Monday, June 19, 2017

Chateau spotting along the Loire River in France

The Loire Valley is known for its spectacular chateaux and there're something like 300 of them. Chateau de Chaumont-sur-Loire dates back to the 10th century.
 Entrance to Chateau Chaumont.
 Courtyard view.
I've been to hundreds of castles and seen many, many horse stables but, this one at Chateau Chaumont dates back to the 1870's is a real beaut.
 The collection of harness and saddlery equipment is considered the finest in France.
Arriving in Blois you don't have to ask for directions to Chateau Blois because the 564 room castle isn't hard to find as it dominates the town center.
Residence to several French kings, over the years parts of Chateau Blois were done in Classic, Renaissance and Gothic style. Notice the spiral staircase in the courtyard.
 Same courtyard but different building style.
A road runs along each side of the River Loire and you have to plan accordingly because bridges are far apart and if you are on wrong side--it could set you back lots of miles--especially if you are cycling! I snapped a photo of this chateau on the other side of the river and am pretty sure it wasn't open to the public---which most are not.
Chateau Chambord is the most famous chateau in the Loire Valley and one of the most visited sites in France. Built between 1519-1547 by King Francis I to be a hunting lodge the king rarely used the 440 room getaway.
Done in French Renaissance style, the Chateau Chambord opens at 9AM. I arrive at 9AM and the tour buses were already rolling in. It receives more than 700,000 visitors a year. What's funny is that it's located about six miles from the River Loire--so no river view.
 Backside where tourists enter the chateau.
Side view of Chateau Chambord. Didn't think the grounds were anything special. However, a 13,000 acre park (formerly the king's hunting park) encompasses the chateau. The French government has owned the chateau, grounds and hunting park since 1930.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Citadel of Blaye, La Rochelle, Chateau Amboise, France

In my last blog I visited Fort Medoc and then hopped on a ferry to cross the Gironde estuary over to Blaye (population 4,900).  It's low tide and the imposing Citadel of Blaye can be seen from Blaye's ferry landing. Built between 1685-1689 on a 115 foot tall rocky outcrop the citadel enjoys a commanding view of the surrounding area.  
This sign "Citadel of Vauban 1689" greets visitors entering the fortress. Vauban, the famous French military engineer, designed the citadel.  Matter of fact, Vauban (1633-1707) was responsible for designing or upgrading over 600 fortifications around France.  Remember, back then there were no trains, paved roads etc. and Vauban cris-crossed France via horse or horse drawn carriage.
 One of two entrances to the citadel. Covering 95-acres, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage site.
A cannon still poised to cause some damage. Actually, that forested land you see in the picture is a spit of land in the middle of the estuary. Vauban had a fort built on that spit of land (Fort Pate). Why did Vauban have Fort Pate built as well as Fort Medoc on the other side of Gironde estuary? Back then the citadel's cannons only had a range of three miles. With the estuary being five miles wide, additional coverage was needed to make sure the dreaded English or Spanish fleets didn't slip through.
 Grounds of the citadel. One of the onsite buildings has been converted into a small hotel.
 What are these structures? Cannons were mounted atop.
 La Rochelle, population 80,000, is a seaport on the Bay of Biscay--part of the Atlantic Ocean. A couple of medieval towers guard the entrance to the old town port.
This guy cracks me up. Normally, street performers have a routine where they stand motionless like a statue. This guy created a routine where it isn't as tiring--SITTING motionless in a chair. I thought maybe he was taking a break but, returning 20 minutes later he was in the same position.
I'm not happy a happy camper with news from La Rochelle's tourist office.  A few years ago the National Geographic Channel ran a documentary series titled "Nazi Megastructures" One episode featured La Rochelle and the massive concrete roof structure the Nazis built to protect its U-boat fleet. The concrete pens for a dozen or so submarines offered protection from Allied bombing.  The U-boats were causing immense damage and loss of life to Allied shipping across the Atlantic.  The Allies never did destroy the concrete roof. Anyway, the tourist center said the site was off-limits and I couldn't get anywhere close to snap a picture.

The photo above is not of a church spire but, a lighthouse. Built in the 15th century, the conical-shaped "Tower of the Lantern" was also used as a prison in the 17th and 18th centuries housing over 100 prisoners.
Wow, when you cross the bridge over the Loire river leading to Ambosie (population 13,000) you can't help but notice Chateau Amboise lording over the town. The castle was home to the French royal court and dates back to the 1400's.  
I was lugging my bike up the steep stairs to the castle's entrance and at the halfway point I said, "no more" and locked it up here.
 Heading to the building entrance.
 The council chamber.
The castle gardens. There's a chapel on the grounds and believe it or not, Leonardo da Vinci is buried in the chapel. King Francis I of France extended an invitation to Leonardo da Vinci and the famous Italian inventor/painter spent the last three years of his life (1516-1519) in a small chateau (Clos Luce) a quarter mile away.
 A view of the meandering Loire from the castle walls.
 Side view of the castle.
Walkway one has to complete to enter the main castle complex.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Bordeaux, France

