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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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.

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.