If there was anything that made leaving Paris easier, it was the labor march.
A big city has non-stop big events - I get that - but after the soccer madness and the Pride parade/concert in our 'hood, we awoke to signs in the hotel elevator warning us of a labor march that would end at the Bastille.
As in, the Bastille neighborhood where we were staying. Lots of streets were already closed when we walked to the Louvre to pick up a rental car and dozens more by the time we got back with it.
Time to get out of Dodge.
Destination: Loire Valley. New digs: Chateau de l'Aubriere, circa 1846.
Greeting us with unbridled enthusiasm and a scent of wine on her breath, our hostess led us to our room on the third floor, explaining that to the French, it's the second floor. All I care about is the window taller than me that she opens to the great lawn, allowing in the breeze, night or day.
The grounds look a little fairyland-like with enormous old trees, gardens around the chateau and along the roadway and a sense of being in another time. A peacock roams the property and an aviary holds parakeets of many colors.
It's the complete opposite of Paris.
Happily, the tipsy owner also made suggestions for dinner in town - that would be Tours, a university town full of students - and we managed to find it with plenty of light left in the evening.
And by that, I mean 9:30-ish. The late light here is truly amazing.
Wandering through narrow, twisted streets, we made our way to the packed town square of eateries (most catering to poor students with menus heavy on cheese frites, or any kind of frites, for that matter) and oddities, like a man leading a goat on a rope leash through the packed tables of bistro after bistro.
A random alley led us to La Famille, a sleek restaurant we'd been recommended, with tables along the alley and a handsome server who admitted to little knowledge of English but smiled a lot. Of all things, across the street was an Italian joint where every potential customer was greeted with, "Buena sera!" and peppers hung from their window boxes.
The influence of that place apparently wafted over to La Famille, where we began our French meal with Italian standards: a plate with four kinds of tomato under creamy Burrata and vitello tomato, both dishes so generously proportioned they could have been entrees.
With chimney swifts swooping overhead between buildings on either side of the alley, I tucked into dorade royale, a perfectly delicious Mediterranean fish while across the table, it was pork and potatoes dauphinoise for the hearty eater.
We were losing the last of the evening light around 11 when chocolate and cheese arrived, and despite there being no one in the restaurant and only one other alley table occupied, encouraged to linger. Considering it had been our best meal in France so far, we did.
The French are masters at lingering and we've mastered the art easily.
Today's adventure took us on a drive to the 16th century Chateau de Chenonceau built over the River Cher, the kind of place you'd find pictured in the dictionary under "castle."
Known as the "ladies castle" for the three women who defined it - Henry II's mistress Diane, his wife Catherine de Medeci and Henry III's grieving widow Louise - it had all the trappings of wealth: tapestries (showing "everyday activities such as proposals"), art, elaborate marble fireplaces, a grand hall for parties.
And while I'd have happily danced in that hall overlooking the river, my two favorite things about it were windows and flowers.
It wasn't just the river and garden views out the windows, though they were spectacular, but the sheer variety of window and shutter styles. And, of course, out of necessity, they all opened to allow royal air circulation. Every room's window panes, frames and hardware were different, as much a part of the room's style as the distinctive furniture.
Surprisingly, sometimes the view was strikingly modern, like the stand-up paddle boarders we spotted, and sometimes contemplatively identical to what Catherine or Diane would have seen.
I also fell hard for the sight and smell of flowers everywhere.
Every room, every hallway, the kitchen and bedrooms, everywhere you went, there were scores (no exaggeration) of flower arrangements taken from cuttings in the extensive gardens. Arrangements ranged from a single bloom in a small glass bowl (where there would be dozens on a table) to towering combinations using delphiniums, calla lilies and roses.
A table in the pantry held miniature potted pepper plants between succulents and marigold arrangements. I've never seen so many stunning flower arrangements in one place.
That floral abundance would include inside and outside The Orangery, which was labeled a tea room but more appropriately would be called a nouvelle French restaurant inside of the castle's l'orangerie, where royal citrus fruits spend the winter.
We spent only a couple hours, but enjoyed our best meal in France (or maybe tied with last night's for best) with a bottle of Chateau Gaudrelle sparkling Vouvray - especially cool since we'd passed by the town of Vouvray on the way there - and a view of the lawn, complete with stone busts and castle cat napping in the sun.
A trio of amuse bouches set the tone for our meal on the covered patio. Cheese with "grass" sauce ("Sorry, I don't know word for sauce" our charming server explained), a perfect bite of crabmeat, and foie gras were clear indicators that very good things were to come from the kitchen.
It only seemed logical to order from the flavors of Touraine prix fixe menu, the better to eat as locally as we were drinking.
Everything I chose - French onion soup, grilled pork pluma with mustard and rosemary tomato sauce, gougere filled with Roquefort and finally, chocolate blueberry dome with red fruit sorbet over an intricate chocolate swirl, the likes of which I'd never seen - was as impressive as the castle and that's saying a lot.
We'd been so wrapped up in savoring such a fine meal that we only then realized we were (again) the last guests. But we weren't finished with the castle yet.
That there were grape vines surrounding the grounds ensured that we needed to make a stop at Chenonceau's Cave for a short tasting where the friendly pourer was impressed enough with my hair to inquire if I liked Keith Richards (bien sur!) and before long he was name-checking Jeff Beck and Ronnie Wood in his fractured English and I was doing my best with halting French.
By the time we'd purchased a few bottles, he was asking me about Muse, a band, it turns out, we both adore.
Which is kind of how I'm feeling about chateau life at the moment.