TO best discover a country you need to travel to its very heart and do so in a way that exposes you to the life going on around you. The River Loire passes through the heart of France and there is no better way of experiencing life in this great country than mounting your bicycle and following this river as it flows from the volcanic landscape of the Massif Central to the Atlantic Ocean.
Its length of 1020km makes it the longest river in France. Here you will find a gentler and slower pace of life than in the great cities of Paris, Lyon or Marseille; and although there is some industry, it is less evident in the Loire Valley than alongside France’s other major rivers. Rather this is a land of agriculture and vineyards.
The Beauce, north of Orléans, has some of the most fertile arable farmland in the country, while the rolling hills of the Auvergne and Burgundy produce high-quality meat and dairy products. The plains of Anjou grow much of the fruit and vegetables found in the markets and restaurants of Paris, often consumed with wines from premier Loire wine-growing appellations like Muscadet, Sancerre, Pouilly Fumé and Vouvray. All this great food and drink can also be found in restaurants along the route.
The Loire is known to the French as the “Royal River” – a name it gets from the Loire Valley’s long association with the kings of France when between the 15th and 17th centuries, successive monarchs developed a series of ever more spectacular châteaux.
Blois and Amboise were great palaces where the royal court resided to escape political turmoil in Paris. Chambord was a glorious hunting lodge, from where the king would spend long days hunting in the forests of the Sologne, while Chaumont was a home first for the mistress and later the widow of Henri II. The preference of the royal family for life along the Loire stimulated other members of the court to build their own châteaux in the area, resulting in over 50 châteaux recognised as heritage sites by UNESCO beside the Loire and its close tributaries. Although most of these were sequestered, damaged and looted during the French Revolution, 20th-century restoration has breathed new life into them and many can be visited.
In addition to secular buildings, the Loire Valley holds a strong religious presence. Le Puy-en-Velay, with a church and iron Madonna each perched on top of volcanic spires and a great basalt cathedral, is the start point of Europe’s most popular pilgrimage to Santiago in Spain.
Tours has both a great cathedral that took so long to build it is in three different styles (Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance) and a basilica built to house the tomb of French patron saint, St Martin, a Roman soldier who became an early bishop of Tours. Other French saints encountered include St Benedict (founder of the Benedictine order), buried at Fleury Abbey in St Benoît, and Ste Bernadette of Lourdes whose preserved body is on display in Nevers.
Ste Jeanne d’Arc, a French national heroine who lifted the siege of Orléans and turned the tide of the Hundred Years’ War in favour of France, is widely commemorated particularly in Orléans itself. By contrast, the little village of Germignydes- Prés has a church from the time of Charlemagne (ad806) that claims to be the oldest in France.
These châteaux, cathedrals, monasteries, churches and the countryside between them are linked by the Loire Cycle Route. This 1052km route starts beside the river’s source on the slopes of the volcanic plug of Gerbier de Jonc and follows a waymarked route, Vivez la Loire Sauvage, through a series of gorges downhill between the wooded volcanic cones and basalt plateaux of the Auvergne. After leaving the mountains it passes the Charolais hills and at Digoin joins EuroVélo route EV6, which itself joins a French national cycle trail, La Loire à Vélo, near Nevers. This is followed, mostly on level, dedicated cycle tracks, through Orléans, Tours, Angers and Nantes to reach the Atlantic opposite the shipbuilding town of St Nazaire.
This is the most popular cycle route in France, followed by thousands of cyclists every year. French regional and départemental governments have invested heavily in infrastructure with well-defined waymarking, asphalt surfaced tracks, dedicated bridges over rivers and underpasses under roads. Almost every town and many large villages have tourist offices that can point you in the direction of (and often book for you) overnight accommodation that varies from five-star hotels to village gîtes d’étape.
When to go
With the exception of Stage 1 in the Massif Central, where snow can remain on the ground until late April, the route is generally cycleable from April to October. If the source is inaccessible, an alternative would be to start from the beginning of Stage 3 in Le Puy-en-Velay, which can be reached directly by train.
How long will it take?
The route has been broken into 26 stages, averaging 40km per stage. A fit cyclist, cycling an average of 80km/day should be able to complete the route in under a fortnight. Travelling at a gentler pace of 50km/day and allowing time for sightseeing, cycling the Loire to the Atlantic coast would take three weeks.
There are many places to stay along the route, making it is easy to tailor daily distances to your requirements.
Hotels, guest houses and bed & breakfast: For most of the route there is a wide variety of accommodation. Hotels vary from expensive five-star properties to modest local establishments and usually offer a full meal service. Guest houses and bed & breakfast accommodation, known as chambres d’hôte in French, generally offer only breakfast. Tourist information offices will often telephone for you and make local reservations. After hours, some tourist offices display a sign outside showing local establishments with vacancies. Booking ahead is seldom necessary, except on popular stages in high season, although it is advisable to start looking for accommodation
after 4pm. Most properties are cycle-friendly and will find you a secure overnight place for your pride and joy. Accueil Vélo (cyclists welcome) is a national quality mark displayed by establishments within 5km of the route that welcome cyclists and provide facilities including overnight cycle storage.
Prices for accommodation in France are similar to, or slightly cheaper than, prices in the UK.
Youth hostels and gîtes d’étape: There are five official youth hostels on or near the route. In addition there are independent backpackers’ hostels in some of the larger towns and cities. To use an official youth hostel you need to be a member of an association affiliated to Hostelling International (YHA in England, SYHA in Scotland). Unlike British hostels, most European hostels do not have self-catering facilities but do provide good value hot meals.
Hostels get very busy, particularly during school holidays, and booking is advised through www.hihostels. com. Details of independent hostels can be found at www.hostelbookers.com.
Gîtes d’étape are hostels and rural refuges in France, mainly for walkers. They are mostly found in mountain areas, although there are some along the Loire Valley, particularly in Ardèche. Full details of all French gîtes d’étape can be found at www.gites-refuges.com. Do not confuse these with Gîtes de France, which are rural properties rented as weekly holiday homes.
If you are prepared to carry all the necessary equipment, camping is the cheapest way of cycling the Loire. The stage descriptions in my new Cicerone guide, The Loire Cycle Route, identify many official campsites but these are not exhaustive. Camping may be possible in other locations with the permission of local landowners.
This is an edited extract from The Loire Cycle Route From The Source In The Massif Central To The Atlantic Coast by Mike Wells, published later this month by Cicerone, £16.95
The guide presents the route in 26 stages of 24–60km (15-37 miles). Clear route description and 1:150,000 mapping are accompanied by practical planning advice, along with fascinating insights into the river, its surroundings and local points of interest. The appendices offer further details of facilities and accommodation on route. With a wealth of information to help make the most of your trip, Mike Wells’s guidebook is a perfect companion to cycling this glorious river valley.