Saumur (and Tours)

The small town of Saumur, on the Loire between Tours and Angers, is just outside the area of the most famous and most visited French châteaux, but there are some attractive ones in the area, including the dramatic castle looming over the town itself. It also has other attractions, notably its wineries (this is apparently France’s third largest wine-making area, although obviously Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, the Côtes du Rhône and various other areas come to mind first) and its equestrian attractions.

The area is characterised by its light yellow limestone, known as tuffeau (this is not what we call tuff in English, let alone tufa), which was quarried out of the hillsides along the Loire; there are now over 1,000km of tunnels in these hills, many of which are used as wine cellars and also for growing mushrooms (nothing exotic, alas, just your standard champignons de Paris). There are also troglodytic dwellings in the cliff-faces along the river. This rock gives its unique taste to Saumur’s wines – its speciality is sparkling wines, mainly white but also rosé and even red (not recommended), but they also make a pleasant light still red, mainly from Cabernet Franc grapes. We went tasting at Veuve Amiot, in the suburb of St Hilaire-St Florent, walkable from Saumur or served by the local Agglobus service – they do free tours (including in English) and tastings, while others in the area all charge (though only about €2). I’m never going to greatly enjoy sparkling wines, but it was a good experience.

I last visited Saumur on a family holiday in the 1970s, and I vaguely remember seeing the Cadre Noir horse-riding display then. We went again, having acquired another horse-mad family member, and it’s still impressive – I mean, how on earth do the riders communicate to the horses which fancy piece of footwork they want next? Saumur’s equestrian culture (there are lots of other stables, riding schools and saddle-makers dotted around outside the town) derives from the army’s cavalry school being established here in 1766 – the army fights in tanks now, but they still have a lot of horses here. We also wandered into the army’s stables, on the west edge of the town – our host happened to be a fairly senior officer, but it’s definitely not a secure area in any case. You might be turned away, but you’re not going to be shot at. But in fact we were taken aback by the amount of gunfire we heard – military horses have to be accustomed to it, after all.

The army stables, Saumur

The two main churches of Saumur, St-Pierre and Notre-Dame de Nantilly, are largely Romanesque, and bare and cold, but in summer they have 15th- and 16th-century tapestries on their walls. I also looked in to the church of St Nicolas, which is Gothic, but with very kitschy twentieth-century mosaics, and the very Classical pilgrimage chapel of Notre-Dame des Ardilliers. It’s not far east to the abbey of Fontevraud, supposedly Europe’s largest monastic complex, and resting place of Henry II of England, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their son Richard Lionheart. It’s another cold bare Romanesque church, but it has been well restored in recent years and also houses some quite interesting temporary art displays, devised specifically for the setting by artists who’ve had a residency there. There are also displays on the period from 1804 to 1985 when the abbey served as a prison. I well remember visiting the spectacular kitchens, but these are closed for restoration – thoroughly recommended when they’re open again. A local bus from Saumur comes out here two or three times a day (Monday to Friday).

Fontevraud

As for châteaux, we visited Brézé, which I’d never heard of – and it turns out it hasn’t been open long. In the 15th century Gilles de Maillé-Brézé was Grand Master of the Hunt to René, Duke of Anjou (later Count of Provence and King of Naples), and a successor married the sister of Louis XIII’s chief minister, the Cardinal de Richelieu; from 1701 to 1830 the Marquis de Dreux-Brézé were continuously Grand Masters of Ceremonies to the kings of France. Oddly, in 1959 the last of the family married a descendant of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who was Richelieu’s equivalent under Louis XIV, and it’s the Colbert family who opened the place to visitors in 1998. With that pedigree it’s actually a bit surprising that the place isn’t grander – rebuilt in the 16th century, it has an attractive Renaissance exterior, but the interior was decorated in a fairly tawdry NeoGothic style in the 1830s. The private apartments, still furnished in Renaissance style, are open only for guided tours.

Brézé

The château itself was founded in 1063, but in fact there’s an even older underground complex, the Roche de Brézé, beneath it and on the far side of the 15m-deep douve or dry moat. There are several kilometres of defensive tunnels and stores, as well as a kitchen and even a silkworm farm; there’s a large winery and cellar down there as well now. Well worth poking around.

