Featured in the April/May 2018 issue of Canadian Cycling Magazine
When I left Toronto last June for a six-day cycling trip in the Loire Valley, I was feeling run down from work and battling a cold. But when I arrived in France, I miraculously started to feel better.
Cycling the Loire Valley is like entering into a kaleidoscope of colour. You pass bright shivering fields of orange poppies, sail along paths hugging the deep blue Loire River, through fields of oats, barley, corn and sunflowers, and past the pale warm yellow of limestone buildings. And as you bike, the Loire River is always at your side: at times hidden by green forest or brush, but as Olivier Bouchereau of the Angers Loire Tourist Office says, “You’re never far away.”
We chose to cycle in the Loire Valley not just because of its beauty, but because of its well-executed network of bike trails that makes it easy to plan a self-guided trip. La Loire à Vélo cycling route has 800 km of clearly sign-posted routes through the Pays de la Loire and Loire Valley—about 1,000 km if you include additional loops. The route extends from Saint-Nazaire in the west to as far as Nevers in the east, and forms part of the EuroVelo 6 route—where you can cycle from the Atlantic seaboard to the Black Sea.
At times you on a designated cycling path, at other times sharing the road with cars. Sometimes the path is smooth cement for fast pedalling; other times you’re cycling on a road that turns into cobblestone, or a path that becomes rough gravel or a country road that dips down through vineyards. Opt for wider tires to handle the varied terrain.
For more route options, you can find ideas at the Loire a Velo website. You can also download the OpenRunner app to find more challenging itineraries, or consider ancillary loops (into the vineyards, for example), where you can build up speed on routes mainly south of the Loire, said Bouchereau. Or you can crib a few ideas form this year’s Tour de France, which starts in the Pays de la Loire region on July 7. Stage 1, from Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile to Fontenay-le-Comte, is mostly along the sea. The second stage is more inland from Mouilleron-Saint-Germain to La Roche-sur-Yon.
As well as an organized network of trails, the Loire a Vélo also has about 500 accommodations within 5 km of the route—everything from two- to four-star hotels, to campsites and gites where you can safely store your bike and have access to bike repair equipment if you need it.. You can also have your baggage delivered from one hotel to the next as you travel, as we did, with never a glitch.
With so many different itineraries and routes to choose from, a trip to the Loire Valley can take many different shapes. Over several days, the path we chose was one that combined the three C’s—cycling, castles and chilled rosé.
Our trip began with a direct flight to Nantes. From there, we drove a little more than an hour to B?huard, where we would start our cycling trip. After a long overnight flight, it felt a little strange to be enjoying lunch seated outside on wooden tables at a restaurant, La Croisette, on an island in the Loire.
We then cycled a short 17 km travelling through the savannières vineyards, and following the Maine river to Angers—a city of 150,000 that straddles the river Maine with an impressive 13th-century castle, and little traffic.
The next morning, when we left our hotel at 8:30 am, the air was still cool. After a short cycle, we arrives at a little river with a car submerged in the water, and handsome firemen in wet suits, laughing and shouting “Vive la France.” They motioned for us to cross the river in the small metal barge that was moored next to the shore. Wondering if this was a joke—but having no other option—we tentatively board with our bikes, pull ourselves across with the metal chain attached to the opposite shore. From there, we ascend a small hill where the path continued. The firemen were right.
We passed large, open fields. There were also times when the trees formed arches over our heads and mottled light casts shadows on the pavement under our wheels. In the last 20 kms, the path was hillier but we gathered more speed on quiet roads. Throughout, birds sing and the breeze was cool while the air is warm.
We arrives in Saumur for a late lunch at La Table de Fouées, a traditional troglodytic restaurant. You can eat in a cave, although we chose the outdoor terrasse and enjoyed fouées, baked bread cooked in a wood-fired oven with rillettes, white beans and cheese.
