Described as the last major wild river in Western Europe and flanked by historic cities, vineyards and more chateau per square inch then just about anywhere on the planet, it is fair to say that I was excited at the prospect of following the Loire on two wheels for the next day or so.
We were convinced, by the highly amicable owner of the old coaching house we had hit the hay in, to aim for the historic city of Blois, some 120 odd km up the river in a north-easterly direction. Ever the friend of the cyclist (after all, the French invented bikes and cycle tours), we were told that a special cycle path ran the entire length of our proposed journey along the banks of the Loire. We shovelled down a huge breakfast of pastries covered in a dozen different types of home-made jam – the owner had a curious confiture obsession – slapped on the Vaseline, pulled on the Lycra, put already slightly sore bums on the saddle and pushed off.
It was great to ride back through the old town in the daylight, taking in the numerous medieval buildings, central square and church. Chinon is a very impressive town, combining beauty and historic resonance. It even has an outdoor lift fitted out for bikes to take you from the lower town to the upper town. Taking advantage, we were soon peddling up the steep winding track up to the chateau gate. A quick peer inside the mighty fortifications, before pushing on and over the crest of the ridge and onto a long, straight, fast downhill track out of town.
We knew that if we headed pretty much due north we couldn’t miss the Loire. After about 10km through increasingly rural and pretty countryside, we did just that. First came the lush water meadows in the river’s flood plain, then the side streams, then a great dyke hemming in the mighty flow. Built to fend off the periodic flooding of the Loire, such dykes run for much of its length, with this one just the right height and width to combine a bike path and stunning views over the river.
We followed this idyllic track without diversion all the way to the city of Tour. It was a fantastic half day, with the landscape switching between riverside woodland and wide open countryside ripe for chateau spotting. We must have seen half a dozen in that morning alone, with the shere scale of Chateau de Villandry standing out. French kings made the Loire valley their retreat from Paris and the riches of the nobility followed, littering the landscape with one parapetted ego-boost after another.
For all that man-made grandeur, nothing could beat the river. Deep green-brown and rippling, long sections of wide unity were intermittently broken up by small islands. The former drew the eye to the far shore and green hills beyond, the latter to the fast flowing current and resident wildlife – we must have seen a dozen herons busy fishing the waters.
It was on one of the more seemingly rustic sections that we were surprised to come across a small skate park next to the bank. We had to give it a go. What could possibly go wrong when tackling a quarter pipe with pannier loaded road bikes…?
Queue inevitable bike flip, crash and compulsive laughter fit. While Dave busily made sure his moving parts still worked, I had to crouch down in hysterics.
Fortunately Dave suffered nothing worse than a bruise and a minor life lesson and we were soon back down on the bikes, keen to reach Tour.
By the time we reached the outskirts of the city, we were blooming starving. Four hours on a bike doesn’t half bring your stomach’s needs to the fore and this was not helped by some serious loss of bearings amongst the very average looking new bit of the town. Unhelpfully, the magical Loire cycle path signs disappeared to be replaced by multiple signs pointing in conflicting directions with no clear indication of where they were going.
We resorted to questioning the locals in my best francais (“ou est le centre de ville?” is about as the limit of my skills) and eventually found ourselves in the old city. Full of wide tree lined boulevards and imposing civic buildings, Tours has some presence. We were distracted from the setting by a full blown sirens-wailing, police-cordoned, fire-engine accompanied crash. From what I could work out through the crowds of on-lookers, a car had smashed into a tram, knocking it off its tracks. Fortunately I don’t think anyone was seriously hurt.
We refuelled with a ginormous lunch, accompanied by a stereotypically rude waiter and polished off with strong beer and stronger coffee. Moving off very slowly, we meandered around town a little, eventually finding our way to Cathedral. I had heard it was impressive, but was blown away by its scale and intricacy. I ventured in and was lost from the exploits of the day strolling as quietly as possible (hard with clips) around the vast interior. I am not religious, but still regularly find peace in these places. They were designed to be other worldly and remain so, nestled in amongst the modern metropolis.
BLOIS BY SUNDOWN
Dave snapped me out of my cathedral musings with a kick up the arse. Back on the bikes, we peddled back to the river and followed it all the way out of the city. As always, we were lagging behind where we should be, having 60 plus km to go before reaching Blois. It was touch and go with the light, so we powered along the river side road all the way to Amboise without a halt.
Surprise, surprise, this town had another massive castle, surrounded by a tightly enveloped medieval town. A perfect spot for a beer. So perfect in fact that everyone else had the same idea. Not being able to find a table, we pushed on beerless, passing under the mighty castle walls before before criss-crossing the sharp hill which formed a large rampart for the town.
Pretending to stop to catch the view – I needed a break from the hill – I accidentally caught one of best views of the trip. Away from the river, the land dropped and then rose sharply by way of a rich green valley, littered with old farms and villages. From the base of the valley, fine mist rose until scythed away by slanting late afternoon light. Fantastic.
It was quickly apparent that we had lost the cycle path. Instead of going back, we took a small lane through the fields and spent the next 15km or so pedalling up and down the small hills of the undulating countryside. Breaking back on to the river, we finally found our spot for a beer, Chaumont-sue-Loire. Grabbing a couple of tinnies, we parked up on a bench, facing downstream (incidentally away from the now two-a-penny chateau of the village). The sun was nearing the end of its day, emitting a sultry red light. This reflected off the river, broken up by the sails of an old river boat and a low bank in the middle of the stream strewn with hundreds of white birds.
We needed to get a move on. We had 30 minutes light left at best and we both felt a bit of a chill as the temperature dropped – Lycra has its drawbacks. Back on our bikes, the road took us fast and direct along the river all the way to Blois.
It was twilight when we arrived. The medieval city was strewn along the far bank, its lights wrestling with the last red rays and deepening greys for domination of the sky. We crossed the bridge and our trip down the Loire was at its end. Paris lay due north.