Thursday, November 14, 2013


Years ago my husband and I were traveling from London to Paris on the train early one morning after an all night flight across the Atlantic. I remember looking out the window through my jet lagged, sleep deprived eyes and being enchanted by the tranquility of the French countryside shrouded in the morning mist. The lush rolling hills, dotted with farm houses and small villages called out to me and I wished this was our destination. We went on to Paris and had a wonderful time, but I have kept the image of that peaceful landscape with me and hoped to return someday.

Someday was last month, Oct, 2013, as we returned to Paris, mainly to eat at the great restaurants for a few days, then pick up a car and venture into the 'real' France. We had no expectations or ideas about what we would experience, but I had done my research and chosen what I thought would be fascinating places to use as bases while we made our way to Basel, Switzerland where we joined a river cruise.
Our first base was at Chateau de La Barre still owned by French aristocracy, Comte et Comtesse de Vanssay (Count and Countess of Vanssay, pictured above). The chateau has been in the Vanssay family for over 600 years and they have opened it to quests as a Bed & Breakfast. Upon arrival Count Vanssay gave us a tour of the Chateau along with the history of his aristocratic family, while Countess Vanssay made detailed plans for us to follow as we explored the Loire Valley.

My favorite pastime is reading history and especially historical fiction. The events in some of these books took place in the magnificent chateaus and castles of the Loire Valley. I had images of these estates in my mind and was thrilled to be walking the same paths as the history-makers I had read so much about: Chenonceaux (above) with its arches spanning the river, Cheverny which still houses much of its original furnishings, and the immense castle at Chambord (below), each spectacular in its unique way.

For us, France is in large part about the food. The countess recommended wonderful restaurants where we ended our days of touring with locally produced meals and wine. What could be better? Maybe being served dinner at Chateau de La Barre with the count and countess, eating on the families antique china and drinking local wines from their 600 year old stemware? The dining room was filled with magnificent furnishings down to the linens embroidered with the family crest and of course the food was delectable. Our fairytale evening ended with after-dinner drinks served by the count and enjoyed by the fireplace, a perfect ending to our visit to the Loire Valley.  

From the Chateau our route towards Basel, Switzerland took us into Burgundy and the medieval village of Noyers. I wanted us to experience local life and staying in Noyers was very local indeed. The village was tiny and perfectly preserved as it was hundreds of years ago: narrow cobbled streets, old stone buildings, and families who have lived there for generations. Upon arrival at our B&B we rang the bell at the large wooden gate and were greeted by a friendly, English speaking Australian. Her story is for another blog, but we soon became fast friends and since we were the only guests, she went out touring with us, showed us her restored 800-year house,                                                                                          and introduced us around the village.

We drove around Burgundy and enjoyed the lovely vineyards and villages, tasting wines and of course eating the wonderful cheeses and fresh produce. The fruit was sweet and bursting with flavor, and during this time we learned why French food is so superior. I had always thought it was the French chefs with their rich sauces and complicated recipes, but driving through the farmland of Burgundy we noticed the dark, moist soil and commented that it looked like the potting soil we purchase at the nursery. France happens to be blessed with this luscious, nutrient rich soil naturally, along with regular and abundant rainfall, making for ideal farming and raising of livestock. Now I know why I love to eat and drink wine in France.

To be continued