The grand scheme of things

Alison Handmer plays queen of the castles on a tour of the Loire Valley's many chateaux.

It is 7pm. One stone battlement has started to merge into another and the apple, walnut and blue cheese crepe we ate for lunch is no longer going the distance.

Angers, home to France's westernmost chateaux of the Loire Valley, is alive with smoke and the chatter of the evening in the town's many indoor-outdoor bars and restaurants.

Do we launch the arrows, tip the hot oil on the invading English, or give in to the inner force and settle for the degustation menu at Le Grandgousier in picturesque, pedestrian-only Rue Saint-Laud in the heart of town?

It is a difficult question, but with a sweet entree wine of anjou, a complementary balanced red and a delightful rose part of the package, we are hooked, and gladly settle by the fire.

What we don't realise is that this fire, in France's middle month of summer, is a working fire. The waiters transform themselves into chefs before our very eyes, whacking great fresh lumps of meat and fish onto the hot grill above the coals. Long, thick twigs dissolve into coals as we eat our entrees of bacon bits on lettuce, and Roquefort cheese and walnuts on lettuce, respectively.

This is a relatively small fireplace. We have spent the day exploring the castles of the Loire Valley, within which, as with the fireplaces of the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris, we could stand full-length without a problem, were we chimney sweeps, or, god forbid, the ever-popular Jeanne d'Arc, had she been roasted indoors.

As the first local wines begin to take effect, visions of the day begin to swirl above the flames. Are we Plantagenets or Lancastrians, Huguenots or Guises? Are our summer roadside roses red or white? Do we support the Catholic kings or the Protestants, or do we merely want to grow and harvest our wheat, and simply enjoy our wines without invasion?

Without doubt, we will need sustenance to continue our explorations.

Long will we recall the ancient battlements of the castle of Anjou, that black-stoned beauty; Amboise with its 14th-century apocalypse tapestries; picturesque Chenonceau, straddling the Loire, its upper levels richly decorated and lower level servants' dining area and kitchens with copper cookware reminiscent of Downton Abbey.

My favourite for unleashing the princess within was enchanting Usse, billed as the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty, its white stonework glowing indoors despite the rainy day, and even its elaborate attics open for exploration.

Saumur with its identity crisis - a museum of curiosities such as a two-headed calf in the 1800s, now boasting jousting exhibitions - and gracious Cheverny with its exquisite interiors and kennels of 100 hunting dogs, were also inspirational.

So, too, was gargantuan Chambord with its double-helix spiral stone staircase, thought to have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci, surely the world's most elaborate hunting lodge, freezing in winter and beset by mosquitoes in summer.

It is the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Angers that has given us a true taste of the past, from old stone tools found locally and thought to be 200,000 years old, through to Roman coins and glassware, on to brilliant religious paintings through the 14th to 18th centuries, to the revived Greek myths and legends depicted in massive oil paintings.

At Chateau de Brissac, the festivities have continued in a quiet way in the same family for the past 500 years or so, save for a temporary halt in operetta performances during World War I.

Still, the suits of armour have reminded us of early battles, of the skirmishes in the name of one king or other over the centuries. Who would not fight for this beautiful rich country, still yielding goat's cheese and walnuts and vintage after vintage of rich wine?

The Aussie in us warms to the fireside cooking of our beef, with the simple accompaniment of fresh lettuce and baked tomato, turnip and potato. In our halting French we explain the importance of the barbecue in Australia to our host, who "actuellement" knows better. After all, the French were cooking their meat here long before Cook found Australia in 1770 and the first settlers lit up their fires to cook the beasts who had accompanied them by boat to our shores.

No, our French meal was not a "barbecue". What we had experienced was the indoor version, "la cheminee".

Vive la France. Vive the wondrous Loire Valley. Vive l'anjou.


Getting there Etihad Airways has a fare to Paris for about $1730 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including taxes. Fly to Abu Dhabi (about 14hr) then Paris (7hr 40min); see Catch the TGV to Angers (1hr 40min) for about $100 an adult.

Getting around We hired a small car for about $450 and made our way back to Paris through the Loire Valley via the TomTom's "scenic route", seeing as many castles as possible in three days.

Staying there Hotel Le Continental, 14 Rue Louis de Romain, Angers, small and clean, with a great location and wonderful service, for less than $100 a night for a double room.

See + do Visit the Musee des Beaux Arts in Anjou, and explore castles such as Brissac, Amboise, Usse, Chenonceau, Saumur, Cheverny and Chambord. DIY or take a tour bus.

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