I Captured the Loire Valley Chateaux

For me,  the most romantic image of a castle had always been that of Chenonceau with its gallery/bridge spanning across the Cher river. Surely, it was not as fanciful as the Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, nor as grandiose as Versailles and nor as meticulous as Vaux Le Vicomte but its singular broadswept gesture across the river put it on top of my list. It was that arched bridge structure that prompted my urge to visit the Loire Valley and its castles. The other castles didn’t disappoint but broadened my appreciation of castle art. Each of the castles I visited had something unique to impart on my novice eyes. I wished I had seen more castles so I could make more comprehensive notes but alas, I only had three and a half days for visits. I knew I missed out on many other castles but a vacation cut short was invitation for a return. A feast would only be better enjoyed if there was room for more. I certainly had room for more of the Loire Valley …

Chenonceau

I was so anxious to see Chenonceau that it was the first one we went to as soon as we set foot in the Loire Valley.  As well photographed and documented as it was, it had a few surprises in its offerings.

The most popular view of the chateau seemed to be the west approach with its bridge on the right side of the castle. I discovered that there was an inlet for boat landings, a little quay so to speak, to the left of the main building. It was nested between the main walk to the main entrance and Catherine de Medici’s garden. Its meandering wall served to lessen the formality of a castle and made it even more endearing by its form following function rather than a need for grand symmetry.

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The view from the east was no less beautiful but what was missing from photographs was the Diane de Poitiers garden.

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The bridge itself showed a clever trick to make it seem even longer and more gracious. It had two main stories between the steep roof with dormer windows and the closed spandrel arched bridge with its cutwater piers. The main floor gallery received less ornaments than the Medici Gallery (second floor) enclosure complete with identical arched pediments over each well cased window accentuated by even more molding patterns between the windows. The result were emphasized horizontal bands of seemingly different treatments for each floor which stretched the building longer. This was probably due to the fact that  Catherine de Medici had the gallery  built over Diane de Poitiers’ bridge. The Italian Renaissance building generally had more horizontal emphasis while French Castles dwelled on verticality by the alignnent of windows.
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One couldn’t disclaim the Cher itself being very much part of the attraction. Its languidness flanked by a dense forest invited further exploration. The bridge reflection on the water made the piers seem longer and elegant while the cutwater sharp angles lessened the  piers’ girth.
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The view of the exterior was breathtaking from all angles whether from far away or from inside looking out.

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The interior was just as tastefully furnished and detailed. The two galleries were spectacular in their pristine white walls, checker board floors and the repetitiveness in their arched window openings. The stone carvings were abundant and deliberate in the stair wells, the ceilings, and the fireplaces. The most remarkable room was the Louise de Lorraine bedroom where the walls were painted black with white designs of symbols of mourning. How befitting that a castle began its illustrious career as a gift from a king to his beloved mistress and ended with the last queen to reside at the castle mourning the love of her life, King Henry III and painted her bedroom walls black with symbols of mourning, tears, feathers, bones and gravediggers’ tool. Diane de Poitiers might have had her signature black dresses but Louise de Lorraine gave us more a lasting impression with her black room.IMG_8225

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Amboise

Once we had our fill of Chenonceau, we visited Francois I’s main home at  Amboise. Here was the King who had catapulted the Renaissance era castle business in the Loire Valley. Amboise first fell into royal hands in 1434 and quickly became many kings’ favorite homes. The castle had more High Gothic styling than most castles and received some of the earliest Renaissance motifs in French architecture.

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The chateau was built against a tall embankment. One could look down and see the town of Amboise with its uniform slate roofs.

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I was most intrigued by the stone carvings inside and outside the building. The figureheads in the gargoyles, column capitals and various corbels were quite expressive with a slight humorous naivete’.
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The garden that we saw was not the original lattice enclosed garden but the twentieth century parterre and bosquet was quite intriguing in its modern minimalism.

