All along the Loire Valley are pretty medieval towns, fairytale châteaux and neat lines of grapes to make the wine that temps travellers, but the stretch between Angers and Blois is the loveliest, and best seen at your own pace from the saddle of your bike.
Medieval streets might be a bit bumpy but they're pretty! This eight day cycling itinerary takes in the highlights of the Loire with a good balance between time on your bike and off.
The main local attraction is probably Château d'Angers. It's one of the more fort-y looking chateaux, medieval in age: as are its beautiful tapestries. Originally this was one long tapestry, 100 yards long and 20 feet high, but it's been broken up into segments for display amongst a collection of 15th and 16th Century tapestries. Another Angers attraction is Château Brissac which is supposed to be haunted as well as beautiful, and is the tallest in Normandy. It's also got a certain Gothic melancholy to its design.
The town of Saumur is between two rivers and surrounded on all sides by vineyards, which produce the sparkling, mostly Chenin Blanc, wines the area is known for.
Saumur is a good base to use for exploring the Loire, it's got more than its share of hotels and guest houses – or for something a bit different you can stay in one of the ancient tuffeau cave dwellings in of the Loire side cliffs. Many of the tuffeau caves not used as dwellings are used to store wine. This is a practice that has been going on as long as there have been vines growing here, which is a long time.
As well as wine, Saumur has a thing for the cavalry, both in the original sense of the word and the mechanical sense – the town has the National School of Horsemanship and an impressive tank museum, but the town's most impressive local sight is the Château de Saumur. One of its most popular attractions is the Saturday Market - the perfect place to find that one-off handbag that everyone will envy you for.
Beautiful, yes, but more importantly historically significant: this is where the Plantagenet kings and queens of England really came from, and some of their number are buried in this 12th Century abbey and on its grounds. One of the first celebrity burials was that of Henry II, who was also Comte d'Anjou and duc de Normandy, followed by his wife, Eleanor and son Richard the Lionheart.
When you're finished admiring their tombs and enjoying the garden cycle on 20kms more to Chinon. Chinon castle, just along the Vienne River from the abbey, sits at the bottom of hills of vines, mostly Cabernet Francs - Chinon is a good red antidote to all the Chenin Blanc bases wine produced in the area. The reds produced here are varied and age well. One of the largest producers is also one of those worth visiting, Couly-Dutheil.
First stop is Chateau d’Usse, which inspired Charles Perrault’s romantic 17th Century classic “Sleeping Beauty”. You get a feel for the delicate grace of the place just approaching it along the pretty drive lined with a dark wood, as the pale blue roofed towers and rounded pointy turrets and large windows come into view. Parrault was a guest here during a period when the castle was shaking off its heavy fortifications, but this has never been a castle of war, it’s more like a royal holiday home away from the bloody mess which Paris suffered periodically. Inside the salons are opulent and stylish to the best standards the French can manage. The chateau is private property and only a few well restored sections are open to the public, the rest is still their house!
Second stop is Château d'Azay-le-Rideau, which might be familiar to you from picture books of fairy-tale castles: it's perched by the Indre River, which the castle's Italian Renaissance style is reflected prettily in. Inside the period décor deserves to be described as sumptuous - complete with grand spiral staircases and rich tapestries.
Last château of the day is Villandry, whose graceful gardens in the Italian Renaissance style are more of an attraction than the actual castle. Who would have thought you could make a feature out of vegetables, but this is technically a potage garden, laid out like a huge patchwork quilt divided by box hedges, over three levels and to the south and west of the house.
Cycle on through the evening to Tours.
From Chenonceaux it's about 12kms riding between the vineyards before you get to Amboise and Château d'Amboise. One of this chateaux claims to fame is that it's reputed to be the burial place of Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo came as a guest King Francis I in December 1515, and lived and worked in the nearby Clos Lucé, which is connected to the château by an underground passage.
There's been a chateau on this site between Amboise and Blois since the 10th Century, but the current model of Château de Chaumont dates from the 14th, which is why its appearance is largely medieval, with a hint of Renaissance. Catherine de Medici, the castle's most famous owner, bought it in 1560, but since 1928 the government has owned it and it's now used as a museum.
Chaumont also has an ancient viaduct which you should look ever before cycling on towards Blois. As you near Blois the terrain becomes more varied, and the town takes advantage of it by sitting on a little hill. Which means it has a nice view, as well as being rather charming, and having some nice shops and restaurants. It's a larger centre which makes it a popular choice as a base for cyclists planning a loop of the nearby châteaux.
Blois also has its own château: Château de Blois, where Joan of Arc was blessed by the Archbishop of Reims before she set out with her army to fight the British in Orleans. It's also been the home of several kings and a favourite palace of King Louis XII. By the time the Revolution came around the Gothic palace hadn't been refurbished for more than 130 years, and though it was looking a bit shabby it was still a target for demolition as a royal favourite. But it was saved by its location close to the centre of town, and the way it was constructed around a central courtyard – features that made it very suitable for use as a military barracks. It was ransacked though, so the interior pieces are accumulated in a museum way, rather than a genuine inventory of the castle's original contents.
From Blois it's about 14kms worth of riding to get you to Cheverny and Château de Cheverny. The château looks like a full size doll house in white, with grey sloping roofs and plenty of large windows in perfect symmetry. It was built by Henri Hurault, Comte de Cheverny, but he lost it to the crown, though a generation later his son brought it back from the King's mistress. The family was forced to sell up again during the Revolution, but again managed to buy it back twenty years later during the Restoration.
Château de Cheverny has been open to the public since 1914, and was one of the first chateaux to do so, more proof of how important it is for the family to hold on to it despite the modern costs of keeping a chateau – they still own it today.
The collection of interior decorations are as much gallery or museum pieces as they are family furniture – there's tapestries, the kinds of chairs and tables with little golden feet on them, and many objets d'art.
If it looks familiar it could be because Tintin's Marlinspike Hall is a direct copy.
Leave Cheverny for a 17km ride towards the Loire's largest château, Château de Chambord, which has 440 rooms, 84 staircases and 365 chimneys, which helps give the exterior the detail it's well known for - think rounded towers and turrets, lots of large windows and roofs in places rounded and in places sharp. It takes a photo to properly describe it. Francis I built it after coming back from Milan, so it's 'French Renaissance' – the marriage of 'Italian Renaissance' and 'French Medieval', built around and Italian square keep with a beautiful French spiral staircase – rumoured to have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci - and flanked by French medieval bastion towers.
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It would be nice to be able to say that you'd cycled the Tour de France, but it would be a lot nicer to spend a week cycling the Loire Valley, stopping off at the vineyards you pass for a tipple, sleeping in comfortable rooms in pretty medieval towns etc.
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