Beautiful Bourgogne, No Beaune(s) about it

Burgundy for kings, champagne for duchesses, claret for gentlemen – French Proverb

Beaune ( pronouced “Bone”) is in the middle of the French Bourgogne wine region well known for its Burgundy (Pinot Noir) and Chablis (Chardonnay) wine. The city has a long history of wine making and is surrounded by vineyards, many hundreds of years old. Wineries, large and small, are integrated throughout the new and old parts of the city. It is an oenophile’s paradise for sure.

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We must admit, we are not huge fans of Chardonny and Pinot. It is not that we have a “Beaune of contention” with them or that we need to “Beaune up on them” (I could go on if my editor would let me).  Oregon which is very close to home in Seattle has allowed us to enjoy many of the new world Pinots (which can be pleasantly very earthy). It is just that we prefer bigger reds, clarets, in fact, so perhaps that makes us better suited as a duchess and gentleman.

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We stopped by Beaune and the Bourgogne region for a bit more cycling and a little bit of wine tasting as we made our way to Chamonix to leave our cycling behind and tackle the Tour du Mont Blanc. Beaune is an incredibly beautiful city with a very large old town, a historical hospital and wineries that are older than the U.S.A. There is a ring road that circles old town which decreases car traffic and provides a nice walking and short cycling path.  It is a beautiful city but we recommend avoiding in August because of the hordes of tourists that are here and many of the good restaurants which are closed as the locals get out of Dodge for their own holidays.

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We stayed for about  a week and spent most of our time visiting the surrounding areas via bikes but used Beaune as our base.  Not surprisingly, there are grapes everywhere. You hit vineyards in less than 1 km from the city center and it is amazing how integrated some of the vineyards are to the villages surrounding Beaune.  Grape growing was in full production so you shared the roads and bike trails with plenty of farmers, tractors, and trimming machines.  The vineyards are stunning.

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The cycling routes are well mapped out in the region with plenty of signage and routes. Some direction and route guidance helps to put together a full day ride, but for the most part you can pick a village and distance and then follow the routes.

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The countryside is scenic. There are a few hills and some elevation but for the most part it is undulating.

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The villages are gorgeous and there is one every 5km or so in any direction you choose. There are a number of parks and preserved lands about but for the most part, you cycle through villages and vineyards.

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We enjoyed a lot of the villages, including Pommard, Volnay, Puligny-Montrachet, Savigny-les-Beaune, Nuits Saint-Georges, Villars-Fontaine, Bigney-sur-Ouche, and Vavilly-Mandelot. Meursault was one of our favorites. It is only about 10km from Beaune and has a number of great lunch spots so it is a very good ride for casual cyclists but it is also a good stop on the way back from longer rides.

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We had a blast riding for a few days in Burgundy; a few of our routes offered some 3-4km climbs that offered some challenges.  Wine was very good.  When we compare it to our recent trip to The Loire, I think we would rank the Loire higher for value and cycling. Even though the cycling was a bit flatter in The Loire, there are many more routes and options.  Wine, restaurants, and hotels are more reasonably priced and the villages are just as stunning.  But Burgundy offers more wine, no doubt about that. Wineries and vineyards are older and more renowned.  There is no right answer and you can never go wrong with some pedaling through French vineyards!

 

Slaying the Badger

This was a fun read – especially while we were spending a couple weeks following this year’s Tour de France.  With a bit of bus travel and more than a few hours waiting for the peloton during our trip, we knew that we would have some time to dig into a few good books.  Slaying the Badger: Greg LeMond, Bernard Hinault, and the Greatest Tour de France fit the bill for me. This was a fantastic read that sucked me in from the first pages (yeck!).  It is a fascinating reporting on the 1986 Tour de France which was the first Tour that featured a team from the States and ended with the first winner from the States, Greg LeMond. It was also the last Tour for Bernard Hinault – a hugely popular French cycling legend who today is still very influential and prominent in French cycling.

