The Collected Works of Victor & Hugo
Part One - Part Two
Off to the town of Amboise we went, arriving just in time for Peter and I to enjoy a rapid sprint thought the fabulous Chateau Amboise. Among the many exquisite view and sights, we were able to survey the rocky rapids beneath the local bridges across the River Loire which we would be traversing by boat in the coming days.
Saturday morning was "move-out day" from the gite and packing up for a week on the river. We did manage to squeeze in a celebratory lunch at an Italian restaurant in Montrichaud between last minute preparations of Brian's "Osprey" - a 14' flat-bottomed daysailer - and touching up last bits on the canoes. It was late in the day by the time we finally arrived at our starting point of Blois.
Arriving in Blois, we immediately set about launching a canoe (Victor? Or what it Hugo? We never were quite sure which was which), Peter's kayak and Albert's skiff. Our goal was to find an amenable, sheltered spot on the shoreline to camp for the night before setting out on the river the next morning. Our launch spot was a small park directly opposite the town of Blois with terrific views of the town Chateau, towering Cathedral and a plethora of traditional French boats known as "futreaus".
Victor's initial launch was as successful as it was anti-climactic. Grabbing one of our hand-made paddles, I scrambled into the bow while Paul Herbert took a place in the stern. Other than some minor flexing of the wide, flat plywood bottom - attributable to our decision to install a minimalist keelson - the hull was immediately proved water-tight, sound and stable. Paul and I executed a few quick maneuvers in the way of sea-trials, predominantly loops and figure-eights, predominantly attributable to my relative lack of canoe inexperience and a seeming disability to paddle in a straight line.
Fortunately, our goals in terms of a destination were modest and in fairly short order we arrived at our intended campsite a mere few hundred yards down the shore line on a grassy bank sprinkled here and there with stinging nettles just to keep us on our toes. In France, I was told, the riverbanks are considered public land and freely available for the use of itinerant squatters like ourselves.
Unfortunately, our transport plan to Blois also required Brian and Peter to repeat the trip back to Brian's home and back to Blois once more in order to leave Peter's vehicle behind and also to retrieve Brian's Osprey and the second canoe (Hugo?). While they dutifully set off for the second shuttle run, we had time not only to launch boats and set up camp but also to set out on a quick exploratory survey of Blois. Sadly, the Chateau de Blois had already closed for tours by the time of sunset arrival so we contented ourselves with roaming the streets and taking pictures of the beautiful 12th century architecture.
Our paddle week thus began on the chilly morning of Sunday, September 18 after our first night of sleeping outdoors. We awoke to a chilly 5-10 degrees Celsius and a stiff breeze blowing straight into our teeth. Downstream lay many, many miles of the River Loire, the longest river in France, winding across most of France before emptying into the Atlantic. Brian seemed to take delight in telling us about how local's referred to the Loire as a "wild river", generally viewed as not navigable and unfit for paddling, etc.
In fact, the Loire proved to be a fairly lovely stretch of water, generally wide and flat, often shallow but surrounded by lush, green wooded shorelines dotted here and there with quaint villages each with it's own unique "chateau" which sounds small and charming but more often described an enormous and imposing fortified castle complete with drawbridges, moats and other impressive accoutrement.
Much like the building week prior, our paddling week quickly fell into a fairly regular routine. Up a first light, a quick jog (for me anyway), breakfast of bread, cheese and coffee, much puttering about camp and readying the boats before setting out, if we could manage it, sometime before noon. Our pace was relaxed, taking advantage of a ambling 1-2 knot current and taking regular breaks to just drift or pull up on a convenient sandbar to stretch the legs and enjoy a snack. Most days we paddled 8-10 miles. Our longest day (day 4) was a bit less than 14 miles although Day 1 seemed much longer due to the breeze. (For a map of daily routes and distances.)
