On Yer Bike – cycling in the French Loire Valley
By Rupert Parker
The 800 chateaux of the Loire have survived wars, sieges, bombardments and natural disasters for over 1000 years, yet who would have dreamed that they’d fall victim to a new sort of invader – the cyclist? Since 1998 the region has been investing in a network of cycle tracks which will soon run to more than 800km of signed trails. The concept is known as “La Loire a Velo” and is designed for cyclists of all levels. It’s an extension of a much longer trail which stretches from the Black Sea to the Atlantic. If you’re really tough you can pedal the whole 4000 kms, but easier to settle for a quiet meander from chateau to chateau sampling the local wine and cheese as you go.
The well-signed network of routes vary from quiet country roads to purpose-built tracks and bike hire companies have joined together to make it possible to hire a bike at one point and drop it off at another. They’ll pick up you up from the station and also come to the rescue if you have a puncture. And it doesn’t stop there. A large number of hotels, guest houses and campsites have signed up for “Acceuil Velo” which means they guarantee suitable accommodation, a locked bike garage, repair equipment and bikes for hire. If you don’t fancy carrying your luggage, there’s a baggage transfer service from hotel to hotel, but better to travel light, stopping when you feel tired.
The “Loire a Velo” runs for 650 km west along the Loire river from Nevers to the sea and it’s fairly flat and gentle all the way. It’s split into stages, most no longer than 40 km, corresponding to a maximum of 4 hours cycling per day. The main enemy is the Westerly wind and the sun in high summer but other than that, even non-cyclists, will find it easy.
“Chateaux a Velo”
Many of the most famous chateaux are not directly on the main route, so there’s an extra 300 km of tracks and 12 different circuits to take you directly from chateau to chateau. The most popular get an average of 20,000 visitors a day, many on coach tours, so there’s something gratifying about arriving under your own steam and avoiding the crowds and traffic. And the great thing is that you can do two or three in a day, avoid parking problems and cycle round their extensive grounds.
So Many Chateaux, So Little Time
If you’re chateau hunting, the richest part of the route is between Blois and Tours, a distance of just over 70 kms along the river. With over 25 in the immediate vicinity, you can easily spend a week here. Chambord, Blois, Cheverny, Chenonceau and Villandry are the most popular but the smaller chateaux have their own charm. And, if you get bored with the castles, you can always stop by the vineyards to sample the local wine, stuff yourself with goat’s cheese, then park your bike on the banks of the river and sleep off the afternoon.
Ryanair flies direct from Stansted to Tours and also Dublin to Tours.
Eurostar from St Pancras to Paris Nord or Lille and frequent connecting trains to Tours, Blois and Orleans. Return fares from London to Tours start at £89 in Standard class. All prices are per person and subject to availability. For bookings call 0844 848 4070. Personal callers are welcome at the Rail Europe Travel Centre, 1 Regent Street, London SW1
Atout France: Lincoln House, 300 High Holborn, London WC1V 7JH from Monday to Friday, 10am to 4pm
Where to Stay
Where to Eat
Côté Cour 19 Rue Balzac – 37190 Azay-Le-Rideau. Tel: 02 47 45 30 36
Chez Bruno 40, Place Michel-Debré – 37400 Amboise. Tel: 02 47 57 73 49
Isabeau de Touraine 33 Grande Rue – 37600 Loches. Tel: 02 47 59 47 55