Life goes on

No matter what is happening in the halls of power, regular life does, indeed go on, and we are preparing for our spring excursion – hoping that nothing that emerges from Washington (or elsewhere) is going to throw too much of a wrench (or for my UK friends – a spanner) into the works.

This time we’ll be heading mostly inland, mostly to Germany, with some side trips into Austria and Hungary, and in preparation I have been reading Danubia and watching documentaries on the history of Vienna (thank you Fiona!) and have learned more about the Hapsburgs than I ever learned in school (which pretty much consisted of Holy Roman Emperors, Electors, Austria Hungary, Ottoman Empire, War of the Spanish Sucession then there was Fredrick the Great and the Hapsburgs weren’t that important any more until Archduke Ferdinand – and that they married their cousins too much and had bad chins.) I now know a great deal more, and they really did marry their cousins way too much, and have really bad chins, but they also had a number of centuries of dominance over a very chaotic region and the seeds of many of the contemporary conflicts are rooted in the family history.

I am really looking forward to seeing this region and getting to explore some of the historic and scenic areas we will be visiting. I’ve also been fascinated with ‘Mad’ King Ludwig for years and we will be visiting at least a couple of his castles as well (he wasn’t a Hapsburg, though.) In addition, we will be spending some time in and around Munich on our own after our back to back river cruises on the Danube, and I hope to get to see some of the ancestral homes of my mother’s mother’s family, the Killians. I always thought, with a name like Killian, they were likely to have been Irish, but it turns out that a St. Killian, who was Irish, came over and proselitzed to the Germans, and these particular ancestors most likely were from the district around the Cathedral named for him. They were engravers and jewelers, the most famous being a contemporary of Durer and it turns out that his engravings – mostly portraits – are in the collections of a number of notable museums. That particular branch of the family was from Augsburg and I have a day trip planned to go there from Munich, just to see if we can find some traces.

I’ll be posting a travelogue as we go along.

Back and forth

I go back and forth between theories about what the hell is going on in my country right now. Sometimes I feel like we are caught in a bad political comedy with the Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight, as they all seem so inept and clueless. Then the pendulum swings and I think we are being distracted while a gang of clever greedy SOBs dismantle everything that being American stands for. I’m frankly not sure most of the time which is the more desirable outcome. In either event, the America we will be living in in four years is going to look very different from the one we are in today, I am afraid. And I AM afraid. I’m afraid for America’s standing in the community of nations, I’m afraid a crazy narcissist with a very thin skin had the nuclear codes. I’m afraid Putin really does have Kompromat on The Donald and has every intention of using it – probably already has and will continue to. I’m afraid that I’m right and that there really is an Evil Genius in the White House (Steve Bannon) who is pulling all the strings and is determined, as he has said time and again, to bring down the government and create chaos.

And I don’t know what to do. I live in a state that is heavily Democratic, so other than sending ‘attaboy’ and ‘attagirl’ encouragement to my Senators, I can’t do much to try and swing any Republicans into opposition to the current regime. I don’t have enough money to be influential with anyone. I can write letters (and do) and go to the odd protest, but what good does it do in the end, no matter which theory of what is happening is really the right one? I guess we just endure this, and hope for the best that our institutions are stronger than they look right now and that #45 does something sufficiiently outrageous really soon and turns off at least the responsible and sane Republicans (assuming that, other than McCain and Graham, there are any) if not his rabid and willfully ignorant base, to get himself either declared incompetent to hold office or impeached.

Meanwhile, I and most of the other people I know, are standing on the sidelines, watching, sharking our heads in bafflement, and hoping it will all just go away.

Less than a week to go

Until The Donald, aka Rumplethinskin, is inagurated as our 45th President.  Unthinkable, but there it is.  The vitriol on social media continues unabated with both sides seemingly wilfully misinterpreting the other.  Weirdness abounds in abundance – claims from the right that Obama made the country more racist, but no indication of how he managed this feat  and denials that he did anything good for the country at all (never mind the economic recovery, withdrawal of troops from around the globe, or extending health insurance to millions – none of that either happened or was good if it did…) and almost equal hysteria from the left – albeit, in my view, slightly more merited – that the apocolypse is upon us.  There is no rational discourse, no agreement to disagree, and certainly no attempts whatsoever on the part of the Orange Monstrosity to heal and bring together.  All he seems capable of doing is tweeting his displeasure with any and all who question him in the smallest ways, and encouraging those who blindly support his every move – sometimes to the point of questionable legality as with Linda Bean of LL Bean.