Tours

In the interests of fairness and balance, I also visited Tours, an historic city which was effectively capital of France from 1444 to 1527, after Louis XI established himself in a château in what are now the city’s western suburbs. Touraine is famed as ‘the Garden of France’ (and they apparently speak the purest French here), but compared to tranquil Saumur, Tours seems like a big city, with traffic and Asian tourists and far more obese people (there didn’t seem to be any in Saumur – it must be all that horse-riding). There’s one modern tram line (and a new one being planned); like the one in Nice it uses overhead wires only outside the historic centre. Tours has a château, of course, or at least two medieval towers with an 18th-century barracks building between them, which is used for temporary art exhibitions. On the far side of the cathedral (known for its wonderful 13th- to 15th-century stained glass) the former bishops’ palace houses the Musée des Beaux Arts, the city’s permanent art collection. It’s not great but has a few fine paintings among the acres of 18th-century blandness – there’s a lovely Virgin by the studio of Albrecht Bouts (a copy of a work by his father Dirk Bouts), a Rubens, a Rembrandt (very early and of dubious authenticity), a Corot, a Monet and an unusual charcoal by Vuillard, as well as early Greek ceramics, Roman busts, and 15th-century English alabaster carvings. There are a few impressive sculptures by Marcel Gaumont (born in Tours in 1880) and Jo Davidson, an American who died in Tours in 1952. There are also large abstracts by Olivier Debré (1920-99) – see below.

Finally you can descend to some newly restored ground-floor rooms where the Octave Linet collection of Italian primitives went on display in May 2017. There’s some genuinely good stuff here, by Lodovico Veneziano, Antonio Vivarini, Bicci di Lorenzo, Niccolo di Tommaso and Giovanni di Paulo, and then the Mantegna room, with two paintings from his altarpiece for the church of St Zeno in Verona and Degas’ study of Mantegna’s Crucifixion, as well as a Moroni portrait and Cardinal Richelieu’s copy (probably the first) of Caravaggio’s Holy Family with John the Baptist (the original is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York).

Tours cathedral

The old town of Tours is a short distance west of the château/cathedral area, with half-timbered squares and the remains of medieval churches (the basilica of St Martin, over his tomb, was built in 1878-1902, but the towers of the medieval complex are still standing). In the cloister of the church of St Julien the Musée du Compagnonnage displays thousands of masterpieces – literally – the works produced by members of guilds to be accepted as masters of their craft. Fascinating stuff. This area is being redeveloped, including the Centre de Création Contemporaine Olivier Debré, a new space opened in 2017 to display for contemporary art, including the work of Olivier Debré – a respected figurative painter, he switched to abstract art during World War II (when he also won the Croix de Guerre fighting with the Résistance) and became known for his large and very brightly coloured works, while his brother became prime minister. He was very much a Parisian, but the family had a country house in Touraine, where he loved to paint.

The Basilica of St Martin and the Tour Charlemagne, Tours
Transport troubles

One might expect the Orléans-Tours-Angers-Nantes axis (ie following the lower Loire) to have an hourly service of express trains linking them (and Blois and Saumur) as well as local stopping trains – but no, there’s just a train every three or four hours. Saumur and points west are in the historic province of Anjou, now part of the Pays de la Loire region, while Touraine is part of the Centre-Val de Loire region. I’ve written before about the regionalisation of public transport in France, which is fine, but there really has to be a way to provide proper links between the regions. I can also report that the TER (Train Express Régional) systems are still a bit of a mess. Some surprisingly important stations don’t yet have ticket machines, for instance Chamonix, St Gervais, Sallanches and even Dieppe – you can collect internet tickets from the ticket offices, but only when they’re open. Arriving at Dieppe from an overnight ferry, I was a bit taken aback by this, but the office did open in plenty of time. Compostage, or time-stamping your ticket as you go onto the platform, is a French tradition, but it’s got slightly complicated of late – e-tickets don’t need to be stamped, but other tickets that are only valid for a specific train still do for some reason.

The tendency in France is always to provide fast links with Paris, and that’s the case here too – the high-speed line to Bordeaux passes close to Tours and some of the older TGV trains are now used to link the central station with Paris Montparnasse in just over an hour (without any food and drink service); older trains still come here from Paris Austerlitz via Orléans, but they take twice as long, despite running at 200km/h. Note that, in order to get to the Metro’s Line 4 to reach the Gare de Nord you literally have to walk 700 metres at Montparnasse (there’s a travelator, but it’s not working) – and from March 12 to June 12 (2018) Line 4 trains will not be stopping at the Gare du Nord anyway (and Châtelet is also closed). Ticketing is primitive too, as visitors still have to queue to buy paper tickets from machines – none of this contactless/smart card malarkey!

