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London Cyclist: The Loire Valley

By: Kirsten Denker

A cycle tour of the Châteaux of the Loire meant hard work, good living and exposure to some of Europe's most beautiful architecture, as Kirsten Denker found.

In 1516, Leonardo da Vinci turned up in the town of Amboise, with a trunk containing the Mona Lisa. He spent the last years of his life there as the guest of Francois 1 and the King later said his conversations with Leonardo about art and philosophy about art and religion were one of the great joys of his life.

Amboise was the start of my week-long tour of the Loire valley with The Chain Gang,a small but sparky London-based firm. I arrived in town in a less auspicious way than Leonardo da Vinci, having slept through my Eurostar stop at Lille and missed the meeting point. The guide, Nic, had to make an extra taxi journey to collect me and I knew it was a good sign when he greeted me cheerfully, without a hint of gritted teeth.

There were 12 of us on the trip. On the first night we were each allocated a bike - racers or Trek 7300 hybrids - and given maps with the route highlighted. However, this is a tour where the cycling tends to be done in a group, following the guide, with no need to navigate at all.

I found the clustering a little alarming at first - in fact, having done very little leisure cycling at all, the pace and distances took me by surprise. However, what is wonderful about this tour for a lazy city girl like me is that it offsets the hard work with a great deal of aesthetic pleasure. We ate good food, drank good wines and saw sumptuous renaissance architecture every day. I have an especially good memory of wandering round the enormous Château Chambord with a discman tucked in my pocket, gazing at the lacy stonework on the octagonal staircases towers. It was an overcast day, but as I returned to our hotel, which faced the château, the sun streamed out and I glanced back to see the entire façade lit in gold.

We had a full day to explore Château Chenonceau, with its womanly curves and history. I was especially struck by the room where Louise of Lorraine retreated to mourn her dead husband; painted entirely black with silver motifs of tears and crowns of thorns, it was a study in the fetishing of grief.

At the pretty Hotellerie de Chateau de L'Isle, where we stayed while visiting Chenonceau, ducks ran around in the garden, and geraniums trailed in stone pots. It rained heavily, but as the rain coincided with our day of rest from cycling, it didn't matter.

After walking back from the château, we all gathered to drink vin de Monmousseau, which we bought while visiting a winery in Montrichard the day before. Dinner was a delicious fish mousse followed by a whole bream with aniseed and frites, green salad with blue cheese and walnuts with tarte tartin, and bottles of the regional Chinon wine.

The rain struck more than once, and sometimes there were headwinds, predictable enough as summer was giving way to autumn. But there were also afternoons of hot sunshine. And the scenery in the September light was lush. Fields of dead and dying sunflowers stretched out to the horizon; smallholdings and allotments formed vibrant patchworks of colour: red-green tomatoes hanging in the thick autumn sun, ripe lettuces, pumpkins and gourds. One morning, cycling through a forest, we saw pastel pink and black pigs roaming free.

Perhaps the most unexpected spectacle was the garden at Villandry, which we luckily caught on its last day of the season. Here, giant vegetables were ranked in Alice-in-Wonderland style ornamental patterns, rhubarb alongside roses; bluish leeks alongside red cabbages. A garden of four loves, viewable from a balustrade above, depicted hearts, fans and love letters in geometric patterns of box.

1999 was the first year The Chain Gang have run the Loire trip, and in one or two places there were little glitches, which no doubt will be ironed out in future seasons. This year they plan to reverse the route to take account of prevailing winds. However, we were looked after extremely well by our guide, and the general tone of the tour was relaxing, with leisurely starts in the mornings and lots of time for baths and drinks before dinner.

Cycling, I discovered, is a wonderful way to see the châteaux of the Loire. And for anyone who, like me, has always regarded cycling as simply a way of getting to work and back, a week with The Chain Gang is a good way to cross the barrier into cycling for fun.

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