Should you find yourself in France's Loir (no, not the Loire) Valley, feasting on the local delicacies and imbibing the local brew, when your host offers an after-dinner challenge to you in a slurred French "to hunt down zee minotaur" in the labrynth of caves below his 12th century chateau, do yourself a favor: just go to bed. Get up from the table and call it a night. Merci beaucoup. Le demain est un autre jour. Leave him there blabbering on about the Neolithic cave people, the 7th crusade, the Knights Templar. Whatever you do, do not pick up the candelabra and follow this unsteady man. Particularly, if you've been drinking his wine all evening.
The host I am referring to is one of the most memorable individual I've ever met in Europe. Let's call him Claude. Claude is the charming owner of Chateau de la Voloniere in the quaint village of Ponce - maybe 2 hours west of Paris. Ponce is smack in the middle of the Loir Valley (the little tributary north of the mightly Loire, thus the need to cleave off the little "e"). It's chateau country. The wine is plentiful and the meals are decadent. (The cuisine triggered a running commentary from my Italian companion Xtina who prefers dishes simply prepared, not luxuriating in rich sauces and gravies. Italians prepare their dishes with amore. The French, I suggested, do so with S-E-X. And when the sex is this good...I never finished the observation.)
And Ponce is where you will find Claude most days, leafing through giant tomes dedicated to the Middle Ages and blasting the Moody Blues.
Claude is a well-rounded individual. He speaks many languages, none of them coherently. He has turned his chateau into a gallery of sorts selling paintings that draw on two themes: man's fall from grace and dogs at play. My favourite, "Cave Canem", sells for 1,250 euros. The pooch in the frame must be the dog who goes on to win the famous poker game against the other dogs, because there he is in a regal pose bearing an Adonis-like six-pack for countless adoring passersby. Such a painting would seem out of place in a castle on the Loir, if not for Claude that is. He is the glue that keeps the theme of madness and art in balance. Upon introduction, Claude informed us he speaks English because "on this side of the valley the kings of England have reigned for many years" (until the 13th Century, that is). "The little kingdom of France," as he put it, "lies just beyond that river," he gestured to the other side of street. Apparently, on that side of the street they speak French, was the message. Xtina later pointed out that if the Italians went by this logic, they'd be speaking Vandal and Goth in downtown Rome.
With Claude, mystery was lurking around every corner of the castle. And, I learned later, below it. On my final morning Claude and I, accompanied by his dog Fifi, went spelunking through the network of caves below his chateau. Armed with candles and flashlights, we (Claude in fluffly slippers, mind you) covered hundreds of meters into the earth. Ancient Celtic, Druidic and Neolithic caverns meandered in all directions. The caves of the area, it is documented, were carved by hand by Neolithic people thousands of years ago, using little more than heavy stones to chisel further into the earth. The Celts then came and expanded the early work, excavating entire living quarters, well out of sight of the many barbarous hoards that passed through the region. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, they were expanded even further until abbeys and then chateaus were built on top of them on the terra firma. The local story is that Chateau de la Voloniere was to be the place where Hitler and Petain were to sign the armistice in 1940, thus establishing the Vichy government. A panicky Hitler rejected Claude's chateau when he heard there was a network of caves below that could easily be booby-trapped by resistance fighters. Claude bought the place 20 years ago and has become the resident expert on the subterranean world his property sits on.
As we made our way through the caves, marveling at the craftsmanship of the ancient people and the dense network of tunnels, we came upon the bottom of a well. I poked my head in and craned my neck up to get a good view up the well shaft. In the flickering distance was daylight. We were 36 meters (110 feet) under the ground at this point. It was time to call the tour to an end, I informed my intrepid guide. The caves were getting a bit too claustrophobic for my liking. And Claude, an asthmatic, was running out of cigarettes. He informed me we had one more chamber to traverse followed by a windy crawlspace. We could get dirty, he informed me. And, there's one other thing. This crawlspace, he added, had another challenge: snakes! This is how that bit of knowledge fell at my feet several meters below the earth.
Me: Why do we have to be so quiet?
Claude: Have you ever heard of zee African black mombaza?
Me: African black mombaza! Of course. (In truth, I had never heard of this species, but I am familiar enough with snakes that crush their prey in seconds). Is that the one you mean, Claude?
Claude: oui. I brought some back with me from Africa and keep zem in zis cavern. Zey are sleeping now. Noise and light will stir zem.
Me: (an audible gulp).
Claude: Let's go.
Claude dropped to all fours, and I flopped low too. Claude didn't have to tell me, but I figured if I kept my movements snake-like, I wouldn't arouse the suspicions of suposedly dozing snakes. And, it seemed to be working. Halfway through the tunnel, we were snake-free. But then I noticed my breathing had become as irregular as the asthmatic guide in front of me. I tried to hyperventilate out my nose instead. The whole breathing thing was proving problematic. I imagined I was making enough racket to wake all the snakes in Africa. And, wait a second. Do snakes sleep?!? What if they don't, but just chill out in the cold and only pounce when bumbling humans disturb them? What if awkward exhalations are the thing that most annoy them? Where was my guide? Why was he standing up? Can snakes see in this gloom?
Then silence. Claude uncupped the flashlight and waved it around like a light saber. We were in the final chamber now, tall enough for us to stand. He whipped the beam of light along the near wall and announced: "See Zat!?" I grabbed Claude's shoulder, angling him in front of the danger. This is his damn cave, after all. It was something enormous and spindly hangling from the ceiling. And it was indeed black.
"Ferocious," I whispered. Then, "Dude," ... yes, I said 'dude' ... "what the hell is that?"
"A root. I likes to have fun. Zeez are roots," he said tracing their body with the beam. He then burst into a devilish laugh that carried into a wheeze, before breaking into a full-on hacking cough. He lit a cigarette and only then the mad glee in his eye was gone.
What kind of person plays practical jokes involving killer snakes in the prehistoric cave network below his chateau? French-American relations have hit a troubling low.
I crawled out of the cave a bit diminished, having left a piece of my dignity a few meters below the earth of the Loir Valley.