It’s nearly mid-January and I have only just found the time to write this new year post. Even though we have up until the end of January in France to do so, it’s still better to wish people a happy new year within the first week of the month. But lack of time is the story of my life at the present. Working full-time as a freelance technical and legal translator (I am now certified with the courts as well), looking after a large house and garden, cycling in the warmer months and hiking in the winter seem to take up most of my time.
After a delightful Christmas with all our children – my son from Boston, my daughter from New York and Jean-Michel’s sons from Brest and Limoges – in addition to my brother,wife and three sons, from Sydney, we welcomed in the New Year in front of a blazing fire, with warm thoughts for all our family and friends.
Travel-wise, 2017 was not quite as exciting as 2016 when we spent three months away altogether. However, we had a welcome short break and change of scenery in Angoulême at the beginning of February, followed by a most enjoyable week in Cyprus at the end of March with warm days and blue skies. We particularly liked the northern, Turkish part of the island with its wonderful painted monasteries.
We came home to spring, always the best time of the year in the Loire Valley. In April we had a fun day in a vintage car traffic jam in Blois with our friends Susan and Simon who take visitors on tours of the Loire Valley in their 1953 Citroën Traction Avant. I checked out family photos of my baptism so we could dress the part.
The end of April took us to the Médoc (a four-hour drive south) for another long weekend where we combined cycling with wine-tasting and a breath of sea air. Living in the centre of France means that we are well-placed for this type of excursion.
In May, we finally made the decision to invest in electrically-powered bikes for two reasons – to save our ageing knees and to free us from restrictions related to the lie of the land. Our plan was to go to Romania in June, a country we have avoided up until then due to its very hilly countryside. We were not disappointed. Jean Michel applied his usual thoroughness to choosing the right bikes for our needs and we can now go quite effortlessly up amazingly steep hills. In fact, I’m more worried going down but our disk brakes are reassuring.
So, on 1st June, we left Blois with our bikes on the back of the car for a holiday that took us to Lake Iseo in the north of Italy, Maribor in Slovenia, where we tested our ability to scale new heights on our bikes, Eger in Hungary where we nearly got washed away in a freak flood, then Sighisoara in Romania, home of Dracula and sister city to Blois, which we used as centre to visit the fortified churches of Viscri and Biertan.
Suceava was the next port of call from which we cycled to many very beautiful painted churches, reminding us of our visit to Northern Cyprus. In Marmures, we stayed with a Romanian family where the head of the house spoke French and we learnt a lot about this still very backward part of the country with its beautiful wooden churches and friendly people.
We then started on the road back to France, via Levoca in Hungary, then the absolutely enchanting village of Czesky Krumlov in Czech Republic where our hotel had a garden overlooking the castle, the perfect place for a picnic in the evening twilight after a hard day’s riding. We then stayed in Slavonice before crossing into Germany and discovering Burghausen with its marvellous hillside castle. It was good to be back in a country where I could at least read the signs!
To end our journey, we decided to return to our beloved Danube using the little village of Herbertingen as our base. Taking the train and cycling, we went as far as the source of the Danube at Donaueschingen.
By the 28th June the weather was starting to deteriorate so we changed our initial plan to spend a couple of days in the Black Forest and went to Orta San Giulio in Italy instead where rain and shine alternated enough to let us ride around Lake Orta and up to the sanctuary of Madonna del Sasso, at an altitude of 700 metres! Once again, our power bikes proved their worth. We arrived home via Lyon on 2nd July, having been in eight coutries and covered 5,000 kilometers.
In July Jean Michel went walking in the Jura Mountains for 9 days with his sons while I stayed home and worked, looking forward to my retirement in June 2020 more than ever! I did discover a bike route into Blois that avoids the main road though. We then cycled as much as we could during the weekend and evenings until the weather turned too cold.
September took us for a week to Istanbul which we loved. We rented an apartment just next to Galacta Tower which proved to be the perfect location. It had a quiet little balcony and small garden which provided well-earned rest after a day out in the busy streets of Istanbul. We often set out quite early to visit the sites to avoid the crowds.
On the home front, our automatic watering system is up and running but we don’t quite have a mini Giverny as initially planned, mainly due to our clayey soil, but we are learning as we go.
Renovation of the studio flat I bought last year is making progress at last and should be ready for holiday accommodation this summer. We plan to offer an 18th century decorative experience with all modern conveniences. It is ideally located in the most historical part of Blois known as Puits Chatel and even has a little shared garden.
I’m still keeping up with my daily photo on Loire Daily Photo even though Aussie in France is vitually at a standstill but I hope to be able to post more in the future, especially when I retire!
It’s November 1st, All Saints’ Day, which is a public holiday in France. It’s supposed to be sunny but the fog hasn’t lifted all morning. After lunch, it finally clears but it is only 11°C instead of the promised 14°C. I wonder sometimes at the lack of synchronization between the weather gods and the weather.
Jean Michel checks the map and suggests we walk along the GR tracks near Molineuf in the Cisse Valley so we can make the most of the autumn colours. GR means Grande Randonnée and corresponds to the long-distance hiking trails across France, http://www.gr-infos.com/gr-en.htm, indicated by red and white lines. We have a standing joke that if the path is muddy and uncomfortable, it’s a GR but it hasn’t been raining much recently so we should be OK.
We park our car in Chambon sur Cisse next to the GR. The first thing we see is a wash-house with a perfect picnic table next to it. We’ll have to remember it for another time.
We soon discover that our GR trail is also cycling itinerary n° 21. How come we’ve never seen it before? Locally we use the Châteaux à Vélo map and we don’t know any other itineraries so close to home. Very mysterious.
The red and white signs are not far behind and show us that we have to turn left. So far, so good.
The bitumen road takes us to Bury where we see a wall with a bread oven and a door. Looks like the perfect place to celebrate bread-baking day! Jean Michel says it’s of recent construction but I don’t mind. I think it looks very inviting.
A little further on is a second wash-house with some little steps leading down on one side to the water.
On the right we see what looks like the remains of a fortified wall and that’s exactly what it is – the remains of an 11th century wall around the feudal castle of Bury, restored by the local Lions Club, the municipality and a local construction firm.
A little further on we see a carpet of wild cyclamens.
There is a fork in the road and no indication of which one the GR takes so we choose the left, following a sign that says Saint Secondin, 12th century, and takes us past a locksmith with a giant key on the wall.
The church hoves into sight on a rise overlooking a little valley.
Since it’s 1st November, there are quite a few people putting the traditional chrysanthemums on family graves in anticipation of All Souls’ Day (2nd November). Twenty million pots are sold every year. The tradition, which replaced that of lighting candles, which symbolize life after death, dates back to 1919 when France was celebrating the first anniversary of the armistice of World War I on November 11th. President Poincaré wanted flowers put on all the tombs of France and one of the rare flowers that comes into bloom at that time of the year is the chrysanthemum. The tomb-flowering date gradually shifted from 11th to 2nd November.
Over to the right, in the middle of a field I see a most surprising thing – a giant flower pot containing a large tree. A quick search of the Internet when I get home does not give me any clue about its existence.
A little further on, we come across an unusual sign that says “Private parking lot of the D’Aymons – to be used only to visit them”. The D’Aymons turn out to be a group of wooden sculptures in Indian file. A charter explains how to become a member of the D’Aymons “class-less” society where time is the only currency.
We arrive in Molineuf, which is a contraction of Moulin Neuf (new mill) and see our third washhouse on the Cisse.
We turn left past the aptly named Hôtel du Pont, which is closed but looks most inviting with its terrace on the Cisse.
A little further is a stunning holly bush. I’ve never seen one so full of red berries. I’m going to check out a few gardening videos to see how I can increase the production on my own bush!
We choose a bench in front of the local Town Hall for our tea and biscuits and discuss which route we’ll take to go home.
