Thursday, April 4, 2013

Chateau de Gizuex

One of the closest chateaux to us is in the village of Gizeux.  It doesn't feature heavily in the guide books and is certainly not on the itineraries of the whistle stop tour buses that visit the Loire.  It is, though - in my opinion - well worth a visit, for several reasons.
The chateau is owned by Géraud and Stéphanie de Laffon and has been in their family since 1786.  They live there with their 6 children and the on-going restoration of their (very large!) family home is a life-long passion.

Visits to the chateau are guided - often by the owners themselves - and this gives you a fascinating insight not only to the very personal history of the building and its inhabitants, but also what it means to be the owners and - as they call themselves - safe-keepers of this heritage.  If you are lucky enough to join the summer visit at 10.30am, in addition to the usual tour, you will get to visit the private salon and the attics and learn in even more detail what is involved in the upkeep and restoration.

One personal story which sticks in my mind relates to the chateau's cellar.  Here there is an underground tunnel which leads to the presbytery next to the church in the village centre.  During the war, French resistance members were hidden here, despite part of the chateau being used by German soldiers.  A few years ago, Géraud was conducting a visit and whilst in the cellars, an elderly gentleman gave him the first names of 4 people and asked if they still lived there or locally.  Géraud answered 'yes, they are my mother and her brother and sisters, my mother still lives here - do you know her well?'  The gentleman said he didn't know her at all; whilst he was hiding in the cellars during the war (he was a resistance member), he heard those names being called each day at mealtimes, and had remembered them all that time.

The 'jewel in the crown' of the visit is the gallery of chateaux - 400 square metres of art painted directly onto the walls by art students in 1680; you can see the progression of their skill as you move from the first painting to the last.  Currently undergoing skilled restoration, these almost 400 year-old tableaux are truly remarkable.

There is plenty to interest all ages, in English as well as French - as well as the chateau visit, there is a treasure hunt in the gardens, special events in summer for children (bread baking, costumes for the children to wear and coat-of-arms workshops) and even a wine-tasting visit at 11.15.

The chateau is open every day from Easter and we have details of visit times and special workshops.  It is on a pretty cycling circuit (38km) through the forest and you can either take a picnic to enjoy in the chateau grounds or have a simple lunch in the orangerie.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Schools in France

We often get asked by our guests what education is like in France, and how it is different from where they live.  Now that between them our boys have experienced all levels of French education from ‘petit section’ (first year of nursery school) through to university, I thought I would describe the system of state school here.  This is very much our personal experience and I understand that school hours/systems may be slightly different throughout France, but hopefully this will give you an idea.

Compulsory education in France begins at age 6.  However, all children from age 3 are guaranteed a free nursery school place and so most children start earlier than 6, albeit maybe on a part-time basis.  The 3 years of nursery school are called petit, moyen and grand sections and emphasis is on learning through play.  School hours are from 9.00am to 4.30pm four days a week, with an hour and a half break for lunch (at this age, certainly here in a rural area, most children go home for lunch).  In petit section, Max and his classmates all went to a little dormitory after lunch for a sleep.

Primary school runs for 5 years, to age 11.  The hours are the same and still 4 days a week; here our boys had Wednesdays off.  Starting from 2013 or 2014, this is being changed to 4 1/2 days, to include Wednesday mornings.  Emphasis at primary age is on learning the basics - lots of French grammar and conjugation - plus the introduction of science, history/geography (one subject), art, music, English, computer studies and sport.  At our boys’ school desks are arranged in rows facing the blackboard and work is in the main done individually with little talking (too much and you are moved to a desk by the teacher - we know this from experience...!).  The children are tested  often, at the end of each 'module' and in all subjects (including sport).

Collège (senior school) comes next; 4 years of study with everyone following the same syllabus and subjects.  School hours are now 8.30am to 5.00pm four days a week, plus 8.30 to 12.30 on Wednesdays, all still with a 90 minute lunch break.  At our boys' college there were also lots of lunchtime clubs - Adam was involved in a cinema club which produced a film at the end of the year, and Max's rugby team recently came 2nd in the regional competition.  Constant testing continues through collège, culminating in the Brevet exam - French, Maths, History/Geography, plus an English oral exam and computer skills testing.

