Salut tout la monde!
Well, in the great words of our friend William MacLeod (who may or may not remember saying this): “if life get’s much better than this, [we]’d like to see it”. Our last week has been nothing short of la crème de la crème. Our journey down the Loire Valley had a checkmark beside every condition necessary for a good cycle tour: long, sunny days, beautiful scenery, quiet roads, interesting history and culture, delicious food/wine, great camping and excellent company. Let us share with you!
From Stephanie’s we spent a few days travelling to the Loire River to meet our Canadian friend Claire. Claire, like Stephanie, has been teaching English in French schools for the past seven months in a town called Blois and, as good fortune would have it, her contract finished just before we met up with her. Since she had some interim time before travelling through Europe with family and friends, she decided to join us down the Loire. Before departing, we spent some time with Claire’s friends of many nationalities and explored her town of Blois. Besides meandering through the streets, two highlights of our time in the town were watching a professional cycle race and enjoying our first barbeque of 2011 (although it was thanks to a stove-top contraption since most French people don’t have BBQs).
And then: the Loire! We spent six days cycling along the riverside route and we have decided that it is our favourite of all the rivers we have biked this year. The path was very flat and relaxing and ran through green forests, vineyards and beside the river itself. The Loire is a very shallow, sandy river with many interspersed islands; thus, there was virtually no traffic on the water which made for a very peaceful experience. We were able to camp along the river four nights in a row, and enjoyed our first campfires of the year on its beaches. We even went wading to cool down before lunch, and were deterred from swimming only because we were in a place where the current was strong. And we weren’t the only ones who thought it was so beautiful; in the late afternoon and early morning you could always find people hot air ballooning through the valley. And although the Loire’s naturalness was probably why we loved it so much, there was many other attractions that made the trip so enjoyable, such as chateaux, wineries and food!
The landscape was absolutely littered with castles. Unlike the Rhine, where the castles were fortresses and often sat in some degree of ruin, the chateaux along the Loire were more like palaces and continue to be in great condition. Most of these grandiose places were built in the 15th and 16th centuries as second homes for the French nobility. We were very impressed by all the chateaux we saw, and we went into two of them, Chambord and Chenonceau, which provided even more insight to the lavish, luxurious lifestyles of the Renaissance nobility.
Chambord is the largest of the chateaux and apparently the best example of French architecture outside of Versailles. It was commissioned by Francois the I to serve as a hunting “lodge”. Surrounded by almost 6,000 hectares of forest, the palace itself had astronomical dimensions: for example, there were over four hundred rooms and almost three hundred fireplaces. Chenonceau had a different purpose. Chenonceau is built over one of the Loire’s tributaries and surrounded by gardens, and is called “the ladies’ chateau” as it served as a peaceful retreat for some of the royal women. Both chateaux are major tourist attractions today and besides being architecturally and culturally interesting are also excellent museums of the era’s art, tapestries and furniture. It also helps put into perspective why lower classes rose up against the nobles during France’s revolutions! The chateaux have also served other modern purposes. Chenonceau, for example, was important in both the World Wars; in WWI the chateau was converted into a hospital, and in WWII it sat on the line of demarcation and thus people were able to escape from the occupied zone into free France.
Although the large chateaux were built hundreds of years ago, there are many other grand modern homes in the area. Many of these places are attached to the wine industry. The Loire valley is France’s third most important wine region, especially known for its white wines. The other great part about being in a wine region is there is also lots of good food available for pairing. One of the region’s specialities is goat cheese, and we visited a goat farm to taste the local stuff. In general, the three of us enjoyed tasting wine along the route and taking tours of the “caves”. Sections of the Loire cut through tuffa rock, a soft and valuable rock. Tuffa was mined, creating large networks of tunnels and caves, to build many of the chateaux and also many of the village homes. Some wine masters realized the potential of the excavated quarries and now many wineries produce and store their wine in these underground tunnels. For example, the cave we visited in Saumur houses four million bottles under the town!
Speaking of Saumur, we had our first proper French lunch in this town. We spent most of the day with Claire’s friend Charles, who toured us through his town and then took us back to his home for lunch. We enjoyed a multi course meal in the company of Charles’ very energetic and generous mother. Exploring chateaux and vineyards is certainly special, but sharing meals and conversation with local people will always be the most priceless aspect of our trip. Thank you very much, Charles!
And we must also thank Claire, since our experience in Saumur, as well as many other experiences in the past week, would not have been possible without her! It was really nice to go cycle touring with another friend, especially one who is so adventurous and easy to get along with. It was also great having her with us for her mastery over the French language; she enabled much deeper conversation with locals than our French would have allowed. We also would like to proudly announce that we can fit a third person in our tent (relatively) comfortably and Temagami and Nootka are able to bear the extra load from a third traveller… so if anyone is interested in joining us for some time you just need to find a bike and then find us!
We are now enjoying time in the city of Nantes, one of the larger cities in France. We are staying with a great family who we found through Warm Showers. Jules and Christine are very kind people with two interesting and outgoing teenage sons Adrian and Victor. As a family they have done quite a few cycle tours! A very inspiring group, full of good energy. They treated us to two wonderful meals, and this morning we all shared in a pancake feast. We are very happy that on Easter weekend, as everyone back home is getting together with relatives, we are able to share good food and conversation with people that feel like old friends. Merci beacoup.
And tomorrow, we head north! Since Caitlin’s passport is still “being processed”, we have time to spare in France! We will be exploring the region of Brittany, an area of France with a strong culture. We are very excited because Jules and Christine have shared the contact information of some of their friends who live in the area, so hopefully we will be staying with lots of good Brittany folk!
Until next time,
Alec and Caitlin