By Maggie LaCoste
Nothing you may have studied in history or read in tour books prepares you for the experience of biking along the Loire. The region is at times a study in contrasts: huge chateaux surrounded by farms and vineyards, opulence and quaintness, the peacefulness of the river and the fury of the river. It’s safe to say that experiencing the Loire by bike is an adventure of a lifetime, and no matter how many days you spend, it will never be enough! The Loire is the longest river in France, roughly 1012 km or 634 miles from its source in the Massif Central to the Atlantic Ocean. The Loire region is steeped in history, and reached its peak of prosperity before the French Revolution. As remnants of this history, over 1,000 public and private chateaux, each with its own architectural style and history are scattered along and near the river.
The history and cultural richness of the Loire region is so extraordinary that in November of 2000, the central part of the Loire was named a UNESCO World Heritage site. From Sully, east of Orleans to Chalonnes, west of Angers, 280 km of the Loire received one of the most prestigious designations held by some of the world’s most significant sites. In awarding this designation for such a large area along the Loire, UNESCO found the region “an exceptional cultural landscape, of great beauty, comprised of historic cities and villages, great architectural monuments–the Chateaux–and lands that have been cultivated and shaped by centuries by interaction between local populations and their physical environment, in particular, the Loire itself”. To experience this special region by bike is an adventure into the history of France, one that you would never see from the backseat of a car or a tour bus. Imagine biking along roads where Joan of Arc may have traveled or biking to the abbey where Richard the Lionhearted is buried.
The Loire is paradise for the recreational cyclist. If you are thinking about adding a weekend bike trip to an upcoming vacation to France, look no further than the Loire River. If you want to really immerse yourself in France, spend a week or two bicycling 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. Experiencing the Loire by bike is an adventure of a lifetime, perfectly suited to the recreational cyclist. Whether you are 60 or 20, whether you are an experienced cyclist or not, whether you are traveling alone or with your family, whether you want to bike 20 km/day or 50 km/day, there is an itinerary for you. Here are my top reasons for planning a cycling trip along the Loire River.
La Loire a Velo
The Loire may have been the playground of the kings, but La Loire a Velo has made it the playground for the recreational cyclist! La Loire a Velo is a cycling itinerary that currently includes close to 700 km of safe, signposted cycling routes along the Loire River. Roughly 27% of the route is on bike-only paths, 24% on shared roads with only local/resident traffic, and 37% on roads with less than 500 cars a day. This route is designed for the recreational cyclist with gentle terrain and a route that is very easy to adapt to the attractions you want to see and the distance you want to travel. From Cuffy in the Cher Department to Saint-Brevin-les-Pins in Loire-Atlantique, the Loire a Velo route spans 2 French Regions (Centre and Pays de la Loire), 6 Departments, and includes 6 major towns including Orleans, Blois, Tours, Saumur, Nantes and Angers. Development of this route was a cooperative effort of these partners, who invested more than 52 million Euros over 10 years to develop what could become the best cycle route in France. At completion, it will include 800 km, but the network will be much larger, as other cycle routes in France develop links to the Loire a Velo.
Not only has this French consortium developed the bike path, but they have also created an organization to oversee the management, maintenance, development and marketing of the route. They have even patented the “Loire a Velo” name and symbol! It makes it so simple when you come off the train from Paris and all you have to do is look for the La Loire a Velo sign! The Loire a Velo website has everything that you need to plan a trip, from detailed routing information, suggested itineraries, accommodations, brochures, 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, Loire a Velo has information from several tour operators who specialize in Loire biking vacations. All Loire a Velo partners have met criteria that will enable them to provide bike support you may need along the way. Look for this sign for Loire a Velo partners:
The Loire a Velo is signposted in both directions, from one end to the other. The only difficulty that you may experience is getting back on the route in the morning after an overnight stay. Some towns have better route signs from the center ville, so it’s always a good idea to ask in advance how to connect back with the route. The wonderful signposting of this route makes it very easy to do as an independent cyclist, thus saving a huge amount of money from organized tours who basically will use much of the same routes. Loire a Velo is one of the best organizations of its type, and it should be your first stop for your Loire River bike trip planning.
