Loir in the limelight

The gardens of Château du Lude

The gardens of Château du Lude

The River Loire attracts huge crowds, but its quieter neighbour to the north has charms of its own, as Paul Bloomfield discovers on a cycling tour of Sarthe

The bridge at Asnières-sur-Vègre

The bridge at Asnières-sur-Vègre

I can’t say that I felt entirely at ease with Marie-Antoinette. There she was in the portrait, hair piled high, surrounded by the trappings of regal wealth and grandeur. Huge tapestries lined the walls of the room where I was standing; ceilings were decked in gilt patterns and vast fireplaces embossed with symbols of a mighty dynasty. And there I was, sporting unflatteringly tight Lycra shorts and an embarrassing case of helmet-hair. To say I felt out of place in Château du Lude was an understatement.

So it was with mixed feelings that I stepped outside, strapped on my helmet and straddled my bike. On one hand, I was itching to explore more of this magnificent palace that encompasses centuries of medieval, Italian and French Renaissance architecture; on the other, I felt much less self-conscious outdoors. The open road beckoned: the River Loir wouldn’t cycle itself.

Poppy fields surround the Manoir des Claies chambre d'hôtes

Poppy fields surround the Manoir des Claies chambre d'hôtes

The Loir without the ‘e’ is a shy sibling of the showier watercourse to the south that’s all châteaux and vineyards. More slender and less touristy, the Loir winds across the countryside some 50 kilometres north of its big sister, eventually merging with the River Sarthe before joining the Loire at Angers. True, it lacks the headline-grabbing attractions, but it does have castles and renowned wines, not to mention a succession of charming villages. And, as of this year, a cycling trail – the V47 Vallée du Loir à Vélo – offers the chance to trace the river along newly waymarked stretches.

It is part of a rapidly expanding network of cycle routes across the Pays de la Loire region encouraging gentle exploration of the Sarthe and Loir valleys. The potential for such routes was demonstrated by the Loire à Vélo, a trail completed in 2012 that snakes 800 kilometres along the river from Cuffy near Nevers to the coast at Saint-Nazaire. Like that trail, these new routes run along car-free voies vertes (green ways) or quiet roads that carry fewer than 1,500 vehicles a day.

The turreted Château de Verdelles near Asnières

The turreted Château de Verdelles near Asnières

My visit to Château du Lude was the midpoint of a two-day excursion through the Sarthe département trying a 100-kilometre stretch between the picture-postcard village of Asnières-sur-Vègre and La Chartre-sur-le-Loir. Asnières may be small, but its châteaux-per-head ratio must be among the highest in the land.

I spotted two castles proper – Château de Moulinvieux in the village and the enchantingly gothic, four-turreted Château de Verdelles just to the north-west – plus a number of stately manor houses. One of these, the Manoir des Claies, is now a chambre d’hôtes and had provided me with a suitably historic bed before I began my expedition.

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My first few kilometres out of Asnières on the V44 Sarthe à Vélo trail took me along undulating backroads between swaying poppy-speckled wheatfields; squint and it was like pedalling into a Monet. A brace of herons lifted off in languid flight as I passed – there’s some decent birdwatching to be had in these parts; and car-watching too. At the heart of Sarthe is Le Mans, which has connections with the automotive industry stretching back more than a century, well before the 24-hour race was launched in 1923. In this area, you are more likely to find visitors behind the wheel of a classic convertible than behind the handlebars of a bicycle and on this sunny Sunday, I passed several convoys of vintage vehicles. Some were open-top sports cars, others typical workaday vehicles – Renaults, Citroëns and Peugeots from the 1960s and 1970s, but still brimming with Gallic brio.

Cycling between Château-du-Loir and Marçon

Cycling between Château-du-Loir and Marçon

A morning’s south-easterly meander brought me to Malicorne-sur-Sarthe, a fairly typical small town that ticks off the basics: an 18th-century château; a plain but imposing 12th-century church and old mills by a weir, where I ate my picnic while watching kayakers in the waters. But most visitors don’t come for the castle or the kayaking. The town is famed for its ceramic heritage, stretching back more than 250 years, and specifically faience – tin-glazed earthenware such as maiolica.

