Following a cycle-route can either be a navigational joy or a frustrating exercise in map reading to discern where the hell you missed the last sign and where you might be now. For the most part the Loire route signage has been fairly reliable. The route doesn’t always match with that denoted on our set of maps, but I think that’s a result of the route developing over the years. Mind you, the accuracy of the map is sometimes rather questionable as a couple of bridges have sprung up, and windmills, campsites and chateaux don’t appear to be exactly where the map would have you believe, and a lot of the minor roads are missing despite it being a 1:100,000. That said, we’ve had very few problems and generally cruise along easily following signage and relating it to the map.
The Loire is a wide, sandy-shored river with something of a split personality. In the summer water levels are so low that stone embankments have been built out to push what remains of the river into a single navigable channel. In the winter, the river floods vast areas of meadow and a lot of the veloroute has been following roads up on top of the miles of dykes that run alongside the river.
As well as the expected chateaux and vineyards, the Loire threw up some nice little surprises for us. As we tootled along a quiet lane on one of the Loire’s islands we came across a cafe and museum dedicated to Lenin. Intrigued we stopped and went in to see a room absolutely packed with the proprietor’s personal collection – the result of a lifelong passion for Russia and Communism. She told us how her father had been a communist and when she was 18, in the early 70’s, she drove her 2CV to Moscow, and remains a communist herself today. We drank strong Russian beer in the shady bar and decided it was a gem of a find on a hot afternoon.
The first chateau we visited was at Angers, where we spent the morning exploring the impressive mediaeval castle, which houses a beautiful (and beautifully preserved) 14th C tapestry. We also learned that wine-growers often place a rose bush at the end of a row of vines as the rose is more susceptible to disease so they can have early warning of impending problems and treat the vines before they’re showing any symptoms. That evening, we back-tracked 20km to the Lenin Cafe and joined the locals listening to a Russian singer from the Urals, and then camped in the field behind the cafe.
Heading east again, we re-passed Angers and pedalled towards Saumur, resisting the temptation to visit more chateaux (just yet), but succumbing to a spot of wine tasting…on more than one occasion. We also marvelled at the troglodyte villages where the local tufa limestone has been quarried out and dwellings are built half of tufa bricks and half simply burrowed into the cliff-side. These buildings range from quite humble sheds to some quite large and expensive looking homes.
We’ve had a fair run of 90+km days recently and this evening (Friday 27th May) are in Bonny-sur-Loire and looking forward to an easy day tomorrow pottering round the market in the morning and doing a spot more wine-tasting in the afternoon. We’re all chateauxed out for now (having been inside mediaeval Angers and extraordinary river-bridging Chenonceau, and either cycled or walked around the outside of innumerable others, including the ‘sleeping beauty’ Chateau d’Usse, the grandiose and 200+ chimneyed Chateau du Chambord).
Life on the bike gives you plenty of time to think as the pedals turn and the scenery glides by. Sadly we haven’t found anything very profound to ponder on, but have enjoyed trying to improve our agricultural knowledge by playing ‘guess the crop or farming practice’. Now all we need to do is remember to look up the answers when we next get a decent wifi session.
A personal amusement of mine has been to note the changing tastes in gatepost adornments. This particular hobby started in Ireland where I observed a partiality for ostentatious concrete eagles, sometimes painted gold, guarding the gateposts of the most modest little bungalows. Horses’ heads and rampant lions were also frequently spotted, but my personal favourite from the Emerald Isle was a pair of decapitated Great Danes. Eagles have also proved popular in France (but usually at the entrance to a rather more grandiose dwelling than a bungalow) and my favourite French gateposts to date have been a pair of fat, comfortable-looking, painted stone hens nesting on the top of farmyard gateposts.