Breakfast at the hotel is an extensive spread -- for a French breakfast, that is. A couple of kinds of yogurts (all full-fat, of course!), cereals (sugar pops, corn flakes), full fat milk, baguettes, croissants, factory-made fruit loaves, butter and packaged jams, orange and grapefruit juices, a few breakfast meats (which tended to be less salty than we expected), coffee and tea.
We meet our driver, Juan. He's Belgian, like many ETBD drivers, since they tend to contract with the Belgian bus firm, Heidebloom. Juan speaks French and Flemish, and has been studying English.
Oh -- another "did I mention?": Sarah has been preparing the daily schedules in an incredibly artistic manner. Yesterday's was a watercolor of France. Today's is a wonderful sketch of the west entrance to the Chartres Cathedral.
We leave our bags in the lobby, and head out into town. We have twenty minutes to explore, before we must meet the group at the Cathedral.
Phil and Joan and Brig and I decide to try to locate a flower market that someone had mentioned might be in operation today. We figure that it must be at the covered market we had seen last night, a block or two from the cathedral. Nope. I try out my bad French, asking a workman if he had heard of a flower market anywhere nearby. He replied that he hadn't, but that I might be able to purchase flowers at the Place de Cygne, down that street and to the right. I thank him and pass the word along, adding that the Place de Cygne is more of an pedestrian mall than a marketplace -- this is where Brig and I had bought some cookies the previous day. We head down the street and turn left, for some reason. Before I can point this out, I see why we made the wrong turn. Indeed, there are perhaps 6 or 8 carts of fresh flowers, including cockscomb, several kinds of roses, and lots of other kinds of flowers I'm too clueless to be able to name. After admiring the flowers (no buyers!), we join the group at the church, and meet our local guide.
Malcolm Miller is a Brit, who came to Chartres Cathedral something like 40 years ago, planning to write his doctoral thesis on its history. The thing is, he apparently decided to stay. Miller apparently now knows more about the Chartres Cathedral than any other living human. He makes his living by conducting tours and selling books -- and of course, his books are sold in the Cathedral bookshop and in stores all over town (surprisingly, this is one of the few books that Amazon does not carry!). This building, known as Notre Dame de Chartres ("Our Lady of Chartres", meaning that it is dedicated to Mary), is the oldest operating medieval Gothic church in existance. Its raison d'être is to display a relic: Mary's birth wrappings. As with the Shroud of Turin, scientific analysis indicates that this silk cloth really is around 2,000 years old. Dr. Miller tells us how to read and interpret the stained glass, and describes a lot of the history of the site, and the various edifices that comprise the current church. If you want details, you ought to obtain a copy of his book! His tour is definitely worth taking.
We stop to take a look at the relic, which provided an industry for Chartres, in the form of streams of pilgrims, coming to look at it. Then, it's tower-climbing time. For €4 apiece, we climb the north tower (the one in "flamboyant gothic" style). This affords some very nice views of the countryside and of the flying buttresses that support the church's walls.
And then down we go, and into a glass-art shop next to the cathedral. There are several interesting pieces here. I particularly like a reworked glass brick, which now holds a freestanding feather. It's an interesting juxtaposition of the cold, inanimate glass, versus the delicate feather that responds to a breath of air.
I just loooove picnics! Kristen has promised to do them as often as possible, which is just fine with me.
We pack up and troop back to the hotel, to take our bags from the lobby, and throw them into the bus. We're on the road to the Loire Valley.
Around 90 minutes later, we make an arrêt pee-pee (yes, a pit stop) at a rest facility. In a parklike setting, this is pretty rustic. Stoop toilets, and NO WATER (the faucets are all shut off). Thank goodness for Purel!
Heading back to the bus, I comment on the enticing aroma coming from a truck parked nearby. Next to this big rig from Portugal (according the the license plate) are a couple of truckers who are preparing their lunch. Brigid goes off to inquire. Apparently, they're making a chicken-and-spaghetti dish. After cooking the chicken in the pot, they throw in the spaghetti. Then they drain the spaghetti and serve with the chicken. Brigid goes back to the truckers and brings them some cookies. They invite her to share their lunch, but she declines -- we've already eaten, and besides, it's time to leave.
We arrive at Hotel Diderot in Chinon. It's a very pretty little hotel, arranged around a courtyard/parking area. We grab our keys and load the bags into our room. And a lovely room it is, with an elaborately carved headboard on the bed, and a huge antique wardrobe. Hewn lumber beams appear to support the place. I wonder how old this hotel is, anyway!
