7 July – Drenched

7 July – Drenched

When we woke up it was raining. By the time we had eaten breakfast it had cleared, so we set off on our last day on the La Loire à Vélo.

We stumbled across some sculptures in a park in Montjean, one of which depicted a man struggling to escape from the rock.

The ride to Ancenis was pleasant and reasonably dry.  At Ancenis we left the la Loire à Vélo route to cross over into Brittany, as we are wanting to avoid going through the city at Nantes.

Ancenis has a Chateau which is partly in ruins. It dates from the 10th century and has two striking towers (large and stubby) from the 15th century. We stopped to buy strawberries at the Saturday morning market and then went on to a supermarket to get the rest of our evening meal (as everything closes on Saturday afternoon).

Just before we found the supermarket it began to rain again. While we were inside it stopped and the sun was shining as we walked out. As soon as we started riding it began again. We had this on and off rain until we reached Nort-sur-Erdre, where we planned to stay. Unfortunately the Office de Tourisme couldn’t find us accommodation in town, so we decided to ride on a further 16km to a Gite (holiday house) out in the countryside, near the canal.

As soon as we left it began raining again in earnest without letting up and we became soaked (including our shoes). Kris elected to ride along the road most of the way, which was a good decision. After some tricky navigation we found our way onto the canal and it was very muddy. Soon my legs were full of mud, as well as the gear chain and pannier bags. We had difficulty finding the Gite as the instructions were less than precise. We asked for directions to the village (Lappé, which is near Le Chevallerais) several times. It is so small it doesn’t appear on the map. It was a wonder we found it. When we got to the Gite we phoned the owner who soon appeared. The accommodation is not in the Gite, but in a building next door that appears to be used as a pre-school out of holiday times. We are sleeping in a makeshift area upstairs. However it is very private and warm and there is a good kitchen and bathroom. Best of all there is a washing machine – so no hand washing for Kris tonight!

In all we did 84km but it felt longer because of the rain.

6 July – Flowers and houses

6 July – Flowers and houses

We set off reluctantly in the rain, which luckily soon cleared up. The first part of the trip went past Chenehutte, Tréves and Cunault, which all had mostly white stone houses with blue shutters and are right on the banks of the Loire. They take a lot of care with their gardens and there are many flowers, especially roses and geraniums decorating the front of the houses. At one point there are private gardens with vegetables and flowers right up to the edge of the Loire, with the houses that they belong to on the other side of the road.

We stopped at Ste-Gemmes-Sur-Loir to see the Jardin du Presbytère. This is a small garden in front of the church with brightly coloured flowers – all orange and red and yellow – planted in geometric patterns – and immaculately kept.

In the afternoon there were a few very short showers of about 5 min each. We could literally see the individual dark clouds passing over us. Once it was finished the sun shone again and we were soon dry again.

We passed by Chalonnes-sur-Loire just after one of these showers and considered stopping there, but decided to go a bit further. The town looked lovely on the other side of the Loire – all white houses and a church.

At this point we were on an island in the middle of two parts of the Loire. We were amused to pass a Lenin pub just after Chalonnes – people were sitting outside, one with a full beard and another playing an accordion. We were again tempted to stop for a drink (and maybe interesting conversation with some socialists), however it would have been too hard to start cycling again.

We reached the end of our journey at Montjean-sur-Loire (after 94km). Our bikes were a bit muddy from the rain and needed a wash. We found a wonderful bed and breakfast that specialises in cyclists. It is run by a friendly German lady who provides a shared kitchen, dining room and lounge for her guests, as well as the bedroom. We enjoyed making a cooked meal again.

Our hostess tells us that the weather is unseasonably cool – that this time last year the temperature was in the 30s with no rain. She has also had fewer cycle tourists coming through than usual – 2010 was her best year so far.

The next morning we had one of our best breakfasts in France – in fact it was more like a German breakfast. We had a boiled egg, cheese and yogurt, as well as good French bread, croissant and jam and coffee.

