Lovely vistas in the Loire Valley

So, after my long lay-off, it’s back to the high-minded business of being a traveller, and it doesn’t come much loftier than the Loire Valley! For example, the vaulted ceiling above the apse of Chartres Cathedral.

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We began our eight day self-drive exploration of the Loire Valley and Normandy by taking a train from Gare Montparnasse to the the town of Chartres, where we would pick up the rental car we had booked. Between modes of transport, we walked up to the famous cathedral, described by the great sculptor Rodin as “the Acropolis of France”.

I had visited the cathedral in 1982 and my memory of it, even at the height of summer, was of a dark space, relieved by the take-your-breath-away stained glass. Clearly, it has been spruced up since then!

One of the things I like about this Gothic monument is that, despite its size and despite the magnificence of the stained glass, it retains a degree of humility. Unlike St Peter’s basilica in Rome, say, it is not overly cluttered and decorated, and a visitor of the Catholic faith would, I imagine, feel quite able to spend time of quiet prayer, comfortable in the company of a great but gentle god.

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From Chartres, we drove south to the Chateau of Chambord, the largest residence built by royals and nobles in the Loire Valley.

Everything about Chambord is grand: the size of the rooms and halls; ceiling heights; fireplaces; the central staircase; and the decorative elements, both outside and within.

If you are interested, you can learn more about the architecture and history of Chambord at its official website. Here are some images from our visit.

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From Chambord, we made our way to the town of Saumur, where we would spend the next three nights. We had chosen Saumur because it is no larger than would support a good range of dining establishments, and because of the charming castle overlooking the town and the Loire River.

Here is an early morning view from our hotel room, followed by a view of the town from the castle.

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The centre of the town’s old heart, on the south bank of the river below the castle, was quite charming.

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During the morning, we took a leisurely walk across the Seine and up to the castle. You can learn more about it here.

Although the Chateau de Saumur is not nearly as grand as Chambord, it has several interesting features, including a dungeon and an ancient well. It also houses the municipality’s collection of arts and crafts, including several large and finely crafted tapestries and a wonderful collection of porcelain dining wares.

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Another early morning start – the weather was markedly warm for mid-autumn – set us on our way to Villandry, a chateau which is like the yang to Chambord’s yin. The edifice at Villandry is relatively modest but the chateau’s extensive gardens are so structured and decorative that they put those of Versailles in the shade! The gardens were meticulously restored early in the 20th century and are maintained to an intricate plan, according to the seasons.

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You can learn more here. A selection of our photos follows.

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On our final day in the Loire Valley, we travelled to the village of Chinon, site of a once grand chateau, now largely in ruins but still famed as the place where a young Joan of Arc first met the then French Dauphin.

Our impression of the village of Chinon, nestled between the still-towering ramparts of the chateau and a tributary of the Loire, is that it has largely been given over to noisy and crowded dining establishments, with only lip-service paid to its status as a place of honour on St Joan pilgrimages. We made our escape promptly after a light lunch.

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We had much better luck when we made a late decision to visit the Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud, regarded as the largest and most remarkably intact medieval abbey in Europe. You can learn more about the abbey’s myriad components here.

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Maggie and I felt quite replete by the end of our three days in the Loire Valley. Yes, we could have stayed a little longer, but we had another famous abbey on our itinerary – the one atop Mont St Michel.

A bientot!
Rick Grounds

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Back in the saddle: Take 2!

I’m back in the saddle, again, and this time I plan to stay there.

I have a trusty new hip and, after six weeks of recuperation and home-based rehabilitation, I can climb onto a horse all by myself. Well, metaphorically at least. I don’t know one end of a horse from the other, which is a very good reason to resist the urge to look a gift horse in the mouth!

But I can now put my socks on and I can also work in the garden and kitchen without the accompanying pain of osteo-arthritis; and I will be able to go on scenic walks in the Canadia Rockies in seven weeks’ time.

So, touch wood, I will soon be publishing some posts about our travels in the Loire Valley and Normandy in October last year.

Until then
Rick Grounds

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Fell off the horse again?

So much for being back in the saddle!

A series of stumbles, mainly in the form of family calamities, has made it impossible for me to finish the task of posting stories from our visit to France last year.

And today, I am being admitted to hospital for the hip-replacement surgery I foreshadowed last month. Come Wednesday, I will begin my rehab program, including sleeping on my back for six weeks. Won’t that be fun?!

I hope to resume sitting at my posting post before the end of April.

Until then,
Rick Grounds

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A celebration of cows

Celebration
Collective noun
(1) A group of brightly-coloured cows, esp. in Normandy, France; said to be inspired by the Bounty of Bears in Berlin.

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Paris: Picasso pleases but there were problems in paradise

Last September, Maggie and I made our fourth, and probably last, visit to Paris. We had booked to stay in our favourite hotel in Le Marais district for four nights, sandwiched between our river cruise and our visit to First World War battlefields.

On our first evening, we chose to dine casually in our room, feasting on a selection of goodies from the some of the fine local shops. “Where is the wine?” my friends would ask. Well, I was still suffering from a bug I had picked up somewhere between Melbourne and Amsterdam, so our ‘aperitif’ was a spritz of orange juice and mineral water.

