Europe's Coolest Cycling Tour
Spend your days cycling through one of France’s major wine regions, your nights savoring the fruits—and the feasts!—of the Loire Valley.
SAVOR THE TOWN OF SAUMUR
Besides the great service you'll get if you rent a bike at Saumur's Detours de Loire, the town is also a great place to base yourself for a few days. It happens to be the headquarters of the French national riding academy, produces 100,000 tons of mushrooms each year, and the nearby winery area, Saumur-Champigny, produces tasty Cabernet Franc (the basis of many popular red wines) and tasty white Chenin Blanc. (Due to the Loire Valley's cool climate, not only the white wines of the region but also the reds tend to be on the pleasantly crisp side.) Be sure to park your bike outside a unique restaurant, Bistroglo, and enjoy the wines—and the mushrooms—of the area at this bar/bistro that has been literally carved out of the limestone cliffs in nearby Turquant. (The caves of the Loire serve as underground mushroom farms and the perfect place for aging wine casks, helping to impart a certain je ne sais pas to the wine's taste.) When you're ready to take to the trail, head east—Château du Petit Thouars is an hour's leisurely ride from Saumur and you will pedal through the pretty villages of Candes-Saint-Martin and Montsoreau on the way. When you arrive at Château du Petit Thouars, in Saint-Germain-sur-Vienne, get ready to spit. In the wine-tasting room, that is. The château has produced award-winning Cabernet Francs and welcomes visitors Tuesdays to Saturdays for wine tastings. If you haven't quite gotten that sense of TERROIR when you first stepped into Detours de Loire to rent your bike, by now the grapes, the mushrooms, and the linestone cliffs should have put you well on the way to understanding that "sense of place" that has been drawing people to the Loire for centuries.
HOW TO TASTE TERROIR
As we've seen in Napa and other U.S. wine regions, the notion of establishing a great restaurant inside a winery has caught on in a big way. Think of it as "Ask not what wine will go best with my food, but what food will go best with my wine." One of the Loire's most noteworthy—and worth a $55 splurge—is chef David Guitton's La Table de la Bergerie at the Domaine de la Bergerie Yves Guegniard winery, in Champ-sur-Layon. With house-made ravioli, a fish of the day, and reds and whites from the winery, this is a meal you'll talk about when you get back home.
EXPLORE THE TOWN OF ANGERS
If wetting your whistle at wineries proves, well, intoxicating, pedal over to the Museum of Wine Growers and Wine of Anjou, in Angers, on the western edge of the Loire Valley. Here, you'll learn the history of the region, its vinocultural practices, and view exhibits of vineyard tools. Anjou is a wine subregion of the Loire that includes Saumur's red wines. ("No, I'm not guzzling more wine—I'm going to a museum!") Angers, a city of more than 250,000 with more than 30,000 students, has a much livelier vibe than some of its quiet Loire neighbors. If you crave nightlife, head to Place du Ralliement or Rue St.-Laud for a hoppin' bar and cafe scene. Angers is pleasantly placed on either side of the Maine River, with a major château dominating its historic center, where the "Apocalypse Tapestry," depicting the revelation of St. John, is on display. The tapestry, one of the most ambitious and accomplished of its kind, was lost during the 18th century but recovered and restored in the 19th. The Cathedrale Saint-Maurice d'Angers, also known simply as Angers Cathedral, built in the 12th and 13th centuries, is known for its stained glass windows, one of which includes an unusual portrayal of St. Christopher with the head of a dog. The "Apocalypse Tapestries" resided at the cathedral before their disappearance and partial destruction.
While the awesome trails and relative peace and quiet of the roadways may tempt you to turn your trek across the Loire into a road race, we respectfully suggest that you take your time. Linger at a comfortable hotel, like Le Clos des 3 Rois in Thouarcé. Linger at the wineries to ask questions (and maybe get the kind of behind-the-scenes tours that aren't on the agenda), and don't measure your vacation in miles. Though you may arrive in the Loire with visions of the Tour de France, you may find yourself remembering humble—and more meaningful—details. Like the way the evening light plays over the surface of the Loire. The gentle arches of the Pont du Verdun. The unique aroma of an underground mushroom farm. And when those details—along with the feel of the breeze in your hair and the thrill of pedaling your way through France—come back to you, you'll remember the word: terroir.
HOW TO GET THERE
The Loire River Valley is in western France. A high-speed train from Paris to Angers takes about 90-minutes (raileurope.com, $42).
BOOK A CYCLING TOUR
Biking France offers Loire à Vélo package tours that include accommodations in two- and three-star hotels, complimentary breakfasts, bike and equipment rental, and luggage transfer. Package tours include a six-day trip from Orléans to Tours ($705), a seven-day trip from Saumur to the Atlantic coast ($1,101), and four days in the Loire's château country ($527).