The story line revolves around the inter-team fireworks between the two leaders Hinault and LeMond and their agreement that frustrated both but also set the context for one of the most entertaining races in its history. Ultimately,  the outcome solidified Hinault’s French popularity and position as a bit of a folk hero and LeMond as the first winner of the race from the USA and also a pivotal player in increasing salaries and the free market model in professional cycling.

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Really? No helmets in ’86

It’s a story of characters – from the leaders, the managers, the owners and even the Tour’s officials. All involved seem to have been a bit off balanced at best.  It’s a fast, enlightening and fun read. Though, it is very much an “inside baseball” story that may be difficult for a casual fan, if you follow cycling or are intrigued by this race, it is a good one to pick up.

And if you want to know why you shouldn’t have your favorite Mexican food delivered from California to France the night before an important ride, definitely check this one out (or at least review the Amazon Kindle sample which will give you that answer)

Allez, Allez Tour de France

“The race is won by the rider who can suffer the most .” Eddie Merckx, famous French professional cyclist.

With plenty of mountain stages, an uphill mountain time trial, terrifying descents, heavy rains, and crushing winds, there were plenty of opportunities for suffering in this year’s Tour de France.  Long on our bucket list, we were both excited to spend two weeks riding and following many stages of the Tour de France.  For those unfamiliar, the Tour de France is a 3 week cycle race that attracts the world’s most elite riders. There are grand tours in other European countries (Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana), but the Tour de France is the oldest (started in 1903) and considered the most prestigious.  There are a few longer stage races that are growing in popularity back in the States (Tour of Utah, Tour of California as examples), but most do not come close in attendance, global awareness, and marketing and sponsorship dollars as the Tour de France.

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The Tour takes over France every July, and you best not be in its way. It is extremely popular among its European fans and is one of the only premier sporting events in the world where fans can show up and watch for free. It is also one of the only professional sporting events where fans can get so close to athletes and teams. Of course, there are many options to spend money to enjoy premier viewing experiences to get even closer – such as riding along with a  team or sponsor cars or watching it from above in an helicopter.

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In both the large cities and small villages that the Tour visits, thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of fans come out to watch.  Many drive campers and RVs around following the race for the full three weeks.  At the pivotal and popular stages, usually mountain stages in the Pyrenees or the Alps (such as Mt. Ventoux or Alp D’Huez), it would not be unusual for 100-200K people to congregate on the roadsides to watch the riders. Many mark their territory days or even weeks in advance.

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Fans are varied and diverse.  There are the rowdy beer-drinking youth, families, couples, grandparents with tricked out RVs and tablecloths, jacket and tie folks at the VIP areas in the beginning and end of the races each day, and of course, cycling fanatics with all types of bikes and gear.  And not a small amount of penguin suits and other such outfits.  Then there is the iconic Tour de France devil who is credited with starting the trend of wearing costumes to sporting events.

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If you are not going to use them, we’ll take them!

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Logistics for watching this race are not for the faint of heart.  There are certainly many that jump in their cars, pack their camping gear and go, but having some experience or traveling with those that have some is the way to go.  We found a UK-based company, Sports Tours International, that have been taking folks to the Tour for decades and offered a great mix of viewing options along with daily rides and climbs. We were a group of 30 or so from all over the globe – Europe, Britain, Australia and New Zealand and even Belize as well as the Cayman Islands.  About half of the group were riding and the other half just watching. The cycling crew were mostly serious folks with couples tricked out in matching team gear and many sporting their new Rapha kit. Our guides were a couple retired firemen from Southern Cal (go figure) and our seasoned bus driver (so key for avoiding the post race traffic) was from Belgium.  We were equipped with a full on motor coach with a trailer for the bikes and a minivan for getting in and around the race circuits. We did not have laundry facilities on our bus like the pro’s but then again, we had built-in coolers stocked full with cold beer.

