The Loire is one of my favorite cycling itineraries in Europe. No matter how many times I go there, no matter what season, what area, the Loire a Velo, Chateaux a Velo or a Loire deviation, I always feel totally at home in the Loire River Valley. The Loire provides every possible experience that you could ask for in an overseas cycling experience. Imagine cycling along roads where Joan of Arc and the Kings of France may have traveled. To experience this special region by bike is an adventure into the history of France, one that you would never have in a car or on a tour bus.
For those who have never cycled overseas, the Loire is unlike anything you have ever experienced before. Nothing you have studied in history or read in tour books prepares you for the experience, and no matter how many days you spend there, it will never be enough! You will travel along the Loire at your own pace, experiencing 2,000 years of French history and culture, castles, vineyards and gorgeous scenery every minute of the day.
This itinerary is an adventure of a lifetime, and it is perfectly suited to recreational cyclists. Whether you are 60 or 20, whether you are traveling alone or with your family, whether you have a weekend, a week or a month, and whether you want to bike 20 km or 50 km a day, the Loire has a perfect itinerary for you.
Don’t worry if you’ve never taken a bicycling vacation before. The Loire is flat, well signposted and is perfect for recreational cyclists. You go at your own pace, choosing the distance you want to travel each day.
If you will be doing a lot of sightseeing, you might choose to bicycle 20 km or less. Traveling by bike along the Loire is a great opportunity to really experience the Loire in a way few tourists experience. When you travel this area by bike, you have the freedom to travel without timetables, enjoying every adventure you encounter along the way.
Here are some of my favorite reasons to bike the Loire:
La Loire A Velo
The Loire may have been the playground of the kings, but the Loire a Velo has made it the playground for the recreational cyclist. With over 800 km of safe, signposted cycling, this itinerary is perfectly suited for slow exploration by bike. 40% of the itinerary features car-free cycling on cycle paths or greenways, the rest of the itinerary is on low-traffic local/no thoughway roads. Recreational cycling doesn’t get any better than the Loire a Velo.
From Cuffy in the Cher Department to Saint-Brevin-les-Pins in the Loire-Atlantique, the Loire a Velo itinerary spans 2 French Regions, Centre and Pays de la Loire, 6 Departments and includes major towns such as Orleans, Blois, Tours, Saumur, Nantes and Angers. There has been over 50 million Euro invested in this itinerary over the last 10 years, with the goal of making the Loire a Velo the best itinerary in France for recreational cyclists.
The Loire a Velo website is full of resources to plan a trip, from detailed routing information, suggested itineraries, accommodations, bike rental agencies, campgrounds. Whatever you need to plan a trip you will find here. And if you prefer to have a trip arranged for you, you can access information on French tour operators who specialize in Loire bicycling vacations. The Loire a Velo has over 425 partners, all of whom have met specific criteria to insure quality of service for bicyclists to the region.
The Loire a Velo website should be your first stop if you are thinking about bicycling along the Loire.
Easy Train Access
Not only are the major towns on the Loire quick and easy to get to from Paris or any other major town in France, a railway line runs right along the river with service to 20 towns. This makes it easy to explore several different areas of the Loire in a shorter period of time. There is no charge for taking a bike on a local train, and the cost per passenger is very low also. During the summer, there are special Velo-Loire trains with larger dedicated bicycle cars that make it even easier to travel along the Loire by train. Best of all, it’s easy to make your way from train stations to the Loire, as most stations have plenty of signs showing you the way!
Chateaux of the Loire
Nothing can describe the feeling you get when you are bicycling down a road and catch your first glimpse of a chateaux from afar. With every pedal stroke, the chateaux gets clearer until it ultimately dominates your vision. Amazing is the only description I can give. Unfortunately many chateaux in France are carefully hidden from the public view by majestic trees and other natural barriers, but a bit of planning will insure that your itinerary has at least one major “amazing” moment!
Once the stomping grounds for the French aristocracy, the Loire is filled with hundreds of impressive castles. From the fortress at Angers with its 17 towers and Apocalypse tapestry to Chambord with over 300 chimneys, there are castles in the Loire for every taste. Castle overload is a real danger, so do your research ahead of time to determine which ones you want to visit.
Everyone has their favorites, mine include Chenonceau, with arches that seem to float over the River Cher, the fortified Chateau d’Amboise complete with underground passageways, and Chinon on the River Vienne, which dates back to the 5th century and one of the favorite residences of Henry II and Charles VII.
Many of the 1,000 or so chateaux in the Loire are private residences so you can expect to see them along whichever itinerary you choose to bike. It is really an incredible experience to be bicycling along a quiet, peaceful road when all of a sudden, a giant chateaux appears. Here is an example of one near the small town of Huismes. It’s called Chateau de Lavillaumer!
Chateaux a Velo
If you bicycle to Chambord you will travel on one or more of the Chateaux a Velo itineraries. While this circuit links up to the Loire a Velo, it is a completely separate itinerary full of incredible bicycle routes to explore. It would be easy to spend an entire week or more cycling the different itineraries in the Chateaux a Velo.
More than 400 km of cycling paths and 13 different circuits are possible on the Chateaux a Velo circuit. In the center of the Loire Valley, between Blois, Chambord and Cheverny, a network of secure, well-marked bicycle paths provide the adventure of cycling in chateaux country. Regardless of where you start, you’ll find numbered and well-marked routes throughout the area. Several of these itineraries intersect, so if you are cycling in this area, be sure that you pay attention to your itinerary number on the directional signs!
