A Biker's Reverie

River Valleys Overview
  |  Gorp.com
Map of France
Five rivers in France.

Central to France's history and cuisine, and foremost in the minds of many of its casual velocipedalers, are its majestic river valleys. Imagine what the Fertile Crescent was to western civilization. That is what modern Gaul's river valleys are to France. In the earliest days, the ease with which goods could be trafficked along them resulted in the trade communities that grew into villages and then cities. And where there were people, especially in the Middle Ages, there was a need for the nobility to protect the indentured masses. Strategic castles were built within eye- and earshot of the gurgles. Agriculture and particularly anything related to grapes and their unique, fermented byproducts (i.e., wine!) flourished along their banks. In fact, almost every significant river run has an equally famous wine region associated with it.

In short, for a taste of the nation, especially one to be enjoyed from the saddle of a man-powered steed, dive into the river regions, swim through the history and culture, bathe in the gastronomy, cleave the rolling turf, and only air dry once you are back on a plane headed home.

France has eight major water-hewn thoroughfares: four running roughly east-to-west the Marne, the Seine, the Loire and the Garonne/Dordogne and four running north-south the Moselle, the Rhine, the Satne, and the Rhtne. We will take a brief look at five of them, sampling some of the cycling pleasures offered by the Marne, the Loire, the Satne, the Rhtne and the Dordogne.

The Marne. The most famous land area along the Marne begins at Chblons-sur-Marne. A champagne-filled week-long trip passes through Epernay, through the Parc Rigional de la Montagne de Reims to the city of Reims, around the mountain on the"Route Touristique du Champagne" back to Epernay, and then along the Marne as far as Paris itself.

The Loire. The finest rides along the Loire exist at both of its extremities. At the source end, begin your tour in Le Puy-en-Velay, the religious heart of the region, and ply your way north through an eerie volcanic countryside peppered with rock-top fortresses and historic Romanesque churches. If you have time at the end, scoot inland along the Canal du Centre to finish in Paray-le-Monial, a pilgrimage town with an 11th-century basilica. Otherwise tackle the winding and steep scenic roads through the Monts de la Madeleine. At the other end of the Loire, you could begin your week in Orlians and go west as far as your legs will carry you. The castles on or near the Loire and its tributaries will keep you company for four days as far as Tours when the wine really takes over (although there are plenty of castles where wine is produced and vice versa). In your remaining three days, ponder heading as far west as Saumur.

The Satne. Your seven-day bike ride should stick to the vineyards. They are all that you could hope for and more. Starting in Dijon, treat yourself to a casual roll (with plenty of potential challenges) that will take you through the"cttes", the heart of grape-growing Burgundy as far as Mbcon.

The Rhtne. You could begin your spin in Lyon, but that is probably more than a cycle tourist needs if he or she is trying to escape the pressures of urbanity. Rather, consider beginning in Orange and detouring inland before returning to the river. Tackle some tough but very rewarding climbs in the Ventoux and the Vaucluse before enjoying the bridge at Avignon, the ambiance of Arles, and the bulls, flamingoes and horses of the Riserve Nationale de Camargue.

The Dordogne. There's just too much to see and too much to do. Pick and choose what suits your needs. Here is a look at a week's worth of riding that will take you from Souillac past the "prehistoric capital of France" (complete with cave drawings in abundance), through rolling hills of corn and wheat and into the heart of Bordeaux wine and cuisine.


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