After retracing our steps, we turn left so that we are walking downhill from the church of Saint Secondin and have an excellent view of the potted tree.
Jean Michel is very pleased because he will at last be able to see the brand of a tractor he has been watching out of the corner of his eye. It is remarkably quiet, he tells me. It’s a German Fendt.
We arrive back in Bury and Jean Michel takes a closer look at the modern sculpture of a horse made by a local community called “Le Foyer Amical”.
Further left we see a massive thicket of bamboo. I didn’t know they could grow so high.
We walk back to the car having covered a total of six kilometers. I can’t believe that we can have seen so many unusual things in a such a short space of time in a tiny country area!
This post is a contribution to Lou Messugo’s All About France blog link-up. For other contributions, click here.
Before I begin, just a little note to say that I really am talking about the Loir and not its cousin, the Loire River. We’ve been to Lavardin before – on a cold winter’s day in December last year during the Christmas markets – and promised we’d come back and cycle around the area in the summer.
We’ve found an itinerary on the web that we’ve printed out and are starting at Villiers which is the closest point to Blois (50 mins away by car). We park in front of a school called Louis Gatien which must surely have been something else in its heyday. Nothing else could explain the entrance!
It has a large round building at one end that I later discover is a water tower with an artesian bore built by a Mr Fortier in 1868 for his personal use. It also supplied water to a wash-house; any surplus water was taken via a ditch to the Loir. Maybe the school was his house.
The centre of little town of Villiers, which has a population of just over 1,000, seems to be thriving. Around the central square is a church, a town hall with a 2-metre diameter monumental clock, a baker, a butcher, a Proxi supermarket, a bar, a restaurant and a hair-dressing salon. It’s Sunday morning and bustling with people.
We see the little green and white bike route sign indicating Loire à Vélo and start following it. We are also on the Camino path. We go past an amazing number of troglodyte dwellings, some of which are quite sophisticated. One even has crenellations and bull’s eyes!
The first village is Thoré la Rochette built over the river. It has a hotel/bar/restaurant that is actually open (but it’s too soon for a capuccino stop).
We keep following the little bike signs until we come to another very busy place: a train station that doubles as a wine-tasting venue. The red and white wine produced in the area is vendomois, made with chenin and pinot d’aunis grapes, a cousin of chenin blanc. The room is full of people so we don’t taste any wine.
The station has been rehabilitated for the Loir Valley tourist train, a rural railcar from the 1950s. The 2 ¾ hour trip stops at the troglodyte village of Tröo and the “tunnel of history” in Montoire where Pétain and Hitler met up during the Second World War. I try out the “dry toilets” and wonder why there aren’t more along the bike paths in France.
We continue towards Rimay past more troglodyte houses. What a pity we can’t have our picnic at this one!
At one point we can see the ruined castle of Lavardin in the distance. With some difficulty regarding signage (our itinerary no longer coincides with the Loire à Vélo bike route), we arrive in Montoire. We should have gone to the left of the roundabout with the waterwheel and not to the right.
I don’t know the reason behind the flags on the town hall in Montoire but I find them very attractive.
We finally reach Lavardin where we’re hoping to find some shady picnic tables. We find the tables – 8 of them, but only two are in the shade and both are occupied. Everyone else is picnicking on rugs on the ground.
As we continue on to Lavardin, we see the perfect place to picnic – shady tables on the banks of the Loir. Sigh.
Lavardin itself is much prettier without the Christmas market. We have a café gourmand in an open-air restaurant with a view of the castle. There is a stand with tourist leaflets on it and I pick up one mentioning the murals and frescos in the church of Saint Genest which we were not able to visit last time.
We walk around it as directed to find the sculpted stones that were included in the façade when it was built.
It proves to have a perfect view of the castle as well.
Inside we discover a magnificent series of wall paintings, two frescos and painted capitals that are well worth a visit.
Afterwards, we walk up the hill towards the castle so I can take some more photos. We can now see the church of Saint Genest in full.
The castle is certainly photogenic. Founded by the Counts of Vendôme in the 9th century, it was rebuilt in the 14th and 15th century by John 1st of Bourbon-Vendôme. After being occupied by members of the Catholic league, it was captured and dismantled on the orders of Henri IV in 1590. All that is left of the feuldal castle is a 26-metre high rectangular keep with flat buttresses topped with crenallations. The only remaining part of the two walls built in the 14th and 15th centuries is the entrance flanked by two circular towers and a drawbridge over a moat.
We head out of town and past a magnificent Pierre Ronsard rose bush and a church for sale, then have to backtrack. We’re in the wrong direction again.
We arrive at the waterwheel roundabout just in time to see the tourist train go by.
Our itinerary takes along the Loir and past more troglodyte houses.
We come to the little town of Les Roches d’Evêque whose church has an unusual buttress and see another shady picnic table that we now no longer need.
After more troglodyte houses, one of which is three stories high, we find ourselves on a busy road with cars speeding past at 90 kph. I see a sign off to the right saying Château Mézière so suggest we follow it.
It’s worth the detour! There is a beautiful Renaissance porch, a moat, a stately main building, a chapel, a boat landing and an orangery, all very romantic and used today as a wedding venue.
Unfortunately the upkeep must be enormous and much of the main building is very dilapidated.
There is a sign under the porch saying that visitors are welcome to walk around the outside without charge.
By the time we arrive back at Villiers, we are ready for an ice-cream. I know there is no hope of finding anything that might resemble a German Eiscafé but I’m hoping they might have a Miko.
The main square in Villiers is TOTALLY deserted. Nothing is open. So we visit the inside of the church of Saint Hilaire which has 16th century wall paintings along one side known as the “three living and the three dead”: three young rakes are called into a cemetery by three dead who remind them of the brevity of life and the importance of saving their souls.
The stalls in the chancel have some interesting sculptures as well.
Jean Michel takes a photo of a curious motif on a wall which turns out to be a clock jack made by Alain Henry, a copper manufacturer in Villiers, with the help of a fellow craftsman from Bourges. It recalls the legend of the Serpent’s Hole. Unfortunately, it is no longer in operation.
According the legend, in the time of the Merovingian king, Childebert I, who lived in the area, a dragon was terrorizing the population. Its den was a cave honed out of rock in Saint-André. The king ordered one of his prisoners, Brayanus, to kill the monster, in exchange for his freedom. Brayanus, mounting a chariot with long sharp steel blades attached to the wheels, charged at the monster while it was slaking its thirst in the river and cut it into three pieces.
We ride back to the car having clocked up 38 km and 2 hours 40 minutes and Jean Michel suggests we go to Vendôme for an ice-cream as it’s only 10 minutes by car. We find a vendor on Place Saint Martin that only has about six uninteresting flavours so we go looking for somewhere else.
Although we enjoy walking through the streets of Vendôme, which we have visited several times in the past, we do not find any other ice-cream vendors so go back to Place Saint Martin.
The result if very disappointing. Even Carte d’Or ice-cream is better! But we eat them in the cathedral cloisters and enjoy the view of the sun setting over the buttresses.
I later discover, to my great dismay, that we missed two major monuments along the bike path – Saint Rimay tunnel where Pétain and Hitler meet up during the Second World War and St Gilles Chapel in Montoire which was the priory of the poet Ronsard from 1566 until his death in 1585. It is said to have murals of exceptional symbolism painted in the 11th to 13th century. We’ll have to go back! But next time, we shall start in Vendôme and follow the little green and white bikes the whole time. That way, we won’t keep getting lost. Or maybe we should just take the tourist train.
After a refreshing sleep in our sccond hotel room in Tauberbishofsheim and Spiegel ei for breakfast, we are ready to go. We’re on our bikes by 9.45 am and it’s already 17°C and expected to get to 22°C in the afternoon. This is the best weather we’ve had for several days. As we ride through Tauberbishofsheim, we take a few more photos and are soon out in the country. This is what we’ve been waiting for!