The weather was by and large very agreeable with sunny, warm days and cool nights. Only the first day of paddling was at all taxing and then due solely to a persistent chilly breeze that stayed on the bow the entire day and stirred up an unpleasant chop on each long fetch.
Highlights included a tour of the fantastic chateau in Chaumont - A fairytale castle set high on a hill over a quaint riverside village and the dunes where we had camped for the night. The group also enjoyed a pleasant meal in a local bistro that included a prix fix menu of appetizer, entrée and dessert. Brian selected a couple of excellent local wines which put everyone in a merry mood and quickly dispelled our memory of the day's annoying winds.
Our second day's paddling brought us back to Amboise where we booked space in a true campground for a few Euros primarily to enjoy the luxury of bathroom facilities and hot showers. Our return to Amboise also featured a fortuitous meet-up with the illustrious Gavin Atkin and his wife Julie who were vacationing in France and showed up just in time for a cheerful cocktail hour and swapping of tales large and small.
Day three brought us to Montlouis-sur-Loire, another charming French village which provided perhaps our best camping spot of the trip on a sheltered, sand spit just a few hundred yards from local restaurants, shops and even a wine cave. The following morning, I was able to tour the grounds of the Château de la Bourdaisière, another impressive countryside castle, but which unfortunately, due to the timetable imposed by our unique paddling lifestyle, was not yet open to visitors.
Day four had us passing through the town of Tours at midday. After negotiating a couple of dodgy rapids, one of which Mik and I comically managed to exit stern first before running sharply aground on a large rock, we enjoyed a second brief, but less jarring, stop for lunch. Unfortunately, most French business, including restaurants, typically close for several hours in the afternoon for "lunch", often not opening again until 3 or 4 p. m. in the afternoon. Once again, our paddling lifestyle was predictably out-of-sync with the rhythms of French culture and most of the restaurants we found were closed. At last, we stumbled upon a reasonably priced kebab shop in a student sector of town to satisfy our appetites before enjoying a brief walking tour of the streets of Tours on the way back to the boats. The day ended at a roadside boat ramp West of Luynes which had little to recommend it other than a picnic table at which we were able to prepare our evening meal of veggies, lentils and bread (always more bread!) and sit and eat like civilized folk. Having been told by the local fishermen that Luynes had little to recommend it, we all soon bunked down for the night to be lulled to sleep by traffic noises from the nearby freeway.
We awoke on Thursday, September 22 for what was to be our last day on the river. Our destination was Langais which was known for its historic chateau and which would be a convenient spot for both Brian and I to catch trains-Brian to return home to his family and retrieve his car and trailer and I to head back to Paris to catch my plane to back to the States. Arriving in Langais by early afternoon, we were able to have a leisurely stroll through town, tour the chateau and enjoy a bier at a street side café.
On Friday, September 23, I awoke to a river shrouded in fog and packed up my gear for the long trip home. Though I was admittedly tired, unwashed and unshaven, it was hard to say goodbye to life on the river. We had accomplished much, traveled far and seen not nearly enough. In many ways, the trip had been like a cruise-ship vacation, albeit a very small ship with meager accommodations and a somewhat surly crew. We saw an awful lot of the boats and the water, punctuated by brief ports-of-call in charming and exotic locales with never quite enough time to really see all that was to be seen. The build week was similarly fun but oddly surreal, living and working in France but seeing little of it other than French grocery and hardware stores, our gite and Brian's work shed. That said, we enjoyed fantastic hospitality and great camaraderie and I am hopeful that we will all have the opportunity to renew friendships made many more times over the years to come.
Truly, it had been the "adventure of a lifetime". Bateaus and Chateaus. The Collected Works of Victor & Hugo.
(Notice how I didn't say: "Complete Works". Always leave a story open for a sequel!)
A picture being worth a thousand words, a condensed photo gallery of about 100 pictures.
Gluttons for punishment can view 1,600 collected photos at the following links: Build Week and Paddle Week.