Chinon is the perfect escape with only a 3-hour drive from Paris. It’s over 18 years since we were here last. Don’t ask me why but family life has just got in the way. So when Jamie Schler and her husband, Jean-Pierre took over the Hôtel Diderot at the start of the year, it was the best excuse to return to the Loire Valley with Antoine for a few days.
We couldn’t resist, however, a slight detour en route from Paris via the medieval town of Loches. I hadn’t heard of the place but Antoine was right to stop, as the royal town behind the hill’s fortifications is worth seeing. Check out the local pastry speciality for a teatime treat: may I tempt you to a Sein d’Agnès – Agnès’s breast? It is rather filling – only half was enough – so a couple of Agnés’s breasts are good for 4!
Breasts of Agnès
Agnès Sorel as the first official mistress of the Kings of France. Her liaison with Charles VII was legendary and so her beauty was too, apparently.
We bought a couple (of course) and, as one of us devoured and another nibbled, this rather heavy cake revealed a shortcrust pastry encasing an amaretti tartlet with hints of candied citrus fruits. Oh-là-là! Not for the faint-hearted, as I did find them rather heavy.
I’ll leave you to think of puns on that one, as I contain myself.
I’ve followed Jamie through her inspiring writings on Life’s A Feast for the past 4 years, thanks to discovering her via the fun MacTweets blog, where macaron lovers would rise to Jamie and Deeba’s monthly insane challenges and post their artistic macaron Mac Attacks.
I miss it but Jamie is forever juggling many other projects on the go: such as Plated Stories, a talented prizewinning creative duo with photographer Ilva Beretta including workshops, to to mention Jamie’s writing career with books (note the plural) on the near horizon.
How Jamie manages to do all of this and run a hotel with 26 rooms beats me. And she’s so relaxed and welcoming with all of her guests, stopping to chat outside under the shade of the banana tree. So what does she do in her spare time?
“I make jam”, she says. Proof for starters is layer upon layer of jam classics and intriguing combinations stacked to the brim in her confiture dresser in the dining room, ready to serve at breakfast.
I thought foolishly that I could try them all during our stay: fig, pear & grape; banana & mango; strawberry & rosemary; greengage; 3 plums; banana; raisin & rum; confiture pour les Soeurs Tournet (rhubarb and raspberry for a couple of regulars); orange marmalade with cocoa; warm kisses (strawberry, cherry & cinnamon).
The list goes on but who couldn’t also try the fresh local goat’s cheese with walnuts and honey and chives from the neighbour’s garden?
With such a start to the day what is there to do around the medieval town of Chinon? The beauty of the Hôtel Diderot is it’s so central and within easy walking distance to the castle on the hill (there’s now even a lift!), museums, churches and restaurants. Speaking of restaurants, we particularly loved La Part des Anges in rue Rabelais – where we discovered a white Chinon (Chenin blanc – normally Chinon wines are red) with the same name from the Domaine de la Noblaie. We’re still hooked on this nectar that we get it delivered to us in Paris!
On Thursday mornings, the market is just next door in the square of Joan of Arc. References to Jean d’Arc are all around the town, as is the Renaissance writer, doctor and humanist, François Rabelais, born in Chinon. In our room were a few fun quotations like
“Half of the world doesn’t know how the other half live“.
A surprisingly familiar Art Deco statue was looking down on us from the hillside just above the hotel. Known as the Sacred Heart of Chinon, this 7.4m statue has been watching over the town since 1943 thanks to the local priest, Archpriest Vivien.
He intended that this statue provide divine protection during the war. Sculpted by Paule Richon, it was influenced by the Christ the Redeemer (Corcovado) statue in Rio. Coincidence on our return from our family holiday in Rio de Janeiro?
Can you imagine living in the Royal Fortress dominating the Vienne River just before it joins the Loire, the longest river in France?
We headed to Candes-St-Martin, one of France’s “Most Beautiful Villages”. I’ve shared a few views of the town on social media, complete with a stunning panorama point where the sandy banks of both the Loire and the Indre rivers merge.
Cyclist tours are popular here – it’s largely flat and there are so many attractions to visit, including wineries. That’s another of our hobbies. Just saying. That would take another post!
This region around Chinon is the Touraine, also known as the Garden of France. Driving from Candes-St-Martin along the l’Indre river, I’d recommend a stop at the Château at Rigny-Ussé.
The gardens at Ussé were designed by Lenotre, just as with Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles.
Over the past 20 years the castle has been renovated and it’s quite an achievement. This castle is perfect for family outings, as the tower includes many rooms devoted to the Sleeping Beauty, as Charles Perault on coming here was inspired to write his famous classic. Like the Belle au Bois Dormant tower, there are life-size models all around the castle, which makes it all rather charming.
In the bigger castles like this one, the owners were obliged to prepare a room for their Roi, the King of France – even if they slept in them or not. Just for the record, the other nearby fairytale castle, Azay-le-Rideau (see my blog post on this), is currently being renovated but worth a visit to see how it’s being done.
Another must visit in the area around Chinon is Villandry Castle. More famous for their gardens we appreciated having a guide to take us around inside the castle. The parquet flooring also echoes the love garden theme below. The higher you climb the stairs in the tower, the more you can appreciate the gardens’ grandeur and symmetry.
Our guide told us the good news, “Now enjoy the stroll through the gardens and don’t forget that to pick the grapes and taste them if you think they’re perfectly ripe”. Decadence indeed.
Stopping in Tours on Saturday morning, returning home to Paris, the market at Les Halles is legendary. Especially the cheese counters, including a Meilleur Ouvrier de France‘s gigantic selection of the local goat cheeses. As I turned to leave, one last wink came from Agnès with these beautiful ashen-coated specimens, perfect with the local white wine of either Sauvignon blanc or Chenin.
4 Rue de Buffon
Disclaimer: We were paying guests at the Hotel Diderot. I wrote this post as I love its quality, value for money for a 3-star hotel and its location.