For cyclists, the Loire Valley is all about pedalling through the gentle landscape of lush river valleys, forests, vineyards and fields of sunflowers, with views of the picturesque châteaux for which the region is famous. Local resident, cycling enthusiast and tour operator Mark Willes describes what's on offer.
Situated in central France less than an hour from Paris by train, and is one of France's top tourist destinations. A well-signposted network of quiet, well-surfaced rural lanes adds greatly to the appeal – as does the top-quality food and wine.
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Mark Willes is an avid cyclist and Francophile. He has lived in the Loire Valley with his family for the last 12 years and is the owner of Loire Valley Breaks, a cycling holiday company based at St Nicolas de Bourgueil, in the heart of the Loire Valley vineyards.
It's no surprise that his passions include cycling, wine, gastronomy and the great outdoors – all of which ensure that his...
The Loire is the longest river in France, extending over 1,000km from the highlands of the Massif Central to the Atlantic coast. The upper reaches flow through sparsely populated hills of the eastern Auvergne and southernmost Burgundy; the "Loire Valley" itself comprises the middle course of the river; definitions vary, but this is generally considered to comprise the stretch between the cities of Orléans and Angers – the region most famous for its magical renaissance-era châteaux. For our purposes we are also including the lower section of the river from Angers to the Atlantic.
The principal tourist sites (notably the châteaux at Chambord, Chenonceau, Amboise and Azay-le-Rideau), and the roads leading to them, get quite crowded in the summer months. But it’s very easy to escape the tourist hordes by heading off into the surrounding countryside – in fact this is a major part of the appeal of cycling in this part of France. The gentle terrain and quiet roads make it ideal for family cycling trips, too.
The four most popular areas for cyclists are as follows:
Orléans to Blois
This region lies at the eastern edge of châteaux country, with the wide-open spaces of the Beauce (the major grain-growing area of France) to the north, and the wooded Sologne to the south and east. The main Loire Valley here is quite busy, but an endless number of delightful backroads make for wonderful cycling.
Orléans is the largest city in the area – former capital of medieval France. Some 40km downstream, Blois is more intimate, and well worth a stop-off for its postcard-perfect old quarter. Other renaissance châteaux are in abundance in this area, including the largest of them all – the hunting lodge of Chambord, with its “chessboard” skyline and double helix staircase supposedly designed by Leonardo da Vinci. Close by, the 17th-century château at Cheverny is generally regarded as the best-furnished in whole valley, whilst spectacular Chaumont, overlooking the Loire and one of the grandest châteaux, is also well known for its annual international garden festival.
The area known primarily for its grand châteaux spread along the banks of the Loire and its tributaries (the Cher, Indre and Vienne rivers), this is the best-known and most picturesque part of the Loire Valley. With the historic town of Tours at its centre, the birthplace of the modern French language, it’s a sumptuously rich area for heritage lovers: apart from the world famous renaissance châteaux including Chenonceau, Azay-le-Rideau, Amboise and Ussé, there are also the magnificent gardens at Villandry and the medieval fortresses at Loches, Langeais and Chinon. The vineyards stretch along both sides of the river – Vouvray, Chinon, Montlouis and St Nicolas de Bourgueil to name a few areas, whilst river fish and goats cheese, both local specialities, provide a great accompaniment to these wines after a day in the saddle.
Some of the most popular routes are just to the west of Tours, taking in Azay-le-Rideau, Ussé and Chinon. Another favourite circuit includes Amboise, Montrichard and Loches, all to the east of Tours.
So named as a region as its centre is the historic town of Angers with the area between Saumur and Angers (50km apart) being very popular with cyclists. The main attractions are within easy strike range of the river and are well signposted. In addition to the well known châteaux of Angers, famous for its tapestries, and Saumur, there are plenty of others worth a visit, such as Montsoreau, Brézé or Brissac – all of which have different aspects and stories to tell. Other notable historic monuments include Fontevraud Abbey, the final resting place of Richard the Lionheart, as well as several troglodytic (cave-house) villages and caves to discover. Wines from across the range are made here too – red, white, rose and sparkling wines are produced, as well as the famous liquers – Cointreau in Angers and Triple Sec at Combier in Saumur.
Saumur is the starting point for many cycling holidays, which often follow a gentle circuit through the vineyards south of the city, taking in the châteaux at Brézé and Chinon, and Fontrevaud Abbey. The famous horse riding school the Cadre Noir is based in Saumur along with mushroom caves and excellent way marked cycle routes – don’t ride too fast, it is an area to be taken at leisurely speed – you won’t want to miss anything. Bourgueil, on the north side of the river just to the east of Saumur, famed for its red wines, is another popular cycling area.
Loire Atlantique and the Vendée
To the west of Angers there is a subtle but noticeable change in the landscape – a change of colour in the stonework, the river becomes broader and small islands and canals begin to appear. The city of Nantes is the region’s major hub – a vibrant, arty metropolis. Further west there are long sandy beaches on the Vendée coast. The island of Noirmoutier – accessed via a 5km causeway, which was used by the Tour De France in 2005 and 2011 - is great for cycling and well worth a visit. The pancake-flat Marais Poitevin area to the south, part of the Vendée is an idyllic place for a leisurely cycling holiday; you can also take a rest from the bike and paddle or punt down one of the many canals.
Longer cycling itineraries will include two or three of these regions. If you have sufficient time, the Loire à Vélo is an 800km cycle touring route (from just outside the city of Nevers to St Brévin-les-Pins on the Atlantic coast) through the magnificent landscapes which make up this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Nature and the river
Cycling on the quiet riverside paths or traffic-free cycleways of the Loire Valley is a real pleasure, either between destinations or as part of a circuit – you’ll meet more fellow cyclists than cars – be sure to say “bonjour”. Great for families.
Châteaux and gardens
It's hard to avoid a château or two in the Loire Valley – so have your camera at the ready and marvel at the architecture and surroundings – pure opulence! There’s a reason that the kings and queens of France chose to live here.
Best known for its light fruity wines: reds, whites, rosés and sparkling – all produced along the banks of the river. You will be surprised at the quality and the price, so make sure save some room for a bottle or two to enjoy after a day in the saddle.
Eat like a local
Fouées are special breads served fresh from the wood-fired oven and filled with a good local pâté or some goat’s cheese. Eating can be one of the joys of France – so enjoy fresh produce-use the local bakers, butchers, cafés and village shops.
Off the beaten track
Part of the joy of cycling is to go and explore – stop off and visit a fascinating troglodyte (cave house) valley, take a boat trip and discover another side to life along the Loire, visit a slate mine or a mushroom cave – lose the guidebook, but keep the map!
Best times to go:
The climate is benign most of the year - generally warm (but not too hot) and sunny in the summer, and mild during the spring and autumn. The landscape gets its lush green colour from the many rivers that criss-cross the land, and not from lots of rainfall – although having said that there are some wet days, even in summer. The climate must be pretty good, or the vines wouldn't flourish and produce such great wines!
Indeed, there's always something going on in the Loire - a festival or market, something special at the château, an event along the river or in the vineyards. The wine harvest in late September and early October is a great time to visit.
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