The Loire Valley: A taste of wheel life

There are few better places in France to enjoy a cycling tour, as Simon Calder finds out
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The Independent Travel

Usually the scapegoat is signposting, though sometimes the map is to blame. Occasionally I may even entertain the prospect that I may be culpable. Whatever the cause, whenever I try to follow a waymarked cycle trail I seem to get comprehensively lost at least once. While the afternoon ebbs away, I try to work out my location and figure out how to get back on track, which inevitably involves a steep climb against the wind.

Exasperation was happily absent from my Tour de Loire. This enterprise is like the Tour de France, in terms of the location and the means of transport, but requires only about one-millionth of the effort - and no pharmaceutical assistance.

Right now, I know exactly where I am: in the middle of what feels like a Turner landscape, where the mists of autumn bestow the river and countryside with extraordinary softness. I am moving west along the levée that tames the left bank of Loire, a man-made dyke that ticks all the right boxes for the cyclist: a smooth surface, superb views and almost zero motorised traffic.

The riverscape changes constantly. As La Loire finds her way towards the Atlantic, the waters carve strange, almost sculptural, channels. Before me is a gratifying vista of motionless trees (good: no breeze) and mellow meadows punctuated occasionally by doddery old farm buildings. La France profonde, indeed. Soon I shall be at La Clef D'or at Bréhémont, a riverside hostelry that seems to meet most cyclists' needs after a brisk ride from Tours: Café - Tabac - Hotel - Restaurant.

Fish from the Loire is just what the cyclist ordered. Today's expedition began about four hours ago at the gare in Tours. Three minutes' walk from the gorgeous façade is the tourist bureau (which, the certificate asserts, is a four-star office de tourisme) with a five-star collection of literature about La Loire à Vélo.

One more minute takes you to a bike-hire shop. And 10 minutes later you can climb aboard a bike with an absurd number of gears - and promptly get off again, because the first stretch of the journey downriver is through a shopping precinct.

Your westbound expedition begins by heading south-south-east for several kilometres. Curious, but rational. I have got lost in the banlieue of Tours often enough to know that the suburbs are a tangle of fast roads and housing estate. By following the course of the old Roman road over the railway and the Cher, you escape the strictures of suburbia rapidly. And there on the right, just beyond the lake, is the first La Loire à Vélo signpost.

The more the world frets about the environmental damage caused by travellers' desire to see so much of the world, the more horribly smug us cyclists become - and the more investment is made in sensitive solutions. La Loire à Vélo is one of the best: a network of 250km of carefully created cycle trails that threads through the château-rich campagne of the Loire Valley. It enables visitors to see the region at the ideal pace, while preserving the planet and getting fit (so long as you don't avail yourself of the Tabac part of La Clef D'or). Using a combination of lightly used minor roads, woodland tracks and dedicated bike paths, the network allows you to explore in safety and serenity.

One stretch, from Beaugency to Blois, enables you to drift downstream for 50km alongside a river of unfolding landscapes, pattered with sandy islands. But perhaps the most alluring component of the network is the one I am presently savouring: the journey is down the Loire from Tours, handily explained in a set of four detailed, English-language maps.

The first stretch involves gliding alongside the Cher, which for some distance meanders tantalisingly close to the Loire before uniting just beyond Villandry. Then comes this present elevated sweep, which will continue well beyond Bréhémont before descending into a long, narrow bois that provides some welcome shade.

You then find yourself signposted south, away from the river bank, to skirt around a nuclear power station. The trail crosses the Indre (another of the countless tributaries of France's longest river) and takes you to the villages of Avoine and Savigny-en-Véron. Long zigs and longer zags lead to the banks of the Vienne, almost at the end of its course from the Massif Central. The confluence with the Loire is at Candes-St-Martin - a couple of kilometres downriver, and requiring a 450-degree manoeuvre to get cyclists across the bridge. This may be the one occasion when you have to look twice at the map.

You will want to pause at this impossibly picturesque village (see page 6), and possibly scamper up the Chemin du Panorama to see where you have been. Candes-St-Martin merges almost imperceptibly with the adjacent village of Montsoreau. When you encounter the fast road to Saumur, it is time to start looking for those green-and-blue signposts. The trail from here is provisional, but you should cycle it soon lest the course should change. The present route is spectacular. It leads past troglodyte dwellings (see page VII) and steeply uphill, when you discover that an apparently unnecessary number of gears is just what you need.

The trail takes you loftily past vineyards that march to the horizon, and lonely churches filled with the echoes of the centuries. The creators of La Loire à Vélo know how to tantalise and reward the cyclist. The last dozen kilometres comprise the hardest graft of the entire trip, but you are rewarded by passing the doorstep of the château at Saumur, followed by a short descent to the culinary epicentre of the town: Place-St-Pierre, where you can virtuously eat your way through the menu and toast your excellent navigation.

