AS CHATEAUX go, Villandry is fairly average: 100 rms, rv vu. It is distinguished by its garden, a back yard to history consisting of 85,000 vegetable plants and 30,000 flower plants, all arranged to evoke 16th-century France.
Never before had lettuce looked so sensual. Never before had rhubarb made me quiver. Signs said: "Do not touch." They wouldn't have inhibited Eve but they stopped me.
Here I was standing in a French version of the Garden of Eden, on the 15th day of a trip through the Loire valley that I had not expected to take 17 days before, wondering what they do with all this food that I was not allowed to touch, much less eat.
Down the row, a gardener attended to a sprig of mint. "Who eats this stuff," I asked, in French that is best not translated.
"Personne," he said, meaning no one. "C'est pour la decoration."
My stomach began to growl along with other parts of my anatomy. He shrugged and nodded toward a small wicker basket. Inside were three rotten cherry tomatoes; outside a sign: "For our clients; remember the gardener."
Art for art's sake is one thing. But vegetables for vegetables' sake? Finally, I understood the French revolution.
Our visit to Villandry was like the rest of our trip: We stumbled on it. One day last summer, my husband came home and said, "They're sending me to Europe. Want to come?"
There was no time for bookings, deposits, plans of almost any sort or, for that matter, excessive expectations. For three weeks, we traveled through the chateau country learning about the history of summer vacations: France's and mine. The Loire valley was where kings and queens and their pals went for the summer and where I always said I wanted to go whenever idle speculation drifted off into fantasy.
So, two days after my husband's question, I was in Frankfort, Germany (where he had his business) with a rented car, unlimited mileage and everywhere to go.
For me, this was a revolutionary departure. Some people plan vacations; I obsess about them. In an article in this section earlier this month, James T. Yenckel extolled the virtues of planning, plotting and pre-paying. I used to be like that. The last time I waited until the last minute to decide what I was going to do for summer vacation, I was 13 and ended up at an all-girls camp in Maine run by a friend of my mother's, a grim social worker who believed in meaningful teen-age summer experiences. The campers were nice Jewish girls from New York. The counselors were nice southern Baptists from Georgia. I learned not to trust 17-year-old boys and how to say I beg your pardon.
Adults are supposed to plan--it makes their bosses happy. Planning ahead has other virtues. Like hamburger helper, it stretches things. You may have one month off, but you've got five to pile up the expectations into a 30-day package deal of romance and catharsis. It's too much to ask of any month. It leaves no room for being pleasantly surprised.
I didn't know this until last summer when I was forced to go abroad without a travel iron and without an itinerary. It's nerve wracking being so relaxed.
We drove south through Germany and Switzerland and crossed the border into France near Geneva. Then we headed south toward Lake Annecy where a friend of a friend had eaten the best meal of his life, northwest through Beaujolais toward the Loire. For directions, we had the red Michelin guide published annually, listing, rating and describing virtually every hotel and restaurant in France; the green Michelin detailing the historical sights of the area; local Michelin maps with the scenic routes marked in green; and lots of scraps of paper with names of places vaguely remembered by friends.
We had two rules: We would share the driving and we would not pull into town at 6 p.m. after a long day on the road and try to find a place to stay.
After crossing the border, we headed south to Talloires, a town on the eastern shore of Lake Annecy. We arrived at 6 p.m. He did all the driving.
The only room left in town was a $130-a-night suite overlooking the lake, with a terrace nestled in roses and lilac sheets on the bed. If we had planned ahead, we could have booked a cheaper room. This way, we had to take it. Since there was no choice, there was no guilt.
Lake Annecy is the color of the mountain springs that feed it. Yellow, red, blue and green rowboats bobbed. Children in striped T-shirts splashed. The whole scene looked like Renoir painted it.
Facing the lake next to our hotel was Auberge du Pere Bise, a three-star restaurant. We had promised ourselves one three-star meal, and this was going to be it. That morning at breakfast, we met two travel agents from Pittsburgh, who were making a three-star tour of France and looked it. "Save your money, darling," said the svelter one. "The fish was not fresh. Was the fish fresh, Lucille? And rude? I mean rude."