Questionable legality may be what saves us from an extended Trump presidency in the end, as he has refused to disconnect from his ’empire’ and the specter of conflicts of interest loom large given the global nature of his businesses.  His unpredictableness, and his narcissism may wear thin quickly, and his own party may turn on him and surely he will be providing them with ample ammunition for an impeachment should they so choose.  That is even without going to the Russian connection and what is behind his ‘bromance’ with Vladimir Putin.  There seems to be something going on there that could even potentially rise to level of treason if all was known.

For now, all that seems clear is that whatever Trump does is going to serve Trump first and foremost and everyone else after that.  The Cabinet of Deplorables will most likely go about trying to dismantle the agencies they will have been put in place to lead, but that task is going to be formidable, much more so than they or he realize, as the agencies are peopled with career bureaucrats who know the game far better than any of these appointees every will, and who know very well how to hunker down, look like they are doing what is asked of them, and wait out the storm.

Like the ancient Chinese curse, we have been born into interesting times….

 

 

Early appointments and disappointments

I’m going political here because I don’t want to deal with the fall out on Facebook. I’m sickened by the pro-Trump postings from some of my friends and family members and I don’t want to try and talk to them about it because, in spite of the chasm between us on this issue, I still love them. So, I’ll take it here, because most of them don’t read this, and I can take out my fear and frustrations.

Both of my regular travel agents are Trump supporters. I’m not going to do business with them any more. I won’t knowingly do business with anyone who has signed on to this xenophobic, racist, anti-gay, anti-choice, anti pretty much anything I support regime. I have to tolerate my family members – and will suffer in silence as long as they don’t gloat and go all ‘suck it up buttercup’ on me. I didn’t taunt them when Obama was elected and we managed not to talk about Bush (who is looking like Thomas Jefferson in retrospect) so I can avoid talking about The Donald if they can. Same with our Republican friends, but business people, I don’t need to patronize and I won’t.

So, who does this travesty of a president elect decide to surround himself with – a white supremacist advisor, an AG who thinks the KKK is great and the the NAACP and the ACLU are communist conspiracies (and what in the world is Sessions going think of The Donald’s cozy relationship with Putin??) and a national security advisor who is so anti-Muslim even his military brethren think he’s scary. Doesn’t bode well for our country. And, moreover, why is he making these his first appointments? Why not deal with the economic appointments as a first priority,if, as my Trump supporting friends and family all said, that’s his REAL priority and REAL message. Sorry folks, he’s showing you loud and clear what his “Real” agenda is about, and it is all about making American White again, not Great…unless you’re white and male and privileged.

I have nightmares about who he will put on the Supreme Court. And what kind of Neanderthal policies he and a rubber-stamping Republican legislature will be able to put in place before the 2018 mid-terms. Our long national nightmare is beginning…

Fear and Loathing

So, the unthinkable happened and here we are facing down the idea of a Trump presidency for the next four years. Clearly it is the most deeply divided that the nation has been a long long time – certainly since the Nixon era, possibly since the Civil War and Reconstruction. It is bringing out the worst in our nation already and signs are that it will simply continue to spiral downwards with both sides getting more entrenched and extreme. I’m no fan of Trump, voted for Hillary even though she has her flaws, but it is over with now and we have to live with the results, so I’m trying to look for some good things to hang on to for the upcoming four years. So here goes – some thoughts on the silver-ish linings in the storm clouds encompassing our nation:

1. Neither party is going to be able to ignore the result of this election or the concerns of ‘the little people’ be they liberal or conservative. If they do, ‘the little people’ will rise up and hand them big surprises in any future elections.

2. The Republicans now control the mechanics of governance, both at the federal and largely, also at the state and local level, more so than at any time since the 1920s. So, now, they will have to actually govern, not sit on the sidelines and obstruct. While some (or actually, most) of their agenda isn’t something I support, at least they will have the chance to break the gridlock, and they will be accountable for the consequences of their agenda and people will have a chance to see how their policies actually impact the lives of ordinary citizens. In short, they are the dog that actually caught the semi they were chasing – let’s see what they do with it!