It’s Sunday morning and we see people milling around the church and cemetery but in this area, no one is dressed in traditional costume. Just out of town, there is a little chapel with a cemetery which is also popular this morning.
We go past a field of hops which seems to have an educational purpose and remember all the hop fields when we cycled along the Danube.
In Lauda-Königshofen, our first stop, we have a cappuccino at an eis café and the owner talks to us in Italian. Nearly all the eis cafés we’ve been to here are run by Italians. When he brings out the coffee, he shows us the sugar sticks – men for me, women for Jean Michel.
There are several attractive 17th and 18th centuries houses but Lauda-Königshofen’s main claims to fame are its vineyards, the little baroque bridge over the Grünbach with its larger-than-life statues of Holy Kilian, Burkhard, Michael and Nepomuk at nearby Gerlasheim which also has an abbey church.
The bridge is as romantic as the guide book says and just as I’m crossing it, I see a flock of geese walk timidly across the road in front of a calvary.
We arrive at the 18th century baroque church of Heilig Kreuz, built as an abbey church in 1723 – 1730, just as mass is over which means we can also visit inside. The apse is blue, which is unusual. Pastel pinks are more common.
The ride, which is mostly flat, continues to be very pleasant, following the Tauber and passing in between fields of hay, maize and wheat, with vines on the hillslopes.
Our furthest destination today is Bad Mergentheim which is a spa town. The marktplatz is very similar to many others, with a fountain in the middle and the rathaus at one end flanked by several half-timbered houses.
We cycle around a bit looking for a restaurant for lunch but there are mostly only cafés and after going to the tourist information office we end up in a Greek restaurant that looks anything but!
We have been told at the tourist office that there is an event at the spa with a 1920s theme. It seems very amateurish and somewhat of a disappointment so we don’t stay long.
I have seen on the map that there is a walking path called Pfr Sebastian-Kneipp who is one of my ancestors so we set off to find it.
On our way back to Tauberbishofsheim, we stop off to visit the little baroque church of Lauda-Königshofen where we had our cappuccino. We were not able to visit it earlier because there was a mass. It’s no different from any of the others except for maybe it’s blue draperies above the altar.
After 46 km and 3 hours of cycling and more sun than we expected, we’re glad to relax on our balcony at the hotel. We are still having internet problems though.
Next morning, it’s an intermittent fast day and we need to pay a visit to the supermarket. One of the things on my list is hard-boiled eggs, which you cannot buy in France, but which are readily available in Germany. You can recognize them by their bright colours.
We then drive to the little village of Elpersheim which is just a few kilometers from Weikersheim, the next village mentioned on our Romantic Road map and renowned for its castle, once the residence of the princes of Hohenlohe. We are on our bikes by 11 am and arrive at Weikersheim fifteen minutes later. It is already 23°C and, as you can see in the photo, we are not alone!
The marktplatz has a church at one end with gabled houses around it. It also has a number of contemporary statues of young girls which are the second attraction after the castle and very life-like.
The castle itself is extremely interesting. Unfortunately, there are only guided tours and they are all in German but we are given brochures in French so we won’t get bored. No photos unfortunately. It is one of the rare Renaissance castles that still has its original furniture. The plan is always symmetrical with the male quarters on one side and the female quarters on the other, organized so that you can see right through from one end to the other.
I take a sneak photo of the most prestigious bedroom with its golden cradle.
We then go into the Knights’ Hall which is quite overwhelming and most unusual. Completed in around 1600, it is 40 metres long with a painted caisson ceiling to match the three-dimensional stucco figures of hunting trophies.
One of the people in the group starts taking photos and the guide explains in English that he has special permission and that, as a result, we, too, can use our cameras. We don’t hesitate of course!
After the visit, we take photos of the gardens then find a bench in the nearby park to eat our lunch under the linden trees which are very common in Germany.
It has turned very hot and at 2 pm, we are only just beginning our 45 kilometer round trip.
At Tauberrettersheim, the next village, there is an old stone bridge with figures of saints and an unusual sundial.
But the sundials really begin with the next village of Röttingen which they have become a speciality.
The village also has several towers, one of which has been rehabilitated and turned into holiday flats!
By the time we get to our destination of Creglingen after a steady though not very steep climb of 4 kilometers, we need a cold drink, but have to content ourselves with a Coca Cola Light. No ice-creams allowed on a fast day!
Creglingen itself doesn’t have much to offer but a couple of kilometers further on, up a steep hill this time, is the church of Herrgott which has a famous 11-metre high early 16th century wooden altar. We decide it’s worth the climb!
As we leave Creglingen, I’m looking forward to 4 kilometers of freewheeling but Jean Michel suggests we take an alternative route. I stupidly agree. So much for coasting down the hill. On the other side of the Tauber it’s up and down all the time.
We have a rest next to the bridge in Tauberrettersheim and are amused by the second hand dealer opposite.
In Weikersheim, we discover a tower we didn’t see on our way through and take some more photos of the main square.
We are very happy with our two days of cycling and have now completed the main sights along the Romantic Road. We would have liked to visit more on our bikes, but the weather did not permit – it’s no fun cycling when it’s cold and rainy.
Tomorrow, we’re moving to the Neckar Valley, starting with Rottenburg am Necker which is about 170 km southwest of Tauberbishofsheim. So stay with us on our last week of cycling in Germany.
Imperia is four hours by car from our destination of Crema in Lombardy so we plan a lunch stop at Voghera along the way. As we go north, the sun disappears and the sky darkens. We arrive in the main piazza just before noon to find everything closed. It’s Monday. Note to self: never try to do anything on a Monday morning in Italy. Voghera has absolutely nothing to redeem it so we make a detour to the Po river to have our picnic (it’s an intermittent fast day). We find ourselves on a bench in the full sun in the middle of nowhere instead.
The Tom-Tom then sends us to Crema by a very devious route. Maybe it gets paid for staying on the motorway whenever it can instead of taking a more direct route. We go north to Pavia, famous for its beautiful Carthusian Monastery which we have visited in the past, and almost to Milan before taking a motorway that isn’t on any of our maps. Sigh. We reach Crema too early to check into our romantic B&B (called an agriturismo in Italy) for 3 nights so pick up some more fruit and vegetables and vino bianco while we’re waiting.
By now, the sun is scorching. We drive through the front building which is very beautiful and find ourselves in the courtyard of a working farm which is a little less charming. I look for an office but can only see a fitness club. The door opens and a very pleasant young lady asks me in Italian to come in. I give my name and she takes us to see the room. It looks like the photos and seems fine so we take it. Breakfast is a tray with everything an Italian might need for breakfast, all in cellophane packets. How anyone can eat those biscotti, I don’t know. There is an espresso machine outside the door.
We unpack, have a short rest and then set out to explore the town which is 1 ½ km away. I notice there is a bike path but Jean Michel prefers to drive. He is feeling a little frazzled after all the driving on the Italian motorway which is an experience in itself. We park the car and walk into the pedestrian centre and are completely charmed by the little town of Crema. There are bikes everywhere so we plan to come back and explore further the next day since the tourist office is closed on Mondays.
In the meantime, I take a photo of the map of the main sights and we create our own little circuit – the 13/14th century cathedral and Renaissance square with its Guelfo Tower bearing the lion of San Marco, witness to Venetian domination of the town from 1449 to 1794 and the Torrazzo originally built for defence purposes and the remains of the city walls. We see a very large covered market on the way which I can’t imagine could be filled every morning.
