P.O. Box 519
Hudson, QC J0P 1H0
Tel: (450) 458-2480
Fax: (450) 458-7903
Over the years I have spent a certain amount of time in the Loire Valley in France, where my wife was born, and where her family still lives. We visit our relatives there about once a year, but these are in no ways mere duty visits. I would enjoy going there even if I wasn't married into the region.
The countryside is lovely and soft, with vinyards on the uplands, and poplar in the valleys. The Loire River itself, at least in the Touraine, is shallow and swift, with a current which endlessly rebraids the ivory-coloured sandbars of its bed. If you follow one of its tributaries north, La Brenne, you will come to the village of Reugny, which is my base of operations when I am in the area, and is fairly typical of the small towns of the region. The Place de La Republique has two cafés, a pharmacy, a few small businesses, and 2 bakeries which bake their own bread on site. People look at me oddly when I express surprise at this, but it's typical there; your daily bread is made by people you deal with daily.
They do care about their food. Everybody seems to have a kitchen garden, perfectly laid out and tidy (except for the sheds, les cahutes, which, as though to offset the geometry of the gardens, are universally ramshackle.) Apart from the usual potager, they have cherries, pears, peaches, apples, the occasional fig tree, chestnuts and walnuts. Wild blackberries grow in hedgrerows, and if you find mushrooms in the woods, the local pharmacist will identify them for you. It would be absolutely no problem to enjoy a full and delicious diet from food made or grown within, say, twenty kilometres. Two good local cheeses are St Maure and Valençay, and the local wine, a white, is Vouvray. It is light and ebullient, with the baroque extravagance of a wine columnist scrambling for words. This wine is valued highly by the people of the region. Outside of the town of Vouvray itself, when the new bridge across the Loire was built, rubber cushions had to be installed under its pilons because the vibrations it caused in some of the wine caves were deemed to interfere with the fermention process.
The buildings in Reugny are mostly constructed of "tuffeau", the local limestone, and some of the grander houses take their architectural cues from the three chateaux in the area, two which were built in the Renaissance and one in the 17th century. The prettiest, the Chateau de La Vallière, is where Louise de La Vallière lived. She was the mistress of Louis the fourteenth, and Flaubert wrote her into "Madame Bovary" as a role model for Emma. Also, Alexandre Dumas has D’Artagnan rescue her in a sequel to the Three Musqueteers. In real life, when she was supplanted in the King's eyes, she entered a nunnery, with the Queen presiding over the investiture ceremonies. The manners of other times are incomprehensible.
There used to be a fourth Chateau, long since disappeared, built over some refuges souterrains, used possibly in the fifth century to hide from Barbarians, built in turn from one of the natural caves which are a feature of the escarpments along the Loire Valley. Some of these Troglodytes, originally used by Neanderthals, are nowadays adapted into habitable (though rather dark, I imagine) living abodes, and others are used as wine cellars.
But this was the first time I have heard of secret underground passageways so I thought I would go and investigate, which would mean finding out the location of L'Ancien Château.
I've always had in the back of my mind the idea that if things didn't work out, I could fall back on becoming an Archaeologist-Adventurer, traveling the world with a brace of pistols in my belt, rescuing priceless artifacts from the hands of evil regimes. First you quiz the locals, then find an underground entrance with cryptic riddles engraved in its door, which you decipher using arcane knowledge of dead languages, allowing you to penetrate into a booby-trapped system of tunnels, which, through agility and courage, you arrive at the inner vault wherein lies the artefact. This you pluck from its mounting, causing the whole underground network to rumble and collapse, which you have to run out ahead of, narrowly cheating death. So I understand the basics.
“Quizzing locals” meant asking my Father-in-law where L'ancien Château use to be, and he gestured "over thataway". So, keeping my eye peeled for suspicious foreigners, I went behind the Café de la Place to a square with five roads coming onto it. This is where the real Archaeologist-Adventurer shows his mettle. You have to make intuitive decisions based on years of intense study of crappy movies. You also have to put yourself into the mindset of a 5th century Gaul. Where would they build a defensive system of tunnels? It takes an eye for such things, and you either have it or you don't.
The road up to the Château d'eau looked promising. (This is not another Château, incidentally, but means simply "water tower". I won't be fooled that way again.) When I got up there, the fields of colza were so yellow that it hurt your eyes to look at it, and the poppies in the ditch so molten red you couldn't focus on them, but nary a sign of crypts or portals. So I went back down to the square, and looked west to the Ecole Primaire . This slope was not in as defensive a position, and less sunlight would fall there which meant it was less typical for a dwelling place, but perhaps these crafty Gauls wanted to throw the enemy off the scent. I walked up that side of the valley, through the ash forest with missletoe hanging in balls like something handmade, but no sign of “midden” or “berm”, two telling features by which us Archeologist-Adventurers are always finding historic sites. I went back to the square. I walked up to the 13th century church, but this couldn’t have been the site of the Chateau, as they both existed at the same time. So, back to the square. Across from the Post Office, a walk up the road where Marcel Aymé once lived was equally fruitless, and the next and last chance was the road right up the valley of the Rouare de Melotin, a stream which feeds two lavoirs or wash-houses. Nothing. Back at the square I cast my eye for some sign, no matter how subtle, to indicate where the castle, and hence the caves, had existed. And as I gazed about, my eye fell on irrefutable proof of the existence of an ancient fortification. The name of the square, printed up in large official letters on the sign was "Place de l'ancien château". You either have the eye or you don't.
And the refuges souterrains? They're wine cellars now.
Copyright: Lorne Elliott - June 15th 2006