Amidst all of the revelations brought about by my trip to the Loire Valley, there were some lovely scenes that simply stole my breath.
The grounds of Château Royal d’Amboise near the hunting lodge proved simple for the most part.
It was, however, the ramparts which provoked majestic ooooos and ahhhhhhs.
One of the most remarkable qualities of the royal residence is only about a fifth of what it once remains intact. Imagine what it must have been like, its towering presence over Amboise and the Loire River, five-hundred years ago.
I like to imagine that da Vinci and Melzi sat in a tower long the victim of time and treachery painting elegant women with the Loire in the background.
Meanwhile, the tiny town of Amboise bustles below:
“I’ve been walking for like an hour and I’m exhausted. I’m going to sit on this bench over here for about two days,” I told my ephemeral guide.
“Perfect. Right over there. Nope, one more bench over. There, you got it.”
There, at a tiny grove of trees just above the marked remains of where the Château Royal d’Amboise used to extend into a far greater complex than what remains today, I could see what she offered up.
A new whispering in my ears began to shift from mere chatter to a conversation overheard and a vision of an old man alongside two others stationed at wooden easels. Amongst the shady plane trees and Gary oak, he guided their hands to sketch and capture the scene in front of them.
I stepped forward to take a closer look, and a young woman stretched her neck around the closest easel to make sure I saw her.
A quiet wave.
A knowing, modest smile.
The old man waived a gentle finger at her and everyone returned to their work. Something pricking me on the shoulder forced me out of the vision and around staring back at the river.
An arched bridge.
A wild river.
Rugged hills and shifting light.
I caught a glimpse of the landscape they had been painting in the background.
By the time I turned back around, the group of painters had vanished from view, but not from my own knowing of who I’d had the chance to watch at work that day—Melzi, Salaí, and their Master. Who was their muse? What else had they learned to paint on that hill in the magical light of Amboise?
Just beyond it on the trail, it would seem others may have a bit of a sense as I dd that something truly remarkable took place there.
My guide pointed out that it is marked in plain sight, for those of us who know to use as a guide.
I nodded and acknowledged her gift, then suddenly stood.
My attention redirected itself by force, and I moved toward what appeared to be the remains of a moat or battlement at the top of the castle where I was offered another vision.
This time men and women fled a burning castle, but it was too late. The bodies piled up, filling the space, the screams and panic swarming my senses until my mind snapped back and I stood in the sunshine shaking.
It would take a week for me to understand the final message of that time at the top of the world with da Vinci.
My guide spoke in a solemn tone, offering up an explanation of what I’d seen.
So, there we were—the long-dead woman whose pronouncement shook me to the core and my trembling core.
Now that she’d offered to introduce me to the crew, I had to forgive her for so unabashedly revealing her death to me without my consent.
Apparently, when you are a novelist who’s come to tell their stories, those who’ve waited all of those centuries for you to get it together already know your storyline.
I knew what I wanted: to plot out what Elijah would find in the modern timeline of the novel when she made her way to Amboise. Streetscapes and entry points to the castle made it into the massive journal I’d imagined long before the journey would be an epic record of what showed up. I walked and walked the empty roadways, alleys, dark corners, and abandoned ancient doorways of town as if all other human activity was pushed in some alternative direction while my new friend showed me this path.
In my everyday life, my willingness to push through a half-open metal gate or get down on my hands and knees to see inside a partially sealed-off doorway almost guaranteed unpleasant, if not downright dangerous consequences.
In Amboise, it meant finding myself delivered into new realms of imagination and opportunities for crafting the stories I came to tell. This place, it seemed, welcomed those who sought its secrets. Those who might have otherwise dissented knew better than to silence the spirits that day.
Château Royal d’Amboise today is a mere ruin of the extravagant palace that towered above the banks of the Loire at the beginning of the 16th century. As I traced the base of the ramparts back father and father from the tower where I began, I stumbled across Le Choiseul, and extraordinary site, now a hotel meant to draw in the wealthy traveler. It instead drew me to its courtyard goddess, who sent me up into the hills behind the property to discover the first of several novel locations in the ruins of what I later discovered must have been the enormous halls of the main castle.
Deep inside the base of the tufa structures carved right out of the hillside, the stories called. What would this complex in stone reveal?
No signage or historical markers hampered my imagination as I stepped inside the gates of the lowest corridors. Nerves firing, I explored and they vibrated with the hum of wanting to be discovered.
