The Loire: Bringing Nostalgic Dreams of France to Life
The way the baguette rips apart, its weightless white inside and the shattered crust that hurts the roof of my mouth. The purple jam, the wavy lettuce, the red chequered cloth that lines the breadbasket (heck, even the fact there is a bread basket.) The red diamond above the yellow poste, blazing the word “tabac.”
These are the symbols of France, to me, of being there, living there, breathing there. They’re lifted straight from school textbooks as much as true memories of my own, from the era of gym skirts and pen friends, whose curling handwriting seemed so exotic and so foreign, and which still decorates chalkboard menus in France today.
They’re my daydream of France and it is on finding these things, of tasting them, seeing them, feeling them again that I know I’m back on French soil.
For this Brit at least, France combines the joy of travel – the discovery of something new – with the thrill of returning home, to bask in beloved routines and to bathe in the scene of the familiar.
So in that light, this trip to the Loire feels more family reunion than voyage to a faraway land.
No wonder it seems so familiar, even though it’s my first time here. The half-timbered streets of Le Mans featured in Cyrano de Bergerac, The Man in The Iron Mask and even The Three Musketeers. And, as it turns out, for centuries Anjou belonged to England – or was it the other way around?
The fertile land of the Loire produced the Plantagenet dynasty – a regal line responsible for as many as 14 English kings. Richard the Lionheart was actually Richard de Coeur de Lion and his wife lies buried at the cloistered beauty of the Abbaye de l’Epau (which, incidentally, in the summer of 2015 hosts an abstract photography exhibition with a Victorian themed circus.)
The squat, slate-tinted castle at Angers has an astounding medieval tapestry. In translucent threads woven onto midnight blue, it depicts the end of the world as told in Revelations and stretches across cavernous castle walls.
It also depicts the devils as English. So much for the family reunion. There’s even a petition for the Queen to “return” theb Crown Jewels to compensate for executing Edward Plantagenet, the Duke ofb Warwick and last “pretender to the throne.”
But away from the blood, murder and betrayal of historical family life, the Loire has a gentler, slower side: botany and the love of flowers.
The Chateaux d’Angers whets the appetite with its geometric lawns. The Donjon de Ballon expands on the idea by having them encircle a refurbished medieval residence. And the dedicated cycle tracks along the thick green rivers further emphasize this French region’s fertility.
But it’s the Terra Botanica that really puts the pollen among the stamen, so to speak.
“It’s difficult to explain the concept in a single sentence,” says Boris, a young man dressed in an apron and a straw hat who greets me at the entrance to this educational plant amusement park.
He’s not wrong, as we hop on an automated wooden boat that glides beneath magnolia while a Disneyworld-esque voice explains the story of tulips and the resulting financial crash.
Within the hour, I’ve raced to the centre of the earth on a 4 dimensional Hollywood mine cart, survived a shipwreck en route to South America and waded through the steamy swamps of the dinosaur hinterland before the meteor struck and obliterated most of life as we knew it.
All surrounded by immaculate flora and fungi.
Somewhere between the ice wall tundra and the arid heat of the cactus room, I wonder about the phrase “Green Disneyworld without the mouse.”
It’s not ideal, but it will have to do for now.
Another place that struggles with descriptions is a renovated farmhouse called La ferme aux histoires. Here, children’s author Nadia Gypteau along with her husband have fashioned a literary conservatoire where old children’s books and toys live alongside a traditional farmhouse café.
A little further into the country, a riverside mill has a second life too. Eric Gérard upgraded his laminating business into a funky art deco shop where patrons can sip old-fashioned cider while watching water tumble over stone.
It’s a fantastic place to sit and watch the world – and water - go by. With quotes from Churchill and de Gaulles on the shelves, my mind returns to those schoolbooks and my schoolgirl thoughts of France.
The Loire indulges my sense of nostalgia. But it’s also shown me innovation that manages not to erase the past. The restaurants may serve sushi, and wasabi-flavoured snacks alongside organic calamari and soupe à l’oignon.
But there’s one “grand family tradition” that France has yet to change.
The baguette. And the way it rips apart.