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Deb Shennette and her father Gary Shennette at Absinthe Restaurant, Honfleur (Gary Shennette for The Globe and Mail)
Deb Shennette and her father Gary Shennette at Absinthe Restaurant, Honfleur (Gary Shennette for The Globe and Mail)

Great Road Trips

Road trip: A father and daughter take a spectacular drive through France Add to ...

In the winter of 2010, my father approached me with a brilliant idea. He suggested we take a summer vacation and do a road trip from Calgary to California. I couldn’t think of anything worse than a driving vacation, I hated driving, but loved the idea of doing something special with my father.

What I hadn’t yet told my father was that our family had recently decided to pursue a life-long dream to move to Europe, anywhere in Europe. My husband quit his job as the vice president of a small oil company; I advised my partners that I would be leaving the law firm that we had built together for more than 15 years; and we took our youngest child out of high school. We had no idea what country or city we would call home, we had no jobs in Europe, and we had no friends there. By sheer luck, my husband Barry landed a job with an American oil company that had offices in Paris. He didn’t even have to ask me, he knew that in terms of dreams of Europe, Paris trumped all. So in 2010, we moved to the “City of Lights” for three years.

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When it was my father’s turn to visit, he had a familiar epiphany: “Why don’t I come for two weeks and we can spend the second week doing a road trip through France?”

Over the next several months, my father and I exchanged e-mails as he mapped out his idea of what this trip would look like. When I got the final version, it had us driving 1,500 km in five days . Over Skype, we negotiated the plans and plotted a path from Paris through the Loire Valley, over to Brittany, along the Emerald Coast, and then back up to Normandy, finally returning to Paris.

My father Gary, a professional photographer who taught at Ryerson University for 25 years, captured our trip with hundreds of images. It was long and tiring but magnificent and memorable. My time in France, and especially this trip, changed my mind about driving. When I look back, it is these spectacular road trips that I remember most and long to repeat. Perhaps that road trip from Calgary to California may still be in the offing. Who knows?

<p>St. Gatien Cathedral in Tours.</p>
 

NAPOLEON, JOAN OF ARC

In the second week of this trip, we loaded ourselves and my two dogs into the car and took off. We travelled south on the A10 four hours to Tours, the capital of Indre-et-Loire. We arrived in the late afternoon and walked down Rue Colbert, past the beautiful and ornate St. Gatien Cathedral. It’s construction was started around 1170 but not completed until 1547, as such its architecture spans the Romanesque, flamboyant Gothic and Renaissance styles. Despite its mixed pedigree, the Cathedral has a beautiful cohesive appearance, especially when lit against the night sky. Near the Cathedral, in the garden of the Musée des Beaux-Arts, we stood in awe of a giant Lebanon Cedar tree planted by Napoleon. And along Rue Colbert, at number 39141, a plaque recorded that this had been the location of the manufacturer who created the armor for Joan of Arc in 1429.

Many tourists are visiting France this summer and fall to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. During the war, Tours became a garrison for 25,000 American soldiers who arrived there in 1917. They established factories for the manufacture of textiles, an army post office and a hospital at Augustins. It was also home to three America Air Force Squadrons. Tours paid its respects to its American soldiers with the building of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge across the Loire, which was opened in July 1918. The Bridge was severely bombed during the Second World War for strategic purposes, but was rebuilt in 1978.

 

HOLLYWOOD IN FRANCE

The next morning we took the short drive to Azay-le-Rideau to visit the Chateau which my father had loved but I had never seen. The town was magical. If Hollywood envisioned a French chateau town, it would by Azay-le-Rideau. Built between 1518 and 1527 on an island in the the Indre River, it is a spectacular example of early French Renaissance architecture.

Beyond the Chateau lies Azay-le-Rideau, which is almost as picturesque as the Chateau. We stopped beside a park leading to the Chateau and walked across the foot bridges and photographed the river with the rowboats tied up against the buildings, on the river bank. It was truly like a living, breathing painting by Monet.

We drove along the D751, to the Gratien and Meyer Winery outside the picturesque chateau town of Saumur. The chateau of Gratien and Meyer, sitting atop a towering limestone cliff, sells its crements at a fraction of the price of champagne. The vineyard was established in 1864 by Alfred Gratien, of the famous Champagne House. It is now owned by the German company, Henkell. Its sparkling wine, Crement, is made in the same way as the famous Champagne but is created from the red and white grape varieties of the Loire. The winery caves have been dug directly into the porous stone below the Chateau and house the crement bottles in this naturally cool environment.

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