Tuesday, March 29, 2011

a little bit of heaven on earth.

i have this theory – that heaven is made up of all the people and places that inspired you in some way during your life on earth. while most of the time, we don’t realize we’ve found a small bit of paradise – occasionally, that overwhelming sensation of peace and wonder is just too strong to go unnoticed. last saturday, i found a piece of heaven.
my journey started on friday night, when my friend claire came over to my floor to hang out for a while. her mom and sister had been visiting for the past week, so she was a little sad that they were gone. in a spur-of-the-moment decision on friday afternoon, she bought a train ticket for a day trip on saturday to ward off the inevitable homesickness brought on by the departure of her family. she was telling me and my friend shane about how her aunt and uncle had visited this little town called ‘amboise’, which is about an hour and a half away, and absolutely loved it. shane had actually been there as well, and he confirmed their appraisal. so claire was talking about how excited she was to see the town, and i thought to myself – “jill, this is an opportunity that will not walk by you again.” so i asked if i could join her, and bought a ticket! hooray!
saturday morning i woke up around 8 and met claire at the bus stop at 8:40. we got to the train station in pleeeenty of time for our 9:30 train, so i got a little snacky snack at the café – pain au chocolat (which is a roundish croissant with chocolate in the middle), a hot chocolate, and a little bottle of orange juice. for 4 euro! not bad at all. we got on our train and made our way east towards amboise. we arrived around 10:45, got off the train, and made our way across the river to the town center. the station was pretty much on the opposite side of the whole city (which isn’t big at all, but still), so we walked through one part of town, across a bridge to a mini-island in the middle of the maine river, across ANOTHER bridge, and arrived pretty much right into the main drag of town. which is the street alongside the chateau-fortress. this sounds like a long process, but really it was like 15 minutes – including all of the stops for photos. which were many. we walked down a little street so claire could find something to nibble on, and ended up walking by some really awesome shops and people. there was one place called the ‘dentellierie’ – lace shop – that had AMAZING, hand-made lace concoctions.. the delicacy and detail was mind-boggling! we also saw like 15 people dressed up in renaissance-period clothing, walking through the streets of a town that was in its prime during the renaissance. talk about a mind trip – it was just a testament to how cool a renaissance festival would be in europe. because i think that stuff is cool when it’s on a farm in middle tennessee. anyway, i digress..
claire found her snack (quiche lorraine.. yum) and we headed for the main attraction of amboise – the chateau. now, i’ve visited a few chateaux at this point, ranging from ornately palatial to your average looking fortress. this one was definitely up on the scale of prettiness! we walked in and were immediately impressed by the beautiful gardens, lawns, and towers. it’s so cool, because the chateau is built up onto these cliffs, so you feel like you’re walking around in a garden in the sky. we sat down at a little table to reflect and regroup, and then began our tour. the first stop was the st. hubert chapel, which is perched on the very edge of the cliffs.. actually, it hangs off a bit. but the chapel itself is in the ‘flamboyant gothic’ style – lots of frilly carvings and stained glass. the architecture was nothing compared to what was inside the chapel though.. that being LEONARDO DA VINCI’S EARTHLY REMAINS. yes, leo is enterred in amboise. he was invited there to be a part of the french court, and spent the last three years of his life living in a cool place called the ‘clos lucé’ (more about that later), drawing and designing and inventing and being awesome. so yeah – i stood within a metre of leonardo da vinci on saturday. no big. after marveling at that fact for a few minutes, claire and i walked around the outer walls, taking in the views of the river and small town sprawled out below us. we took a few pictures and then went into the actual chateau for a look around. the amboise chateau is actually a castle-looking place – not a fort like the one in angers. it has white walls and that classic slate roof, with lots of italian-renaissance-inspired frilly work blending in with the french gothic styles. my favourite room in the castle was the council chamber – it had a row of carved columns running down the center, holding up these beautiful vaulted ceilings. the fireplaces at each end were actually lit, which made me feel like i had been transported back to the 16th century and was waiting for the monarch to enter and hold his council. we walked through the rest of the chateau, checking out a legitimately “king-sized” bed (har har har), some royal portraits, and a sweet view from the top of the tower. the best part of the visit was walking around the gardens, though. the sun came out in full force by the time we finished our interior tour, so we just walked around and soaked up all the warm, sunny goodness. the grounds were beautifully manicured.. my favourite bit was the ‘porcupine’s gate’ – an entrance to the grounds that was flanked by two slopes dotted with little, perfectly rounded bushes – i said that they looked like hedgehogs before i knew it was called the porcupine’s gate! so awesome. after some more garden exploring, we sat down in a sunny patch underneath the ‘cedar of lebanon’ and i took a little cat nap while claire wrote in her journal. it was absolutely divine. we had to tear ourselves away, just to make sure we’d have time to see the rest of the town before our 3:45 train.
