I warn you in advance that this post is long, so grab a cuppa and I hope you enjoy it.
The last time we were in the Loire it was the Spring, the vines were just starting to get their new shoots, and the valley was green after the winter rains.
Now it’s Autumn, and sadly the effects of a very dry and hot summer are visible.
The Loire River is so low it’s frightening, there are islands of sand visible along its length much larger than its flow of water. We even saw cattle grazing on one particular grassy patch in the middle of the river.
It’s all very busy in this part of France at present, the grapes are being harvested, mostly now by large mechanical harvesters, and tractors pulling large metal wagons full to the brim of grapes to the wineries to be pressed and made into this area’s most delicious and well-known wines.
But the Loire is so much more than just wineries and Châteaux’s’, the Loire Valley has been home to the Gaul’s and Romans, then warring medieval Queens, Kings, (and their Mistresses) plus countless powerful figures throughout history.
Towns like Chinon where the stones of the Loire landscape colour the village buildings in shades of white limestone and black slate and their famous Touraine wine is still ripened in troglodyte caves carved out of the limestone cliffs.
And Loches, a Cite Royale where we spend a couple of days parked in a great position alongside the canal and looking at the 500 year-old Royal Citadel.
It’s also where in 1429 the “Maid of Orléans,” Joan of Arc returned from her victory at Orléans to persuade French Crown Prince Charles to claim his rightful French crown.
Loches has a fantastic market every Wednesday morning that we of course we had to check out. The limestone laden soil not only produces great wine, but goats seem to thrive in this area as well and there are now a couple beautiful creamy goat cheeses in our fridge for later.
We had tried a Sancerre wine at Manuela’s and Georges place the previous weekend at lunch, so had to make a stop there of course!
I’m sure most have heard of the famous French brand of knives Laguiole, but did you know there is a very small town called Thiers near Clermont-Ferrand that produces 70% of all the cutting products in France, i.e. knives, blades for food processors, etc., and have been doing so since way back in the 15th century.
Now there are only 100 or so knife manufacturing companies in Thiers, most only small employing less than 10 people, but they still manage to produce around 60 million items a year. We watched a knife being hand made from start to finish, which included him laying on a board elevated over a grinding wheel. The most expensive handmade knives worth easy a couple of thousand euro may take up to 30 hours,
So next time you pick up a knife that has ‘Made in France’ stamped on the blade, remember Thiers.
The Auvergne region is an area that is often overlooked by luxury travelers.
It’s a vast region but essential to visit if you want to try gourmet cheeses, visit historic chateaux’s and its scenery is also spectacular with rugged gorges, fast-flowing rivers great to kayak, cliff-top villages, and beautiful verdant green high pastures where the Salers long-horned cattle, prized for their meat and milk graze.
Near Saint-Nectaire, the village I speak about in my ‘cheese guide post’ we stopped in the parking lot of a church at the very small village of Orcival to have our lunch. Outside you think, “well it’s a very big church for a village this size maybe we should have look inside”. The Basilica d’Orcival was built to house a treasure, ‘The Good Virgin of Orcival’ a 2m golden statue, that pilgrims have been visiting for over 900 years. Once again, off the tourist track, you see the most amazing things!
PUY de DOME
This area is a geological phenomenon, formed by massive tectonic faults millions of years ago, ‘The Continental Breakup’.
There are around 80 domes, cones, volcanic lakes, and lava flow sites, that form the 32km long Chaîne des Puys, perfect for hiking, but the best way for us to see them is by catching a cog rail train up to the top of the 1,465m Puy de Dôme.
We had a quiet and dark night staying in the parking lot for the train with about 6 other motorhomes. We had arrived the previous afternoon to rain and low cloud, not the best time to visit the top of a nearly 1500m high mountain, so I put the time to good use and cooked us a very French lunch of duck fillets served on a bed of green and yellow beans, delicious, and all we needed for dinner was some great Saint Nectaire cheese on fresh baguette.
