his productive thinking and scribbling life in the Netherlands.

These facts have not deterred the promoters of Loire literary links.  In fact, La Haye en Touraine, the town where Descartes was born, changed its name to emphasize the association for all time. It is now known simply as the Village of Descartes.

For this reason, I smiled when we checked into our hotel in Azay-le-Rideau.  Just off the dining room, a closet or storage room has been dedicated to and duly named in honour of René Descartes. As far as I can tell, he never set foot in the closet or the town. 

I thought it was funny.

But after crossing the courtyard to our room, I found another door and another name - La Fontaine - another French writer and another one not really associated to this region.   At this point, I noticed other decorations – an old student desk, bookcases, and a display of rulers, inkwells, and drawing tools.  

The Hotel de Biencourt, it turns out, housed a school for centuries, and the décor and the literary room names honour these times.

But the history that draws guests to the hotel and to the town revolves around the 16th century Château a few blocks away.  The Chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau is a typical Renaissance castle and popular because it seems to rise up magically in the middle of the river and because of its sketchy backstory.  

The extravagance of the castle was kicked off about five hundred years ago by a character named Gilles Berthelot, the Mayor of Tours and Treasurer-General of the King's finances.   Berthelot didn’t finish the project.  He had to flee into exile when his family came under suspicion for financial indiscretions – indiscretions of the kind that carried the death penalty.

Walking back to my room, I imagined the 19th schoolmasters pointing to the castle and reciting this cautionary tale.  

Hey - Maybe celebration of Descartes isn’t to attract tourists to the great things in the Loire, but rather to tell the youth that they can achieve great things if they leave.

Day 9 - Dinner with Rabelais

For many years, if asked to name the ideal dinner companion from history, I would scratch my chin, look to the ceiling, and say “François Rabelais, I suppose.”

A pretentious answer and effort to flaunt my interest in humorous literature. It was also a little dishonest.

I never really knew much about the 16th century French writer; I skimmed some of his stuff on Project Gutenberg and read Wikipedia, but that was about it. I think I was enamoured with the idea of François Rabelais and with being labelled Rabelaisian rather than being any kind of student of his work.


Known for an unusual mix of fantastical stories, crude jokes, and biting social commentary, he poured out volumes of satire at a time when such activity could see your blood poured out on a dungeon floor.  

I like that, but again I was a bit of a fraud.

“Hey, guess who was born in Chinon ? - your hero Rabelais,” my wife said the night before our walking tour of the Loire took us to this town. “But I guess you knew that?”

“Uhh, yeah, right,” I said, picking up the iPad and tapping Google Chrome. 

That night, I read bios, online travel guides, and, with greater resolve than before, those quirky books on Project Gutenberg.  

Most of his stories follow two giants, Gargantua and Pantagruel, a father and son duo who celebrate excess in many forms.  Eating, drinking, urinating, and other activities that no doubt amused some unpolished audiences of the 16th century.   

But you don’t have to read too long to recognize a more sophisticated agenda, one aimed at skewering the church, the state, and other authority in stories like that of the corrupt clergy, “the Holy Bottle,” dim-witted leaders, and “the land of Pettifogging.”  

I loved it.   

I can’t say it was an easy read nor did I catch every allusion.  But the imagery and language seemed different from anything I had ever read.  I worked with the English translation, but because much of this was generated during the 16th century, it probably reflects well the creativity and playfulness that I had always presumed of Rabelais.  The drinking and urinating stuff was pretty funny too.

Though scholars still debate the precise location of his birth, Rabelais clearly regarded himself as a Chinon native son, and his stories have many Chinon references, often poking at his birthplace in a lively way.  Though Chinon, with its fortress, its museums, and its firm association with Joan of Arc, has other things to celebrate, it lets you know in its promotional literature that it also gave us the venerated, but fun-loving Renaissance writer. 

The next day we walked into Chinon, found our hotel, and, despite the rain, made a pilgrimage to the waterfront and the statue of the local literary hero.  Inspired by an early, though not contemporaneous, portrait, the statue presented him robed and seated as someone of dignity, but the face was that of a grizzled, later life rascal.

“Hey, he kind of looks like you,” my spouse-photographer said. “I’ll try to show that with the angle and the light.”

“Oh, thanks.”

That night, about three blocks down the Quai Jeanne d’Arc at the Lion D’Or café, we had lots to talk about. 

The fortress, the walk through the vineyards that day, and the next stop on our route.

