I have a strange inexplicable attraction to Gothic cathedrals. When I see one of these 1,000 year old monoliths up close I feel an overpowering need to hug it, or at the very least pet it; this proves impossible given that these buildings usually take up the space of a city block and are not conducive to cuddling. My attraction to cathedrals makes little sense to me given that I am not Catholic and know little about the structural benefits of flying buttresses. Guy appreciates a good cathedral, but prefers chateaux. France is littered with both so we took a few day trips to visit some of the best.
Planning these trips from afar requires some research. Ina Caro wrote a book with us in mind. Paris to the Past: Traveling through French History by Train outlines numerous day trips tourists interested in French history can take from Paris and still get back to their hotel by bedtime. [Caro is married to famed LBJ biographer Robert Caro. This fact has little to do with our adventures in France, but mentioning it gives me an opportunity to recommend The Passage of Power. I read Passage with students last year in my American Presidency class and we agreed that the pages turn themselves in this story about the Kennedy assassination and Johnson’s assumption of the presidency. Frank Underwood owns a copy. You should too.] I dream of taking every one of the trips Caro wrote about. Financial constraints limited us to just a few. We chose to visit Tours where we could see both a cathedral and castles.
I purchased train tickets from Rail Europe ahead of time. Travel books will tell you to save money by buying your tickets in France. I say that convenience and clear timetables are worth whatever markup Rail Europe puts in place. We bought the tickets from the website before we went to Paris and printed them at home. We took our passports with us to Tours because instructions on the tickets said that the conductor would ask to see our identification. Instead, each conductor took one look at us, listened to our wretched French accents and knew we must match the American names on the crumpled pieces of paper we handed him.
Train à Grande Vitesse, better known as TGV or bullet trains, move as fast as 320 kilometers an hour and make it possible to travel 126 miles in one hour and ten minutes. We boarded the TGV at Gare Montparnasse at 7:11 in the morning and arrived in Tours at 8:20 AM.We walked across the street to the Tourist Office and met Clémence our Acco-Dispo tour guide. She just completed her degree in tourism and has also worked as an au pair in Spain. Incidentally no woman in her right mind would bring the lovely Clémence into her home unless her husband was both blind and deaf. Clémence announced that typically the 15-seat van was full, but today Guy and I were her only passengers. As a result we enjoyed private car service from Tours to Amboise, Chenonceau and back again.
Fodor’s recommends Acco-Dispo tours and now we can too. Clémence regaled us with the history of the two chateaux and explained the Loire Valley’s agricultural identity as a producer of sunflower oil, grains, and wine, naturellement. She drove us to Amboise and gave us a pass so we could purchase entry tickets at a discount. Amboise is the fifteenth-century royal chateau that belonged to Francoise I among others. Francoise invited his friend Leonardo da Vinci to town in 1516.
Da Vinci spent the last three years of his life at a manor house up the road called Clos Lucé. At his request, friends buried him at Amboise when he died in 1519. Like many others in France (as we will see later) his body moved around with the destruction of one chapel or another. Experts believe that da Vinci’s remains are housed at Amboise in the St. Hubert Chapel. The chateau itself sits proudly above the River Loire and its splendor is best appreciated from a distance. A bust of da Vinci overlooks the chapel and is part of the manicured gardens that surround the chateau. Amboise is lovely and we learned a lot about the region during our visit. We found the other chateau on our tour, by comparison, utterly captivating.
Fodor’s describes Chenonceau as “achingly beautiful.” This kind of praise is difficult to live up to and when I first arrived I pronounced Chenonceau “achingly crowded.” Soon, my opinion changed. The French call Chenonceau “the ladies’ chateau.” Henry II gave this castle to his beloved mistress Diana de Poitiers in 1547. According to Clémence, Diane tired of taking a boat from her castle to the other side of the River Cher so she had an addition constructed that extended the chateau across the river. That arched structure is what makes Chenonceau “unique in the world.”
Diane lived there until Henry died and then his widow wanted to move in so she gave Diane a lesser chateau and moved into Chenonceau herself. The widow in question happened to be Catherine de’ Medici, a power player in sixteenth-century Europe. She designed gardens that rivaled the ones Diane had put in earlier. Catherine also wanted to hold some fancy parties. She added a gallery which today is called the Medici Wing, but is better known by its common name, “where bored teens sit and check Facebook.” By the end of our visit I was sorry to leave Chenonceau and will remember it as “achingly beautiful.”
Clémence drove us back to Tours. We wandered through narrow medieval streets and ate crepes on the square, Place Plumereau, which crackles with energy and activity. We spent some time in the Saint Gatien Cathedral which was built between 1160 and 1547. This cathedral is impressive, but it did not make a deep impact on me. Don’t get me wrong. Every Gothic cathedral is awesome. They are not, however, all the same. Some are more awe-inspiring than others. We returned to Paris and the next day visited my favorite Gothic landmark.
