Sunday, June 24, 2012

Les châteaux de la Loire

I'm not sure how it happened so quickly, but we have already made it through our first week here in Saumur!  On Friday, we had our first excursion, which was to a couple châteaux (castles) in the Loire Valley.  Before I go into those details, though, I thought it might be helpful if I describe where the Loire Valley is as well as the city of Saumur in order to give you a better idea of where your stagiaires are living.  Saumur is situated on the Loire river, the longest river in France.  Its valley is well known for its vineyards, historic towns (Saumur included), and of course, castles (over 300 of them!).  Saumur is 200 miles southwest of Paris, as shown on the map below:

You can see, then, that we are pretty well inland.  Saumur has a pretty mild climate, with temperatures staying around the 70s for most of the summer and moderate rainfall.  For our trip on Friday, we traveled further inland through Tours and toward Orleans, as shown below:

Our first stop (indicated by B on the map) was at the château de Chambord.  Many castles in the region were built by French royalty for mostly leisurely purposes--oftentimes something like giant vacation homes or hunting lodges.  They were also meant to be symbolic of their wealth and power.  François I had Chambord built in the early 16th century for these very reasons.  He was an avid hunter, so it was very important that his castle be surrounded by a large wooded area.  Hunting is still popular here as our stagiaires found out--there happened to be a large hunting expo just outside the castle grounds on the same day we visited.  

As you can see, Chambord is immense.  It is the largest of the Loire castles, and has around 440 rooms.  It has three main floors that are connected by a double helix staircase designed by da Vinci.  Two people can climb either side of the staircase and they won't run into each other.  At the top of the castle is a large terrace with elaborately decorated chimneys (365 of them).  Students were free to visit the castle at their leisure in their groups of three or four before we headed on.

The next stop was Blois (C in the map above), where the stagiaires ate the picnics provided by their host families.   After eating, students had time to visit the town in their groups or visit the castle if they wished.  Afterwards, we went on to our second main visit for the day--the château de Chenonceau (D on the map).  This is a castle built by French nobility also in the early 16th century, but is best known as "le château des six femmes" (the castle of the six women) because of the six notable women who owned/inhabited it at various points in history.  These included Catherine de Médicis (wife of King Henry II) and Madame Dupin (hostess of an 18th century literary salon).  While a much smaller castle than Chambord, Chenonceau has an impressive grounds that includes two large gardens as well as a labyrinth.  

Again, students had plenty of time to see the castle and take pictures in small groups.  They did a great job of staying together and being on time, so we were yet again impressed by our stagiaires.  We had a wonderful time, and I think they did, too!

This coming week is not quite as busy, but we will be having our official reception at the city hall on Tuesday, which is a fairly significant event.  We have a full week of classes, so the students will be busy enough with reading and small assignments.  We are hoping for a week that goes just as smoothly as the first!

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