From Pleasure Palace to the Island of Solitude
Today we visit two extremes from history. In the morning, we drive to Chenonceau, my personal favorite of all the Loire valley châteaux, then in the afternoon, drive to Mont Saint Michel, Morgan’s favorite.
After an early breakfast brought to our cottage by our hosts, we head our and arrive at the château before most of the Saturday morning crowds. It’s a beautiful day and the castle is gorgeous, even covered with scaffolding. Built in the 1400’s, it ended up in the hands of King Henry II in 1547. He offered the Chateau to his mistress, Diane, and she fixed the place up and made it the place to see and be seen. When Henry died, his wife, Catherine de Medici, kicked Diane out and made the castle even more magnificent. It’s easy to imagine strolling the grounds with my court (in fact, I am strolling the grounds with my court!) Morgan takes us out of the gardens into the woods surrounding the palace and we find hidden ponds and parks for out-of-castle rendezvous.
We head to Amboise, a larger town with its own castle, where Henry and his wife raised their children. Leonardo de Vinci retired in a modest mansion down the street and was a frequent visitor a few decades earlier when Francis I was king. We have a nice lunch in the shadow of the château.
We have the afternoon to drive to Mont Saint Michel and we take our time, driving along the Loire spotting castles, then through small farming villages, before we get back on the freeway. We stop at a market for picnic supplies.
Mont Saint Michel is a big rock island that was once connected to the mainland by a thin land bridge that would be covered up at high tide. Today there is a causeway that is above the tides, at least today. First it was a fortification, but in 708 the local bishop received a visit from St. Michael (Saint Michel) himself, advising him to build a great cathedral and an abbey on the rock. When we arrive at Mont Saint Michel, the wheels of our rolling luggage rumble up the main street, sounding like carriage and horses, as we haul them up the hill to our room under the abbey. One window overlooks the bay, the other straight up to the cathedral on top of the hill. We take our picnic under the main entrance to the Abbey. Anna feeds the little birds that suddenly appear.
In the summer, the Abbey and its cathedral are open until midnight with special effects added to enhance the mystery of the place. In the main hall, a harpsichord player performs as Morgan and I dance the minuet. Red lights emanate from the prison cells. A lonely flute player serenades us in the crypt. We watch the sunset from the terrace, then marvel at the night sky. In the main cathedral a harpist plays haunting melodies. Each room has both music (live or recorded) and mood lighting. We reach the end of the visit and double back to do it again, spending more time listening to the musicians. The lights outside against the rocks are awe-inspiring.
At midnight, I send the kids out to do a little more touring of the island. I walk back down the hill for an overall view of the entire place from the causeway. The tourists have left, except for the ones who stay on the island (there are only 5 or so places with rooms), and we have solitude, with only the cries of the seagulls and the ringing of the bells above to keep us company.