Eating rough: take-out food from a Parisian epicerie

Eating rough: take-out food from a Parisian epicerie

The next morning, we set off for the main objective of our time in Paris – a visit to Musee Picasso, located within a pleasant walking distance of our hotel.

This was something we had waited nearly seven years to accomplish. The museum was closed for renovations when we visited Paris in December 2009 and September 2011; and it was due to reopen a few months after our brief visit to Paris in April 2014.

The museum is home to a vast collection of works by Picasso, as well as works by some of his contemporaries that formed part of his estate. The collection is housed in a handsome building dating from the mid-17th century, which has been renovated twice in the 40 years since it was acquired by the City of Paris for this purpose. You can learn more about the history of the building and how the collection came to be in public hands here.

The following selection of our photos shows original elements of the exterior and interior of the museum building; examples of the highly detailed and excellent interpretive material accompanying the exhibited works of art; and a small selection of the exhibits.

Overall, it was one of the great art museum experiences of our six visits to Europe since 2008 and well worth the wait!

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We spent the balance of our time in Paris strolling around hitherto unexplored parts of Le Marais; shopping for Maggie’s favourite perfume, Fragonard; taking our wonderful day trip to Monet’s garden at Giverny; dining out locally, including a surprisingly stodgy dinner at Pramil, a restaurant at which we had dined very well on two previous occasions; and a sad visit to the Trocadero district, where we discovered that the prices at our favourite cafe had climbed very steeply since April 2014!

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The escalation in prices became a recurring theme of our visit. However, the greater sadness was a noticeable decline in the volume of the sound of people being oh so happy to be in Paris.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, we had expected to come across a highly visible presence of armed police and soldiers. We saw little of that but, in a way, the flat ‘vibe’ was actually more alarming. We had read that there had been a 20% decline in the number of Americans visiting Paris; that would help to explain what we observed. Our hosts assured us that it was all business as usual but even they seemed a little subdued.

So, is fitting that I conclude this post with a grey image of the Eiffel Tower, devoid of the usual milling throng of tourists at its base.

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Au revoir Paris!
Rick Grounds

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Back in the saddle

A few weeks ago, I told my small body of regular readers that I would be taking an indefinite break from blogging. At the time, I had too many challenges in my life and I needed to devote more of my time and effort to tackling them. In some cases, the challenges were also eroding my desire to write.

This week, I am happy to report that some of those challenges have been resolved and I am ready to return to blogging, hence the three short cooking posts I published yesterday.

However, I am still struggling with two chronic problems.

The first is my left hip, which is afflicted with severe osteo-arthritis. Late last year, I went from finding it frustrating and, occasionally, very painful, to feeling miserable, with constant low-level pain, reduced functionality and tiredness, punctuated daily by several moments of sharp pain. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. In just 26 sleeps I will be in an operating theatre having my hip replaced, followed by a period of rehab. (Bet you’re hoping I don’t share too much of that experience!?)

The other chronic problem is less amenable to a permanent solution. For more than 40 years I have suffered from depression. A prescription medicine and occasional psychotherapy help me to enjoy life most of the time, but I remain more vulnerable than most people to experiencing the blues. Happily, one of the main triggers for me going downhill has been resolved in the last couple of weeks, and that has helped to rekindle my enthusiasm for writing.

So, between now and going under the knife, I will try to publish some further posts about our travels in France last year. Beginning with our visit to Musee Picasso in Paris.

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Plum job puts some spice in our life

We had a ton of tomatoes, our neighbours had a surplus of satsumas. Plums that is. And they kindly shared the feast of fruit with their friends. Like us!

Normally, I would convert these fleshy, red plums into one of my plum cakes and stew the balance to have with muesli and yoghurt of a morning. However, this year’s supply was delivered when Maggie was in a mood to make savoury condiments, so she hit the internet to find a recipe or two for me to appraise.

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You can read the one we decided to follow here. Over the following fortnight, she made three batches and we made some modest modifications along the way. Firstly, we took up suggestions from some of the recipe’s reviewers: add some ‘plum’ tomatoes, known as Roma in Melbourne (we peeled them first); simmer without a lid; and more ginger (we made it 80ml and used what is known here as ‘naked’ ginger).

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We also discovered that you need to be mindful of the flavour of the plums when you add the cayenne pepper – the ‘fruitier’ the plum, the more cayenne it can handle, so perhaps use half a teaspoon if your plums have a mild flavour.

What else? We were casual about how many plums we used in each batch but it was probably a good 10% more than specified. Maggie put all the ingredients in her pan at the same time, cooked them over gentle heat until the sugars were dissolved and then cranked it up to a busy simmer. To finish, she mixed about 15ml of cornflour with some cold water and stirred it into the chutney to thicken it a little more. And, for Australian readers, ‘raisins’ translates as sultanas.

So far, we have found the chutney to be a pleasing partner for roast poultry and baked pork ribs. Before long, it will be put to the duck test!

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Cheers!
Rick Grounds

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