For ultimate grandeur, Chateau de Versailles is hard to beat, with its masterpiece ceilings, grand stairways and palatial ballroom. But there’s something sweetly magical about Chateau de Maintenon, which sits in a leafy patch of the Loire Valley.
Although smaller and less plush, gazing up at its fairy-tale turrets and wandering the rooms I’m transfixed. So transfixed, in fact, I totally forget that I’m plodding around this regal scene in padded Lycra.
Not your usual palace-perusing get-up, no, but it can be explained. I’m exploring France’s Veloscenic, or La Veloscenie, as it’s originally known, a 453.5km cycling trail spanning four regions – from Paris to Mont St-Michel in Normandy – created in 2013. Now, an English version of the accompanying guidebook has launched, so along with four fellow cyclists, I’ve come to give it a whirl.
We’re not quite doing the whole route. With four days to play with, we’ve trimmed off certain bits, opting to taxi those instead. This is the beauty of doing Veloscenic; you make the rules and take as many pit-stops as you like – well, this and the fact it takes you deep through the countryside, boasting four Unesco World Heritage Sites along the way.
After flying into Paris, we transfer to Domain of Sceaux, where we meet Hugo from Petite Reine Normandie, whose van will be lugging our cases.
We’ve hired our bikes from Loc’Velo, opting for hybrids but they also stock e-bikes, so if your joints and fitness levels aren’t what they used to be, you can still enjoy the experience.
We settle into our saddles with a quick tour around the Domaine of Sceaux’s famous gardens before hitting the road to pedal the 28km to Versailles. Although, to be fair, roads only make up a proportion of Veloscenic; around 42 per cent of the route is traffic-free. As well as detailing the route (which has its own branded signage), the Veloscenic guidebook aims to provide all the information you’d possibly need, from how you go about taking bikes on trains, to the bike-friendly accommodation options along the way.
The route takes in forest, farmland, rustic towns and sweeping valleys
The next day, Hugo carts us to the Rambouillet Forest, where we hop on our bikes for a 25km ride towards Chateau de Maintenon – two hours cruising along sun-dappled woodland trails, sound-tracked by birdsong and crunching twigs.
While France, with her challenging Alps, smooth roads and bicycle-respecting drivers, has long been popular with road-bikers, this route’s all about scenery and sightseeing, and being as leisurely as you like. Our next stretch is a gentle 20km on to Chartres, a town that’s not really on the tourist radar, but is so worth a visit.
Day three is probably our most strenuous; a 35km morning ride crossing a series of rolling hills. Thankfully, blue skies and swathes of green valley and golden rapeseed fields keep my mind off my tiring knees.
Day four brings a quick visit to the ruins of Domfront Castle (where the Veloscenic and Velo Francette routes cross) and a final 14km back in the saddle – complete with a couple of puff-inducing hills.
But, the push is worth it. Because while there are no yellow jerseys or champagne magnums to mark the end of our little Tour de France, our trophy is the magnificent Mont St-Michel.
France’s most-visited location outside Paris, this island monument sits proudly in the mouth of the Couesnon River like a spectacular stone cupcake, its abbey the frosting rising mighty atop a walled rim case. You don’t get much more scenic than that.
For more information visit veloscenic.com.