A regal ride

Enjoying the finest French food and wine while admiring the regal palaces of the lovely Loire Valley makes for a perfect holiday, says Lara Dunn

Enjoying the finest French food and wine while admiring the regal palaces of the lovely Loire Valley makes for a perfect holiday, says Lara DunnLifting the last forkful of creamy goat’s cheese  to my lips, I’m reminded how great it is to be able to make the most of the superb food and drink on offer along the Loire � V�lo route. Cycle touring offers a great excuse for indulgence, using as many calories as it does, and there’s little to rival the feeling of sitting down to a good meal knowing you’ve truly earned it. Just as well, since I’ve discovered that the Loire Valley seemingly has as many local specialities as it does ch�teaux and it seems rather rude not to try at least most of them. After a Channel hop by ferry and a couple of train journeys, we arrived in Amboise safe in the knowledge that the accommodation we had booked both there and along the way would guarantee a good night’s sleep and the ability to freshen up. Our intention was to cycle part of the Loire � V�lo route between Amboise and Saumur and enjoy the cuisine along the way. Being on bikes prevented us from buying too much to take with us, providing us with the perfect justification for on-the-spot enjoyment of the area’s delicious food and wine.

Serenity of the riverThe short ride from Amboise railway station to the riverside was stunning; the shadows lengthening while a pair of hot air balloons gently drifted above the imposing walls of the ch�teau. Our brief glimpse of the Loire earlier that day hadn’t prepared us for the serenity of France’s longest river. Tree-lined banks gave way to the stately affluence of the town itself and within just a few tentative pedal strokes we’d arrived at our hotel, situated with magical views of both river and ch�teau. A wander around the town led to a memorable first meal with rather too much wine from the restaurant owners’ own vineyards and some delicious local sparkling ros� unlike anything I’d ever tasted before. Instead of leaving Amboise immediately the next day we decided to explore the town and take a short excursion by bike to Ch�teau de Chenonceau, a short distance away from the Loire on the River Cher. The 20-kilometre round trip is due to be signposted as an integral part of the Loire � V�lo trail in the next year, but for us required a bit of navigation, a map and a sense of adventure. It’s easy to understand Chenonceau’s popularity, given its fairy-tale turrets, the elegant sweep of the building as it crosses the river and the well-tended formal gardens. As well as having an attractive exterior, it’s a fully functioning museum inside; although we forewent the iPod audio guide in favour of our own tour of the rooms. I left envious of the huge kitchen filled with open ranges and copper cookware. The ch�teau has a chequered past, both distant and more recent, with drama throughout its history. During World War I the gallery area was used as a hospital ward. In World War II the ch�teau literally marked a crossing point for escape from Occupied France into the free Vichy Zone, on the other bank of the Cher, before the building was eventually captured by the Nazis. Back in Amboise we took in the town’s own majestic ch�teau. Sharing origins with many of the Loire Valley’s ch�teaux, it started out as a stronghold built in the 11th century by the notorious Foulques Nerra, the Count of Anjou, before becoming a favourite residence for a succession of French kings. The stunning views up and down the river were the highlight of what was a short visit, as was the intimate Chapel of Saint-Hubert with its memorial to Leonardo da Vinci who worked in Amboise for King Fran�ois I and whose remains are reputedly housed there. The parkland surrounding nearby Ch�teau du Clos Luc�, which is where da Vinci is purported to have lived during his time in Amboise, is filled with life-size models of the great man’s famous machines. It is currently being restored but would make an interesting diversion on any future tour.Cycling out of Amboise the following morning we were greeted by market stalls strung out along the banks of the river, selling everything from clothes and flowers to local cheeses, sausages and vegetables in abundance. Resisting the temptation to make our bags even heavier, we limited ourselves to buying only a strong sweet coffee at a market trader’s stall, accompanied by a melt-in-the-mouth pastry. We were glad of our abstinence when came upon a hill a little further along the route. I’d been under the impression that the Loire � V�lo is largely hill-free, and to have tackled this one with panniers brimming with local produce would have been hard.

Stunning cityVery soon we were up above the river, passing through fertile vineyard country. The miles rolled by without us seeing a single soul, but soon we came to Montlouis-sur-Loire, with its scenic views over the river and picture-perfect church. From here it was downhill all the way back to the river, which drew us towards Tours. This busy stretch of path was hidden from the main road above and edged with trees, offering views of tuffeau limestone cliffs, some complete with the troglodyte dwellings found across this area. A pair of nuns walking by reminded us of the proximity of La Ville-aux-Dames and the Abbaye de Marmoutier. Our trepidation built as we approached Tours. Amboise had been small and manageable on a bike, whereas Tours is a large city with a lot of traffic. Stopping close to the river on the main boulevard we regrouped with a not-so-swift omelette frites and a sneaky demi. Tours is a stunning city and well worth a return visit in its own right, but we had to press onwards with what was one of our biggest days of cycling. The trail through Tours was straightforward, avoiding the worst of the traffic. It was only as we passed into the outskirts that we briefly lost our way, although we quickly found ourselves again and headed out into the countryside. Soon we were reunited with the River Cher, travelling back towards the Loire. The trails were flat and well signposted and it was extremely easy to make good time so it wasn’t long before we were traversing open fields, watching hares running and passing a cyclist with a baguette tucked down his trousers! Savonni�res welcomed us with its collection of traditional flat-bottomed river barges – such a familiar sight on the Loire – then we passed the Grottes P�trifiantes, petrified caves with impressive crystal and stalactite formations and a subterranean lake, which would make an interesting stopping-off point. On reaching Villandry, we hit a stretch of cobbles that felt a million miles long, but were in reality just a few kilometres. It was a shaken and righteously tired pair of cyclists who arrived in Azay-le-Rideau. We decided to make Azay our base for a couple of days as it’s an attractive town, not far from many of the major sights. Our hotel was too good an opportunity to miss; a troglodyte dwelling built directly into the tuffeau cliff face. It was a truly beautiful location; so much so that it was hard to tear ourselves away from the terrace at sunset to head into town for dinner. It was here at the Restaurant C�t� Cour that the goat’s cheese, beetroot and apple entr�e that started off a wonderful meal made me so glad to be cycling. Just steps from the restaurant the floodlit ch�teau glowed. It was smaller and somehow more intimate than many of the main tourist honeypots.The next day we didn’t cover many kilometres, but saw some amazing sights. Over the course of a day, pedalling 47 kilometres or so, we visited the ch�teau at Langeais – an austere stronghold built by Foulques Nerra – conveniently located opposite a salon de th� with excellent coffee �clairs, then on to the Gallo-Roman Pillar at Cinq-Mars-la-Pile. This amazing edifice is tucked away from the road behind some houses and it’s one of the area’s hidden gems we were keen to visit. Dating from around the end of the second century, the function of this 30-odd metre brick-built tower is unknown but, thanks to careful conservation, it remains remarkably well preserved.