Cells? Storage? Ancient homes? Something more? I followed the trail as it moved upward. Within minutes, I stood at the entrance to vast subterranean vaults known as Les Greniers de César. The sunbaked printout clumsily tacked to one of the old wooden doors told a version of what these carved-out silos might have been.
My liminal guide decided to download a whole different version for me.
Perched upon a bench near a cut in the stone for the better half of two hours, I waited for the visions to drop in, and they did so with expressive clarity.
My guide introduced me to those with whom I’d long sought to make the acquaintance. Up from the docks where the gabare boats of traders and cabanée boats of fisherman delivered goods, the king’s sister Marguerite made her way to what I deemed The Treasury with little notice from the menagerie dealing in salt, spices, wheat, and coin.
Here, in this place, she bargained for the security of a kingdom we now know nothing of, a kingdom she pledged to serve in the halls of Fontevraud long before she bore the name Queen, as her mother did, and a dozen generations of women before them—the Mother Blood of the Anjou.
Deep within the caverns of The Treasury, men such as da Vinci and Francesco Melzi greeted her upon arrival, and those who traveled at the queen’s side proved the most notable guests ever to have to be ushered onto the grounds of the royal residence in secret through the caves at the base of it.
The Treasury showed itself as a rich, effusive secondary story location where women such as Marguerite and Aesmeh bargained to usher in the return of a civilization thought wiped off the Earth nearly two-thousand years earlier. It showed itself as a place where men and women gathered to commit a worthy sort of treason.
Its existence and mysterious origins left me room for my own bargain, allowing me to imagine within the complex the potential for a passage leading to and from the castle existed. I needed it to serve as the means through which Elijah might discover that world for herself. The clarity with which this site settled in my mind as a novel location drove all sorts of other questions. Was the Loire navigable from places such as Saumur? What would boat transportation have looked like? So much more. I wanted confirmation that I should move ahead with including it, although I already knew I would.
As I made my way back down onto the grounds of Le Choiseul, the grove just beyond yet another Greek statue glistened in the afternoon light. Behind it, the remains of an old silo shown, and within it stood a cistern marked with a single patch of cyclamen.
For those familiar with plant lore, the cyclamen as a truly powerful protective flower which blooms in the cooler months and is affiliated with the Dark Mother Hecate. I found it everywhere in Amboise, particularly in location where evidence of the Sibylline rose up.
Confirmation. The Treasury was in.
My new friends weren’t even close to being done with me that day. We had one more stop at the very top of a hill overlooking the royal residence. it was there I discovered how the relationship between Melzi and Aesmeh blossomed, and what would lead us all to the true identity of the Mona Lisa.
I found myself staring into the remains of a place I didn’t know existed.
A grotesque, morbid sensation settled across my shoulders, then a pressure leaned in against my right arm and I stiffened.
“I died here,” a voice whispered.
Throughout that morning, while I bought roses and baguettes at Le Marché and began my winding procession through the cobblestone streets, the same voice drew me closer.
Having arrived in Amboise less than twenty-four hours earlier, my first walk through town led me to the base of the castle ramparts at Château Royale d’Amboise.
The moment I found myself at the locked gate leading across the small moat, I heard her again: “I died here.”
My mind fickered and scenes of a woman tossed from the tower above, crashing against the pavement, played out over and over. The water stains of rust or wear streaming down from the window tuned to blood and the air bristled with the scent of lilies and life violently exiting.
The woman who spoke pulled me back into her time and showed me, then nodded, took my hand, and asked me to remember.
“Do not leave me here again,” she said.
At that moment, I’d convinced myself I’d gone crazy, watched too much Outlander, had slipped into some delusional state brought on by jet lag and the ongoing series of serendipitous events leaving me without time to recover from the last.
Whatever it was, Amboise and its royal heritage had long called to me without me listening. In the works for years, The Woman On The Wall only ever had one major setting. This tiny town on the banks of the Loire River drove me right to its edge and there I stood, clear in every way that I returned to a place I’d known in not just one lifetime, but many.
“I died here.”
Did this woman speak of my death or her own? I will never truly know. However, she stayed with me for a long while, weaving me in and out of abandoned space, requesting that I listen and remember them, remember how I used to know them.
An unnatural urge to rip open the gates of passageways and throw myself into the spaces leading up into the castle took hold and I fought her stories, her words, the places she revealed to me.
I knew who spoke. I knew the voice of Aesmeh. I knew she needed me to know where her life played out. It was as if she’d waited five-hundred years for someone to finally hear her and not run.