Back in our room we discover its defects. The table is too high to eat at comfortably and there is very little light in the room, either natural or artificial. One of the chairs is very uncomfortable and the other is too low for the desk/bedside table. There are no extra pillows. The other bedside table is too high to use from the bed. The bathroom is fine, thank goodness, and the wifi works. We can hear the TV above us. There are no common areas we can use. We decide we’ll only stay two nights so cancel the third one with booking.com at no extra cost.
After a decent sleep, we make our coffee with a few fits and starts and begin taking our bikes off the car. A lady comes out of the Fitness Club and asks if everything is fine. She seems as though she might be in charge of the show. She offers to give us a map of Crema showing the bike paths (how come we weren’t given one yesterday, I wonder) but in the end she can’t find it. She does have a visitor’s map of Crema though. She confirms that we are staying two nights. All this in Italian.
We ride into the town along the bike path and join all the other cyclists in the pedestrian area. Many are older people (like ourselves) but there doesn’t seem to be a fixed rule about what side of the road to use. You need to keep your wits about you. We start with the tourist office and get some other maps and brochures. I find a series of 5 cycling maps that seem to cover the area we will be visiting.
We go to a café for breakfast with a shady terrace that we noticed the day before. Jean Michel is hungry so chooses several pastries (I’m not that keen on Italian pastries so only choose a couple of small ones). We order fresh orange juice and cappuccino. The waiter congratulates me on my excellent Italian which is surprising because I mostly just string together the words I know without bothering about verbs.
During breakfast, we examine the maps and discover that only the first one in my series of five is useful. We have another one that gives you a general idea of where to go but needs to be backed up by good signage. Our destination is Soncino, about 20 km from Crema but first we are going to visit the basilica of Santa Maria delle Croce on the outskirts of Crema.
The building, representative of the Lombard Renaissance, is very impressive but what intrigues me most is a painting inside the crypt. I later learn that according to local legend, on 13 February 1489, a young woman from a well-to-do family in Crema called Caterina degli Uberti married Bartolomeo Pederbelli also known as Contaglio, a convicted felon from Bergamo and long-time resident of Crema.
There were many quarrels between him and her family over payment of the dowry. On the pretext of taking her to see his family in Bergamo, he took her into a local wood where he cut off her right hand and part of her arm on 3 April 1490 before punching (and maybe stabbing) her in the back and leaving her for dead. She prayed to the Virgin Mary who is said to have taken her to a nearby farmhouse. She was then moved inside the city walls where she died, after receiving the last rites and pardoning her husband. You would wonder why. A wooden cross was placed in the woods where the murder took place but a series of miracles turned the site into a holy place and a sanctuary was built there and later became a basilica.
So far, so good. I mean the cycling of course. Now it’s time to find the bike path along the canal to Ginevolta then up to Soncino. It’s already 11.15 am even though we left the B&B at 9.15. We stop at a well-hidden café to ask directions. An over-enthusiastic puppy jumps all over us and we each have a plastic cup of cold melon pieces for the incredible price of 50 cents each. No one has ever heard of the bike path but they direct us to the canal.
We eventually find it but Jean Michel is not satisfied we are going in the right direction so I ask a passing fisherman. He tells us (in Italian of course) that we are on the wrong side of the fiume (it doesn’t sound like a word that could mean river does it?) and that we have to go back over the train tracks (Toot! Toot!), cross the bridge and turn left onto the tow-path. Which we do. The path is quite narrow and bumpy but improves after a while.
Unfortunately the problem is with the signage or lack thereof. We see a tiny, faded sign that tells us to cross the canal, but gives no indications after that. We follow a small road until I see a sign that says “south canal”. Then I see a real bike path so we take it and end up in Offanengo which is not supposed to be on our route.
Jean Michel says we should find a place for lunch and check the directions afterwards. By now it’s 36°C. I have just seen a sign saying “pranzo di lavoro €11” which I assume means “workers’ lunch”, equivalent to the French “repas d’ouvrier” so we lock up our bikes and go in (it’s too hot to be sitting outside). A nice young man takes us to a table and gives us the menu. We can have a complete menu including a vegetable buffet with wine and coffee or just one or two courses for the same price which seems a bit strange. The waiter comes back and explains the menu to us (but doesn’t explain why all the prices are the same).
We choose different dishes at his suggestion with a carafe of frizzante and go and get our buffet. None of the food is outstanding but all seems to be fresh and it’s certainly filling. The tables around us fill and empty regularly. It’s obviously a local favourite. We’re pleased with the experience.
The sun is still shining brightly when we walk out of the air-conditioned restaurant. Jean Michel examines the maps again and we push on to Genivolta. After a couple of wrong turns, we seem to be going in the right direction (not that we have any proof – there are no signs). We come across the canal again just as a very large machine turns in front of us. A man on foot tells us to get out the way because it’s dangerous. It appears to be a canal-cleaning machine.
We start to follow it along the tow-path so the man tells it to stop so we can get past. Fortunately, he wheels my bike for me as I think I might have ended up otherwise in another small canal on the other side. We are happy with our canal path, though, even if it isn’t very scenic. What we do see everywhere are signs of the agricultural wealth of the Po Valley.
Along the way, I see a small group of plastic garden chairs in front of an altar with Ave Maria written on it. Italy is still very religious.
We see a sign that sends us across the canal and onto a bitumen road. Once again we have no idea where we are going. We finally come to an intersection with a sign saying “Soncino 12”. We still don’t know where we are so ride into the town and discover we are in Trigolo. There is a sign saying “Crema 11”. I can’t believe it! We’ve been riding for hours and are still only 11 k from Crema. We follow the road to Soncino. It’s a beautiful little winding road with a good bitumen surface and no cars.
It takes us through Cumignano sul Naviglio with its typical cemetery.
We then take a large, new, uninteresting road through an industrial park that takes us to Soncino. We arrive very hot and weary and very disappointed. It seems a rather miserable result after riding for 40 km! Jean Michel finds a café with gelato artigianale and orders some Coca Zero to go with it. We’re hot and thirsty! The ice cream has the strangest flavours – Kinder, cheesecake, etc. – so I choose stracciatella, bacio and fiore di latte as being the most innocuous. The cans of coke are warm so I take them back. They only have one small bottle of Coca Zero that is cold so we share that instead.
After examining the tourist brochure we picked up in Crema, we discover there are several churches with frescoes as well as a castle. Maybe it was worth coming after all! We start with the closest, the parish church of Pieve Santa Maria Assunta, a large red brick building erected in the 12th and 13th centuries with stunning frescoes and a deep blue dome.
Just round the corner, behind a very ordinary, unrestored 12th century façade are more beautiful frescoes, a sculpted wooden chancel, a descent from the cross and a cloister that leads back to Santa Maria Assunta.
We continue down the street and turn to the right and up a path to the castle. What a pity we arrived through the industrial estate. We would have had a very different initial view of the town! The present castle, the only one built entirely by the Sforza family, dates back to the second half of the 15th century. The extensive fortifications are 13th century.
To the left is a former spinning mill containing a silk museum, open on Sundays only.
Down the hill to the right is a somewhat dilapidated water mill from which there is an excellent view of the castle.
Our last stop is another church just outside the town, Santa Maria delle Grazie, which contains more frescoes and a most unusual modern wooden sculpture of the assumption. We leave just as a busload of teenage boys sing their way into the parking lot!
We have now clocked up 45 km and are 13 km from Crema via the main road. Jean Michel tries to find some small roads but with little success. They seem to have disappeared. The cars and trucks whizz past at 90 kph (it’s 5.30 pm, obviously knock-off time) with only a white line between them and us. After 5 km, we come to Ticengo and take a left turn. We then follow a small, perfect road winding through relatively pretty countryside. We eventually come to Offanengo and take the bike path past our lunchtime restaurant and into Crema. We do not try to find the canal route again.