3. It seems inevitable to me that once in the highest office in the land, Trump will be incapable of restraint and that, finally, he will be seen for what he really is, and, one hopes and prays, impeached. Don’t really like Pence, but at least he seems sane. Or at least saner.

4. Millenials, minorities of all stripes, and, indeed, everyone else out there on both sides of the political divide have seen what can happen if you DON’T vote, so maybe they’ll get out there next time and cast their ballots. Our voter turnout in this nation is disgraceful. Maybe this will be the cattle prod necessary to get people to the polls.

5. The patently bizarre Electoral College has delivered the second president who didn’t receive the majority of the popular vote in 20 years. It is time it was revised or scrapped in the entirety.

6. It is also time to remove the setting of congressional districts from the hands of self interested legislators and put it in the hands of a computer, although since both 5 and 6 favor the party currently in power this isn’t likely to happen, but the election brought the flaws in both systems to the forefront, and perhaps they will become agenda items for the loyal or not so loyal opposition.

7. In one area where I DO agree with candidate (now president elect) Trump – we need to really ramp up our investment in America’s infrastructure – roads, bridges, train system, schools, municipal water etc. etc. This could also bring new jobs and improved economies to some of the hardest hit areas of the nation.  Let us hope that this is one campaign promise that WILL be kept.

8. America’s place in the world order may get more realistic. That is assuming that President Trump doesn’t blow it up, of course.

9. This too shall pass. No matter how bad it looks now, it will end and we will all go on to whatever is next.

Four Annual Festivals worth planning your Big Island vacation around (and one to avoid)

1 – Aloha Festival – September
This month long celebration of the Aloha Spirit is held annually in September. Events include community parades in several locations, and the establishing and blessing of a ‘Royal Court’ made up of native Hawaiians who appear at most of the official events either in traditional garb or in clothing similar to that worn in the court of King Kalakaua. Culinary events include The ‘Taste of the Hawaiian Range and Agricultural Festival, highlighting pasture-raised beef expertly prepared by Hawai’i chefs and including every conceivable cut from the familiar sirloin and ribs to the exotic such as beef cheeks, tongue, and ‘Mountain Oysters.’ Attendees can connect with local food producers and island chefs and check out booths and exhibits about Hawaiian agriculture. For more details, visit http://www.TasteOfTheHawaiianRange.com. There is also the annual Hawaii Island Poke contest where home cooks and professional chefs compete against their peers to create a championship version of this traditional seafood dish. After the judging, attendees also get to taste. There are musical offerings as well – hula contests, the Kindy Sproat Falsetto and Story Telling contest, the Big Island Slack Key Guitar Festival are all part of the September calendar. For more information on the festival visit http://www.hawaiiislandfestival.org

2 – The Coffee Cultural Festival
2016 marks the 46th year of this annual celebration of the world famous Kona coffee. It is the oldest food festival in Hawai’i and combines contemporary coffee-mania with Kona’s long history as a coffee-producing region. Coffee farm tours, Native Hawaiian arts and cultural events, and a wide variety of activities celebrating the diverse cultures contributing to Kona’s coffee industry contribute to this annual 10 day event held annually in early November. For more information about the festival and this year’s calendar of events visit http://konacoffeefest.com/schedule-of-events/

3 – Big Island Chocolate Festival
This one is a relative, but tasty, newcomer, as commercial cacao production is just getting a foothold in Hawaii. First held in 2012, the festival is adding new events each year and is held over two days in mid-May. This year featured a cacao plantation tour, workshops on cacao farming and production techniques, and numerous culinary demonstrations and tastings. To keep up with this festival, visit http://www.bigislandchocolatefestival.com

4 – Merrie Monarch Festival
Held annually in late April or early May, the Merrie Monarch festival began in 1963 as a part of the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance and has gone on to become the preeminent hula competition. This week long event includes a parade, cultural activities and events, a juried craft fair, and the hula competition which features group and individual competitions in the ancient or Kahiko style of dance and the modern or ‘Auana style. For more information and the dates of the 2017 Festival see http://www.merriemonarch.com

