Chasing chateaux in Loire Valley

At first glance, chateau Chambord seems like a mishmash of towers, turrets and chimneys. From up close, the impression remains unchanged.

Travel writers have often referred to Chambord as a castle straight out of a fairytale. Me, I think of it as some kind of medieval Disneyland. Except, one designed by the latter’s young visitors (hey, let’s thrown in one more chimney here, it’s such fun), rather than by an architect with a sense of moderation.

This is not to say that I do not like it; I marvel at its size and scale, and the opulence carelessly scattered across every room.

Chambord

In the Loire Valley region in the west of France, vestiges of the country’s royal past take the form of a hundred odd stately chateaux. In all this, Chambord easily stands out as the one of the grandest. Looking at it, it is tough to believe that it started life as a humble hunting lodge of the king Francois I. “Humble” may be misstating the facts a bit, for a mansion with 440 rooms – of which only 80 are open to the public, but believe me, even that is far too much to explore – and 85 staircases, all roofed by over 300 quirkily shaped chimneys.

The fact is that the king, who believed himself rivaled in greatness only by God, wanted his hunting lodge to showcase his power. And every element in the chateau works to that end: from the two massive spiral staircases in the middle of the central hall, to the fading tapestries hung on the walls and the sprawling park that encircles the mansion. Sadly, the high ceilings and draughty rooms made the chateau mostly inhabitable, and the king spent only a total of 42 days here over the years. All this trouble, all this expense, for a stay of six weeks – but then, each visit was a regal jamboree, with 12000 horses accompanying the king to transport his entourage and luggage.

The design of this Renaissance style building is often wrongly attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. On the same king’s invitation, Da Vinci did spend the last years of his life (1516 – 1519) in Amboise in the Loire Valley. But construction of this chateau began only around the time of his death, ruling out Da Vinci’s hand in it (the belief persists that he was the mind behind the spiral staircase, given its clever design). Till today, the architect’s identity remains unknown.

OpulenceI climb up this very staircase and walk through room after room of unbridled splendour: a royal bedchamber here, a library there, an ornate chandelier on a ceiling, a gilded fireplace in a corner. My most pleasant experience here is the time spent on the terrace, taking in the splendid views. I can see for miles all around me: the moat around the chateau, the roads leading up to it laid out in a neat pattern and the lush woods that are still home to hundreds of deer and boars.

Terrace

I find out later that Chateau Chambord has recently entered into an agreement with Udaipur City Palace to link their rich heritage and share knowledge on conservation. This is only fitting, for a castle that could easily pass muster with the most fastidious Indian maharajah.

If you can judge a region on pure grandeur of its buildings, then the Loire Valley proves itself second to none. France’s longest river, the Loire, makes the entire area fertile and prosperous. During the tiresome Hundred Years’ War (between France and England in the 14th and 15th centuries), the Loire Valley played a role of strategic importance. Add to it the region’s proximity to Paris. Therein lies the reason for all the castles here, which were later converted into pleasure palaces by the rich and famous.

The Loire Valley is also home to chateau De Chenonceau, just by the river Cher and also counted among the most magnificent and picturesque in France. What makes this 16th century castle extraordinary is that it was managed and protected by a series of shrewd and capable women. And dating back to an even earlier era is Chinon, the castle where a young Joan of Arc spent some time. Unlike most of the others, which were royal residences or mere status symbols, Chinon, was meant to be a stronghold. Though mostly in ruin today, its location on a rocky outcrop over the river Vienne itself makes it a stunner.

But the Loire Valley is not just about displays of pomp and power in the form of grand chateaux. On my drive through the region, I pass one picture postcard village after the other. Sprawling vineyards are just beginning to sprout leaves and fields of canola flowers keep me company throughout, like bright yellow carpets spread out by the roadside.

canola
(canola fields image courtesy: wikipedia)

roomsMy time in the Loire Valley area ends with another chateau experience at the Domaine de la Tortinière. This time, I am staying at this 19th century chateau converted into a luxury hotel. After a long day crammed with French cooking lessons and wine tasting sessions between all the chateau-chasing, I am glad to put my feet up at this charming castle tucked away in a quiet country lane. It has all the classic trappings of the chateaux from this region – sweeping driveway, pointy turrets and rolling parklands included – but the décor in the rooms borders on the comfortably modern.

chateau
(chateau images courtesy: Domaine de la Tortinière)

The entire valley has been designated a world heritage site by UNESCO, which describes it as an “outstanding cultural landscape.” Not surprising, I think, given its natural abundance and manmade treasures.

Travel Information

To get there, fly to Paris and take the train to the city of Tours, an ideal base to explore the Loire Valley.

For more information on the Loire Valley and to plan your trip, visit Atout France.

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Published in Deccan Herald on June 14 as Chasing castles

Call of the wild

Sitting on the terrace of the homestay in Corbett, shivering slightly in the crisp Kumaoni air, we glanced through the photographs from our evening in the forest. I realised then that I had shot an entire series on the tiger cub, which was the highlight of that safari, perhaps the whole trip. One of the images caught our attention: the cub licking his lips, a pensive glint in his eye.