At 7 pm, after riding a total of 5 hours and covering 63 K, we are sitting in a café next to the cathedral in Crema, with a cold glass of white and Italian aperitivo nibbles in front of us. Although we loved visiting Soncino, the stress from the lack of signposting for cyclists was exhausting. NEVER AGAIN!
Tomorrow we are off to Innsbruck in Austria to a hotel we’ve been to before.
If you are like me, when you visit somewhere new, you don’t just want to see the main attractions. You want to see the hidden face behind the castle or the museum, the little details on the way. You want to eat in the sort of restaurants the locals go to. You want to understand how the town or village grew and developed, what sort of people live there. My husband and I chose Blois as the place we wanted to live in after his retirement and have set about discovering its every nook and cranny. Because we love it so much, I’d like to share with you our secret Blois by taking you on a personal guided tour. If you have binoculars, I suggest you take them with you!
Let’s start at the train station and discover the historical centre together. We’ll be walking down Rue Gambetta towards Blois Royal Castle and for those you are joining us by car, we’ll meet you in the open-air parking lot on the corner of Gambetta and Chanzy. Across the road from the parking lot is a high stone wall and at the top is the King’s Garden (Jardin du Roi).
The first thing you will see when you enter the garden is a statue of Diane of the Chase by Anna Hyatt Huntingdon. An article in our local paper, La Nouvelle République, tells the story of how the Salon de Paris art exhibition in 1910 refused to give first prize to Anna Hyatt for the statue on the pretext that “It’s far too big and beautiful for a woman to have made it!” How wonderful to be a female in those days!
Born in Massachusetts in 1876, Anna Hyatt Huntington lived to the ripe old age of 97, and is one of American’s greatest 20th century sculptresses. She was very popular in France. A copy of her Joan of Arc was presented to Blois with great pomp by the patron of the arts, J. Sanford Saltus. It met with considerable success and Anna became famous. I’ll take you to see it a little later on. It’s in the Bishop’s Garden.
Anna had such good memories of France that Hubert Fillay, president of the Ecole de la Loire Academy of Art, learnt in 1933 that she wanted to donate a statue of Diane to the city of Blois. The 2.5 metre high statue, which is stunningly beautiful from whichever angle you look at it, was eagerly accepted. Anna Hyatt even paid the 1,000 dollars needed to erect it. “I would be happy to find a place in the château’s beautiful historical gardens”. And so are we!
If you look over to your left after going past Diane, you’ll see a very pointed slate roof atop a little brick and stone pavilion. With the Orangery, which you can also see, the Anne de Bretagne pavilion is the last trace of the royal gardens of Blois Castle. Built in the “lower gardens” it is a unique example of early 16th century construction. Despite the presence of a private chapel, it was probably a royal pavilion with various purposes relating to the gardens – a place of meditation, a venue for private meetings, romantic trysts, etc. It is no longer open to the public but you can sometimes see inside when there is an exhibition.
From the end of the garden, you have one of the best views of the rear façade of the castle. The Royal Castle of Blois is a real mixture. It consists of four castles comprising four different eras and four architectural styles around the same courtyard: 18th century gothic; flamboyant gothic and introduction of the Renaissance; 16th century Renaissance with François I, the Renaissance superstar, and the classical architecture of the 17th century. This is the Renaissance façade with its Italianate galleries.
On the left, is the beautiful church of Saint Vincent de Paul. It was built between 1625 and 1660 on the site of an old chapel and is part of the Catholic Counter-Reform movement in Europe. Construction progressed slowly until Gaston d’Orléans stepped in. His initials, like those of his daughter Anne-Marie, are inscribed on the façade. After falling into disuse during the French Revolution (which often happened to churches), it was used as a stable and fodder storage area before being rehabilitated in 1826 and restored between 1847 and 1877.
You can now walk to the right and down the steps until you are on the same level as the castle. In front of you is a grassy patch with a view of the Loire River and the 14th century church of Saint Nicolas on the left.
Walk down the hill towards the castle and then up the ramp that runs along the Renaissance façade. You’ll see the tourist office down on your left and can get yourself a map of the town. Next door is a little restaurant called Les Forges du Château which has become very popular but is often full. What I like best about it is the 15th century wine cellar downstairs on the right has you enter. It has dust-covered vintage bottles behind iron grids and is worth a visit in itself! You can buy some of the local Touraine, Cheverny and Cour Cheverny as well.
Now walk up the stairs to the Place du Château. I will let you visit the inside of the castle on your own (you can refer to http://www.aussieinfrance.com/2012/04/easter-sunday-in-blois/ and the official documentation for more information) but I’d like to point out a couple of interesting features outside.
The hexagon and compass rose, in the middle of the court of honour will be helpful in understanding the different parts of the castle. Clockwise from left bottom: TERRACE – Panorama and tower 13th century; GASTON D’ORLEANS 17th century; FRANCOIS I 16th century; STATE ROOM 13th century; LOUIS XII late 15th century; CHAPEL late 15th century.
Now follow the direction of the SALLE DES ETATS and look up at the window on the brick wall to the left of the staircase entrance. You’ll see two little figures called cul-de-lampe.
Sculptors of public and religious buildings often used local dignitaries as models for faces, sometimes rather humouristically. The face on the right is easily recognizable to locals as Jack Lang who was the mayor of Blois from 1989 to 2000. The rest of the body has not been changed. Jack Lang was also the French minister of culture from 1981 to 1991 and is known by many people as being the founder of the “Fête de la Musique“, the very popular music festival held in France on the summer solstice every year around 20/21 June. Jack Lang’s face appeared during restoration of the castle in the 1990s opposite another local figure Martine Tissier de Mallerais.
Madame Tissier de Mallerais became curator of Blois Castle in 1967 at the age of 27, a post at which she excelled up until 1991 when she succumbed to Jack Lang’s determination to change the main cultural officers after his election in 1989. Finding themselves opposite each other on the façade of the castle must have been somewhat of a shock.
Now go in the direction of the chapel and, leaving it on your left, walk through to the round Tour du Foix, which is a vestige of the 13th century feudal fortifications. It offers a panorama of the city of Blois, the Loire River and the church of Saint Nicolas. In the middle ages, the tower defended the south-west corner of the castle and the Porte du Foix entrance at the foot of the rocky spur.
Note the fat squat looking animal near the tower. I’ll point out a similar one a little further on.
When you leave château you might feel like an ice-cream. The Marignan on the left is practically the only place in Blois where you can find an after-dinner take-away ice-cream – but only from May to September and not too late! During the day there are several vendors in the streets off Place Louis XII.
Opposite the castle is La Maison de la Magie or House of Magic Museum in honour of Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, the famous French illusionist born in Blois in 1805. “Was he Houdini?”, I can hear you say. Houdin had a theatre in the Palais Royal in Paris where he was highly successful. However, it was a man called Ehrich Weiss born in Budapest 1874 who took the pseudonym of Harry Houdini after emigrating to the United States at an early age and became one of the leading magicians in the world.
Before descending the steps to the right of the House of Magic, walk to the edge of the terrace and up the stone steps to get a magical view of Blois with the cathedral in the distance. Below is Place de la Vaissière where the excellent Saturday morning market is held.
Follow the path down through an archway to the steps. On the left, almost at the bottom, you’ll see another archway with a blue door, once a chapel. Dedicated to the hermit Saint Calais, the Chapel, consecrated in 1508, was the private place of worship for Louis XII and Anne of Brittany. The nave was demolished in 1635 during the construction of the Gaston d’Orléans wing of Blois Castle. The painted vaults and tiled flooring date from 1869. The present-day stained glass windows by Max Ingrand, dated 1957, replaced those destroyed during the bombings in 1944.
In front of you, at the bottom of the steps and if it’s not market day, you can see a swan pierced with an arrow on the pavement.
