There are older castles, like Chinon and Loches, reminders of a more brutal history, and older still, Château Brézé, built entirely underground. These castles are amazing, but the Loire Valley also boasts fields of sunflowers and a surprising variety of wines, as well as a distinctive and delicious cuisine.
Day 1, Saturday: We start from Saumur on the banks of the Loire, famous for its sparkling wines, with its striking château high above the river. Saumur Brut is perhaps the best known sparkling wine outside Champagne, so we should find the time to visit Bouvet-Ladubay, who have recently won 3 *** from the Guide Hachette, the bible of French wine.
Day 2, Sunday: Château Brézé - Fontevraud Abbey - Chinon (30 miles/ 48 Km)
A gentle climb to one of the highlights of our week, Chateau Brézé, a wine-making estate, but most famous for it's amazing underground château. Dating back to the 7th century, troglodyte homes and villages are a feature of this area because the limestone is so easy to work. Brézé was built underground to avoid the attention of viking invaders. There are fascinating defensive structures here, including the largest dry moat in Europe, but it was never attacked. All that effort over more than 1,000 years, and nobody ever attacked it! Next we make our way to Fontevraud Abbey and lunch. This huge Abbey was home to many French Queens, but is most famous as the resting place of Henry II, his wife Eleanor, and their son Richard the Lionheart. After lunch we descend to the river Vienne, then follow a riverside path to Chinon, where we stay at the Hotel Chinon, looked after by Maurice.
Day 3, Monday: Château Ussé - Azay-le-Rideau (25 miles/ 40 Km)
Leaving Chinon we cycle towards the river Indre where we find the first of the big-league châteaux, Château Ussé, the setting for Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty. After lunch, the next on our list is Villandry, following a delightful 16 Km beside the Loire. Michelin rate the gardens as a 3*** attraction – “worth a journey in their own right”. The gardens depict four types of love, including “tragic love”. Villandry is really something, not to be missed. Another 11 km of cycling in deserted countryside brings us to Azay-le-Rideau, another of the Premier League of Loire Châteaux. The Indre has been landscaped to surround the château on 3 sides, providing a beautiful setting. There was no military purpose to Azay-le-Rideau, it was just designed to be beautiful, and it is. Tonight we stay at the Hotel Biencourt yards from the château, and have the chance to visit the son et lumière after dinner.
Day 4, Tuesday: Montbazon - Veigné - Chambourg - Loches (35 miles/ 56 Km)
Today we cycle along the Indre valley, the most beautiful of all the Loire tributaries. It makes for easy cycling through picturesque villages like Montbazon, Veigné and Chambourg on our way to Loches. This is a perfect day for a picnic, French-style, which hopefully includes a post-lunch snooze! Loches is a beautiful town, on the banks of the Indre, and the chateau is unusual for this area, dating back to the 11th century. The medieval center continued to be developed by the Royal family and now contains a delightful mix of early medieval and renaissance buildings, including the Logis Royal. We stay at the George Sand overlooking the river, with a reputation for Loire specialties.
Day 5, Wednesday: Cher valley - Chenonceau (30 miles/ 48 Km)
This morning we’re off the tourist route cycling north to the Cher valley and the most famous of the Loire chateau, Chenonceau. Catherine de Medici’s ballroom spans the Cher in spectacular fashion, but it took on a gloomy role during the Second World War acting as a border crossing between Vichy France to the south and Occupied France to the North. Most French Châteaux are empty shells, but Chenonceau is a pleasant exception. The most extraordinary room belonged to “Louise The Inconsolable”. After her husband’s death she wore mourning for the rest of her life and painted her room black with traditional grieving motifs of tears, crowns of thorns and widows’ knots painted silver. Now, 500 years later, it is still quite chilling.
After lunch we follow the Cher to Montrichard. We can visit a fascinating traditional distiller, who enthuses on his mysterious art, and in Montrichard there are the Caves de Monmousseau, founded by the man who first brought Dom Perignon’s method to the Loire Valley. We stay at the hotel Bellevue, overlooking the river. A long day, with some glorious cycling, but truly memorable.
Day 6, Thursday: Bourré - Château Cheverny - Chateau Chambord (30 miles/ 48 Km)
The mushroom caves at Bourré are worth an early stop. Mushrooms need a stimulus to prompt growth - European mushrooms tend to need a light or heat stimulus, but shitake mushrooms from Japan respond to earthquakes, which they simulate using the high-tech device of slapping the mushroom compost. It's true, honest! After lunch we pass Château Cheverny, better known to Tintin fans as Marlin Spike Hall, home of Captain Haddock. The Cours-Cheverny appellation is the only place in the world that makes wine from Romarantin grapes. Something so unique should be tried and if we have time we’ll visit Monsieur Tessier, the finest of the local producers. The end of today is my favorite part of the week, Chateau Chambord. By far the largest of the Loire chateau it was originally built by Francois 1 as a hunting lodge and features a famous double-helix staircase designed by Leonardo da Vinci. It lies inside a huge park containing wild boar and deer. And us, at the Hotel de Grand St Michel.
Day 7, Friday: Amboise (35 miles/ 56 Km)
We spend much of today beside the Loire, passing through Chaumont on our way to Amboise. Amboise has a bustling medieval centre, with bars and cafés sitting beneath the huge château walls. I reckon we've earned a glass of the local Touraine or Vouvray, or at the very least a citron pressé. This was the home of Leonardo da Vinci at the Clos-Lucé. Many original furnishings are still in place, and there is a permanent exhibition of his inventions and writings. Leonardo invented wings that didn't work, helicopters that didn't work and airplays that didn't work, but he did much more than we generally associate with him. There are touching examples of his philosophy, and wonderful models of inventions that did work, like an ingenious water pump. Definitely worth visiting. We stay at the Hotel Bellevue, sandwiched between the chateau and the Loire.
Day 8, Saturday: Transfers to St Pierre des Corps and to Tours airport, or back to Saumur if you drove.
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