At that moment, I recalled a joke from a long time ago. Question: “What did the tiger cub say when it saw us on the jeep?” Answer: “Meals on wheels.”

tigercub

It was all very well to joke about it then, as I warmed my hands in the bonfire, far away from the dark depths of the forest. Cut to a few hours earlier in the evening. As the tiger cub kept advancing towards our jeep, it was all I could do to keep my hold on the camera. Don’t think for a minute that cub meant a small, helpless animal. This tiger kid, less than 18 months old, was almost as big as his mother.

Shaky fingers. Dry throat. A frisson of fear mixed with the excitement.

This tiger sighting came after a long, tiring ride in the forest, where we saw more jeeps than animals. At one point, our driver Jalees, with his experience of over twelve years in this forest, stopped on a path where he sensed tiger movement. Within minutes, a dozen other jeeps had pulled up next to ours – the jungle drum system of communication is very efficient – in a buzz of eager eyes, animated whispers and cameras with bazooka lenses.

As if to herald her presence in the area, the tigress roared, the sound reverberating in an air already thick with anticipation. A rustle in the dry bushes, a flash of tawny stripes and she was gone. This was the elusive Sharmilee, recent mother of two and queen of Corbett’s Bijrani Zone. True to her name, Sharmilee played hide and seek with us for a while, and finally bored of it all, vanished into the wilderness.

Apart from a few sporadic alarm calls from the deer, Bijrani stayed silent for the rest of the evening. The big sighting came without any warning – no alarm calls of sambar deer, no pug marks – on our way out of the forest. We turned a bend and there he was, Sharmilee’s son, walking towards us. My mind could not process this at first: wow, is that a really large deer?

The cub stopped in front of our jeep with a thoughtful look (possibly the aforementioned joke running through his mind). And so we stood, facing each other for over ten minutes. Here is when I learned, there is no winning a staring contest with a tiger. In fact, there is just no meeting eyes with a tiger. Yellow, cold, menacing. But I am not complaining; this was my best tiger sighting in all my forays into Indian forests.

tiger

Corbett is India’s first National Park, set up in 1936, and initially named after the local Governor Malcolm Hailey. It was renamed later in honour of Jim Corbett, fearless slayer of man-eaters and ardent conservationist (called “Carpet Sahib” by locals). Corbett’s other claim to fame is that it was the first tiger reserve to be brought under Project Tiger in 1973.

Although not considered the best place for tiger spotting (punters who equate wildlife with tigers are better off at Ranthambhore or Bandhavgarh), Corbett compensates with a large population of tuskers and hundreds of avian species. With the Ramganga river flowing through the National Park and the striking grasslands which often grow tall enough to hide the elephants, it is also one of the most beautiful forest landscapes in India.

landscape

fauna

We were staying at The Ranger’s Lodge, a quiet homestay between the Bijrani and Jhirna zones, right along the periphery of the forest. Our host, Imran Khan, is a dedicated naturalist and a Corbett veteran, who accompanied us on every safari. I am forever grateful to Imran for introducing me to the joys of bird watching. It started right from my first morning at his home, where dozens of birds gathered for a summit meeting in his garden, each on his preferred perch.

By my second safari, the morning after the up close and personal encounter with the big cat, I had begun to keep my sights trained on the trees and not the ground. Of course, I was still privately calling them “small yellow bird” and “ugly fat thingy” but Imran was supremely patient and pointed out the details that would help me identify them (hopefully, some day): white eyebrows, red throat, curved beak and so on.

birds

The morning was bone-numbingly cold, the mist swirling above the tall grass and rendering the forest grey and languid. The only excitement came in the form of a large herd of elephants crossing the road right in front of us, the babies scrambling behind the adults in a purposeful (and slightly frightened) manner. After that, for a long time, the forest stayed still, all forms of life waiting for the chill to abate.

elephants

Slowly, as the sun peeked out, all the usual suspects emerged – chital, sambar, langur, peacocks – and some of the not so usual too, including wild boar and jackals. And I loved the way bird names rolled off my tongue: brahminy starling, white-throated bushchat, great Indian hornbill, coppersmith barbet. Of course, I was repeating the names after Imran, but by then I was well hooked into this birding business.

If our Corbett safaris began with a rendezvous with a tiger, they ended with a confrontation with a tusker. It was my first (and not a happy one, I can assure you) incident of being almost assaulted by an elephant. “Mock charge,” Imran said smugly. “He is trying to scare us away.” Oh well, he succeeded. We waited in a patient “leave or let leave” policy but this rogue had decided to block our path and kept charging at an alarming pace each time we tried to move ahead. I don’t think Jalees, in all his years of driving inside Corbett National Park, had reversed at such speed.

tusker

And so we spent a good half hour playing mind games with a wily elephant. Again, after getting out of it safe and sane, I could boast about it being a fascinating experience. Back at Imran’s home, my husband and I felt like heroes returning from a gruelling battle, relating tales of our wild conquests (with the camera) to an enthralled audience.

The Galway gal

I spent my first evening at Galway going on a long long walk to kick a wall. Not that I was particularly angry or frustrated; I was just following local tradition by marking my presence at the end of Prom, the promenade that runs right along the sea at Salthill suburb.

