Friday, December 31, 2010

Oh Chateau! A cycling adventure in the Loire Valley

"Oh, chateau."

I'm not sure when my wife started saying that, perhaps after we visited the Versailles palace one trip to Paris, but she usually uttered it in a wistful way that implied she immediately wanted me to transport her to France so she could enjoy great wine and cheese on the lawn of one of these grand residences that used to belong to French nobility and upper-class.

So, when it came time to consider a second multi-day European biking adventure, our first one to Belgium being such a delight, I immediately began planning a trip to the Loire Valley, home to vineyards and hundreds of chateaux, including some of the most famous ones. Fortunately, the region is also blessed with many flat, well-signed biking paths, including a major one that runs along the Loire river. Thanks to a lot of web surfing and a few travel guides, including the Lonely Planet Cycling France book, I soon had what seemed like a nice 4-5 day itinerary.

Day One - A Royal Porcupine? (handful of miles pedaled)

And so, very early on a dreary Wednesday morning late in September, we walked out the door of our Cambridge house, hopped onto our loaded bikes, and began pedalling our way to France. Of course, that starts with a 10-minute ride to the Cambridge train station, a train ride to London's Kings Cross station, a short walk across the street, and a two-hour Eurostar ride to Paris Gare du Nord. Our train to the Loire valley was far across town at Gare d'Austerlitz and wasn't for several hours, so why not lunch in Paris? We headed for West Country Girl, a creperie we had wanted to try on our last visit to Paris but was closed. Two savoury crepes and two salted butter caramel crepes later, we knew we had made the right choice.

When we got to Gare d'Austerlitz, I wondered if our trip would be halted. France's regional train system has several types of trains, each with its own bike regulations that are hard to nail down on the Internet, and I was worried that our train needed a reservation or, worse, wouldn't take a bike at all. We spotted a student on a bike in the station whose English was better than my French, and a quick conversation with him eased my mind that we would be OK. Sure enough, not much later our bikes were hanging from special hooks on the cycle car and we were off on the 2 hour trip south.

Our destination was Blois (say Blwah), a good starting point for those cycling the Loire from east to west. The city sits on the northern bank of the Loire and comes with its own chateau, which we quickly spotted as we cycled down the hill from the train station ("Oh, Chateau!" KT exclaimed with a big smile on her face as we sped past it). We settled in at our hotel (Cote Loire--Auberge Ligerienne, one of many Loire hotels that promise to accept cyclists and offer them bike storage and other amenities), enjoyed a look out the room window at the Loire, sampled some gorgeous macaroons from a nearby patisserie, and then strolled the town a bit.

The chateau and most sites were closed but we peeked in gates and appreciated the nice sunset. We also came across the first of many "royal porcupines" (The crowned animal was the emblem of Louis the XII who lived in Blois, among other places in the Loire) on the chateau. (While some chateaux were no more than big country houses for rich folks, Blois' was a true royal residence). Our first evening came to a delicious conclusion in the hotel's cozy restaurant, which oddly had paintings of chickens decorating it.

Day Two (25ish miles biked)

I had an ambitious agenda planned of biking to two chateaux and back to Blois on our second day but KT was still battling through a bad head cold, so we didn't rush to get pedalling. Unsure of the paths, signage, and the weather, we decided to just shoot for Chambord, which was originally a hunting lodge for Francois I. The nearly 2-hour ride to Chambord was pleasantly easy although a wrong turn did accidentally send us on the longer of the two paths to the chateau. It was grape harvest season and at one point we followed behind a truck loaded down with the ripe fruit.

We soon saw Chambord's majestic outline--it's the largest chateau in the Loire--and not much later were locking up our bikes in the rack next to its slimy moat. It took us several hours to explore the huge building, which counts among its highlights an impressive double helix staircase rumoured to have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci. The place was used to safely store art from around France during WWII; the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo were there at one point. After riding home to Blois, we cleaned up, walked around town some more and bypassing the Michelin-starred restaurants in town, ended up at the much modest but nonetheless tasty (and packed) Le Castelet, which was well reviewed in Lonely Planet and elsewhere.

Day Three (20+ miles biked)
Chateau de Beauregard

Today was, as hoped, a two chateaux day-it just wasn't the two I planned. We packed up our panniers and headed across the Loire again, riding through a pretty forest path that started our way to Cheverny, a chateau known for its well-preserved interior and for being home to a pack of French hunting hounds. The day started out sunny and we soon detoured to a random mansion I spotted in the distance, Chateau de Beauregard. We kept our helmets on while parking our bikes as acorns rained down on us from the trees. An older couple chuckled with us as we dodged them. The couple turned out to be from St Ives, a town just 15 miles from Cambridge!

Beauregard turned out to be closed so we took a quick walk around and headed off to Cheverny, where we saw the same English couple! Chevenry's interior is indeed spectacularly well-kept, and a nice contrast from the largely barren rooms of Chambord. The chateau is famous for its 100 French hunting dogs, but KT wasn't a fan of the baying hounds as they seemed forlorn in their fenced, concrete-floored enclosure.