 

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Generally, there is a lot of waiting while watching the tour.  If you are only at the stage for the day, you need to arrive at least a couple hours early if you want to claim a spot with an interesting vantage point. Climbs are a popular spot to watch as riders will often be slowed down if the grade is steep (although it is amazing how fast these guys climb). So you camp out for a few hours with friends, beers, kindles and all sorts of other means of occupying your time. Excitement builds throughout the day until Tour car traffic increases and the Caravan rolls through. The Caravan is basically a parade of sponsors that zooms thru throwing out free chotskies to the crowds. It is a good way to amp up the crowd before the racers arrive, but the competition for free hats and key chains can get crazy.

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But the real excitement comes when the sound of the TV helicopters overhead along with the chants of “allez, allez” from the crowd down road can be heard. This is when you know the riders will be coming in fast.

 

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Much of the route, including the important climbs, are open to the public up until a few hours before the riders arrive so everyday there are fans out on the routes cycling the course for the day. Riding some of the big climbs a few hours before the Tour when all the fans are out in force, camped out on the road, and well into their beverages was one of our favorite experiences. We were able to ride a number of classic climbs including Mt Ventoux (ouch), Grand Colombier, Col de Joux Plane, Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc le Bettex.

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Our ride up Mt Ventoux was quite something.  At the base, it was hot and closing in on 90. at the top, it chilled down to the 40’s.  It was a very windy day with gusts clocked in at over 160 km/hr and very strong sustained winds that were punishing when confronting them head on. Luckliy, there are many switchbacks so we were not always heading into it.  At the top, riders were being blown off bikes – it was crazy.  The next day, the Tour officials canceled the top of Mt Ventoux – the last 6kms because of the winds.

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Mountain stages are great ones to watch because they usually determine the winners, but they also slow the riders down so you can get a chance to see more of them as they roll by you.  On mountain stages (especially towards the end of the week), riders  can be strung out almost an hour( but all need to be within 20% of finisher to stay in the race).

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The riders have gone before you know it, and then you are rushing to get out of the town before the chaotic traffic begins. Small towns can get absolutely crushed.

We were able to see two time trial stages which are quite the experience because there is a lot more going on through out the day.  During time trials, riders navigate the course along competing for the fastest times. They usually start 2-3 minutes after each other so with 200 riders, there is a full day of starts or finishes or riders rolling by you.

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The Tour does not stop for rain.

Also, you can wander around the start village and view riders warming up before their race, talk with team mechanics, and check out the bikes up close.

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So much potential

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One of the time trials that we watched was an uphill mountain stage- a bit unique. We got the benefits of both a mountain stage and a time trial stage and were able to ride part of the climb early in the day so it proved to be a very interesting day.

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Included in our outing with the group were two VIP experiences that allowed us to get a bit closer and view the race in relative comfort.  The first such experience was at the finish line on Stage 15 which was a mountain stage but also included a circular route so the riders came through the finish line twice.  After riding the climb in the morning, we watched the race outside on big screen TV’s until the riders came by where we watched it live.  The “free beer” and finish line setting  had the crowd excited and we met all sorts of characters. Susan ended up hanging out with the mother of the owner of Team Dimension Data (they had a great tour this year).  Team Dimension, based in South Africa, is also a rather unique team in that they are associated with the Qhubeka Foundation.  The Qhubeka Foundation is a South African based non-profit that donates bikes to underprivileged kids who have achieved certain goals.

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Our second VIP experience didn’t go quite so well. It was another spot set up next to the race course where there was fantastic food and drink and big screen TVs for viewing the race before the riders arrived in the area.  This was all great, especially after another big morning of climbing.  But heavy rains began to fall and the area was actually flooded out so they had to close the area and we all joined the racers (they don’t stop the race for rain) out on the road and got a bit wet. But we were able to see the racers charge by and the then we ran to the shelter of a local bar, with a standing-room only crowd, to watch the finish.