After collège, students have a choice – the main options being academic or vocational Baccalaureats, or other vocational qualifications intended to lead to a specific career or work.  We only have experience of the academic Bac – which for Adam (having chosen the science stream) involved studying French, maths, physics/chemistry, biology, history/geography, English, German, sport and , in the final year, philosophy.  Study was for 3 years, school hours 8.00am to 6.00pm four days a week and 8.00am to 1.00pm Wednesdays.  Still the same constant testing and a final exam in all subjects – to pass you have to gain an average over all subjects of at least 10/20.

Whilst the vocational study route often leads to a job (or job hunt these days) at the end - although students can of course opt for further studies – an academic Bac is seen as a stepping stone to further studies only, usually a minimum of 3 years.  Again there is a choice of route – for those students with a clear idea of their future career this is often at a specific ‘school’ (engineering, medical, business, law); otherwise the route is university.  For this latter the entry requirement is a pass at Bac; for the other options there is usually a more selective process which can include Lycée (high school) results, an entrance exam and/or an interview.  Interestingly, for medical school only a Bac pass is needed; halfway through the first year there is an exam process and failure at this means you leave medical school immediately.

Most students at this level choose a school or university close to home and many travel daily to their studies whilst living at home.  On site campus accommodation is rare so students wishing to live away from home usually have a privately rented apartment (studio/bed-sit/cupboard with a bed and toilet!!).

After a 3 year ‘licence’ (degree) students can enter a job at certain prescribed levels; further study (masters or the equivalent) opens opportunities at a higher level (and the chance to progress further).  This prescribed system of linking qualifications so closely with career progression  - as opposed to experience or aptitude - means that many years of study ‘post-Bac’ are common; jobs are usually advertised with qualifications stated as Bac+ a number – representing the number of years study beyond the age of 18 – and Bac+5 or more is pretty common.  So the fact that state university is (for the moment) free tuition-wise is a big bonus for those of us just setting off on this stage of our childrens’ education!

Whether the French system is better, worse or just different from the UK is impossible to quantify; Adam was 8 when we moved here so really we have only experienced the French system.  They do of course have the benefit of being bilingual and, to some extent, of experiencing both cultures.  How much of a benefit that is to them in adult life, only time will tell…but its all part of the adventure.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Going Underground

This part of the Loire Valley has a rich heritage of troglodyte buildings.  Troglodyte means 'cave dweller' and probably the most well- known reason for the many caves, dwellings and now semi-troglodyte houses here, is that when the chateaux and manor houses were built for the kings and noblemen, the stone was quarried locally.  This left holes (caves) in which the peasants then lived.

But there is an even older history of underground living here and one of the most impressive places to see this is the Chateau de Brezé.  A short distance from Saumur, whilst the visible chateau was built in the 1300's, the earliest record of a 'chateau' here dates back to 1063.  But to see where the noblemen of this time lived, you have to go down...up to 20 metres below the current ground level.

Back in the 'dark days' the land was often invaded and so those with enough money, power and peasants (to do the work!) dug out a fortified underground home for their family.  Adults, children, and even livestock used to live underground at times of peril and leave those less fortunate to the mercy of the marauding hordes.  You can see niches carved into the stone for chicken roosts, holes used to tie up cattle and horses, and great carved out columns for chimneys and air holes.

This underground village was also tremendously well fortified - with portcullis, narrow winding passages (impossible for attackers to carry spears) and false entrances.


In the 14th century the above-ground chateau was fortified and the dry moat constructed.  In places this is 20 metres deep and is the deepest in Europe and really very impressive; you can see how impenterable the chateau was.

Impressive though the moat itself is, there are more surprises hidden in its inner walls.  During your visit you can see grain stores, silkworm caves, stables and a wonderful 2 storey boulangerie - complete with what must have been a very cosy baker's bed right above the bread oven!  The chateau also owns vineyards and you can see the extensive wine caves (and old stone wine presses) before tasting the produce in the (above ground) stable buildings in the grounds.