Oh, how I wanted to run.
My own urge to get the hell out of there took over, and I released myself into the street where I wandered, grateful for the lack of interest that anyone else in Amboise seemed to have for those quiet, abandoned places which carried with them the deep resonance of stories much more difficult to hear than one of royal pageantry, art, and afternoons in the garden.
As my head cleared and the voice faded, I relished the accomplishment of breaking free when there she was.
I told myself it was just a window, one which I’m sure the owner had specially made with the gentle face of a striking ancient woman visible when the sun caught it just right. Maybe she appeared because someone thought it appropriate for this historic royal hamlet. Maybe, she wasn’t done with me.
Her eyes followed me as I moved up and down the row of houses until finally, I collapsed across the street from her and just listened.
“So,” she said. “Let me introduce you to everyone else.”
I’d tried desperately to curb my urges, yet preparation for France owned me.
My kids made it clear they wanted no more of this level of obsession.
“All you think about, all you talk about is France, mom,” my oldest daughter kept saying, deservedly irritated that she got little of my focus. “What are you going to do when you don’t have France anymore?”
“That’s not possible,” I would always reply.
Really, though, I worried.
For three months, I’d immersed myself in planning and research for the novel research to come. I spent three hours a day learning French, surfed French websites, made appointments with French historians, booked tours, packed twelve times, read every book I could. With two weeks to cram it all in, I had to make sure my focus proved laser-sharp, and I wouldn’t walk away from this experience wishing I’d gone and done something different.
I literally planned every moment of every day. Error, jet lag, language barrier, time—none could be a factor. I had sworn off the need to account for any of them.
Ken said I was the Fort Knox of travel planning. Everything right down to what would happen if I caught a cold had a solution in place or a detailed map and itinerary attached to it.
Then, the day before I left, in the middle of working on Woman On The Wall this popped up. Just a little note. Nothing profound. Nothing more than a reminder sliding in while I pounded away at the story of Elijah, the main character:
It hit me like a brick. What if no moment I’d so carefully mapped out worked out the way I planned? What if I went to France and found nothing? Or something totally different? Or hated it? Or everything went sideways on the first day and the rest of the trip was garbage? What if I couldn’t keep up with my schedule? What if I missed this or that? What would I possibly do?
This was the first solo research trip of my life, and I’d left no room in it to just experience anything, to see where a lead took me, or listen to the wind and follow it.
I could freak out, unable to control it all. Or, I told myself after recovering from the icky, cold sweat I broke into, I could go without any expectations and have faith that all of the work I put in to get there would lead me to experience France in a way in which stories simply blossomed, taking shape without being forced.
I promptly dumped my rigid itinerary in the trash, marked the few things that I could not miss, and hopped on the plane with the mindset that anything I faced in those next 14 days would be transformative.
I’ve tried to control nearly everything my whole life. It was time to just experience it all.
From that moment, I swear it was like the universe offered up its nod of approval, jacked me into the energy of place, and set me on a path to discovery that even I could never have imagined.
France took me in, opened its soul for me to be a part of, and left me a changed woman.
For the next several weeks, I’ll be posting the tales of magick, time travel, serendipity, and the great confluence of modern-day life alongside that of the Renaissance which defined my French sojourn, deeply reshaped the story being told in Woman On The Wall, and brought me to a place at the edge of the veil where I found far more than details for my novel.
I look forward to sharing this experience with all of you.
I’ve been circling around this concept of slow travel a lot lately.
It’s not shocking to anyone who has spent literally even one day with me that I am a bit of a doer. Chilling is not my thing.
I’ve got lists and then lists for the lists.
I survive on accomplishment alone.
It’s my insecurity, I get it.
To do is to have a purpose. To chill is to, well . . .
Yet, upon reflection, I’ve begun to understand how my urge to do, do, and then do some more is based almost entirely in the fear that I will somehow be thought of as less, miss out, that I only get one shot at things, and that everyone else is staring at me thinking I’m an idiot unless I am superwoman mounting the to-do list like the queen of everything.
I am taking myself to France in October to, well, chill.
See, it’s a problem.
I am taking myself to France in October to research The Woman On The Wall. For those of you who don’t know, I’m writing a novel about the true identity of the Mona Lisa that is half epistolary love story and half Indiana Jones-style thriller.
I know, in my head, I am going to Paris and Amboise to chill and get to know the places where the novel is set as well as possible in 14 days. I’m not going to play tourist.
