Friday, December 26, 2014

The Route V - Castles and Crashes on the Loire (Day 2)

Described as the last major wild river in Western Europe and flanked by historic cities, vineyards and more chateau per square inch then just about anywhere on the planet, it is fair to say that I was excited at the prospect of following the Loire on two wheels for the next day or so.

We were convinced, by the highly amicable owner of the old coaching house we had hit the hay in, to aim for the historic city of Blois, some 120 odd km up the river in a north-easterly direction. Ever the friend of the cyclist (after all, the French invented bikes and cycle tours), we were told that a special cycle path ran the entire length of our proposed journey along the banks of the Loire. We shovelled down a huge breakfast of pastries covered in a dozen different types of home-made jam – the owner had a curious confiture obsession – slapped on the Vaseline, pulled on the Lycra, put already slightly sore bums on the saddle and pushed off.

It was great to ride back through the old town in the daylight, taking in the numerous medieval buildings, central square and church. Chinon is a very impressive town, combining beauty and historic resonance. It even has an outdoor lift fitted out for bikes to take you from the lower town to the upper town. Taking advantage, we were soon peddling up the steep winding track up to the chateau gate. A quick peer inside the mighty fortifications, before pushing on and over the crest of the ridge and onto a long, straight, fast downhill track out of town.

We knew that if we headed pretty much due north we couldn’t miss the Loire. After about 10km through increasingly rural and pretty countryside, we did just that. First came the lush water meadows in the river’s flood plain, then the side streams, then a great dyke hemming in the mighty flow. Built to fend off the periodic flooding of the Loire, such dykes run for much of its length, with this one just the right height and width to combine a bike path and stunning views over the river.

We followed this idyllic track without diversion all the way to the city of Tour. It was a fantastic half day, with the landscape switching between riverside woodland and wide open countryside ripe for chateau spotting. We must have seen half a dozen in that morning alone, with the shere scale of Chateau de Villandry standing out. French kings made the Loire valley their retreat from Paris and the riches of the nobility followed, littering the landscape with one parapetted ego-boost after another.

For all that man-made grandeur, nothing could beat the river. Deep green-brown and rippling, long sections of wide unity were intermittently broken up by small islands. The former drew the eye to the far shore and green hills beyond, the latter to the fast flowing current and resident wildlife – we must have seen a dozen herons busy fishing the waters.

It was on one of the more seemingly rustic sections that we were surprised to come across a small skate park next to the bank. We had to give it a go. What could possibly go wrong when tackling a quarter pipe with pannier loaded road bikes…?


Queue inevitable bike flip, crash and compulsive laughter fit. While Dave busily made sure his moving parts still worked, I had to crouch down in hysterics.

Fortunately Dave suffered nothing worse than a bruise and a minor life lesson and we were soon back down on the bikes, keen to reach Tour.


By the time we reached the outskirts of the city, we were blooming starving. Four hours on a bike doesn’t half bring your stomach’s needs to the fore and this was not helped by some serious loss of bearings amongst the very average looking new bit of the town. Unhelpfully, the magical Loire cycle path signs disappeared to be replaced by multiple signs pointing in conflicting directions with no clear indication of where they were going.

We resorted to questioning the locals in my best francais (“ou est le centre de ville?” is about as the limit of my skills) and eventually found ourselves in the old city. Full of wide tree lined boulevards and imposing civic buildings, Tours has some presence. We were distracted from the setting by a full blown sirens-wailing, police-cordoned, fire-engine accompanied crash. From what I could work out through the crowds of on-lookers, a car had smashed into a tram, knocking it off its tracks. Fortunately I don’t think anyone was seriously hurt.

We refuelled with a ginormous lunch, accompanied by a stereotypically rude waiter and polished off with strong beer and stronger coffee. Moving off very slowly, we meandered around town a little, eventually finding our way to Cathedral. I had heard it was impressive, but was blown away by its scale and intricacy. I ventured in and was lost from the exploits of the day strolling as quietly as possible (hard with clips) around the vast interior. I am not religious, but still regularly find peace in these places. They were designed to be other worldly and remain so, nestled in amongst the modern metropolis.