A visit to this unique chateau is included on our Discovery and Wine tours and we are working on a cycle route there too.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Bonne Année!

Every January, in common with other towns and villages all over France, the Maire of St Nicolas de Bourgueil and his fellow councillors hold a 'Ceremonie de Voeux' (New Year's wishes) for the village.  The exact format differs from commune to commune, but each includes a word from the Maire reporting on completed projects from the previous year, plans for the current year and ends in wishing everyone in the village health and happiness for themselves and their families.

Our Ceremonie was held last Saturday and about a quarter of the population (350 folk) attended.  After the word from Christel, our Maire, there was the prize giving for the best floral displays in the village in 2012 - 3 of the councillors travel all over the village during the summer and decide the worthy winners in the courtyard, roadside display and wine press categories (well, we are a wine-growing village!). 

In St Nicolas, we also watch a film each year.  A club in the village usually films all the year's events (school fete, annual football competition, new mother and baby ceremony on Mother's Day, etc.) and presents the film at the Voeux.  This year though we were treated to the second part of a special three-film series which has documented the memories of the old folks in the village.  As well as being a fascinating insight into the village's history over the past 80 years or so, this is an important record - St Nicolas was occupied during the second world war and much of the written records were destroyed - the number of villagers left who remember those days is sadly declining ( 3 have passed away since making this year's film) and so their memories are precious.

This year's film theme was traditional trades and schooldays of old.  Villagers' filmed memories were interspersed with contemporary photos and documents as well as a couple of filmed demonstrations - one by an old basket-weaver and the other by a couple of real characters who used to be blacksmiths.  Their description of the need to clean a horse's hooves before re-shoeing them taught the audience the saying 'le marechal ferrant touche le merde avant l'argent' (you'll have to look up the translation yourselves!).

For the schooldays section, the club had taken a group of current village children to a school museum to spend a day in traditional uniform learning about a typical school day and this footage was interspersed with the old folks' memories. This combining of young and old in the film was particularly touching.

As is tradition for almost every civic gathering here, the event ended with the 'pot d'amitie' - on this occasion sparkling wine and a slice of Galette des Rois (twelfth night cake) a puff pastry tart filled with frangipan - whilst villagers mingled to wish each other happy new year, complain about the terrible weather, gossip, chat and generally have a good time.

Bonne Année à Tous et à Toutes!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Pedalling back in time

Each June for several years now, Saumur has hosted an annual bike event, where the roads are closed alongside the river and cyclists can truly enjoy the freedom of the road.  In 2011, a new side event was added to this already wonderful festival - Anjou Vélo Vintage.

Attracting over 1400 participants last year, this event captures the essence of cycling in its 'glory days' - to take part, riders must have a single speed bike dating from no later than 1987 - luckily (as all our bikes are much newer than that and equipped with lots of gears), these are available to hire - and riders are strongly encouraged to enter into the 'retro' spirit by dressing in vintage clothes from between 1900 and 1970 (I'm sure I probably have some 70's clothes still in my wardrobe!).

This year's event takes place on Sunday 23rd June.  Rides start from just 38km and this route takes you along the Loire and through troglodyte caves and villages.  It passes the chateaux of Saumur and Montsoreau as well as the artists village of Turqant.  For participants, there are refreshment points along the way; highlights are at the renowned red wine makers Chateau de Parnay and the sparkling wine house Bouvet Ladubay.  The circular route ends back in the centre of Saumur at the event 'village' where there will be stands showcasing cycling memorabilia, local products and souvenirs of the event.


As a family we have enjoyed the general bike ride for the last few years and each time the spectacle of the Vintage riders has been wonderful - couples, groups and families all dressed up and enjoying the fun of riding traffic-free routes with street-side entertainment, refreshments and fun.

So this year, we are taking part in the Vintage ride proper - we will be hiring bikes, dressing up (Max still needs to be persuaded of this part) and starting the ride at 10.30am in Saumur.  Our guests staying with us at that time will be welcome to join us - and we can arrange transport to the start and finish points for anyone who needs it.  If we have enough interest, we may enter a company team, and each member of the team will get a retro cycling jersey with Loire Valley Breaks printed on it!