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Francois I who was raised there had brought the castle to its pinnacle. He brought Leonardo da Vinci to Amboise, built an underground tunnel to Da  Vinci’s home  to visit him on a daily basis and enjoyed bringing French Renaissance to its peak. The chapel Saint Hubert where Leonardo Da Vinci was buried was a beautiful gem of carved stones and arches.
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The town of Amboise was a very lively town with its shop at the foot of the castle. The Sunday market brought all types of food stalls to town. We found fresh mushrooms, piping hot paellas, artisan breads, succulent charcuterie, all manners of goat cheeses and the Pave Royal (nougat cake from Tours).

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Clos de Luce’

Clos de Luce’, Leonardo Da Vinci’s last home was nearby and proved to be a worthwhile visit. The castle had a great exhibit of models of the Renaissance man’s engineering designs, his garden and a park showing larger scale models.

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Cheverny

Cheverny, known for its interior, was quite enjoyable. While the other castles were royal castles complete with stately throne rooms and bedrooms, Cheverny was a castle for an aristocrat family who might have lead a more “normal” life without too much pageantry. Even Herge’ thought that Captain Haddock could have lived in such a residence. Herge’ removed the two outer wings and renamed it Chateau de Moulinsart. Alas, I didn’t find any treasures in any cellar when I toured Cheverny though I made a point to re read Les Bijoux de la Castafiore to see if any of the illustrated interiors and castle grounds would look familiar.

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I liked that there were a kitchen conveniently located next to a family dining nook, a very usable living room, a decently sized but not too large formal dining room, children’s room, and bedrooms with adjacent baths. The castle was completely livable as a very large mansion.

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The grounds had a modern garden, a stable, the hound house for 70 hounds, and a very nice vegetable garden.

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Chambord

Chambord, with its beautiful rooftops and spires and famous double helix stairs, was breathtaking as a unique blend of medieval castle forms and Renaissance details. I was quite drawn to the funnel shaped roofs, the multitude of dormers and circular building shapes interspersed between rectangular wings.

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The climb to the rooftop was worth it for it gave me so many vantage points to see the play between the roof forms, the dormer details and the intricacies in the stone carving.

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The interior of the castle, besides the famous stairs credited to Leonardo Da Vinci, boasted an extensive series of exhibit showing the history of the French Bourbon kings down to Henri, Comte de Chambord, the last Bourbon claimant of the French Crown.

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Villandry

Though known for its beautiful gardens, Villandry castle itself was a marvel. The courtyard plan was spared from monotony in symmetry when the wings are not quite equal, the windows alignment didn’t really center on the facade, the angles were not quite 90 degrees and the widened moat on the left side gave quite a reflection.

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One of the loveliest dining room graced the castle in its entirely pink color. The rustic kitchen could easily be inserted in a home in the Bay Area, The staircase was simple but beautifully detailed in its limestone and wrought iron handrail. A Moorish ceiling was imported from Spain to decorate the Oriental drawing room.

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No wonder the gardens were a Unesco Heritage Site. The knot garden had four patterns for the many aspects of love.

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The vegetable garden was a clever display of edibles among cutting flowers.

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The water garden was unassuming but generous and serene in its layout. The fountain that connected the water garden to the moat was in the form of stairs under a bridge producing a lovely the cascading effect.

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There were many castles I would have liked to have seen. Blois and Chateau d’ Usse’ came to mind. I saw Azay le Rideau but it was covered with scaffolding so I didn’t list it in this post. The one thing that stood out was that when I was at the castles and looked out on their surrounding, there were not a modern building in sight. The view from the castles were practically the same view the castle owners had. If there was a view ordinance in effect, the effort was worth it. I couldn’t imagine seeing anything modern that would destroy the magic of the Loire Valley. When I was on top of those castles, I could see forever just as it should be – happily forever after.

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I came home not a wearied traveler and was already thinking of another trip. When we travel, separated from all comforts of a home, having to navigate a foreign language, and to plan a bit more carefully where to take our meals, we face a  strange mixture of uncertainty and spontaneity. In that wonderful state of being, we are rendered more aware of the people, the surrounding environment and the culture of the place we visit. We stop taking things for granted, we ask more questions, we question lots of answers and we re-engineer our way of living. We should do the same when we return home and resume our daily routine. After all, isn’t life also a journey for which we have to plan the itinerary?

