Monday, July 1

I travel to Tours in the Loire valley, take a tour of four châteaux, and discover a wonderful restaurant for dinner.

Had a long hot day but a very nice one touring four châteaux in the Loire Valley. Met and spent time with a young couple from Springfield, Illinois. Left the apartment at 5:30 am and didn't get back until 10 pm. The weather was perfect, and negotiating the TGV train for the first time was easy. The tour was in a min-van with a very animated English-speaking Frenchman who was lots of fun. Got a bit sunburned and had a nasty allergic reaction to some kind of pollen in the air. My nose was running all day. Saw lots of tiny vineyards from the van, growing grapes for the famous Loire Valley wines.

The châteaux were OK, especially the architecture. But for me what made the trip great were the gardens and the outdoor scenery, some of which I tried to capture in the pictures.

At all the châteaux I asked for the guide booklets in French, not English. My friends from Springfield were impressed and started referring to me as the "overachiever" in the group. They gave me two euros for one of the tickets because the driver/guide was running out of change. So while wandering Amboise I bought them a little gift in a pâtisserie, some tasty looking treats made with almonds, hazelnut, sugar, egg whites, and coffee. They appreciated that quite a bit. We had a good time talking in the van. I asked if they had kids and they said no, but they had a dog. I said that counted.

Leaving for Gare Montparnasse. Not many people out at 5:30 in the morning in the neighborhood. Kind of spooky and too quiet, actually. But Paris is definitely pretty when the sun is just coming up! I had to walk because the métro doesn't run this early, but it was a pleasant morning and not a long walk.

This is just some random street in my neighborhood where I walk frequently on my way from here to there. Pretty place. If I took a picture of every such scene I encounter and posted it I'd fill up all of the Internet's hard drives.

Gare Montparnasse.

Mon billet. (My ticket). All you need to know: TGV train #8403, track (voie) 6, car (voiture) 19, seat (place assise) 33. fenêtre = window seat, couloir = aisle seat

The TGV cars are nicely appointed and very comfortable. This is second class. First class is fancier.

Speeding through the French countryside towards Tours at 200 miles per hour. Saw lots of these windmills generating power. The trip only takes one hour. The ride is smooth and quiet - no clackety-clackety rockety-rockety like on our trains. The stations are super easy to navigate and figure out.

The SNCF runs the trains including the TGV and is government run. SNCF stands for Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français. (chemin de fer = railroad, literally "path of iron".) It works really well except for the frequent strikes which discombobulate everything. TGV stands for Trains de Grande Vitesse (high-speed trains).

Imagine getting from Chicago to Minneapolis in two hours on a nice quiet comfortable train like this. You can't imagine it, can you? Seriously. If we had a train like this, going up to Minneapolis to see my Mom and my friends would be so easy. I could come up on a whim to have lunch and then go back home the same day. No big deal. No reservations way in advance. No horrible trips back and forth to airports. No all day exhausting car drives. Just hop on, take a pleasant little train ride, and hop off.

Suppose we combined our version of the SNCF with a comparable métro system in both Chicago and Minneapolis. I could leave my house at 7 am and be at the house of a friend by 10 am. Door to door with no cars, no airplanes, hardly any walking. We could spend most of the day together, and I could go home in the evening. Kind of like my trip to Tours. How nice would that be? Hate to harp on this, but this is ridiculous and I just can't get over it.

And think of what it would do for business people. An investment in a system like this would pay for itself many times over in no time at all, in terms of the national macro economy. We're so stupid in the States.

Usual French kind of breakfast in Tours. That's what they call a "large" coffee - a double shot of espresso. Plus a big glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, a croissant, bread, butter, and apricot jelly (confiture). Awfully fuzzy photo. I hadn't drunk the coffee yet, that must be why.

Château de Chenonceau. Unusual because it's built over a river.

A garden at Château de Chenonceau. It's pretty easy to imagine Louis whatever and the other French kings and queens and assorted royalty strolling down these paths enjoying their gardens. During the revolution lots of these châteaux were destroyed or badly damaged. They were torn down and the stone was used to build houses for regular people. Understandable.

The Cher river, viewed from inside the Château de Chenonceau. In French, the Cher is a "rivière" (which flows into another river), not a "fleuve" (which flows into the ocean). The Seine in Paris is a "fleuve".

In a labyrinthe at Château de Chenonceau. The kids were particularly fond of this. Lots of running and screaming and having fun. Me too. Well, not so much running and screaming on my part, I guess.

Walk in the forest by myself far away from the crowds at Château de Chenonceau.

Sailboats and bridge on the Loire River in Amboise.

I had one foot in the water while taking this shot. I had noticed the boats from the middle of that bridge and decided to go down and see them closer. I had to go down very steep stone stairs to get to the bank. I very much prefer doing this kind of thing to walking around inside those châteaux with herds of smelly other tourists. This is more my thing.

Château du Clos Lucé in Amboise, most famous for being where Leonardo da Vinci died.

Leonardo da Vinci's bedroom at Château du Clos Lucé.