4 July – Gardens and Caves

4 July – Gardens and Caves

Our first stop today was at Villandry, only about 15km out of Tours, to see the gardens at the Chateau Villandry (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ch%C3%A2teau_de_Villandry). The gardens are beautiful and require a huge amount of labour to maintain – there are lots of trimmed box hedges and manicured lawns. The vegetable gardens are immaculately laid out in geometric patterns – it is not clear whether the vegetables are ever eaten or if they are purely decorative. There are also fun elements such as a maze and children’s playground.

There were lots of other bicycle tourists on the route today, many also stopping at Villandry. Most of the route was on the river bank and easy going. We passed fields of sunflowers, about to flower (they will look amazing when they do).

Crossing the bridge at Candes-St-Martin, we had a view of the lovely stone church and town on the river. The road into town took us past the church. There were people having lunch at a restaurant right in front of it. We stopped to have a look – the church is from the 12-13th centuries, honors St Martin and has carvings of figures on the porch and high in the nave.

The ride was extremely picturesque from here on. We passed by several white cliffs where people had built houses around caves in the cliffs. We stopped at Turquant to have a closer look at some of them. They had art galleries in them, so we could look inside. One was a cafe where we had some fruit juice. The town around these caves had narrow streets with houses made of white stone and several artist studios.

Coming into Samur we stopped to see the Notre-Dame des Ardillers – a church with a huge dome built in the 17th century. This has been a place of pilgrimage since the 15th century when a farmer found a Pieta statuette buried in a field. He took it home but the next day found that she had returned to the same place. This happened two or three times over until the farmer constructed a stone arch on this place to shelter her, from which water sprung. This statue is still venerated today.

In all we did 97km today – around 85km to Saumur and the rest to the supermarket and back.

We are staying in a self catering cabin in a campground, mostly so that we can do some of our own cooking. This is the first time we are staying in a French campground. The cabin is not really cheaper to stay in than a hotel or bed and breakfast. I can see why families come here though as there are playgrounds and a children’s entertainment program. It is also pretty empty considering that it is high season (only about 30% full).

The campground is on an island in the middle of the Loire. You can look across the river and see the Chateau from parts of it.

3 July – Tours

3 July – Tours

Happy to report that we have had no mechanical mishaps today.

We traveled 95km from Blois to Tours, including some time riding around Tours.

Having become accustomed to an easy to navigate route – we were surprised when the bike track signs disappeared just before Mosnes, leaving Kris to navigate with the map. We picked up signs later saying the track we were on was provisional. None-the-less we found our way to Amboise (where there are two more chateau), through fields and small country towns. We saw some ripe wheat being harvested by a combine harvester.

After Amboise we lost the official track again, onto another marked bike track which went inland through a pleasant forested area. Kris navigated (sometimes off the map we had), to get us back on the bike track going into Tours.

In Tours we had another experience of lack of sign posting. Usually the Office de Tourisme is very clearly sign-posted in French towns and easy to find, being at the center. In Tours it was not sign posted at all and we failed to find it by going to the Cathedral and other central locations. It is a huge and busy city and we spent about an hour riding around asking people before we found the office. It is next to the railway station and has a neon sign outside – so very visible once you get there! We saw most of the sights while we were searching for the tourist office – there are some huge impressive buildings – especially the Cathedral, railway station and Hotel de Ville.

We have a hotel near the center of the city so had a chance to explore the old city in the evening. It is very lively with lots of places to eat and drink, all with outside tables – though the beer is expensive.

2 July – Journey to Blois, via Chambord

2 July – Journey to Blois, via Chambord

We had a terrible start to the day when the chain on Kris’s bike broke about 300m from our start. We asked a couple of people where to find a bike repair shop and they both suggested Declathon – about 4km away. So off we went – Kris pushing his bike along with one foot! We got there and got sorted out more quickly than I expected. Once again we had good customer service from Declathon – they repaired the chain without charge. This set our day back about an hour.

