“…I think a great deal of happiness is given to men who are born where good wines are grown” -Da Vinci (while living in the Loire Valley).
After just about a month in Croatia (3 weeks of cycling and a week of kayaking), we moved on to France to spend some time with good wines (and great cheese and bread) as well as to cycle a bit. We started a 5-day, self-guided trip through different villages with a goal to ensure we are in cycling shape for the Tour de France (or at least got a little fitter – The Loire is not very hilly).
We had a short and direct flight from Split, Croatia to Paris where we hopped on a train to Amboise in the Loire Valley. The Split airport was the worst one that we have encountered in our roughly 9 months of travel. It is overwhelmed by travelers and flights and offers little (very little) infrastructure. Huge lines, not enough seats, one option for eating (I think, in the business, they call it a “CF”). They also have an interesting model there where airlines do not manage the check-in or baggage. Given the popularity of Croatia, hopefully expansion plans are in the works for the Split airport.
Due to time schedules and the significantly decreased number of trains from Paris to Amboise on Saturdays, we originally booked a car and were prepared for a 3 hour drive but our flight was delayed and by the time we arrived, it made much more sense to hop on a few trains to get there. Despite 4 transfers and a couple metro stops, it was not a bad trip. The European train system is impressive and is a great way to travel.
The train station was an easy 1 km to the town center and our hotel, Le Pavillon de Lys. It was about 8pm by the time we arrived but it felt like mid-day. The sun was out. Balloons were being launched. It was a perfect 75 degrees. The town is a fantastic spot for a base to explore the Loire Valley. It sits along the river in the shadows of its castle, Chateau d’Amboise, the grand 15th-century residence of King Charles VIII.
Cycling in the Loire is great with plenty of trails and marked routes throughout the valley. Our plan was to spend a week cycling through smaller towns and villages and get our legs in shape from some bigger rides in the coming weeks. After a couple cloudy days, the weather improved quite a bit and we had sun and beautiful temperatures. The weather combined with the well marked routes attracted quite a few cyclists to the areas. Tourists, bicycle campers, roadies and commuters crowed the bike lanes.
Our first ride took us the to the Chateau de Chenonceau, which is quite a well known chateau dating back to the 11th century. Its unique design spans a river and has a fascinating history. During WWI, it was used as a hospital ward and during WWII, it was a a means of escaping from the German occupied zone on one side of the River Cher to the “free” zone on the opposite bank. The grounds and gardens were as stunning as the castle itself. (Susan found a great read, The Nightingale, set during WWII and inthe Loire Valley with heroic women as the lead characters. More on this book in another post).
Back in Amboise, we had an opportunity to visit a unique winery, Les Caves Duhard, which does not grow grapes or even buy them. They buy juice and blend. And their marketing angle, in the massively competitive market that is The Loire, is aging wine. The AOC’s are quite restrictive in the region and almost all the wine is made with either the white Chenin Blanc or red Cabernet Franc grapes.
Their facilities are housed in a limestone cave – caves that are quite common throughout the Valley. Originally used to mine limestone for the chateaus, castle and home building, most of the larger caves are now used for storing wine or growing mushrooms. The temperature and humidity offer the perfect conditions for both. As a result, they have wine dating back to just after the war and lots of wine available from the sixties onward. Interestingly, most of the wine is white. Given the proper conditions and good grapes, white wines can hang around for decades.
Amboise, situated on the Loire River, is a classic French village with a stunning chateau and charming French architecture. Given the proximity to wineries, bike routes and other chateaus in the region (especially Chateau Chenonceau), it was a great way to kick off our tour of the Loire Valley.
On this trip, we used yet another good biking company, Discover France. We had used Discover France in the past but some time has past since we last used this company. The value they add is not only transporting your luggage from hotel to hotel (and handling all the logistics) but also they organized some great wine tastings for us like the one at Les Caves Duhard which we might have missed given the plethora of wineries in the valley.