Day 1: Arrival in Montreuil Bellay
You arrive at your hotel in Montreuil Bellay in the late afternoon. You'll have time to set your bikes up and go for a spin, but you may prefer to lounge by the pool and enjoy a cold pastis.
This is an interesting village, perched inside its wall on top of a hill overlooking the river Thouet. Your host tonight, Jean-Francois, is one of the characters of the week, and without too much arm twisting you may get to explore the cellars that wind deep underground to a not-very-secret wine tasting room.
Overnight in Montreuil Bellay
Day 2: Montreuil Bellay – Chinon (30 miles/48 km)
Between Montreuil Bellay and your first sight of the Loire lies the vineyard of Saumur-Champigny, rated by many as the finest red wines of the Loire Valley.
Your first stop is at Château Brézé, a wine-making estate, but most famous for it's amazing underground château. Dating back to the 7th century, these troglodyte homes and villages are a feature of this area. The limestone is so easily worked that it was easier to carve out a new bedroom than to build one!
One of the reasons behind the underground Château at Brézé was to avoid the attention of invaders, such as vikings, and the whole château is geared toward defense, including the deepest dry moat in Europe. There are fascinating defensive structures here, but most interestingly, it was never attacked, let alone defeated. All that effort over more than 1,000 years, and nobody ever attacked it.
If time permits you can also stop for a wine tasting with the Comte de Colbert, still resident at the château. Afterwards you make your way to the Royal Abbey at Fontevraud. This huge Abbey was traditionally the home of many French Queens and other royalty, but is most famous as the resting place of Henry II, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine & their son Richard the Lionheart.
Today you can choose to pass through Montsoreau where the Vienne flows into the Loire. The Loire is very wide here, and Montsoreau looks beautiful stretching along the south bank. You end the day in Chinon. To my mind Chinon boasts one of the only 'true' château in the Loire - i.e. it was English, and it's ruined.
In the 12th Century, Chinon was effectively the English capital as successive kings made their home in the château. It is much older than most Loire château, and its military purpose is obvious from its commanding position along the ridge that overlooks the medieval town of Chinon.
Overnight in Chinon
Day 3: Chinon – Azay-le-Rideau (25 miles/40 km)
Today is fairly light cycling as you have a lot of château-action to fit in. You leave the Vienne and continue your cycling tour back towards the Indre and the Loire.
Overlooking the Indre is the first of the big-league château, Château Ussé, reputedly the inspiration for the castle in Sleeping Beauty.
Next on your hit-list is Villandry, an unexceptional château, but with gardens that Michelin rate as a 3-star attraction - 'worth a journey in their own right'. There are three gardens - a vegetable garden, a flower garden and a water garden. Each year the gardening team chooses a theme and tells a story in flowers. Villandry is really something, and not to be missed.
Finally you will travel to Azay-le-Rideau, another member of the Premier League of Loire Châteaux. Azay-le-Rideau is surrounded on three sides by the River Indre, which has been carefully landscaped to provide a beautiful reflective setting for this ornate château. There was no military purpose to Azay-le-Rideau, it was just designed to be beautiful, and it is. This is your first chance to visit one of the son et lumière (sound and light show) after dinner, and the spectacle at Azay-le-Rideau is worth the stroll.
Overnight in Azay-le-Rideau
Day 4: Azay-le-Rideau – Loches (35 miles/56 km)
Today is a long cycle, 40 miles plus, but much of it follows the delightful Indre valley, and the flat rolling countryside that divides the Indre and the River Cher. You can visit Château Nitray, and if you're lucky the owner - one of very few amusing people in France - will join you as we spend some time wine tasting. He can get a bit enthusiastic, and a slightly inebriated exit is not uncommon.
Your hotel tonight is just a short stroll from the chateau of Chenonceau, the most famous and most visited of all the Loire chateaux.
The ballroom, built by Catherine de Medici, spans the Cher in spectacular fashion, and although the Château had no military value it took on a gloomy historical role in the 20th century. It served as an army hospital in the First World War and in the Second World War, when the Cher formed the boundary between occupied France and Vichy France, Chenonceau faced both ways, each end of the ballroom opening into a different country.
Unfortunately the son et lumière at Chenonceau is about the worst in the whole valley - you could do a reasonable impression with a light bulb and a dictaphone. It's a lovely walk after dinner, but I won't be bothering again.
Overnight in Loches.