The group treks up the hillside to meet Monsieur Didier, our local guide at the Château de Chinon. This is a ruin of a fortress château that has been in use since the 11th century, or earlier. Its greatest claim to fame is that this is the site where Jean D'Arc came to convince Charles VII to give her the soldiers that would put him on the throne of France, during the Hundred Years War. As everyone knows, the Hundred Years War took somewhat longer than 100 years. During her quickie history lesson on the bus, Kristen indicated that it had lasted for 114 years. During M. Didier's performance (he's a bit of a character), we learn that the Hundred Years War lasted 116 years. We were all amused, and Kristen was red-faced at her (minor) gaffe. It's always helpful to have a little ammunition for needling, when necessary!
After the tour (there are some truly excellent views from the Château, particularly of the surrounding countryside, and of the sparkling Vienne River), we leasurely make our way past the flowers, fig trees and grape vines growing along the side of the road, back to the hotel for a brief respite before dinner.
Dinner is included with the tour, and is at a fine restaurant called Les Années Trente (The Thirty Years). As we take a leisurely walk to the restaurant, we have the opportunity to appreciate the quiet beauty of the town (only occasionally having to duck out of the way of a passing car). We pass a small, café-lined plaza where the younger crowd hang out. Many of the town's homes are beautifully restored.
The dinner is nearly indescribable. Thank goodness Brig took photos!. Let's see, for starters:
For the entrée (which is what we would call the appetizer):
I had a mackerel paté on a thin pastry crust, and it was far more delicious than it sounds;
Brigid had the most delicate and delicious rabbit kidneys (yes, you read that right), with a mushroom puree served in an eggshell, on a pastry crust.
The main dish (the "plat", en français):
I had a filet of "Dorade" fish (no, I don't think this is what we call dorado, which may be another name for mahi-mahi). It was a thin filet of "sea brim", with firm, flaky flesh, and was flavorful, but not in the slightest bit fishy. It was served atop a crepe, and the crepe, in turn, was served atop a wonderfully delicate poached calamari (perhaps poached in red wine?).
Brigid had lamb with snails, and it, too, was delicious. Brigid convinced Phil and Joan, our tablemates, to try their first snails. They were good sports, and seemed to be no worse for the experience.
Cheese course! Brig asked for some selections that wouldn't be too strong. -- and definitely no goat cheese! Our server selected a couple of brie-like varieties, which she enjoyed.
I'm a total blank on this, so I asked the server to choose a small bit of several cheeses for me, including at least one goat cheese. I didn't catch the names of any cheeses, unfortunately. The mold-encrusted goat cheese was pretty good, but I didn't dare try to convince Brig to sample it. There was one brie-ish, orange-rinded cheese that had a unique flavor I enjoyed. I cannot possibly describe it, other than to say that it was vaguely barnyardish! I didn't pass that characterization along to Brigid when I suggested that she try it. She liked it, too!
Ah, pour le dessert:
I had a fabulous chocolate mousse (which the restaurant described as a ganache -- although in the U.S., a ganache is a fairly dense affair, something close to a fudge in consistency). The mousse was very light, distinctly chocolatey, and enhanced with orange notes. It was topped with an exquisitely thin plate of caramelized sugar, with bits of nuts in it, and surrounded by a thin layer of lemony sauce, spotted with berry sauce drops. The carmelized sugar was of the ideal thickness and consistency, so that a light rap with the edge of the spoon furnished a perfect sliver of crunchy crust to go with the mousse. An absolute delight to the eye and the pallette!
Brigid's dessert was a scoop of lemon sorbet atop fresh summer berries, in a very light berry sauce, and garnished with a mint chiffonade. Wow!
Before leaving, Brigid encourages me to ask Kristen if she could help with a wine question. Our friends from home, Jeri and Walt, had asked us to try to locate something called Vin Jaune ("yellow wine"), from a region called "Jaur". My Google search only turned up one remotely possible hit. Kristen has never heard of either the wine or the location. She consults the restaurant's manager, and they speculate that perhaps we mean Vin Jeune? A "young" wine, rather than a "yellow" wine? But the problem is that all wines start out as young. Finally, the manager consults with someone in the kitchen, and comes back with a possible suggestion that works in two ways: There is a "vin paille" from the Jura mountains. This is a "straw"-colored wine. There's a chance we'll be passing through this area toward the end of our trip. Perhaps we can track it down, after all!
Back to the hotel for my grapefruit and a far-too-long journalling session! Bon nuit.