so around 12:30, we left the chateau and just wandered around for about an hour. we stumbled upon the town church, ‘l’église st. denis’. we were seriously the one people inside for like 80% of our visit. the alter was this little alcove absolutely covered floor-to-ceiling with paintings and sculptures and frilly decorations. it sounds like it would be gaudy, but it was actually really beautiful. the rest of the church was lovely too, but we only had so much time! the only other thing on our list was the ‘clos lucé’- where da vinci lived. we didn’t have a map, but we figured the town was small enough that we’d find it before too long. so we just kept walking around until we saw a sign with ‘clos lucé --->’. handy! we followed that direction, stopping to get a ‘take-out’ pizza for a picnic lunch. at one point, we thought we’d found it – the arrows were pointing up this verrrry long, steep staircase. we started up but soon realized that it was in fact the staircase to the ‘lookout point’ – also worth seeing. so we kept going. these stairs took us by some amazing sights – houses that were literally carved into the cliffs! they were the homes of servants in the chateau back in the old days, and now most of them are empty. but it was so cool to see the little colorful shutters dotting the cliff face. we finally made it to the top, out of breath and quite warm. i ended up spending the rest of the afternoon in just a tanktop! at the lookout point, we sat and ate our little pizza in near silence, gazing out over the lovely little town. i was starving, too, so i was pretty focused on eating. once we finished, it was time to head for the next stop – and luckily for us, there was a ‘clos lucé --->’ sign pointing us down a hill (not the crazy stairs!) so we didn’t even have to back track. we walked down the street, passing more of the cave-houses, and ended up right at the front door of the clos lucé. now that i’ve mentioned this place like ten times, let me explain what a ‘clos’ is – it’s essentially an enclosed field or green space. there is a big gate, and then you walk in to the courtyard of a beautiful old orangy-brick house overlooking this huge park. unfortunately for visitors, the admissions people thought it was decent to charge an arm and a leg to visit the house and grounds. but unfortunately for the admissions people.. they made the fence SERIOUSLY easy to stoop under. and since we didn’t feel any desire to see the inside of the house, we just followed the lead of some (adult) spanish tourists and popped under the gate into the garden. :) so we got to walk around the park that leonardo da vinci walked around while he dreamed up the designs for a machine gun, a rotating tank (which we saw in real life and which i actually got inside and spun around), double-decker bridge (which we ALSO saw in real life), and SO MUCH MORE. the man was serious about his inventions and designs. oh yeah, and art. honestly, it was surreal. i kept having the sensation of standing somewhere that he probably stood about 495 years ago. crazy. it was MUCH cooler than the mona lisa. we meandered through the gardens, checking out the working models of things that da vinci designed that were placed along the trails. around 3pm, we finally had to leave.. the walk back through town, across the river, and to the train station took about 30 minutes, because we were walking slowly, trying to soak up the last few minutes of awesomeness. but finally, we got the the station, and a few minutes later, the train came to take us back to angers.
sigh.. i don’t know exactly what it was about amboise that i loved so much. certainly, there is the obvious – beautiful architecture, amazing historical significance, wonderful sights. and the weather was great to us – hot and sunny and happy. but it was so much more.. the peaceful ruggedness of the tiny cobblestone streets, winding through town. the pleasant surprise of seeing little doorways that lead to a rooftop garden tucked into a cliff. the chateau, perched above it all, overlooking the daily life of the 12,000 people who live there. whatever it was, it wooed me – amboise is definitely a little bit of heaven.
***for pictures of this daytrip (and of last week's trip to brest), check my facebook album march in france!*** 

and for a brief update in regards to school – it’s almost over! this whole 12 week semester thing is pretty rad. but this week, i have more work than every other week of the semester combined. and by that, i mean i have two pretty big presentations and two minor ones. it’s a rough life. but i’m still stressed about the presentations, because i really dislike speaking in front of people. even speaking in english, in front of english speakers. but having to talk in french in front of a classroom of french students.. horror.
at this point, i have gotten through one of the two big presentations.. it went well! the next one is tomorrow. thankfully, it’s a group presentation. i just have to keep telling myself that tomorrow night, it will be over, regardless of how it goes. and then i just have two classes on thursday, and then i’m headed to bordeaux for the weekend! hoorayyy. :)
so, that’s life for now. somehow, it is already march 29th.. i’m not sure how that happened, but time is passing SO QUICKLY. i feel like i’m coming home next week.. but i still have 3 and a half months of awesome travels ahead of me!
stay tuned... :)

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