We took the day off and spent a quiet and relaxing day in Ancenis and Oudon in the Vallée du Hâvre. Both are teeny tiny towns and designated Ville Fleurie (Flowering City), with medieval towers and châteaux. If you like French butter and forklifts, Paysan Breton’s beurre moulé doux et demi sel is packaged here, along with Toyota’s industrial equipment. Aside from taking in the view and strolling along the riverbanks or canoeing on the Hâvre, there is not much of anything to do, which is exactly what we needed…plus I even got to cycle in a skirt and straw hat. We are staying at bed and breakfast très charmant with yet another affable hostess. The always-smiling Delphine speaks in rapid, animated French, that somehow is easy to understand. She bakes homemade breads and cakes, tends a beautiful garden and has made us feel at home. Today we have a short (40 km) and scenic ride to Nantes to rendezvous with Nicola and check out the capital city of the Pays de la Loire, Jules Verne’s stomping ground, the castle and tower of the dukes of Brittany, and hopefully the giant marionettes of Royal de Luxe. À tout à l’heure…
Just a quick post tonight as I am trying not to spend all these lovely evenings blogging. We had a more sensible biking day today: only 45 km. We biked from Azay-le-Rideau to Chinon, with a 2-hours stopover at Château d’Ussé. This truly fairytale château, standing tall above the landscape of the Loire Valley is said to have inspired Charles Perrault to write Sleeping Beauty. (At the vey least it must have inspired Walt Disney to build the princess a castle in California.) The château is simply stunning, especially arriving by bike, just like it must have been for Prince Charmant arriving on horseback to save his beauty after a century of sleep. At the risk of using one too many superlatives, the castle is spectacular. The grounds and gardens are well kept, the chapel and its history spellbinding, and the caves and attics intriguing.
Sleeping Beauty’s Tower
However the way the rooms are staged is just a bit too cheesy, and oh, so French. I counted more than 40 mannequins, and I don’t mean the French kind that stroll down the haute couture runways. I’m talking old-time mannequins decked out in their finery, a few sultry glances and a few too many crazy grins. But in that French-way, it somehow manages to be just a little bit charming, and perfect for the under-10 set who are still hoping to grow up and be a princess.
From Ussé we rode our final 22 km to Chinon and her fortress, which apparently was also an inspiration for some very fine writers; maybe you’ve heard of them: Monty Python? And now after a few too many wine dégustations, I’m sitting on my balcony watching the Vienne River settle as the frogs croak and riot and one discrete beaver surveys the bank.
With a little extra sleep and a homemade breakfast in our tummies, we headed out for an unhurried day of châteaux-ing. My plan was to spend an easy 39 km in our saddles, stopping wherever our wheels fancied. It took Superman a little time to adjust to this plan, as an American, he likes to set a goal, and go, go, go.
When I suggested we stop a mere 10 km into the ride in the charming village of Savonnières, he was less than enthusiastic. That’s when I decided that our motto of the day (the trip?) would be: “What would the French girls do?” Obviously we stopped…although not for a coffee, and looked around. And so the day unfolded with numerous stops and a slow meander through the stunning gardens of Villandry.
We meandered so slowly, that we almost missed lunch, which set Superman’s heart aflutter and resulted in a surprising stop at l’Etape Gourmande. From then, we were goners, and the day became all about lunch. From lunch it was all downhill to Azay-le-Rideau, an attractive town with a handsome boutique hotel, but disappointingly, the château itself is under extensive renovation. While it looked like this on our first visit years ago: It looks like this today, and will, until 2017. My advice: Château de l’Islette, A-l-R’s little sister, and just 3 km away… We ended our day with a final 20 km ride and picnic on the riverbank of a picturesque hamlet called Bréhémont.
Yesterdays we followed the ‘pays des châteaux’ cycling tracks from Blois to Chaumont-sur-Loire where the impressive château oversees the happenings of the tiny village, then continued on to Amboise and visited her marvelous majestic château, then crossed through the uniform vineyards of Montiouis, and 78 km later, arrived in Tours just in the nick-of-time to get Kitcat on her train back to Paris, and we hoped on to London. (Mais malheureusement, the Chunnel was closed due to a strike, so it appears she is stuck in Paris for the day…although there are certainly worst places one could be marooned.)
In any case, the day was filled with blue skies, beautiful scenery, tranquil moments, unexpected hills, friendly packs of cyclists, and a wonderfully warm reception from our delightful host at la Maison aux couleurs—who smiled and laughed with us, despite our rusty, basic French.
The highlights for me were:
cycling with my free-wheeling, happy daughter who is always up for a challenge and even a few steep hills,
a lunch of crêpes and cidre,
a quick mother-daughter stroll through the château Royal d’Amboise,
a golden, thirst quenching beer in Tours,
a surprise meeting with Amy L. from Paris,
and watching the late afternoon sun light up the vineyards and sparkle on the water.
And now after eating too much ‘vrai’ pain perdu loving whipped up by our host, we are off to Azay le Rideau in the Indre Valley via Villandry.
For a Colorado girl accustom to always having to ride the hills, the Loire à Vélo is a gem of a bike trail. The 800km path spans two regions of France, the Centre and the Pays de la Loire, and connects six cities: Orléans, Blois, Tours, Saumur, Angers, Nantes. There are no hills, en fait, recreational and professional riders are faced with nothing more than minor “bumps” as they make their way to or from the Bay of Biscay. Hands down, it is one of the most enjoyable vélo paths in France. La Loire à Vélo was an enormous public works undertaking that took the better part of two decades and cost a whopping €52 million to develop and signpost. A favorite among the French and tourists alike, over 800,000 cyclists follow some part of the trail each year. Happily our family is a lucky addition to that statistic.
There is really no excuse not to give it a go, as the usually friendly (when not striking) folks at SNCF make it an extremely easy bicycle holiday by allowing you to take your bike with you on their Interloire-trains. Between Orléans and the bay there are over 20 train stations with quick access to the trail, which makes it very easy to cycle as far as you want and then hop the train back to where you started.
We have biked the Loire as day trips from Paris and as long weekends. I plan to celebrate the BIG 50 by biking the whole 500 miles in 2015. Even if you are not as ambitious as me, or don’t have your own bike, it still makes a super fun and undemanding afternoon outing from any of the cities listed above, because the French have made it super easy. If you only want to go for an hour or two, you can rent a bike for a few euros in most cities from their vélib or bike share programs. So even if you spend the morning visiting museums and lunching on the local cuisine, you can still hop on a bike (ladies, go ahead and bike in your dresses—the French are not the “gearheads” that Americans are), and enjoy some of the most beautiful landscapes in France…mais, bien sûr don’t forget your (chic) bicycle helmets.