France: Two-wheeled tales from the riverbank

The Loire à Vélo cycle trail takes in castles, vineyards and fine restaurants. Jo Caird goes for a spin

I’m an experienced cyclist, yet on a recent trip in the Loire Valley I almost came to a sticky end just 20 minutes into a two-day bicycle tour. As much as I’d like to blame French motorists, my unfamiliar rental bike or dangerous potholes, that wouldn’t be fair. The reason I nearly lost control while travelling at less than 12km per hour was that I was trying to take a photo of a man cycling with a baguette in his pannier. The picture didn’t come out, but that oh-so-Gallic image will stay forever in my mind.

My partner and I had arrived in Angers the previous afternoon. The catalyst for the trip was the completion last year of the Loire à Vélo trail, an 800km (500 miles) network of signposted cycle routes running along the River Loire from the Atlantic coast to just outside Nevers in Burgundy. Some of the trail is bicycle-only and some is shared with pedestrians, while the majority runs along quiet country roads. Dreamt up in 1995, it’s been a long time coming.

Our steeds – chunky affairs with pannier, saddlebag, lock, pump, repair kit, helmet and high-vis jacket – were waiting for us when we arrived at our hotel. Détours de Loire will drop off and pick up bikes wherever they’re wanted along the route and transfer your luggage, so you can cycle more or less unencumbered. To qualify for the official Loire à Vélo accommodation mark, hotels and guesthouses must offer facilities for cyclists including secure bike parking, restaurants and repair kits. The three places we stayed in are representative of the wide range available: from the cheap and cheerful Hôtel le Progrès in Angers to the quirky B&B Le Domaine de L’Oie Rouge in Les Rosiers-sur-Loire, ending up with the elegant Hostellerie La Croix Blanche in Fontevraud-l’Abbaye.

As it was too late to set off that day, we squeezed in a visit to Château d’Angers. This 13th-century castle is worth visiting for its vineyard-topped ramparts and landscaped moat. The Apocalypse Tapestry, a massive 14th-century textile with scenes from the Book of Revelation, is an added treat.

This may have been the Loire à Vélo, but for the first few hours of cycling the following morning the river itself was nowhere to be seen. Just outside Angers the landscape became alien, the ground covered in fragments of the slate that has been quarried here for the past 600 years. Trees and plants grew through and out of the top of enormous piles of the stuff – some pieces of which were twice the size of me.

A section of completely flat countryside followed, giving way by the time lunch came round to the more picturesque landscape of the immediate Loire river valley. We picnicked in the main square of Saint-Mathurin-sur-Loire, whose austere church is oriented towards the Loire rather than towards the east. This architectural quirk, common to churches in the area, gives a sense of the influence the river has exerted here over the centuries.

An afternoon spent whizzing past absurdly picturesque riverside villages brought us to our rest stop for the night, Les Rosiers-sur-Loire, and the superb Restaurant La Toque Blanche. Oyster and foie gras amuses-bouches, the local speciality of sandre (pike-perch) in a lemon butter sauce and a giant macaron with crème Anglaise for dessert would have been too rich a combination in any other circumstances. However, after cycling 39km (24 miles), this extraordinary meal felt entirely justified.

The Loire was blanketed in mist as we cycled away from Les Rosiers and east along the river in the shadow of imposing limestone cliffs. Spindly trees leaned from the clifftop over houses built from the soft stone known as tuffeau, smoke puffing from their chimneys in the chill morning air. At Chênehutte we slowed to admire beautifully tended front gardens built right at the water’s edge and stopped to stroke rotund ponies with rock-star manes a few kilometres outside of Saint-Hilaire-Saint-Florent.

This town, named after the two Benedictine monasteries built here in the 6th century, looks ordinary until you descend to the foundations, which are riddled with 1,000-year-old tuffeau quarries. On a tour of the cellars of sparkling-winemaker Bouvet-Ladubay, our guide pointed out a shaft rising 25m above our heads up through the tuffeau, explaining that this narrow tunnel had been the quarrymen’s only route in and out of this dank warren. A quick tasting back at the surface and we continued on our way in the now blazing sunshine, each weighed down with two bottles of bubbly.

A little way on in Saumur, I puffed my way up a steep hill to the fairy-tale castle, then got my breath back while taking in gorgeous views over the city on one side and the river on the other.

Almost every turn on the Loire à Vélo is signposted, so it’s hard to get lost. The problem is that few signs tell you which direction you’re heading in, so things can get confusing when the route branches or you lose the track and try to get back on it elsewhere. The plan after leaving Saumur had been to cycle along the river again for the next stage, including a section that goes through a tuffeau tunnel, but somehow we got onto an alternative route through the vineyards instead. Freewheeling down roads littered with squashed grapes from the recent harvest was one of our most exhilarating moments.

We made it to Fontevraud and our hotel, a coaching inn dating back to 1796, just as night was falling. It felt strange leaving my bike, knowing that the next day I’d be swapping two wheels for four, in the shape of a taxi to Tours station, for our train home.

Another excellent dinner and a good night’s sleep later, my muscles were still aching, but could not detract from the glories of Fontevraud Abbey. As we dashed around the burial place of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine before heading to the station, I thought of the 83km we’d covered, and began plotting the next trip. Only another 717km to go.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Jo Caird travelled with Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; raileurope.co.uk) which can arrange Eurostar to Paris and onwards train to Angers.

Cycling

Plan your route and order guide books on the Loire à Vélo website (cycling-loire.com).

Maps are available at the Tourist Office at 7 Place Kennedy in Angers (00 33 2 41 23 50 00; angersloire tourisme.com).

Détours de Loire (00 33 2 47 61 22 23; detoursdeloire.fr) offers bicycle rental from €10 (£8.60) per half day (with discounts for longer rental periods) and luggage transfer from about €50 per transfer.

Staying there

Hôtel le Progrès, Angers (00 33 2 41 88 10 14; hotelleprogres.com) has double rooms from €66 (£57), excluding breakfast.

Domaine de l’Oie Rouge, Les Rosiers-sur-Loire (00 33 2 41 53 65 65; domaine-oie-rouge.com) has doubles from €80 (£69), including breakfast.

Hostellerie La Croix Blanche, Fontevraud (00 33 2 41 51 71 11; hotel- croixblanche.com) has doubles from €130 (£112), including breakfast.

Eating there

Brasserie du Théâtre, Angers  (00 33 2 41 24 15 15; brasserie- du-theatre.com).

Restaurant La Torque Blanche, Les Rosiers-sur-Loire (00 33 2 41 51 80 75; restaurantlatoqueblanche.fr).

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Day In a Page

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there