Simon Calder rented a bike from Detours de Loire, 5 rue du Rempart, 37000 Tours (00 33 2 47 61 22 23; www.locationdevelos.com). A list of bike-rental suppliers is available at www.loire-a-velo.fr/index_en.htm; click on 'bike hire'.

ON YOUR BIKE

The menu for travellers planning to see the region on two wheels has plenty to tempt the appetite besides La Loire à Vélo: Les Châteaux à Vélo, for a start - paths, lanes and quiet minor roads that lead you through the gentle châteaux country, through tiny villages and vast vineyards.

Yet you need not adhere to an official bike route to enjoy cycling in the Loire Valley. Biking in France has two big advantages over the activity in Britain: twice the area with the same population, and a national empathy for the travelling cyclist.

The Loire Valley is especially well-appointed for two wheels because of the gentle gradients and intricate network of back roads that are refreshingly free of motorised traffic. The essential adjunct to any exploration is a large-scale IGN map - the French equivalent of our Ordnance Survey charts, available from Stanfords (020-7836 1321; www.stanfords.co.uk).

Thus prepared, you can explore the region in close focus. Base yourself in the city of Orléans, for example, and you can explore the forest to the north - or pedal south of the Loire and visit the beautiful village of Olivet.

Further west, the Loire Valley presents a few challenging hills but rewards you with campagne that unravels deliciously to the horizon, and some great local food to provide energy for the last few kilometres.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE TO THE LOIRE VALLEY

GETTING THERE

In recent years the options for reaching the Loire Valley have multiplied. By air, Tours airport is served daily by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) from London Stansted. In winter, promotional tickets on off-peak departures can cost as little as £30 return for people booking online at least two weeks in advance, though for popular weekend flights a more realistic figure is £80 return. If you book late, it can be considerably higher. In addition to the Stansted-Tours link, FlyBE (0871 700 0123; www.flybe.com) operates a summer service from Southampton to Angers, until 26 October this year.

By rail, most travellers take Eurostar from London Waterloo or Ashford to Paris Gare du Nord, and transfer from there to Montparnasse station. High-speed trains (TGVs) from this Paris terminus take 40 minutes to reach Vendôme - Villiers-sur-Loir (serving both the town and the village on the Loir), and about an hour to St-Pierre-des-Corps, on the outskirts of Tours. Some trains continue on from here t o Tours' beautiful station (a few carry on along the Loire to Saumur); otherwise frequent shuttles link the two stations.

Rail Europe (08705 848 848; www.raileurope.co.uk) sells tickets to any destination in France. Fares to the Loire depend on demand and how far ahead you book. The lowest fare in standard class is usually around £79 return.

Other destinations in the Loire Valley region also have good connections with the capital. There are frequent direct trains from Paris Austerlitz to Orléans, taking around an hour. If time is on your side, a minor line parallels the TGV express route south-west from Paris-Montparnasse station to Vendôme.

Montparnasse is also the place to start for the west of the region, with "classic" and high-speed trains routed through Le Mans to Angers.

Motorists can, of course, use any of the Channel crossings, but the western approaches - from Portsmouth to Caen or St-Malo on Brittany Ferries (08705 360 360; www.brittanyferries.co.uk) - offer a more tranquil drive that avoids Paris.

GETTING AROUND

An intricate rail network connects many towns and villages in the region. The main regional line links Orléans with Tours, Saumur and Angers, mainly along the right bank of the Loire. Stopping trains serve even the smallest communities. The French Railways' website, www.voyages-sncf.com, is an excellent source of timetable and fare information. Trains are augmented by buses, though services can be scarce.

STAYING THERE

The Loire Valley is full of superb places to stay, from rustic gites and Chambres d'Hôte (the French version of a B&B) to châteaux that have been transformed into palatial hotels. In between, there are modern, mid-price chain options that provide excellent value - and plenty of family-run hotels that offer more character and a warm welcome.

Pour encourager les visiteurs, the départements of the Loire Valley have some excellent autumn and winter promotions on beds.

In Loir-et-Cher, between now and 1 March, the second night at a Chambre d'Hôte is half-price. The Logis de France hotel-restaurant association of Loir-et-Cher offers a 20 per cent discount on each room booked (not including meals) from 15 October to 30 November 2006. To book either offer, visit www.france-tourism.chambordcountry.com.

The Anjou promotion offers a straight 50 per cent discount for weekend stays (Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights) of up to three nights between 20 October and 10 December. The offer is valid at 24 hotels in Anjou and booking should be made direct with the hotel. For more information, see www.anjou-tourisme.com

In Touraine, the time to seek bargains is the weekends (from Friday to Sunday) from 10 November to 10 December, when 1,000 hotel rooms are available at half the normal price.

The deal in Loiret is for gîtes. During the last three weekends of November, you can save 20 per cent on the normal price. For more information, see www.tourismeloiret.com.

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