The Loire a Velo is also developing link networks to connect with other bicycle routes in France. An example is the joining of the Loire a Velo in Saumur to the veloroutes of Poitou-Charentes and the Deux-Sevres, and the Indre a Velo route, which I rode and wrote about last summer. This route links the Loire in Tours with Loches, Azay-le-Rideau and Montbazon. The overall impact of all of these efforts is to enhance the bicycling experience for visitors, giving them many more reasons to return.
Easy Train Access
A bike trip on the Loire is perfect if you are traveling by train! All of the major towns in the Loire Valley are easily accessible from Paris in two hours including Nevers, Orleans, Blois, Tours, Angers and Nantes. And the best part is that most of the route has the railway line running right alongside it, with a wide choice of regional trains between 20 towns along the river. This makes it possible for you to explore several different areas of the Loire by bike in a shorter period of time. There is no charge for bikes on the local trains, and the cost for traveling between towns is quite inexpensive.
Chateaux of the Loire
Nothing can describe the feeling that you get when you are bicycling down a road and catch your first glimpse of a French chateaux from afar. With every pedal stroke, the chateaux gets clearer until it ultimately dominates your peripheral vision. Amazing is the only description I can give. Unfortunately many chateaux in France are carefully hidden from public view by majestic trees and other natural barriers, but a bit of planning will insure that your itinerary provide at least one major “amazing” moment.
Once the stomping grounds for French kings, 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. I would recommend that you do some research ahead of time to determine which castles will be at the top of your priority list, because spending too much time touring castles is like touring too many churches in Rome or museums in Florence. In addition, touring a lot of chateaux can be quite expensive, so bit of upfront research will be worth it. Chateaux de la Loire is the best resource for looking at choices, but unfortunately the site is only in French. Other options are France This Way and Chateaux of the Loire Valley. Everyone has a list of their favorite Loire chateaux, here are a few of mine:
- Chateaux de Chenonceau–Hands down my favorite chateau in France. Gorgeous without being over the top, and located in one of the loveliest villages in France. The arches of this Renaissance chateaux are breathtaking as they seemingly float over the River Cher. This is one of the most visited of all the Loire chateaux.
- Chateau d’Amboise, sitting high above the Loire, this fortified chateaux was built in the 15th century and is connected via underground passageway to Chateau du Clos Luce, Leonardo da Vinci’s home for the last several years of his life
- Chateaux of Chinon, dominates the river Vienne and is an awesome sight from the Loire a Velo bike route. Chinon has the longest history of any Loire castle, dating back to the 5th century. One of the favorite residences of Henry II, and Charles VII. It was here that Joan of Arc persuaded King Charles VII to accept the French crown and defy the English, laying the foundation for the modern French nation.
Of the 1,000 or so chateaux in the Loire, many of them are private residences and they pop up all along the Loire bike route. It was always amazing to me to be biking along a quiet, peaceful road with no cars, and all of a sudden, a giant chateaux appears along side the road. Here is an example of one that we came upon last summer biking near Huismes. It is called Chateau de Lavillaumer, and it appears to be for sale, in case anyone is interested!
Chateaux A Velo
More than 300 km of cycling tracks and 12 different circuits ranging from 16 to 43 km 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 have been developed to provide the adventure of cycling in chateaux country. You can start from Blois, Cheverny, St.Dye or Bracieux to embark on a journey of discovery–French style. All routes are numbered and well-marked and roads are a combination of bike-only tracks, gravel paths and lightly traveled country roads. Routes are designed for leisure travel with plenty of time to visit local attractions and chateaux.
