Thursday, October 20, 2005


As we speed out of Paris on the TGV from the Montparnasse station, the cityscape gives way quickly to expansive, flat agricultural fields, now mostly barren. Occasionally, a tractor or a grouping of baled hay come into view. We're on our way to Tours for a visit to the chateau country of the Loire Valley. Last year, we visited castles along the Cher River, a tributary of the Loire; this year, we're to see the sites along the Indre, another of the Loire's tributaries. The train is packed, though quiet, and the woman up ahead of us shares her sandwich with the dachsund seated comfortably on her lap.

It's a short trip from Paris to the TGV station outside of Tours, where we pick up our rental car--a sporty, keyless Renault Megane--and are quickly on our way. My father has memorized well in advance the map of the region and tells me which signs to look for. Our first stop, the chateau of Villandry, is not far, only 20 kilometers, but the route there is a maze of frontage roads, four-lane expressway, and winding country lanes. The trees are turning red and mist is still rising off the valley floor. The air is cool, and I'm glad I've packed my wool sweater.

At Villandry, built in 1536 by the finance minister to Francois I and owned privately since the early part of the twentieth century, we start our tour in the potager--the kitchen gardens. Laid out in nine squares, the garden is bursting with geometrically patterned rows of fall produce and herbs--pumpkins, leeks, cabbages red and green, decorative kale, peppers, celery, and bushy purple basil. In the corners of each square are staked tree roses in full bloom, and along the periphery of the potager are fruit-bearing pear trees. Gravel pathways dissect the potager, and small fountains in the central gravel artery spray gentle arcs of water into the air. Few people are here at this time of year, so my father and I stroll peacefully through the potager, into the neighboring medicinal garden, and up a set of stairs along a terraced canal to the water garden above. A single swan grooms his white feathers in the large central basin, on either side of which spreads a labyrinth of immaculately groomed boxwood hedges, interrupted only by several circular fountains.

We wander to the back of the property to the greenhouses, empty now, and return by way of the ornamental gardens. The boxwood here is trimmed in geometric patterns symbolizing different kinds of love--tender, passionate, fickle, and tragic. It's a "love garden" in greens (boxwood) and reds (impatiens), and I'm struck by the possibility for beauty in the simplest of plants and in the most basic of geometric forms.

Late in the afternoon, after ambling through the chateau itself, which offers a splendid aerial view of the gardens from the rooftop of the keep, we make our way to the town of Azay-le-Rideau, where we'll spend two nights and visit the chateau of the same name in the morning. Azay is a small town, and as we drive in, everything seems to be closed. Few people are on the street, and when we miraculously find ourselves in front of our chambre d'hote (B&B), even it seems to be shut up. The giant green gates to the side don't give when I push, and the front door is locked too.

I push a buzzer off to the side and wait an eternity before an older woman, Madame B, opens the door. She seems suspicious, so I quickly explain who we are and that we have reservations to stay there. She offers a quiet smile and steps out onto the sidewalk in her flowing silk pants, her hair falling loosely down her back, to explain the complexities of parking the car at the back of the property.

We park the car and walk up to the house along an allee of cypress trees and bamboo and through the back garden, a mass of giant climbing roses, yucca in bloom, a single pink hollyhock, and small urns of fading geraniums perched atop the columns of the low stone wall surrounding the garden. Rusting, antiquated iron chairs and tables cluster near the house, which is filled with fading Oriental carpets, giant armoires and marble-topped tables, cheminees (fireplaces) in every room, and Nabob, an Afghan hound sitting regally in the darkened parlor. Crumpled lace and heavy linen curtains hang from the floor-to-ceiling windows, and oil paintings and sketches line the walls at awkward angles.

Madame B takes us to our rooms on the premier etage (second floor). We have a suite overlooking the back garden. On closer inspection, I notice that the floors slope, the antique dressers and armoire are in less than perfect condition, and the greyish blue paint of the French windows in the bathroom is peeling. Madame B leaves us to settle in, and my father whispers to me, "I think Blanche DuBois lives here!" I'm touched by the way he's hit on the exact mood of the place, its faded glory, its worn elegance, its charm. And, like Blanche, there's something fragile here, something sad, and I wonder if it's the way Madame B, with her aging antiques and her bohemian garb, seems to be preserving a nostalgie d'autrefois, a love for a long-ago way of life. With her elegantly draped lamps, covered in linens, lace, and tassled silks, Madame B has created an enchantment in the face of a reality I can't quite pinpoint.

And, the next day, I catch a glimpse of it. As I return to the house from a trip to the nearby post office and turn my big brass key in the lock at the front door, I see a small doorway into a little room I'd not noticed before. On a hospital bed, only the end of which I can see, stretches a skinny pair of old legs, pushed into white therapeutic stockings to promote circulation and slippered in oversized bedshoes. Illness and mortality emanate from the room into the hallway, and I feel the tremendous courage of all the Madame B's, of all the Blanche DuBoises of the world, who drape their heartbreaking realities in beauty.

1 comment:

fresca said...

This is profound and moving...and yet, I admit that my STRONGEST reaction came to the lady traveling on the train with her DOG!!! How come Americans don't get to take their dogs places??? NO FAIR!!! Dogs are enchantment, too!!!