We passed a large chateau (all closed up) at Meung-sur-Loire and bought some quiche to supplement the usual baguette and jam French breakfast we had eaten. The route from here went through lovely wooded roads next to the river and was well used (including some school groups).

Beaugency has a special bridge and some amazing old stone buildings – the most impressive for me was a huge stone tower.

In the early afternoon Kris’s bike broke a spoke – which he repaired successfully. This was really not a good day for bicycle maintenance – it made the day very long.

We took a detour from the river at St-Dye-Sur-Loire to go to Chambord – this is the largest Chateau in the Loire valley and is truly massive.  It is situated in the middle of nowhere –  surrounded by a 31 000 acre park, one of the biggest nature parks in Europe. We rode around part of the park to see different views of the chateau.

From here we progressed through several small towns to Blois, also on the Loire river and reached by crossing a stone bridge. I was thrilled to see a wild otter in the river just as we approached the city. Blois is the home of a royal chateau (Louis XII), which is at the top of a hill – hard work on bicycles.

We stayed at a bed and breakfast in a suburb back across the bridge. We bought a picnic meal at the supermarket on our way which we later ate in the bed and breakfast garden.

In all we did 102km – including the 8km to Declathon and back in the morning.

The following morning we were treated to the best breakfast we have had in France. This lady really likes fine food. We had home baked banana cake with organic ingredients, warm rolls, cheeses, jam, small custards made with real vanilla pod, nectarines, juice and coffee. This was so good we didn’t feel the need to stop for our usual mid morning snack break!!

1 July (Sunday) – Rest day in Orleans

1 July (Sunday) – Rest day in Orleans

We spent the day riding around the city on our bikes (38km).

A highlight was the Loire a Velo fete concert on the riverbank – a free concert put on by the regional council to promote the bicycle route.  The performances were on a floating stage, a lovely atmosphere at dusk on the river. We had a picnic supper while we listened.

The first bands were not really to our taste, but the final act was great – a percussion group called ‘Les Tambours du Bronx’ who used mainly old oil drums to make their sound (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Tambours_du_Bronx).

30 June (Saturday) – a Chateau, an Abby and a Cathedral

30 June (Saturday) – a Chateau, an Abby and a Cathedral

We took a more leisurely ride today to Orleans, with a number of stops along the way. Altogether we did 95 km.

Yesterday we saw a handful of bicycle tourists on the route and today even more. You could see some were doing overnight tours like us, but at least half were doing day trips.

Our first stop was at nearby St-Gondon where we sought out the bakery to buy some breakfast. I had a piece of ‘flan’ – which is very much like milk tart but without the cinnamon.

Our next stop was at Sully-sur-Loire, where we marveled at the chateau – it looks just like a fairy tale castle with several turrets and a moat around it. The town is right next to the chateau, so we stopped to have coffee (outdoors, next to a table of very noisy men who were smoking a lot – they smoke a lot here). We didn’t spend long in town as it was congested, being a busy Saturday morning.

After a lovely stretch right alongside the river, we came to St-Benoit. We stopped here to visit the Fleury Abbey, where the remains of St Benedict lie in the crypt. They were brought here from Naples by the monks in 672. There is an impressive porch tower, built in 1020 with sixteen columns, all with stone sculptures at the top.

The monks were dispersed during the French Revolution, but full monastic life has been restored here since 1944. There were a few of monks around (talking to a group of children, manning the gift shop) in their distinctive brown habits. We bought some of the chocolate that they have been making since 1878 in the gift shop. (see www.abbaye-fleury.com)

Our next stop was at Chateauneuf-sur-Loire, at the marine museum which displays the history of boating on the Loire. The original boats were flat bottomed sail boats. Later there were steam boats, until the railways came in and put lots of mariners out of work. At this stage steel manufacturing factories were opened in the area to make use of the ready labour force. There was also some information on the canals, which is what Kris particularly interested in, but disappointingly not much on the actual construction of the canals

From here we pressed on to Orleans, about 30km away. We had some nice fast straight runs along stop banks. The ride coming into the city is beautiful, along the river with some small lakes and parks on the other side of the track. There were off road bike paths right into the center of the city, what a pleasure!

