Planet   Backpacker
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier
  "From flying monkey gods and amorous donkeys to tales of a bus caravan speeding through a terrorist-infested desert, Downes puts you right there with him."-- Ben Gohs, Charlevoix Courier
Biking France's Loire River Valley
Loire River Valley
Chambord boasts 440 rooms and hundreds of kilometers of bike paths.
Loire River Valley
The castle at Chaumont.
 

 It's said that there are more than 700 castles and palaces in the Loire River Valley of France and there is perhaps no better way to see them than at the handlebars of a bicycle.

  In fact, the French invested some 52 million euros (about $60 million U.S.) to develop the Loire a Velo, a bike path that runs some 500 miles along the river.  Some 800,000 cyclists enjoy sections of the route each year and every city along the Loire has at least one bike shop that rents quality hybrid bikes for $15-$20 per day.

  If you want to bring your own bike, no problem; the Loire is just two hours south of Paris by train.

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Loire River Valley
Map of the Loire a Velo is from http://www.cycling-loire.com, an excellent source of information.
  The castles of the Loire are called chateaux by the French and 42 of them are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Many are easily reached via a network of cycle paths and one-lane country roads that wind off a well-marked trail running alongside the Loire.

  On a trip down the Loire in the fall of 2015 we found plenty of day-trippers visiting the chateaux as well as long-haul cycle tourers who were doing the whole route.


  Stellar attractions along the route include:


  -- The 440-room Chateau of Chambord (pictured here), set amid an estate the size of central Paris, with a mind-blowing spiral staircase said to have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci.  You could spend several days just riding the bike paths through the grounds; though do be careful not to run over a boar.

  -- Speaking of da Vinci, you'll find his home and final resting place in the town of Amboise, with the grounds including a museum and models of his many inventions.

  -- Flower-sniffers will love the six gardens of Villandry, said to be the most extensive and opulent in all of Europe.

  -- The Chateau of Chenonceau is the Loire's top photo-op, it's built atop a bridge spanning the Cher River.

  -- The medieval fortress of Chaumont-sur-Loire, evokes storybook visions of knights in armor.


  And many more, but frankly, dear readers, it's pointless to write about the chateaux because you simply have to go and see for yourself.  Words cannot describe, nor can pictures.

  Many of these castles got their start as hunting lodges 800-1,000 years ago.  When the nobility of France weren't bedding the wives of other nobles, they liked to go hunting with their retainers and packs of hounds.  As it happened, the forests along the Loire (which is still the only remaining wild, undammed river in France), were teeming with stags, boar and other prey.

  In time, the hunting lodges along the Loire grew into castles guarding a major trade route.  Strong winds blowing east from the Atlantic allowed ships to sail up the river against the current, drifting back downstream after unloading. This transportation scheme and ease of access proved popular with the nobility as well, spurring even greater feats of castle construction.

  In time, the kings of France took to traveling from one chateaux to another as a way of keeping an eye on restive lords and barons.  It's said that they traveled with retinues of up to 10,000 courtiers and up to 20,000 horses.  Those "lucky" enough to host the king and his mob could find themselves at risk of a trip to the poorhouse, as chronicled in the 2000 film, "Vatel," about a three-day visit by the Sun King Louis XIV and his host of hungry partiers.

  Many of these glorious chateaux were ransacked during the French Revolution of 1789 when thousands of nobles lost their heads to the guillotine. Not all, however; the chateaux of noble families which had done well by the locals were sometimes protected by the revolutionary authorities, proving -- as always -- that it's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice.

  Steamy tales of sexual conquest, jealously, backstabbing and revenge abound at virtually every chateaux.  There's the 14-year-old sugar plantation heiress who bought Chaumont and spent the rest of her life as a party girl. There's poor king Charles III who killed himself banging his head on  a low-hanging doorway on his way to a tennis match.  There are assorted wives engaging in cat fights with the mistresses of their philandering husbands and other such skullduggery, which will have you reading along for hours.

  

RIDE OPTIONS

  There are two ways to approach riding the Loire: ride it straight through along the river from say, Orleans to Nantes.  Or, take day trips from the more notable towns along the route.

  We opted for the latter because chateaux such as Chambord and Chenonceau can be 10 miles or so from the river and it seemed wiser to pick certain towns as a home base in order to ride to various chateaux on successive days.

  We found this approach to be more fun than would have been the case diverting from the river route with heavy panniers on a long-distance tour.  Plus, it was easy to rent quality bikes in towns such as Blois and Amboise.  The Detours de Loire bike shop, for instance, has rental opportunities in a number of towns, and if you wish, you can rent a bike for several days or a week or so and return it to another location far down the river.

  If you decide to ride straight through on a tour of a week or so, be sure to ride from west to east.  This, because there's a strong wind that invariably blows east from the Atlantic.  An hour or so of riding against this wind will convince you of the wisdom of cycling with it at your back!


TUCKER INN

 Cycle-friendly hotels can be found all down the Loire at rates as low as $40-$50 per night.  There are also campgrounds along the river for those who wish to tent it, along with quiet stretches of countryside where one could perhaps camp undisturbed.

  You'll find plenty of restaurants in every town, but most are geared toward tourists with prices to match.  More affordable options include the many delis and bars which offer delicious baguette sandwiches displayed in storefront windows.  As for beverages, count on finding a bottle of a fine French wine for about what you'd spend on a Coke.

  Aside from the river and its well-marked path, the charm of cycling the Loire Valley is getting off the main track and riding through the many villages throughout the region. Often, you find yourself on roads no wider than a country two-track where the appearance of an oncoming car or truck is a rarity.

  And, oh those castles when you round that last bend and see their towers shining amid the green of the forest.  Is that Snow White we see leaning over the parapet?  Cinderella, perhaps?  Well, we'll just have to go and see.

 


Loire River Valley
A view of the bridge at Blois, a good base for cycling the Loire.