There is a small entry fee to pay, but this includes a souvenir drinks bottle, official entry pack etc. and there is a cost to hire the required old bike.  Of course, it is also possible to ride the public festival route instead - free of charge - and we have a route ready for guests who choose this option.

There are lots of great official photos of the event here

We still have some availability for a stay around 23rd June, so if this event appeals to you, let us know as soon as possible and we'll book you in.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Fun Comes in Threes

Spring is definitely, well springing, here in the Loire Valley so we have selflessly taken ourselves out and about - revisiting some favourite places and searching out new destinations and places of interest for our guests.

Whether we are on the bikes or in the car, our route often leads us to and through the adjacent villages of Candes St Martin, Montsoreau and Turquant. These 3 villages lie along the riverside around the confluence of the Vienne and Loire rivers and almost directly across the valley from our home in St Nicolas de Bourgueil. Each one has a wealth of interest - architectural, historical, natural and commercial - and they all feature on our cycle, wine and discovery tour routes. In fact there is so much to see and do that, despite being in such close proximity, we have devised two separate cycle routes for 2011, so guests can have time to take a leisurely cycle to and from their destination and also explore all each village has to offer. Below is a taster of what you can discover in each destination.

Let's start with the westernmost village, Candes St Martin. This is designated one of the prettiest villages in France and its easy to see why. The houses hug the hillside along the Vienne river, clustered around the disproportionately huge church in its centre. The church is dedicated to St Martin (!) who died here in November 397 and dates back to the 12th century. Many of the houses in the village are from medieval times, so there are plenty of cobbled streets and narrow alleyways to explore. A steep walk to the clifftop rewards you with a magnificent panorama over the Loire Valley and a bird's eye view of where the Vienne river meets the mighty Loire. Back in the village, there has been a recent renaissance and now there are several artists shops to browse, as well as an unusual cafe/bric a brac store and a shop selling hand-restored furniture and home furnishings, combined with an ambiant wine bar in the cellar.

A short stroll or ride brings you to the larger village of Montsoreau. Dominated by the chateau right on the river and the location for a monthly antiques market along the quayside, there is again plenty to see and do here. The chateau has been wonderfully restored; don't expect the usual four poster beds and suits of armour indisde though. Instead this unfurnished chateau is home to an exhibition of the history of life along the river - there are atmospheric displays of river traffic, weather vanes, flora and fauna, as well as details of 'La Dame de Montsoreau' - a steamy novel set in the chateau and written by Alexandre Dumas (of The 3 Musketeers fame). Montsoreau village has several watering holes - you can choose from a simple cafe right up to a gourmet restaurant with river views. Or make up a picnic with goodies from the baker's butcher's and general store and eat it at the picnic tables along the riverbank. A short detour away rom the river will bring you - via Le Mestre hand-made soap makers - to the historic village of Fontevraud l'Abbaye - the abbey has a checkered history but is probably most famous as the resting place of Richard the Lionheart.

From Montsoreau you can follow the Loire a Velo route to the troglodyte village of Turquant. Here there are winegrowers, windmills and caves to explore. Just outside the village centre, a row of former troglodyte dwellings have been restored and now house an artist's village - you can browse through a silversmith's, a glassblower's, a leather worker's shop (great handbags, ladies!) and will often see the artists at work. There is also a showroom displaying (and selling) pottery, jewellery and other household knick knacks made by local artists. If all that shopping works up a thirst, you can visit the Bistroglo for a rhubarb juice or an artisan beer. Also in the village is a troglodyte restaurant - guests eat in the wonderful restored cave and enjoy delicious dishes featuring local produce and often-forgotten old ingredients - nettle soup is often featured.