The next morning was sunny and clear, the perfect day to catch the 25minute Panoramic des Dôme cog rail train to the top of an extinct volcano, where apart from a spectacular view, we’re surprised to see a 2nd century AD Roman temple dedicated to Mercury, that was only discovered in the 19th century while building the weather station up there.
Once again, those Romans and their building ability amaze us!
Le Puy-en-Velay was formed by that same Continental Breakup, it is also one of the main pilgrimage stops of the Camino de Santiago route that starts in Paris and finishes in Spain.
There are two main extinct volcano peaks around which the town has been built, and on the top of those peaks stand two impressive structures, the first on the Corneille Rock platform is the statue of Notre Dame de France, the patron saint of France. Erected in 1860 made from the metal of 213 cannons captured from the Russians during the Crimean War. It stands 22.7m high and weighs 835 tons.
This is directly across from where we are parked, and at night lit up by the surrounding spotlights its beautiful.
The other is the Chapel Saint Michel, built-in 961 after the bishop at that time, returned from his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
Sometimes these feats of building back in those times just boggle our minds!
We were also lucky to arrive on the last weekend of ‘Illumination’ which is when many of the historic buildings in the town are lit up by the most amazing light shows. I didn’t think my sore tired legs would make it back down the hill and into town that night, but I’m sure glad we did, it was spectacular!
Georges had given us the names of a few places he thought we would find interesting, two being viaducts. The first was built by Eiffel in 1882 is the Garabit viaduct, a wrought-iron railway bridge that’s still in use, 565m in length and 124m above the river, and when finished was the highest structure in the world at that time. We thought it was pretty good.
The next Viaduct blew the socks off the Garabit.
The Millau Viaduct is not only an amazing technical feat but this outstanding structure, conceived by a French engineer and a British architect, is beautiful as well.
Comprising of 7 concrete piers and a steel deck topped with 7 pylons the viaduct reaches a height of 343metres. Total length is nearly 2.5 kms, and the highest pier is 245metres, the highest pier in the world to date. 36,000 tonnes of steel make up the 65,000 square m surface area of the deck, and the concrete foundations and piers weigh in at 205,000 tonnes.
To me, it looks like a gossamer thread, seemingly supported by nothing more than seven needle-thin pylons, that glide over the Tarn River, amazing!
It cost 394 million euro to build and in my mind is worth every single centime, and I’m sure the 5 million people that drive across it yearly feel the same.
We took some Millau pictures from Peyre, a small troglodyte village that clings to the cliff-face, and where the first inhabitants lived in caves carved into the rockface, about 5 kms away for our Millau distance shots. The narrow flower-lined streets are beautiful and many of the current residents still have at least their garage built into the rockface.
It’s amazing to think that in the 21st-century humans can design and construct something as outstanding as the Millau Viaduct, it just astonishes me how far we have come.
We needed an overnight stop before our next destination of Conques and decided on using our France Passion book of farm and winery motorhome stops, to stay at an Ostrich farm. La Ferme aux Autruches (ostrich in French) was perfect, we were all by ourselves on a grassy area with a beautiful view over the valley.
But the best part was the ostriches, such funny birds, they prance and dance and are so curious, I had to be careful to keep the camera away as they kept trying to grab it.
The farmer gave us a personal tour and told us all about the hatching to maturity cycle and we bought a terrine d’Autruche au Cognac. Sorry, but they are killed at around 2 years old for their meat which is very lean and tasty, then their skins are tanned and the leather used for bags, and the feathers sold as well all in their little stall.
You can also buy ostrich eggs, he showed us one, it must have weighed 2kg
So, one night at apero time, after we have finished most of the fridge full of cheese we have bought recently, we will open our terrine and think about those funny birds and their dancing.
So you made it to here, you did well! That has covered about the first three weeks of this six-week little jaunt through France, I’ll get the next couple of posts up soon as I can.