Cycling in the Loire Valley
The Belle France guide to some holiday highlights
A cycling holiday? In the Loire Valley, where the roads are quiet and level? Staying in fabulous country hotels with amazing cuisine and some rather tasty wines? Wow…. Where do I sign?
Quite evidently, there’s very little not to like. The cycling is easy going: short, achievable daily distances along roads with little traffic and through terrain that is perhaps the flattest in all of France. This is no Tour de France challenge! Along the way there are countless sights: châteaux, colourful markets, empty rolling landscapes, meadows of wild flowers, fields of sunflowers and wheat. The holiday is punctuated by charming little hotels, mostly too small to be of interest to the big operators and purveyors of mass-market ‘bed stock’.
No, this is all something special – a heady, assault-on-the-senses cocktail where all the ingredients make up a combination that is just, well, perfect. In the case of the Loire Valley the whole really is greater than the sum of the parts. And what of the highlights, the special reasons for embarking on such a holiday? Well here are a few of our favourites that make the Loire Valley such a perennial winner.
Château de Chenonceau
This is pure magic. Grace and elegance personified, the famous arches straddle the river Cher which flows gently on to join the Loire. The history here is colourful (famous past residents include Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Medici) as are the immaculate gardens running alongside the river.
Unlike some ‘blockbuster’ châteaux, this is small-scale and digestible. You can take the tour without becoming befuddled with detail and history and then retire to the café for refreshment before continuing. Top Tip: if you have time, you can cycle down the track on the opposite side (the south side) of the river for a different view.
Château de Chambord
Speaking of ‘blockbuster’ châteaux, this is probably the largest of all. The grounds are about the same size as the whole of Paris. But, for us, that’s the point of Chambord: over the top magnificence on a grand scale.
There’s plenty to see, inside and out, and you may welcome the restaurants and cafés at the entrance, with views over the moat to the newly re-modelled formal gardens. There’s the famous dual staircase, with two entwined flights, reputedly to allow mistresses to come and go discretely. The little church set apart from the main chateau is charming and there are endless miles of trails and roads running through the park, some with elevated hides which you can scramble up and, with luck, spot wild boar and deer coming out to forage.
Lesser known villages
But the Loire Valley is not just about Big Names! The countless sleepy little villages that you cycle through all have their own unique charm and character. The white tufa stone houses line the streets and often there is barely a vehicle on the road.
Chitenay is picturesque, with the small central square housing the little church and elegant plane trees. Candé-sur-Beuvron is similarly low key, with a tumbling river running under the florally decorated bridge. And Fougères-sur-Bièvre, peacefully set amid tranquil countryside, comes complete with its own ‘boutique’ château and quaint little church.
Surrounded by rolling fields, these charming villages, and many more like them form a constant source of interest as you pedal along your way.
Yes there is a château, but we’re talking about the Garden Festival here. It runs from April to October and is very different to the likes of the Chelsea Flower Show or the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show.
This is more quirky, with amusing, playful elements and an appeal to pretty much anyone: the casual gardener, the non-gardener, the novice gardener, as well as children and the more serious gardener.
It’s no surprise but the cuisine is sensational throughout the Loire Valley. Not for nothing is it called the Garden of France, with fertile fields and smallholdings producing all manner of fine ingredients.
You only have to cycle a short distance to be surrounded by the abundant crops. Pale asparagus spears pop up over the spring months and autumn sees the orchards bearing their fruit – apples, greengages, cherries and famously the Anjou pears. Even the humble mushroom has a key role here, millions growing in the cool, dark caves around Saumur (there's even a mushroom museum!). Along with superb goat cheeses, fish and game, your evening menu choices will be a major decision each day.
The litany of wines from this region is seemingly endless with light, fruity reds, zingy whites and plenty more besides. Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé from the upper Loire, through the tasty reds of Chinon, Bourgueil in the Indre-et-Loire, to the wines of Saumur and Anjou downstream.
And don’t forget the simple charms of the humble pichet of house wine – often a great value juicy gamay. Holiday highlights can be very simple affairs.
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