 This is Place de la Bourse (built 1730) in Bordeaux, France (population 245,000)
 Bordeaux's last remaining medieval city gate.
 Impressive fountain/statue near Bordeaux's riverfront.
 Lots of impressive buildings in Bordeaux dating from the 18th century.
 Don't think you'd catch me going for a swim in the brownish Garonne River flowing past Bordeaux.
I'm maybe 40 miles from Bordeaux and vineyards are everywhere. Bordeaux is home to the largest wine growing area in France. The Spring of 2017 won't soon be forgotten here as heavy rains and hailstorms caused an estimated one BILLION dollars in damage to the vineyards. This is where the most expensive wines in the world hail from such as Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. So many wineries abound with many having impressive chateaus on the grounds to lure visitors in for tastings.
I'm about 50 miles from Bordeaux, 60 miles from the Atlantic Ocean and, smack dab in the middle of the Gironde Estuary-- the largest estuary in Europe. An estuary is a partially enclosed coastal body of water. Here you have water from the Atlantic Ocean mixing it up with two rivers resulting in swampy, marsh-like conditions.  I've specifically come here to see Fort Medoc. Why? It was built by Vauban, the French military engineer. This is the fort entrance on the land side.
Regular readers of my blog know I am a big, big fan of Marquis Vauban. The complex was built between 1689 and 1721 on orders of King Louis XIV. Why here? The French were worried the British or Spanish would sail up the estuary toward Bordeaux.  The site turned into a wasteland and in the last 50 years locals have started renovating some of the remaining structures.
 This was the powder building where gunpowder was stored.
My visit here is only an appetizer.  Upon leaving, my bike and I will catch a ferry to the other side to see Citadel of Blaye, a fortress designed by Vauban.
 The ferry is approaching.
This ferry transports vehicles and is unusual (at least to me) in that it loads and unloads from the side instead of from the front or back.
 When high tide comes in nets are lowered into the water to scoop up fish.
It's about five miles to reach the other side. This is a shot of Fort Medoc from the ferry. A new dock (on the site of the original dock) was installed in 2015.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Bulle, Switzerland (Callier chocolate)

At least once a summer my bike and I hop on a train to the ritzy ski resort of Gstaad and from there it's a 50 mile bike ride back home. I did a blog about Gstaad back in (I think) 2013. The train trip involves traveling along Lake Geneva from Lausanne to Montreux and from there hopping on another train which zig-zags its way up the mountain, goes through the mountain via a train tunnel, snakes it way down the other side to the valley floor below and then make a gradual climb up the side of another mountain to Gstaad.

I mention all this because I've always wanted to hop off the train after it goes through the train tunnel and start my bike ride from there. So, that was the plan. On the train the conductor looked at my ticket then looked at my touring bicycle with the four panniers (saddlebags) and said it wasn't possible because I didn't have the right bike (mountain bike) and there wasn't a road. "Okay, I'll get off at the next stop", I said. The conductor shook his head and said it wasn't possible. If you're wondering why the train makes these stops if there's no paved roads it because the area is popular with day hikers--they come up via the train and spend the day hiking. So, I ended up getting off at Les Sciernes--the train station pictured here.
 Farms and houses in the distance.
I spot this large abandoned structure tucked away from the road. Was it a hotel? I see the large cross on the left side of the building.
I cycle around the property to the backside and see the name "Le Rosaire" atop the building. Though baptized when little but not a practicing Catholic, I believe the building's name refers to the rosary--the Catholic necklace prayer. Hmm, I wonder why the place is empty. As I get back on the road I pass a man walking his dog. "Bonjour Monsieur, do you speak English?", I ask. "A bit", he replies.  Do you know the history of this place? He says it was built over a 100 years ago and was run by nuns to take care of "special children". I thank him for the information and ponder what he meant by "special children". There isn't any playground equipment or soccer fields around so I can cross off orphanage. Were the children mentally or physically challenged?  I didn't see any ramps or other facilities for handicapped kids. Hmm, being mentally handicapped would make sense. Why? I've read where families used to leave their handicapped kids in isolated places like this and go into the "out of sight-out of mind" mode.
 Seeing more homes as I head down.
Passing an industrial park a few miles outside of Bulle I cycle around to see what tenants are here. Normally, companies have signs on the sides of their building sporting their name.

