“Souriez, la vie est belle”

I had wanted to visit the abbey at Fontevraud for many years. Five separate monasteries and convents were housed within its walls, receiving the rich and noble alongside the battered, fallen and leprous. It had been decreed that the whole should always be overseen by an Abbess.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France then Queen of England, graced with power and beauty, passed the last three years of her life here and was buried in 1204 next to her son Richard Coeur de Lion and her husband Henry II.

Centuries later, after the Revolution, the abbey buildings were converted into a prison, and thus saved from demolition. Prisoners fashioned mother of pearl buttons and rushed chair seats in what was once the monks’ refectory. Life had been extremely hard.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI wandered here for half a day, in the buildings and in the gardens, taking in the echoes of so much history. I sat outside the chic Café Alienor, which of course served chic coffee, and gazed some more.

Although the plan had been to visit the chateau at Saumur in the afternoon, the little riverside town of Montsoreau was so appealing I decided to stop. It had a chateau of its own perched above the river, but I never made it to the chateau nor even to a café terrace.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA quirkily shaped shop on the main road was closed for good. But a sign pointing up a steep, narrow lane with stone houses squeezed in on either side indicated “Antiquités,” and the afternoon took another direction. As I puffed up the lane, a small slate sign hanging outside one of the houses caught my eye. On it was the message, “Souriez, la vie est belle,” Smile, life is beautiful.

I found the small shop. Peering through the window I could see it was full of exquisiteries, a palette of dusty greys and old whites, chandeliers, busts – and piles of Astier de Villatte porcelaine. The shop was shut. I rang the number on the door and the owner said he was in his atelier but to wait there and he would arrive “tout de suite”. A white van drove up and a tall, tanned man in a blue overall came over to shake my hand and usher me inside. I was surprised to find such a beautiful shop in such a small town. I had however, unwittingly, stumbled on somewhere well known for its monthly riverside antiques market, and Yannick was the organiser. Perhaps I would like to visit the atelier, where things are more “dans leur jus”? We hopped into his van and down a few more narrow lanes to a large metal doored workshop. I was tempted by a farmhouse table but it was just too long.

What really caught my interest though was a mountain of folded silks. Yannick climbed up on a buffet to pass down some lengths to me. I noted his narrow, tanned feet in impeccable crushed strawberry suede moccasins – so chic.

Fabric cascaded everywhere. It all came from a highly regarded silk weavers in Tours. (Tours had been producing silks for the royal courts of the Loire since the 15th century). What Yannick had bought was part of a vast library of samples. Each piece had a hand written label with a logo of Trois Tours, three towers. La Maison Manach, founded in 1829 would now become a Museum of Silk. Some samples were marked “Bleu Wallis.” The blue of Wallis Simpson’s eyes. The Chateau de Candé where she had married Edward in 1937 was only 16 kilometers from Tours. Her wedding dress was blue.

With a large bundle of silks, we returned to the shop. The Astier de Villate platters could not be resisted and the silks were wrapped around them. Yannick courteously drove me down to drop off my purchases and invited me for tea at a riverside hotel he had just been involved in refurbishing – very chic, of course. So the afternoon passed delightfully, and the sun was still golden in Antoinette’s garden when I got back. Parked near Adrian’s beloved sailing boat, “Marie Joseph,” was a brightly painted holiday gypsy caravan. A cart horse was grazing nearby. Ah, this is what he had meant at breakfast – he had told me a “roulotte” would be arriving so I should park in a different place. Another word learned.


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