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Simply Shaker

Last year I had the chance to visit one of the few remaining Shaker villages in Massachusetts, the Hancock Shaker  Village.  The village boasted one rare building form in its round stone barn.  The siting of this barn construction was just ingenious. The walk through really gave me a glimpse  of the  spirit of the community.  The variety of building materials and the variations of the same simple forms in buildings and details were proofs of how creativity in its streamlined discipline could be divine!

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This was the third community out of the 19 major villages that was established in the United States. The thousand acres property existed as a working community from 1791 to 1960 when it became a museum. The inhabitants were dairy farmers who made quite a good profit with the garden seed selling business.  At its most prosperous time, the village owned 3000 acres and had 300 occupants.

Its most outstanding structure was the 96 ft diameter round stone barn that one could see imposing its presence over today’s 5 acres site open to visitors. The design was a most effective solution to having 70 cows being fed and milked, having hay stored and distributed while wagons would be driven in one way and ridden out another way without ever having to back up.  It consisted  of four concentric rings for ventilation, hay storing (up to 400 tons of hay), hay distributing and cow feeding.  A clever entrance was introduced to the second story of the barn via an exterior ramp. The structure was completely exposed on the inside with the rafters radiating from the cupola, the balconies support, and the floor gridded to allow the sweeping of cow manure down to make compost.

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There was a sample garden on the site showing the variety of crops, flowers and vegetables that were planted by the industrious villagers. The Shakers were major medicinal herbs suppliers in the 1800’s. Their community had a catalog offering some 300 herbs with almost 200 fluid extracts in the forms of essential oils, vegetable extracts, fragrant and distilled waters and ointments.3ae13fc0e86fc362115ca445601d110b

The brick dwelling, the community’s dormitory, was another marvel with indoor piped water, dumbwaiters, slanted windows for more light, all the while maintaining separation between the sexes in their daily activities and sleeping accommodation.

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The accessory structures to support the villagers’ livelihood were the ones I was  most drawn to.  There was the ice house with its triple pane windows. The simplicity of its design involved a basement to keep cool and a ground level access to retrieve ice.  Careful thermal management went into an upper food storage area with vents from the ice storage below and a cupola to let the warm air out completed with double hung doors.

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The use of exterior cladding materials were quite inventive and varied from building to building.  The recurring building form of a rectangular shaped house with the gable roof presented itself in a myriad of variations of the theme.  There were brick over a stone base, siding over brick, small bevel siding over large coursed siding, and yellow, white, red painted walls etc…

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Here was a community that gave us the circular saw, the clothespin, the Shaker peg, a wheel driven washing machine, packaged seeds and numerous inventions.  All in all, the lesson was quite implicit in its message: there will always be individuality in a entity which aims for conformity and is even singular in its goal.

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I Dream in Technicolor

When the weather gets worse and the mood strikes low, my mind drifts to images of impossibly beautiful places. This post is dedicated to those visions that have served me so well in letting me relax, think of good things only and revel in the wonders of life. I find that the common threads which attract me to the images are simplicity in colors, single mindedness in theme and calmness in composition. I love imagining myself inside them, savoring the weather, the light quality and the soothing impact. How therapeutic, how lounge-lazy is that? The most obvious theme would be nature. Nature brings us back to our inner instincts of self preservation. Images of immaculate natural settings do wonders to spearhead movements to save the earth. The following are my dreamscapes…

Trees- Save a tree

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Actually, while we are at it, we should save the forest- why stop at a tree.

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After the trees come the waterways. I am always attracted to waterfalls with its epic power, silent swishing and constancy. Their loneliness seems to permeate their surrounding  and accentuate their majestic existence.

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d8c477c5f5354fc22b6137a3b5aed199Beyond waterfalls, there are caves. One chances upon a cave as one opens a surprise gift. Caves are nature’s gift boxes. Handle them with care!