Called a cygne transpercé, this emblem was used by both Louise of Savoy and her daughter-in-law Claude of France. The symbolism is complicated and now poorly understood. It includes references to the white colour, meaning purity. Claude’s most commonly used emblem, the ermine, is also white. Louise often used wings because the word for wings, ailes, is pronounced like ‘L’, her initial. The meaning of the arrow is the most obscure part. It is probably linked to love, like Cupid’s arrows. When Louise uses it, it may refer to the loss of her husband. If this is the case then there is a link to the white colour of the swan, white being the royal colour of mourning. Louise sometimes used a swan emblem to refer to her daughter Marguerite too.
On the right, you’ll see Saint-Martin’s fountain, very similar to the squat fat animal near Tour de Foix. It has a crown while this one doesn’t. The name “Saint Martin” refers to a parish church built in the 13th century that has now disappeared. After the second world war bombings, the square was reconstructed and this fountain, consisting of an old gargoyle and a small pool, was designed.
There is another interesting fountain a little further on your left on one side of Place Louis XII. The Fontaine de l’Arsis des Comtes de Blois, known as the Louis XII fountain, was reconstructed in 1511 by the distinguished engineer Pierre de Valence. Up until the 19th century, it was located a little further away, on the corner of Saint Lubin and Bourgmoyen streets. However, when the houses behind it were destroyed to build the Louis XII square in 1820, it was transferred to the southern corner of the square which is why it looks a little out of place. After being damaged during the Revolution, it was restored in 1890. It is one of seven fountains in Blois, all supplied with water from the same reservoir, called a “gouffre” and located under Saint-Vincent’s.
By now you’re ready for a break anyway! If you are looking for lunch or coffee and cake, Douce Heure on the other side of the Place with its red awnings and chairs will probably do the trick, especially if you like hot chocolate! For lunch (but you will have to get there early!) you can join the local lunch crowd at Le Coup de Fourchette by walking left towards the river, then left again. They are my closest recommendations. You’ll find other suggestions at the end of each Secret Blois post.
Les Forges du Château, 21 Place du Château, 41000 Blois. Open 11 am to 10 pm from June to August, 11 am to 9 pm April to November and 11 am to 6 pm November to April. Closed on Wednesdays. 02 54 78 33 70.
Douce Heure, place Louis XII, 41000 Blois. Open all year round. 12 noon to 7 pm. Closed Sundays.
Le Coup de Fourchette, 15 Quai de la Saussaye, 41000 BLOIS, 02 54 55 00 24. Open Monday to Wednesday, lunchtime only and Thursday to Saturday, lunchtime and evening.
It’s 9.15 am and we’ve finished our luxurious breakfast at the Radisson Blue still under the magic of our early morning visit to the Taj Mahal and are about to meet up with our guide, Vivek, to visit Agra Fort. After we get in the car and greet our driver Rajendar, Vivek suggests we stop off at a showroom called the Agra Marble Emporium to see how the inlay marble work on the TaJ Mahal is still made today by descendants of the original artisans. We don’t have to buy anything, he reassures us. Here we go again, I think.
A man called Raj greets us and sits us down in front of a small table. Two young artisans are working next to him, one with a hand-driven grinding wheel. Raj explains how the pattern is drawn on the marble, then etched out by hand.
The tiny hand-ground inlay pieces are then inserted one by one – lapis lazuli for blue, tourmaline for red, crysophrase for green and mother-of-pearl for white. Once all the pieces are in place, they are taken out again then glued in after which they are sanded so that they are exactly flush with the marble.
Raj takes us into the showroom and I, the non-shopper, am overwhelmed. I love everything I see! I could buy half the shop – except perhaps the elephants. Raj invites us to take a seat and starts showing us some little translucent marble inlay tables that are very reasonably priced, shipping included. I am becoming seriously interested when Jean Michel indicates that he wants to talk to me.
He then tells me that he has been wanting an marble inlay table for many years but in France, the price is prohibitive. He asks if I like the octagonal green marble table in the middle of the room. Well, yes, it so happens I do. After inquiring about the price, he tells me he would like to buy it. Wow! We discuss the matter with Raj and he has the table cleared. We then wonder about other shapes and sizes so he has some rectangular ones brought to the middle of the room, one of which was made by his father, he tells us.
In the end, we decide on a smaller diameter made-to-measure repliqua of the octagonal table because I am afraid it might be too big. While Jean Michel is negotiating the price, I take another look around the room. I’d like to take a small souvenir home to a friend. I am shown into another room with little marble inlay boxes and choose one. Raj comes in and asks me my favourite colour. He then gives me another box as a present.
We leave the showroom walking on air (so does Vivek!) and set off for Agra Fort. Our table should arrive in France in about three months’ time.
Agra Fort is actually a walled city today but was originally a fort. Do you remember Akbar, the Mughal emperor who built Fatehpur Sikri that we visited yesterday? Because of its central location, he made Agra his capital in 1558. Akbar had the fort rebuilt with his favourite red sandstone but it was not until the reign of his grandson, Shah Jahan, that it became what it is today.
As we know, Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal in memory of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, had a penchant for white marble so he destroyed some of the earlier buildings in the fort and replaced them with inlaid marble.
The impressive double walls are 20 m high and 2.5 km in circumference and contain a labyrinth of buildings, many of which are still used by the military so are not open to the general public.
The sole entry point today is the Amar Singh Gate. It used to be guarded by a crocodile-infested moat. Today, there are only a few monkeys.
We start with the huge red sandstone building of Jahangir’s Palace, probably built by Akbar for his son Jahangir. Its beautiful galleries are intricately carved. A huge bowl in front of the palace called Hauz_i-Jehangir, carved out of a single block of stone, was used for bathing.
Next is the Diwan-i-Am or Hall of Public Audiences, used by our friend Shah Jahan for domestic affairs. Inside is a throne room where the Emperor used to receive petitioners.
We walk up a small staircase into a large courtyard. On the left is the women’s mosque, Nagina Masjid or Gem Mosque, built by Shah Jahan in 1635.
Vivek takes us across the courtyard to the Diwan-i-Khas or Hall of Private Audiences, which was reserved for VIPs and is much more elaborate.
Next we come to Muasamman Burj, the octogonal white-marble tower and palace where Shah Jahan was imprisoned for eight years until his death in 1666. He could see the Taj Mahal from his marble balcony. We can just make it out in the distance.
Vivek points out the buffalo at the water’s edge and the washerwomen on the other side. I wonder whether the job is any easier with the Taj Mahal as a backdrop.
It’s getting hotter by the minute so we all agree that it’s time for lunch. Vivek takes us to Pinch of Spice, another typical Indian restaurant for foreigners. We opt for the buffet upstairs and stick with our usual vegetarian fare followed by yoghurt and instant coffee. Vivek offers to take somewhere else for a proper Italian espresso but when in Rome …
Outside, all the drivers are waiting for their sightseers, Rajendar among them. We still have the Baby Taj to visit before driving back to Delhi. But first, Vivek explains, the Agra Marble Emporium wants us to go back again and check something. It turns out to be the height of the marble stand that will support the table. We promise to confirm once we get back home and can check our own tables.
Vivek then tells us that Rajendar will take us to the Baby Taj as we’re running out of time and his assignment is up. That’s fine by us – it is an extra after all and we can visit it on our own with a guide book. When we buy our tickets, the vendor wants to keep them, but Jean Michel insists on having them back as he knows that since it’s a public building, the tickets will be “recycled”.
It’s not really called the Baby Taj of course, but the tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah. Also a Mughal mausoleum, it is sometimes described as a “practice” for the Taj Mahal. Built in 1622 to 1628 (twenty years before the Taj Mahal was completed), it is considered to be a transition between the first phase of monumental Mughal architecture with its red sandstone and marble decorations – an example we’ve already seen is Humayun’s Tomb in New Delhi – and the second phase, based on white marble and pietra dura inlay, exemplified by the Taj Mahal.
