Saturday, February 23, 2013

Le Thouet Inondé

Monday was the last day in Saumur, this past week, and the last big midday meal from the talented hands of Armelle. It was choucroute garnie with duck confit (meltingly tender dark-brown savory), sausage (spicy), giblets (dense and rich), rillons (Loire-style cubed roast pork belly), and bacon (be still my congested heart!). Fortunately it was another lovely afternoon, so I was able to head out ponderously into the sunshine and strike out in what ended up being the right direction, even though it was the wrong direction. I'd planned on going by the École nationale d'équitation to see if I could get a few pictures of the horses there for Leah; it's the national school of horsemanship, and also where the mounted cavalry trains. They have exhibitions throughout the year, and I might try to get to one of them later this summer. A bit like the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, only the horses are all dark brown instead of white. Anyway, I thought that I needed to go back up to the main street and turn right, but instead of leading me past the stables that route took me to the edge of the Thouet, a tributary of the Loire. There was an inviting pathway along the banks, and the voie inondée (flooded walkway) sign had been pulled back, so I decided to see where it went.

There were birds twittering in the trees above, and cormorants and egrets flying by occasionally, but I had to stop when I heard a chicken clucking. I saw several dark orange-beaked fat fowl nosing (beaking?) through the piles of swampy sedge and while they were obviously not chickens, I couldn't identify them. However, I just typed in "swamp chicken" and what do you know? that's exactly what they are. Or rather, Eurasian Common Moorhens.

A dozen or so other people were out that afternoon, in couples or by themselves, with dogs or without, walking or on motor scooters. I stopped one couple to ask them where I would end up if I kept following the path, and whether it was flooded farther along. They said that if I continued to the footbridge (passerelle - new vocabulary word!) I could either turn left and go back into town along la voie verte (greenway), or cross the footbridge over to the neighborhood of Bagneux where, they said, there's an old château I could visit. To get back to Saumur, they said, I could return the same way (never my first choice) or walk along the road back to the main bridge, assuring me that it wasn't a busy noisy road, but a nice walk.

I didn't find the château, though I did find a long high stone wall with something château-y lurking behind it, enclosing a large orchard and fields. But there was no sign with the symbol for a historical monument that is usual for sites one can visit, so after wandering around a bit I headed back down the road. However, now that I'm looking at the Google map of the area, it appears that there is an ancient dolmen several blocks in the direction opposite the one I was told to go, so either I misunderstood descriptions and directions (not impossible) or I just wasn't able to locate the château. So I didn't see either landmark, but the next time I'm in Saumur I know what to set for my walking goal, as long as it isn't a Wednesday.

A glimpse of what may or may not be an outbuilding of the theoretical château.

I didn't cross back over the footbridge, but stayed on the east bank of the Thouet, passing through newer housing developments back towards the older areas across the bridge from Saumur and the fairy-tale château on the bluffs. When I got to the bridge, I wasn't tired, and there were still several hours before sunset, and I saw a sign for "The Mushroom Museum" and so obviously I had to keep going, into the old town of Saint-Hilaire-Saint-Florent. Turns out the museum is quite a bit farther down the Thouet, almost where it joins the Loire, and I wouldn't have made it there on foot, or at least not before it closed. I started getting footsore just as I neared the middle of the town, and the autoroute bridge back over the Thouet.

There is a 120km bike path along the Thouet that includes the route I walked, and among the many things I would be interested in doing with the rest of my time in France, however long that may be, a three- or four-day bike trip through this valley is one of the more attractive options. The "Loire à Vélo" path joins up to form the last 30km of the Thouet route, so it's even conceivable that I could bike all the way back to Tours. But I wouldn't do that, probably; it would take more days than I think I have the energy for, and I don't think I could cycle 80km in a day.

Just as I got to the roundabout heading down to the river, I glanced to my left and saw a gorgeous building a few blocks up the hill. The Château Bouvet-Ladubay was built in the mid-19th century for Étienne-François Bouvet, amateur inventor and architect and eventual founder of the Bouvet-Ladubay vineyards and wine cellars, where several varieties of quite tasty sparkling wines are made from Chenin grapes. The operation was bought out by the Taittinger label in the 1970s, and the château is now an upscale bed-and-breakfast with half a dozen sumptuously-decorated rooms, a swimming pool in the back garden, and the restored glass-walled conservatory, which would make a beautiful place to sit with a flute of the eponymous wine before dinner. Hmm ... and a very nice way to end a four-day bike trip, now that I come to think of it. I'd better start putting some money aside for that.

A two-hour walk on either side of the Thouet, the sun washing out my photographs but warming my face, the smell of waterlogged vegetation and mud and fish near the water, the quiet streets and noisy highway, and the end of the loop taking me back to the Chevriers' house, where I took off my shoes and propped up my feet and knitted and chatted and thoroughly enjoyed being in France. Spring is coming.

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