Dear friends. On this post I take another break from my childhood memories and travel to the future. I’ll return to my past very soon. Hope you like the interlude.
When we travel we have to expect the unexpected. The most memorable events of our journeys are often unplanned. In retrospect we can laugh about stressful or embarrassing situations. They are the stories we tell our friends. For over 25 years I hardly had the opportunity to travel far, especially alone, without my husband and family. Our budget was stretched to the limit by the financial demands of raising five sons. However, we had a constant stream of visitors every summer, from far and wide who had interesting stories to tell.
Then came the time, when our sons flew out of the nest. One by one they discovered the joy of traveling in the big wide world. Our oldest son, Rob, fell in love with Italy, and our second son, Rick, with France, or rather with a beautiful girl from Paris. To our great surprise, he was the first of the boys to announce wedding plans. The marriage was to take place in a small village, close to Paris, called Saint Etienne Roilaye.
This announcement caused great excitement in our quieted down household. Since our budget would not allow for two tickets to Europe, my husband, Peter, magnanimously decided that I should be the one to go. I was overjoyed. Our oldest son working in Germany as a civil engineer supported his father’s decision wholeheartedly. He offered to take me on a short sightseeing trip to the castles of the Loire before escorting me to the wedding.
“You deserve a real holiday Mom,” he declared, “and since you are proficient in French I feel comfortable traveling to France with you.”
I was extremely touched by his invitation. It exceeded my wildest dreams. When the boys were still in diapers, I started envisioning all the exciting things we could do together in the future. Traveling was high on that list. Now my dreams were coming true! All the maternal sacrifices of the past were forgotten in an instant. What wonderful prospects lay before me! Since I was far from proficient in the French language I practiced speaking it from dawn to dusk until my German accent took on French overtones and strangers asked me if I had recently moved here from eastern Canada.
On a beautiful spring day, in the middle of April, I start my journey to the old country. Not accustomed to traveling alone I feel somewhat lonesome and insecure after saying good-bye to Peter at the Kelowna airport. These feelings intensify in the crowd of strangers at the Vancouver airport terminal. Suddenly I am embraced from behind. Two excited voices are screaming simultaneously in my ears, “Gertrud, what on earth are you doing here?”
Anita and Gerhard, two old acquaintances we had lost contact with, are bombarding me with questions. Friends of our Bavarian neighbor, they are part of the visiting crowd of seasoned globetrotters whose stories we had listened to in the past. And as coincidence wants it, they have seats right beside me on the same flight. To travel with friends is like having guardian angels accompany you. Engaged in animated conversation, the time passes quickly. Before I know it, we have crossed Greenland, Iceland, the North Atlantic and Scotland. We are preparing for landing.
Since I arrived late at night, my travel agent had arranged for a stay in a hotel in Frankfurt. It is located at the outskirts of the city beside a huge and lifeless computer terminal building heavily fenced in like a prison. On the other side is an idyllic little park with a fishpond and bird sanctuary. Waking up at dawn, not accustomed to the time difference yet, I have the opportunity to admire the sunrise. The distant city on the horizon is bathed in golden light. I listen to the cheerful chirping of birds greeting the new day and watch two wild rabbits playfully chase each other on the strip of grass around the computer terminal. I even venture on an early morning walk to the nearby fishing pond, a quiet green oasis. The bushes and trees are just bursting forth with fresh new leaves. Usually, I am not an early riser. Therefore, it is quite an exciting experience for me to walk before breakfast. The girls on the reception desk of the hotel who I had asked for directions are relieved to see me come back. They had worried about me walking all alone so early in the morning. They welcome me back with friendly greetings.
I had phoned Rob when I arrived late last night. He had asked me to compose a short note in French, to confirm a hotel reservation in Mons, the last destination of our planned sight seeing trip. All other arrangements he had been able to do in either English or German. Glad to be able to show off my French skills, I took this task very seriously and sacrificed quite a bit of time and paper in the process. Finally, this note, written in my neatest hand writing is faxed off to the hotel with the romantic name of “Le castello de Brays et Mons.”
