The last few days have moved me in unanticipated ways – physically, intellectually and emotionally. From Paris, we headed south and stopped by Guedélon, a 13th century-style castle being currently constructed, using tools, techniques and materials of that time period. It is one of the coolest places I’ve ever been. I’m a visual learner. At Guedélon, you can see right before your eyes. We saw iron being forged, building materials being hoisted up 60 feet by a winch powered by a gigantic human hamster wheel, wood and stone being carved and chiseled by artisans, and even a woman demonstrating how to prepare traditional Medieval meals. Observing all this, I could finally imagine the hardships, the environment, the smells and tastes of 13th century life.
Initially, people thought the idea of building a Medieval castle was crazy and that the man who concocted the idea was fou, too. Now, the idea has resonated, and people flock here by the hundreds of thousands each year. They still have another ten years or so until the castle is completed (their funds from various government and cultural agencies have dried up, so they rely solely on private donations and visitor revenue), and they’re making great use of their time to educate visitors – the young and the not so young – and to function as a resource for, historians, researchers, architects, artisans and scientists who want to know more about the life and times of people from 13th c. France.
In Bourges, we saw one of the most beautiful Gothic cathedrals anywhere. Notre Dame de Paris may be a perennial favorite , but the cathedral at Bourges puts it to shame. The facades are intricately designed and tiny remnants of the original pigments still cling to the facesand robes of saints, angels, sinners and devils. The interior and the close-to-eye-level stained glass are stunning. And the best part: you don’t have the crowds of Paris. The place is all yours if you choose to make it so.
With its many half-timbered buildings dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries, its narrow and cobbled streets, and its historical and religious attractions, Bourges is charming in its aspirations to be a grander tourist destination. But what’s even more charming are the people of the town. While it’s not difficult to do so in metropolitan or high tourism areas, for me, it’s generally easier to make personal connections with people in smaller towns. They’re in less of a rush, they’re down to earth, and they seem to be more curious, open and appreciative of the interaction.
For instance, while wandering through the town with Julie and a local guide named Barbara, we happened upon two young men who had laid out a 6’x 8’checkerboard piece of linoleum and a boom box in the corner of a small church square. They weren’t doing this for tourists. They simply wanted to practice their breakdancing (B-boy) skills. We watched them for a bit, and then I asked them if I could join them. They smiled grandly and excitedly motioned for me to take the floor. So, I busted out with my moves from the 6th grade (way back when breakdancing was first in style), finishing with a backspin and a pose. Thunderous applause! Then I asked them to show me how to do a stall – a type of gravity defying, contortionist, athletic pose. One of the guys explained to me in French, movement by movement, exactly what I should do. It took several tries and several falls, but eventually, I nailed it. Think of it: a dance craze from the 80s, started in New York, exported around the world and rejuvenated three decades later in a small town in France, functioning as a cultural link between three people who live 6000 miles apart. Cool!
Just a bit later at an elegantly appointed wine bar/restaurant, the jolly and robust owner kindly invited us to tour his wine cave after dinner. He only spoke French and proudly explained the history of the building and wine cave. The original tunneling dates back to the 14th century. It was used as an underground court and jail during the French Revolution and as a passageway and party place for a recent bishop. Oh, if only the walls could talk. We didn’t get this personal tour because we were special. We were simply open to the invitation and went with the moment. This man wanted to share something he was proud of, and we were the beneficiaries of his graciousness. It’s just one more example of the beauties of breaking away from the tourist mainstream.
At the end of the night, we joined up with the locals at an outdoor jazz festival featuring a French banjo trio called BanjoManiacs. Now I’m not normally into Bluegrass, but this was one truly enjoyable event. Some of the songs I recognized. Most I didn’t. They were all catchy and the musicians were quite talented. Everyone got into the spirit of it, and even in the drizzly rain – with umbrellas sprouting like mushrooms across the courtyard of the cathedral – you could feel the camaraderie of the crowd. We danced with locals and shared in the magic of the night. I went to bed feeling grateful for this memorable day in Bourges.
In transit to our next town, we stopped to tour a Renaissance castle that is being restored by the same man behind Guedélon and got to partake in a wine and cheese tasting there. Now if there’s one thing (or two things) that brings together people who don’t know each other well on a tour, it’s wine and cheese. This was the breakthrough day when our tour members finally let their hair down and really started to get to know one another. Younger and older intermingled, and everyone succumbed to the beauty of the moment.
At Chambord, King François I’s hunting lodge and the largest castle in the Loire Valley, I visited rooms I had somehow managed to miss on a few previous trips with my students. I don’t know if it’s just because we had been so limited on time at the castle on my last visits (trying to cram in three or four castles in a day is nutty), but I simply don’t remember having seen François I’s bedroom, the Regent’s room (King Louis XIV’s mother), the antique carriages, the grand clock or intricate sculptures on the ground floor. I even got to give my best wishes to a couple to who just got married at the church (which I had never noticed) next to the castle. The brilliant thing about traveling to any place you’ve already visited is that with time and an open mind, there’s always something new to discover.
Blois was our home base for two nights. From this base we visited the from-the-pages-of-a-fairytale castle: Chenonceau, le chateau des dames or the Ladies’ castle – dubbed that way because of all the women who, over four centuries, have influenced the style of and have maintained the use of this storybook dwelling.
After that, we ambled in Amboise. As we were buying tickets for Clos Lucé (Leonardo da Vinci’s final residence), Julie and I met the author and illustrator of Vick et Vicky, a popular children’s French comic book. We had been looking for one to share with the kids on our tour. The man was so gracious in answering our numerous questions. He was unassuming, unpretentious, and humble; we didn’t even realize he was the author until fifteen minutes into the conversation. He’s designed his books to educate French children about sites and events that are important in French history. He craftily teaches them about their cultural heritage while entertaining them. Genius!
Speaking of genius, at Clos Lucé we were able to see scale models of the original designs by da Vinci for such things at a whirly-bird (helicopter), a war-machine (tank), a bicycle, a paddleboat, a lifesaver, a military bridge, an Archimedes water device, and more. But what was even better was the park behind the residence, which had life-size replicas that you could actually play with! If you really want to get your kids (or yourself) really engaged in history, engineering, art, physics, and creativity, you must go here!
Back in Blois, it was laundry night. I took several tour members (three generations were represented) into town, and while we waited for our laundry to finish, we enjoyed some tasty beverages on a terrace on the square. The conversations were even more refreshing than the drinks. Even though we found that we were like-minded on virtually every topic we covered (history, religion, politics and current events), we really relished debating each other, too. It reminded me that while there is much to be learned from those who counter your opinions, there are also opportunities to learn from those whose point of view is facing the same direction as yours. We recalled the events of the last few days and shared our reactions, impressions and emotions. By the time our clothes had been cleaned, we all felt like we knew each other better and that from the youngest to the least young of us, we had all learned something worthwhile.
Travel is more than moving from place to place. It’s going back in time. It’s giving a Leonardo helicopter a whirl. It’s listening to a banjo in another hemisphere. And it’s letting a conversation with new friends enjoy the spin cycle. Actually, that’s not just travel… that’s good travel.