Tour de Paradise: Biking France's Loire Valley

Talk about motivation!: Chateau Chenonceaux in the Loire Valley  (PhotoDisc)

Envision centuries-old châteaux, charming villages, and flower-covered hillsides. Now, add mile after mile of nearly flat bike routes that sluice through a fertile river valley that irrigates some of the world's finest vineyards. Then, combine all of the above with cuisine that would make even the most seasoned gourmand salivate in anticipation…. A gastro-cycling fantasy, sure, but if you're in France's Loire Valley, it's very much réalité.
The town of Blois, two hours by train from Paris, prides itself as the gateway to the Loire Valley, so makes for an ideal starting point for a cycling adventure through the "Garden of France." Just east of Blois, the magnificent châteaux of Chambord and Cheverny have lured visitors for centuries. The former is the largest of the Loire Valley châteaux and was originally designed as a hunting lodge; it became the ultimate royal bolthole under the watch of François I and an army of 2,000 craftsmen. Cheverny, meanwhile, has a richly furnished interior that attracts art aficionados from all over. Allegedly, the exterior was the inspiration for Marlinspike, which appears in Hergé's Tintin comics.
After you've had your fill of ogling architecture, head southwest to Amboise, the charming village where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last four years of his life. Leonardo's home, the Manoir du Clos-Lucé, is located just outside Amboise, and visitors are welcome to tour the artist's rooms. Next, pedal southeast across the Cher River to the castle of Chenonceau, one of the loveliest sites in the Loire Valley. The original lady of the house, Diane de Poitiers, mistress to Henri II, was ousted by the king's jealous wife, Catherine de Médicis, after his death. Both women cultivated elaborate gardens, which are open to the public and a must-see for those in need of a break from the saddle.
Villandry and Azay-le-Rideau lie due west of Chenonceau, two charming towns that beckon cyclists once more with their opulent villas. The Château de Villandry is home to a beautifully restored 16th-century garden, while the latter's own pleasant château sparkles on the banks of the Indre River. The town of Tours, the region's railway hub, is nearby and provides bus and train service to other major cities. Head back by train to Paris, or continue all the way to the town of Angers, cycling the full length of the Loire Valley (a 247-mile trip if you start off in Blois). Keep in mind: the Loire Valley is best experienced if you don't approach it as a Tour de France speed trial—take your time and drink in the scenery and the culture. Four-star châteaux cover the region, ready to soothe away any saddle sores with their haute cuisine and crisp, cool wine. For the more budget conscious, stay at a French B&B, picnic on the riverbank, and try to remember that, eventually, you've got to get back on that bike.

Published: 24 Jan 2003 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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