Salamanders & Silly Tourists in Chambord

Here’s another story from a past trip … and, who knows, maybe next year we’ll be able to cycle in France again!

June 21, 1985, Chambord Chateau in the Loire: I found the bike rack, locked up my bike and took a look around the castle. The ceilings are covered with salamnders. Hundreds of bas-relief salamanders embedded in the ceilings. Maybe thousands.

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I learned later that back in the times of Francois I, there was this crazy belief that the salamander had super powers, and could live in the midst of a fire and not get burnt to a crisp.

FYI: Crisps are what the British call potato chips, and salamander crisps are the worst-tasting chips of all.

Here’s the link to my Biking the Loire eBook now, back to Chambord…

Interspersed among all the salamanders are hundreds of bas-relief letter Fs. This, I understoof immediately: Francois I was the king and a bit obsessed with himself, as kings and certain American presidents tend to be. Francois I was a few centuries ahead of his time when it came to the whole concept of branding. I bet he’d be huge on Twitter.

The coolest thing inside Chambord is the double-helix staircase designed by Leonardo da Vinci, who spent the last several years living in nearby Amboise.

A double-helix staircase? A helix is a three-dimensional shape that winds around a cyclinder or cone, or, in this case, the center column of the staircase, in a corkscrew or spiral fashion. Single-helix staircases are fairly common. You’ve seen them. Somehow, Leo figured out a way to wrap two seperate helix staircases around the same center column. Like a circle within a circle or something like that. Hey, he’s the genius, not me. You can start at the bottom of Leo’s staris, someone else can start at the top, and you can get to the top and the other person can get to the bottom … and you never cross paths. It’s a magical staircase.

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After my tour of Chambord, I headed back out to my bike. And saw an American couple, and their bikes, at the bike rack. I could tell they were American because they were speaking American English.

Me: “Hello, where are you from?”

The guy: “The United States.”

Me (to myself): Duh … I just heard you speaking American English.

Me (to them): “Where in the United States?”

The guy: “Boston.”

I should have said “have a nice ride” and left it at that. Nah. I was by myself, it was my first day of my first-ever French bike trip and I was hoping they could give me some tips on where to ride and what to see. That’s what cyclotourists do.

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Me: “Where are you headed?”

The guy: “I don’t really know. We’re with a tour group. They tell us where to go and we follow them. I think we’re going to a town that starts with a B.”

Here’s what I thought to myself: “How the hell can you not know where you’re going? What are you, a couple of sheep?”

Here’s what I said: “Is it Blois? That’s where I’m coming from, it’s a nice ride from here to Blois.” I pronounced it Blue-ah.

The guy: “I don’t know … Tracey (Tracy? Traci? Tracee?), is that where we’re going?”

Tracey just shrugged. She didn’t look very happy.

Me: “Have a great ride.”

Later that day, at a café in Blois, I saw them again. “Bon jour,” I said. They stared at me. And had no idea who I was. I took a seat near them, and overheard their conversation. OK, I was eavesdropping.

The guy (looking intently at the receipt the waiter had just handed him): “How much is 22 francs?”

Tracey: “I don’t know.”

The guy: “I think it’s 20 dollars, no, 30 dollars.”

Tracey: “Thirty dollars. Everything is so expensive here. I hate it here.”

And then, Tracey went on, and on … and on some more, in great detail and quite loudly, about how she hated every aspect of their week-long cycling tour through the Loire. Especially the actual biking, and the scratchy, pink toilet paper.

She had a point about the toilet paper. Charmin, it is not. And, why pink?

Twenty-two francs was about $3.50. I was tempted to tell them this international-monetary fact, but didn’t say a word as I sipped a glass of vin rouge. I think this experience, on the first day of my first French bike trip, is what soured me on the whole concept of organized bike tours. And turned me into a bit of a snob when it comes to them. Because I carried all my stuff, on my bike, and mapped out my own routes on my Michelin maps, I believed I was experiencing France in an infinitely better way then all these flocks of sheep being herded around on tours. And saving lots of money, as bike tours are a bit on the expensive side, especially for a struggling freelance aviation writer.

Over the years, I’ve mellowed a bit and have begun to see the advantages of an organized bike tour. Especially if it’s your first trip to the country and you’re a little nervous or anxious about the adventure. Will I ever actually ever go on one? Maybe. Who knows? It’s possible. Not in the foreseeable future. Perhaps when I’m a bit older and have more money. The getting-older part is inevitable, while the more-money dream is 50-50. I remain optimistic, as it would kind of suck to be 84 and still carrying 30 pounds of stuff on the back of my bike while I pedal across France on a self-supported trip.

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No, this isn’t Tracey back in 1985. It’s Susan, in 2013.

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