As we left Cheverny, I still had hopes of making it back to the banks of the Loire to the village of Chaumont, site of another major chateau. But we were initially distracted by stopping in for a delightful tasting at Domaine de Montcy, a small vineyard that like many in the region was in the middle of its harvest. Once back on the bike, rain and wind began to slow us down and the sun began to set. Add to this that we had no hotel reservation in Chaumont -- I wanted to stay flexible after Blois -- and I started to wonder if KT might divorce me by the end of the trip. We passed a few hotels and gites (French B&Bs) as we thought Chaumont was still possible, but as the rain intensified, we finally decided enough was enough and pulled into a small village to find its tourist office.
The tourist info/children's railroad station

bar/diner/tobacco shop/savior: our B&B for the night.
To our amusement, the tourist office was in a small "train station" for a children's railroad. The kind man in the office spoke almost no English unfortunately. But with the help of a woman who stopped by I conveyed our need for a place to stay that night and he started making phone calls. Once he found a place, we then had to understand his directions there! In the end, it all worked out. We biked another 10 minutes to a roadside restaurant/bar that had a few sparsely furnished rooms above it, but it was ridiculously cheap and also had very welcoming hosts. The bar had about 8 men in for a post-work day drink, but we think the hotel and restaurant part was actually closed as the couple was leaving the next day for a funeral. They must have taken pity on us when the tourist office called. Even better, they offered us an inexpensive dinner, which turned out to be what they were cooking for themselves: tasty potato and leek soup, out-of-this world meat-stuffed tomatoes, a cheese course (and an offer for dessert). While no gourmet feast, it may have been one of our most satisfying meals in France.

Day Four (20+ miles biked)

Dry and refreshed, we set off in the morning for the short ride to Chateau Chaumont, which is grandly perched on a hill overlooking the Loire, a very strategic military spot. The chateau itself is perfectly nice, and its location offers spectacular views, but the overall estate is best known as home to art installations, both within the building and in its large gardens. The gardens are truly the big draw as 30+ artists get spots to put their visions on display; many of them hard to describe. One turned a plot of garden into a jazz lounge with a piano set amongst the plants and Billie Holiday records playing in the background. Another had a wall of teacups.

A leisurely lunch and a tour of the grounds occupied most of our afternoon, so we then had to make haste to Amboise, for the first time following the bike path that goes directly alongside the Loire. Yet the path soon moved away from the river and up a large (for us) hill that made us sweat for the first time. We paralleled the Loire from up high all the way to the outskirts of Amboise, where we quickly descended into the heart of the city, which like Blois, has a major chateaux at its center. Again, I had made no reservations so I quickly began calling a list of cycle-friendly places. All were full or too far away. As the sun began to set, we dashed to the bank of the Loire and began checking the cheap hotels there. I finally found one with an open room and a willingness to store our bikes for a few euros, and we collapsed, exhausted.

After a quick shower, we rallied to walk down to the base of the chateau where we dined outside in the cool breeze.

Day Five (20+ miles)

While our hotel room was small, and its bathroom microscopic, it was nicely situated across the street from the Amboise market this morning. We like nothing better than a French market so we soon loaded up on bread, cheese, sausages-and a roast chicken, of course. Suitably loaded with food, it was time to head for our last major chateau: Chenonceau.

Chateau du Pintray, our accommodation for the night.
But we would go there after first stopping at our final destination of the day, the wine estate and B&;B Chateau de Pintray. When we rolled into this beautiful mansion several miles outside Amboise and KT got a look at the magnificent setting and gorgeous room, I knew I had made up for the rainy rides without hotel reservations. Our host apologized for greeting us in dirty work clothes but she and their friends and neighbors were harvesting grapes that day! Given the mansion wasn't near any restaurants, we decided to leave our market provisions there for dinner that night and headed off on our bikes to Chenonceau.

To my taste, Chenonceau offered the most beautiful pictures of the chateaux we had visited--It's literally built over the river Cher. The day was capped off back at Chateau de Pintray where we met the winemaker--who discussed whether France would ever accept genetically modified grapes--and later sampled the vineyard's wines and dined on the market food in the dark at a candle-lit picnic table. Ah, the good life.

Day Six Amboise (and Seven) (handful of miles biked)

One of daVinci's inventions
A relaxed final day in the Loire. We biked back into Amboise and roamed around the city a bit before visiting Leonardo da Vinci's home, Clos Luce. Able to visit the royal chateau by an underground passage, da Vinci spent his final days here. Given that I was fielding calls that morning about one of the Nobel prizes, it was fitting to be at the home of this unparalleled genius. The mansion offered models of his many inventions and the grounds also offered full-sized versions of some of the machines. Then it was a quick stop at the community wine cooperative tasting center before we jumped on the train back to Paris where we spent the night at a friend's house before catching a Eurostar train back to London, and then a final train back to Cambridge. Can we sneak in one last European biking adventure before we return to the States? We'll see.

Click here for extended photo album.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas from Cambridge!

Merry Christmas on a picture-perfect day in Cambridge! This is snow left over from last weekend (and perhaps a fresh 1/4 inch from Tuesday) -- the snow that shut Heathrow airport for days. We were actually in the US last week, scheduled to fly out on Monday, a day when most flights to London were cancelled. We took our flight from Detroit to Washington DC, fully prepared to spend up to a week waiting out the chaos. However, when we arrived at Dulles airport, we were whisked onto an open flight to London on another airline. We think it was originally a cancelled flight that was at the last minute granted one of the precious few slots to land at Heathrow. It was all a bit odd and the plane was only about two-thirds full, but we made it home and from all the crazy stories we've heard, it's a good thing we jumped on that plane.

So, we're in Cambridge and looking forward to a quiet week of reading, movie-watching, and exercising off our Christmas feast.

Merry Christmas, y'all!