A leisurely cycle round the Loire
We've had several enjoyable short trips to France in the last few years with me cycling and Dennis accompanying me on a 49cc scooter. However whenever we've tried to go for a fortnight or more something has gone badly wrong. The year before last Dennis' ancient Honda 90 gave up the ghost and had to be left in France while we returned on the train. Dennis' accident last year meant that another scooter was left in France and we again returned home on the train. Understandably Dennis has had enough of scooters so this year we took the car with my bike in the back. If we could return with all limbs in one piece and with the same vehicles we started with the trip would be considered a great success!
The idea was to have a holiday that we would both enjoy. Enough cycling to keep me happy but definitely a holiday, not a mile eating exercise! Neither of us had ever visited the Loire but I remembered being shown slides of impressive chateaux as an end of term treat during French lessons. Its a shame I don't remember much else from French lessons! I knew it was also noted for its well signposted cycle routes and for being part of Eurovelo 6 that runs from the Atlantic to the Black Sea. It was also not far to drive from the cheapest ferry crossing to Le Havre, making it the ideal choice.
I wasn't too sure about taking my bike in the car, I'd only done it once before, it felt like cheating. Taking the car on a camping trip meant that it was very tempting to keep adding things 'just in case' but with my bike filling most of the boot we couldn't carry much more than we had on the bikes!
We decided to start from Saumur, it was straightforward to get to and seemed an interesting town. It was also the starting point for ' Lonely Planet Cycling France' chateau explorer route which I intended to follow for the first few days. I can't say that I enjoyed the drive there, it seemed to go on forever. We had also arrived in a heatwave and were way over dressed. I was amazed to find myself sitting outside the tent at 10.00 pm wearing shorts, vest and flip-flops and still too hot!
We decided to stay for 2 nights in Saumur and spent the morning exploring the town but by the afternoon I was itching to get on my bike. I decided to cycle to the huge abbey at Montsoreau and meet Dennis there. Lonely Planet gave a detailed description of how to get there but I soon got fed up with reading the details and decided to choose my own route. This was how I ended up slogging up a steep hill on a very hot day while going in the wrong direction in an area famous for its flat, well marked, cycle routes! Still, I got there in the end and I had wanted to cycle a few more miles! This rather set the pattern for the whole trip, ignoring Lonely Planet and making the route up as we went along according to whatever took our fancy. It wasn't always the most logical route but we enjoyed it!
The following day we set off along the Loire before branching off to follow the river Vienne towards Chinon.
It was again very hot and I was having trouble with my eyes constantly watering and feeling very sore. I'm not sure if this was a form of hayfever or if it was just caused by the bright light but it was very unpleasant and constantly wiping my eyes with the back of my mitt only made things worse. Cycling with my eyes closed was most comfortable but rather impractical. By the time we reached Usse I'd had enough. We'd only covered 30 miles and it was still only early afternoon but I really couldn't go on. It was very unexpected and rather frustrating – I'd heard of stopping because of sore legs or saddle sores but not sore eyes! There was however a snag. The campsite was closed for refurbishment. I'd been looking forward to a shower but faced with a choice of looking for another campsite or staying on the pleasant grassy pitches here I decided to stay put. We had plenty of food and water and the nearby village had excellent public toilets. What more could you want? We were later joined by about a dozen motorhomes who obviously had the same idea.
Overnight thunder brought a welcome relief from the burning sun and I had no further eye trouble. We set off across the bridge opposite the magnificent chateau.
It was a beautiful morning with that lovely fresh, after the rain, smell. We were now back alongside the Loire, passing through small waterside villages with old boats moored.
This was delightful cycling and I was very glad that I hadn't pressed on this way yesterday when I would have been unable to enjoy it. Unbelievably, the next campsite we were intending to stay at was also closed for refurbishment! Unlike the last one which was almost finished this looked badly in need of refurbishment and we were quite happy to loop round to the outskirts of Tours where the campsite was large and almost empty. There were a few other cyclists staying there, all German or Dutch couples and all sporting full Ortlieb front and rear panniers with an enormous rack top bag as well. We took advantage of being on the outskirts of a town to enjoy a large take out pizza.
Next day we followed the well marked Loire a Velo route to the town of Amboise where we had lunch on a bench under the massive medieval walls. It was extremely pleasant cycling all the way to our intended campsite at Chaumond sur Loire where we found ourselves camped next to 2 old CTC stalwarts from north Devon.
We'd no sooner packed the tent the next morning when the heavens opened and it poured with rain for an hour or so. I had been about to set off, but decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and so settled down to another cup of tea under a shelter covering the sinks. It continued to rain on and off for the rest of the day as I followed the marked route through Blois. Blois was much bigger than I had realised and I was very glad of the cycle signs which led through little alleys and then under a horrendous roundabout. Dennis was left to work out his own route as we arranged to meet up again at Chambord, the largest chateau on the Loire.
As it was still raining we thought we would pay to wander round the interior for a while but it is most impressive from the outside, the inside being mainly full of hunting trophies. We'd had 2 campsites that were closed, the one we'd intended staying at tonight seemed to have vanished altogether. Unfortunately looking for it meant cycling along a road raised on an embankment which was both narrow and dead straight encouraging the traffic to travel at frightening speed. I could see a cycle path below me but the banks were too steep to get down to it. We eventually concluded that a canoe centre must once have been a campsite and pedalled off in search of another, mightily relieved to be back on safer roads. Fortunately we soon found a very pleasant site by the river and decided to stay 2 nights as we liked it so much.
We used this as a base to visit the splendid chateau of Cheverny. This meant retracing our steps past the chateau at Chambord but I was very happy to ride up its imposing wooded drive for a second time. Cheverny was the most attractive of all the chateaus we visited, elegant and pretty with a sumptuous interior.
As I said, our route wasn't always logical, and so the next day's route took us back to Chambord for the third time, past Cheverny for the second time and onto Chenonceux for yet another splendid chateau.
We were now heading back towards Saumur visitng the places we had missed on the way out. One of these was the medieval town of Loches on the banks of the river Indre.
Our final port of call was Azay le Rideau, a town on the river Cher that we had passed through briefly but hadn't seen much of as it was a Bank Holiday Sunday and horrendously busy. This time it was much quieter and the large wooded campsite by the river was my favourite of the trip. And, surprise, surprise, it also had a fine chateau!
We spent a leisurely 2 nights here before cycling back to Saumur through countryside that reminded me of an impressionist painting with its billowing clouds and distant trees. I'm afraid the telegraph wires rather spoil the effect in the photo.
It was a good feeling, cycling back into Saumur having finished the ride where I intended to for the first time in 3 years! It had been an excellent trip which we both enjoyed and was hopefully, the shape of things to come!