I’ll admit that the prospect hadn’t fired my imagination. But the air-conditioned Espace Faïence lured me, which proved a good call – and not just for the cool air. Built around the kiln chimneys of an old factory, the museum is a showcase for regional artists. Most fascinating is a run-through of the history of the craft, tracing its development from local origins in the 18th century to decorative pieces depicting religious, agricultural and industrial themes. Once again I was reminded of the area’s passion for cars as I admired an array of colourful porcelain vehicles – there’s no escaping Le Mans’ automotive gravity, even in ceramics.

Château de Malicorne

Château de Malicorne

Head filled with glazes, metallic oxides and latticework techniques, I continued south, traversing pleasantly bucolic countryside with neat farmyards, hayfields, grazing cows and the occasional tumbledown cottage. This rural idyll was so enticing that La Flèche came as a shock, with its roundabouts and traffic lights. By far the largest town on my route, it is dominated by the Prytanée National Militaire. Originally the Château Neuf built by Françoise of Alençon in 1541, it became a Jesuit college (alma mater of the philosopher René Descartes) before Napoléon Bonaparte converted it to a school with military leanings. I peered through the huge, ornate gateway; with its intimidating walls and echoing courtyards, it retains the air of a mighty bastion even after centuries of alternative uses.

My itinerary took me through town to cross the River Loir alongside the hôtel de ville, part-housed in the 11th-century Château des Carmes; a more impressive town hall would be hard to find. Here I joined the V47, which begins as a voie verte converted from a disused railway line. If the path wasn’t immediately thrilling – through the town’s outskirts it shadows a busy highway, flanked by industrial sites – it is certainly well used; within the first ten minutes I counted more fellow cyclists than I had seen all day on the roads. After a few kilometres, the terrain became more varied. Foxgloves swayed alongside the path, while old ladies plucked berries from hedgerows. Later, the trail ducked into woods and skirted fields, tantalising me with occasional river views before spitting me out in Le Lude and the château where I was to have my encounter with Marie-Antoinette.

The village of La Chartre-sur-le-Loir

The village of La Chartre-sur-le-Loir

The Loire Valley’s most northerly château is an impressive blend of medieval, Renaissance and 18th-century decor, with a touch of arts and crafts neo-gothic. At its core is a square keep with four-metre-thick walls and four towers – which played an important part in the Hundred Years War. Later in the 15th century Jean de Daillon, Louis XI’s chamberlain, acquired the castle, and his descendants transformed it into a lavish Renaissance palace.

A tour through the state rooms, towers, library and kitchens is a time-travelling adventure through fashions and fads. Personal highlights included the 16th-century studiolo – a tiny prayer room exquisitely painted with scenes from the Bible and the works of the Italian poet Petrarch – and a vast 19th-century iron stove incorporating a bain-marie and a dozen ovens. Treasures that hint at the various owners’ royal connections include portraits of Marie-Antoinette painted when she was 15 (slender and lovely) and 37 (grey-haired and grey-faced in her prison cell), plus locks of her hair. Spotting a photograph of the British Queen Mother, who paid a visit during a châteaux cavalcade in the 1980s, I was prompted to restart my own ‘grand tour’.

I was joined on this second day by Didier Girard, a local cycling enthusiast who added some context and insight to proceedings, not to mention a GPS – handy at junctions on the rare occasions that the green waymarks were less visible. Unlike its equivalent in the Loire Valley, this route doesn’t stick closely to the river. At first that irked me, but I came to recognise the joys of experiencing varied aspects of the landscape.

We pedalled past the château’s back gate, through pine plantations and alongside wildfowl-specked lakes. At Vaas we picnicked in a riverside meadow, gazing past swifts and martins swooping over the Loir to the lavoirs (wash houses), in which women a century or so ago would pound the household laundry.

The truth-in-advertising brigade might have something to say about Château-du-Loir. True, the river runs through it – or at least licks its southern outskirts. But there’s no sign of a castle, and the cycle path doesn’t reveal any great delights, though we did pass intriguing troglodyte houses built into the rock. The temptation to detour was sometimes irresistible – particularly the haul to the little chapel of Sainte-Cécile, providing views of chateaux across billowing wheatfields.

