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.

DAY 1 – A LONG WAY ON A TRAIN AND A LITTLE WAY ON A BIKE


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.  


A FALSE START

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.

SHORT CUTS THROUGH CHATEAU LAND

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.

CHINON


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,,,
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