We Loved La Loire à Vélo

We spent a week in the Loire Valley, the “garden of France,” for hundreds of years the playground of powerful Frenchmen and -women. Over four rolling days, we traveled along La Loire à Vélo from Saumur through Tours to Orléans. And we loved it!

For three reasons:

1. The bike infrastructure. La Loire à Vélo is a massive collection of bike paths, low-trafficked roads, and bike-friendly amenities like parks and water fountains, stretching out for more than five hundred miles, from Nevers in the center of France all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. We were expecting a lot of paved paths between the Loire River and the adjacent roadways, and while there was some of that, there were also plenty of high-quality hardpack trails, cobbled streets, country lanes running through the vineyards, and a few excursions straight through caves!

Really, I’ve never seen anything like it. I think about folks who get into transportation planning because they love to bike or walk, and because they want to build large-scale networks that are great for biking and walking. So often they get mired in the minutiae of collision countermeasures and highway design manuals. Meanwhile, some lucky souls got to lay out hundreds and hundreds of miles of fantastic paths and clearly-marked signage in a river valley in central France. And it’s not just one path, as you might expect – there are auxiliary facilities on the other side of the river (which the main route frequently crosses, for variety and convenience) and spur routes to compelling destinations near the main route. It’s either a reminder of how much better France is for cycling than the US, or perhaps a call to think bigger and do greater things. Or both.

Also, there are tons of riders, of all ages, genders, and fitness levels, including some adorable groups of youngsters at summer camp (probably about age six), all on their own humble bikes. If you build it, they really will come.

2. The wine. There’s tons of wine production (“tons” is usually hyperbole, but in this case it’s probably an enormous underestimate) throughout the Loire valley, particularly in the Touraine area, the greater region centered on Tours. Compared with Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Champagne, Loire wines are (much) cheaper, more accessible, and less well known, although certain appellations, like Chinon, Saumur-Champigny, and Vouvray, have an avid following. (The most famous Loire wine, Sancerre, comes from much farther inland.)

In fact, we had the chance to visit all these famous appellations, and more! Setting out eastward from the ridiculously charming city of Saumur, we first took in sparkling white wines at Langlois-Château, then stopped in at a random winery in Saumur-Champigny (rich, satisfying wine for 8 euros). Later on we passed through Chinon (over, really, as the city sits hard against a vertiginous hillside), and I had perhaps one too many delightful glasses of crisp, mineral white wine in Vouvray. I would particularly recommend Bernard Fouquet’s work at Domaine des Aubuisières.

It was such a delight to transform these regions from names we’ve heard to places we’ve been. And it was equally great to receive the warm welcome of winemakers rather farther off the beaten path than folks in those more famous wine areas. Tasting and drinking wine in the Loire felt unequivocally fun, in ways that it might not have in more august regions.

3. The castles! There are hundreds of castles throughout the Loire Valley, some dating back to the Middle Ages and others exemplifying the elegant sensibilities of the Renaissance. Because good things come in threes, we spaced three castle visits throughout our week in the valley. (In truth, we hadn’t begun with any target number of castles, nor had we planned how satisfyingly the castles in question increased in complexity and grandeur. Sometimes these things just work out.)

We started off with the Château de Saumur, which was built as a fortress and later converted into a palace. It’s most strongly associated with King Philip II of France, but it has a long and complicated history that, to give you a brief taste, involves King Henry II of England. This was yet another opportunity to reflect on how much we just don’t know about European history.

Our second visit was to Villandry, a Renaissance château built in the 16th century for the finance minister of King François I. This estate is particularly famous for its intricate and geometric gardens. It’s also in private hands, so while you can visit it in the summer, actual people actually live in it in the winter. #goals

We rounded out our collection with a visit to the biggest of them all: the Château de Chambord, the enormous (yet never finished) hunting lodge of King François I himself. This castle has about 400 rooms and more than 200 fireplaces, and its rooftop is a riot of asymmetrical Italianate towers and cupolas. Totally unreal. The whole thing is held together by an exquisite double-helix spiral staircase in the dead center of the building. Leonardo da Vinci is said to have been involved, at least conceptually, in the design of the château. (François was the patron of the composer I studied for my undergraduate thesis, so that association was a nice perk.)

Extra bonus castle: the one from “Sleeping Beauty,” which we merely biked past en route to our campground one afternoon:

So, a week well spent. Inspiring, invigorating, and delightful! We were sorry to have to continue on.

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