Saumur itself can be reached from Paris by taking a TGV to either Tours or Angers and changing there; the Pays de la Loire region does also operate some pretty nice buses from Le Mans via Saumur to La Roche sur Yon.

Public transport in France is supposedly set to be revolutionised by modern coach companies competing with the state railways now that they’ve lost the protection of their monopoly on long-distance travel. The truth is that OuiBus was set up by the state railway company to compete with… the state railways – and more importantly to block other potential competitors. Nevertheless the excellent FlixBus, already well established in Germany, and Isilines have appeared here (not to mention the BlaBlaCar car-sharing scheme). The TGV trains, a worldwide icon of Frenchness, are now for some reason being marketed as InOui, which means ‘unheard of’ but is dangerously close to ‘ennui’ or boredom. That may not work too well for them.

There are other oddities about the way they run the railways in France – it’s announced that a stop will be say four minutes long as the train approaches a station, and that timetabled four-minute stop will always be at least four minutes long even if the train is running late and ready to leave after two or three minutes. I put this down to the power of the unions to obstruct common sense, but this can also be helpful in the case of the all-too-common rail strikes. These are beautifully choreographed so that just a few trains a day run on major lines, notably the odd TGV to Paris – at least twice I’ve been caught by a strike on the far side of the country when I’ve needed to get home to Britain, but I’ve always found a way to get there.

A slice of Parma

Parma is a temple to Italy’s three great loves, food, music and art, and they like to cycle too (even the recent African immigrants, unlike elsewhere in Italy), so what’s not to like? And any town that has a bookshop that’s been open since 1829 (Libreria Fiaccadori, Via al Duomo 8 – open seven days a week, and to midnight from June to August!) is my kind of town.

Starting with food, the Slow Food movement (now prominent worldwide) may have started in Bra, in Piedmont (and been triggered by the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome in 1986), but nowadays Parma has a fair claim to be the epicentre of the movement towards sustainable production of traditional local food and drink, thanks above all to the global fame of its ham and cheese, and the measures put in place to protect them from competition, above all from the rapacious and unscrupulous global agroindustry. I speak, of course, of prosciutto crudo di Parma (Parma ham) and Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan cheese). I won’t go into details, but in order to gain the EU’s Denominazione d’Origine Protetta (Designation of Protected Origin), producers have to follow a very specific process for sourcing and processing these foodstuffs, and can then command a premium price for them. Parma has also been designated a UNESCO City of Gastronomy.

A similar concept to Slow Food is Cucina Povera or Poor Cooking – not just peasant cooking (which is usually great, worldwide, except perhaps in North Korea) but a specific adaptation to the poverty of peasants in Italy in the late nineteenth century (the time of the great migration to the USA. of course) and after the two world wars – people learnt to cook with the cheapest ingredients, such as potatoes, beans and lentils, with any meat used coming from offcuts. This has now become fashionable as a way to cut excess, to get back to a simple traditional lifestyle, and simply as a healthier option.

Anyway, the best Parma ham comes from the hills to the south of the city, especially the Langhirano valley, where there are around 500 authorised producers (and a ham museum in Langhirano village), and also to the north along the River Po, where the ultra-lean culatello ham is produced. Parmesan cheese is produced on the plains north of the city, and there’s also been a large tomato-processing industry in the area since the nineteenth century. Some local dishes include tortelli d’erbetta (ravioli stuffed with ricotta cheese, nutmeg and spinach), tortellini filled with pumpkin and savoury cheese and served with a butter sauce, and torta fritta, fried dough pillows served with thin slices of Parma ham. Some dishes come with an appropriate amount of shaved Parmesan on top – do not wantonly smother your food with grated Parrmesan, that’s as dumb as drowning it in ketchup. And putting Parmesan on pizza is a crime against gastronomy. Speaking of pizza, it’s acceptable to have a beer (just one) with pizza, but otherwise you should drink wine with Italian food. Quite right too. Lambrusco is one of the local wines, and nothing like what you imagine – it’s still spritzy (but many Italian table wines actually have a bit of fizz to them, surprisingly) but the dry and semi-dry (secco and semisecco) styles go really well with local food.

It’s easy to visit producers, especially with the TastyBus Foodseeing tour or similar. I’ll say more about Italian food (and beer) below.