Chateaux a Velo was developed to facilitate bicycling to the many chateaux in the region that are not located on the Loire, such as Chambord, Chenonceau, Azay-le-Rideau and Chinon. While the network links up to the Loire a Velo, it is not part of it, so it’s really a great bonus to bicyclists touring the Loire. Several different itinerary include cycling from Blois to Chateau de Beauregard, Blois or St. Dye to Chambord and Chateau of Villesavin and Chaumont to Fougeres with some wine tasting on the side. The Chateaux a Velo website has all the information that you would need to plan a bicycling trip to the Pays des Chateaux including suggested itineraries, accommodations, restaurants and bike rental and repair suggestions. There are also virtual visits to Chambord, Cheverny and St-Dye-sur-Loire, just to name a few.
There are also downloadable audio commentaries that are available free of charge, a wonderful way to enjoy the various attractions on the different itineraries. There is a terrific map called Les Chateaux a Velo that you can download or request from either Chateau a Velo or the Tourism Office of Blois Chambord-Loire Valley.
The Abbey of Fontevraud is one of Europe’s greatest monestaries, the largest one still standing in France. At one time the most powerful abbey in France, the abbey was put up for sale during the Revolution. Some of the buildings were disassembled for the stone, others were simply abandoned. Napoleon spared it from destruction, turning it into a prison which it remained until 1963. In 1985 the Abbey was purchased by the French Government which then conducted the largest historic monument restoration project ever in France. The result of these efforts is breathtaking; the first sight of the white stone abbey church impressive. A visit to the monestary is a trip back in time, and you can easily imagine life there as a monk. The large abbey church contains the tombs of three well know members of the Plantagenet dynasty, Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lionhearted.
The Gardens of the Loire
Nicknamed the Garden of France, the Loire is a celebration for lovers of French gardens. The most famous Loire Renaissance gardens can be found at the Chateaux de Villandry, regarded as having the most beautiful vegetable garden in the world. The chateaux itself was built in the 16th century on the the foundation of a medieval fortress, but the gardens as we know them today were not started until the 20th century. The gardens were the brainchild of Dr. Joachim Carvallo, great grandfather of the present owners who together with his wife purchased Villandry in 1906. At that time, the original French gardens had been destroyed, but Dr. Carvallo had a vision, inspired by the gardens of the Renaissance, and so began the gradual evolution of what we see today. Interestingly, the most famous part of the gardens, the vegetable garden was started to feed the hospital patients who were housed at the chateaux during World War I. Today, the gardens are so extensive and so popular that more people tour the gardens at Villandry than the chateaux itself. Not far behind Villandry is the Chateaux de Chaumont which is renowned for its popular summer contemporary garden show, the Festival International des Jardins. The garden show is so popular that, like Villandry, many tourists never make it into the chateaux, preferring to spend more time exploring the gardens.
The Loire Valley Tourist Board has published a brochure on 24 of the top gardens in the Loire that is perfect for learning about each of the gardens and deciding which you would like to visit.
Whether at breakfast, a Loire-side picnic lunch, or restaurant dinner, the food in the Loire is definitely a top reason to bike in the region. Local markets, cafes and restaurants feature fresh, local products from the forest, the river, local orchards and vegetable gardens. From duck to escargot to sandre, the most famous Loire fish, to mushrooms grown in the caves near Saumur to goat cheeses, to farm-raised eggs for breakfast to Loire pears and apples, making a choice for lunch or dinner is always difficult. But don’t take my word for it, let the pictures do the selling!
The Loire was widely quarried for “tufa”, a special kind of limestone. This beautiful stark white stone used to build the large Renaissance castles everywhere in the Loire Valley. Tufa is very soft and easy to mine, so the area was extensively quarried, creating a vast network of underground caves. Over time, these caves have been used by residents seeking shelter during time of war or from invaders, by monks as religious hiding places, to cultivate mushrooms, as wine cellars. In recent years, the caves have also been converted to specialty shops, restaurants and second homes for wealthy Parisians.
