Good Reasons to Choose a Cycling Tour in The Loire Valley
First off, the Loire Valley. It’s relatively flat, which usually means not such nice scenery, and certainly Provence, the Dordogne, Tuscany and Umbria are all more beautiful. But there is a lot more to look forward to on a Loire Valley Bike Tour.
The wines of the Loire Valley are interesting and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how good they are. At the beginning of our tour we are surrounded by the red cabernet francs of Chinon, Saumur-Champigny, Borgeuil and St Nicolas de Borgeuil.
All around Tours are simple, crisp white wines, predominantly from the chenin blanc grape, a fantastically versatile grape. East of Tours is Vouvray, where you can find dry white wines, semi-sweet, dessert wines and sparkling, all from this single grape.
In Saumur are the fabulous champagne-style houses under the Saumur Brut appellation. They have always followed the method pioneered by that famous monk Dom Perignon, and some claim the technique was actually invented here in Saumur.
Ironically the process of the 2nd fermentation, the traditional champagne method, gained currency as a way of turning unreliable, thin and acidic wines into a more reliable product. These sparkling wines are beautiful not because they’re great wines; they found a way to make something beautiful precisely because they aren’t great wines. But the sparkling wines of Gratien et Mayer and Langlois-Chateau are special, and worth trying.
The Castles and the Mistresses
But the real point of visiting the Loire Valley, as everybody knows, are the extraordinary renaissance chateaux built throughout the 16th century.
Their histories are very different. Chenonceau, the best known and most visited of all the Loire chateaux, was built on the foundations of an old mill on the banks of the Cher.
The son of the guy who built the first chateau was forced to hand over Chenonceau to the King, Francois I, when his father was found posthumously guilty of embezzlement.
As if Francois needed another chateau, but this was a trick he repeated more than once.
His heir, Henry II of France (not the proper one from England!), inherited the chateau and it became the subject of a fascinating love triangle.
As a child Henry was raised by his nanny, Diane of Poitiers, a legendary beauty.
He was then betrothed and married to Catherine de Medici, but his first love was Diane, who became his mistress despite the age difference.
He gave Chateau Chenonceau to Diane, a flaunting his mistress to his ambitious and powerful wife. But if I can borrow from Princess Michael of Kent, Catherine’s main weakness was that she did actually love Henry II, so they struggled on.
When Henry died, Catherine wasted no time in throwing Diane out of Chenonceau, offering her the chateau at Chaumont instead.
She then set about building the extraordinary 2-storey ballroom that now spans the Cher.
There are two main formal gardens at Chenonceau, Diane’s smaller, more intimate garden, and Catherine’s vast showpiece that dominates the area in front of the chateau, competing even today, almost 500 years later.
Catherine’s son became King, Francois II, and his famous wife, Mary Queen of Scots. Also the Queen of France, but we don’t get taught that bit quite so much in British schools.
The Second World War
Catherine’s ballroom played a part in the history of the Second World War. The North side of the chateau was in nazi-occupied France. The south side opened onto Vichy France, and the ballroom was the frontier – Chenonceau had also served as an army hospital in the First World War.
The White Queen
Chenonceau was also home to Louise of Lorraine, also known as ‘Louise the Inconsolable’ or the ‘White Queen’. Wife of Henry III, she was widowed when Henry was assassinated in 1589. She suffered depression for the rest of her life, wore mourning clothes every day (the colour of royal mourning was white, hence the ‘White Queen’) and decorated her bedroom in a truly macabre way.
It’s open to visitors to this day, painted entirely in black, and decorated with the traditional mourning motifs of tear drops, crowns of thorns and widows knots. A journalist who once visited the chateau with me wrote about Louise’s bedroom as a ‘study in the fetishing of grief’.
I’ve been to Chenonceau goodness knows how many times. I know the gardens backwards and the ballroom, while spectacular, well, I have walked through it 20 times or more. But I have never yet got tired of the extraordinary feeling of being stood in the preserved bedroom of this poor woman. Of course, lots of women who weren’t Queen in the 16th century suffered, but we don’t get to see their grief displayed in such a raw fashion. When you’re stood in her bedroom and you imagine that this is where she slept every night, you don’t need to read a book to know this poor woman was ill.
I’m conscious that I’ve rambled on, and I’ve only spoken about one chateau. The Loire is full of them, and I must tell you about them another time. The underground chateau at Brézé; Chateau Ussé the setting for Sleeping Beauty; Chateau Villandry with the most famous gardens in France outside of Versailles; Cheverney, the model for Captain Haddock’s ancestral home in the Tintin books and the most complete interior of all the Loire chateaux; the beautiful Azay-le-Rideau in the Indre valley, surrounded by water on 3 sides. And the most beautiful and spectacular of them all, Chateau Chambord.
We also cycle through Chinon, home to the proper Henry II (English-style) and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their sons. Everybody knows Henry & Eleanor’s sons – Richard the Lionheart, John Lackland (evil Prince John) and Henry Shortcoat.
This family redefined dysfunctional.
They didn’t just argue – Henry locked Eleanor up for 30 years, and each of his 3 sons at different times allied themselves with the King of France to do battle with their father. Henry died in battle against Richard and King Phillip. And now, in a delicious irony, Richard, Henry and Eleanor are buried, side-by-side, in the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud.
Somebody once asked me whether it was worth going into the Abbey. What can you say? If Henry, Eleanor and Richard had never existed, would I still speak English? Would England and France have embarked on their disastrous 100 Years War? Richard himself couldn’t speak English, and visited England almost never, spending only 6 months there throughout his reign. I think it’s worth going in to see the tombs.
There isn’t any sense in which the Loire Valley is a 2nd choice, and please do remind me to tell you about Chateau Chambord.