Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Biking to Chenonceau

Jean-Francois was reluctant to give his name. Don't ask me why, but when I said, Je m'appelle David and reached out to shake his hand, he stumbled thru several sentences before he surrendered his name. Perhaps the gesture was a little too American.

But Jean-Francois was a very pleasant man. We talked about last summer's heat and this year's Tour de France. And he tolerated my French graciously. His shop was near the center of town on the sidewalk along a narrow street. We took the two steps down into his shop and saw the bikes and the wine that he had there for sale. That was his business: bikes and wine. We were there to rent.

The rentals were in a rack in front, and we had come into the store to arrange for a bike trip to Chenonceau. Jean-Francois gave us locks and helmets (emphasizing that helmets are optional). And he gave us a map for the circuit we planned to take, reassuring us that the route to Chenonceau was very well marked and that we wouldn't need the map until later. He asked for some identification and said that he would be there late and that we could pay when we returned or even the next morning if he had gone.

With the locks wrapped around our seats and the helmets strapped to our heads (optional or not), we rode our chosen bikes out of the Loire valley until we had left Amboise behind. Before we passed over the last hill, we stopped to look back at the town with the white chateau sitting on top of the castle walls. Then we rode over the crest and around a bend and were out in the middle of nowhere.

Following the green arrows to Chenonceau, we rode along a two-lane asphalt road thru a countryside of rolling hills. Fields of grain lay before us punctuated by small groves and hedged fence rows. In the distance, we could see villages and the dark green line of the edge of a forest.

With the trees in the distance and the fields surrounding us and a single tractor harvesting the grain far in the distance, we stopped by the side of the rode and took some pictures, had some water, and ate some of the baguette that Ben was carrying in his backpack.

Our road led straight to the trees. When we entered, it felt as if we had gone into a tunnel. The thick forest came close to the road's edge. Where before there were golden fields of grain, now there were thickets and large tree trunks. This was Le Forêt d'Amboise.

It felt like the Michigan forests of my youth. The hardwoods looked the same. The grasses and weeds growing at the edge of the road seemed the same. And the two rut drives disappearing into the trees felt the same, although the red sign forbidding mushroom picking that we saw nailed to a tree beside one drive was a reminder that this was a different place.

We rode a long time thru the forest. The thick canopy blocked the sun. It was dark and cool, and the breeze in our face made us smile. When we passed out back into the surrounding farmland, the bright sun made us squint.

We passed a meadow where a bird was singing his heart out without a moment's rest. We followed the road thru a tiny village with stone walls closing in on either side. And as we followed the street thru the village, we turned a corner and peered thru a gate into a farmyard full of chickens and geese.

At the base of the last hill, we turned left and peddled the final mile to Chenonceau. Ben and Trudy were far ahead of me when I noticed a fruit stand by the side of the road. No one was there, but sitting alone on the table there were several pints of raspberries and a hand-written sign asking for two Euros. I set a two Euro coin behind a box and took a pint, and I got back on my bike to catch up with Trudy and Ben.

When I found them, they were waiting at the last turn right before some railroad tracks. Just beyond the tracks was the entrance to the chateau grounds. A man directing traffic to the parking lot motioned us to ride straight in, where we locked our bikes and bought some sandwiches at a sandwich shop.

And there in a shady place under great, towering Sycamore trees that lined the drive to Chenonceau, we found a bench and ate our sandwiches and drank our water and ate those raspberries that tasted better than any raspberries I have eaten before.

Trip to France - Day 11
Amboise / Chenonceau

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