France: Biking the Loire Valley

Dates: September 22 – October 4, 2018
Land Cost: $2,590
Single Supplement: $575
Difficulty Level: Moderate
What’s Included: 11 nights, daily breakfast and dinner, group transfer from and to the airport; English-speaking guide, support van, bicycle rental, all entrance fees, and our famous t-shirt.

If you like bicycling on quiet roads …

… if you like châteaux, if you like French food…are you with me here? Thought so. Nothing to object to. A long-time favorite returns to the season line-up with this Loire Valley tour.

We’ll stay two nights in Chinon, where the local château once was home to Plantagenet kings and both Rabelais (wickedly French satirist) and Joan of Arc (saintly French martyr) are immortalized in bronze.

This is châteaux country, pretty as a picture and within easy reach of Paris, so a natural choice for the ruling class’s country homes. Some homes. We’ll pass Château d’Ussé, a romantic mélange of styles that inspired the 17th-century writer Charles Perrault to invent the story of Sleeping Beauty. At Azay-le-Rideau, we’ll visit the famous château where Henri IV’s beloved mistress, Gabrielle d’Estrées, lived when she wasn’t with the king.

All was not happy in châteaux, however. In the town of Loches, where the streets follow patterns laid out in the Middle Ages, the castle houses torture cells as well as grand audience chambers. Unfortunates were locked for years on end in cages made of wood and iron. Happily, we are free to enjoy this pleasant town and will put aside our bicycles for a day of shopping (don’t miss the bakeries), café time, and people watching, after a conducted tour of important sights.

Somewhere along the line castles ceased to be fortresses and became simply elegant houses. Château de Chenonceau, begun in the early 16th century and perhaps the most imaginative, charming and inviting of them all, was home to another king’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers. It was she who had the marvelous idea of extending the riverside castle by an arched bridge to connect with the opposite bank. Her tenancy was abruptly terminated, however, when King Henri II died and Queen Catherine de’ Medici took the delightful place for her own. Catherine added the gallery that tops the bridge, 200 feet long and 20 meters wide, windowed on either side and used as a ballroom. She also lined a small room with green velvet and ruled France, as regent, from there. Later Gabrielle d’Estes, when Azay-le-Rideau wasn’t available, spent time at Chenonceau.

Nearby, in the town of Amboise, the 15th-century French king Charles II held court and, when he wasn’t distracted by the Hundred Years War, built a clock tower standing today. In the next century François I, still ruling from Amboise, invited Leonardo da Vinci to make his home there and he did, within walking distance of the castle. We’ll visit his house, Clos-Lucé, where he died in 1519.

Plans for the Château de Chambord may very well have begun in Leonardo’s Amboise home. His drawings of double staircases, like that of Chambord, were made there. On our last bicycling day we ride through forest to visit this glorious dream of a castle, coming on it almost by surprise as we emerge from the woods. It is the ultimate château, the one all others have been pointing toward.

Meanwhile, we’ve been enjoying the hospitality of Loire Valley hotels, where service is a matter of intense pride; having the occasional noon-day picnic when the weather is inviting, and savoring French cuisine in an area that used to cook for kings. To say nothing of having some fine bike rides.