Published in The Upsider
There’s a myriad of reasons to visit the Loire – chateaux, cuisine and a slice of French provincial life. But it’s even better on a bike. Cycling allows you to stop at little villages, pause for a picnic of local wine and cheese and call out a cheery “bonjour” to passing cyclists.
Many of the Loire’s chateaux are not accessible by public transport but are handily located on bike trails. Cycling is an authentic way to experience France rather than in a car or tour and it is a great way to work off a croissant or two.
Just over an hour by fast train south of Paris, the Loire Cycling Route runs for 800km but is largely centred around the chateau region near the town of Tours. The terrain is mostly flat with some rolling hills, there are marked cycling trails along riverbanks or through woodland, making it perfect for anyone who can ride a bike.
There are plenty of travel outfits that deliver luggage to the next hotel and provide accommodation, bikes, maps and GPS tracks but we chose Inntravel for its charming auberges. Distances can be leisurely – around 30km a day with added rest days for sightseeing and bar-hopping.
Here are some highlights of what to expect from your personal Tour de France.
Food and wine
Known as the Garden of France, the Loire has a huge variety of produce and gastronomy is simple, concentrating on its fresh ingredients. There are no heavy sauces in this part of France and food is seasonal and, where possible, biodynamic. Dining out runs the gamut from Michelin Star restaurants to unpretentious bistros.
Regional specialities include rillettes de porc, a rustic charcuterie paste half-way between a terrine and pulled pork, only even more tender. Rabbit and duck are plentiful and tarte tatin, the famous French dessert comes from this region. Another dessert you will come across is strawberries poached in red wine or champagne.
And being France, no meal is complete without cheese. From local hero Sainte Maure de Touraine, a citrusy goat’s cheese rolled in black ash to creamy raw cow’s milk cheeses, French fromage is sure to be one of the highlights of your trip.
Local Loire wine focusses on slightly cooler climate wines of chenin blanc and some sauvignon blanc and the regional red is cabernet franc. A carafe of house wine is reliably good but if you want a more complex drop, look out for an AOC label. Rosé from the region is consistently delightful and perfect with a charcuterie plate.
Chateaux and castles
During the Renaissance, the Loire Valley became the favourite residence of the Kings of France. They built grand chateaux in gleaming local tufa limestone and as they were built during a mostly peaceful period there was no need for fortification. It also meant they could build their masterpieces with beauty in mind – by riverbanks or with ornamental lakes and with grandiose formal gardens.
Leonardo da Vinci and other Italian artists came to the area and the Italian influence is evident in many of the extravagant chateaux. It is particularly obvious at the moated Azay-le-Rideau, a Renaissance jewel, as described by writer Balzac who lived nearby. Villandry, another favourite, has some of France’s finest gardens and in the forest nearby is another chateau, Ussé, which is said to be the inspiration for the fairytale Sleeping Beauty.
The English rampaged through the Loire during the Middle Ages and remodelled Chinon Fortress, which has grey foreboding walls, watchtowers and dungeons. Once the French wrested it back, Joan of Arc famously visited here, which is commemorated with an impressive exhibition. Today the castle is discoverable by visitors via a cutting-edge interactive iPad.
There’s something about cycling that allows you to fall into the slipstream of everyday French village life. Slow living is what cycling in the Loire is all about and being on the bike allows you to easily dip in and out of villages. Park your bike in the square and go exploring or stop at a bar for a non-judgemental morning rosé and watch the world go by.
From the honeypot village of Azay-le-Rideau with its sinuous alleyways to the cycling hub of Fontevraud, bedecked with roses, to foodie hang Chinon, which is made for strolling, each town follows the time-honoured pattern of French life. Mornings are bustling (especially if it’s market day) as shops open and the intoxicating smell of fresh baguettes wafts through the air. It’s fun to join the queue, practice a little franglais and walk away nibbling at buttery croissants.
As the church bells strike midday everyone stops for the most sacred of French institutions – lunch. After a delicious three-course meal there is a lull before the village slowly reawakens in the late afternoon in time for l’heure de l’apéritif and dinner in a cobble-stoned courtyard.