And the one to avoid –

I know this won’t meet with everyone’s approval, but I recommend avoiding the Ironman Triathlon unless you are a participant or the supporter of one and here’s why. For at least a week before race day, everything on the Kona side of the island will be crowded, prices will be higher on flights, lodging and rental cars, supply will be scarce and traffic will be awful. During the week leading up to the Triathlon day, the athletes will be training in the ocean, on the highways on their bikes and on the streets of Kona running. There will be street closures for pre-Triathlon events in Kona (like the Parade of the Triathletes and the much more amusing ‘Underpants Run’) and on race day the entire route from Kona to Hawi will have intermittent or long-term road closures. If you are part of it all, it can be great fun, but if you aren’t, it is mostly an annoyance. The Ironman is held annually in October on a Saturday – usually the second Saturday of the month, this year it is on the 8th of October.

And now for something completely different….

Just had to call attention to this quintessential Only In Hawaii Event:

Waikiki Spam Jam Street Festival

Type: Music & Entertainment
Date: Saturday, April 30, 2016-Saturday, April 30, 2016
Time: 4pm-10pm
Price: FREE
Location: Hawaiian Islands – Oahu
Address: Kalakaua Ave, Honolulu, HI, 96815
Summary:
It’s the annual WAIKIKI SPAM JAM Festival, the cultural tradition in Hawaii. The WAIKIKI SPAM JAM Festival, which starts at 4:00 p.m. and ends at 10:00 p.m., and is quickly becoming one of the most popular festivals in Hawaii because of its great food and entertainment in a family-friendly atmosphere.

Local residents and visitors alike have made this an annual tradition. Kalakaua Avenue is closed to car traffic for the event, and two entertainment stages and a variety of Hawaiian crafters are set up on the street. Free admission. This is also a special event that benefits the Hawaii Food Bank, the largest non-profit in Hawaii that feeds the needy.

We’ve got an excellent line-up at the Outrigger Hotels and Resorts stage fronting the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort:

4:30 pm Hiroshima
5:30 pm Waimanalo Sunset Band
6:30 pm Ben Vegas and Maila Gibson
7:30 pm Jeff Rasmussen & Robi Kahakalau
8:15 pm A lucky winner will receive a two-night stay at the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort and tickets to Blue Note Hawaii
8:30 pm Raiatea Helm

Visit the Waikiki Spam Jam website.

http://spamjamhawaii.com

The long road home

At the end of our ‘Day of the Chateaux’ and back on board, the Loire Princesse started her journey back towards Nantes, and our stay for the night was back in Chalonnes sur Loire.

Loire Princesse at her mooring
Loire Princesse at her mooring

The next morning there was another bus tour, and another wine tasting, and a drive along the levees along the Loire know as the Angevine. Given the previous long day and Dennis’ back protesting the idea of another few hours of bus riding, we opted out of the tour and decided to spend the half-day we had in port exploring Chalonnes sur Loire.

typical street in Chalonnes
typical street in Chalonnes

One of the nicer things about this river cruise was how ‘untouristy’ most of the places we visted really were – certainly there were plenty of tourists in and around the chateaux, but the towns themselves haven’t lost their local character and become full of nothing but shops selling postcards, refrigerator magnets and tee shirts.

Bateaux along the riverbank
Bateaux along the riverbank
local flower shop
local flower shop

Chalonnes sur Loire is decidedly NOT a tourist town and we enjoyed just strolling around and checking out the local market, the one tourist attraction – a mini-train vineyard tour, and finding our way into the business district to take care of a few chores like getting some extra Euros for our upcoming train trip.

Train visit to the vineyards
Train visit to the vineyards
the mini-train visiting the vineyards - Chalonnes' primary tourist venue
the mini-train visiting the vineyards – Chalonnes’ primary tourist venue

Like most other of the Loire towns we visited, Chalonnes has the requisite ruined fortifications and a charming riverside pedestrian walk that follows the riverside.

