French unemployment is high, estimated at 9 percent in July, and anti-Semitism is on the rise, with a record number of Jews emigrating from the country to Israel, even during and after the Jewish state's disastrous war in Lebanon.
And yet, amazingly, fairytale France still exists. In fact, it's alive and well even thriving. A few weeks ago I spent two weeks with my father at Le Clos de L'Éveché the Bishop's Close a country house in Sante Ay, near Orleans, on the north bank of the river Loire. This is Tallyrand's la douceur de la vie a walled 18th century manoir with gothic components remnant of its near thousand year history.
The clos was supposedly visited by one of the Capetian kings. Who knows; it could have happened. We do know, however, that it was the Bishop of Orleans's country house in the 18th century. Like most French country houses of that period it is one room deep, with light flooding in from the windows and each room looking into the lime tree filled courtyard on one side, and the French doors into the garden on the other.
The house is L-shaped, with its old service wing parallel to the Loire. Taking a right angle, the living wing runs down toward the river and ends in a terrace built during our landlord's parents' lifetime, with a fountain burbling into a little goldfish pool, surrounded by a kitchen garden. The rosemary, thyme and basil growing there were the staple of our cuisine when we ate at home.
With about 11 rooms, the house has several lovely gothic door frames made of stone and intricate 18th century paneling. But the gardens are the true delight of the clos, which sits on about ten acres. The six or so acres facing the road are left overgrown with tall grass, presumably to disguise the manor from the road. But the four acres on either side of the main wing of the house and running down to the river come complete with formal French gardens with topiaries not bushes in the shape of Venus rising from the water, but trees cut into spheres and boxes and so on. They boast a rookery where live a flock of white doves, who bathe in another of the garden's fountains. Further from the house is an orchard where we would pick our apples, prunes, and Mirabelle plums for dessert. (There are also quince trees, but they failed to ripen while we were there.)
Dividing the gardens from the overgrown field near the road is a pine alley, and scattered throughout are statues and urns, some lit by spotlights at night.
The Loire Valley is truly storybook France, with two of the greatest cathedrals, Notre Dame de Chartes and St. Estephe de Bourges in close driving distance. Each has breathtaking Romanesque and Gothic statuary, but the windows are the real attraction. With their deep, rich colors and affecting narrative images, they are often called the greatest stained glass windows in the world. Truly amazing is the intricate geometric patterns of the windows one sees stepping back, when the figurative pictures cannot be distinguished. They impress just as much as abstract designs.
Some of the most well known chateaux are in this region as well, most built before the 18th century when the kings of France moved from the Loire to Versailles. Cheverny, completed in 1630, is the basis not only of much later French architecture, but of Marlinspike Hall in the famous comic Tintin.
Chenonceau boasts a gallery that stretches across the Cher River, built in 1577 on the orders of Catherine de Medici after she took the chateau back from Dianne de Poitiers, the mistress of her late husband King Henry II of France. Catherine ruled France as regent from one of the smallest rooms in the chateau, and held lavish parties that included cross-dressing, a fountain that flowed claret and the country's first fireworks display.
Chambord is one of the greatest displays of human vanity, with its 440 cavernous, empty rooms and tower built for the king to visit, which neglected to include its own stairway. The towers of the roof are perfectly picturesque and the double-helix stairway is brilliant it may have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci but the house was only lived in for a grand total of about 30 years since its twenty-year construction between 1519‑1547.
The neighborhood has quite a rich literary history, as well.
Sante Ay is just down the road from Meung-sur-Loire, where around 1275 Jean de Meun (as it was then called) wrote 21,780 lines of the Roman de la Rose, one of the greatest and most popular works of medieval literature. Around 1230, Guillaume de Lorris had written 4,058 lines of the poem. Jean's additions are considered simultaneously much more philosophic and much bawdier.
Meung-sur-Loire also boasts an inn, the Auberge Saint Jacques, which stands on the site of an inn of the same name, where Alexandre Dumas sets the first adventure of d'Artagnan, one of the heroes of The Three Musketeers a duel and subsequent recovery under the tender care of a pretty chambermaid. The current Auberge Saint Jacques serves excellent local cuisine hilariously translated on its duel language menu. I ate, for example, a delicious "chest duck cooked of honey." Farther down the menu, tart tatin is helpfully translated as "tatin pie."
D'Artagnan's duel is not the only violence in Meung. In 1429, the town saw one of the five battles in Joan of Arc's major campaign against the English occupiers of France. (The English subsequently captured her and in 1431 burnt her as a witch in Normandy.)
The Clos de L'Éveché itself had its brush with literary fame as well. In the mid 19th century, the then extremely popular (and now largely forgotten) left-wing novelist Eugène Sue spent some of his productive years living at the clos as a sort of hanger on (or moocher). Known for his rather melodramatic social realist novels Les Mystères de Paris (1843) and Le Juif errant (1845) as well as for fomenting anti-Jesuit sentiment Sue was one of the great popularizers of the roman-feuilleton, or novel published in installments in newspapers. He was also immensely wealthy and a terrific dandy.
You don't have to be a famous socialist novelist and man of fashion to stay at the clos, however. We rented it on cyberrentals.com.