Full formal gloryCrossing back over the river we dipped down to the bank again for the ride to Villandry; this time to visit the ch�teau and gardens, for which we’d allowed ourselves the entire afternoon. Bought in 1906 by Dr Joachim Carvallo, great-grandfather of the present owners, the building was saved from demolition and the gardens slowly restored to their full formal glory, having been destroyed in the 19th century to make way for an English-style park. Changing with every season, the fully functioning kitchen gardens grow so much produce that it is given away at the gates. The grounds were a revelation – formal gardens at their absolute best. Back at Azay-le-Rideau we took a stroll around the ch�teau whose slightly wild, river-bounded grounds offer a distinct but not unpleasant counterpoint to the perfection of Villandry. From here, we could have cycled along the Indre � V�lo route to Loches, to visit the impressive donjon and ch�teau, but we decided to leave Azay-le-Rideau behind and head back towards the river. Iconic riverside cycling awaited at Br�h�mont, with barges moored at the banks and low limestone houses clustered along the main street. It was murky and raining but somehow this seemed to fit well with the view, giving an almost Impressionist cast to the scene. There was little traffic on the narrow road atop the levee as we pedalled towards Rigny-Uss� and its stunning Sleeping Beauty-style turreted architecture. Soon, we were back by the river, dipping in and out of trees with a good stretch of traffic-free voies vertes for us to enjoy on the ride between �le Saint-Martin and La Croix Rouge. The route briefly dips down towards the River Vienne, meandering through Chinon’s vineyards and passing the nuclear power station at Avoine, but soon we reclaimed the rural landscape once more, and Candes-Saint-Martin drifted damply into Montsoreau, where it was impossible not to notice the imposing ch�teau towering over the riverbank. Here, our rumbling stomachs led us to a simple caf� where we tucked into gammon steak and haricots verts. Although it was hardly haute cuisine, we enjoyed every bite.Warmed from the inside, we rode on below the walls of the ch�teau before starting to climb steadily away from the river, following an undulating trail through vineyards and countryside. It was still early when we cycled along the Rue des Moulins into Saumur, passing the ch�teau as we went. Settling into our elegantly walled hotel, we were looking forward to an evening out in this small but sophisticated city. Our trip was a wonderful way of enjoying the Loire Valley, appreciating it for the Unesco World Heritage site it so rightly is; rather than passing through it at speed and jumping off at various tourist attractions along the way. We enjoyed the fresh air and gentle but persistent exercise. We visited many wonderful places and those we didn’t manage to see will be an excuse to come back again... and again.FRANCOFILEGetting thereBrittany Ferries routes from Portsmouth to Caen or Saint-Malo are ideal for reaching the Loire Valley. Lara drove to Saumur from Caen, left the car there and took the train to Amboise and then cycled back to Saumur. Tel: 0871 244 0744 www.brittanyferries.com

Accueil V�loThe Acceuil V�lo programme has been designed to allow for easy exploration of the area by bike. Various accommodation options along the Loire have signed up to the programme, which requires compliance with a standard of service for cycle-orientated tourism. www.cycling-loire.com

WHERE TO EATChez Bruno40 Place Michel-Debr�37400 Amboise Tel: (Fr) 2 47 57 73 49

La Maison de Rabelais2 Place Pierre de Brosse37130 LangeaisTel (Fr) 2 47 96 82 20

WHERE TO STAYLe Manoir les Minimes34 Quai Charles Guinot37400 AmboiseTel: (Fr) 2 47 30 40 40 www.manoirlesminimes.com

Le Troglododo9 Chemin des Caves37190 Azay-le-RideauTel: (Fr) 2 47 45 31 25www.troglododo.fr

Ch�teau de Verri�res53 Rue d’Alsace49400 SaumurTel: (Fr) 2 41 38 05 15www.chateau-verrieres.com

PLACES TO VISITCh�teau de Chenonceau37150 Chenonceaux Tel: (Fr) 2 47 23 90 07www.chenonceau.com Ch�teau d’Amboise37403 AmboiseTel: (Fr) 2 47 57 00 98www.chateau-amboise.com

Chateau d’Uss�37420 Rigny-Uss�Tel: (Fr) 2 47 95 54 05www.chateaudusse.fr

TOURIST INFORMATIONOffice de Tourisme de Tours78-82 Rue Bernard Palissy37042 ToursTel: (Fr) 2 47 70 37 37www.ligeris.comwww.loirevalleytourism.com www.loire-chateaux.orgwww.chateauxavelo.comwww.touraineloirevalley.com

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