Saturday, December 17, 2005

from the vallée de la loire: from this valley they say we are (maybe) going

Friday morning. Gray skies, one packed suitcase, one duffle bag, time to leave Le Cheval Blanc and slowly head back.

The plan is to spend one more night in the valley of the Loire, but closer to Paris. Then, one last night in Paris and we head back (on Sunday) to snow-encrusted Wisconsin.

How long will you be working on your post?
Give me another minute…

Two hours later I look up with my most beguiling smile. I’m done.

In the meanwhile, Ed has gone exploring the small town of Blere, where we have settled in for the past three days. Ed, the same person who has kept France at arm’s length for a few days, has now discovered two places and he wants to share.

A chocolate shop and a motorcycle store.

The first is easy. A dozen of this, a dozen of that – purchases for people back home.

Why a motorbike shop? You have to understand Ed to know the answer to that. Suffice it to say that when we pass through parking lots in front of famous sights, my eyes wander to the architecture while his remain longingly transfixed on an R100RT model of the BMW bike wedged in some obsolete corner of the lot.

Ask the shop keeper what you need to ride a motorbike here.
Say what? Why would I want to ride a motorbike here?
How else are you going to zip between villages the summer you spend holed up in France writing your book?

Monsieur at the shop is tres charming. Keep it below 45 kph and you don’t even need a license, he beams.

There you have it. Your solution to the excessive fuel consumption and expense associates with renting cars in Europe.
And when is it that you think I am going to do this?
Knowing you, once you get going on an idea – it’s a done deal.


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I see this, btw, ...

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...around every corner

Finally, we leave. We drive toward Yvay le Marron. It's a small village, with a population of maybe 100, not to be found on any map that I have. I picked it from my “restaurants with rooms” book, randomly, with an eye toward being closer to Sancerre.

[What’s so great about Sancerre? It’s not a tourist destination. It is pretty alright, all perched on a hill top, with fields of grapes, like skirt folds, cascading down on all sides. But it’s not as if there is some great monument or sight there. So what’s the big deal?

The big deal is that if a French friend (living in Wisconsin) tells me “I have this cousin, he owns 35 hectares of vineyards and produces a lovely little Sancerre wine” you can be sure I will say “oui” to an invitation to stop by and visit him and his lovely wife, right there amidst all those Sauvignon grapes.]

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on the way we come across a market. with many snails and oysters and cheeses and, well, French stuff.

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fresh and honest

How long have we been driving to this Yvay place?
Close to two hours.
Where the hell is it already?
Ask a mechanic at a gas station. I cannot direct you to a place that is not on the map.
Why a gas station? You think those who are mechanically inclined know everything? I’ll ask the first person we pass.

We have these kinds of conversations often, Ed and I. Point, counterpoint. Another round. And another. Today each fizzles into nothing. We are returning home soon, No need for either of us to win rounds. These are the final hours of jostling and prancing.

Let it be known that the first person we passed had the right answer. Yvay le Marron. A village in the middle of nowhere. With three stores and a restaurant called Auberge le Cheval Blanc, with rooms for overnight guests. [Yes, I do stay in places with names that are not Le Cheval Blanc. Okay, maybe not this time, but truly, I have chosen inns with other names.]

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from the outside, looking le Cheval Blanc

It is late afternoon. The drizzle is constant now. Le Cheval Blanc is charming. The prospect of driving another 100 kms on winding country roads to get to Sancerre and then turn around and drive through the dark back again is less than appealing.

But we do it. Already on this day we have paused for motorcycles, chocolate shops and provincial markets.Why would I not add a winery to the list of quintessentially French things?

Off we go.

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trees in misty fields

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well now. what have we here. would you believe me if I told you that one of the herdsmen kissed me while I got out to take photos and that he had wine on his breath and a wide grin and everyone laughed, including Ed?

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clip and burn: shaping the Sancerre sauvignon stalks all winter long

Andre Vatan -- that’s the name of the domaine. We find it, finally, caves and all. Andre’s wife greets us and spends the rest of the afternoon talking to us about their wines.

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an older "cave" of the Vatan Domain

We taste last year’s Sancerre and I give Ed one of those “I’d do you this favor for you if you needed it; wont you carry six bottles for me on the plane?” glances. I know what he’s thinking: she has her suitcase, her computer, her purse, her camera, her other six-pack of Loire wines, a picture that she bought that does not roll up and a bag full of food treats for her year ahead. What the hell is she thinking? He shrugs his shoulders, nods his head in a total I don’t get her way. He has one duffle bag. That’s it. [You have to pick your traveling companions carefully. A person who travels with only one duffle bag has his virtues.]

The drive back is an adventure. The drizzle is steady. The road curves and dips. We lose our way once, I forget to turn down my brights more than once. Eventually there is a sign: Yvoy le Marron 3 km. We are there.

Monsieur le chef Bruno is younger than monsieur le chef Michel of the past three nights. He is more adventurous. A risk taker. The food is creative and spirited. The butter content is down by about 85%. Not everything works perfectly. The crustacean trilogy is one third great, two thirds okay. But when it works, it sings. The fish main course is a wonder and the millefeuilles pastry dances.

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fish in two sauces, risotto, tomatoes

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yes, five cheeses on my plate

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a napoleon, decorated

After dinner a new plan is hatched. Why leave the valley, why go back to Paris, why do any of it? Another night here and on Sunday morning we can hustle back to the airport. You can’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Le Cheval Blanc is a quiet little gem. We’ll give it another day.