Dave snapped me out of my cathedral musings with a kick up the arse. Back on the bikes, we peddled back to the river and followed it all the way out of the city. As always, we were lagging behind where we should be, having 60 plus km to go before reaching Blois. It was touch and go with the light, so we powered along the river side road all the way to Amboise without a halt.

Surprise, surprise, this town had another massive castle, surrounded by a tightly enveloped medieval town. A perfect spot for a beer. So perfect in fact that everyone else had the same idea. Not being able to find a table, we pushed on beerless, passing under the mighty castle walls before before criss-crossing the sharp hill which formed a large rampart for the town.

Pretending to stop to catch the view – I needed a break from the hill – I accidentally caught one of best views of the trip. Away from the river, the land dropped and then rose sharply by way of a rich green valley, littered with old farms and villages. From the base of the valley, fine mist rose until scythed away by slanting late afternoon light. Fantastic.

It was quickly apparent that we had lost the cycle path. Instead of going back, we took a small lane through the fields and spent the next 15km or so pedalling up and down the small hills of the undulating countryside. Breaking back on to the river, we finally found our spot for a beer, Chaumont-sue-Loire. Grabbing a couple of tinnies, we parked up on a bench, facing downstream (incidentally away from the now two-a-penny chateau of the village). The sun was nearing the end of its day, emitting a sultry red light. This reflected off the river, broken up by the sails of an old river boat and a low bank in the middle of the stream strewn with hundreds of white birds.

We needed to get a move on. We had 30 minutes light left at best and we both felt a bit of a chill as the temperature dropped – Lycra has its drawbacks. Back on our bikes, the road took us fast and direct along the river all the way to Blois.

It was twilight when we arrived. The medieval city was strewn along the far bank, its lights wrestling with the last red rays and deepening greys for domination of the sky. We crossed the bridge and our trip down the Loire was at its end. Paris lay due north.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Route V - Poitiers to Chateau Country (Day 1)

Another year, another stage of our grand St Petersburg-Lisbon cycle tour. Having concentrated on heading north-east over the last 4 trips, linking up Paris to the Swedish border, we were now looking to make some progress in the other direction. It was time to cycle cycling central, France. Poitiers to Paris to be precise.


Not the ideal start. Waking before light at a mate’s house in south London, Dave and I fell out the door and put bums on saddles in a sleepy daze. Dave had the remnants of a nasty bug. This was to both our detriment as, only marginally worse than setting out on a 400km cycle feeling sub-par, is setting out on the same cycle with a mate vociferously complaining about feeling sub-par. A touch harsh, but there you go.

Having crossed London as dark gave way to dawn, we entered St Pancras and rolled onto the Eurostar. If you are considering cycling on the continent, I can’t recommend enough making your way there by train and the channel tunnel. Compared to flying with a bike in a box, it is an effortless pleasure (or in our case, a marginally tainted pleasure, given we were kept up by the unfathomably loud chatter of an adjacent group of over-excited Americans – I dig enthusiasm, but not the public type at 7am).

I did eventually nod off somewhere under the sea, phasing out until my eyes blinked open to bright sunlight just as we pulled into the Gare du Nord. I was excited. The gap in distance and time between this arrival and our scheduled return train 4 days later was a blank slate waiting to be written, pedalled and experienced. In short, here was an opportunity for some adventure. We grabbed our bikes, pushed out the station and took on Paris commuter hour.

With my not very zoomed-in google map print-out billowing in my hand, we took a series of tight back routes over curbs and through lights, before gliding across the Jardin des Tuileries, waving to the Louvre and crossing the Seine. Coming out of the horn-beeping chaos of rush hour, it was a reminder of how beautiful the French capital is. All rather surreal before we had really woken up.

We glided through the café-lined boulevards of the 6th and onto another train at Montparnasse. A couple of hours’ whizz through the French countryside later and we disembarked on the platform at the central medieval French city of Poitier. We were all prepped, fully lycra’ed up with Vaseline in all the right places.  


We had a plan. Well, a sort of plan. It was 2pm on Thursday and we had to get to Paris by the Sunday evening train home. We also had a series of broadly fitting together maps. But that was it.

