And when you travel, you can multiply that factor tenfold.
Looking back to the very first time we dared to depart Paris,
it was those little things -- minor coincidences -- that added
up to a treasure chest of fabulous experiences.
One of our "pick" destinations was the Loire Valley, better known as chateau country. Castles! Gardens! Kings, Queens & Fairy Tales!
I couldn't wait to live out my princess fantasies.
We chose Amboise as home base because it seemed centrally located
and came highly recommended by the Rick Steves travel "bible"
I religiously followed when we initiated our adventures.
It was a great choice and we immediately set out to conquer the town.
What followed were a series of happy "accidents" that all worked
in our favor, little episodes that made a difference in our approach to travel,
our very thoughts about wandering through life's luckiest moments.
Details do make a difference -- even if they're minor happenstance.
And in the end, they keep us motivated to come back and start all over again.
Prominently perched above the town, Chateau d'Amboise
is not just some hulking stack of stones.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site boasts the features, magic and history
that will make anyone who still believes in fairy tales
take an emotional leap off its royal ramparts.
From the moment you climb the wide winding walkway that leads
to the castle -- the same passage gallant men on horseback traversed
in order to serve the royal landlords -- you get that curious feeling
that life is just one big memory bank and perhaps -- just
perhaps -- you, too, once rode in on a fierce steed.
The chateau's long history features an impressive number of kings
as well as a lovely roster of cunning and competent female residents and visitors.
Chateau d'Amboise once embraced Joan of Arc, Catherine de Medici,
Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots, not to mention the most famous painted lady
in the world -- La Jaconde, better known as the Mona Lisa.
Amboise's kings left their mark here, too, the most tragic
of whom (Charles VII) died at the young age of 28 when he hit his head
on a lintel above a door as he walked the hallowed halls of the castle.
But it was Francois I who made possibly the biggest mark on this chateau
as he maneuvered to bring the Italian Renaissance to France.
Long time standard bearer of the arts, it was Francois who imagined and
finagled his will to make France the world's foremost art collector.
He supported artists, writers and poets while championing big projects
(both building and renovation) transforming royal properties including
Amboise, Chambord, Blois, St-Germain-en-Laye, Fontainebleau
and even the royal Paris residence we now call The Louvre.
Most brilliantly, he courted Leonardo da Vinci from the artistic heart of Italy
to the court at Amboise, bringing the caché of the Italian Renaissance
along with the prestige (as well as some very important paintings)
of seducing Italy's foremost artist-in-chief.
The king was a kingmaker.
His da Vinci deal is akin to a professional sports agent
negotiating the number one draft pick.
"Show! Me! The Money!"
from "Jerry Maguire"
As I've said before, serendipity strikes when you least expect it.
As we neared the end of our castle tour (we had already witnessed a
double-rainbow as we stood on the ramparts of the chateau), the
guide walked us back through a monumental room we had already toured.
But this time, the grand chamber was in full dress -- with a dining table
decked out in the finest table settings I've ever seen -- stunning silver,
mountains of shining goblets, exquisite china and linens.
A fire roared --- and I do mean roared (it was summer so the room
was chili-pepper-hot) provoking us to imagine what life at court was like
during Francois' rambunctious years on the throne.
We could almost "see" the court as they gussied up for a night of frivolity
and delighted at thoughts of masquerade balls and jousting tournaments....
In fact, the chateau was preparing for a private event and though we weren't
invited, the sneak peek was well worth the price of admission.
As we left the premises, we witnessed a lively entourage
of beautiful people as they entered the palace.
We speculated it was an Italian fashion show -- they all looked
runway ready -- but no one ever offered a clue.
Our long, leisurely and delicious bistro dinner was celebrated at the foot
of the chateau so quite naturally our conversation turned into a guessing game.
Wondering what the castle guests were being served -- perhaps one of the local specialties like pork rillettes or the delicate fresh catch of the day from the nearby River Loire --- paired with a local Vouvray (the vineyards are just down the road)
or perhaps a sparkling Cremant de Loire ......
We were feeling pretty imperial ourselves as we tasted and sipped our way
through our very first Loire dining experience.
It was delightful -- but the most unforgettable part was still to come.
Just as we tucked ourselves into bed, Lady Luck edged out The Sand Man.
To our surprise, just outside our floor-to-ceiling window
(our hotel was directly opposite the chateau),
a stream of fireworks lit up the night sky.
Needless to say, we opened the curtains and threw out the sash.
Trust me, there is nothing quite like lying in bed, watching the night sky
explode with color, feeling like you're starring in your very own romance novel.
Fairy tales do come true.
"What people call serendipity sometimes is just having your eyes open."
Jose Manuel Barroso
spectacular financial package from his royal benefactor.
The Italian immigrant's path to France was rewarded with a top-drawer
manor house worthy of his remarkable talent.
Chateau Le Clos Lucé is not only beautiful, it's a thoughtful look
into the artist's fertile mind.
The king's bequest to Leo is now gifted to us, a wonderful look
into the ingenious mind of the gifted legend.
Scattered throughout the house and grounds are drawings and
recreations of da Vinci's futuristic mind -- inventions perhaps
as monumental as his legendary paintings.
The king loved the artist and carefully tended to his needs.
Leonardo da Vinci lived only three years in Amboise,
allegedly dying in the king's arms.
You can find his burial marker at the Chapelle St-Hubert at the royal chateau
though you now need to travel to Paris to locate his pièce de résistance,
lovely Mona Lisa, now carefully "hidden" behind millions of
camera flashing tourists in The Louvre.
Pretty streets, timbered houses, and enticing shops are scattered throughout
the town center, capped off by a very fine medieval belfry.
We walked further on, stopping to admire re-purposed troglodyte homes
built into the surrounding limestone cliffs, happily enthralled by pleasant
views of the Loire River and flowering countryside.
True, Amboise was built for the crowned heads of state -- but there's
something about it that feels personal.
Pastry shops, mouth-watering chocolate, crepes, cheese
and charcuterie tempted us left and right.
We succumbed to just about everything, not bothering to waste
one moment worrying about calories and cholesterol.
Having read that Mick Jagger owns a nearby chateau, we felt
the quiet little town had a certain cool edge about it.
We were, after all, experiencing our own renaissance, in the very spot where Francois Premier gave birth to a culture of art, literature and science in France,
a celebration that has been well tended for centuries.
In recognition of the great king's good works, there's nothing quite like the
taste of ice cream to cap off a triumph of artistic enlightenment.
And it was here where we learned a great lesson of travel.
We asked for two scoops (in poorly accented french) while
flashing two fingers in the air, in the American manner.
In Europe, one counts starting with the thumb, then the
index finger makes two and so on.
So the server assumed we were asking for three scoops.
In service of our country and to keep the peace, we gallantly ate
the yummy trilogy, agreeing that in rare cases like this, ignorance is bliss.
Utterly imposing, the imperial palace looms large over the town and yet during
our visit, I learned that what remains is just a FRACTION of its original size.
Today's Chateau d'Amboise enjoys just one fifth the dimensions it once occupied,
a fact that will blow your mind when you marvel at its great expanse.
Thinking of the downgrade on its price-per-square-foot on today's market, contemplating lost royal apartments, missing tapestries, furniture
and priceless art lost over the centuries.....
MORE ICE CREAM, PLEASE!
After all, it's the little things that count.