Leonardo was right

Yesterday Claire sprained her ankle so today we planned not to incur a lot of walking. Initially we were to visit an abbey but, instead, we figured a trip back to Amboise when it is open would be better.

Under the usual starter’s orders, we were ready to go at 10. The car was turned on for an hour to defrost it – the temperature was a lovely -5 – but still needed the application of a credit card to allow vision. Then we were off.

At Amboise we once more stopped at the café. This time, Mirinda decided to confuse the girl serving us and so we ended up with three small cups of mud and one mug of coffee. She then further complicated matters by asking for a weak cup of mud. Of course, it was all the poor girl’s fault.

And so onward and upward. I was sent on a scouting mission to find some sort of pressure bandage at a pharmacy. I found four pharmacies but none were open. I then put on a spurt of speed to catch the others as they trudged the length of Victor Hugo street towards Cos Luce.

Cos Luce was where Leonardo da Vinci retired. King Francois I invited Leonardo to come and live there and he did in 1516. He never left and, in fact, is buried in the château down the road. Apparently when Leonardo came to Cos Luce, he carried with him the Mona Lisa. This could be a lie, of course.

The house was built in 1471 by Etienne le Loup who worked for King Louis XI. It was built upon the 12th century foundations of an earlier building. In 1490 King Charles VIII bought it and it became the favoured vacation spot for the French court for a bit.

All that remains of the original fortified house is the end tower which starts the tour of the house. It has the smallest steps I’ve ever seen in a tower. So narrow, one has to assume they would be very easy to defend. Unless your enemy had a bow and arrow.

The house is very warm and inviting – so unlike most of the stately and historical houses we visit. Outside there is rather new looking St Sebastien while in a small chapel inside, there rests a rather faceless version. Unless you’re Japanese, there is no photography allowed in the house, so I have no image of the faceless one. I should have asked the Japanese guy to quickly get one for me but didn’t think of it.

Statue of St Sebastien outside Cos Luce, Amboise, France

Most poignant was Leonardo’s bedroom, where he died, having only lived at Cos Luce for three years. On the wall by the bed is the famous Ingres painting of Leo dying in the arms of Francois I. Apparently a few days before he died, a sickly sparrow sat on Leo’s window watching him. The great man took hold of the sparrow and decided they’d die together. Sadly that’s as far as the story goes. Though Leo died, there is no record of the sparrow’s death or its miraculous recovery. I’m thinking that maybe he rolled over in bed and squashed it.

In the final room of the house is a collection of da Vinci’s machines which someone at IBM built according to his drawings. Amazingly he built a car jack before the car was built and a tank to replace the elephant! As there’s still elephants, we have to assume this didn’t catch on*. Possibly his greatest invention was the pipe wrench. Anyone who has used one on a recalcitrant pipe will attest to this.

He was a pretty amazing guy and, as Claire pointed out, probably incredibly boring to spend any time with. This didn’t phase Francois I as they would sit around and chat all the time but I reckon Claire has a point. Somehow I can’t see old Leo going down the pub with a few mates and talking about the football.

Leaving Bob amid the inventions, we sat ourselves in the small restaurant and waited in the sun. The woman came over and said something to me which I thought was ‘do you want to order now?’ but was actually ‘do you want to wait for the fourth member of your group before ordering’. I replied ‘yes’. Which means she walked away. I tried to attract her attention but I had suddenly become invisible as usual and was duly ignored.

She eventually came over when Bob had joined us and we ordered our usual galettes. Actually Mirinda tried to order soup but was told there wasn’t any. I ordered a local beer but was told there wasn’t any and had a general one instead. The woman then came over and explained to us that there was no soup or beer because of the holidays. For some unreasonable reason, this made Mirinda very cranky. We ate and drank and then left.

Making a plan to meet Bob and Claire at the Bigot Patisserie, Mirinda and I made our way down to the Château d’Amboise.

Amboise was a favoured place by Julius Caesar as he trounced Gaul. Before he arrived and set up shop there, it had a highly successful iron age hill fort – oppidum. Traders criss-crossed the region using the rivers as a form of early road, long before the Romans built some of their own. The Roman town was called Ambaciacum and took advantage of the island that sat in the middle of the Loire. Seeing a great way to make some extra money, a tollgate was set up. This being the only crossing of the river meant it was a successful enterprise.

Amboise square below the château

In the 9th century, it was fought over by three lords and the successor, Foulques Nerra the Count of Anjou decided to make it stronger than its nearest rival, Bloi. He was responsible for the church which I couldn’t get in to see – St Florentin. It didn’t last for long in his control and in 1106, Bloi took it over. After the Hundred Years War, Charles VII decided he liked it so he stole it from the Lord of Amboise. There followed lots of kings who called it either home or THE place to holiday in the summer months when the poor were busy slaving away in the fields.

A few odd things happened in and around the Château over the years but my favourite has to be poor old King Charles VIII. He took over the crown when only 13 and loved the château so much he devoted years to its improvement. He traipsed across to Italy (trying to regain Naples) and stole lots of lovely art to use in it. Then, on the eve of planning another trip in 1498, he hit his head on a door frame and dropped dead. Weird, eh. But that’s French history for you. His widow, Anne of Brittany, ended up marrying the next king because he fancied her enough to annul the marriage she’d already had foisted on her after Chuck’s death. He also annulled his own marriage to Joan because he didn’t like her any more. And history says bad things about Henry VIII!

Anyway…enough of that. We strolled up to the doors of the château to discover that it was closed for lunch until 2pm. So we strolled around the streets for 20 minutes and then returned.

What a fabulous place. The château is only a quarter the size it was at its greatest but this doesn’t matter. Most of the area is grass and gardens and very peaceful. It is all built very high above the town so the views are incredible and on a blue sky day, you can see for months. In fact from one of the viewpoints I spotted Claire and Mirinda gave out a loud ‘coo-ee’ which was answered, scattering a small group of French people who were foolishly standing around Claire at the time.

Box balls in château Amboise, France

There is a lovely chapel in the grounds where Leonardo da Vinci is buried. The carvings are exquisite and, frankly, a bit disturbing. There’s a rather cheeky pig’s butt peeping out from within a small cave, to name but one!

We wandered the grounds and the buildings, admiring everything there was to admire and ended up in the shop, of course, before wandering down to the Bigot Patisserie to meet Bob and Claire. We had a lovely cake and coffee – actually my cake was awash with calvados which was very nice – then left to walk back to the car.

As we were about to leave, Bob started to search for the release for the petrol cap. As he did, a car full of French people pulled up and he decided to ask them. They gathered around the petrol cap, giving advice, shaking their expressive shoulders until one said that it was a German car. This explained everything, of course, and he added “Next time get a French car!

We finally found it and managed to get petrol on the way back to the château where we sat around chilling until it was time to once more go outside into the freezing night to find a restaurant in one of the next towns. We found it. It looked open. Lots of lights were flashing and it appeared to be open. The door was locked and no-one answered our knocks. It was very cold. Someone looked out a window and still ignored us. We went back to the car and, after driving through another deserted town, went back to the château for a lovely dinner of leftover bits and pieces, which was fine by me.

* In case anyone thinks I’m stupid, I do realise this meant replacing elephants in war and not wholesale! I’m pretty certain Leonardo didn’t dabble in genetic manipulation. Though, interestingly, he seems to have re-invented the water screw which Archimedes originally stole from the Babylonians.

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