We left Brugge midday to take the short train to Brussels. Our train to the Loire Valley departed at 6:30 AM the next day, so we could not get a train out of Brugge early enough to make the connection, not that I would have wanted to in the first place. We chose the Brussels Midi Pullman Hotel, a hotel right in the train station. You may remember the name Pullman in association of the first sleeper cars in the United States. The Pullman brand expanded to luxury hotels, often times in or near train stations. The Pullman group inspired a still famous European brand, The Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, a very popular European travel brand. In its early days in the 19th Century, Wagon-Lits mirrored the rail sleeping car and train station hotels, the Pullman was doing in the United States. Accor Hotels acquired the Pullman brand 1991 and changed all the Pullman Hotels to Sofitels. The Pullman brand was resurrected by the company in 2007, the Brussels hotel was one of the first to carry the revived brand. Our stay in Brussels was short and early the next morning we were on our way to France.
After a little confusion in Marne La Vallée, which resulted in us standing on the platform watching our train pull away, quick work on John’s part got us back on the road and we arrived into Saumur with plenty of time before out scheduled shuttle to Loire Life Cycling.
Loire Life Cycling is run out of a former farm house near the village of Parçay les Pens. Our hosts, Jon and Alison, are British ex-pats who fell in love with the Loire Valley and moved to France and in 2009 started Loire Life Cycle. Unlike the bike trip we just completed in Holland and Belgium, the activity this week is called a center based biking adventure. All week, we stayed each night in the Farmhouse and each day, a different cycling itinerary, with options were presented. All rides were self guided, with the assistance of information and suggestions from Jon, and the provided GPS tracks to make sure we didn’t get lost. Some days the rides were one-way and the shuttle took us back to the farm, other days, the ride was a round trip back to the farm.
At the farm house, breakfast was provided each day. A nice assortment of breads, cheeses, meats, cereals and fruits accompanied by french press coffee. I don’t know how French a French Press, is, but it does make a strong pot of coffee. Now a word about half and half. You may not know, that both Bill and I like half and half (lots of it) in our coffee. Half and half is not common in Europe. In the Netherlands they had a product, Koffie Room, which was a nice approximation. But in France, I had to ask Alison what I should buy. She recommended Crème Liquide and had some for me to try. It was great, but the container was so small that in a couple of days I needed to buy some more, so I went to the market found the package and bought several. But when I tried it in my coffee, if was very thick. What I had not noticed is that Crème Liguide comes in the 12 percent fat variety, perfect for coffee and the 30 percent variety. I had purchased 3 containers of 30 percent. The perfect solultion would be to combine regular milk and the 30 percent and get close to the15 percent fat product we are used to. Bill and I could now enjoy our coffee.
Our lunches were at cafes while riding the bikes. One day, we bought makings for lunch at a local market and had sandwiches on the grounds of a Château. After the tasting, we wanted to buy two glasses of wine to go with our picnic lunch. At this particular wine cave, they could sell us wines by the bottle and could give a a free wine tasting of 6 wines, but could not sell us a glass, so the host just gave each of us a glass each to enjoy with lunch.
Dinners at the farm were wonderful. Alison is a great cook. She served locally available produce and meats and made tasty and beautifully presented meals. Each meal began with a starter, had a main course, followed by a cheese course consisting of a selection of 3 cheeses, which changed daily. Then dessert. Alison is a very talented cook and clearly took pride in her culinary creations.
In the picture above you can see the six of us. They can accomodate 8 people, but with Brian and Gary cancelling so late, the extra spaces were not filled. Our companions for the week were Christopher and Louise from England. Louise is next to me and Christopher across from Bill. The other couple was John and Heather from British Columbia. We were a great group. We enjoyed each others company. Some days we rode together and other days we met up somewhere along the route.
After getting our bikes fitted on Sunday afternoon, we were ready for our first ride Monday morning. As was the case each day, we had choices of rides. First, the basic ride as a 17 mile ride to the Loire River and the town of Langais. You could park the bikes, walk around town and take the shuttle back to the farm or wait for the shuttle in the afternoon. Or, you could chose from serveral extensions. The first was to Château Villandry, which was 7 miles upriver from Langaeis and then ride back to Langeais for the shuttle pickup. This was the option that all 6 of us chose.
After enjoying lunch at a sidewalk cafe in Langeais, we crossed the Loire and headed up river to Villandry.