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312b8f5aaf7f7e624315f59868f68c2f 820d62ef8e58d513e9e93913ad628983 Rocks. Rocks are not that hardy. They can erode, people can blow them up in quarries. We have to got to see them before they no longer grace our earth. fdfc62b3b80fcc6b70deff68ca2bd386 0c3125b38b1b4db9edb47341a11004cf 0ba5a6abf7ded45e40c9ca2fe1411695 c4b10e4afae25d6547aaad8655ae2ba4 a790fdacec8094b31b52a64ac9267fb9 e4d5864bfb7836a18cb0a963a3f44d8d d5d539e137c2a0b37a989d5e9f099f28 da6c969b92eb862674fb8ed16c247f77 We must not forget how seasons affect our landscapes and really appreciate the various caprices they offer. GDT Nature Photographer of the Year 2013 7506b997a74a4cb015a0bac0a8a46802 4b8a1985b82f533961e5c69294b5950f

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To travel  in one’s mind: perchance to dream- ay, there’s a rub…

Click on photos for sources.

I Capture the Aegean

The Aegean Sea has captured my imagination ever since I wrote a paper about Santorini in college.  My fascination with blue oceans started even further back with memories of summer vacations at the beaches off the coast of Vietnam.  I finally had a chance to visit Greece  and its financial crisis and strikes, had a spellbinding time viewing its ancient ruins and its bluest of blue waters.

The first island I set foot on was Rhodes. Besides a few pictures from Fodor’s Guide to Greece, I didn’t have too many preconceived  images of Rhodes  when I first saw Old Town. The town, built and fortified over years by the Knights of St John, was quite a large medieval town with a must see Archeological Museum and a wonderful albeit small Museum of Decorative Arts. The outer walls and moat are in themselves a feast for the Medieval connoisseur.  One catches glimpses of the ocean through arrow loops and conjures up the excitement of ancient guards spotting a merchant vessel promising exotic spices, luxurious silks and tales of seafaring adventures.

Rhodes boasts quite a few idyllic beaches. The Anthony Quinn beach near Faliraki and St Paul’s Bay in Lindos are two not to be missed. The charm of these two beaches lies in the bays that encircle them. One feels at once a secluded coziness while being exposed to the clean air, blue waters that go deep blue and the Agean beyond the entrance to the cove.

Rhodes also boasts the best restaurants with Mavrikos in Lindos and a gem in Psarokokkalos in Rhodes Town.  One can come across some interesting anecdotes as the two owner/chefs went to high school together.

The town of Lindos has a leg over Athens in that its acropolis is embellished by being almost completely surrounded by water while perched on top of a promontory. Meandering through the temple of Athena and the marvellous  propylea grand stairs to stumble on Roman houses and benches supported by thick medieval wall fortifications proves to be a most exciting exercise in architectural time line. Lindos tops as one of the highlights of my trip.

On to the next and most anticipated stop: Santorini. No matter how many photos of the Caldera I have pored over, I couldn’t have pictured being rendered into that state of wonder complete with jaw dropping moments and delightful squeals at every corner as I walked along the towns facing the Caldera – starting with Fira, Imerovigli and then finally Oia. I was on cloud ten – if there is such a thing – when I spotted angles where the popular photos were taken, the corners of the famous bell tower, the two dome church etc… I spotted my own corner for my own favorite photos. I sketched quickly and badly having not enough patience to sit through, afraid to miss the sunset and worrying that there is another view somewhere that I couldn’t miss. Santorini is where no bad photograph could be taken.

Mykonos got famous and overdeveloped and got downgraded by some people whom I talked to so I didn’t expect much besides the windmills. But with Mykonos came a side trip to Delos and its famous avenue of the Lions. On Delos, which is about a 25 minutes ferry away from Mykonos town port, one can see the scale of an ancient Greek town that was home to 20,000 inhabitants at its most glorious existence.

The windmills of Mykonos – a study in simplicity. The photos tell it all.

My trip to the Aegean islands was limited to Rhodes, Santorini and Mykonos  but I get a sense of the beauty that is sprinkled among all the nooks and crannies of these islands. It’s in the blues that foretell the ocean depth, it’s in the depth that mirrors the skies, it’s in the meandering paths that make no promises. It is that atmosphere that convinced me that there is no white whiter than the white washed walls of Mykonos, no blue transparently deeper than the Aegean depths and no peace more tranquil than the sunset at the Caldera.

I came home energized and saturated with images of simple geometric shapes in my mind. While the architect in me had to summarize the trip in a lesson or two, what I might have come up with is that some things are beautiful because they didn’t try so hard.