The underground cave network in Anjou is the largest in Europe, and also is the home of French mushroom cultivation. 75% of the mushrooms grown in France are produced in the Saumur caves. In the vicinity of Saumur alone, there are estimated to be over 1000 km of underground caves from the mining of the tufa rock. If you are interested in mushroom cultivation, visit the fascinating Musee du Champignon in Saumur, where you will not only learn about mushrooms, but you will also learn about the mining of the caves, and how the network developed. Another choice is the mushroom caves at Saut aux Loops in Montsoreau, a choice that is sure to be a crowd pleaser regardless of the age of those in your group. Located between Saumur and Chinon, Saut aux Loops offers guided tours that last about 1 hour. There is also a restaurant where you can taste the regional specialties–galipettes–mushrooms stuffed with pork, goat cheese and smoked salmon.
Other cave options are the village of Turquant which is on the Loire a Velo route. The tiny village was restored by local authorities and turned into a small artists’ colony, complete with a British pub. It is a perfect place to stop for a morning coffee and pastry on the Loire a Velo route.
My favorite troglodyte village is Les Goupillieres near Azay-le-Rideau. We saw a very small sign for this attraction along the road, and we decided to stop. This is an example of the type of thing you see when you are traveling the slow pace of a recreational cyclist, but probably would have never seen traveling by car. Our chance encounter with Louis-Marie Chardon, owner and discoverer of Les Goupillieres was definitely one of the highlights of our trip. You can read more about these caves at my post from last August, “Biking the Loire: La Vallee Troglodyte des Goupillieres”. A visit to one of the troglodyte villages will definitely be a highlight of your trip to France, providing a unique insight into life in a subterranean village.
Many of the old caves in Anjou have also been converted into wine cellars, restaurants and even hotels. One of the largest of the underground wine cellars can be found at Chateau Bouvet-Ladubay just outside Saumur in St-Hilaire-St-Florent. The history of these cellars goes back about 1000 years when the cellars were constructed by the Saint Florent monks. Expelled from Saumur, they settled in Saint-Hilaire, and excavated the tufa stone to build the Abbey La Belle d’Anjou which was consecrated in 1040, reaching its peak influence in the 13th century. The Bouvet-Ladubay wine cellars are located in the cellars of this old abbey. This “underground cathedral” consists of 35 monuments created in 2002 along a half-mile part of the cellars.
Market Day in the Loire
I love market days in France! As a matter of fact, when I am planning a summer bicycling trip, I organize stops based on market days, especially major weekend markets. If you really want to experience French life, go to the local markets. No matter what size the market, it will be the focal point for the community on that day. Weekend markets are bigger, drawing people from surrounding communities, all coming together for this very special and unique social occasions. Some of my favorite Loire markets are: Saumur on Saturday, Orleans every day, but big market on Saturday, Blois, Saturday morning, Amboise, Friday and Sunday mornings, Vouvray, Friday morning, Tours, every morning of the week except for Monday, Chinon on Thursday and Montbazon, Friday morning. If you are biking the Loire a Velo, you will just come upon many smaller local markets, and you can always stop and ask about market days at the local Tourism Office.
Nothing explains markets better than pictures so here are some of my favorite Loire market pictures.
Gorgeous River Towns Full of Attactions
From quaint, picture perfect towns like Candes-Saint-Martin, Montresor and Chenonceaux to historic towns like Chinon, Saumur, Amboise and Blois, to bustling cities like Orleans, Tours and Angers, the Loire has more gorgeous places to visit than any other bike ride in France! The Loire a Velo bike route 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 is really hard to favor one river town or village over another, as each has a unique history, architecture and attractions.