We chose Villandry for its impressive gardens, but it has an impressive history. The lands where an ancient fortress once stood were known as Columbine until the 17th century. They were acquired in the early 16th century by Jean Le Breton, France’s Controller-General for War under King Francis I. A new Château was constructed around the original 14th-century keep where King Phillip II of France once met Richard I of England to discuss peace.
The château remained in the Le Breton family for more than two centuries until it was acquired by the Marquis de Castellane. During the French Reveloution the property was confiscated and in the early 19th century, Emperor Napoleon acquired it for his brother Jerome Bonaparte.
In 1906, Joachim Carvallo purchased the property, financed by his wife Ann Coleman, who was an American steel heiress to the Coleman fortune. Extensive time, money, and devotion were then poured into repairing it and creating extraordinary gardens. Its famous Renaissance gardens include a water garden, ornamental flower gardens, and vegetable gardens. The gardens are laid out in formal patterns created with low box edges. In 1934, Château de Villandry was designated a Monument Historique. Like all the other châteaux of the Loire Valley, it is a World Hertiage Site.
On Tuesday, our choice of rides were a basic ride to Bourgueil, another village on the Loire, with two optional rides. Once again, all six of us chose the ride to Bourgueil with an extension to the Château de Miniere
The origins of the Château de Minière date back to the 15th century and began as a fortified farm. Later on, it became a manor house, before becoming a Château in the 16th century. The Château was extended with its final wing when Colonel du Soulier joined the Espinay family. This family also owned Château d’Ussé, located on the other side of the Loire. I tried to find out who Colonel du Soulier was. I was able to find a du Soulier, who was a French General during the Revolution, but I am not certain, this is this same one that was associated with this Château. I think this was the least impressive of the Châteaux that we saw during the week.
Our next day’s ride had a time certain for all of us to be at the Bouvet Ladubay Wine Caves. Before the caves, we rode to Saumur, spent time walking around the village right along the Loire. Then at 3:40, we had an appointment for a group tour of the Bouvet Ladubay Wine Caves. Bouvet Laubay is an important producer of sparkling wines in the Loire Valley. Remember the only sparkling wines that an be called Champagne, are wines from the Champagne wine region. Even though the wines at Bouvet Ladubay are produced in the same rigorous way of those in Champagne, by law they cannot be referred to as Champagne. Now our tour of the wine caves at Bouvet Ladubay was novel in that the whole tour in the dark caves was on vintge bicycles. After the tour, we all got to sample several of their sparking wines.
Our next riding day, did not involve the Loire River, or Châteaux along the river. It was a lovley ride through rural Anjou, a stop for coffee on Lac de Rillé and finally a stop at Cháteau de Lathan. As with all of our rides, this day featured small, low traffic volume lanes. I always felt safe and could enjoy the passing countryside. We all rode together for this day. At the Château, we were able to go inside the main house. It wasn’t as impressive as I had anticipated. First, the €5 entry fee is disparately needed. The building needs serious renovations. Our host was the great great grand daughter of the orginal owner and builder. The house is is disrepair, but the gardens are well kept. There are currently 3 different descendents of the original owner living in 3 of the other homes on the property, but the main building is open on the ground floor, for what I would not call a tour, but just an explanation of the history of the family and building. It was a nice stop, non-the-less and we all had a picnic lunch on the grounds.
Our final day of riding was questionable for a while. We woke up to fairly heavy rain. A check of the forecast indicated clearing by mid-morning. Bill and I decided to take it easy until the rains passed and then make a decision. In the end, Bill decided he had had enough riding and stayed at the farm, while I set out for the Loire, once again. Our last day included the villages of Varennes on the right bank and Montsoreau on the left bank. Once on the left bank, I rode down river, to the area known as the Troglodytes, which are homes and businesses built right into the steep cliffs that along the river. Even though it had rained hard in the morning, the afternoon was bright and sunny and because of the morning rains, quite humid. It was a perfect end to a beautiful week in the Loire.
Our week in the Loire Valley came to an end. Jon and Alison had arranged a taxi to take us back to Saumur for an 8:01 train to Tours with continuing connetions to Boardeaux, where we would spend several days with our friends, Peter and Mark.
I cannot express how much we enjoyed our Loire stop. The accomodations at the farm house, the great rides, the wonderful meals and the perfect hospitality of our hosts made for a great week.
Next stop – Boardeaux.
BTW during our train ride, we received this picture from our Loire Valley host, Alison, with a caption, “So this is what we eat Saturday lunchtime, bet you didn’t realize you’d left so much!” You would think they would get tired of cheese, well maybe not.