Daunted but undeterred, we presented ourselves at 8 p.m. We ate for the next 3 1/2 hours. The service could not have been lovelier or the fish fresher. After an hors d'oeuvre, fish course, a meat course and cheese, they brought three crystal bowls filled with berries: raspberries, strawberries, blueberries. There were three crystal bowls filled with creme fraiche, whipped cream and a raspberry sauce. After that, we had dessert. If our trip had been planned, this would have been its finale. Nothing could have been more beatific.
Talloires should have taught me something but it didn't. The next evening, we drove through villages of Beaujolais too small to have their own wine presses, too small to have hotels known to anyone but the inhabitants. We had no place to stay and I was in a funk.
We found a map detailed enough to tell us where we were, a town called Salles (pop. 150). In the twilight, a rainbow hovered over the vineyards. "Funky town" blared from the windows of a 14th-century monastery. Down the road we found the St. Vincent Hostellerie owned and operated by Madame Faval. She had 20 cats, 13 roosters, five rooms and one poster of the Dallas Cowgirls. Still full from Pere Bise, we tried to explain we did not want to eat. She thought we were broke and kept offering us cheaper rooms. We took the most expensive one she had: $12.
The next morning, we toured the villages, sipping wine and asking for directions. We didn't really want to know where we were.
That night, we got lost again. When we found ourselves (in Avallon, 220 kilometers south of Paris), there were no rooms available again. We had a fight. This too was unplanned though predictable. Just as things were getting shrill, the Hostellerie du Moulin des Ruat appeared before us, forestalling divorce. The mill was built in 1856 and converted to a hotel 70 years later. There were 20 rooms, all overlooking the river. It was 7:30 p.m. They had one left, a room so small they had to put the bidet on wheels and roll it under the sink. It was in the attic; in the trees, really, and cost $10.
So, I relaxed. We went from room to room and chateau to chateau not worrying about where we were headed, when we would get there, or what we would find. We went to Chambord and explored the roof with its 365 chimneys where royal types once gossiped and smooched. We saw Amboise where Charles VIII bumped his head on a doorway on the way to a card game and died. We rowed up and down the Cher river beneath Catherine de Medici's gallery at Chenonceau and dreamed of glorious escapes (during World War II one end of the gallery was in occupied France the other end was in the unoccupied zone).
We arrived in Chinon early one Sunday morning. There were pheasants hobnobbing among the ruins of the courtyard. In the quiet, we heard a strange sound: English. The voice belonged to Bernadette Dasque, a historian, who also happened to be the chief of guided tours for the region (Chef du service des guides, Interpretes de Touraine, Direction du tourisme, Prefecture d'Indre and Loire).
For an hour and a half, we listened to her lecture on the history of the Loire valley. In order to explain the importance of Chinon, she had to explain the other places we had been and in so doing, filled in all the historical blanks. Joan of Arc came to Chinon in 1429 to beseech the Dauphin, Charles VII, to reclaim the French throne from the English. Once that was accomplished, she said, the kings of France built chateaux like Chambord and Chenonceau as symbols of their wealth and power. Chinon became a rock quarry.
Bernadette Dasque is worth planning for.
That night, we drove on toward Angers, the last of the great chateaux and the farthest west. The Loire seemed less jaded, less lazy. We drove through towns where there was no reason to stop except stopping. But we didn't. We had a plan. We were going to reach Angers, find a hotel, see the chateau and head for Paris.
It was a mistake. We knew it as soon as we saw Angers, a grimy modern city with a 13th-century chateau plunked in the middle of it. We took one look and headed back the way we came to a town called Les Rosiers sur Loire, where instinct should have stopped us in the first place. The Auberge Jeanne de Laval stood by the side of the road where we had ignored it two hours before.
It was a holiday. The chef, Albert Augereau, sat on his terrace telling stories and sipping champagne with his friends and his family. He knew everyone in the place but us and soon he changed that. There were kisses for the cheek and the hand and kir to drink.
I'm sure he didn't plan it that way.