Awash with food and wine and into the spin cycle
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.
Saumur Chateau is ideally situated for a wide-ranging view of the surrounding countryside