Access to pedestrian walk along the river
Access to pedestrian walk along the river
pedestrian walkway along the river
pedestrian walkway along the river

The public gardens were just beginning to bloom and the weekend market was in full swing.

part of the ruined fortifications Chalonnes sur Loire
part of the ruined fortifications Chalonnes sur Loire
municipal gardens
municipal gardens
The Loire from Challones sur Loire city park
The Loire from Challones sur Loire city park

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After our stroll, and taking care of our chores, the excursion group was back on board, and the Loire Princesse headed back to Nantes, accomplishing the return voyage in a matter of hours with the strong current adding to the speed. Our scheduled arrival was to be at 8:00 PM, we got into the dock by about 5:30, having left Chalonnes at around 1:00 PM.

Our last night on board – the Gala Night – was enlivened by an auction using the tokens won in the various quizzes and activities on board during the previous week, and followed by music and dancing. And, of course, the dreaded packing for departure the following day. We said goodbye to our new friends, as we knew we’d be among the first off in the morning since we had a 10 AM train to catch.

Bright and early, around 8:00, after we had our breakfast, and gathered up the last of our things, we headed out to the tram station right at our anchorage, only to find that there were literally thousands of people milling around – it was the day of the Nantes Marathon.

We took the first available tram, and were somewhat surprised to find it only went one stop further and quit. We (and a lot of other folks with luggage who were also headed to the train station) got out and started about a mile long bag drag (fortunately, sort of…the roads were closed so we had plenty of space and no traffic)

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The Nantes Marathon Route – we were bag dragging in a straight line up the main street.

 

Somewhere along the way to the train station, the marathon started and when we were within a couple of long blocks of the station (I could see it), we, along with about 20 other people who were also making their way to the station, were stopped cold by barricades and race officials who were blocking the road as the marathoners ran on cross streets across the main road. Everyone stood there for a while – maybe five minutes or so, I, at least, thinking that sooner or later the officials would hold up the pack to let all these people (and the crowd waiting was growing by the minute) make their way across to get to the train station. But no. So, a group of young guys just suddenly ran across through the marathoners.

The race officials went nuts, the marathoners were all yelling (in France, apparently, the thing to yell when you are upset is “la, la, la”) and everyone waiting sort of backed off. More time passes, more of the waiting people get restive and cut across, officials are running up and down the streets trying to keep people contained, then another group in our area makes a break and this time, Dennis goes with them. I was paralyzed with a combination of fear of authority and not wanting to be mown down by the runners. Dennis is on the opposite side of the marathoners now, and yelling at me to come on,  while the officials are yelling not to. Finally a little old lady with what looks like one of those shopping wheelie things makes a break for it and I follow her into the mob of oncoming runners who commence with the la, la, la yells. I don’t make eye contact or look left or right, just straight ahead and bag drag across the marathon as fast as I can go and in a few steps, make it to the other side, then we both bolt for the train station. There is one more cross street with runners between us and the station, but, thankfully, there is some modicum of sense in the officials at that cross street, and the marathoners are walking, and it is easy to make the crossing, and, whew, at last, the train station!

We were quite a bit early for our train, but so thankful to have gotten there without further mishap that we were happy to wait. Finally our TGV (very fast train) pulled in, we boarded and settled in for our couple of hour ride from Nantes to Lille, where, finally, we got our passports stamped!

We had heard some stories of people coming in, as we had, via cruise ship, and having trouble getting out of Europe by plane as their passports had never been stamped as having entered. We were happy to finally have it acknowledged that we had indeed been in Europe as we got stamped out of France and into England all in a matter of a few feet in the Lille train station! Then we were on the Eurostar and headed for our last stop, the Marriott at Heathrow, and home the next day.

Our ‘big’ flight, from Heathrow to San Francisco, was great – nice new plane, lie flat seats in business class, all in all as good an experience as you can have flying a domestic airline (most foreign carriers are better and the really good airlines like Singapore and Emirates are outstanding.) However, our San Francisco to Honolulu flight was hideous. The plane should have been retired 10 years ago, nothing worked from the seats to the “entertainment” – which would have been bad even if the sound had worked – to the food, and this was in what was allegedly domestic first class. I shudder to think what the coach folks were experiencing. The only good thing was we were early which made making our tight connection to the last flight of the day home to Kona a little easier, in spite of getting turned around in the Honolulu airport and taking a wrong turn down one of the newer concourses, as United has changed where their gates are in Honolulu. We were both frazzled and really tired when we finally got to the gate for Hawaiian, and really, really glad to get home at the end of our more than 20 hours on planes and in airports.