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As the band continues to play

Our final day was back in Paris to watch the famous end to the 3 weeks. At about 6pm, the racers arrive and cycle down the Champs-Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe where they make 8 laps along the champs. It is an incredibly popular stage given its Paris setting and the 8 laps. Hundreds of thousands turned out.  Given the horrible events in Nice a week earlier, the military and police presence was both sobering and impressive. And blocks around the race were completely closed, creating quite a surreal feel. At this point in our trip, we had reached our limit with the crowds and the waiting so we strolled around the circuit, watched the women’s race (they are FAST too), and then headed to Paris bistro to watch the final.

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Much Contemplation

It was a great couple weeks of cycling and watching for us. For those interested in the sport, we would highly recommend checking out at least a few stages or days of the tour. You can get a similar experience with less crowds at one of the other European grand tours but the crowds and mayhem are what makes the Tour de France so unique.

Stay tuned for some of our thoughts and photos of cycling the villages of the tour this year.

Leaving the Loire

“The Loire Valley is grossly underestimated. The prices are fair, and the wine is real.” – the straight-talking Gary Vaynerchuk

Our final two days of cycling in the Loire took us to stays in Chinon and Saumur with stops along the way. Both are fantastic, smallish towns centered in the heart of Loire wine country. We had plenty of time for more cycling and more wine tasting.

IMG_2408.JPGAs with all our cycling in Loire, the roads and trails were quite good.

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Chinon is quite a unique region in the Loire because it mostly focused on red wine rather than whites. And the Chinon AOC allows for some blending of the Cabernet Sauvignon grape (up to 10%)  with the Loire mainstay, Cabernet Franc.  We only had one night in Chinon, but wished we had more as the village is lovely.  We stayed in a charming, family-run hotel in the village, Hotel Diderot, which seems to cater to bikers as there were quite a few other bikers staying there as well.  Thanks to Euro2016, we were able to get into a good restaurant in town with out reservations- L’Ardoise (France was playing that night so all the locals were watching not eating).   There were only a few Brits, a couple Aussies and ourselves in the restaurant that night and it unexpectedly became quite a social evening.

 

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Joan of Arc doing her thing
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Shutter stop

After Chinon, we headed to Fontevraud-L’Abbaye, a commune in the Maine-et-Loire department and apparently home to one of the oldest abbeys in Europe. The Fontevraud Abbey was founded in 1101.  The history of Europe can blow you away sometimes if you stop to think about it – especially compared to how short ours is back in The States.

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We made sure to save time to duck into a winery or two to sample the local magic and check out some of the shops and galleries utilizing the ancient caves to sell their wares. The wine at Château de Targé was mostly unremarkable and they were pushing “shipments back to the States” a bit more than we have experienced but their chateau perched up above the river provided a beautiful setting for a break (and a little bit of climbing to get there)

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Our final destination was Samur where we ended cycling and spent a few extra days. Samur is another great Loire city with a beautiful old town, chateau and a fantastic setting along the river. We found a new hotel/ apart-hotel in old town Saumur which worked great for us, Les Londres.  It is centrally located in the old town and offers hotel rooms as well a couple full-service apartments.

Saumur was the site of a WWII battle so it also has some interesting history. The town was jammed with tourists, but we found some quiet spots as well as a few tasty boulangeries.  L’Escargot and Le Pot de Lapin are two great restaurants, but be sure to make reservations (and sit outside or wear mosquito repellent inside at Le Pot de Lapin).  Food was great at Le Pot de Lapin.  We just missed the Tour de France by a few days as they started a stage here this year (but we caught up with the Tour and more on that later).

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Biking in the Loire has been great.  It is a beautiful spot ( with one charming village after another as well as great wine and food) and really designed well for cyclists with all its bike paths and trails. And within an hour’s train ride from Paris, it is super accessible.  I am sure we’ll be back in the future – there are so many wines still to sample out there!