Leading out from the station, I was proud to get us lost within 2 minutes, circling round on the hilly narrow streets of the old town. Having failed to either find the cathedral or the way out, we doubled back and followed road signs on to a major road heading north. Too major, as it happened. Bicycles were forbidden and we were soon coasting the wrong way down a fast slip road, over a railing and down a steep embankment to get the heck off.

Back to the map and compass and we found the ‘right’ way out. Within minutes we were in lush countryside, running parallel to the river beneath the woods. Lovely. Even Dave had a smile. Then he punctured. While I found this hilarious, he failed to see the funny side, having to change the tyre 3 times before we could move on. Even my offer of chocolate cookies did not fix the situation. Serious.


It was now nearly 3pm and we had at least another 100km to cover if we wanted to stay on track. We had to get moving. We followed the Le Clain river at a brisk pace though a series of villages before the land rose and we discovered our first chateau.

And then another. And then another. This is what this region is famed for and it was not letting us down. We took a few minutes to take in the all too perfectly chateau’esque Chateau de Dissay. I particularly liked the cacophony of a bull-frog serenade that greeted us as we ventured to the front door via a lily-strewn moat spanning stone bridge.

Pleasurable as this all was, time was running short and we needed to take a short cut. Our initial thought of following the La Vienne river all the way to Chinon had to go out the window. We left the water behind, heading north-west onto dead straight, fast roads. Fuelled by all too good pastries form a pattiserie in Lencloitre, we powered through the fields, transversed a small forest and rolled in to the town of Richeleu.

Named after the infamous Cardinal Richelieu of The Three Musketeers fame, the town was a gorgeous oddity. Flanking the now castleless Castle Park, streets of high architecture flowed out from the entrance to Richelieu’s former estate, surrounded the town square and then vanished into fields. It felt like the centre of a wealthy old county town, but without any of the surrounding urbanity. I figure Richelieu and hangers-on built the town as a status symbol, but once the patronage ran out there was nothing to maintain or expand it.

The town square backed up this theory. Expansive and pristine with a richly decorated church at one end, a small café at the other and little betwixt. Where were all the people, the shops, the life? I guess they left with Richelieu, only to return in the form of tourists in the high season. Nonetheless, or perhaps because of this strange set of affairs, the couple of local beers devoured whilst lounging outside the café in the slanting late afternoon light were immaculate.

Following a tip from a tipsy, now-local Dutchman who recognised the small Dutch cycling team embossed on the dodgy rip-off cycle shirt Dave bought off the internet (I love how things work out), we diverted onto a small country road that was to provide one of the most enjoyable hour or so’s cycling of my life.

Skirting the upper edge of a steep, broad rise, this smooth path gave phenomenal views of the surrounding countryside dropping beneath and then off onto the horizon. Fingers of late-day sunshine streamed across the green, curving, rural landscape.

We passed down and through the idyllic hamlet of Marcay, before climbing up to the chateau of the same name. We took a breather and then persevered uphill to the cusp of the La Vienne river valley. It was quite a sight. Wood, vineyard and farm stretched doen to the rushing water, before the land erupted upwards to another ridge. Proudly clinging to its side was the medieval town of Chinon, with its famed castle dominating all from on high.

We plunged down the hill at speed and arrived at the wide, wild river just as the sun set, reflecting off the water and streaming the whole seen with red and orange light. Just one of those moments.

Now we needed to find a bed for the night.


An outpost of medieval England in central France. Well, almost. The chunky castle and winding rows of medieval streets, which stretch down the hillside to the river, were once the stronghold of Henry II of England, from where he held court over his Angevin Empire, covering England and much of France. I say almost, as Henry was immeasurably more French than English.

It really is an impressive and beautiful place. I am rather embarrassed that I had never heard of it before peering at the map ahead of our journey. France draws you in with such gems.

We crossed the bridge into town and rode along the cobbled streets, past rows and rows of beautiful old stone buildings, looking for a place to stay the night. We lucked out. We stumbled upon Hotel Diderot, a centuries’ old coach house, complete with beamed ceilings, flower-strewn garden and friendly hosts. A steak, a bottle of local red, beers and some chat with the proprietor of a rugby mad bar later, and we were out like a light, getting what rest we could for the big day ahead of us. A long stretch of the Loire awaited.

A good thing Dave was recovering,,,