As the 100th Tour de France gets under way, Ellen Branagh embarks on a more leisurely cycle tour of the Loire Valley
Will this work with your bike, madame?”
Fortunately it wasn’t a complicated piece of machinery I was being asked about, but a glass of fine French white, produced in the Loire Valley, ready to be tasted.
And despite a kind vineyard owner’s concern, it turns out the beauty of a cycling holiday means that the odd glass of vin blanc or rouge does indeed “work”.
Thanks to Sir Bradley and his compatriots’ stunning success at the London Olympics, cycling has seen a huge resurgence. More and more people are finding the idea of getting in the saddle appealing, and some tour operators are reporting a whopping 300 per cent boost in the sale of holidays by bike.
This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the Tour de France and, in August, 20,000 amateur cyclists will take part in a 100-mile race along the 2012 London Olympic route as part of the world’s largest cycling festival, RideLondon.
With so much buzz around a sport based on something pretty much all of us did as a child, my husband and I decided to see what all the fuss was about. But rather than racing up mountains and through valleys, we chose a gentle jaunt around the Loire Valley in central France.
Armed with some well-equipped bikes – loaded with panniers, trip monitors to calculate speed and repair kits – and just a map and set of directions, it was up to us to negotiate the 25-35 mile route each day.
Easy, you might think, but it certainly proved to be a challenge in some parts. The odd wrong turn led to a few extra miles and a quick reassessment of our location, as well as – needless to say – a few heated exchanges. The silver lining of that cloud was the achievement of solving the problem and getting “back on track”.
Some people might choose to move their own luggage, but we travelled in style, with our cases transported for us. In fact, the only real hardship was the occasional grey, drizzly day.
But isn’t that the fun of adventure? The thrill of successfully navigating an unknown route, getting up hills you didn’t think you could, while taking in beautiful sights, interesting history and a bucket-load of culture, makes a wonderfully-deserved glass of wine and dinner at your destination taste even better.
The Loire Valley has a reputation for fine wine and great food – along with great art, architecture and 300 chateaux to discover. In fact, every town we pedalled through had its own grand “residence” – ranging from a majestic construction that overlooks bourgeois Saumur to more intimate buildings that have been converted into hotels.
The advantage of cycling is having plenty of time to admire these historic buildings from the outside, or to stop off and explore their impressive grounds.
Straddling the Cher River, Chenonceau was once at the centre of a dispute between Catherine de Medici, wife of Henry II of France, and her husband’s long-time lover Diane de Poitiers. Even more striking are the three-tiered gardens at the chateau at Villandry, as well as the horticultural work of art created by the Countess of Venant at the Chateau de Valmer. The picturesque towns and villages of the Loire are rich in history. Amboise, with its own towering castle, is home to the Manoir du Clos Luce, where Leonardo da Vinci lived the final three years of his life. Despite being bombed during the Second World War, Tours still has a wonderful old town with leaning wooden-beamed buildings and cobbled streets.
The tiny towns of Montrichard (made of “tuffeau” sedimentary rock featuring compressed fossils and sand) and Fontevraud (famous for its abbey which once housed both a nunnery and a monastery) were both perfect places to stop off for simple refreshments.
The pace of cycling is a great way to enjoy the scenery. From quiet roads along the banks of the Loire, as well as its sister rivers, to custom-made gravel tracks with picturesque picnic areas, we made our way across the valley.
The panorama across acres of vineyards in Vouvray looked even more beautiful because I’d reached the vantage point by my own steam, while the thrill of zooming downhill through the same vineyards into tiny French towns was pretty exhilarating, to say the least.
We bumped over dirt tracks, negotiated busy towns, wheezed up impossible-seeming climbs to chateaux perched on the tops of hills, and each time came out smiling. There was even a smile after the copious amounts of tumbles from this particularly amateur Victoria Pendleton.
Best of all was stopping off for a well-earned treat. As someone who’s virtually always on a diet, I welcomed the opportunity to eat guilt-free thanks to so much exercise. Starting the day with a buttery, melt-in-the-mouth pastry can put a grin on anyone’s face.
We supped on traditional French cider along the way, stopped for galettes – savoury buckwheat pancakes stuffed with all manner of good things – and crepes.
Evenings were feasts of meat, cheese and red wine – all the perfect tonic for tired and weary muscles.
During the day, we sampled fine wines in many of the “caves” (underground cellars).
It’s perfectly acceptable to arrive on your bike, take a small tour, then try the vineyard’s produce before buying a bottle or two and going on your merry way.
A cycling holiday in the Loire is a wonderful way of taking in stunning scenery, sampling fine cuisine, and challenging yourself to something you probably weren’t quite sure you could do.
Does this work with your bike, madame?” Oh yes it does.
Ellen Branagh was a guest of Macs Adventure on their six-day Chateaux Of The Loire Valley In Style cycling holiday, graded as “moderate”. Price, from £1,335 per person, includes accommodation at luxury hotel-chateaux, luggage transfer from hotel to hotel each day, breakfast, some evening meals, maps and route plans. For more information and to book, visit www.macsadventure.com or call 0141 530 1950.
Train fares from London to Amboise start at £96 standard class return per person, with journey times from 4 hours 48 minutes. To book, contact Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; www.raileurope.co.uk).