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Majorca Hike: Cala Tuent to Puerto Sóller

“The mountains are calling. I must go” – John Muir

When we planned a couple weeks on an island in the Mediterranean, we were thinking more about the beach and the beautiful, crystal-clear waters. But after a few days in the city and near the sea, the mountains were calling!

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Majorca is an island off the coast of Spain that is a very popular summer spot with European tourists. It is most known for its shopping and nightlife.  However, it also happens to be where the professional cycling team, Team Sky, does some winter training, and so it is also popular with cyclists.  But its mountain range, the Serra de Tramuntana that dramatically cascades down to the sea on the Western part of the island, offers some incredibly scenic walking trails.

 

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After a few days in the capital of Palma with the hordes of tourists, a walk in the mountains with relative solitude was just what we were after.  We chose a route between Cala Tuent and Puerto de Sóller which are both on the northwest coast of Majorca and only about 30 km from Palma. We were day tripping from Palma. So while the 211 bus and the Ferrocarril de Sóller (first train is at 10am) offer good options to get to the Sóller area, we opted to pick up a rental car to give us some flexibility on both ends of the hike. (Travel tip: we reserved a small commercial truck with Enterprise on the Palma port and as expected, they replaced it with a standard car when we picked it up – saving us over 75% the cost of a standard rental.)

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We were aiming for a 10 am sailing on a water taxi with Barcos Zules from Puerto de Sóller to Cala Tuent so that we could walk the 10 miles back on the Balitx path. It was tight but we made the boat by 10 minutes.

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After squeezing out of the harbor, we followed the coast for about 45 minutes, stopping to check out a couple bays and caves along the way.

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We were delivered to the Cala Tuent beach – which is a nice quiet bay at the base of the mountains (if you are looking for something to eat, there is a restaurant about 200 meters up the trail from the South side of the beach).

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For the first couple hours of hiking the path gains a bit of elevation and also meanders along the cliffs, providing fantastic views of the bays below. The views above and below are spectacular.

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A couple hours in, you climb two saddles and then drop into a gorgeous valley filled with  olive trees and goat farms. You lose most of your shade for the remainder of the hike so it can get hot. It was 35C the day we traversed this spot so we were glad we brought 3 liters of water. (Note: water is not easily accessible on the trail so bring plenty before you hop on the boat – 2 liters per person is a good min for a moderately hot day; more for hotter days).

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Olive Trees – hundreds of years old
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After an hour of wandering through the olive trees, you will reach another saddle and the last high point for this direction.  As you start to descend, you will get killer views of Puerto de Sóller.  You will see plenty of signs on the path for trails to the Port or to the town of Sóller – both about 60-90 minutes down the path.

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Puerto de Soller
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While we found the trail well marked for 80% of the way, we lost the signs as we exited onto a road where we should have been only 20-30 minutes from the end. We had a 50/50 choice in direction and chose incorrectly and ended heading down a busy road for a few more kilometers (if you end up there, take a right back towards the north). But we found a restaurant to grab a couple cold beers and called a taxi to get a ride back to the Port.

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Palma is a fun city (stay tuned), but if you find yourself in Majorca, you need to get out and see the mountains – they are incredible!

Jardins Spectaculaires de la Loire

From Tours, our cycling took us to Azay-le-Rideau, yet another charming French village, with a stop to check out the Villandry Chateau Jardins.

Starting in such a large city as Tours, we were both surprised how quickly we escaped the city and got into the countryside and its small villages – it could not have taken more than 15 minutes on our cycles (Side note:  France has done a great job with zoning.  Villages have maintained their charming character, and you do not typically see any commercialization seeping in.  Outside of the villages, there may be a zone commerciale or industrielle but again not in the village itself.)

Tours is clearly a bike friendly city with bike lanes and bike paths throughout and around the city.  (Loire Valley, in general, is so bike friendly with a plethora of bike paths and lanes and relatively flat that it is a great place for a family to cycle.)

