Pomp and splendour along the Loire
I’ve had my eye on this cycle tour for a long time and it will take me and my partner to the beautiful cycle path in Loire Valley, which, with its countless castles, cultural heritage and lively epicurean tradition is considered one of the most worth seeing areas in France. The weather is magnificent, and I am full of anticipation, as I am sure you can imagine! Even the short train ride from the glamorous metropolis of Paris to the small town of Tours, where this cycle tour both starts and ends, is a highlight. Because it leads through the geographical centre of France.
France’s valley of the Kings
Along the Loire and its tributaries, many fortresses were built as protection against the English during the Hundred Years’ War. Many of these buildings fell into disrepair, but with the beginning of the Renaissance the French nobility rediscovered the beauty of the Loire Valley and it became the centre of power. The ruins were re-built as imposing residences. By the end of the 16th century the political centre had returned to Paris and the Loire castles became little more than summer residences and hunting lodges. Around 400 amazing buildings in all architectural styles from Renaissance to Baroque and Classicism can be seen in the Loire Valley, many are freely accessible and can be visited.
A royal trip into the past
We set off on our bikes from Tours, a small Medieval student town. After roughly 15 minutes we come across our first fairytale castle: the elegant Château de Villandry. It’s well known above all else for the Gardens, it is an example of a strictly formal garden design in the Renaissance style. Whereas normally elaborate planted flower patterns characterise the château gardens, at Villandry a wide variety of vegetables are the main attraction! In the geometrically arranged beds, bordered by box hedges, different coloured lettuce heads, vegetable plants and herbs grow in perfect harmony. You can't help but be amazed! It is simply beautiful, and you can hardly get enough of the splendour.
As we cycle towards our next destination, we are overwhelmed again and again by the diversity and changing landscape. Vast forests, rolling hills, endless vineyards and charming landscapes, as if from the pen of J.R.R. Tolkien, alternate. I'm normally a sporty cyclist and like it when I have to make an effort to get to my destination. But here in the Loire Valley, I enjoy the fact that the stages are not too physically demanding and I can lose myself completely in the beauty of nature on the one hand and the almost incomprehensible abundance of castles on the other.
Standing in front of the huge estate of Chambord Castle, you instantly feel transported back in time. It is an incredibly imposing building amid marshes and vast forests and probably the most majestic of the many Loire castles. Leonardo da Vinci had a great influence, and its double spiral staircase is considered a masterpiece of architecture. Due to its size with over 400 rooms, the countless turrets, chimneys and gables, Chambord is incredibly architecturally impressive, but it still seems a bit cold and uncomfortable to us, which it probably is - in fact, it was never continuously inhabited!
My personal favourite fairytale castle without a doubt is Chenonceau, a completely enchanting, moated castle on the banks of the Cher, a tributary of the Loire. We cycle through an imposing avenue and stand before the elegant “Château des Dames” – the so called “Ladies Castle”. Why is it known as such? It was probably always occupied by women over the centuries, among them the famous Catherine de Medici. For example, she had the existing bridge built over with a multi-storey gallery to give the white, magnificent castle her signature. You can always see canoeists paddling through here and the scenery is simply picturesque when the castle façade is reflected in the water! And the carefully tended gardens are once again a lush sea of roses, irises, dahlias and box trees - here we enjoy the peaceful atmosphere during a short rest on the walls of the castle.
Leonardo da Vinci greets us at the next castle too. He spent the final years of his life at Châteux d’Amboise and is also buried here. The splendid castle and the medieval old town with half-timbered houses and wine cellars are unfortunately very much geared towards mass tourism, we must be honest. But here, too, an enormous advantage of an individual cycle tour becomes apparent, because we just keep cycling and immediately discover the next little castle, which has still managed to retain its authentic charm.
A valley for foodies
The enchanting Loire Valley is not called the Garden of France for nothing and justifies its reputation as the land of connoisseurs and foodies. The soils are very fertile so right and left of the river you will find the most wonderful varieties of cereals, vegetables, fruit and herbs are grown. Do you know the reason for the great culinary tradition along the Loire? It was the nobility's fault - they wanted to feast. And we also taste our way through the delicacies of this fantastic culinary region when we cycle through the small, traditional villages and take a break in the cafés, boulangeries and bistros. We like to start the day with a little treat, a crispy, airy pain au chocolat, which is simply typical of this region. I'm happy to be able to taste another piece of Saint-Marcellin at one of the countless markets, a creamy soft cheese that is eaten here in all variations, whether cold, warm, as a starter or dessert.
During the day, we cycle past the local fishermen on their traditional wooden boats and watch them pull pike, perch, salmon and eels out of the Loire. Fish is a delicacy here in its many forms, as paté, grilled, smoked, fried, or boiled with vegetables. Add a glass of dry Sauvignons Blanc and you really live like God in France!
With every single kilometre that we travel on this cycle tour, we feel and understand the French way of life, and understand what drew the great artists and writers from all over Europe to the Loire Valley. Even my partner, who much prefers hiking in the mountains to cycling, has been enchanted by the countless castles and the special charm.