the sun has set behind the wooded escarpment beyond the black glass of this wide sweep of river. The trees along the ridge are silhouetted against a red mackerel sky as if in the embers of a great fire. It is a memory of the midday sun that crackled amongst the branches leeching sap from their cracked, desiccated skin earlier in the day. Now they stand solemnly with arms uplifted refreshing themselves in the cool, moist evening air. And the river winds its way around the foot of the hill in slow whirling eddies, like mercury, without a gurgle or apparent ripple.
The sky is changing quickly. While the filigree of fish bone clouds ride high in the pale blue and rose sunset - towards the East the sky is blackened, and great boulders of purple and flint are building thunderheads roiling up and out like billowing smoke in the rafters of a vast vaulted cathedral nave.
The willow rustles in the cooling breeze. The leaves of Rhododendrons and Azaleas dance an arrhythmic jig to nature's metronome, the first pitter patter of rain drops that presage the coming storm. A moor hen clatters across the leaden flow of the river into the shelter of the reeds. On the other bank, what human activity had begun to be observed by back lit windows is now obscured as shutters close to keep the warm light in - and the unruly elements out.
Somewhere in the distance the storm has already begun, a dry rumble of thunder rolls faintly over the hill like shifting barrels in a farflung cellar.
All this time I've sat in the garden, the grotto of a bistro, under a red slated veranda peering out through the vines and bourgenvilla and the swelling scent of honeysuckle. I'm freshly laundered, dusted down and showered after a day of chateau spotting down country lanes and occasionally across fields of cattle on a creaky rented bicycle. I'm tired, pleasantly achy and still tingling from the scorching sun, but now I have an aperitif. A glass of achingly dry sauvignon sweating icy tears and I'm comfortable and happy with my wine and utterly enchanted by the changing flavour of this countryside.
Rather incongruously, since I am the only person here except for the lady serving at the bar, two men in short leather jerkins and ruffled white shirts have begun to play guitars and sing melancholy songs in strong nasal inflections. I have some French but the local patina has made it so difficult to understand, for me, that I can barely order a simple dinner and their song is lost on me except for the occasional word or phrase. I think it’s a love song, but I’m not sure, it may be about the loss of a favourite goat. Perhaps they’re the same thing.
This is the valley of the river Loire. Winding its way West and South below Paris towards the coast the Loire is an area of lush green, full of arable land, farms and villages. Thunderstorms are common here in the summer. The afternoon sun is intense and the wide green basin cups and holds the heat in a breathless cauldron. Any sea-born cooler breeze is driven up quickly to condense and form the frisson of electricity at the heart of a breaking storm.
There are great towns, Tours, Chartres, built around cathedrals visible for miles across a thousand acres of corn and sunflowers, but the real Loire is found along it’s tributaries where the Noblesse of France, the nobility, built there chateaux. They are excruciatingly beautiful, like Cinderella’s castles, set high on hills, or obscurely behind thick walls along gravel drives amongst the shelter of dense woodland.
Always though, like most things human, we are drawn to edges, to the boundaries of the physical landscape, and the chateaux are drawn to water – to the banks of the Loire.
I’ve been drawn to Saumur, to one the grandest, most ostentatious chateau of them all. It stands above all else dominating every aspect of the surrounding town, where the Loire is bridged, twice, courtesy of a narrow island separating its flow in two.
That is where I sit now, on the island, in a small restaurant in a grove of apple trees found by descending a set of narrow railed stairs on the stanchion of the central section of the old stone bridge. Apparently I can get home later by a quicker route as some others will be rowing a boat a little upstream towards where I am parked for the night. The conversation completely exhausted my French and I left happily with my glass and a last “merci” to sit outside and watch the storm.
The beauty of it is they do not think I’m odd to want to sit outside and watch the elemental fury unfold. I’m joined by others, some who stay and eat as I do and some who came out for a brief glimpse as dragons fight for possession of the sky above, as the heavens boil and transform the picturesque beauty of the chateau across the river into flickering still shots of Dracula’s castle.
It is mesmeric.
I exchange knowing looks and nods with people at neighbouring tables. Sometimes after particularly violent coruscations, when the lightening shrieks through the sky with an audible dry crackle immediately followed by a stunning, shocking boom we, who’s hands had shivered a moment ago, raise our glasses in a toast – out of respect for the gods of thunder and our grandstand seat and our acceptance, conscious or unconscious, of their implacable power.
Later that night two men pole the boat to the far bank. I sit in the rear, (holding a bottle of the excellent sauvignon with the cork removed and replaced for my night cap), with my other hand drifting in the water. There are two couples returning home and the jongleurs, who are not singing anymore, all watching the stars as they reappear from behind the scudding remnants of the storm.
We scramble up the gravel of the shore and say our “au revoirs” and thank you’s to the boat men who fade slowly, back across the river, into the shadows of the island.
I will sit on the shore for a little while I think and just enjoy it for a moment longer.