As we passed the sailboats and swimmers on Lac des Varennes and approached Marçon, vineyards – until then conspicuous by their absence – appeared to patchwork the land. Just outside La Chartre, Didier suggested a stiff ascent to the Tour Jeanne d’Arc, where we looked over rows of vines striping the hillsides.

The renowned local white, Jasnières, is produced in a tiny AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) comprising just 65 hectares – the size of a single Bordeaux estate, but here representing some 15 domaines. The cave of Domaine Gigou is a three-minute pedal from central La Chartre, so Didier and I sped downhill to meet Ludovic Gigou, who obliged us with a tour and tasting.

“Jasnières is a very old appellation, dating from 1937,” he told us. “Because it has such good acidity, this wine keeps well – ten, 20, 30 years. In fact, sometimes we try bottles from my father’s 1970s vintages in blind tastings, and they’re still wonderfully fresh.”

Ludovic poured his 2011 Jus de Terre, made with chenin blanc grapes, and the reason for the name ‘Juice of the Earth’ became clear. “It has a good expression of the soil and a definite minerality,” he observed, “dry, but not aggressive.” In this case, a wine expert’s flowery description made perfect sense. It was slightly smoky, slightly aniseedy and very moreish.

As the sun dipped, I went over to my guesthouse with half a dozen bottles of Jasnières clanking in the saddlebags. What could be better? I reflected: a day that began in a castle and finished in a cave – perfect bookends to a vélo vignette of the Loir.

FRANCOFILE

GETTING THERE

By rail: Paul travelled to Le Mans from London via Paris through Voyages-sncf.com (tel: 0844 848 5848, http://uk.voyages-sncf.com). Return fares start at £89 standard class. Trains from Le Mans to Sablé-sur-Sarthe, at the western end of the Sarthe à Vélo cycle trail take less than half an hour. Bus no 16 from La Chartre-sur-le-Loir runs to Le Mans three times daily in 75 minutes (www.lestis72.com).

See holiday planner on page 21 for more details.

GETTING AROUND

Bike hire: Teractiv72 delivers and collects bikes to and from local railway stations and accommodation (tel: (Fr) 6 86 05 69 29, www.teractiv72.fr). Sarthe Développement offers a seven-day cycling package covering Paul’s route for €604 including accommodation, bike hire, baggage transport and route information (tel: (Fr) 2 72 88 18 74, www.sarthe-developpement.com).

WHERE TO STAY

Le Manoir des Claies

72430 Asnières-sur-Vègre

Tel: (Fr) 2 43 92 40 50

www.manoirdesclaies.fr

Refurbished 15th-century manor just outside Asnières-sur-Vègre, set in riverside gardens. Doubles €100 including breakfast.

WHERE TO EAT

Restaurant Auberge des Isles

8 Rue Des Ponts

72800 Le Lude

Tel: (Fr) 2 43 94 63 25

www.aubergedesiles-lelude.com

Simple restaurant overlooking the Loir serving high-quality regional fare. Mains from around €15; menus from €22.50.

Hôtel de France

20 Place de la République

72340 La Chartre-sur-le-Loir

Tel: (Fr) 2 43 44 40 16

www.lhoteldefrance.fr

Enjoy a cool pression or a kir at a pavement table in front of the ivy-clad façade of this art deco hotel. Restaurant mains from €16, menus €28 and €32.

WHERE TO VISIT

Malicorne Espace Faïence

Rue Victor Hugo

72270 Malicorne-sur-Sarthe

Tel: (Fr) 2 43 48 07 17

www.espacefaience.fr

Château du Lude

72800 Le Lude

Tel: (Fr) 2 43 94 60 09

www.lelude.com

Open Apr-Sep; interior accessible only on guided tours.

Vins Gigou

4 Rue des Caves

72340 La Chartre-sur-Le-Loir

Tel: (Fr) 2 43 44 48 72

www.gigou-jasnieres.com

TOURIST INFORMATION

Sarthe tourist board

Tel: (Fr) 2 43 40 22 50

www.tourisme-en-sarthe.com

Loir Valley tourist office

Tel: (Fr) 2 43 38 16 60

www.vallee-du-loir.com

Malicorne tourist office

Tel: (Fr) 2 43 94 74 75 45

www.valleedelasarthe.com/en