Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Serendipity of the Val de Loire

I was seriously busy - had had an important call that morning, which meant the way was cleared for some serious work - including the next edition, but...the next day I was meant to be going away - abroad in fact. I couldn't believe I'd been talked into going away at the beginning of the new term, with so much work to do, so much vital stuff to sort out about the Bulletin's future, and rehearsals for the Autumn Festival show...How could it have happened? And anyway, can't one get enough amusement out of a beautiful region like the South West? I began to look hunted when people asked me if I was looking forward to it - what, seasickness followed by travelling miles in the heat?? And spending more money when the Bulletin had just lost its funding? Were they mad? What, I asked myself, could possibly be worth that? and a huge chunk out of my work schedule to boot! 

   I soon found out. The ferry from Portsmouth set off in glittering water. I joked about telling people I'd always wanted to visit Portsmouth! and the sea was rough mid way. Enough for seasickness which I hadn't seriously expected...then the remembering to be on the other side of the road, the unfamiliar signs and road numbering system to get the hang of - going the wrong way in Le Havre...was this the stress I'd expected? The first place to stop and actually look around on the way was Chartres. The countryside had flown by in a flat huge-fielded uncertainty, like a dry fen without the hedgerows. The Cathedral seemed to be the main feature in a barren landscape. And it was beautiful - not only for the famous electric blue windows, but for the unexpected height of the vaulting, the intricate stonework both inside and out, and the darkness punctuated by the fluting at the top of each pillar being lit up, with some vision. The deep colours of the windows glowed vivid against the unfamiliar gloom of a cathedral designed to keep the heat of the sun out. The famous maze on the stones of the floor, a sensational stained glass studio shop nearby...
   And a day after arriving in the Loire itself, came Chateau de Blois, a marvellous palimpsest of a building, with four distinct styles of grand architecture set around a courtyard. Inside, each room more breathtaking than the last, with vast fireplaces of splendid decoration, and walls beyond description. They were papered - if papered is the right word, with stuffs that the word 'wallpaper' just doesn't seem fit for - like jacquard wrapping paper or huge fleur de lys stencils, or thin velvet, large and beautiful motifs in dark and vivid colours, like old gold fleur de lys on royal blue, covering every wall, every beam of the high ceilings, and every part of the ceiling between the beams. How did it not look like Laura Ashley on acid? But it didn't. It was all restored and finished to be the platonic ideal of regal splendour mixed with fairytale enchantment and timeless elegance. Strangely homely and intimate despite the lavish fourposter beds and epic stone crests, the chateau was quite unlike anything in the UK. The rest of Blois seemed to be trying hard to live up to surrounding such a jewel, and as well as stylish open carriage rides leaving from the front gates, the dazzling church of St. Nicholas just opposite with its fine modern art windows in rich crimsons, the imaginatively lit city walls and staircases at night, it also boasted a son et lumiere at the chateau. And very kindly, on Wednesday nights, even in English! It was entirely in keeping with the chateau itself, as the walls changed from blood red, to blue fleur de lys, to black and white, to rain, to starlit, historic scenes marched past intermixing with special effects - the castle looking like it was draped in velvet with giant gilded tassels hanging down, or a blaze of religious stained glass, or some Venetian palace in neon shades. An extraordinary spectacle. I only wondered that the programme didn't name the designer.    
   The days that followed brought Chenonceau and other chateaux - very wonderful, some like the National Trust with turrets and not so characteristic as Blois. A charming town called St. Aignan, with remarkably engaging vistas of the private chateau's public courtyard, tower and staircase with another excellent view over the town and surrounding greenery, a fine church with its crypt open and full of original wall paintings, no less. Houses, barns and cellars built into caves by the side of the roads, and at last on the way back, Rouen and the misty Seine. A large sign outside the Cathedral said 'This is my studio' in French. It was what Monet had said of the area, and looking up at the filigree of the cathedral and recalling his many paintings of it, and having crossed the Seine with that characteristic morning light, I could see exactly what he had meant. And Rouen was too full of good things and architectural wonders, chocolatiers where they sold coffee pots made of chocolate and had a chocolate fountain! to be done in a hurry, but there was a ferry to be caught back nonethless...

   I thought it would just be a week taken from the all important work schedule. And now all I can focus on is a succession of unexpected images of light on eighteenth century conceits, of chapels hidden in hollows of high churches, and quirky pavement cafes. Speaking broken school French in memory of a special week...Enchante. 

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