The next day I meet Rob in Stuttgart, and together we have a wonderful excursion to Heidelberg. I had never been to this famous tourist attraction before. After climbing on a cobble stone road up to the imposing ruin, we enjoy sitting in the shade of a budding Linden tree in the idyllic garden cafe. While eating a delicious apple Strudel, we are watching little sparrows hop from branch to castle wall cheerfully chirping, and nimbly picking up seeds and crumbs. I remember old photographs of my mom in her youth posing as a charming tour guide with groups of mostly American tourists in front of these walls. Sitting here with Rob, I suddenly feel her spirit surround us.
The train we take to Paris the following day is crowded with noisy schoolgirls who are going on exchange programs to France. The exuberant holiday atmosphere is contagious. Many of the teenagers practice their flirting skills on Rob. For a while he enjoys being their centre of attention until they become bothersome like persistent flies. I am free to look out of the window and see the beautiful spring landscape pass by. Even old dilapidated walls look lovely when adorned with fresh leaves and colorful blossoms. Nature appears to be so tame in Europe. Forests are tended like parks and lack the pristine beauty of the Canadian wilderness.
Rob is relieved when we reach Paris. For hours the girls have been swarming over him like bees. No way to escape their pestering presence. Good-naturedly he endures their teasing. In Paris we have to change from one train station to another. For each cardinal direction there is a train station, which is connected to the other terminals by the Metro. In transit to Montparnasse we meet Rick, the prospective groom, at the station and deliver a suitcase bulging with wedding presents. Packed with Canadian whisky, Okanagan wine, smoked salmon, maple syrup and other gifts, it feels like a ton of bricks. Coming from so far, I am still amazed at the accomplishments of modern travel. We actually meet Rick exactly at the right time and appointed place among the crowds of strangers.
From Montparnasse we take a TGV (train de grande vitesse) to Tours. These famous trains reach a speed of 350 km per hour. At that dizzying pace the scenery is flying by in a blur of colours and shapes. Overcome by jet lag, I fall asleep as soon as I nestle into the comfortable seat of the luxurious compartment. Rob is disappointed that I do not show more enthusiasm for this momentous train ride. But all I want now and long for is a clean and comfortable bed.
I do not remember how long it took us to get to Tours. I vaguely remember stumbling out of this famous train like a sleepwalker rushed on by Rob. In spite of his limited French, Rob manages to get a taxi and tell the driver to take us to l’Hôtel d’Opéra. Before I have time to nod off again, we stop on a quiet side street in front of two ruined buildings. One is a completely dilapidated shell overgrown with weeds. Only broken down walls are remaining. The other appears in a slightly better condition. Although ravaged looking, the walls, windows and the roof seem to be still intact.
“L’Opéra!” the taxi driver announces pointing to the ruins.
A cigarette in the corner of his mouth, he is stopping the taxi, opening the doors, removing our luggage with great speed from the trunk, depositing it on the sidewalk, and pocketing his fare.
Suddenly wide awake, I ask in disbelief, “L’Hôtel d’Opéra?”
“Là,” he replies jumping back into the cab.
On this once imposing but now dangerously crumbling flight of stairs, we enter the building with some trepidation. The glamour of days long gone by is still evident in the chipped and dusty chandeliers, the stained, worn out purple carpets, the faded murals, and the elegant interior design. A glowing bouquet of red tulips and yellow daffodils, beautifully arranged with blossoming branches on the reception desk in the entrance hall, detracts the eyes from the shabby surroundings.
Contrary to all expectations, our chamber-like room, on the second floor, has charm. A single bed standing close to the entrance is partitioned off by a screen. Rob graciously offers to take this and grants me the big double bed facing a huge open window leading out into a park. The branches of a blooming chestnut tree are almost touching the panes. Numerous birds have chosen this beautiful tree for their happy home. They are singing, twittering and chirping at their heart’s content. Taking a rest from their nest building they are enjoying the last sunrays of the declining day. A warm breeze stirs the delicate curtains. The air smells fresh and fragrant with the aroma of spring flowers and blossoms.