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The weather improved quite a bit since our first couple days. The sun was out, and it was a perfect 75 degrees. There were some rolling hills, but for the most part, the riding was flat, and the tarmac was in perfect condition.  It was the kind of conditions that just put a smile on your face and made you feel like a kid again. We were cycling 3-5 hours per day usually with a couple hours of breaks and touring around.  And today, we took a break today to check out the Villandry Chateau and its gardens. We were starting to fill up our chateau quota for the month, but the gardens here were strongly recommended so we took a small detour to check them out and we were not disappointed.

The chateau was first constructed during Medieval times, and then updated during the 18th century by some well off folks who no doubt enjoyed years of good living and debauchery there.

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The gardens are enormous with mazes, water elements, sculptures, organic and vegetable plantings and multi-tiers.

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Back on the road, it was more kilometers winding around farmlands and small villages. Passing through Crissay, we noticed a very unique take on street art. Crissay is one of many villages with the French designation of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. This designation is given to exceptional villages with interesting heritage and is one of the means that France protects its historical villages.

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And a few klicks from our destination, we made a small stop in Sache, the home of the famous French writer, Honore de Balzac.  We have not read any of his books yet (La Comédie Humaine is his magnum opus), but he is said to have had a big influence on Dickens and Kerouac so we stopped by the Musee  Balzacc (which was closed, of course, because it was a Tuesday).

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In Azay-le-Rideau, we stayed at the charming Le Grand Monarque which has a great, centrally-located spot in the town.  We typically do not eat at the hotels where we stay, but we did during our stay in Azay-le- Rideau, and the dinner was excellent (which is often the case at small hotels in France).

It was another great day and ride in the Loire. From here, we were off to Chinon and further west along the Loire Valley.

Cycling Vouvray Country

“A bottle of wine contains more philosophy than all the books in the world.”- Louis Pasteur

After a few days in the village of Amboise, we headed to the larger city of Tours. Our route took us through the village of Vouvray and its  surrounding winelands.  Our cycling paths continued to be well marked and include plenty of car-free bike paths.

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The Loire is a fantastic place to bike. There are a lot of bike campers and families abound given the relatively flat surroundings but the hardcore roadies are also out on the occasion 18% grade!

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Inevitably, the routes pass through all sorts of villages where there is always a boulangier and boucher (although most are closed from 1230-300 so picnic lunches require some planning).

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On the way we stopped at Chateau Gaudrelle, one of the many wineries in the area. Producing about 100K bottles of wine, it is considered a medium-sized winery (and only has 6 full-time employees).  The Appellation d’Origine (AOC) for this area is dedicated almost exclusively to growing the Chenin Blanc grape.

 

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Engaged in a fascinating discussion with a very passionate wine maker, we ended up staying all afternoon at this one winery. We tasted 10-15 different wines all made from only the two grapes of the region served with some wonderful rillette and fabulous goat cheese.  It was amazing to taste the differences created by different soil types (clay and limestone) and by micro-climates influenced by sea or mountain winds. We also got a chance to tour their caves and observe their ancient manual machines for aging sparkling wines (actually used to ‘riddle‘ the wine to settle the yeast lees). Not as well known as Champagne and harder to get in the States, sparkling Vouvray wine is quite popular in the Loire region, and many argue offers better value than Champagne and better quality to Cava and Proseco  – although most making those arguments are not Spanish or Italian. We recommend tasting all four and making your own decision!

After three hours of wine tasting, we were ready for our cycle into Tours, one of the larger cities in the Loire with a vibrant mix of old and new.

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We enjoyed our overnight in Tours but are looking forward to getting back out into the country and the small villages later in the week.

The Lure of the Loire

“…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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

“Hvar” Nagilia, “Hvar” Nagilia!

Hvar was the third island ride during our stop in Split, Croatia. It is a two hour ferry ride from the mainland although if you do not have bikes or a car, you can take the catamaran which is faster.

