Our Locations in France

Friday, November 13, 2015

Le Loire à Velo (My bike trip down the Loire valley)

Overview of Trip

Map of bike trails along the Loire River

Prior to coming to France, one of my dreams was to travel around France by bicycle. It has been my experience from previous bike trips that traveling by bicycle is a great way to get to know an area because it brings you into contact with more local people and forces you to speak the local language.

Over the last couple of months I have been making day trips around the region so the next step was to make a mult-day trip. I decided to begin with four days of cycling down the Loire River. The original plan was to cycle from Gien to Angers, cycling about 100 km per day (including sightseeing detours). In 1980, I cycled 100-180 miles per day on a cross-country trip across the United States so 100 km per day (about 60 miles per day) sounded easy. My brain tends to forget that the surrounding body is not as young as it used to be and sometimes my brain writes checks that my body is is not able to cash, ... or just barely able to cash. Fortunately, an adverse weather forecast prompted me to scale back my plans.

Day 1 - Angers to Orléans (by train) to Beaugency (by bike)

Early morning departure in a misty rain

My trip began with short bike ride to the train station in a cool misty rain over wet cobblestone streets. My goal was to get myself and my bike on an 8 am train from Angers to Orléans. The railroad web site indicated that the trains along the Loire have six spots to store bicycles which can be reserved, and I had tried to reserve one of those spots when I bought my ticket a few days earlier, but the ticket agent said that it was impossible to reserve one of the bike spots. At least I think that is what the ticket agent said. I haven't exactly mastered French yet.

Actually, I had a really hard time communicating with the ticket agent. Although I had prepared a script of what I would say, and rehearsed the script, my pronunciation of the words was unintelligible to the ticket agent.  Furthermore, the ticket agent's responses didn't follow my script. Things went off track during the first few words of the conversation. It took me a long time to communicate the name of the city where I was going since I apparently was unable to pronounce "Orléans" in a way that any French person could understand. I was pretty sure that I eventually succeeded in communicating to him that I wanted to reserve a spot for by bicycle on the 8 am train to Orléans, but I could see no indication anywhere on my ticket that I had a bicycle.

On the morning of my departure, I approached the train platform with apprehension. Some blogs warned that the bike racks were often full and that conductors would throw cyclists off the train if the bike racks were full. Thus, I arrived early at the train platform prepared with the French phrases I might need to claim my spot on the train. (I also rehearsed how to properly say "Orléans".)  However, my fears were unnecessary, the conductors were exceptionally helpful. They directed me to a car with the one remaining open spot for a bike. Two hours later, I was at the train station in Orléans. Things were going great, but things were about to take a turn for the worse.

There was still a misty rain falling from the sky when I arrived at the train station in Orléans.  After checking the weather on my phone, I decided go straight to my destination and to skip sightseeing in Orléans (lots of monuments to Joan of Arc's victory over the English) because the weather forecast was for harder rain showers in the afternoon and I wanted to get to my destination before the hard rain began. Because it was wet, I decided to turn off my phone in order to conserve the battery and bury my phone in layers of waterproof bags. These turned out to be bad decisions.

In my haste to stow the phone and hit the road, I somehow managed to lock the SIM card on my phone and the message on my phone said that I needed to contact the carrier to obtain my PUK code to unlock the SIM card.  After attempting to get the code from the carrier and failing, I was pretty depressed. My phone had become almost useless. So much for my ability to pick up the phone and call for help if I encountered problems. Unless I could find a public Wifi signal, it also meant that I was losing access to various services I had been counting on using while on the road, such as Google Maps.

Bridge across the Loire in Orléans
In a spirit of frustration, I rocketed out of the train station onto the wet cobblestone streets of Orléans hoping to get to Beaugency (my destination for the night) before it started raining hard. The fine mist quickly coated my glasses making it difficult to see. Without the assistance of Google maps, I quickly became disoriented in the narrow streets and fog, ... so I pedaled faster ... taking myself faster and further in the wrong direction. Before long, I managed to get my rear tire caught between some cobblestones, which almost resulted in a catastrophic crash. When I picked myself up, I discovered that I had damaged the rear wheel and pulled the tire off of the wheel. I also broke the mount for bike pump and a few other minor parts. Fortunately, although I was sore, I was not seriously hurt. As I sat in the rain trying to fix everything, I was tempted to catch the next train back to Angers, but after remounting the tire and truing up the wheel, I set out again for Beaugency - thoroughly wet but determined to persevere.