After a short stroll, admiring some of the interesting facades of the old buildings downtown, Rob and I are lured to a cozy restaurant by the enticing aromatic smells wafting out of the open door. The taste of grilled lamb chops swimming in a sauce seasoned to perfection lingers in my memory forever. Back at the hotel, I take a relaxing bath in the enormous, antique bathtub. I start feeling like a queen. The bed is comfortable and the sheets clean and smooth. I have a wonderful deep sleep until the birds’ jubilant morning concert wakes me up to another brilliant spring morning.
In the cheerful breakfast room the sunlight is making the fresh daffodils on the tables glow like miniature suns. While I am still savoring an extra cup of strong coffee, Rob returns with the car he has rented for our sightseeing tour. It is a Renault, so small that Rob’s head almost touches the roof and his knees the steering wheel. Settling comfortably into my seat I am full of joyful anticipation of our trip.
Rob is nervously manipulating the clutch to get out of the tight parking spot when suddenly the car jumps into reverse almost hitting the vehicle behind us. I am instantly on the alert.
“Are you familiar with the controls of this vehicle, Rob?” I ask trying to keep a calm tone of voice not to shock him into further erratic moves.
Slightly annoyed Rob answers, “Yes, Mom, but the clutch seems to be stuck.”
I am holding my breath until he succeeds to maneuver the vehicle onto the road. There it stalls momentarily and then starts bolting like a bucking horse. Luckily, there are no other vehicles on this quiet side road.
A bit jerkily Rob enters the main traffic route leading through the city. In the morning rush hour it is congested. For a while we are moving along smoothly and I start relaxing until Rob has to slow down at the bridge entrance. The clutch seems to get stuck again. The car jerks into reverse almost hitting the vehicle behind us. An instant cacophony of honking horns adds to our panic. Rob’s face and knuckles are ghastly white from shock, but he immediately manages to regain control and safely crosses the bridge moving along with the traffic. My heart, however, continues to pound wildly with fear. I feel faint but dare not say a word lest I might cause another disturbance. I have visions of Peter bemoaning the loss of his wife and oldest son in France. I am so nervous my mouth is parched. All I want is to get out of this vehicle and walk along the quietly flowing river to our right.
“Rob, can we stop for a while. I need a little walk,” I whisper in a hoarse voice.
“Mom, you must be crazy. How can I stop in this traffic?” Rob replies with irritation. His face has regained some color and his expression some assertiveness.
“Look for the sun, where is the sun?” he asks impatiently.
“What do you need the sun for?” I cry out in disbelief.
“To turn west,” he replies curtly.
I manage to locate the sun peeking behind some buildings to the right. Without stalling Rob succeeds to turn west onto a secondary highway. I am fervently praying for safe passage.
My prayers seem to get answered. The traffic is easing, the car continues to roll smoothly, and my heartbeat is slowing down. After successfully entering a deserted country road, Rob utters a sigh of relief.
“I can handle this baby now. The funny pin I have been pulling is only for the reverse gear. The dealer didn’t tell me. I had to find out the hard way,” he smiles stopping the car on a slightly sloping parking spot near a country lane. Freshly plowed fields of white chalk like soil stretch before us. A rooster is crowing from a farm near by. Birds are singing. The morning is still young.
“You can have your walk now,” Rob laughs jumping out of the vehicle and sprinting with his long legs towards a blossoming orchard. Rob had talked too soon. The capricious “baby” of a car starts rolling as soon as I step out. Trying to hold on to the open door I start screaming in desperation. In one leap Rob is there and with unexpected presence of mind corrects the problem. He had left the clutch in neutral.
We silently walk for a long while along the quiet country road trying to recover from our last shock. The air is crisp, the sky a hazy blue, and the early morning sun radiates gentle warmth. We come to a small river leisurely meandering through the pastoral landscape. We sit in solitude on a bench listening to the water’s soothing prattle. The meadow is lush green, and bees are buzzing around buttercups. Suddenly, as if on cue, we both burst out laughing. Racked with laughter we run back to the capricious little car. Our tension eases. We are ready to continue our adventure with restored confidence.
