Easter’s pre-Christian roots are in celebrating the beginning of the warm season. This is when ancient farmers’ year used to begin. The English word “year”, the German “jahr”, the Russian cognate “yaro” all refer to the spring. It is also the reason why the ninth month’s name, September actually means “the seventh” as the Roman calendar also started in the spring. The celebration of the Sun’s return to longer shifts in the sky, the resurrection of the Sun god, dates back to Pharaonic Egypt.
Where else could it be better to celebrate Easter than in the Loire Valley, the original fairytale land and the Garden of France where both royal and land-tilling tradition form a gloriously enjoyable symbiosis. Majestic châteaux and abundance of fresh land produce – here you get the best of beauty and taste (culture and gastronomy).
In this land of the Sleeping Beauty, Richard the Lionheart and Descartes, every turn of the road brings you back into your childhood fairy tales, school textbooks or favourite novels of youth. This was the playground of real and fictional characters belonging to the whole world’s heritage: Catherine de' Medici, Jeanne d'Arc, Gargantua and Pantagruel. Here Jules Verne was writing his pioneering science fiction, Marcel Proust was trundling the Guermantes Way, Cardinal Richileu was born and Leonardo da Vinci died.
With the prosperity brought by continuous royal presence, the Loire Valley is the likeliest the cradle of la doceur de vivre - that very quintessential French art of fine living. Madeleine cakes, Cointreau liqueur, Le Mans car races, tarte Tatin, the Chartres Cathedral, light-and-sound shows, Balzac's and George Sand's novels are just a few of the Loire Valley's contributions to the world. On the banks of the Loire, "the most sensous river of France", as Flaubert called it, a great variety of glorious wines is made. For those in the know: Muscadet, Vouvray, Anjou, Chinon and Pouilly-Fumé all hail from here, as well as Saumur, Sancerre and Bourgeuil.
Mild climate and fertile soils earned the Loire Valley the moniker of the Garden of France. It is famous for the abundance of high quality food produce: most fresh vegetable and mushrooms that end up on Parisians' tables originate here. What you buy in the supermarket as the champignon de Paris has most likely been grown in Anjou. Most famous cheeses here are made from goat's milk, like Crottins de Chavignol, served grilled on a bed of lettuce, but my personal favourite, the sinfully decadent, runny Selles-sur-Cher is based on cow’s milk.
- Hôtel Groslot in Orléans, where François II died after attending a meeting of États Généraux with his child bride, Mary, later Queen of Scots;
- a very pagan-looking altar at the Romanesque abbey church of Notre Dame in Beaugency, where Eleanor of Aquitaine annulled her marriage to Louis VII in 1152, to marry the future Henri II fo England (two centuries later that effectively caused the Hundred Years' War);
- Beaugency's weekend market - great place to stock up on some local produce that does not always make it to the mainstream French supermarkets;
- the City of the Virgin of Orléans;
- the magnificent Château de Chambord looking good from any angle; nobody said it better than Henry James: "Chambord is truly royal -- royal in tis great scale, its grand air, and its indifference to common considerations";
- its fancy turrets and chimneys, François I's private staircase;
- da Vinci-designed double-spiral staircase - made so that descending and ascending people do not meet;
- the 3 sides of the Château de Blois: the Gothic, the Renaissance, and the Classical -- you'd never believe it's the same building!
- the downpipe on the aforementioned château -- those Frenchies leave no details unattended!
- the never failing to impress Château de Chenonceau gracefully poised astride the river: during the German occupation in 1940-45 the left side was on the German-occupied territory whilst the right side was in Vichy L'État Français, the "Free France";
- this Renaissance hallway linked the two;
- Caterina de' Medici's kitchen (from where she with her army of Florentine cooks revolutionized French cooking from uninventive drab into one of the world's greatest cuisines) and bedroom;
- her study from whence she ruled France for 30 years (1559-1589) is so tiny, there was no way of taking a picture of it;
- Chenonceau's beautiful Renaissance park - what was later to develop into the very archetypical jardin à la française;
- Château d'Amboise where Leonardo da Vinci spent last years of his life; it was here where he invented the tank, the bicycle and the helicopter;
- the tunnel underneath the château, presently used for wine tasting and selling extravaganzas;
- here, looming grandly over the market, you can see the Tour des Minimes, the original entrance to the château, with its impressive spiral inner ramp, up which horesemen could ride;
- the "troglodyte dwellings" built inside caves inhabited by humans since the prehistoric times;
- Château de Chinon where Joan of Arc, divinely inspired, picked out the dauphin from among the courtiers; Henry II, Thomas Becket's worst enemy, ruled England and Western France from here;
- a trebuchet standing nearby;
- the twee town of Chinon, the hometown of François Rabelais, whose books I was brought up on;
- the Maison Rouge in Chinon, where Richard the Lionheart lay in state in 1199 - and in front of which Joan of Arc, weary and covered with dust from a long journey, dismounted on 6 March 1429, to start her journey to glory and immortality;
- Easter decorations and timber-framed houses of Angers, the hometown of the divine Cointreau;
- the imposing drum towers and somewhat frivolous gardens of the Château d'Angers; the Plantagenet kings ruled England from here;
- the placid waters in La Fleche (another view);
- the graceful Château d'Azay-le-Rideau;
- the Old Town, Roman walls and Cathédrale of Le Mans;
- the 156 stained glass windows and stone-carved altar walls of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres (another view);
Amsterdam - Orléans - Beaugency - Château de Chambord - Blois - Château de Chenonceau - Château d'Amboise - Château d'Azay-le-Rideau - Chinon - Angers - La Fleche - Le Mans - Chartres - Amsterdam