It was commissioned by Jahangir’s wife for her father, Mirza Ghiyas Beg, originally a Persian amir in exile. He was also the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal for whom the Taj Mahal was built.
There are only a handful of visitors so we are able to enjoy the visit practically undisturbed. There is the same type of inlay work as the Taj Mahal, often more complex, depicting cypress trees, wine bottles, cut fruit and bouquets in vases. It is also sadly in need of renovation.
There are several buildings, all on a symmetrical pattern. The first combines red sandstone and inlay work while the second, along the river front, is made of white marble. There are small domed buildings on each side, with gardens in the process of being refurbished.
We feel it is a fitting end to our visit of Agra.
The next few hours are spent with Rajendar on a “real” motorway to New Delhi, the only one we’ve seen so far. There are not many cars and we see our first accident, no doubt due to the fact that the cars can go faster than usual. Rajendar continues to ask questions about France, always beginning with “Madam. In the France …” By the end of the trip, I feel I have learnt quite a lot about India just answering his queries!
We reach New Delhi late afternoon and are soon amid the usual boisterous traffic with people obviously on their way home from work.
When we reach the Greater Kalesh hotel, we are greeted like old friends! After all, it’s the third time we’ve been here in six weeks. We have been upgraded to a suite, which is appreciated even though some of the furnishings are a little worse for wear. We’re also on the other side of the hotel, away from the traffic, so it’s very quiet. We appreciate the complimentary bowl of fruit which means we don’t have to go outside our room for dinner.
Next morning, we have a leisurely breakfast and Rajendar takes us to the airport. Our flight home to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris is uneventful. We make our way to the hotel pick-up point to take the coach to the Meridien where our car is waiting for us in the underground car park. Two and a half hours later, we are back in Blois. It’s 11 pm and 7°C, but the house is well heated. We are glad to be home but very, very satisfied with our visit of the Golden Triangle in India which went very smoothly thanks to our tour organisation Trinetra Tours and, in particular, our driver Rajendar. And our marble inlay table will serve as a permanent reminder.
Today’s the day. We’re going to visit the Taj Mahal. It’s 6 am and we’re walking across the foyer of the Radisson Blue to meet our new French-speaking guide. I’m relieved that yesterday’s unsatisfactory guide is being replaced. From the corner of my eye I see a man standing alone and wonder if it’s him. “Oh dear”, says Jean Michel at that moment, “We’re out of luck, it’s the same guide as yesterday.” “I don’t believe it!”, I reply. “I’m very surprised to see you here,” I say when he reaches us. “We were not happy with your services yesterday and asked for another guide. We were told we would get one.” He looks taken aback. Jean Michel explains that his attitude was unprofessional and he failed to show us two important sights at Fatehpur Sikri.
“I have three children,” he pleads, “you have to give me another chance.” I’m shocked at his tactics. “I’m self-employed, too”, I answer. “If I don’t satisfy my customers, they don’t give me any more work. I’m sorry.” We move towards the entrance in search of our driver, Rajendar. The man I noticed earlier is now outside and I hear him speak to the guide in Hindi. Jean Michel gets into the car and the guide starts to follow. I address the second man in French and ask if he’s our new guide. He says he is so I briefly explain what has happened. I tell yesterday’s guide that he is not to come with us and ask the new guide to join us. He had not been told he is replacing someone else.
We get in the car. Vik introduces himself and asks the usual get-to-know-you questions. We can already tell that he’s our sort of guide. He speaks good French, is easy to understand and obviously enjoys his job. Within a few minutes we’re in the Taj Mahal parking lot. Vik tells us to join our respective body-search queues and goes to get the tickets. At 6.30, the queues start moving. We all meet up inside and start walking towards the gate leading to the Taj Mahal.
As we walk through the gate, the magic starts to work. Although I was disappointed yesterday, I’m not today. To my astonishment tears come to my eyes. The Taj Mahal is absolutely majestic. Despite the many visitors milling around us, I feel as though we are there alone! Vik offers to take our photo then takes us to one side where it’s less crowded.
We walk down to the Taj Mahal then up the steps and across the entrance so that we are on the right side facing the east façade (all the façades are identical). There is NO ONE. Vik sits us down so we can watch the changing light on the building and tells us the story of the Taj Mahal. Commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan (who reigned from 1628 to 1658), it was built to house the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Before she died giving birth to their 14th child, she asked him to build a mausoleum that would show how much he loved her.
It was essentially completed eleven years later but other phases of the project continued for another ten years. The cost was colossal and some 20,000 artisans were employed. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 for being “the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage”.
We then walk behind the Taj Mahal alongside the river and over to the other side where we can admire the second of the two perfectly symmetrical buildings on each side, a mosque.
As we approach the Taj Mahal from the main façade, we are given overshoes. There do not appear to be any clothing restrictions. I have purposely worn loose cotton above-the-ankle trousers and a long-sleeved shirt over a short-sleeved blouse just in case.
Before we go into the building itself, we admire the beautiful gemstone inlay work on the white marble façade. Vik explains the colours: the red is tourmaline, the green jade, the black onyx and the blue lapis lazuli. There is also mother-of-pearl.
Inside, we see Mumtaz Mahal’s tomb and more extraordinary inlay work (no photos allowed). The octagonal inner chamber is designed so it can be entered from each side, although only the door facing the garden to the south is used. The 25-metre interior walls are surmounted by a “false” interior dome decorated with a sun motif. There are eight arches at ground level while four central upper arches form balconies or viewing areas. Each exterior window has an intricate screen cut from marble while each chamber wall is highly decorated with bas-reliefs, intricate lapidary inlay and calligraphy panels which reflect, in miniature detail, the design elements seen on the exterior of the complex.
As we come out, we take off our overshoes and put them in a bin then start to walk back towards the entrance gate. Vik continues his story of Shah Jahan. He was known as the “Just Emperor”. Working long hours, he kept an eye on every detail of the administration of his Empire. He made the roads safe for travelers, severely punishing looters and robbers. He developed agriculture and improved trade with foreign countries. People became rich and State revenue increased. He made Delhi his capital.
But he never did get over his wife’s death and the construction of the Taj Mahal eventually left the kingdom in financial ruin. He is said to have gone crazy in his old age although the official version is illness. His third son Auranzeb needed to move quickly if he were to become Mughal Emperor – his eldest brother had become regent, and would thus automatically become emperor when Shah Jahan died, having consolidated his power and position as regent. In 1658, Aurangzeb raised an army, marched on Agra, and defeated the regent. He then declared Shah Jahan incompetent and put him under house arrest in the Octagonal Tower in Agra Fort (a beautiful addition that he himself had constructed) which has a direct view of the Taj Mahal. He died there in 1666 leaving the world with one of its most beloved monuments.
I finally find a spot where I can take a front view of the Taj Mahal reflected in the water. I have to wait my turn because there are lots of other people having their photos taken or taking selfies in exactly the same spot.
Reluctantly, we leave but it’s time to go back to the Radisson Blue for breakfast before visiting Agra Fort.
After a thoroughly enjoyable stay in Jaipur, we’re on our way to Agra which is the last point in the Golden Triangle. It is 8 am. Ragendar tries to find an ATM but they seem very scarce. He’s says not to worry, that he’ll lend us any money we need before we get to Agra. The road is a bit better than Delhi-Jaipur and takes us through somewhat desolate countryside with occasional crops of cereals and potatoes interspersed with roadside villages.
As he drives, Rajendar tells me about some of his many occupations. Compared with a lot of the Indians we meet, his view of life is very modern. He lives with his wife and daughter in Delhi and not with his mother in her village. He tells us about the charity work he does with a group of friends from his village for a month each summer. They go around to the surrounding villages to try and convince poorer families not to put themselves into huge debt in order to finance their daughters’ weddings.