As for music, Parma’s main claim to fame is that Guiseppe Verdi was born nearby, and there’s an annual festival of his music in the city – but the lyric soprano Renata Tebaldi was also born nearby and studied at Parma’s conservatoire. There was a Tebaldi exhibition in the castle of Torrechiara in Langhirano, but this was replaced in 2014 by a new museum dedicated to her at the Villa Pallavicino in Busseto. The great tenor Luciano Pavarotti and the soprano Mirella Freni were both born in Modena, just down the road.

And finally (and rather lengthily) art – the Galleria Nazionale has a great collection, including a simply perfect representation of ideal beauty by Leonardo da Vinci – there’s much less Flemish and Dutch art here then in Genova and Torino, and more Gothic and Renaissance Italian art. It’s housed in the huge red-brick Palazzo della Pilota, which was remodelled internally between the 1970s and 1990s by the local architect Guido Canali – you enter through the remarkably large Teatro Farnese, built in 1619 and rebuilt in 1956 after damage in World War II, then a funky metal walkway leads backstage and across to the gallery. The earlier old masters include Daddi and Gaddi, Veneziano, Spinello Aretino and Fra Angelico (his lovely Madonna of Humility) and Giovanni di Paolo, Bici di Lorenzo and Neri de Bici; there’s an Annunciation by someone close to Botticelli, and nice pieces by Jacopo Loschi, the leading Parmesan painter of the second half of the fifteenth century, straddling the Late Gothic and the early Renaissance. After La Scapiliata, Leonardo’s lovely head of a young girl, I found that the rooms beyond in the north wing were closed except for a group visit at 5pm – I don’t know if this is a permanent arrangement. Until then, I went out past some portraits of the later Bourbon rulers of Parma to a fine Neoclassical hall (1825, with Canova’s statue of Maria Luigia of Austria (Duchess of Parma 1816-47) and a massive muscular second-century Hercules found in 1724 on the Palatine Hill in Rome) and then the galleries created by Maria Luigia to display the works of Correggio (c.1489-1534), the leading painter of the Parma School, though these are too sentimental for my taste. There’s also work by Parmigianino (Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, 1503-40), the leading early Mannerist painter (and one of the first etchers), who was as his nickname implies born in Parma. You’ll also see Agostino Carracci (brother of the better-known Anibale), who died in Parma in 1602.

Returning at 5pm, the lower part of the northwest wing houses less important fifteenth- and sixteenth-century artists from Parma and the Po area, such as Alessandro Araldi, Cristoforo Caselli, Filippo Mazzola (father of Parmigianino), Dosso Dossi and the rather twee Il Garofalo from Ferrara. Upstairs, there are works by Michelangelo Anselmi (1491-1554), who was born in Lucca only because his father was exiled from Parma, and was living here by 1520. Slightly surprisingly, there’s also a portrait of Erasmus by the studio of Holbein. Another metal walkway leads up to a former hayloft, now a great space for displaying larger paintings – there are portraits of the ruling Farnese family by Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli (c.1500-69), a Mannerist who was born and lived in Parma, marrying Parmigianino’s cousin, as well as works by Annibale Carracci (the better-known one – a small self-portrait and a big Dead Christ), Frans Pourbus the Older, Tintoretto, Palma Il Giovane, Agostino Carracci and Lambert Sustris – there must be a law that every gallery in northern Italy has exactly one work by this Venice-based Dutch painter. Don’t miss the small but very striking El Greco of Christ Healing the Blind (1573-6). Other local artists include Giovanni Battista Tinti (1558-1604) and Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647), who moved to Rome and adopted the new Baroque style.

Going down and back, there’s work by Guercino, various seventeenth-century portraits including some from the studio of van Dyck, then the usual slew of dull eighteenth-century paintings before reaching Tiepolo, Bellotto (four definitely by him plus two attributed) and Canaletto, with various views of Parma (from the 1860s) and prints from 1557 on as you head for the exit.

Parma’s second-best gallery is the Pinacoteca Stuard, in a wing of the tenth-century Benedictine nunnery of San Paolo, which has a less locally-focussed collection including works by Niccolo di Tommaso, Bicci di Lorenzo, Giovanni di Francesco (formerly attributed to Uccello), Van Eyck, a follower of Lippi, Parmigianino and Domenichino, and upstairs Lanfranco, Valerio Castello (from Genova) and a follower of Guercino. On the other side of the nunnery, you can visit the abbess’s rooms, decorated by Correggio et al in 1519 then shut up and forgotten from 1524 to 1774 – there’s a copy of the Last Supper by Alessandro Araldi, then after the chapterhouse (with good carved stalls), a room with the vault painted by Araldi and then the highlight, the Camera di San Paolo, where Correggio decorated the vault of the abbess’s private dining room to simulate a pergola with vivacious mythological frescoes that are considered one of the masterpieces of Renaissance art. The pagan subject matter seems out of place in a nunnery, but San Paolo’s convent was known for good living and lax rules. While there, it’s also worth popping into the Castello dei Burratini, a free museum of puppetry with a good video of a puppet playing the piano and puppeteers working and singing too.