Then we cycled on “vintage bikes” (which I noted rather disconcertingly, looked remarkably like the ones I rode as a child) through the underground wine cellars at Bouvet-Ladubay. There we learnt about their process of making sparkling wines or “brut de Loire,” for which the region of Saumur is known.
The next morning, we rode through the town’s Saturday market and 18 km from Saumur to Fontevraud, most of it an easy ride past villages built into the limestone banks .The final 4 km were uphill. In 33 C heat, we were happy to arrive at the l’Abbaye de Fontevraud.
The abbey is the largest preserved monastic site in Europe, which—since the 12th century—has had many incarnations, from four monasteries to a prison to a four-star hotel (where you can stay as part of the Loire a Velo accommodations) and also a cultural centre, with an active artist-in-residence program.
The next part of our trip is to Savigny-en-Veron. We took what we are told was a short cut, which has us travelling slowly down a very bumpy road, until we hit a quiet country road through a tunnel of trees, which then opened up on either side to fields of poppies.
We stopped for a beer next to the river in Brehemont, and then road the last leg to Langeais. Probably my favourite town on the trip, Langeais is a small quiet town with cobblestone streets where our charming guest house L’Ange Est Reveur looked out on an actual castle next door. I loved Langeais for its gardens, flowers, cafés and windy roads, and for the Michelin-star restaurant Au Coin des Halles where we ate in a back garden terrasse that evening.
The next morning, after a delicious breakfast of homemade yogurt, bread and jams at our bed and breakfast, we were back on the road. We road a quick 11 km to Chateau de Villandry along quiet roads before meeting the chateau owner Henri Carvallo. We then climbed to the top of the chateau to look out on the beautiful Renaissance kitchen gardens—their geometrical patterns set out like a chessboard.
We then rode to Tours, in the company of both serious roadies and families. Once in Tours, we discovered a big metropolitan city, so different than the quiet villages we had been biking through.
After lunch by the water at the Guinguette of Tours, an open air cafe, we passed through Montious-sur-Loire, where we doused our heads under some fountains to cool down on our way to Amboise. Once in Amboise, we checked into our hotel and then met up with a group on the shore of the Loire river for a boat tour aboard a “toue,” a traditional wooden rowing boat with a flat bottom and a square sail and mast.
For a short two-hour trip, it was fun to be on the river, rather than skirting it by bike, listening to stories of how this waterway was once a major artery for trade, carrying spices, wine and stone long before bridges and train existed.
On our final day, we did a loop that began and ended in Amboise, visiting Chaumont-sur-Loire in the morning and then Chenonceau in the afternoon, with about a 25-kilometre ride between each stop. The first leg, from Amboise to Chaumont-sur-Loire, is a relatively flat ride through vineyards, with a view of the Loire river and some cave houses. Once at the Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire, we wandered through many of their permanent gardens and ones from the famous International Garden Festival, based on the 2017 theme of Flower Power—26 gardens created by landscape architects, designers and artists from all over the globe. We got to admire a rich panoply of colour, glass, mirror and water, incorporated into nature.
Then it was back on the bikes. The best part of the ride from Chaumont-sur-Loire to Chenonceau was travelling along the river Cher with a view of the Château de Chenonceau, and the boats driving under the arches of the castle. It was perhaps fitting that this final stop on our trip was to see a chateau known as the “ladies’ castle” (in reference to the six strong women who influenced its development), as our trip had been a rich bonding experience between myself and two other women writer friends.
How to get there
From May 8 to October 11, Air Transat runs two direct flights a week from both Montreal and Toronto to Nantes. Air Transat also offers six cycling tours in Europe, one among the castles of the Loire for both amateur and seasoned cyclists. Transat’s packages include round-trip airfare, baggage transportation, breakfasts, three or four-star accommodation, itineraries to .gpx files and maps. More information is available at transat.com
La Loire a Velo (cycling-loire.com) is a rich resource for cyclo-tourism in this region. The organization’s website has information on routes, places to stay and places to eat. You can also arrange for luggage transfers and hire guides.