The chateau in Beaugency
After the disastrous start to my ride, cycling in the rain seemed like a minor annoyance. Although I held my breath a few times when my heavily laden bike I hit potholes hidden by leaves, or I skidded on wet leaves, things began to get better. Eventually, the rain stopped and I raced against a fresh wind to beat the next line of storm clouds to Beaugency. By the time I arrived in Beaugency, I was tired, but almost dry.

The hotel I had booked in Beaugency took me in despite my forlorn appearance. They were exceedingly kind, but I guess that they had plenty of experience with road weary guests. The hotel opened for business in 1299. After the rain passed through town, I even had time to do some sightseeing and eat an excellent dinner.

What had I learned on my first day of riding? First and foremost, there is no point rushing, it just seems to create more problems. I vowed to "smell the roses" more the next day. Also, I realized that I packed too much. Everything would have been a lot easier if my bike packs were about 20 pounds lighter. Perhaps it had been unnecessary to bring 2 guidebooks on the Loire Valley, one 1000+ page novel, and a fresh change of clothes for every day. On the other hand, as I cycled through the rain, I was happy that I had brought my rain gear and that I had a bike with fenders and lights.

Day 2 - Beaugency to Amboise

Bike trail on an ancient levee

After a good night's sleep and a great breakfast, I was ready to take on the road again. The morning was beautiful and the air was crisp. It was going to be a beautiful fall day. My goal was to make it to Amboise, which was about 80 km downriver (assuming that I didn't get lost). 

The first couple of hours were glorious. The bike path was smooth and almost level. For the most part the bike trail was along the crest of the levee under a tunnel of small trees which sheltered the trail from the wind. I managed to knock off the first 24 kilometers in an hour. 

Saint Laurent Nuclear Power Plant
By 11 am, I had passed a nuclear power plant (the first of two I would pass on the Loire River), and I was in Blois. I was already calculating that I could be at my destination by 1:30 pm if I kept up the pace. So much for smelling the roses. 

Crossing the Loire in Blois
I decided to force myself to do some sightseeing. After wandering around checking out the churches and chateaux in every town, I began to get tired and hungry. The catch is that the bike trail was down in the flood plain by the river, but most of the towns were up on the surrounding hillsides. I picked out a village likely to have a boulangerie (which often sell both bread and sandwiches) and set off up a very steep hill from the valley floor. Unfortunately, the only boulangerie in town was closed so I returned to the valley floor and repeated the process again at the next village ... with the same result. The third village had an open boulangerie, which was a good thing because my legs were tired of climbing hills.

Chateau for sale
After lunch, the trail got a rougher. I had been spoiled by the perfectly smooth trail sheltered from the wind in the morning. The bike trail decided to meander between the floodplain and towns and vineyards on the surrounding hillsides. When I was on top of the ridges I encountered a stiff headwind. The trails along the edge of the river tended to be muddy and bumpy. The rough trail, steep hills and wind really slowed me down. I was beginning to really regret not packing lighter.

The scenery made up for the increased difficulty of the trail. I passed many interesting sights including a chateau for sale, and numerous homes built into caves in the sides of the hills (referred to in France as troglodyte homes). The chateau for sale reminded by of sleeping beauty because the entrance was blocked by a tangle of thorn bushes. I imagined that the inside of the chateau was full of sleeping servants.

Chateau de Saumur
After 86 kilometers and a few wrong turns, I made it to my hotel in Amboise in time to walk around the town and admire the Chateau de Amboise. Although the Hotel Chaptal was nothing fancy, the husband and wife who owned the hotel were particularly nice. They let me store my bike indoors in their private space and they even complemented me on my attempts at French, patiently enduring my slow attempts to find the right words and helping me with my pronunciation. When I attempted to switch to English (the wife's English was excellent) she kindly told me that I must speak French and that she would help me. At dinner, I tried to answer questions (in French) from the diners around me.