Hvar has a population of roughly 11,000 making it the 4th most populated of the Croatian islands.  It is one of the more popular islands and Hvar Town can get crowded with visitors.

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Previously controlled by the Venetian Empire, Hvar Town is the largest town on the island with a port surrounded by a square, harbor and some Venetian architectural details.  In June, the harbor was packed with fishing boats, commercial boats and yachts alike.  One could only imagine how crowded the harbor is with boats in August when most of Europe is on vacation.  The island of Hvar is quite beautiful with diverse landscape. We biked through lavender fields, rural farming villages, busy ports like Hvar Town as well as the charming, quieter seaside village of Jesla.  For us, today was more about suffering  (in a good way) than rejoicing. It was mostly about one thing:

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We took the ferry to Stari Grad.  Then, we climbed the 12 kms, mostly at 10%, to the highest point on the island and from there, coasted all the way down to Hvar Town about another 10 kms away. After a coffee and some water, we turned around rode back because we did not have a enough climbing on the way to Hvar Town.

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Hvar Town was beautiful. A little larger than most of the harbors we have visited on the Croatian islands and much more crowded. It is a good base for hitting some of the hot beaches and diving spots. It is quite a diverse crowd ranging from multi-million dollar yacht owners to backpackers looking for cheap hostels.

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Ferries are limited so we had a few hours to kill after we did our climbs.  Instead of hanging out on the beach, we decided to add another cycling loop out to Jesla, and we are glad we did. Jesla and its neighboring villages are fantastic and have some of the best beaches and harbors we saw in Croatia. There is also a fantastic bike path that follows the water for about 10km.

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Hvar gets an estimated 200,000 visitors per year mostly in July and August.  In June, our ferry ride from the mainland to Hvar on a Wednesday was packed with standing room only for those arriving late.  Hvar is beautiful and we enjoyed the stunning views it had to offer as well as the biking.  But if you plan to visit Croatia in July and August, there are so many gorgeous islands it might be best to visit some of the other less known islands such as Brac, Solta, Molat or maybe Vis (unfortunately, we did not get to Vis on this trip but now we have an excuse to go back).

Fig-uring it Out on the Island of Šolta, Croatia

Solta is another sparsely populated Croatian island which is easily accessible from Split via a 45-minute ferry.  It has a long history of Greek, Roman, and Venetian rule and it is speculated that its name was derived from “Fig Island” way back when. With only 1,700 permanent residents, there is not much traffic making it another great spot to cycle.  Solta is hilly like most of the islands in the area, and the climbing starts as soon as you get off the ferry in Rogač.  After a 1-2 km climb from the harbor, you arrive at Gorhote and then it is either a out and back ride southeast to Stomorska or northwest to Maslinica. (Check out some great footage of the island in this video.)

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We cycled to both Stomorska and Maslinica on a sunny but windy day and a headwind made for some challenging biking out to Maslinica.

because it was a bit longer cycle and slightly larger hill, we cycled to Stomorska first. Stomorska is a small, charming fishing village, but it is also famous for its big wooden ships that used to transport Šolta’s figs, olive oil and wine  (all the Croatian food groups) to Italy.  That will give you sense of the landscape and what was for lunch!

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Maslinica was our second out and back and is basically a long downhill to the harbor filled with fishing boats and charter boats. Maslinica is a classic Croatian island harbor town with a few restaurants and bars and plenty of boats.  We stopped for lunch and had some fantastic, fresh anchovies before turning around for another 6 km+ climb out.

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When you hear stories of people living well past 100 years old on islands in and around the Mediterranean, it is likely farmers on an island such as Šolta living simply and from the land with diets rich with fish, olive oil and wine that create these legends; however, that is if they are not contributing to the average of 1709 cigarettes consumed per day per adult in Croatia. For us, however, it was back to the ferry and back to Split for the island of Hvar the next day.

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