The Loire Valley is one of France’s legendary regions, with scenery that appears to have been pulled straight from a fairytale. My journey to this world of sweeping landscapes, Renaissance chateaux and mouth-watering cuisine is a leisurely train ride from Paris. Dotted with lush vineyards, this valley is best appreciated from the saddle, so I’m embarking on a week-long bicycle tour of the region. Barely three hours after departing, the charming town of Montreuil-Bellay comes into view from my train window. This will be the starting point for my very own, and much less gruelling, Tour de France.
Day 1: Montreuil-Bellay
After a meal of French fare at the town’s La Grange à Dîme restaurant—the fouées, bread filled with beans and goat cheese, is the perfect strength-builder for my journey ahead—I spend my evening at the Hôtel Le Relais du Bellay, sipping a glass of wine from the cellar of nearby Château de Montreuil-Bellay. In the morning, I take a dip in the hotel pool, where I’m rewarded by striking views of some of the château’s 13 towers. I’m taking it easy on the first day of my cycling trip, but it won’t be too strenuous as I will only be pedalling for three to four hours a day.
Day 2: Montreuil-Bellay to Chinon
Barely an hour after I’ve set off to the north, the views of trees and farm fields give way to the sprawling vineyards of Saumur-Champigny, home to arguably the finest Cabernet Franc wines in the country. Saumur is fashion designer Coco Chanel’s birthplace. She was born in the town’s charity hospital for the poor, a far cry from the luxurious brand that still bears her name. While the hospital is gone, and no trace of the designer’s time here remains, Saumur is still attracting celebrities—rumour has it Mick Jagger is a fan.
About 10 kilometres south, Château de Brézé, a “château under a château,” is Europe’s largest underground fortress. I scramble down scuffed stone steps into a network of passageways several centuries old. Each turn reveals a quirky gem: France’s largest-ever medieval bakery, a winepress and the remains of a 17th-century silkworm farm. Above me are 28 hectares of organic vineyards that belong to the resident count, Comte de Colbert. He delights in offering guests a taste of his finest sparkling reds, such as the Clos Mazurique.
I point my wheels east toward Chinon. The road follows a steeper incline, but, charged with energy, I master the ascent. I stop at the Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud, a former monastery that, unusually for the time, was led by women from the 1100s to 1792. Now a cultural centre and hotel, it is the burial site of King Henry II of England, his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their son, Richard the Lionheart.
My uphill climb ends as I approach the medieval town of Chinon and the Hôtel de France, with its views of the historic Forteresse Royale de Chinon. I head to the café-lined Place du Général de Gaulle, where a sugary crepe becomes the instant antidote to my fatigue.
Day 3: Chinon to Azay-le-Rideau
History comes alive as I navigate the cobblestone streets of Chinon. It was here in the 1400s that Charles VII met Joan of Arc and gave her command of an army, which she used to help secure him the French throne.
I linger for a while at the town’s château, prettily perched above the Vienne river, before riding north. As Chinon fades in the distance, lush greenery and the gentle waves of the Indre river appear. I am soon staring at Château D’Ussé, a castle that is thought to have inspired the classic fairytale Sleeping Beauty—one of the château’s bedchambers even features a sleeping princess mannequin waiting for her prince charming to break her enchanted slumber.
Biking an hour-and-a-half farther, I dismount at the Château de Villandry. Inside, I look up at the awe-inspiring, geometric Hispano-Moorish ceiling made from 3,600 pieces of decorated wood, while outside, I discover a restored Renaissance garden. On the first Friday and Saturday of July and August, the gardens are lit with 2,000 candles, and there are also guided tours and a popular firework display.
Day 4: Azay-le-Rideau to Loches
My day begins at Château d’Azay-le-Rideau, which is located on an island in the middle of the Indre. The interior is not lavishly decorated like some of the others in the region, but it does feature an impressive collection of art. Best of all is a Salvador Dalí-esque room filled with spinning headless mannequins and automatons. A tour takes less than an hour—a little more if you wander the surrounding woods—so, it’s not long before I am bicycling through the rural farmland again.
