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Loire Dire, Part II

Well, I made an error I don't feel like correcting in my first post. We went to Amboise on Day 6, so I'll backtrack and tell you about Day 5. 

The French heat wave continued, but we had things to do, so onward we forged. Forty-five minutes south of our house in Saint-Gervais was the ZooParc de Beauval, France's largest zoo. It was one of the final days of the French school year AND it was hotter than Hades, so we hoped the zoo would be less of a mob scene than usual.

We were correct. The zoo was stunning, and we had it nearly all to ourselves. We saw a black panther, a white tiger, pandas (!), and countless other wonderful creatures. We watched the sea lion show in the full, blazing sun. Anne made faces at a monkey, who then threw himself in rage against his plexiglass window so hard that we could see why it was already cracked. This was seriously like a scene out of a zombie movie right before the virus really hits humanity. Adrenaline, anyone?

Most of the zoo was shady, and we drank liters of water, so we survived the long, fun day. The drive home, like most of our drives, was along charming, winding country roads that ran through picturesque villages with colorful window shutters, hanging baskets of petunias, and Romanesque churches. 

We had special plans for Day 7. Every year, we give our kids each a birthday trip--a day with Mom or Dad (we alternate years) visiting museums, seeing concerts or shows, and eating fancy meals. Anne and Daniel have birthdays in May, so we decided their birthday trips would be in Paris. Patrick had Daniel, and I had Anne. We brought the big girls with us and planned to split up after lunch.

But first, we all went to one of my favorite places in France--the Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis. Most of the kings of France are buried there, and the tombs and crypt are a wonder--to say nothing of the stained glass windows. Saint-Denis is way better than Notre Dame and right up there with Chartres, in my opinion. Glorious.

 After baguette sandwiches, the big girls went exploring in Paris on their own, and Patrick and I took Daniel and Anne to the Pompidou. Once there, we went in different directions. They had a marvelous kids' area where Anne built several abstract sculptures in collaboration with little French children. Then we spent time in the Modern collection. The Pompidou is vast, and there was no way we had time (or interest--Anne was nine, after all) to see the whole thing. So after a couple of hours, we left and went window shopping in the Marais. (It was blessedly cool in the department stores, so we went in frequently.) 

We met up with Patrick and Daniel at dinner time and went to Benoit, probably the most affordable of Alain Ducasse's Michelin-starred restaurants. Oh, the glory of a traditional French meal. The bread, the pate, the richest yet most ethereal soup. There are no words.

We met up with the big girls and made our way home. Everyone agreed that Paris is the best.

Day 8 dawned bright and hot. When we planned our trip, I'd made a list of must-see places in the Loire Valley, but I also asked for the kids' input. Hope asked if we could go to Angers, because she'd done a report on it in eighth grade. It was a little bit farther than I had wanted to go, but we decided she should see the place she'd studied. 

And I'm delighted that we did, because it was at Angers that I got the most delightful surprise of the trip. The ancient castle is huge and cool, and there are beautiful formal gardens in the moats--but what I didn't know until we got there was that Angers is the home of a massive series of tapestries depicting the events of the Book of Revelation. I love tapestries, and I love Revelation, so it was pretty much heaven.

We walked slowly down the dark aisles of the exhibit, marveling at the artistry and craftmanship and sheer number of hours that had gone into each of the 71 remaining tapestries. (There were originally 90 of them.) The curators estimate that 84 man-YEARS of effort went into creating the set.

One of the best parts was that the big girls and I had recently studied Revelation in my early morning bible study class, so they could identify many of the elements and characters. That was a mom payoff moment. The whole series of tapestries is amazing, and I was astonished that I'd never seen or heard of it before. I bought a lavish coffee table book with lovely photos and the corresponding text of l'Apocalypse (from the French Bible) on facing pages. That was my trip souvenir, and I treasure it. 

After our time with the tapestries, we walked around downtown Angers, wandering into random gorgeous churches that would be a big deal in this country, but aren't given more than a line or two in most French guidebooks. As we walked back to the car, we happened upon a fountain. It was hot. Of course the kids got as wet as possible, which made everyone a little more comfortable on the way home.

Patrick's brother, aka Uncle Bruce, joined us the next day, which was Saturday. This was the day I'd decided we'd visit a couple more out-of-the-way gems that Patrick and I had seen on our trip so many years before. But first we explored a place new to all of us--the tiny, ornate, and charmingly shabby Château Montrésor. Taxidermied wolverines! Camel saddles! Algae-filled fountains and staircases circling down to nowhere! As Chris Farley would say, "It was awesome."

Next stop was the obscure village of Nouans-les-Fontaines, where a little old church houses the Pieta de Nouans, a gorgeous painting by Jean Fouquet, France's most important 15th-century painter. As with our visit two decades before, no one was on the streets, no one was in the chapel, and the doors were unlocked. We walked in, put a euro in a slot, and lights illuminated the priceless painting while a recording told us (in French) about its history. 

Just a short drive from Nouans-les-Fontaines lie the ruins of a Carthusian monastery. Patrick and I had picnicked there before on our way from the Loire Valley to Switzerland, so I packed a lunch for us all, and we recreated the party. Fueled by our usual delicious baguette sandwiches and Prince cookies, the kids roamed around the ruins while the adults (mostly) lazed in the shade. 

I always love it when we get to have these magical places all to ourselves. 

On our way back to Saint-Gervais-la-Forêt, we stopped in Loches for some ice cream and walked up the hill to the fortress where the wounded Joan of Arc met with Charles VII to report her miraculous military victory at Orléans. And that was enough medieval history for everyone but me. After our long drive home, we had a lovely dinner at a restaurant on the edge of the Loire River in Blois. Oddly, the soundtrack to The Fellowship of the Ring was playing as we perused the menus, which got Hope all choked up, which made us all laugh hard. Chalk it up to beauty overload for the day.

The next day was Sunday, so after church services, we rested and refueled. More adventures to follow in Part III!

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