Think “France” and “bicycles” and the first thing that pops into your head is probably the Tour de France, the famous cycling race that winds its way around the country each year throughout the month of July. Covering thousands of miles and ascending multiple mountain peaks, it’s certainly not for the faint of heart.
The Tour de France doesn’t cut through the Loire Valley, but for those of you who would enjoy a more amateur ride amongst beautiful scenery, it’s a pretty appealing alternative to the fast pace of the Tour. Most well-known for its abundance of castles, or chateaux (every major city seems to have one), a cycling trip through the Loire Valley includes the best that France has to offer in one small region: history, culture, beauty and, of course, great food and wine.
My close friend, Amy, and I decided to take a trip to the Loire in celebration of a milestone birthday of hers in July 2009, and took it upon ourselves to map out our own route (a feat that was better achieved by her fluency in the French language rather than my sub-par high school level conversational skills–I’m working on it).
Through internet research, we discovered the company Loire a Velo, from whom we could rent bikes and follow our own itinerary (though they offer set itineraries, as well). The best part: they would handle luggage transfer for us to each of our accommodations, so we wouldn’t be carrying a week’s worth of clothes on our backs.
We decided to pick up the bikes in Tours, which we would reach by train from Paris, and end up in Blois, where we would return the bikes. Along the way we planned stops in Villandry, Azay-le-Rideau and Amboise, all towns which boasted a chateau to be seen.
The first day we planned to cover quite a bit of ground. After picking up our bikes in Tours, and a quick bout of apprehension as I struggled with lowering the seat on my bike so that I could fully reach the pedals, we were on our way to Villandry. It was a sunny day, with clear skies, and we were surrounded by vast fields of green. Yet, no other cyclers. Perhaps they were all following the Tour de France route?
Whatever the reason, we were happy to be in our own French paradise, cycling leisurely and stopping for photo opportunities along the way. We passed through the village of Savennieres, arriving in Villandry just in time for lunch and an early afternoon visit of our first chateau of the trip.
You might think that once you’ve seen a castle you’ve seen them all, but one of the most fascinating things about the chateaux we saw on our trip was the fact that they were all so pronouncedly different. The perfectly manicured gardens were what caught our eyes in Villandry, while we were captivated by the moat in Azay that surrounded the chateau entirely. In Amboise, it was the view from across the river of the chateau on the hilltop that was most striking, and in Blois the history, with each section of the chateau representing an architectural style of a different time period.
By the time we reached Azay on our first evening, and saw our first night’s accommodation, we wondered how we would ever drag ourselves back into town. Troglodelice was built single-handedly by owner, Philippe Sarazin, who had carved each of the two rooms out of a troglodyte cave (he was working on a third while we were there). When we saw our room, “La Chambre Oasis,” all we could think about was plopping down on that bed.
Yet, the siren of food called us and, knowing we were only in this part of the world for a short time, we made our way into town and to L’Aigle d’Or (The Golden Eagle), where we sat in the garden and enjoyed a local white with our freshly-prepared three-course meal–a well-earned reward after a full-day on bikes.
Mme. Sarazin’s breakfast of croissants, assorted breads and homemade pumpkin jam the next morning gave us the added fuel to continue, as we cycled back to Tours (stopping en route to picnic) and boarded a train to Amboise. I know, we cheated–but it was quite a far distance and we had limited time! We toured the chateau and dined that evening at Le Lion d’Or (The Golden Lion, “the golden something,” seems to be a very popular naming ritual out here) in a very upscale dining room in the town below the chateau.
On our third and last day, we cycled on to our final destination, Blois, stopping for a day of wine tasting in Vouvray. Sweaty and tired, we stumbled upon the wonderful Marc Bredif. Sensing our fatigue (we hadn’t stopped for lunch because we couldn’t find an open restaurant), our host brought us an array of cheeses along with the wines we tried–and bought, which made for an unbalanced ride as the bottles weighed down our bike bags during our last leg.
The whole trip we had been amazed at how clearly marked the bike paths had been; yet, as we cycled on to Blois, we found ourselves lost, as the path seemed to end abruptly–and start again a few hundred feet above us. Our solution? To walk our bikes up the grassy hill and plant ourselves smack down on the path. Likely not the correct way from point A to point B, but it worked for us. We arrived in Blois to return our bikes just as the skies opened and the rain began pouring down.
Overall, our journey was insignificant in distance and difficulty in comparison with the Tour de France, but I’d argue equal in quality–if not superior. Arguably the food and the wine at least.