There is Orleans, the capital of the Department of the Loiret and the Centre Region of France, and city of Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans. While most of the city was destroyed in World War II, a visit to the Cathedral of Sainte-Croix built over six centuries should not be missed. Orleans’ Musee des Beaux-Arts is one of the finest provincial fine arts museums in France, with a collection focusing on 17th and 18th century art. No matter how touristy, no visit here is complete without a stop at the Maison de Jeanne d’Arc, a museum which retells the story of Joan of Arc and her visit to Orleans, and her role in liberating the city from the English. Joan of Arc is celebrated everywhere here–in museums, civic statues, in the stained glass window of Sainte Croix cathedral, and on May 8, Joan of Arc Day. History buffs and kids alike will love the opportunity to relive Joan’s campaign on behalf of France. Every spring, the Fetes de Jeanne d’Arc attracts thousands of people, over 30,000 in 2010! The Orleans Jazz Festival is a major event of the summer, and in September, the Festival de Loire d’Orleans celebrates the importance of boating and the Loire to the history of Orleans.
An important Roman trading center and the capital of France in the 15th and 16th centuries, Tours is regarded as the main town of the Loire Valley. Many bicyclists skip over Tours because it is a big city, but to do so would be a mistake. If you are a foodie, Tours is rapidly becoming a gastronomic center in the Loire, and the Maison des Vins de Loire is a one-stop shop for discovering the wines of the Loire. There are more than 30 markets held throughout the city, the largest one being the Marche Gourmand held on the first and third Fridays of the month in the Place de la Resistance from 4 to 10 pm. Tours is an interesting study in contrasts, from its perfectly preserved old town with carefully preserved half-timbered houses and the Cathedral St Gatien to the new Bascilique de St-Martin and cosmopolitan cafes and restaurants frequented by university students and tourists alike. Museums, and gorgeous parks and gardens and wonderful riverside walks make this a perfect place to spend a day off the bike. To make travels around Tours more interesting, there is a new audio-guide available from the Tours Tourism Office with highlights in English of major attractions along a 2 hour walking circuit.
Twenty km east of Tours is Amboise, a very charming, historically rich, but very touristy town. In addition to its famous castle, the Chateaux Royal at Amboise, this town is almost more popular for Chateau du Clos Luce, Leonardo da Vinci’s last home. Francois I donated this grand home to Da Vinci in exchange for coming to Amboise to work for him. Rumor has it that Leonardo arrived in Amboise with the completed Mona Lisa, as well as several other well-known Da Vinci masterpieces. A visit to Clos Luce will be a highlight to any trip to the Loire, and is certainly a perfect place to take a break from a morning of biking along the Loire. The house and grounds are full of recreations of Da Vinci’s creations and drawings, including models of 40 machines that he invented, including the first car and paddle steamer.
The town of Saumur is charming, inviting and full of history, especially military history. Its city center has 54 listed historical monuments including half-timbered houses, churches and mansions. Saumur was home to the French Calvary Academy, and is currently home to the French National Riding School, whose Cadre Noir horsemen are some of the best in the world. The Calvary Museum has a collection of calvary memorabilia dating back to 1445 and the reign of Charles VII. The town’s annual equistrian show in July attracts thousands of visitors from throughout France and Europe. Saumur is also home to the Musee des Blindes, with the largest collection of military tanks Europe, and possibly the world. Also of note, located just outside of Saumur is the Dolmen de Bagneux, one of the best examples of Neolithic construction in the Loire with 15 individual slabs weighing over 500 tons.
The list of wonderful places goes on and on, as do the number of summer festivals and fairs. Your only challenge when bicycling the Loire a Velo is deciding which beautiful town to spend time!
This completes my list of the Top 10 Reasons to Bike The Loire River. These are just a few of the many reasons that make this one of the best circuits for recreational cyclists. You will feel comfortable and at home here. Bicyclists are warmly welcomed and you will meet amazing people from all over the world. The Loire is a great place to have a perfect French adventure, discovering French history and culture. The slow pace of travel along the river will give you an opportunity to see a side of France that would never be possible from the front or back seat of a car, or from any seat on a tour bus.
Stay tuned for a follow-up list to the best resources for planning a bicycle trip to the Loire!