(I am writing these journals several months post tour. While the memory is clear and my diary helps, putting the thoughts into words is not easy. I am avoiding writing a history lesson of the Chateaux. Although learning about the history of them IS why I went on the tour. This entry picks up where the first blog ended. Read that blog post here)
Cycling through history Part 2, the start of La Loire
My night in Pellerin was peaceful and pleasant. In its heyday, the village was a major port for shipping of wine, vinegar and other products. The local vinegar distillery closed in 1906. Last night on my post dinner walk, I noticed a small bronze plaque next to the old quai. It listed all the major areas where the Loire passed, including its starting(Mont Gerbier de Joncs) and ending points(the Atlantic). In between there are 1012 kilometers of flowing water and places to explore. For me, it is fun to close my eyes and imagine all the places to visit and things I will learn about France and its history of the Loire. This post starts my cycling through history and exploration of La Loire.
On day 4 of my tour, and first full day on the Loire, I depart Pellerin on a bright sunny morning. My stomach is full from a nice breakfast of toast and jam and strong coffee, and fruit. My route follows bike only gravel and paved paths. Occasionally, the route runs through a town. This actually helps these small communities economically and is one reason why this form of bike tourism is so important( To read about the economic benefits of bike tourism in the U.S click this link). Early in the morning I amble through a small village; elementary school kids are walking single file in town with their teachers. I wonder where they may be going. On a field trip, to the library? It probably really doesn’t matter, it is fun seeing them outside instead of in the classroom.
Several miles and maybe one hour later, I stop at a town whose name is long forgotten. Retirees are out buying bread and a journal, shops are opening up and shop owners are sweeping the sidewalks. I stop at a cafe and see on a written on a blackboard: “La meilleure façon de réaliser ses rêves et de se réveiller”(the best way to realize your dreams is to wake up), a quote by Paul Valery. I find that fitting for this journey, this tour that I am undertaking. Some trips are best when all planned out. This was not one of them. My goal, and motivation for cycling the Loire, was to see and learn about the history of the area, in particular the lives and histories of the Kings and Queens of France. I wanted to see Les Châteaux de La Loire! And see them I did! But I never knew where I would eat or sleep, and that made this tour exciting, and full of possibilities.
About one hour after leaving Pellerin I come across Nantes, the sixth largest city in France. Not wanting to stop yet and being anxious to see what is next, I go rather quickly through the city. It is, however, surprisingly bike friendly. There are bike paths next to the car lanes, and bikes also have right of way in those same lanes. Often, there is a bike-only sidewalk, protected from the cars by a short concrete bumper. The weather is excellent, my stomach is full and the excitement is high. I keep pedaling. Not that I needed a lot of motivation with all the natural beauty around me however.
The further inland from Nantes I got, the more the Loire started to change. Its muddy brown color gradually changed into the blue-green color one might expect of a river. The depth transformed into a knee and hip high depth, at points I could see the bottom. Suddenly, sand bars started to form, reed beds became more and more common, and ducks and geese grow plentiful.
Friends along the way
Most days I would cycle from around 7:00 am until 3-4:00. At around 15 miles per hour this gives me 50-60 miles of cycling depending on how many stops I make. By this time, I was ready to either get a hotel or look for camping, either way I was ready to get off the bike and unwind. At the end of this first day I chose a nice looking campsite on an island in the middle of the river. At St Florent-Le-Vieil I paid 8 euros for an excellent campsite. It was here I really noticed how late the sun sets in France. Even at 10:00 pm there is still enough light to walk around and not hit your shin on anything! Not only was this campsite conveniently located but I also was able to meet and talk with Michel. One of the best things about bike touring is meeting people along the way. Traveling like this allows and even encourages a person to slow down and not look so much as where you are going as to where you are. Bike touring makes you slow down. I like that.