In 1530-4 Correggio also painted the cupola of the duomo (cathedral), which was consecrated in about 1106, with a Gothic campanile added in 1284-94 and side chapels in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The apse was painted by Bedoli, as well as the vaults of the choir and the nave (c.1557). The interior is totally covered with frescoes, some very Mannerist in style; there are some older ones in side chapels such as the Capella del Comune. Alongside the duomo is the amazing Baptistery, a highlight of the transition from Romanesque to early Gothic architecture. It was built in 1196-1216 and decorated then with sculptures by Benedetto Antelanni and his workshop – the seemingly random sculptures in niches all around the base of the Baptistery is known as the Zooforo (or zoophorus), a series of 75 panels of symbolic and fantastical subjects. The highlight is its umbrella vault, frescoed in the 1220s with sixteen segments radiating from the keystone and six concentric horizontal bands, depicting scenes from the life of Abraham; the life of John the Baptist; Christ in Glory with the Virgin and the Baptist, prophets and kings; the Apostles and Evangelists; the celestial Jerusalem; and heaven with a red bullseye at the top representing the Empyrean.

Your ticket includes the Diocesan Museum, which is small but decent enough (with information in Italian only) – you’ll go down to the foundations of some third-century Roman walls and then see Roman coins and ceramics from the cathedral area, then carvings from the first churches, fairly simple mosaics – and thankfully no vestments, which are what I always expect to see in diocesan museums!

There’s more Correggio in the church of St John the Evangelist behind the duomo, where the cupola frescoes were painted by the man himself in 1520-24 and the nave frieze by his studio, while the Bono chapel (the fifth on the right) houses two Correggio canvases; the nave vault was painted by Anselmi (1521-3). The chancel is very Baroque, and the façade was added in 1607 and the 75m-high campanile in 1613. Finally, Pamigianino was commissioned to paint the frescoes of the cupola of Santa Maria della Steccata, built in 1521-39 – he only finished the Three Wise and Three Foolish Virgins (1526-7), high in front of the altar, which show remarkable skill in modelling.

A few thoughts about (salty and bitter) Italian food

When I travel in France or Switzerland I’m used to waking up a couple of times in the night to drink water, due to what is for me (who basically doesn’t use salt) over-salted cooking. In Italy I wake up five or six times a night, the food really is that salty. I do always claim that Italian food, especially in the south, is the world’s best food for vegetarians, but in the dark of the night it can seem like hard work. Of course, Italians also like bitter coffee (cappuccino is famously served only in the mornings, after that you have to take it strong and bitter) – happily there is an alternative, as Italy serves up the world’s best hot chocolates, some so thick you could almost stand a spoon up in the cup. (Forget about tea, they don’t have a clue.) They also have a thing about after-dinner digestivos, also known as amaro (‘bitter’), just to make the point clear.

Thankfully, there are some pleasantly light and sparkling pre-dinner drinks – the cocktail of the year seems to be the Hugo, a blend of gin, prosecco and elderflower cordial with tonic or soda water. You can also order a Black Hugo (reddish, really), with forest fruits. There are also some excessively sweet after-dinner drinks, such as moscato.

It is worth stressing that gelato is both unsalted and lower in fat than ice cream – definitely tasty and healthy, as far as pure indulgence goes. As it happens I’m writing this in Georgia, where the food is also wonderful for vegetarians (there’ll be a dish of meat, but it’s just set down on the table surrounded by wonderful salads and other vegetable dishes, and you just pick and choose what you want) – and most of the food is not particularly salty, apart from the cheese, which is … hard work.

Italian friends want me to mention that there’s been a craft beer revolution since the 1990s, but… no, I don’t think so. There are a few interesting breweries, some working closely with artisan food producers in the spirit of the Slow Food movement (see the Unionbirrai website), but basically beer remains something to be drunk with pizza, and Italian custom doesn’t really allow it to break out of that straightjacket. Having said that, it’s not just industrial yellow beer – acceptable red beers such as Moretti Rosso are widely available.