As I was leaving I asked an older couple to verify the pronunciation of "Clos Lucé" for me. They were very gracious and friendly, as are most of the people I talk to here. I think that they must look more favorably on foreigners who are making an attempt to learn their language and who are polite to them. Don't believe the stereotype of the French as being arrogant, rude, and standoffish. Just the opposite. Except for the waiters.

Garden at Château du Clos Lucé.

Beautiful gardens absolutely everywhere you go in France. One of my most very favorite things here.

Chateau de Chambord. Our driver/guide told us how many fireplaces are inside. I forgot the ridiculous number. 100? 200? 1000? Whatever. It's really over the top.

Bridge over a canal at Château de Chambord. The only really pretty thing I found at Chambord, and I had to wander for quite a while before I discovered it.

I like this picture very much. I'm not even an amateur photographer, but I do enjoy looking for things like this to photograph, and trying to take my time to find the best places with good light and nice framing and all that sort of thing. It's just great fun wandering around looking for pretty scenes, enjoying them for a while, and then taking a nice picture. I hope you're enjoying my feeble attempts to do this.

Château de Cheverny. The family that owns the château lives in the right side of the building. The same family has owned it for 400 years.

They have 120 hounds for hunting that they feed every day at 5 pm. We were there for the feeding, although I didn't go watch it. Huge amount of howling and barking going on.

Is it just me, or does that stone facade look a little bit like aluminum siding from a distance? Actually, I like this architecture, and think that this château was particularly pretty. And the gardens around the back were the best ones of the day.

Flower trellis at Château de Cheverny. Wish I had one of these in my backyard.

Fountain and garden at Château de Cheverny.

I had a terrific dinner at Le Thélème restaurant in Tours. I had a taste for fish. After we were dropped off I started to wander looking for a nicer restaurant with fish on the menu. All the restaurants and cafés in France post their menus outside the door, with prices. I think it's a law. Came across Le Thélème after 10 minutes or so of wandering. I'm so glad I found it. A great culinary experience.

I didn't really know what I ordered and ate because the waiters and owner didn't speak English, and while I understood many words on the menu (e.g., I knew I was getting some kind of fish), many others were terms from French cuisine which I just didn't know. In any case, everything was out-of-this-world delicious. It was too bad that I was short on time because I had to catch the train back to Paris, so I had to rush the meal a bit.

When I got home I looked up the restaurant's full menu on the Internet and copied the descriptions, then tried to translate it into English. I'm not sure the translations help much. It occurs to me that if they had presented the menu to me in English, I'd have been no better off.

I do fine in regular restaurants like the inexpensive but adequate ones on the mouf. But I don't know anywhere near enough French or, more importantly, anywhere near enough about serious cuisine, to navigate a menu in a place like Le Thélème. I think you just have to go for it and be adventurous and end up having a great experience.

I got to the restaurant at 7 and left to get my train at 8. It was empty. I was the only customer. The French eat late, especially in places like this one. Or maybe is was just a bad restaurant and all the locals know to avoid it. Hard to believe that though!

When my waitress brought the fish course, she warned me that the plate and sauce were very hot ("très chaud"). She watched my facial expression and reaction to make certain that I had understood. Nice.

The wine menu had a huge selection of Loire Valley wines. I really wish I had a proper two hours to devote to the meal instead of just one. I'll bet my waiter would have been happy to make a selection for me that would have paired perfectly with my sea bass.

My friends from Springfield were going back to Paris on the 10 pm train. I took the 8 pm one. They were also going to enjoy a good dinner before returning. They did it right, I think. I hope they enjoyed their meal as much as I did mine.

The meal was 41€, about $54 (with no wine, just mineral water, which is wildly popular here), about 3 times as expensive as the nice but ordinary beef stew dinner I had on the mouf a few days ago. I'm not a gourmand, but even I could taste the difference.

Things seem to be much less expensive outside of Paris. In Amboise my little coffee for lunch was 1,30€. I pay at least 2,00€ here in Paris for exactly the same thing. When I paid I told the barkeep this. He just gave me the French shrug, put a big sneer on his face, and said "That's Paris". He clearly didn't think highly of those "big city slickers". Do country people resent and dislike city people everywhere in the world? Is it universal?

This appetizer looks like a piece of art and tasted even better.

Entrée: Tartare de dorade, salpicon de légumes aux aromates graines de nigelles à la salade du pécheur et citron confit.

Appetizer: Tartare of sea bream, minced vegetables bound in a sauce of spices and grains of black cumin in a fisherman's salad and lemon confit.

Plat Principal: Filet de bar, beurre blanc au curry de madras, conchiglioni aux épinards et ricotta.

Main Course: Filet of sea bass in a white butter with madras curry sauce, conchiglioni stuffed with spinach and ricotta cheese.

It was cooked to perfection. And the sauce was incredible. As usual in French cuisine, it's the sauce that makes the dish.

Dessert: Marinade de fraises au vin rosé d’Hypocras, sorbet fraise et citron

Dessert: Marinade of strawberries in a rosé Hypocras wine sauce, strawberry and lemon sorbet.