FRENCH CONNECTION: Chateau de Chenonceau, spanning the River Cher, near the village of Chenonceaux, France.
FRENCH CONNECTION: Chateau de Chenonceau, spanning the River Cher, near the village of Chenonceaux, France. Karen Schwartz

Getting lost is road to ruins

TRAVEL, like life, often delivers the unexpected.

And also like life, it's those unexpected experiences that can be the most memorable.

When our daughter announced she was getting married in France, we were the first to put up our hands to attend.

After all, what's not to like about Paris?

Oh, she explained, the wedding wouldn't be in Paris but in a small village called Vilhonneur where the groom's grandfather lived.

So we turned to Google and there it was, not far from Bordeaux but not exactly close and a long, long way from Paris ... or anywhere else we recognised.

Population a touch under 300. Famous for its Roman ruins and stonemasonry.

Apparently the base of the Statue of Liberty was made with stone dug out of the hills around the village.

Normally not enough to warrant a detour from the main road but a hint there might be something to see once the wedding was sorted.

And so it was that we descended of the village of Vilhonneur - a rat-tag collection of Aussies including myself, my wife, her son, her ex-husband and his partner.

Fresh off a 24-hour flight into Paris, we caught a fast train into the nearest town of any size - Angouleme, population 42,000 - hired cars and hit the road for Vilhonneur.

Now, the French countryside isn't world famous for nothing. For one thing it's pretty. Very pretty.

 

The old Roman footbridge in the middle of Vilhonneur.
The old Roman footbridge in the middle of Vilhonneur. Contributed

But we've got pretty countryside right here in Australia.

What we don't have is castles. Or ruins. Or country lanes that pass through the centre of rustic stone villages.

 

 

Vilhonneur itself was a charming village of maybe 50 houses spread over a large area, with a small square and very old church as its focal point.

No tavern or shop, we soon learnt. They were a short drive away in Montbron.

Everything, it seemed, was a short drive from Vilhonneur.

Which was fine, as it gave us an excuse to explore.

Every trip to stock up on food and beer was an adventure and the Aussie contingent would gather over a cold one at the end of the day and swap stories about new places they'd found by accident on their "way to the shop".

So the big day came and went (need I say how amazing it was?) and as the younger guests did their own thing and my wife grew more used to my driving on the right-hand side of the road, we were free to explore further afield.

Vilhonneur itself proved more interesting than we first realised, with Roman ruins including a stone footbridge in the centre of the village and the remains of a castle in the back corner of the large block on which our B&B sat.

But we had wheels and the French countryside was calling, so we set off with no destination in mind. And we got lost. Not once or twice but five and six times a day.

And that's when we truly discovered how many amazing things can be found in an area that barely rates a mention in the tourist books.

There was no shortage of castles and chateaus to marvel at - some magnificent and others not much more than ruins.

We passed through small village after small village, visited country pub after country pub, and more than once slowed to look at the small churches.

But it wasn't all small villages and ruined castles.

In La Rochefoucauld - about 20km from Angouleme - there was the magnificent 11th century castle that carries the town's name.

Further afield, a day-long drive took us to and from the magnificent Chateau de Chenonceau, which was almost as good as the more famous Palace of Versaille and nowhere near as crowded.

Amazingly, the castle's 60m-long, narrow gallery spans the River Cher, which was the line of demarcation between the area of France occupied by the Nazis and "free France" during World War II.

The French Resistance used it to smuggle countless allied soldiers to safety, right under the noses of the Germans.

As usual, we set out on our trip to Chateau de Chenonceau in the early morning and soon became hopelessly lost, stumbling across some amazing villages, more ruins and rolling green countryside before somehow finding our destination.

Day after day we discovered new, exciting and unexpected things, also learning that while the locals can be hard to get along with in Paris (did someone say rude?), their cousins in the country were friendly and obliging, even to a couple of habitually-lost Aussies who failed Year 8 French and never thought to learn it after that.

It was a holiday that will, of course, be remembered for a beautiful wedding and more than a week hanging out with family and friends.

But it will also be remembered as the time we confirmed there can be so much more to a country than what the guide books tell you. But sometimes in order to find it, you have to be willing to get lost.


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