Centre Loire, France: An Ancient Valley Full of Fascinating People

Panoramic view of bridge and cathedral of  Blois reflected in the river . Valley of Loire , France
Panoramic view of bridge and cathedral of Blois reflected in the river . Valley of Loire , France

By Max Hartshorne

Chartres Shows Clever Ways to Avoid Driving a Car

Farm fields in the Loire Valley - photos by Max Hartshorne
Farm fields in the Loire Valley - photos by Max Hartshorne

I've found a slice of time to share some first-day thoughts on Chartres, home of the world famous cathedral as well as a neat little compact town of about 42,000. They have built a lot of underground parking, here, you walk back from the 12th-century cathedral and see many stairs going down, and lots of open paved spaces with fountains and long flowing water channels.

I was told that putting all of those cars down there has opened up the center of the city. It's a nice contrast between the two towers of the cathedral and these plazas.

We walked past a store that sold electric bicycles... from what Kentski told me it's a nice way to ride, it gives you a little boost so that you still pedal but not has hard as without the electric assist.

In Paris this morning, all over the city were the Velibes, the free bikes that are available to anyone and look funny and non-personal, with their molded plastic handlebars and simple design.

They are all women's models with long fenders and a red light on the back. I saw many a businessman and businesswomen dressed for work cruising by on these tan and seemingly ubiquitous rides. Then I passed a long rack of them where you return them after use.

A window in Chartres Cathedral
A window in Chartres Cathedral

There are also little electric vans called "Navettes" here in Chartres, vehicles that take tourists up to the cathedral and other sites, so they can leave their cars behind. More and more I'm seeing great ideas and ways to avoid using cars. From the fantastic double-decker trains that whisked me from Paris in comfort, to the many bikes and bike paths, France like so much of Europe is thinking ahead.

Another exciting bike-related project is in the works, called "La Loire a Velo," It's a 600-kilometer bike path that follows the Loire river all the way from St-Nazaire to Sancerre. Soon it will be 800 km, and planners envision this being a part of a bike path that will stretch all the way across Europe to Budapest.

Chartres' Famous Blue

Chartres is a jewel among religious shrines of the world. These panes are among dozens of intricate stories that are told by images made by glass pieces. It's hard to do justice to the famous "Chartres blue" which is the most dominant color on the 12th-century windows that face the main entrance.

Charles Chavanette, a chocolatier in France
Charles Chavanette, a chocolatier in France

At night the city lights up this magnificent building with a light show that projects images such as these on the outside of the whole building. Chartres also lights up 17 other buildings, bridges and other large outdoor areas every night from May 1 through September. The images move across the buildings and it is a mesmerizing experience to see a light show on such a huge building.

There is Chocolate...and There is Chavanette

Since 1765, The Chavanettes have been making chocolate from scratch here in Orleans, France at Chocolaterie Royale. Standing in front of a life-size mermaid made of carved chocolate, we met the master of chocolate, the handsome 43-year-old Charles Chavanette, who arrived on his motorcycle and quickly changed into his chef's whites and toque to talk about his passion.

This is no ordinary chocolate, mixed from a factory-made batch and decorated. No, Chavanette approaches these beans with care and meets the farmers in Ecuador, Java, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic who grow them.

"It's a political product," he told us in French. He said that he works with Oxfam, helping to give credentials to worthy farmers, and that much like the fair trade movement in coffee, there are some parts of the world where cocoa beans mean bad things. That's why he doesn't buy beans from Africa. Things like child labor taint even good beans.

Steak with foie gras
Steak with foie gras

He said he likes the darkest, most intense flavors, like the one he hands us from a little silver plate. It is barely sweet, very strong, and he said it's 100 percent chocolate, so there are not as much natural sugars. These dark morsels were from Java, very different from the pieces from Ecuador we had just tasted. The samples from Madagascar were from red cocoa beans, he said.

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Chavanette has a plan, one that will bring these gourmet high-end morsels of chocolate to the US. He wants to open in Los Angeles, not New York. He said he's worked in the Big Apple and wants instead to conquer the US from the left coast.

I asked him what was the difference between these dark black pieces we were tasting and chocolate made in a factory.

"It takes about four hours for them to make it, but I roast the beans slowly, and it takes between 24 and even 72 hours for me to make the same amount." Like good cooking, you can definitely taste the difference that time makes in Charles Chavanette's chocolates.

Steak with Giant Foie Gras Hat in Chartres

Stephanie Le Donne
Stephanie Le Donne

This perfectly cooked medium rare steak came with a three-quarter inch thick slice of sizzling fois gras on top.