Miraculously, from now on we have no more trouble with our little French vehicle. I start enjoying the landscape painted in pastel colors by an early spring. Blooming meadows, yellow rape fields, flowering orchards, greening vineyards, small orderly villages, blossoming trees, spring flowers against ancient stone walls create a colorful kaleidoscope in my mind. We journey on at a reduced pace stopping here and there to briefly visit a less known castle, an ancient fortification or a charming village. The old stone houses with low rock walls encircling their front yards have become part of nature. They are overgrown with vines or other trailing plants. Even flowers grow in the stone crevices.
At Loches, an enchanting medieval looking town, we buy fresh strawberries at the market place admiring the colourful stalls selling the first produce of the season. Fresh asparagus, lettuce, peas and strawberries are a tantalizing feast for the eyes of a seasoned housewife like me. The air is perfumed with the scent of spring flowers. Beautiful bouquets of violets, daffodils, tulips, lilacs and roses are offered everywhere. An ancient cathedral is overlooking this timeless scene, a silent witness to countless market days of the past. There is laughter and good cheer as people of all ages mill around enjoying once again the wonderful gifts of a beautiful spring day.
For lunch we stop at Moulin Pierre, a small garden restaurant on the way. The ancient water mill is turning with a monotonous gurgling sound as in days long gone by. Sitting at a rustic table enjoying the warm sunshine and peaceful atmosphere we leisurely feast on an enormous platter of a great variety of aromatic cheeses and fresh crusty bread. I indulge in some red wine and Rob slurps with contentment a refreshing raspberry drink. Our spirits are wonderfully revived by this relaxing repast.
In the early afternoon we reach Chenonceau. The spacious parking lot and reception area is full of people. Enormous tour busses with license plates from different European countries are spilling hordes of noisy and excited tourists. Lots of boisterous school children are also milling around heading for washrooms, souvenir shops and refreshment stalls. Past the tall entrance gate of wrought iron, colourful groups of sightseers are walking on the wide alley, which used to lead horse drawn coaches and carriages to the castle in days gone by. The old shade trees flanking this imposing driveway have recently sprung into leaf. The fresh green is a delight for the eyes. I wish they could talk of the romantic history of this unique and beautiful water castle.
Chenonceau is built over the river Cher. The gallery or long reception hall is spanning across the gently flowing water like a bridge. Looking out from the big, recessed windows of stained glass, you have the feeling of floating on a riverboat. For most of its history Chenonceau has been in the possession of queens whose legacy has survived the ages. Queen Louise, widow of Henri III, created the black room after the death of her husband. The sad beauty of this lasting testimony of mourning is still haunting visitors today.
I was especially impressed by the huge vaulted kitchen, storage and work area located at the foundation pillars of the castle. I visualized wonderful feasts being prepared on those spacious heavy oak tables and counter tops. Only robust chefs with strength and stamina would be able to operate those heavy cast iron and copper cauldrons, pots and pans over the gigantic spits and artistically crafted wood stoves. And yet they also had to possess the exquisite finesse and gastronomic savoir typical of French cuisine. The grounds are artfully landscaped. Trimmed hedges, manicured lawns, trellised vine arbors, pruned trees, shaped flowerbeds and paved paths are skillfully arranged to create symmetrical designs. After a leisurely walk through the forest-like park, which has retained some of its natural wildness, Rob and I feel pleasantly tired.
Late afternoon, we reach the famous Villandry castle and gardens. The air is still balmy and the sky without a cloud. We seem to step into a picture book. Against the background of the flawless sky, the architecture of the gleaming white castle and the arrangements of the meticulously groomed, terraced gardens seem so perfect. We are awed and delighted by the intricate geometrical designs and patterns created by the artful interspersing of colourful flowers, herbs, vegetables, shrubs, hedges, small trees and trellised vines. We feel transported into an époque of the past when splendour was a way of life and natural surroundings were shaped into pieces of art.
In the golden glow of the setting sun we drive off to our final destination, the Castello de Brays and Mons.
“There will be a surprise for you, Mom!” says Rob with a promising look on his face.
On my next post I’ll tell you about the surprise. Until then…..