Awash with food and wine and into the spin cy­cle

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & In­dul­gence Post-tsunami Ja­pan Is Open For -

here is the es­tate is set up to demon­strate sus­tain­abil­ity and in­cludes gar­dens with more than 360 va­ri­eties of toma­toes (planted in May and ripe from July to Septem­ber), dahlias ( in flower from late May) and a gar­den of medic­i­nal plants.

If you take ad­van­tage of for­est walks as well, a visit here can eas­ily fill half a day.

We ride past the Prieure de Saint Jean du Grais, founded in 1127 by the count of An­jou, who later be­came the king of Jerusalem, and Hugh de Payns, who launched the Knights Tem­plar. As its open­ing hours are er­ratic, we have to be con­tent with the view from the out­side.

At the end of the day we cy­cle up a drive­way to our ho­tel, Chateau d’Ar­tigny, which is the pret­ti­est of cas­tles. There’s his­tory here, too, but it’s re­cent — it was built in the 20th cen­tury.

Again the em­pha­sis is on good food and a note in our room ex­plains the dress code to suit the dra­matic gold and aqua­ma­rine painted din­ing room: ‘‘Evening din­ner is the high­light of the day for which an el­e­gant form of dress would be greatly ap­pre­ci­ated by your fel­low guests.’’

We­call for an iron and it’s more than worth the ef­fort. We eat one of the best meals we have had in France. The Loire menu in­cludes cray­fish tails, foie gras with white as­para­gus, kid­neys and alose, a Loire river fish.

In spring, long French days start at 6am and don’t end un­til 9.30pm. We walk af­ter din­ner un­der a sky lit by a full moon.

We leave Chateau d’Ar­tigny af­ter break­fast and head into the coun­try­side through wide forests and past lo­cals work­ing their fer­tile farms and gar­den al­lot­ments. We stop for cof­fee at Bro­cante Gour­mand, a cafe run out of a kitchen win­dow on the side of the road, and ad­mire an eclec­tic ar­ray of bric-a-brac.

There are sev­eral chateaus along the route to our destination out­side Luynes but we choose to visit only Chateau de Langeais, an­other home of French roy­alty — who lived like no­mads, al­beit in ab­so­lute lux­ury, trav­el­ling from one mag­nif­i­cent ed­i­fice to the next. The idea be­hind this was to make their pres­ence felt through­out the king­dom.

Chateau de Langeais has a very good col­lec­tion of fur­ni­ture of the flam­boy­ant gothic style from the 15th to mid-16th cen­tury.

We lunch on an­douil­lette (made from pork in­testines) and an ex­cel­lent lo­cal white wine. The whites are prefer­able here and more suited to our palates than the thin and rather sharp reds.

With a few de­vi­a­tions and a wrong turn af­ter lunch, we ar­rive at the grand es­tab­lish­ment Domaine de Beau­vois at about 4.30pm. Af­ter a day of rid­ing more than 60km, we are happy to run a bath and lie down, look­ing at the an­cient wood-beamed ceil­ing.

The ho­tel is a 16th-cen­tury manor house set in 140ha of gar­dens and for­est. The em­pha­sis is on na­ture and good food. A menu of es­car­gots, salmon, prawns, pol­lock and baby pork is no dis­ap­point­ment. We are tired, though, and find the slow-paced fine din­ing ser­vice al­most too drawn out.

Our ho­tels have been se­lected by the tour or­gan­is­ers for their his­tory, char­ac­ter and din­ing with em­pha­sis on lo­cal pro­duce. We are grate­ful for the ef­fort we are putting into our ped­alling each day, which takes most of the guilt out of the large and ir­re­sistible meals each night.

Day four starts with the sound of a bi­cy­cle pump be­ing pushed by Se­bastien. To­day he is to drive us to Chi­non — about 50 min­utes away — where we are to start our ride. This has been ar­ranged so we can spend our last two nights at an an­cient pri­ory in Chene­hutte, about 15km from Sau­mur.

It feels a lit­tle strange not to be ped­alling, but it gives us a chance to ask our host about things we have seen and want to know more about. We stop to ad­mire Chateau d’Usse, also known as the Sleep­ing Beauty cas­tle. The myr­iad tur­rets and dorm­ers made it a per­fect setting for French writer Charles Per­rault’s fa­mous fairy­tale.

On the bikes again, we stop for cof­fee in the town of Can­des St Martin, about 20km out of Chi­non. At a ta­ble perched on cob­ble­stones in the small town square, we are in the shadow of a 12th-cen­tury church, the heads of its many stat­ues knocked off dur­ing the French Rev­o­lu­tion.

But the high­light of the day is rid­ing through troglodyte caves near Turquant. Many Parisians have done up an­cient cave dwellings in the area and use them as week­enders.

Although for much of the day we fol­low marked bike routes, we see few other cy­clists. It’s now we re­alise that we are to­tally happy do­ing this trip self-guided. We don’t have to wait for any­one and are free to stop and start at will.

We may be do­ing it easy by not car­ry­ing any gear apart from what we need dur­ing the day, but we feel an un­cus­tom­ary sense of ad­ven­ture, and we rel­ish it.

Our last two nights are spent at a for­mer Bene­dic­tine pri­ory near Sau­mur. It’s a long way up a steep hill (we get off and push) but worth it when we get there for the views over the Loire River and re­gion. There has been no rain here for about six weeks and the river’s level has fallen, ex­pos­ing sandy beaches along the shores.

Over a mes­meris­ing view of the river below there are the tra­di­tional din­ner of­fer­ings of foie gras, served hot and cold, with the bit­ter flavour of rhubarb against the sweet­ness of the liver. There’s red mul­let and cod, lamb and pi­geon. By the time we take in three amuses-bouche as well as our en­trees, main cour­ses, cheese and desserts, we are adding more kilo­me­tres to the next day’s ride.

We plan to do a lazy 20km on our last day in the Loire but man­age to clock up 30km. We­set off to Sau­mur via the top road, which winds through the coun­try­side past farms, un­til we dis­cover the French na­tional eques­trian centre, the Cadre Noir, just above the town. There are train­ing and rid­ing demon­stra­tions here, but check the times of the shows in English be­fore you go, as there are only a cou­ple each day.

We climb more hills than on pre­vi­ous days. It’s quite a haul up to the chateau atop Sau­mur, but well worth the ef­fort for the out­look. The chateau is only par­tially open; ex­ten­sive re­build­ing works have still not fully re­paired dam­age by bombs in 1940.

There are exhibitions of rare ta­pes­tries and a good col­lec­tion of his­tor­i­cal rid­ing tack.

Sau­mur is a horsy town but we steer clear of the tartare de cheval (steak tartare with horse meat) on the lunch menu at a restau­rant in the town square.

We are happy trundling through France on our bi­cy­cles and a lit­tle dis­ap­pointed to leave them. Af­ter five days of rid­ing in the Loire Valley we have had only a taste, al­beit rich, of the French coun­try­side, and as the train pulls out of Sau­mur for Paris we start plan­ning our next cy­cling trip. We’ll ex­plore Bur­gundy or Bordeaux, or per­haps Cham­pagne. We’ll let you know.

SU­SAN BRE­DOW

Sau­mur Chateau is ideally sit­u­ated for a wide-rang­ing view of the sur­round­ing coun­try­side

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