Almost three hours later, I arrive in Loches. It was here, around the turn of the century, that two paintings believed to be by artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio were found in a church loft. The authenticity of the paintings is still in question, but if found to be genuine, they could each be worth in the region of US$80 million. Loches also boasts an old castle keep, a former royal residence and a market, held on Wednesdays and Saturdays, during which the streets fill with traders, and a resident accordion player provides the soundtrack to the bustling action. Large, colourful shawls and bouquets of flowers compete for the attention of shoppers, but the most tempting bargains are the edible ones, such as the melt-in-the-mouth goats’ cheese.
Day 5: Loches to Montrichard
After a morning spent cycling, I arrive at Château de Chenonceau, located just west of Montrichard. The ballroom—built by Catherine de’ Medici, the Italian-born wife of King Henry II of France—marked a strategic border during the Second World War. The door on one side of the room was the entrance to Vichy France, while the other led to Nazi-occupied France.
After an afternoon of leisurely exploration, I embark on my final leg of the day, pedalling alongside the picturesque Cher river to the historic town of Montrichard. After I arrive, I unwind at Le Bellevue hotel, with its stunning panoramic views of the river, and indulge in some traditional French fare at the onsite restaurant.
Day 6: Montrichard to Chambord
I take a detour east of Montrichard to Bourré and dismount at Cave des Roches, where, descending deep into an underground space, I am greeted by rows of pied bleu mushrooms sprouting from the limestone. This farm is home to 40 per cent of the world’s supply of this variety, which has a distinctive fragrance and an intense, earthy taste. I browse the farm’s galleries of rock sculptures before stopping for lunch nearby at Les 2 Caves, where a pâté-like delicacy known as rillettes makes a mouth-watering start to my meal.
A little more than two hours of cycling later, I arrive at Château de Chambord, arguably the largest in the Loire Valley. It boasts more than 400 rooms and 84 staircases— including a twin one shaped like a double helix thought to have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci. At the château (it helped inspire Disney’s film versions of Beauty and the Beast) there are horse-drawn carriage rides, a nature reserve and re-enactments of jousts during the reign of Francois I.
Day 7: Chambord to Amboise
I tickle my taste buds with breakfast at the Vignoble Tévenot winery, a little more than an hour southwest of the Château de Chambord, before I’m back on the road for my final day of cycling. It’s a slightly challenging uphill climb toward the town of Amboise, but I’m rewarded by one of the best views of the week, a panorama of the commanding Chateau d’Amboise against the Loire river. I am reminded of da Vinci, who made a long and arduous pilgrimage across the Alps by mule to reach this town, his Mona Lisa tucked in his saddlebag. He was invited to stay at Château du Clos Lucé by King Francis I and spent the last three years of his life there. Close by is a hotel in his name, Hôtel le Vinci Loire Valley, which seems the most fitting location to spend my final night in this storybook-like corner of France.
4 More Bike Journeys in France
The terrain of Bordeaux, France’s wine capital, is picturesque and often traffic-free. While steep routes are available, those seeking an easier ride will delight in the scenery—vineyards and villages. Besides wine-tasting, a trip to La Grande Maison de Bernard Magrez is a must. The hotel belongs to a wine magnate who owns more than 40 estates, and, as you’d expect, the Michelin-starred dining is incredible.
The Tour de France climb of Mont Ventoux is challenging for the average cyclist, but there are plenty of more leisurely routes. The region boasts idyllic weather and, in peak season, the scent of lavender fills the air. Cross the Roman-era bridge, Pont Julien, visit the ancient Palais des Papes in Avignon, and wander the streets of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, or Arles, which inspired the work of Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh.
With around 1,500 km of marked cycling routes, Brittany, on France’s northwest coast, is full of nature reserves, historic buildings, coastal views and lighthouses to discover. Cycling here is made easy with a vast and growing network of green ways known as voies vertes. These relatively flat paths crisscross this otherwise hilly peninsula and follow resurfaced railway tracks and canal towpaths.
Paris has introduced more bicycle lanes and car-free areas of the city in recent years. The city’s tourism site (parisinfo.com) suggests four routes to help visitors explore, including a classic Paris experience along the Seine river, a trail following the canal system, one along the Left Bank to the Bois de Boulogne, and an off-the-beaten-path option which follows the route of the Metro Line 2 subway.
[This story appears in the July 2019 edition of WestJet Magazine.]