The Office de Touristme is right next to the magnificent Salute-Croix Cathedral. We visited the Cathedral after sorting out our accommodation (since tomorrow is Sunday and there will be a service on when we are sight seeing). This is the biggest Cathedral that we have seen – really awe inspiring. There is an alter hanging and stained glass windows depicting Joan of Arc (in fact, there are many references to Joan of Arc all over the city). The organ began playing towards the end of our visit – making a wonderful noise. We quickly left when we saw very smartly dressed people coming in and realised a wedding was about to begin.

We are staying in a bed and breakfast close to the city center. It looks onto a busy street but has a nice big garden out the back. The furnishing is old fashioned (but comfortable).

29 June – La Loire à Vèlo

29 June – La Loire à Vèlo

Our first day’s ride on the Loire valley bike route. We were lucky to have nice cool overcast weather.

We were impressed with the quality of the bike route – most of it is tarred and totally off road. The whole bike route is almost 700km long (from Nevers to the Atlantic). We have bought a (French) booklet detailing the whole route. It was relaxing to be able to ride side by side for much of the time without worrying about traffic and on flat terrain.

Long stretches of the route are along river stop banks. About 8km were through the Réserve natrelle du Val de Loire, also along a stop bank – lots of trees with glimpses of the river. We stopped for a coffee at la Charité-sur-Loire at a crossroads hotel bar – without crossing the bridge into town.

We spent a while riding in circles around St-Satur, as the track signs through the town were so misleading. The Canal latéral à la Loire joins the river here, and the next part of the bike route is along the canal. There are a number of house boats docked at St-Satur, and some tourist house boats here and there on the canal.  The route leaves the canal at Bannay to ride alongside the river, through farmland again. We stopped to sample a few grains of wheat and found they were absolutely ripe – nutty and quite edible.

We passed a large power station with huge cooling towers just before Belleville, where we very briefly joined the canal again. Kris enjoyed racing a tourist house boat to the bridge.

Our next coffee stop was at Bonny-sur-Loire – quiet at this time of day – we had coffee at a bar in the town square. We decided to stop for the day at Briare, about 12km away. However, once we got there Kris suggested pressing on to Gien (another 11km), to make the next day’s ride to Orleans more manageable.

There is a pont-canal (a bridge taking the canal across the river) at Briare, which we crossed. It is not as large as the pont-canal at Agen, but still impressive.

Some of the track to Gien was a bit rough (untarred) with some up and down stretches – to wake us up at the end of the day.

Gien is beautiful to approach, it is on the other side of the river, with an arched bridge and a large church and chateau on a hill in the middle of the town. Jenny didn’t enjoy crossing the river as there is a lot of traffic bottlenecked on it.

We found a hotel on the side of the river overlooking the town and paid extra for a room with a river and chateau view – it was worth it as we enjoyed the view while eating our picnic and later on as the sun started to set.

We did a record distance today of 137km – possible due to the flat easy terrain and cool weather (I was exhausted but Kris still perky!)

28 June – A rest day in Nevers

28 June – A rest day in Nevers

We spent the day sight seeing in the city (on foot) and having lunch. It is very hot.

The highlight was the Cathedral of Saint Cyr and Sainte Julitte that has marvelous modern stained glass which reflects different colors on the walls. This was replaced as large parts of the Cathedral were damaged in the Second World War.

There is also a Dukes Palace and medieval city ramparts. The city is known for it’s ceramics and there are shops with hand painted porcelain (we saw some actually being painted in one shop).