There are hundreds of miles of bike trails through the chateaux towns of the Loire Valley — and that’s what tripped us up.
We’d been trying to cycle the 17 miles from Chenonceaux to Chaumont, but kept getting lost. We even asked directions from a passing motorist who was certain she knew which way the bike route went, then sent us to the wrong town.
Now we were at a Y-intersection on the outskirts of Chaumont; facing two green-and-white bike path signs mounted on the same post, but pointing in opposite directions.
Perplexed, we took a guess and went right, eventually reaching our bed-and-breakfast from the back of town. Perhaps the other fork would have led to the front. Perhaps not.
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Despite the misadventures, cycling in the Loire Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is thoroughly enjoyable. With 500 miles of bike routes, there are countless options depending on interest and ability.
Our five-day trip took us through farmers’ fields where we helped ourselves to fresh peas, and through shaded forests that surprised us with deer. We cycled along mostly flat pathways, paved roads, cobblestones and occasional gravel.
While the biking wasn’t nearly as challenging as the navigation, that isn’t why one cycles the Loire. It’s about the food, the wine, the scenery and the history. Indeed, the easy riding and fairytale castles make this an ideal trip to take with older children and teens.
Each town we visited — Amboise, Chenonceaux, Chaumont, Chambord and Blois — was built around an ancient chateau. Although few were ever fully inhabited and all were emptied during the French Revolution, they are architecturally interesting and historically intriguing.
Our favorite was the Chateau de Chenonceau and its beautiful gardens. It has not only been refurnished, but the wing built spanning the river Cher has been turned into a gallery that recounts the 16th century love affair between King Henri II and his much older mistress — along with the revenge his wife, Queen Catherine de Medici, eventually enjoyed.
It was also the site of our best meal, on the terrace of our hotel, La Roseraie, a simple 18th century inn that claims it has hosted Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Winston Churchill among others.
We planned our self-guided trip with the help of Maggie LaCoste, who runs ExperienceFranceByBike.com. In Amboise, we passed two group cycling trips, one run by Backroads and the other by Butterfield & Robinson. They both offer six-day guided trips, but visit different towns.
Any feeling of superiority I had as we passed the riders in matching jerseys on those organized trips quickly vanished after a few wrong turns. Still, I liked the spontaneity of not keeping to a fixed schedule, and at one point we hopped the train to Blois with our bikes and checked out a bustling Saturday market.
Spring and fall are the most popular cycling times as summers can be hot. Our trip in June coincided with several festivals, including a popular music event held outside the massive Chateau de Chambord, one of the biggest and most striking chateaus in France, and a garden festival on the castle grounds in Chaumont that continues until Nov.2.
We rented our well-maintained Trek hybrids from a chain called Detours de Loire because it offered a network of drop-off options, allowing us to pick up our bikes in Amboise and leave them in Blois. There is an additional fee for this seasonal service, which varies with distance between locations.
We also hired Detours de Loire to drive our luggage from one hotel to the next for about $50 per transfer. We sometimes arrived before our bags, and on our last day, the driver forgot completely. It took several frantic phone calls to get them delivered in time to catch our train.
I later noticed ads from a similar service, Bagafrance, which appeared to charge a little less.
We encountered several cyclists who rode with panniers and carried their own gear, but I felt the baggage transfer was a worthwhile luxury. With no worries about securing personal items, it was easy to lock up the bikes and explore with only a water bottle and lunch in hand.
And, as we racked up extra miles looking for the correct path, it was nice not to have the extra weight. That said, there is one item I'll be sure to keep close on my next Loire cycling trip: a GPS navigation system.