Anyway, I see this nice looking building (pictured above) and see zilch signage so that immediately grabs my attention. Two workers wearing white outfits including hairnets are out on one of the loading docks sweeping. Neither speaks English but one says two words I understand; "macaron" and "international". Long-time readers of this blog know I had a fixation for macarons, the sweet meringue-based confection--NOT to be confused with macaroons-the coconut cookie. My addiction to macarons culminated with a trip to Paris where I spent a whole week doing nothing but cycling around the city visiting pastry shops to find the best macarons and chocolate tarts. (over 60 shops were visited). Hmm, this must be an industrial bakery. I go to the main door and find it's locked with no doorbell to ring.

It's then I check the mailbox and see the name "Laduree". Wow, I've stumbled onto royalty! Founded in 1862, Paris-based Laduree is a French luxury bakery & sweets maker. More than anything else, they are known for their macarons. I mention I "had"a fixation for macarons. What happened is Laduree opened a store in Lausanne (where I live) about five years ago and I overdosed on 'em and now frequent them infrequently. Anyway, when the store in Lausanne first opened a truck would make a daily delivery run from Paris. Now, Laduree has a half-dozen stores in Switzerland AND has stores in 20 other countries. There's no doorbell and banging on the glass door brings not a soul.   I guess if they had signage on the building pests like me would stop and try to buy macarons or worse-ask for a tour.
 Go to the outskirts of a city in Switzerland or in France and you'll find Z.I.s (industrial zones). This one (that's Laduree's building in the background) is called Z.I. Enney.
As I'm snapping the picture of the Z.I. sign I turn around and see this view: what are all those guys doing?
It turns out they're watching the trial run of a remote-controlled lawnmower cutting grass along a steep incline. You can't see it but right above this guy's head is a small drone filming the event.
Normally on my ride back from Gstaad I would turn off the main road and follow a marked bicycle route which takes me on backroads passing right by the touristy medieval town of Gruyeres and its splendid castle.  But, today I'm straying from the route to check out several towns.
 As I enter Broc (population 2,500) I spot a compound of very old buildings with extensive grounds. I can't figure out if this structure is/was a castle or a monastery.
There's also a church on the grounds which makes me believe it's a monastery.
I'm in Broc to visit the visitors center of Cailler, one of the most famous makers of chocolate goodies in the world. Before heading to Cailler I cycle through town and come across this view. Way in the distance I can see the factory.

Here's the same shot using the zoom lens on my camera. Notice the village in the background? Well, this shot ends up playing havoc with my schedule. How? I'm on one of Broc's main streets while snapping this photo and a street sign says the road leads to Val-de-Charmey.  For years in Lausanne's local newspaper a hotel in Val-de-Charmey (Hotel Cailler) has run an ad and it looked like a beautiful place. So, I assumed that's the village of Val-de-Charmey up behind the Cailler chocolate factory.
I was very wrong as the road veered right and ended snaking up a mountain for five miles! Here's a view looking back.
 The center of Val-De-Charmey, a village with a population 2,400, has some cool, very old buildings.
 This is a road leaving Val-de-Charmey.
 And this is the famous Hotel Cailler. Like every other hotel in Switzerland it's massively overpriced.
Now back in Broc, I'm making my way to the Cailler chocolate factory via a bike path next to the train tracks. This five mile train spur was specially built to the factory.
 Tourists can hop on a train in Bulle (roughly five miles away) and it'll drop them off here.
This is the front of the Callier factory, which was built in 1898.  Cailler dates back to 1819 and it was bought by Nestle (the world's biggest food company) in 1929.  How come people in the USA aren't familiar with the name? Until last year Cailler's chocolate hadn't been available in the USA.  Now, you can buy it at certain retailers and on Amazon. It is marketed as a super premium chocolate. I like their dark chocolate bars with almonds. Why does Cailler think their chocolate is so much better? It's the only Swiss chocolate manufacturer that uses condensed milk to produce its milk chocolate.
The visitor's center gets visitors from all over. A group showed up with the women completely covered-up from head to toe except for the eyes.
This is inside Cailler's where visitors can purchase products. I was standing next to a English woman who was with her daughter (probably six or seven years old) and overheard this exchange: The daughter said, "Mommy, why do those women hide in their clothes?". The mom said, "that's how they have to dress where they come from". The daughter then says, "why don't the men have to dress like that?".
Another view of the Cailler factory in the distance. Back in 2005/2006 I visited over 40 chocolate/cookie companies in Belgium & Switzerland. I visited the head offices of these concerns and many times the head office was at a factory so I had quite a few tours. I never visited Cailler because it's parent is Nestle, based 40 miles away in Vevey. To read those stories go to my website, then click on the "Watches & Chocolate" heading.
 Bulle, population 21,000, is a growing city with lots of new and old buildings.
 Castle in downtown Bulle. It's now used for local government offices.
 That flower arrangement shows milk overflowing. The surrounding area around is famous for its milk and cheese.
 Courtyard inside castle.
View from the walkway over the castle moat towards the town.