Halfway to Agra, we stop for a break at Motel Gangaur, which suddenly appears out of nowhere. It also has a restaurant and very large souvenir shop. We wander around a bit but don’t see anything of any interest. While we are waiting outside for Rajendar to finish his cigarette, we see several tourist buses pull up as well as other chauffered cars. We have no confirmation but imagine that the chauffeurs and guides who stop here receive a commission on any purchases.
We go past fields and fields of bricks and brickworks with tall chimney stacks. Rajendar continues to talk about traditional Indian life. With the problem of dowries, the population is becoming so lopsided that routine ultrasound scans are now forbidden during pregnancy. When there are several women living in the same house with their respective husbands and their mother, intimacy becomes a challenge. Often the women sleep in one room with the children and the men in another. A third “nuptial” room is then occupied in turn by the different couples. Rajendar adds that, when it’s “his” turn the man doesn’t work that day!
At midday, we arrive at out first destination for the day, Fatehpur Sikri. Our French-speaking guide is waiting for us. I dislike him on sight. He speaks incorrect French with a very strong accent and generally looks disdainful and totally uninterested in what he is doing. He doesn’t ask any of the usual “get-to-know-you” questions we are now used to. We leave the car and take a crowded bus to the red sandstone complex. It’s excessively hot.
The guide gives us a minimum amount of information each time then waits in the shade while we visit the different buildings. Built in 1571, the carefully-planned walled city of Fatehpur Sikri was the political capital of the Mughal Empire during the reign of Akbar from 1571 to 1585 after whose death it was abandoned, mainly due to lack of water.
It includes royal palaces, a harem, courts, a mosque, private quarters and other utility buildings which reflect the importance of Akbar, son of Humayun, whose tomb we saw in Delhi, changed the course of Indian history. During his rule, the Mughal empire tripled in size and wealth. He created a powerful military system and instituted effective political and social reforms.
One of the most interesting buildings is the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audiences) with its magnificent sculpted stone pillar which flares to create a flat-topped plinth linked to the four corners of the room by narrow stone bridges. It is believed that Akbar used the plinth to debate with scholars and ministers who stood at the ends of the four bridges.
Akbar is said to have had 5,000 wives. Mariam-uz-Zamani Begum was chief Rajput wife and empress of the Mughal Empire. He also had a Muslim wife and a Christian wife called Mariam from Goa but some say that she and Mariam-uz-Zamani are one and the same person. In any case, they all had different palaces. Most of them have open areas enclosed by curtains and matting depending on the season.
Akbar used to sleep on a platform surrounded by water as a sort of natural air-conditioning. I can understand why if today is anything to judge by! It also prevented anyone stabbing him to death during the night.
We wander around the various buildings indicated by our guide. We learn later that he didn’t show us Birbal’s House, one of the highlights of the complex.
As we leave, Jean Michel mentions the mosque but our guide discourages us: I am not dressed adequately, the ground is hot and we’ll have to take off our shoes. I have everything I need in the car which is now too far away. A pity he didn’t mention it earlier. Jean Michel insists on at least seeing the outside, which we do not regret. The amazing structure of Buland Darwaza or the “Gate of Magnificence” was built in 1601 by Akbar to commemorate his victory over Gujarat. The Buland Darwaza is the highest gateway in the world (53.63 m high) and an astounding example of Mughal architecture.
Unfortunately, we do not get to see the tomb of Salim Chisti with its ornate wooden canopy encrusted with mother-of-pearl mosaic and stone latticework windows.
As we walk back to the parking lot, the guide flags down a bus that is so full that a man is hanging halfway out the open doorway. I refuse to get in despite the guide’s muttered “it’ll be an experience – it only takes 2 minutes”. Well, in my experience, if a bus ride only takes two minutes, then it can only be a 10-minute walk. That doesn’t seem to be the case so he stops and pays for a tuk-tuk which is probably the same price as the bus anyway.
Rajendar is waiting for us in the parking lot. By now it’s nearly 2 pm and our guide gives us the choice of eating at a nearby wayside restaurant or waiting until Agra, another 38 km away which in India, as we’ve seen, means about an hour. We opt for a meal nearby and ten minutes later we find ourselves in a self-service restaurant called Ganpati Resorts. Inside, the temperature is reasonable but the buffet is outside in the sun where the temperature is at least 40°C. Also, there are flies buzzing around our table which is just inside the door.
It’s the worst meal we’ve had yet – very spicy – and I have to ask at least 3 times to get naan and yoghurt. There is no soap in the toilet either. The guide pays as we still haven’t found an ATM. We refuse to give a tip.
We are now expecting to go to our hotel, the Radisson Blue, so I am surprised when, at about 3.30 pm, we stop outside the Moonlight Gardens (Mehtabh Bagh) which we are supposed to visit after a little R&R. It’s still suffocatingly hot and I am getting increasingly annoyed with the guide. When I ask why we are so early, he says that the gardens close at 5 pm and we will miss them otherwise.
The hoses have been on and the ground is soaked. I am quietly looking for a way around the puddles when Jean Michel realises the problem and suggests another path. The guide rudely asks what the matter is. We can see the Taj Mahal in the distance on the other side of the Yamuna River. I have to say I am disappointed. Where is the buzz you’re supposed to get? I move away from the guide as far as I can so that he won’t upset me any further.
The Emperor Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal, had identified a site from the crescent-shaped, grass-covered floodplain across the Yamuna River as an ideal location for viewing the Taj Mahal. It was then created as “a moonlit pleasure garden called Mehtab Bagh.” White plaster walkways, airy pavilions, pools and fountains were also created as part of the garden, with fruit trees and narcissus. The garden was designed as an integral part of the Taj Mahal complex.
It is said that Shah Jahan wanted to build a black marble mausoleum for himself here, as a twin to the Taj Mahal, but his project never came to fruition. Frequent floods and villagers extracting building materials nearly ruined the garden. Any remaining structures fell in ruins and by the 1990s, the garden’s existence was almost forgotten. It was little more than an enormous mound of sand, covered with wild vegetation and alluvial silt.
I find the best vantage point to take a photo and hope that our dawn viewing of the Taj Mahal next day will be more satisfactory.
We join Rajendar in the car and the guide gets out about 10 minutes later having fixed a RdV with us in the hotel foyer at 6 am next morning. After he leaves, Rajendar asks me what sort of guide he is. I don’t like to be too critical but say that I’m going to ask our coordinator at the hotel to find us a replacement for the next day. He advises me to phone our overall coordinator for Trinetra Tours in Delhi, Shiva, and picks up his smartphone. When he can’t get Shiva, he phones Praveen, one of the marketing directors. I briefly explain that we are not happy with our guide who is not communicating satisfactorily with us, does not speak good French and obviously has no interest in his job. I am relieved when Praveen immediately says he will send a different guide next morning.
The Radisson Blue is on the other side of the river, very close to the Taj Mahal, it turns out. We are greeted by our coordinator who takes us to reception and we are soon relaxing in our large air-conditioned bedroom with no wish to go anywhere for the rest of the day. We are perfectly happy with our usual bananas and tea though we do decide to make an exception and try the Indian wine, which turns out to be an uninteresting chenin blanc. At least we won’t go home without having tasted the local wine.
As we drive along the waterfront at Geelong on the way to our home exchange in Drysdale, our host Jill mentions something called “bollards” which, she says, are a reflection of the town’s history. When we return to Geelong for a longer visit, we discover them in greater detail and find them most endearing. To quote the Bollard trail walk brochure, “Over 100 bollards are installed right around the Waterfront from Limeburner’s Point to Rippleside Park. Artist Jan Mitchell was commissioned by the City of Greater Geelong in 1995 to transform reclaimed timber pier pylons into these remarkable works of art.” We don’t get to see them all, but here are the ones we did meet.