It's one of those foods that just melts in your mouth, and to have this copious slice on top of a grilled steak was a meat-lover's heaven.

We helped cook our dinner with a chef named Stephane Bernard, who's worked at Michelin starred restaurants in Paris. His meal of stuffed chicken, fresh asparagus and a chocolate tart was even better since we watched him cook it for us at Le Panier Se Cree cooking school in Orleans.

She's Making the Big Leap Next Week

This is Stephanie Le Donne's last week of working at her day job. She met our van at the Hotel de Ville in Orleans, where she took us on a city tour that included the city's famous cathedral, which is a monument to the heroin of this city, Joan of Arc. She showed us statues of the famous teenager, and avenues named for her, and then told us about her exciting plan to break free and do her own business full time.

"I hope you don't mind if I give you some of these brochures," she said, pulling a stack from a rack in a city building we were touring. "I have bought a new van, and I take people on private tours of the chateaus, to shopping trips in Paris, and all around the Loire Valley," she said.

With her sweet smile and ability to speak three languages, she's all set up and ready to conquer the tourist biz with her new outfit called Odysee en Val de Loire. She will meet the guests at their hotels and show them this part of the world that she's learned about through her job working for the city as a tourist guide. So the next time you need a tour guide in the Loire Valley, we recommend Stephanie!

Lighting up Ancient Buildings Brings Out Crowds

Les Nuits Lumiere in Bourges
Les Nuits Lumiere in Bourges

All over France, a new tradition is bringing citizens and visitors into the streets at night. It's called Les Nuits Lumiere, or Illuminated Nights, and combines classical music and large images projected on buildings, bridges and other surfaces.

Using the lines of the ancient buildings in the city, like the Palace of Jacques Coeur and the gigantic cathedral, the indented porticos, archways, and marble gargoyles provide a perfect backdrop for the carefully sized images, that dance on the walls.

The city has set up five 10 minute shows that run on an endless loop beginning about about 10:30, (when it's fully dark here) to midnight. We saw similar light shows in Chartres and they are catching on fast here.

To find each of the five light shows in Bourges, you follow the trail of blue lamplights and enter into a courtyard, or the front of a palace, and watch the images project up onto the marble or limestone of the buildings.

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It's simple; blown up medieval characters taken from tapestries, or figures of Burgundian-era town officials sliding across the bottom of a row of arched windows. The giant figures fade in, fade out, angels appear and then fade, and crowds are conjured up using the detailed lights of a series of projectors. The sides of the buildings or the window sashes light up intermittently, adding to the effect that is mesmerizing.

The Marais marshlands
The Marais marshlands

Ken Burns would have love this technology, it's much like what he does on a television screen, except this is much, much bigger, shorter and it's all done outside for the public to view for free.

Listening to Frogs in Marais, Bourges France

This morning we walked around an area called the Marais, the marshes in Bourges, France, where 1500 local people tend gardens among watery trails and wildlife. It's so relaxing to hear the frogs making their mating noises in the marsh.

It's a lovely spot, surrounded by water and some of the gardens can only be accessed by special flat bottomed skiffs called plates. The bird sounds and peacefulness of this place makes it a must-visit for anyone who comes here.

A Proud Father and Luthier Carves Cellos in Bourges

We walked through the city of Bourges, in the center of the department of Cher, not expecting such a lovely and compact old city. I just never knew how nice this town was, and it surprised me. But it's been a center of history and the cathedral is as dramatic as the one up north in Chartres. There is a Roman wall that curves around the city and dozens of half-timbered houses right below.

LuthierJackie Gonthier in Bourges, France
LuthierJackie Gonthier in Bourges, France

One street is marked by three flutes, and was once used to signal the beginning of the old red light district. No red lights any more, but we wandered up this street and came upon a luthier's shop. Inside we met a craftsman named Jackie Gonthier, who was busy working on the rough-hewn neck of a cello. He's a rarity, since there are few luthiers left in France, and he's known by violinists and cellists all over the country.

Our guide told us this was the first time she'd been able to take people in to meet him since he's usually too busy to stop for nosy reporters like us.

He was gracious and answered our many questions about his craft. Then he said that his son Vincent is also a luthier, carrying on the Gonthier tradition, but he's doing it in Hong Kong. The proud papa showed us a catalog that showed his son inside, and you could tell it made him happy to have such a talented son.

Like many men of his generation, he got his name from JFK. He said that it takes about a month to make one of these fine instruments, the head made of sturdy maple, and the hollow body made of spruce. It takes much longer to varnish it, he said.

We thanked him for sharing his story with us. "Do you play?" we asked. "To make violins you have to play the violin," he answered. Read more...


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