Sunset over the Loire

Day 3 - Amboise to Beaumont-En-Veron

Chickens for sale at the Sunday market in Amboise
This was the day I had been dreading. I knew that it would end up requiring require at least 100 kilometers of cycling and I was still sore from riding 86 kilometers the preceding day. In addition, I knew that the trail would take me over many hills so I decided to get an early start. When I left Amboise, they were just setting up the Sunday morning market.
The fog lifting on the road from Amboise
A dense fog descended on me as I left town and I turned on my lights to avoid being hit by a car. There was so much moisture in the air that my clothes became saturated and my glasses were almost useless. After missing a couple of turns in the fog, I started individually inspecting each corner of likely intersections for signs.The fog didn't start to dissipate until an hour later after I slowly climbed a 15% grade onto a ridge of vineyards west of Amboise. After stopping three times on the way up a relatively short climb (to take photos), I wondered if there would be enough strength left in my legs to go up the hills that I knew awaited me at the end of the day.

Chateau de Tours
When I returned to the valley floor near Tours, the fog returned. I ended up doing more sightseeting in Tours than I planned when I repeatedly missed signs in the narrow streets and fog. Eventually, I figured that it would be easier to look for the bike trail where it left the town than continually retrace my route to find a trail in the medieval streets. That turned out to be a mistake. As I exited town, I apparently rode across the bike trail in the fog and continued up a long hill before I realized that I'd missed the trail. Fortunately, the fog lifted and the signs for the bike trail were obvious when I came back down the hill. I was starting to worry that I might not get to my next destination before dark.

Sign warning of boar hunt in progress
Cobblestone bike trail!
The sky cleared in the afternoon, but it was sometimes difficult to make good time on a route that included a stiff headwind, cobblestones, and hunters who had blocked off areas to hunt for wild boar. Since it was Sunday, when almost everything in France is closed, I never succeeded in finding a place to eat lunch despite several detours in search of food, so I subsisted on nuts and an orange from my bag. At one point, I did see a wild boar scurry into the bushes and I was so hungry that I was tempted to chase after him.

The cash machine that ate my debit card
I was exhausted and my legs were beginning to beg for mercy as I climbed out of the valley towards farmhouse where I had booked a room for the night. At the top of the hill in the town of Avoine, I decided to use a cash machine to make sure that I had enough money to pay for dinner and the night's lodging (in the countryside of France you can not count on being able to use a credit card). Unfortunately, the cash machine was uncooperative and it decided to eat my debit card. This was really depressing. The bank would not reopen until Tuesday.

When I booked a room at a location at a farm in the country, it seemed like a great idea but I forgot that almost nothing is open on a Sunday afternoon or evening in France. I asked the owner about my prospects for finding an open restaurant or food store, but she was not optimistic. She thought that my best chance might be in Chinon, which was about 10 km away, but she was skeptical about my chances and she offered me eggs from her chickens if I was unable to find anything open. After riding 106 km, I was not excited about the idea of getting back on my bike to make a 20 km round trip in search of an open restaurant or grocery store, but I was really hungry.

I decided to try the nearest villages first - no luck. Everything was closed except the vineyards. As I rode the 10 additional kilometers to Chinon, I passed lots of open vineyards, but nothing was open that served food. I scoured Chinon twice in search of food, but nobody was serving food. The handful of places that were open on Sunday didn't serve food until after 7:30. I could order beer, wine or coffee before 7:30 pm, but not food. I was tempted to drown my sorrows in beer until the kitchens opened at 7:30 pm, but I didn't want to ride back in the dark so I reluctantly set off towards the next town even though my body was telling me that it couldn't go any further.

I prayed for a miracle. To my amazement, a McDonalds appeared out of the mist. Thank God for American fast food. The clerk at McDonalds looked at me like I was crazy when I ordered a hamburger at 4:30 pm. All the French people in McDonalds were just having coffee. Nonetheless, the manager reluctantly fired up the grill just for me. They probably wondered what type of heathen eats at the uncivilized hour of 4:30 pm.

