Adam Ruck combines gentle cycling and sightseeing with splendid dinners. Here's his Loire Valley suggestions.
Does the case need to be made for France as the perfect country for a touring holiday? It offers every variety of treat - scenic, historic and gastronomic - on a manageable scale. Yes, there are a few areas - mainly in the north-east - where we might like to fast-forward; but south of the Loire, rural France delivers rarely a dull hour in the saddle.
Cycling is the growth sector in rural tourism. Hotels keep bikes in garages to lend or rent and smart restaurants no longer slam the door in the face of cyclists. Even wine producers pop their corks with a smile, having worked out that we may have our cars at the hotel down the road and will come back to fill our boots if we like what we taste.
At the end of the day, the greatest pleasure is on the table. Dinner comes with a sense of entitlement and a decent bottle. Here are three suggestions of areas to explore, with itineraries.
Saumur to Orleans
This is the historic section of the Loire Valley, through the vineyards and orchards of Touraine, via gracious Renaissance chateaux as far as the river's northernmost point at Orleans. Trains run along the Loire, so a cycling trip could scarcely be easier. Park the car at a station, pedal along the riverbank until you've had enough, hop on a train and return to your starting point. Riding upstream may seem counter-intuitive, but it gives you a better chance of wind assistance.
La Loire a Velo (loireavelo.fr) is an itinerary designed for cyclists, on a mixture of minor roads and cycle paths, mostly following the river. Signage is a bit patchy - as a general rule, keep to the quieter roads along the left (south) bank. This stretch of the Loire, not forgetting its tributaries the Indre and Cher, could fill a month. Chateaux in private ownership, such as Cheverny and Usse, are fun to visit, as well as those of Chambord, Amboise and Blois.
However, the chateaux are not the only attraction. Saumur's Ecole Nationale d'Equitation, the equine Academie Francaise, is worth visiting, as is nearby Fontevraud Abbey, with its Plantagenet royal tombs. Troglodyte dwellings in the white cliffs beside the Loire and Cher are a local feature - the attractive little town of Montrichard is a good base for troglo-tourism and wine tasting.
Orleans has a lot going for it: cheerful bars and restaurants in the old quarter between the cathedral and the river. Make your entry via the Port Royal, up the arcaded Rue Royale to the vast Place du Martroi, where St Joan rides a green horse.
Staying there: In Saumur, at Hostellerie la Croix Blanche (hotel-croixblanche.com). At Azay-le-Rideau, Le Grand Monarque (legrandmonarque.com). At Chenonceaux, Le Bon Laboureur (www.bonlaboureur.com). At Chitenay, L'Auberge du Centre (auberge-du-centre.com). At Beaugency, L'ecu de Bretagne, (ecudebretagne.fr). At Orleans, at Saint-Aignan (hotel -saintaignan.com).
Vallorbe to the Loire
The TGV makes light work of the journey to Switzerland - three hours from Paris to the border at Vallorbe. Hop off here and save most of the sweat of the long haul up from Lake Geneva to the crest of the Jura at the Col de Jougne. From which point, it's freewheeling all the way through Franche-Comte in long rolling stages, the landscape changing from forest and timber mills to vineyards and vegetable gardens. After Arbois, a grey-gold town of rhythmic arcades and interesting local wines that rarely make their way abroad, come the wetlands of the Bresse, a quiet corner of la France profonde best known for its chickens, which have their own appellation controlee. Burgundy spells hills, history and rich rewards for the gourmet cyclist.
Call a halt at Beaune for sightseeing and wine tasting at the Hotel-Dieu and Marche aux Vins, but don't overdo the intake: many ups and downs lie before the fortress village of Chateauneuf-en-Auxois, a good stopover above the motorway and Canal de Bourgogne.
From Vezelay, there are several possible routes through peaceful Puisaye. We choose the one with the prettiest-sounding villages: Lucy-Sur-Yonne and Druyes les Belles Fontaines. The route reaches the Loire near Briare, famous for Mr Eiffel's aqueduct, which carries the Canal Lateral a la Loire over the Loire to meet the Canal de Briare. Wine buffs might prefer to aim for Sancerre or Pouilly, exactly halfway between the source of the Loire and the Atlantic, finishing the ride with goat's cheese and flinty white wine.
Staying there: In Vallorbe, the Le Bon Accueil (le-bon-accueil.fr). In Arbois, Les Messageries (hoteldesmessageries.com). In Beaune, Hotel Grillon (hotel-grillon.fr). In Chateauneuf, Hostellerie du Chateau (hostellerie-de-chateauneuf.com). In Vezelay, La Renommee, (larenommee.com). In Sancerre, La Cote des Monts Damnes (montsdamnes.com).
The Massif Central
Conquerors of giddy alpine passes would not raise a sweat in the Massif Central, but if your bicycle frame of reference is flat to undulating, as mine is, the upper reaches of the Allier and Loire are hard going, rewarded by some of the wildest country in France, now being recolonised by wolves.
We tackled the Allier by mistake, having planned to travel up it by train to Langogne, our intended gateway to the source of the Loire. But the railway was closed for maintenance (this happens every autumn) and, in retrospect, the scenery was worth every bead of sweat.
Cycling down from the source of the Loire to Le Puy has its steep moments, too, because there is no road that follows the river's infant contortions exactly, so the idea of cruising easily down country lanes beside the water is fantasy.
Although the main appeal of this circuit is scenic, there are beautiful churches to visit at Issoire, Brioude, Lavaudieu and Le Puy; the macabre fun of visiting the Auberge de Peyrebeille, notorious for its serial-killer hosts (early 19th century); and the mouth-watering prospect-of-a-lifetime lunch chez Troisgros at Roanne, followed by an hour's snoring on the train back to Vichy. More energetic cyclists might prefer to pedal over the hills
Staying there: In Vichy, Chateau de Codignat (codignat.com). In Brioude, Poste et Champanne (hotel-de-la-poste-brioude.com). In Alleyras, Le Haut-Allier (hotel-lehautallier.com). In Ste Eulalie, Hotel du Nord (hoteldunord-ardeche.com). In Le Puy-Vorey, Les Rives de l'Arzon (hotel-rives-arzon.fr). In Feurs, Etesia (hotel-etesia.fr).
Adam Ruck's new book is France on Two Wheels (france2wheels.com).
Cathay Pacific has a fare to Paris from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2130 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Hong Kong (about 9hr), then to Paris (13hr 5min); see cathaypacific.com. This fare allows you to fly back from another European city.
Biking there French railways are generally bike-friendly, but not all high-speed trains accept bikes. On the SNCF website (voyages-sncf.com), a picture of a bicycle means the train has bike spaces. These cost €10 ($12.30) and must be booked at the same time as the ticket — they cannot be booked online. Bicycles are not permitted on the Paris Metro but can be taken on the suburban RER network outside rush hour.
Don't carry anything on your back. My solution to the problem of valuables is to wear shorts with zip pockets.
Always wear sunglasses.
Take a spare inner tube. It's quicker to switch tubes by the roadside then repair the tyre later.
Don't be too proud to get off and walk. It will be a welcome change for the leg muscles and backside. And what's the hurry, anyway?
- The Telegraph, London