Roads in the Chateaux a Velo are a combination of bike-only tracks, gravel paths and lightly traveled country roads. Itineraries are designed for leisure travel with plenty of time to visit local attractions, vineyards and chateaux. This is a terrific area to bicycle with families.
The Chateaux a Velo website has just recently been revamped, but unfortunately the new website is only in French. I have not been able to confirm when the website will be available in English, so for the meantime, you can refer to the brochure Les Chateaux a Velo which is in several languages including English and includes a map of the itineraries. You can also pick up this brochure at the tourism offices in major towns including Blois, Bracieux, Cheverny.
The Gardens of the Loire
Nicknamed the garden of France, the Loire is a paradise for lovers of French gardens, with the gardens of Villandry and Chaumont heading the list.
Villandry is recognized for having the most beautiful vegetable garden in the world. Interestingly the garden was started to feed the soldiers who were housed at the chateaux during World War I. Today, the gardens are so extensive that most people tour the gardens at Villandry rather than the chateaux.
The Chateau de Chaumont is renowned for its summer garden show, the Festival International des Jardins. Like Villandry, the garden show is so popular that many tourists never make it into the chateaux, choosing to spend more time exploring the gardens.
Nothing beats market day in France, and the Loire has some of the best: the Saturday market in Saumur, Orleans, Blois, the huge Sunday market in Amboise, the Friday market in Vouvray and Montbazon and the Thursday market in Chinon, just to name a few.
If you are bicycling the Loire, you will come upon many small local markets, but be sure to try to plan your trip so that you can go to one of the larger markets. There is no better way to experience the essence of French life than going to market day!
Gorgeous River Towns
From quaint, picture perfect towns like Candes-Saint-Martin, Montresor and Chenonceau to historic towns like Chinon, Saumur, Amboise, Blois and bustling cities like Orleans, Tours and Angers, the Loire has a concentration of more gorgeous places to visit that any other itinerary in France!
The Loire is steeped in history and you will have no problem filling your “off bike” time with visits to some of the prettiest towns in France. Candes-Saint-Martin and Montresor are both listed in the directory of the Most Beautiful Villages in France, but it’s really hard to favor one town over the other, as they all have such unique characteristics. Everyone who travels to the Loire seems to have their own favorites. Here are some photos of mine!
Hopefully by now, I’ve got you very interested in planning a bicycling trip along the Loire. If so, you will need some maps to help with your trip planning. Here are some of my favorites:
- The Loire a Velo map from the Loire a Velo website. You can download this map and you can also pick up a hard copy of the map at one of the major tourism offices along the Loire. I’ve used this trip to help plan all of my Loire bicycling trips as it helps visualize the many different options and deviations. This is just a great map to help develop a travel strategy on where you want to go as well as for plotting daily distances.
- Maps #1 and #2 from the EuroVelo 6 map series published by Huber Verlag. This map series covers the entire EuroVelo 6 route, of which the Loire is a part. Three of the 6 maps cover the Loire: map #1 which covers the route from the Atlantic to Angers, map #2 which covers Angers to Blois and map #3, which covers Blois to the Canal du Centre. These maps are so good, they are the only maps that you will need. They are inexpensive unless you try to purchase them from overseas through the mail, in which case they can be outrageously expensive. Since you won’t need the map until you get to the Loire, just plan to purchase it when you get there. They are sold in every tourist office, most book stores and many tobacco shops. I normally purchase a couple of them as they can get pretty worn out on a two week trip.
- There are also a series of free maps that you can pick up once you start on your Loire journey. The first is a map series produced by Touraine Regional Tourism, called “La Loire a Velo en Touraine”. This is a series of 5 topographical maps that cover the area from Rigny-Usse and Chinon to Montlouis and Amboise. While you can access these maps online, they are very difficult to read and impossible to photocopy. Even the original paper copy is difficult to read. They are not my favorite maps, but they are free, and are easy to obtain at any tourism office along the Loire.
- If you are planning to bicycle along the Indre River, you may find the booklet, “Carnet de Route de l’Indre a Velo” helpful. The map includes the relatively new cycle route along the Indre River from where it joins the Loire at Brehemont, to Azay-le-Rideau, to Montbazon, to Loches and then up to Chenonceaux. I took this itinerary two summers ago from Azay-le-Rideau to Chenonceaux. You can find the map booklet in all tourism offices along the Loire and the Indre Rivers.
- If you are going to traveling in or near Blois, Chaumont, Chambord, St. Dye or beaugency, you will want a copy of “Les Chateaux a Velo” already mentioned earlier in this post. Many of the itineraries of this circuit join up to the Loire, but it is a totally different group of itineraries than the Loire. If you are traveling in this area, it is very wise to have a copy of the map, as it can be easy to get confused by the many different itineraries that are part of Les Chateaux a Velo. This map is also free and is available at all tourism offices east of Chaumont and west of Beaugency.
The Loire and its deviations are very well signposted. It is one of the few cycle routes in France where you could actually make your way around without a map. The biggest potential for getting lost is going into and out of the larger towns, either to visit the town and have lunch or to find your hotel for the night. Tours is one such example. No matter how many times I go into Tours from the Loire, I always seem to get lost. So that you don’t begin your day lost, it’s always a good idea to stop into the local tourism office to get directions back to the bike path. The local bike path maps will always have clear directions for getting back to the Loire, and may even have some interesting local bike paths you may want to explore.
I hope that you will consider making the Loire your destination for an upcoming bike trip. It will be one of the most memorable trips of your life.