Galway HookerOn that leisurely amble, I realised what the Irish mean when they say, “If you don’t like the weather in Ireland, don’t fret. Just wait for a minute and it will change.” Sure enough, it was bright and sunny when I set out from my hotel in the centre of town and cut through Eyre Square. Couples stretched out languidly on the grass reading or just soaking in the mild summer sun. Mothers watched over their playing kids as tourists stood in groups gawking at the rusting fountain modeled after the Galway Hooker (nothing improper about it; it is just the name for the traditional fishing boat of the area).

I was clutching at a map, strictly unnecessary since Galway is a small town in which it is tough to get lost. The weather gods continued to smile on me as I walked through the imaginatively named High Street and Shop Street, open only to pedestrians. The narrow shopping lanes suddenly opened up on to the Corrib river, another hotspot for the locals who were out in full force, feeding the swans who cannily stayed close to the banks.

“They are enjoying one of the six sunny days that Ireland gets in a year,” said Mark who fell in step with me as I headed towards the Claddagh and then the promenade. By the time I got to the wall (which I duly kicked), the sky had turned an ominous grey and the rain came down as fierce, fat drops.

River Corrib

Mark was a music teacher at the local college; music is the soul of Galway, a town whose rhythm is set by a young population. Of these, over a quarter are students. Seeing my interest in traditional music, he pointed me to the Tig Cóilí pub, the perfect place to listen to good Irish music (and seek shelter from the persistent, annoying rain). My first time alone in a pub, I was immediately embraced by the warmth of the locals and the pulse of the music.

Lonely Planet calls it a gem (as I discovered much later, after I had returned home), “Two live céilidh a day draw the crowds to this authentic fire-engine-red pub, just off High Street. It’s where musicians go to get drunk or drunks go to become musicians…” If Galway is called the most Irish of all Ireland’s cities, then I would call Tig Cóilí my most Irish experience in that country.

Trad music

Tig Colii

The next morning, I set off on a walking tour with Fiona Brennan, a Londoner married to a local and living there for many years now. Through Fiona’s stories, the medieval walls and buildings of Galway, so far hidden behind the shops and pubs, suddenly became visible. I also found out that several common English expressions such as “lynch mob” and “not giving the time of day” have their origins in this city.

Galway, now one of the fastest growing towns in Europe, has a history dating back to 1124. The name is believed to derive from the Gaelic word ‘Gaillimh,’ which literally translates to “fort at the mouth of the stony river”. Today, it is also the heart of Ireland’s cultural activities, hosting the Arts Festival, the Comedy Festival, the Jazz Festival and the Oyster Festival, among others every year. And at the entrance of the main shopping district, there is a statue dedicated to one of Ireland’s favourite sons, Oscar Wilde in conversation with Estonian writer Eduard Vilde.

After the guided walk, I explored Galway on my own some more, revisiting the places Fiona had pointed out. My favourite part was the Latin Quarter, the neighbourhood with the liveliest boutiques, pubs and hostels. Most of the buildings on this stretch had brightly painted facades and even at that time of the morning, there were a few buskers strumming on their guitars. The meandering cobblestoned streets had a laidback European feel about them, enhanced by the al fresco cafés lining the sides.

Galway lanes1

Galway lanes2

When I went to Galway, I was intrigued by the fact that it had been voted among the world’s sexiest cities a few years ago. Locals, including Fiona Brennan, had not heard about it and were surprised when I brought it up. After a couple of days wandering its lanes, I found my answer in Galway’s youthful Bohemian vibe, its pulsating music scene and undeniably cheeky Irish sense of humour.

Another day, I headed towards the Cliffs of Moher on the Wild Atlantic Way, counted among Ireland’s most popular tourist attractions. Over a million people visit the cliffs every year and it was easy to see why this is one of the ‘Signature Experiences’ on this 2500 kilometre route along the Atlantic Ocean. The cliffs rise to over 700 feet at their highest point, and stretch for eight kilometres. At several places, it is a straight vertical drop to the raging ocean below; a few daredevils stood on tiny ledges posing for photographs, imagining themselves on Titanic movie posters.

I spent a couple of hours walking on the narrow path, trying to locate the three Aran Islands in the distance. Nothing could spoil the tranquility of that experience: not the cacophony of the seagulls, not the rush of the tourists with their mobile phones. As I made my way back down towards the Visitor Centre, local musician Tina had just started her session with her harp. As her clear voice soared to the skies, I closed my eyes to savour that moment.

Cliffs of Moher

And on that lovely, sunny morning (in Ireland, it is difficult not to talk about the weather), I knew that there was nowhere else in the world I would rather be.

FACT FILE

Getting there: The nearest airport is Dublin, from where Galway is roughly three hours away by bus (available at the airport and can be booked online).

Other places to visit: Limerick is the other big city close to Galway and Ireland’s first Capital of Culture for 2014, with lots of fun events scheduled through the year. The Wild Atlantic Way drive is a stunning route of 2500 kilometres on Ireland’s West Coast, perfect for a self-drive holiday.