The Loire holds a special place in my cycling heart – and history. It was here, in 1985, that I first hopped on a (rented) bike, promptly fell over, and quickly got hooked on cyclotourisme, learned how to read a Michelin map and appreciate a croissant sandwich.
That very first ride, from Blois to Chambord and back, while not the most scenic in the Loire, is nevertheless near the top of my list of favorites, for sentimental reasons. Plus, Chambord castle (above) is pretty amazing, especially the Leonardo Da Vinci double-helix spiral staircase (below).
The sheer size of the Loire’s biggest chateau is impressive, especially since it’s located in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by, well, nothing but forests and fields and …
Wild boar! There’s a sign (above), as you approach Chambord, that warns you to be on the lookout for the wild boar that roam the woods and attack unsuspecting cyclists. I’ve ridden this route four or five times, and have, thankfully, never seen a wild boar. I’m not sure what I’d do if I ever did see one, other than ride as fast as I can.
The Amboise-Chenonceaux-Amboise loop is another memorable day of riding. Chenonceaux castle – which spans a river – is awesome, and I discovered a “secret” dirt path on the other side of the Cher River that allows you to ride around to the back of the castle (above).
If I have to pick a favorite Loire ride, which I must, it’s this one: the Azay-le-Rideau-Villandry-Usse-Azay-le-Rideau loop. How do you like them apples? A lot, as the route to Villandry is filled with apple orchards. Mile after mile of the sweet smell of apples. Don’t tell anyone, but on my last Loire adventure, I stopped and plucked an apple off a tree and ate it. I couldn’t resist, but only took one. And then bought several at the weekly outdoor market from one of the orchard people to even things out karma-wise.
So, come on along as we ride this route, which is about 45 miles (although there’s a way to cut some miles out).
Azay is a small, quiet town with a couple hotels, restaurants and an amazing castle in the middle of town surrounded by a water-filled moat.
The castle is considered the most romantic in the Loire. At night, they do a sound-and-light show that includes a recreation of life back in the day, including costumed actors in boats in the moat.
Head west on the D57 toward and past the gare (off to the right). Make a right on the Route des Vergers, a little white road (on the Michelin map) that doesn’t have a number or bike-path sign. Soon: Apple orchards. For miles. In every direction. What variety? I have no idea. Red, crunchy and sweet.
Since Azay is on a river (the Indre), and Villandry is on the Loire River to the north, you go up the south side of the ridge to the top, to the little village of La Bobinere, then Valleres, where you’ll find the D321, and then it’s down, down, down to Villandry.
You can stop here and tour the castle and gardens, or just the gardens. The castle itself is, well, you know, another castle filled with the stuff that’s in castles: paintings, furniture, ornate ceilings. Touring one or two is more than enough. Chambord and Blois are at the top of my list of castles to tour.
The gardens of Vallandry? Spectacular, amazing. I toured the castle my first time there, in 1985, but ever since have skipped the castle and spent an hour or two hanging out in the gardens. But, only after …
Continue east on the D16 to the little river-side town of Savonnieres, stop at the patisserie in town (you can’t miss it) and get a croissant sandwich or two (ham & cheese, chicken and crudite, tuna and tomato) for later, when you’re relaxing in the Villandry gardens. Plus an Orangina and a couple pastries. You can’t go wrong with the flan. And something with some chocolate on or in it. Most patisserie shops have croissant sandwiches pre-made, and they are delicious and make for a perfect lunch. It’s hard to go back to whole wheat bread when I get home.
Here’s the link to My Favorite Rides (#2) … the Gorges de la Nesque in Provence
From Savonnieres, you’ll see a bridge across the river. Cross over it and … you’re on an island in the Loire upon which, to the east, is the large town of Tours (about 6 miles). This western edge of the island is quiet and pretty, filled with flowers and farms. It’s one of my favorite sections of the Loire, an area most people miss because there’s nothing here but farms, flowers and a great road to ride. Here’s a video …
Loop around to the west (the D88), to the confluence of the Loire and Cher rivers, and then back around to the bridge to Savonniers.
And then, time for a well-deserved lunch in the Villandry gardens. The gardens are immense, there are plenty of benches. If it’s not the height of tourist season, it’s mostly quiet, relaxing and peaceful.
From the castle, you could head back the way you came, to Azay. That’s the short version of this ride. But, it’s still early in the day, I’m rested and ready to head west to Usse. The yellow (on the Michelin map) D7 road will take you there, but the smaller, quieter white D16 road runs right along the edge of the Loire and is so much nicer.
Here’s the view as you approach Usse castle …
From here, I prefer to ride all the way back to Villandry and then up and over the ride, through the orchards and back down to Villandry. This is a longer, but a more scenic route than taking the yellow D7 and D17 back to Azay.
Here’s the link to my Biking the Loire book, just in case you’re thinking of cycling here.