As luck would have it, on my way back to the farmhouse from McDonalds, I stumbled upon a dilapidated house with a sign in front that said "Creperie." Since the "meal" at McDonalds was not entirely satisfying, I knocked on the door and asked if the creperie was open. The owner was very kind, and fixed me a crepe - ham, eggs and cheese melted over a buckwheat crepe. It was delicious. The owner asked if I wanted anything else (at least I think that is what she asked), and in my broken French I told her that I'd like a second crepe just like the first one. She asked if perhaps I wanted a dessert crepe or coffee and I repeated that I really just wanted another savory crepe. She shook her head at the odd eating habits of Americans (remember, it is still only 5 pm, well before any civilized person would eat dinner). After another crepe followed by two scoops of her homemade ice cream, I headed back to my lodging - La Balastière - finally making it back just in time to sit in the courtyard and enjoy the last few rays of sun. My search for food had added a bonus 24 km to my day's ride. At that point, I never wanted to see a bike seat again. 
La Balastière

Day 4 - Beaumont-En-Veron to Angers

All for me. There were not other guests.
Monday morning was the most beautiful morning of the trip. The sky was blue, the winds were calm (at least initially), a beautiful farm breakfast awaited me, and I knew that I would be sleeping in my own bed at the end of the day (even if it meant taking the train home). After a couple of small bike repairs, I was packed and on the road by 8:30 a.m.

Entry to underground "troglodyte" village.
Note doors and windows on left.
The ride though the hills and vineyards was spectacularly beautiful. There seemed to be a chateau on every hill and a 13th century church in every village. Vineyards were everywhere. The bike path followed ancient canals and went underground to pass through a troglodyte (cave) village. 

Ancient canal
Sign warning of 12% grade
There were also a lot of 12% and 15% grades. I found myself lusting for gear on my bike low enough to easily climb a 15% grade with a 30 pounds of gear.

Two routes to Saumur
In some places signs along the trail gave two options to get to the next town. I quickly learned that the shortest route was not always the easiest of the fastest. Even it was longer, the route "par les bords de Loire" was probably going to be flatter than the route "par les coteaux." After picking the shorter "coteaux" route a couple of times and enduring painful 15% climbs, I decided to stick to "les bords de Loire." By afternoon, I decided to try to further shorten the time by trying to cut out a few of the unnecessary twists and bends in the bike trail and to skip some of the remaining hills. The trick was figuring out which bends in the trail avoided a hill and which bends in the trail took you up a steep hill to see something scenic. More than once my "shortcuts" probably added time to the trip.

One of the highlights of the afternoon was seeing the first sign for the town where we are living - Angers. At this point, I knew that there was less than 40 km left and that I could conceivably be home in 2 hours.  Unfortunately, things didn't work out that way. The bike trail to Angers took me through ancient slate quarries (Angers is famous for slate). These quarries presented a maze of trails that alternated between mud and loose piles of shale. Just when the trail seemed to become impassable, I would find another sign indicating that I was on the trail. It might have been fun on a mountain bike, but it was torture on a heavily loaded touring bike.

Home sweet home
Eventually, I made it home. The cobblestone street in front of our house never looked so good. Before I unloaded my bike, I ransacked the kitchen for food (two pieces of chocolate cake and a beer were a good start). 

All-in-all, I would declare the trip a success. I pushed myself physically, and it forced me to get outside of my comfort zone and speak a lot of French (or at least what I call French). I also saw a lot of beautiful scenery and met some wonderful people (who I was forced to speak to in French). However, my body is not the same as it was 35 years ago. It might be a few days before my sore joints recover and my memory dims enough to start planning my next big bike trip. Once my memory of the exhaustion dims enough to start planning the next trip, I will make sure to pack lighter and I will also make sure to have the unlock code for my SIM card.

To anybody considering a bike trip in the Loire valley, I heartily recommend the bike trails in the valley (Le Loire a Velo). Despite my mishaps, it is the best network of bike trails that I have ever seen. Autumn is a wonderful time to visit the Loire valley, with the autumn leaves and relatively few tourists.  Just make sure to leave more time to smell the roses than I did and don't book a place in the countryside on a Sunday evening unless you pack in your own food. Packing light is also recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Jane and I just belatedly read about your bike trip. Nice adventure. I really can understand the "pack light" advice. Good job. I am going with a group of guys from DC to Pittsburgh on the C&O and Allegheny Passage trails starting June 10. We stay in motels at night. We then ride while one of us drives the van up 20 miles or so. We all stop for drinks and snacks and repeat until our 60 mile day is done. Then eat, repeat. This is the second time. We had such a nice trip from Pittsburgh to DC we are doing it in reverse. Thanks for the work you are putting into the blog. Will read it all over the next few days. Best to you, Bronwyn and Joan.