The second notable great river that I am writing about flows through France, its length 1012 kilometres. The most beautiful French river, it flows over meadows, gorges, under cathedrals, Romanesque churches, past stunning chateaux. The special nature of the Loire lies its wideness, serenity and its history. Millions of nightingales still fly along the Loire. The river starts as a trout stream and at its mouth ends up as saltwater.
The Loire also has a connection with me as I was named after the heroine of France, Jeanne d’Arc. At the age of 18, she led the French army to victory over the English at Orleans. It was during the Hundred Years War and reign of Charles VII. Joan of Arc, as she is called here, was born in Domremy in 1412 and died 1430, aged 19 burned at the stake at Rouen. She was canonised as a Roman Catholic Saint on 16 May 1920 at St. Peter’s Basilica. Her story is incredible because for a peasant girl, who could not read nor write, to be able to get to the king himself and persuade him of her spiritual powers and her ability to lead in a battle against the English was a remarkable achievement. Unfortunately, despite her victory, she was betrayed by the king who did nothing when she was captured and sold to the English who burned her at the stake as a heretic.
The Loire is known for her fierce temperament. She would flow gently among the branches of the overhanging trees, bypassing several beautiful chateaux, when suddenly and violently she would flood the area but the flood disappearing as fast as it had arrived. On the gatepost of an eighteenth-century villa, there are flood levels cut showing how high the water rose in 1840 – it was twenty-one feet. It would have filled a front room to the ceiling. A French novelist, Maurice Genevoix, who lived in the area wrote a book dedicated to the Loire.
Because of her beauty, Tours-sur-Loire are very popular. On her borders, there are many towns with hidden, known only to the locals, little old-fashioned restaurants serving excellent authentic French food. There are also markets so colourful with fruits and vegetables of all shapes and colours that dazzle the eyes. On the lush green borders, people are picnicking and waving to passing barges. In spring, the slopes are crowded with daffodils, and in late summer with bilberries. The Loire is known for good food – Covennes hams, sausages and goat cheeses. A true picture of happiness.
The picturesque market of Pornichet in Loire Atlantique, France.
Above the Chateau de Sully-sur-Loire.
The world-famous Chartres Cathedral has stunningly beautiful stained-glass windows and has to be seen when cruising on the Loire.
The centre of the Loire is the exact geographical centre of France. The Loire also supports the vast wine industry and has several distinctive wine regions. Grapes have been grown here for at least 2000 years. The Loire Valley is divided into three sections.
The Upper Loire grows mainly Sauvignon Blanc, which is famed for its quality and sets the international standard for grapes. Others grown there are Pinot Noir and Pouilly Fume. The Middle Loire grows Chenin Blanc and Cabernet.
The Loire Valley is famous for its natural beauty, magnificent chateaux, and rich history and culture. It is a cradle of the French language and its residents speak the purest French. The writer Rabelais who was a Renaissance man is world-famous for his satirical writing, especially his work about two giants, Gargantua and Pantagruel, published as a collective five comic novels between 1532 and 1564.
Illustration from Rabelais’ famous books.
He was a local man, also a physician, monk and Greek scholar. His often-used quotes (I bet you did not know they were his! ) are: ‘Everything comes to those who can wait’, and ‘I have nothing, owe a great deal, and the rest I leave to the poor.’
In 1644 John Evelyn, an English novelist, and his friend, Edmund Waller, an English poet and politician, visited the Loire Valley and were very impressed by its beauty. John Evelyn is well regarded for his numerous books and his memorable quotations:
‘Friendship is beyond all relations of flesh and blood because it is less material’, and ‘Gardening is a labour full of tranquillity and satisfaction; natural and instructive, and as such contributes to the most serious contemplation, experience, health and longevity.’
John Evelyn in the National Portrait Gallery.
Edmund Waller was an English poet and politician who sat in the Commons between 1624 and 1679. His memorable quote was: ‘All human things of dearest value hang on slender strings.’
His poem ‘Old Age’ makes me think how little human emotions have changed over the centuries despite huge leaps in technology. Here is his poem:
The seas are quiet when the winds give o’er
So calm are we when passions are no more.
For then we know how vain it was to boast
Of fleeting things, so certain to be lost.
Clouds of affection from our younger eyes
Conceal that emptiness which age descries.
The soul’s dark cottage, batter’d and decay’d,
Lets in new light through chinks that Time hath made:
Stronger by weakness, wiser men become
As they draw near to their eternal home.
Leaving the old, both worlds at once they view
That stand upon the threshold of the new.
As a testament to the whole region’s contribution to French and global culture, the Loire Valley (between Sully-sur-Loire and Chalomnes-sur-Loire) was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in the year 2000.