Usse – The Sleeping Beauty Castle

IMG_2867IMG_2836The final stop of the day was at the Sleeping Beauty Castle – Chateau Usse. Like most of the chateaux, this one also started life as a fortification somewhere in the 11th century. It passed through several families and a variety of redesigns, reaching more or less the present form under the ownership of the d’Espinay family, begun by Jacques and completed by his son Charles in a combination of Renaissance and Gothic styles in the 1600s.IMG_2827 It changed hands again in the 17th century when Louis de Valentinay demolished a portion of the northern end of the complex to open an interior court to the spectacular over the parterre terrace, a garden design by Andre Le Notre, a famed landscape designer of the period.IMG_2831

It is traditionally held that Usse was the castle that inspired Charles Perrault in writing The Sleeping Beauty, and one of the towers is devoted to the fairy tale and stocked with mannequins illustrating key elements of the familiar story. It is certainly the case that Usse was one of the inspirations for Walt Disney when he designed the various Disney castles.

There are also mannequins throughout the portions of the chateau that are open to the public, dressed in period costumes – our guide indicated to us that these changed regularly, but during our visit, they were done up in costumes of the Belle Epoque. IMG_2854IMG_2845IMG_2846IMG_2843 Our guide was unsure as to the authenticity of the costumes – that is if they were really period clothing or reproductions. In either event, they were gorgeous, even if the overall effect was slightly creepy.  The rooms are done in period furnishings that have belonged to the family and various items from their travels and collections are also displayed.  I was particular taken with a IMG_2839series of miniatures featuring notable monuments and buildings from around the world, but there were also weapons from a variety of locations and cultures around the world, military and other honors, and a vast collection of china.

IMG_2838In 1802, Usse was purchased by the duc de Duras and in 1813 was the scene of a number of meetings of a group of Bourbon loyalists about the possibilities of a Bourbon Restoration following the reign of Napoleon. Other notable guests included Francois Rene de Chateaubriand who stayed at Usse while working on his Memoiers d’Outre-Tombe as a guest of the duchesse Claire de Duras.IMG_2841IMG_2817IMG_2834

In 1885 the chateau was bequeathed by the comtesse de la Rochejaquelein to her great-nephew, the comte de Blacas. Today the château belongs to his descendent Casimir de Blacas d’ Aulps the 7th Duke of Blacas. He and his wife make their principal home in Paris, but maintain a wing of Usse for their personal use and they and their extended family usually spend a few months there each year.

Famed for its picturesque aspect, Usse was the subject of a French railroad poster issued by the Chemin de Fer de Paris à Orléans in the 1920s, and it was classified as a Monument Historique in 1931 by the French Ministry of Culture.IMG_2832

Gardens of Villandry

Our second stop of the day was the Chateau de Villandry. Owned by the Carvallo family since 1906, the Château de Villandry is open to the public and is one of the most visited châteaux in France; in 2007 the château received about 330,000 visitors, and while the interior is open for touring, our particular visit was restricted to the gardens, which are the most famous element.

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The property was acquired in the early 16th century by Jean Le Breton, France’s Controller-General for War under King Francis I, and, as with Azay le Rideau, a new château was constructed around an older fortification, a 14th-century keep where King Philip II of France once met Richard I of England to discuss peace. The Le Bretons maintained ownership for around two centuries until shortly before the French Revolution when the chateau was acquired by the Marquis de Castellane. He was dispossessed during the Revolution and the property was confiscated and in the early 19th century, Emperor Napoleon acquired it for his brother Jérôme Bonaparte.

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In 1906, Joachim Carvallo purchased the property and poured an enormous amount of time, money and devotion into repairing it and creating the famous Renaissance gardens that were our tour objective.

 

These include a water garden, ornamental flower gardens, vegetable gardens, and a maze. The gardens are laid out in formal patterns created with low box hedges and the vegetables are as ornamental as the flowers, planted for color and shape, not for consumption.

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In 1934, Château de Villandry was designated a Monument Historique and it is part of the Loire Valley Chateau UNESCO World Heritage site.

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