The first time we visited Paris each member of our family designated one spot as their favorite. Guy named the banks of the Seine, Kelsey the Eiffel Tower, Mackenzie Versailles, and Notre Dame chose me. On this visit to Paris I felt the same sensation. We took the Métro to Île de la Cité and walked a few blocks to the cathedral. When I turned a corner and saw Notre Dame I cried. Tears sprung to my eyes and I felt overwhelmed by the beauty and sheer wonder of this cathedral. Again, I cannot tell you why. We did not even go inside this time and the damn place still took my breath away. Tourists crowd the plaza in front of Notre Dame as if that spot provides the best view. It doesn’t. Walk around to the side and to the back of the building; those views deliver the real fireworks. The nuances of the architecture, the stained glass, flying buttresses, all of these things jump out and grab you when you step a short distance away. I wanted to pack up Notre Dame brick by brick and bring it home with me. I settled for buying a tiny replica from one of the many shops nearby.
After visiting Notre Dame we walked along the Seine on the way to the Latin Quarter, home of the Sorbonne. We wandered past those famous vintage book stalls seen in every movie set in Paris and the most amazing thing happened. A paperback of copy of Harry Potter á L’École des Sorciers flew from one of the stalls and landed in my hands as if by wizardry. The muggle in charge let me keep it for the bargain price of 3€.
By this time it had begun to rain. We climbed up a hill to the Pantheon and sought shelter under its portico. When the view from the Pantheon started to wear thin we dodged rain drops and made the short walk to Eglise St. Etienne du Mont. We dried off in this warm inviting church. We were not alone. The harder the rain fell the more pious the tourists became. Clovis, King of the Franks, built a church on this spot in 600. Paris outgrew the church and built a new one in 1400. The congregation consecrated it in 1627. I sat in St. Etienne and wrote in my little notebook, reveling in the notion that that no one would interrupt me or tell me it was time to leave. You know you’re in Paris when a seventeenth-century church you had never heard of before appears to give you shelter from a storm.
On the advice of our friend Gene, and Ina Caro, we spent the next afternoon visiting Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis. Saint-Denis (1144) is the first Gothic Cathedral ever built and if you are a cathedral person like me it will rock your world. It is located in a bustling immigrant neighborhood a quick Métro ride from the center of Paris. When we first arrived at the cathedral we were disappointed to see scaffolding covering the front of the building. As soon as we walked inside we forgot all about the renovations. This cathedral is a stunner. The nave of Saint-Denis has the highest of high ceilings supported by ribs that look like cake piping. The nave is massive and you would think its size would intimidate and push you away. Instead the opposite is true. The vast space pulls you in and makes you feel at home. Saint-Denis boasts “the world’s first rose window” among many other stained-glass windows. We visited on a warm sunny day and colorful light streamed through the windows bringing the room to life.
This light makes for a strange juxtaposition given that Saint Denis is also the “royal necropolis.” That’s right; the French buried nearly all of their kings and queens in this church. The place oozes with history. We saw Dagobert’s tomb, Dagobert! The guy was buried there in 639 for heaven’s sake, followed by Clovis who if his recumbent statue can be trusted towered over his subjects. BTW, a recumbent statue is a “funereal statue representing a person lying down.” We learned this definition from Saint-Denis’ essential yet much too confusing audio guide. I think the folks who run Saint-Denis should take the Chunnel to London and listen to the outstanding Westminster Abbey audio guide. They might also pick up some tips about how to protect their many recumbent statues from the public. The English, for example, don’t want your DNA anywhere near their beloved Elizabeth I so they surround their statues with gates and barriers. The French show less reverence for their dead monarchs, simply posting signs on the wall telling you not to touch anything. I could have reached over and grabbed Clovis’s nose or had coffee with Catherine de’ Medici if the mood struck me.
As it was I felt badly sneaking a few potato chips in front of the sarcophagus of Queen Arégonde. She died in 580 and probably never ate a potato chip. The French buried her with her husband King Clotaire. She fared better than Marie Antoinette whom the French tossed into an unmarked grave after severing her head from her body in 1793. In 1830, Louis XVIII brought the ashes of his brother Louis XVI and sister-in-law Marie to Saint-Denis for burial. He commissioned statues of the pair in which Louis XVI appears kingly, while Marie’s boobs hang out of her anachronistic dress making her look like a bit of a slut. You will find more accurate and sympathetic portrayal of Marie Antoinette in Sena Jeter Naslund’s moving novel Abundance.
This would probably be a good time to tell you that during the French Revolution a band of angry revolutionaries raided Saint Denis, pulled the bodies of their detestable monarchs from their gorgeous coffins, dumped them in a pit and liquefied them with lye. Later, Louis XVIII felt bad about this so he found the mass grave, scraped up some goo that may or may not have belonged to his predecessors and had it transferred back to royal ossuary at Saint-Denis. Somewhere along the way the shrunken heart of Marie Antoinette’s son, the dauphin (Louis XVII), turned up and the French placed it in a glass urn in Saint-Denis’ crypt. The heart is gross to look at, but still not as disturbing as Marie’s outfit.
Leaving these places behind, Saint-Denis, Notre Dame and Chenonceau, hurts me. That is the problem with visiting chateaux and cathedrals in France. One glimpse of the best of them can fill your soul making you want more.