Picture this: it’s late Friday afternoon in Paris. We have finally arrived back in the City of Light after missing our train in Vernon (near Monet’s home at Giverny). The reason for the missed train was because we had been advised by some officious Frenchman, that we must pull our bikes apart, and bag them up, to be allowed to board the train. Sparks flew from both our spanners and our finger tips as we frantically disassembled the bikes but alas, the train doors slid shut and the train slowly pulled away from us and out of the station.
Now, newly arrived in Paris, we realised we only had 30 minutes to get from one side of Paris to the other, to connect with our Loire-bound train. It was peak hour on a hot Friday afternoon, and half the population of this grand city was on the move. Undeterred, we each heaved our bike bag on one shoulder, our panniers on the other, and ran!
We are pretty daggy travellers at the best of times but this experience took the cake (or gateaux?). ‘Excusez moi, excusez moi, pardonnez moi, pardonnez moi’ – dripping with sweat and none too clean, we dodged through the elegant crowds trying not to wipe them out with our bulging mountain bike bags. Tempers were fraying and time was ticking away as I swore at the ticketing machine, rued the lack of correct money, and sent black looks towards my unhelpful fellow cyclist.
Collapsing into our seats with two minutes to spare, we laughed at our close shave, all the time under the withering glare of our much classier fellow passengers. It didn’t help when we broke out the stinky cheese and bread to toast our luck and punctuality. For the locals, we were obviously far too loud and far too dishevelled to be allowed on public transport.
Lonely Planet’s Cycling France described this next stage of our cycling adventure as the ‘Château Explorer’. It was that in spades! Five days and 232.7km later, we were chock-full of Loire châteaux, abbeys, and gorgeous countryside.
Starting in Saumur, we rode in a roughly north-east direction, to finish in Blois. If you want a small taste of French history and architecture, then cycling is the perfect way to get it. Don’t be put off by the thought of all that exercise and exertion, as this ride is classified as ‘easy-moderate’, and much of it is on small country roads, dedicated bike paths or on top of the levee that edges the Loire River itself.
That is what is so good about France. They really ‘get’ cycling. Not only are they keen cyclists themselves – whole families are out cycling together on Sundays – the traffic is polite, and most drivers gave us a wide berth. I think there was only two instances in the whole 18 days of cycling when I caught my breath and thought “that was a bit close”.
Back to the Tour de France…
There were so many highlights in those five days and so many magnificent buildings (yes, beware of ABC = Another Bloody Chateaux), that I have sorted through them and will just share the top four here:
Troglodytes: The last thing I expected to see (perhaps that shows my ignorance) as we cycled through the Loire valley, was the number of homes carved into, and out of, the sides of cliffs. Apparently as the cliffs around Saumur were quarried for their limestone for ‘normal’ houses, the holes in the cliffs were then occupied and turned into residences. As another baby was born and the family grew, the occupants simply dug a little deeper into the cliff to excavate another room. Many of these homes are still occupied today and have been restored and renovated for modern living. It was funny to cycle past a paddock and see a lonely chimney poking up out of the ground, removing smoke and fumes from the residences deep below.
Fontevraud l’Abbaye Royale: It sounds clichéd but this complex is a ‘must-see’. More by good luck than good management, we arrived in time to join a tour of the site in English. It was simply fascinating to learn about the abbey’s establishment in 1101, and that the seat of power was always held by a woman! The priests were none too happy about this, and were a continual source of unrest and power struggles, but because the abbesses were frequently of noble or royal blood, they brought power and wealth to the role. And we know how money talks.
The abbey played an important part in the intricate web of English and French history, and is the final resting place of Richard the Lionheart, Henri Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Le Château de Villandry: If you have to pick and choose between châteaux to visit, then make sure Villandry is on your list. Villandry was built in 1536 by France’s first Minister of Finance. Needless to say, no expense was spared in its construction, and it has been remodelled and restored many times since then. To me, the real feature of this château are its extensive gardens. While Monet’s Gardens at Giverny were a riot of colour, Villandry’s gardens were a riot of colour AND order.
The Ornamental Gardens are themed around Tender Love, Passionate Love, Fickle Love, and Tragic Love. Each garden is pruned and sculpted to within an inch of its life to create a stunning visual effect. Best viewed from a balcony high up in the château, there are also spectacular views of the Water Garden, Herb Garden and Kitchen Garden. They all put my own brown thumb (as opposed to a gardening green thumb) to shame.
Chenonceau Château: Yet another splendid architectural feat with a rich and colourful history. King Henri II gave this castle to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, but on his death in 1559 the Queen, Catherine de Medicis, snatched it back. Hell hath no fury and all that. These women were far from token females, and both enhanced the estate by increasing its size, grandeur and profitability. Built across the River Cher, the castle played an important role in both WWI, as a hospital, and WWII as a vital link (across the actual river) between the Free Zone and the Occupied Zone.
Our Loire Valley tour also included visits to châteaux at Saumur, Chinon, Usse and Langeavis. We rode through picturesque countryside that was delicately sprinkled with wildflowers – great swathes of pink, purple and white. We passed run down farm houses, prosperous country estates and more wine ‘caves’ than I would have believed possible.
Yes, there was the inevitable ‘moderate’ hill to cycle up and questionable duck and geese farms force-feeding their livestock, but those small negatives were far outweighed by the many superb bike paths alongside canals and through shadowy forests. Before we knew it we were cycling into Blois, saying au revoir to the Loire Valley, and readying ourselves and bikes for our transfer to Burgundy.
Don’t miss this experience. It is every bit as beautiful as the tourism brochures make out and almost as effortless.
Have I tempted you yet?
What: Using the Lonely Planet Cycling France book as our guide, we selected a number of rides that would fit the time we had available, and made logistical sense, using Paris as the hub in a hub/spoke model. We ate simply from local markets and patisseries and stayed in 1-2 star hotels. L’Abbaye charges €11 per adult and is open most days except for closing most of January. Châteaux Villandry charges €10.50 and is open seven days, with extended hours in Summer months, however closes most of January. Châteaux Chenonceau is open seven days, all year and charges €13 per adult.
Where: Loire Valley, France.
When: We visited in Autumn, September 2005. On the whole, the weather was kind and just perfect for cycling. Cool mornings and warm, dry days.
Why: Cycling is the best way to get the sights, smells and sounds of a country. It was also a nice, but weird, way to celebrate a big ‘0’ birthday. And it enables you to partake in copious amounts of French delicacies because you cycle off the calories the next day.
How: We took our own bicycles from Australia – boxed for the plane and then bagged in a purpose-made cycle bag for the trains. Select trains will carry ‘whole’ bicycles.
Who: Myself, and The Brave Man*.
Related Posts: For the first part of our French cycling adventure, see my post about cycling and culture.
Related Blogs: For information about cycling in France generally as well as the Loire Valley, have a look at this handy blog: http://www.freewheelingfrance.com/blog/
*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!