Then, the other part of my head goes bananas. I have like a billion to-dos in Paris in my Google Maps. I can do 12 hours a day in the first two days I get off the plane, right?
This article killed all of my need to do Paris (in a good way), giving me permission to just wander through my quick 72 hours there.
Yes, me and La Gioconda are hooking up.
We’ve already texted.
She’s expecting me.
However, I have now basically just thrown my crazy to the wind and decided that everything else in Paris can just happen.
If you hold this Dazzling emerald Up to the sky, It will shine a billion Beautiful miracles Painted from the tears Of the Most High. Plucked from the lush gardens Of a yellowish-green paradise, Look inside this hypnotic gem And a kaleidoscope of Titillating, Soul-raising Sights and colors Will tease and seduce Your eyes and mind.
Tell me, sir. Have you ever heard A peacock sing? Hold your ear To this mystical stone And you will hear Sacred hymns flowing To the vibrations Of the perfumed Wind.”
This beautiful creation by poet Suzy Kassem pulls me back to it time and time again, as does the stunning brilliance of the peacock.
Peafowl, as they are often referred to, are ancient creatures steeped in the lore of nearly every recorded civilization on Earth. That wee detail proved enough for me to begin to notice the presence of peacocks as iconography as I researched the Renaissance for The Woman On The Wall. The discoveries I made sent me down a rabbit hole that refuses to spit me out the other side.
The peacock, it turns out, is a mysterious, subtle presence in an extraordinary amount of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Chinese, Persian, Hindu, and Pagan art throughout the ages. The Renaissance is no exception. If you examine the scenes of nearly any Madonna and child, religious gathering, ascension, angel visitation, even the Sistine Chapel, a peacock is likely to make a subtle, unobtrusive, yet significant appearance.
I posit that the true significance of this magnificent creature is much overshadowed by its reputation in modern culture as a showoff.
In fact, if we dipped back to the Renaissance or earlier periods in our trusty time machine and tried to make a case for the bombastic nature of this bird, most people would banish us back to the 21st century, horrified at such foolishness.
My suspicion is that, at some point, those who feared the deep symbolism and potential powerful hold such an animal might have over humanity made a story up about it so we’d all be like, “You arrogant peacock. I will strive in this pious life of mine to not be like you.”
It’s possible we ought to rethink such conditioning.
The peacock, since time immemorial, is a symbol of immortality and the all-seeing one. Once I found this out, I started to examine the potential connections between them and the oracular Sibyls of the ancient world.
This was a big moment for me because I’d long looked for an anima (not animal) connection to the collective unconscious as it related to the Sibylline. As oracles, their connection to dimensional realities and access to other realms had to have been the strongest out of all. Their connection to the animals who live between the worlds, or could cross over, made sense to me.
Without getting too Wikipedia, the whole immortality piece is said to have come about because the ancients believed that the peacock had flesh that did not decay after death.
It’s definitely oversimplified and vastly underexplored to state that early Christian paintings and mosaics use peacock imagery to denote the value of immortality. They even used peacock feathers can be used during lent as church decorations. Of course, the whole immortality gig is linked directly to Christ in that tradition. So, this makes sense.
However, my limited experience with research has proven that folklore and legend is rarely the sole reason for integrating it into art, and most definitely not the reason for including it in church ritual. Not to mention, the peacock is very much NOT a Christian symbol at its origin. Therefore, associating it as a symbol of Christ without taking the rest of history into consideration is dismissing thousands of years of storytelling and knowledge.
Let’s step way back in time:
The peacock’s origin is, as far as we know, India. Hindu mythology is packed with peacocks, and they were worshiped with exceptional reverence, associated with Sarasvatī.
In Egyptian, Greek, and Roman mythology, the peacock feathers were considered much like the evil eye. They were all-seeing. It’s no secret that Egyptians, in particular, had a jonze for immortality. Again, though, this leads my seeking mind to wonder where the peacock got its reputation as the immortal oracle.
Pythagoras wrote that the soul of Homer moved into a peacock.
Greek mythology declares the peacock created by Hera out of her watchman, Argus.
Christians call it their own as it was the creature that refused to eat the forbidden fruit at Eden and was granted immortality for such a pious act.
Islamic legend claims it was cast out of paradise. However, Ottoman iconography carries the bird on everything from mosaics to dishes.
In China, the bird was a symbol of the Ming Dynasty. The Chinese equated the peacock with divinity, rank, power, and beauty.