Michel is a septuagenarian from the South of France, more locally known as Le Midi. What initially struck me was how this gray haired, wiry-thin but chiseled older guy was touring with a loaded bike. Where I come from and in my life experiences, a person really just doesn’t see someone of his age cycling very often. In France this is common. That night, we both very easily could have stayed in our own little “space”, but we chose not to, we chose to notice and recognize that we are both undertaking something really cool and fun, and wanted to share it. So, how fortunate was I to be camped next to him and to strike up a conversation with him. We chatted over dinner and a cup of tea. He told me about where he is from and his own 800km solo tour! Just amazing. I learned that he has a son who is a professional chef in one of the hottest wine areas of France. I learned Michel loves the mountains and hiking(more so than cycling), and that he lives in a really small “hameau” or hamlet of just a few homes. Michel also shared with me some stories of the WWII resistance fighters hiding out in the hills of le Vercors around his village and the Germans that hunted them down. We both share a common passion for the outdoors and chance encounters like the one we had.
Meeting other people and sharing stories is just as important as seeing the sites and visiting places! In fact as I write this I can remember better the people I met than the exact places I stopped in. In spite of an enjoyable night of conversation, the next morning we said our good-byes and wished each other “bonne route”, but not before I got his address so I could send him a postcard from the U.S!
The city of Angers lay just a few hours ahead. It is a beautiful, historic and architecturally unique city. There are half-timbered three and four story homes. Wood carvings of angels, and saints and animals that tell a story for the illiterate of the middle ages. However I was still ready to keep moving. After just one night, I boarded a train to save a days riding and arrive in Saumur.
The deeper into the Loire Valley I go, the more I enter the medieval world of the Kings and Queens of the 14th and 15th centuries. Before Louis XIV established Versailles as the Royal Residence in 1682, the kings and queens were itinerant. They had no fixed home. Here, in Saumur lived several of the lineage of the French Royalty, including Le Duc d’Anjou and Henry II and IV, and René the First. I am sure there are more. The royal castle shines a bright white, guarded on all sides by its towers, perched high above the river. It stands as a formidable sight to any invader but to a cyclist hungry for history and culture it is a welcome sight.
Although I am fortunate to have visited and learned about these historic monuments, I hesitate to write too much. I think that it would be easy to get into a history lesson instead of focusing on the route and the cycling. Also, this is wine country, vineyards encompass this entire region. A highlight of any day, once the riding is done and a place to sleep has been found, is enjoying a cool glass of Chenin Blanc.
An unexpected surprise
Heading out of town the next day, my path continues next to the Loire as it has been doing for 5 days already. I had just read about some unique architectural and historic features on the EV1 that are next to Saumur. I was enthusiastic and my curiosity was peaked to see first hand something that I may rarely if ever see in the United States. Before construction of modern roads there was just one narrow midieval path that led from village to village, and to Saumur. This path still exists, and goes right through the Troglodyte village of Souzay-Champigny(click here for a short description). Dug into the soft limestone cliffs that jut above the valley and the river, this ancient 9th century collection of homes and alleys has existed since the 9th century. I get off my bike in order to walk and explore around better. Entering the cool and dark caves, I am conscience of the fact that I am walking on the ancient “rue de commerce”. This living history is what excites me at each stop along the Loire. I am able to walk on the same stairs or into the same buildings that people have been using for 500 or 1000 years. It feels as though I myself become a part of its history. Unfortunately I have lost all my photos of this stop and so my memory is all I have. As a bike tourist, I am able to see and experience these places on a very intimate level, one that puts me in direct contact with the environments and people I slowly share the path with.
The next stage
My destination for tonight? Well, I have decided it will be Rigny-Ussé, the tiny village with another grand chateau. Three days after pedaling away from Pellerin and some 15o miles, I will arrive this afternoon ready to set up for camping. If you are familiar with Sleeping Beauty, then you will recognize where the inspiration for the caste came from. More about my time in Rigny-Usse in the next and last edition!
If you are curious about taking your own Eurovelo trip, I encourage you to start with the official website, https://en.eurovelo.com/ .