After all this excitement, if you have arrived by bike, your return route will take you along the Loire river - either on the north or south bank (depending which of our routes you are following!) with opportunities for nature-watching along the way. Then its just a case of meandering back through the vineyards back to base, for a well-earned rest (perhaps a glass or two of the local brew) and an opportunity to relive your day's adventures.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Vive le Red (white and blue) Tape

France has a reputation for being over-bureauctratic - it does after all have the highest ratio of civil servants to population in the world. These 'fonctionnaires' are 'fondly' known to the rest of us as cravattes (tie wearers) or, less politely, as chiers d'encre (ink shi&%ers).

I recently put this to the test; I have lost my UK driving licence so needed to apply for a French one. So, I diligently checked the official website to see what documentation I would need - added a few extra items just in case, and painstakingly photocopied everything - if you don't have your documents photocopied then they send you off to the 'presse' across the road - 10c a sheet. I called the Vehicle Licencing Agency in the UK to get a certificate stating that I had a licence there and the driving categories I am allowed (there was no mention of this requirement on the website but I knew it was needed - clever eh?). Finally, off I trotted to the supermarket to get my obligatory passport size photos (2, cut out carefully because I know from experience that the civil service doesn't have scissors - at least not ones they lend to the great unwashed public!).

After checking the office opening hours (8.30 am to 12.30pm Monday to Friday) - France is notorious for being closed at lunchtimes and all day on Mondays - Mark and I set off early on 6th January to get my new licence. I have to confess to a feeling of smugness (my first mistake) 'knowing' that I had beaten the system - because I had jumped through all their hoops before getting there. We walked past the 'Bureau des Etrangers' just along the road from the driving licence centre - it was mysteriously shuttered and closed - and on to our destination. Zut alors! Also closed - but why? We had heard no news of strikes, impending nuclear war....then we saw the sign, just underneath the opening hours - closed on the first Thursday of each month...6th January was a Thursday! So, after much muttering and shoulder shrugging (how French we are becoming) we shuffled off, had a coffee and planned our return visit.

The following Tuesday (not chancing a Thursday again) saw us back in Tours. This time the office was open. I stood in the queue at reception; when it was my turn I explained all to the lady, she asked if I had some ID (yes), proof of residence (yes, again), I showed her my certificate from the DVLA (she nodded approvingly). She picked up the phone and advised her colleague that she was sending a lady up to transfer her UK driving licence to a French one, then politely gave me directions to said colleague. I'm home and dry here, I thought (second mistake!) At the second window, I explained all again - the lady asked me for the relevant documents. 'Have you photocopies?' she asked, 'of course' I replied and handed them over. She took everytning away to a mysterious back office (obviously going to prepare my French licence I thought....wrong!) Two minutes later, she was back. 'Have you got a declaration of the loss of your UK licence?' My bood ran cold. 'No', I replied - knowing it was futile, 'but there is the certificate proving I had one.' 'Not good enough, you need to go to the police and declare officially you have lost the licence, they will give you a form, bring that back here.' So, tail once more between our legs, we trudged back home.

Next, the police station. I'm very pleased to say that Bourgueil has a low crime rate, but one of the side effects of this is that the police officers don't seem very, how shall I say, dynamic! The old guy I saw was completely flummoxed by the highly unusual request of someone wanting to declare a BRITISH driving licence lost. After consultation with two colleagues and a phone call to higher powers, he discovered the right form to use and as I had luckily brought along my passport, proof of residence, the UK certificate and I gave the names (including maiden name of my mother) of both my parents, I left 30 minutes later clutching the precious declaration.

The end of this story is pretty boring. I returned to Tours, went to see the driving licence lady, handed my forms over and got my licence! Before writing this blog, I surfed the internet a little to look for some statistics about civil servants (see my opening line). I was amazed, then not at all surprised, at the number of articles there are about French bureaucracy and problems we foreigners have with it. Our only consolation is that our French friends find it just as frustrating. Perhaps I should have read the advice of Jo Laredo, journalist for the Paris Voice, BEFORE staring my epic task:

Top tips for dealing with French red tape: 1 Always find out from an official source exactly what you need before making an application. 2 Double-check the opening hours of the office and ensure it isn't a public holiday. 3 Always take a duplicate of everything. 4 Expect not to have the right paperwork the first time. 5 Allow plenty of time to make an application (and take a good book).