This led me to a fascinating fact that the peacock has the ability to eat poisonous snakes without harm. In India, Persia, and North Africa, this allowed for the title of protector as it became the defender of royal (or any for that matter) households.
It also shows up in 16th-century illuminated manuscripts and in front of the Vatican even today.
A necklace of Amethyst, peacock feathers and swallow feathers were a talisman to protect its wearer from sorcerers according to Pliny (my personal go-to while exploring the connections between alchemy, science, and the metaphysical). Meanwhile, the peacock’s blood could dispel evil spirits.
Alchemist thought the fan of the peacock (cauda pavonis) is associated with certain texts and images that are useful in turning base metals into gold.
So, as you can see, the peacock may have some cause to be a bit cocky. However, I believe it instead to be the keeper of secrets far deeper than the simple myths that exist surrounding this gorgeous creature.
The peacock plays a primary role in The Woman On The Wall. Stay tuned to learn more, as da Vinci was an enormous fan of the birds who still walk the grounds of Clos Luce today.
This past Tuesday marked 90 days until I leave for France.
“Three months!” most people say. “You must chill!”
“Only three months!” I tell them. “So much to do.”
Queue a wee bit of dramatic arc because, well . . .
Our heroine continues to plan her solitary sojourn to France, and realizes quickly she cannot do it on her own.
She turns to her friends who, in their 40s and 50s, do not suffer from the I-have-not-been-to-Europe affliction. In fact, many of them went in their 30s and only return to North America out of professional and familial obligation.
They clue her into the modern world.
The big thing they helped me realize this week is that the phone is my friend. I’ve never been a HEAVY phone user. My apps are limited to voice dictation for when the muse strikes and I left my notebook in my other bag, Podcasts on archeology, and Moon because I am an astro nerd and like to check out the phases of celestial bodies.
I was having a TERRIBLE time resolving issues around a day trip from Amboise to Saumur when my pal Erin fromErin at Large popped onto my Facebook feed and suggested Trainline.
Boom. I’d found my solution to more than Saumur and downloaded the app to store the tickets. That’s when I realized I could app my way to storing a whole lot of things without paper ticketing. I’m the sort of person who will have copies of documents in multiple places (ease, emergency, back-up). So, this was a big, obvious win for me.
A lovely friend of mine is traveling to France at the same time, and we’ve been trading bits and pieces on French life for the last little while.
Yesterday, she reminded me that one of our mutual loves – podcasts – would be a great way to brush up on traveling tips, learn more about the regions we are going to, and ignore people on transit during our daily commutes. 🙂
Finally, I’ve been contemplating how to best manage my whirlwind 48 hours in Paris. I first considered going full-on tourist, but realized that defeated the purpose of my trip to research Renaissance France, da Vinci, and the sentiment surrounding that time period.
A friend from my early years as a newspaper journalist recommended a private tour, something I hadn’t considered since I don’t usually roll that way. The person she recommended never got back to me, but I am not easily defeated once I’ve decided to explore a certain avenue.
Then, a browse through the indomitable Messy Nessy Chicsent me to City Unscripted out of the UK, where I began corresponding with a great crew about landing a guide who could show me more off-the-tourist-trail sites around Paris that pertain to my research goals.
They’ve been wonderful, and while I haven’t booked my tour yet because we’re not done planning, I’m looking forward to a mix of tourist and the unusual as a result.
This year marks the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s birth. In the last half a millennia, there is hardly another human who has seen as much praise heaped upon him. To say his body of work is admirable is a mild statement.
So, when I set my sights on writing a novel about the true identity of the Mona Lisa, I knew I could not miss a chance to travel to France this year to take in all of the fanfare.
For the last month, I’ve been cruising websites and consulting my lovely friend Celia who is a fabulous travel agent about this journey of a lifetime.
At first, I thought I might take my oldest daughter on the adventure. In the end, though, it looks like I will be traveling solo, and I’ve never been more excited.
I’ve busted out the Duolingo to make sure I can communicate with ease. Phrasebooks and maps are starting to pile up as well.
I’ve pulled out my Kate Mosse collection to re-read for inspiration.
Of course, I will be diving deep into the history, preservation, and stories surrounding Mona Lisa. A trip to the Louvre is definitely in the mix.
I’m most looking forward to a week in Amboise, France—especially Clos Lucé where da Vinci spent his final years.
Amboise is my kind of vacation town—a local open-air market for food, quaint house vacation rentals, the ability to walk everywhere, and evenings along the Loire River.
Of course, Chateau Amboise and the history of that magnificent place makes me swoon.