But I bubbled with enthusiasm about Rabelais - his life and writing not his appearance so much.  I confessed the obvious and what my dinner companion suspected  – that I had learned most of it the night before and had just read the Gargantua and Pantagruel books for the first time.  Though I monopolized the air time beyond the edicts of considerate conversation, Michele indulged me and agreed that Rabelais was quite the character and that we probably could use more of his kind today when authority begs comical critique.

Even though "le quart d'heure de Rabelais” refers to "not having  money when the waiter brings the bill", I still found myself saying to my wife “You know, I really do think I would like to spend an evening with Francois Rabelais.” 

“I think you just did,” she said.

Loire 10 - Protest-Parade Poser

I am a protest-parade poser.  I am Canadian.

When asked whether I’d take part in the International March for Science (April 22nd – Earth Day 2017) in Paris, I evaded the question.  I work for a science organization, share the concerns, and knew my daughter would march in the Toronto parade.

Yet I can’t say that I felt the need to impress Rebecca nor to add my voice to fight for science.  The protest also fell on the day we were booked to head off for the Loire Valley, and I cited this as my reason for not going. 

Then on the day before, a colleague of my vintage, said “Aw  - come on ! How often do you get to go in a protest parade in Paris?”  I knew that this fellow baby boomer was recalling the French student protests of the 1960s.  Protesting in the streets, manning the barricades Les Misérables-style does seem like a very Parisian and just thing to do.

Checking the schedule for the march and the schedule for the trains, I learned that (1) we were to leave for Amboise at 1:30 PM from the Gare d'Austerlitz; (2) that March for Science was to begin at about the same time in the Jardin des Plantes next to the Gare d'Austerlitz.

So, as soon as we arrived at the station, I left an anxious Michele with our bags and ran down the street to the gates of the Jardin. I didn’t see any marching, but watched the setup, mingled with the crowd, and heard a few speeches. I took a selfie for my daughter and left for the Gare.

Looking out the train car window an hour later, I thought my participation was pretty tepid, pretty lame, pretty Canadian.  Aside from tuition-fee protests in Quebec and the Idle No More demonstrations for aboriginal rights, Canadians haven’t gotten off their butts very often or, at least, very vigorously in recent years. We are known as a people who sheepishly accept our lot, bow to big business and government, pay high bank rates and telecom fees, smile and thank our abusers, and say excuse me in the process.

Not the French.  They get worked up and scary even about things like peer-reviewed research and scientific data.

Knowing many people need convincing on climate change, on the benefits of biotechnology, and on the need for artificial intelligence, I felt a little uncomfortable amidst my fellow March for Science protesters. 

“You know, if that protest wants to influence ordinary people, they probably shouldn’t use a Frankenstein killer robot as their symbol,” I said to my wife. “They might have cranked back the megaphone a bit too.”

Nevertheless, I found myself wishing I could have marched in the protest that day and assumed that I had missed a unique opportunity.

A week and a half later, we were in Angers wrapping up our Loire Valley holiday and getting ready to catch a train back to Charles de Gaulle Airport and the flight home.  After a walk of 120 kilometres, it wasn’t bad to have a couple of days rest, but we were a little bored.  All of the shops, most of the restaurants, and even the museums were closed. 

It was the May 1st weekend.

La Fête du Travail is a big deal in France.  A day to not only celebrate workers and workers’ rights, but to campaign for more and to stage protest marches. This year with the presidential elections at the same time, the protests took a lively bent everywhere and, in Angers, they took the form of a long, noisy march right in front of our hotel on the main drag, Boulevard du Maréchal Foch.

The combination of nothing else to do and a wistfulness over missing the Paris protest prompted me to run down to the street and join the march for a few blocks. Again, I took a selfie and the bowed out.  

It was OK.  But I did feel like a poser. I wasn’t sure what was being protested exactly and what we were yelling and singing about - other than to let Marine Le Pen know she would not be invited to the post-parade wine and cheese.

The next morning, riding in the TGV to the CDG, I read online that other May Day marches had taken a violent turn with fire bombs, water cannons, Molotov Cocktails, tear gas, and injured police.  Protesters interviewed by the media said that they were fighting Le Pen and the Front National, of course, but weirdly they also promised to protest Macron if he got elected.

“These guys are nuts,” I said, thinking that sometimes not protesting makes more sense.

I rationalized that if the choice is violence or misrepresenting an idea, pursuing quieter and respectful avenues make a better statement on some issues.

But then again, I am Canadian.