French Castle Fatigue

Tourism can ruin treasures, non?

By Steve Burgess 25 Jun 2007 |

Steve Burgess is filing regular postcards home from his six-week trip around Europe.

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Chenonceau: travel decisions based on nostalgia.

Summertime in France's Loire Valley: a cloudy sky with just a few drops falling. The air is full of tiny, black, flying beetles. They're everywhere. I'm sitting by the river in the pretty town of Amboise. Every few seconds I feel something land in my hair. I really, really hope it's starting to rain.

I hear Vancouver's getting a lot of that. At least you don't have the beetles, if it makes you feel any better. The Loire is very pleasant anyway, a lush valley full of huge chateaux once owned by French kings and their mistresses. The fields are full of young wheat and the roads are lined with bunches of beautiful orange flowers. The orange flowers are all crawling with little black beetles. There's a connection there, I'm thinking.

I came here to look at the castles. Only after I arrived did I remember that I hate doing that kind of stuff. It's true -- I chose a week in the Loire after scanning a map of France months ago. Belatedly, I now realize that I was responding unconsciously to the memory a long-ago TV show, seen when I was just a lad, which showed the stunning castles of the Loire. At the time I thought it was what France was all about -- country roads, full of castles. Travel decisions are oft made on such dimly remembered promptings. Even now someone is landing in sub-Saharan Africa, vaguely dismayed that it doesn't really look like it did on The Simpsons.

Mobs of castle gawkers

So this week I arrive, visit a chateau -- the remarkable edifice at Chenonceau, which has a fascinating history -- and quickly resolve to do something else with the rest of my week. The chateau was fine, but trundling out to a tourist site and shuffling along with mobs of fellow gawkers is my idea of a pissy day. One glance at the crowd pouring down the old castle steps was enough to make me long for the era of boiling oil.

Luckily, the Loire has some lovely towns. I'm just outside Amboise, which to my surprise turns out to be the place where Leonardo da Vinci died, selflessly giving his life for local tourism. Blois is also a pretty town despite the projectile pronunciation. And in the other direction is the major centre, Tours. I've spent about half my time there. It's historic, yet shoppy. After managing to get out of Paris with my wallet intact, I was not prepared to be blindsided by lovely, expensive shirts in such an unexpected place. I succumbed.

Back to Chenonceau, briefly – 16th century French King Henry II gave it to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. I don't know why she isn't more famous among women of a certain age. She first became the King's mistress when Henry was 15 and she was 35. 25 years later, on his deathbed, he was still calling for her, although the Queen wouldn't let her visit. Now there's a woman.

Henry II actually died from jousting. Not only that, he did so in Paris's Place des Vosges, about a block from my Paris hotel. Between Henry and Leonardo, I've been on a real Renaissance celebrity death tour. After a short return to Paris I'm off to Vienna, where a young Adolph Hitler wandered the streets feeling insecure and unworthy. Sadly, he got over it. A shame he never took up jousting.

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