Val de Loire

Bonjour from France III, Val de Loire.

I cycled from Lyon to Auxerre, again transversing Burgany but not duplicating more than 25 kms of the route I had covered with my nephew last year. I stopped in Dijon to feast at my favorite restaurant - La Cote St. Jean - the gastronomy with the 50-cheese cart.

So many back roads. One day I made 17 road changes, often competing with the wind for map control, guessing if the unnumbered, unsigned road was the map representation I sought, using the compass to get to the other side of towns to pick up again the small routes that evaporate at the first signs of civilization. A lot of guesswork, this trip. At Auxerre I was fortunate to find a bike shop so I could replace my on-board computer. It had died after 15,000 kms. The next day I was only a morning's ride from Belleville, where I would meet the Loire (and the first of three nuclear power stations, the Loire's modern day chateaux).

Before this trip, checking the internet, I had found that the Loire River Valley, SW of Paris, seemed to be on the agenda of almost every cyclist touring France. Professional agencies offering bike tours rarely failed to include a chateau or two. Beside the Tower (Eifel's) and the pyramid (Pei's), is there a more hackneyed image of France than a castle along the Loire? And the throngs of gawking tourists nearby.

The Loire chateaux, which have been recently conglomerated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, present an especially difficult challenge to the touring cyclist: how to capture an individualized experience, apart from the sardinefied mob. Finding the backroads gets one out of the pack, but the day-tourists who hire bikes (or the Dutch who detach theirs from their caravans) use similarly detailed maps.

Tourism in France is a bit off this summer. The French have been staying home for a series of elections and to watch the World Cup (until France was eliminated). September 11 is still having a dampening effect, but international tourism is nonetheless quite alive. The bicycle parking lots at the various chateaux, for example, were about 1/3 full (and I was traveling before French school holidays).

On this trip I was often asked, strangely enough as your expert on chateau tourism, to name my favorite chateau. For me that's like deciding on a favorite fruit or a favorite pasta dish. I can't compare; each has unique qualities and offers a special experience. The same with chateaux. Some, like Chenonceau, built by women, or Cheverny, with its lavish furnishings, or Villandry, with its magnificent gardens, deserve repeat visits. Others hosted important historical events, a few featuring Joan of Arc. Fearing chateau fatique, I had promised myself I would not walk through more than 2 chateaux and a museum on any one day, but by the end of the Loire, I was up to a daily dose of 3 chateaux and a museum. In all I visited over 25 entities (12 chateaux, the rest abbeys, cathedrals or museums). The most interesting of the museums were the mushroom museum in Saumur and the Gemmail museum in Tours, the latter featuring back-lit works composed of shards of glass, several by Picasso.

But I guess I will remember the Loire most as where my tent slipped off the back of the bike. When I discovered the loss and returned to the stretch of rough road where the accident had likely occurred, a nomad (there are many nomads in France, living in campers, parked by the roadside)told me that someone had picked it up and driven off. Maybe that someone was he. In any case, I detoured back to Tours, to Decathlon, of France's sporting store chain, replaced the tent (made in China, of course) and was back on the road, all in the matter of 3 hours.

Experienced 4-14 June 2002

12 July Sanary-sur-Mer