The first of the ridiculous number of castles I planned on visiting in the Loire was Château de Cheverny.
But it started to rain as I soon as left Versailles and by the time I hit the A10 – aka E5 – which would take me into the Loire Valley it was pouring. I had got soaked the day before in the gardens of the Sun King and the thought of trudging around another garden in the rain was highly désagréable. I decided that if it was still pouring by the time I reached Blois, which is where I would have to leave the highway and head south along the D174, D765 and/or D102 to Cheverny, I would just keep on going to my hotel in Chenonceau. (As in Italy, the bigger the road number, the smaller – and usually more charming the road. And, as in Italy, once you hit three digits, the road numbers are more or less useless. I soon gave up trying to follow them and instead, as soon as I was in the general vicinity, I would just keep an eye out for signs leading to the castles.)
Although it was the gardens of Cheverny that I was interested in, I got the sense that for many, the highlight of the visit was the 5 pm ‘Soupe des chiens‘ (feeding of the dogs).
It was still raining, but not as heavily, by the time I reached Blois. As luck would have it, it was also lunch time, so I decided to drive into the town and look for somewhere to eat. This was not on my itinerary, so I didn’t have a clue where I was going; just kept following – or tried to follow – the signs to the centre. After a few false starts I ended up near the castle and what seemed to be the only parking lot in town.
It was only my second day with the car and I was still somewhat discombobulated – although I had got the hang of the windshield wipers. I didn’t have the monnaie (change) I usually keep on hand for the horodateur, but luckily – again – it was one of those villages where parking was free between 12,00 and 14,00. Very civilized.
I walked up and down the main street checking out the eateries. Not having a good meal was not going to make the rain any more bearable. (I was feeling rather negative at this point.) A lot of people seemed to be going into the restaurant right across the road from the parking lot – the Bistrot du Boucher (Butcher’s Bistro). When in doubt, my strategy is to act like the sheep – the local sheep. I followed a young couple through the door. Half the town seemed to be inside.
After the daily special, tagine d’agneau (stewed lamb; delicious!) and un pichet du rouge I was feeling much better and on the basis that it couldn’t possibly keep on raining the rest of the afternoon, I decided to head for Cheverny. Then I ordered un café. When the waiter returned with the extravaganza below I thought he had got my order mixed up with another table. The place was hopping. But no, he assured me, with just the slightest hint of a smile, “C’était bien le café de madame”.
I was not convinced. This was a bistro, not a starred Michelin restaurant. Had the waiter taken pity on this sodden, lone foreigner? But, not willing to appear ungracious and certainly not about to let any vague scruples get in the way of enjoying such a gallant gesture, I simply thanked him and started in on my ‘café‘. The crème brûlée was délicieuse! Ditto for the mousse au chocolat. So was the amber-coloured liqueur, which I drank only to help digest everything I’d eaten. I also drank the coffee.
In a decidedly more positive frame of mind I set out Cheverny. Less than half an hour later I was walking around the (temporarily rain-free) castle grounds. Next to the enclosure where the dogs were kept was the most beautiful kitchen garden I had ever seen.
The term ‘kitchen garden’ needs no explanation, but ‘le potager‘ was a bit of a mystery. Why not ‘jardin des légumes’? Or ‘jardin des comestibles’ to give it some French panache? The mystery was solved a few days later in a most unlikely venue. A Troglodyte farm. I’ll write about that later, but for now, it seems that when Louis XIV starting going crazy for vegetables, there was a problem. Up until then vegetables were what the peasants ate. In fact vegetables, often cooked all together in a pot and called la soupe, and a hunk of bread were usually the only thing the peasants ate.
The king obviously could not eat vulgar peasant fare, so the boiled vegetable medley was rebranded as ‘le potage‘. And to make sure there was no confusing the king’s potages with the peasants’ lumpy soupes, the vegetables were strained to a smooth, silky texture, worthy of the royal palate. And the gardens where all the vegetables that went into the king’s potages were grown was called…
The history of Cheverny is considerably less turbulent than that of a lot of the other castles in the Loire. There were a couple of rough spots – the first in the 16th century when it fell under the control of Diane de Poitiers, the much-loved mistress of Henri II and the much reviled enemy of the king’s wife, Catherine dei Medici. After the king’s sudden and, unfortunately for Diane, totally unexpected death – the king had made no provisions in his will for her – Catherine had kicked Diane out of Chenonceau. The now homeless Diane bought Cheverny so she had somewhere to stay while the renovations on her new castle, Chaumont, were being completed.
But apart from Diane’s short sojourn and another period in the 18th century, the castle has been owned and lived in by generations of the same family, the Huraults, for over six centuries. I hadn’t planned on spending much time in the interiors of the castles. After all, unlike gardens, there are only so many interiors, however magnificently furnished, that any human being can reasonably be expected to traipse through. But given Cheverny’s rather ‘homey’ history, I thought it might be worth a quick look. It was. I especially liked the child’s room and the newlyweds’ room.
At the rear, the castle opened onto the so-called ‘Apprentices’ Garden’.
It was hard to believe that until 2006 this had been a typical jardin à la française. The designers’ goal had been to maintain the classic feel of the place by incorporating the geometry and parterres of the original garden into the modern English landscape style.
Although the sun never did make an appearance that first day in the Loire, the rain held off – for a few hours. I was checking in at the hotel in Chenonceau when the receptionist and I were startled by the sound of thunder, and a few seconds later, pelting rain.