Day 5: Loches – Montrichard (30 miles/48 km)
Today is a rest day of sorts, and there are a number of different things we can do. Most people stroll to Château Chenonceau, which in daylight is really worth seeing. Most of the rooms are open, and this is a chance to see original floors, tapestries and furniture. In general French Château don't have all the furnishings and interior detail that we often see in British castles. Chenonceau is a pleasant exception, and Louise of Lorraine's room, painted entirely in black with silver motifs of tears and crowns of thorns to mourn her dead husband, is especially memorable.
Chenonceau also boasts huge formal gardens, including the original garden of Diane de Poitiers and the rose garden of Catherine de Medici (mother-in-law to the hapless Lorraine). This afternoon we progress on our cycling tour to the Caves du Monmousseau for a tour and a tasting of their sparkling wines.
A short ride beyond Monmousseau are the fascinating mushroom caves of Bourré, where they grow Blue Foot, Shitake, Oyster and Paris mushrooms. Mushroom mycelia need a stimulus to prompt growth - European mushrooms tend to need a light or heat stimulus, but the shitake mushroom from Japan grows naturally on trees and responds to earth tremors common in that neck of the woods. Earthquakes are simulated in the caves using the state-of-the-art device of slapping the bin-liner that contains the mushroom compost. Result? Lots of 'shrooms. It's true, honest!
Overnight in Montrichard
Day 6: Montrichard – Chambord (35 miles/56 km)
You set off along the Cher valley, returning through Bourré on your way. After lunch you pass Château Cheverny, not one of the most striking of the château, but it boasts the most complete interior of all the Loire châteaux and will be better known to Tintin fans as Marlinspike Hall, ancestral home of Captain Haddock.
Cheverny lies in the Cour Cheverny appellation where red wine is made from the Romarantin grape, which is unique to this appellation. Not a classic wine, but something so unique should be tried, and there are good local producers such as François Gazin and Domaine Tessier where we can visit for a tasting.
The end of today is my favourite part of the whole week, the enormous Château Chambord. This is by far the largest of all the Loire château and was originally built by Francois I as a hunting lodge. It lies inside a huge park contained by the largest wall in France, all 32 km of it, and the only other building is your hotel, situated right next to the château.
The whole setting is fantastic. The park is a hunting reserve, and there are observation platforms that allow the early riser to watch deer and wild boar feeding. The château itself contains a famous double-helix staircase designed by Leonardo da Vinci, where two people can ascend or descend at the same time without meeting. For lovers of gourmet food, the speciality is wild boar caught on the state.
As befits such a beautiful place, the son et lumière at Chambord is breathtaking. In July and August you can wander round the château after dinner with lanterns and witness spectacular laser shows, projections and music and performance displays.
Some of these, in true French style, border on the bizarre, but if you have ever seen a 150 foot red and white salamander (the symbol of Francois I) moving across the gardens of the château, it tends to stick in the memory.
Overnight in Chambord
Day 7: Chambord – Amboise (35 miles/56 km)
You spend most of today cycling downstream beside the Loire, so a really easy day to finish. You pass through Chaumont, which in addition to its château boasts a famous garden festival where 30 plots are given over to gardeners and landscapers who are encouraged to display all their originality and creation. It's good.
Your final destination is Amboise, which you may have visited earlier in the week. You are staying at a hotel close to the château and the old town. This town is worth another visit. The setting of the château overlooking the Loire is one of the most used images of the Loire valley, and Amboise also puts on one of the better son et lumière.
The town has a medieval centre, largely pedestrianised and full of bustle. There are a number of bars and cafes sitting directly beneath the huge château walls, and I reckon you've earned a sit-down and a glass of the local Touraine or Vouvray.
For anyone who hasn't visited Leonardo's place at the Clos-Lucé, it's well worth it. Many of the original furnishings are still in place, including the great man's bed, and there is a permanent exhibition of his inventions and writings including several exquisite scale models. Leonardo invented wings that didn't work, helicopters that didn't work and airplanes that didn't work. To be honest, they're nothing special, but he did so much more than we generally associate with him. There are touching examples of his philosophy, and wonderful models of inventions that did work, like an ingenious water pump. Definitely worth visiting.
Overnight in Amboise
Day 8: Departure
The most civilised finish to any of our tours. You're only 20 minutes from the TGV station at St Pierre des Corps, and if you booked the optional transfer, a gentle departure time of 10:30 am gets us back into Paris for late morning, for travel to London and places onward.