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.
Montreuil Bellay 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 its 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.
If time permits you can also stop for a wine tasting with the Comte de Colbert, still resident at the château. Afterward, 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 and 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.
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. We can start with a tour of the castle of Chinon. As well as home to English Kings, the castle contains the tower where Joan of Arc heard the voices telling her she would be granted an army to relieve the siege of Orléans.
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 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 simply designed to be beautiful, and it is. Tonight we stay at the Hotel des Chateaux on the outskirts of Azay-le-Rideau. You'll enjoy a short stroll down into the town for perhaps our finest dinner of the week.
Overnight in Azay-le-Rideau
Day 4: Azay-le-Rideau – Loches (35 miles/56 km)
We start the day with a visit to the purely decorative château of Azay-le-Rideau on the river Indre and finish in the medieval Cité Royale of Loches, on the Indre, where sits the Donjon of Loches. A donjon is a fortress and this one was very obviously built for function rather than form.
In between, we cycle over the beautiful rolling farmland of the river Indre, acclaimed as the most beautiful landscape of all the rivers of the Loire Valley.
Depending on timing and inclination, we may be able to visit the Donjon in Loches upon our arrival into town, or, if you prefer, a stroll around the royal residence, home of many French Kings, not to mention their wives and mistresses. There will also be more opportunity for these visits tomorrow morning as both are just a stroll (okay, a steep stroll) away from tonight’s hotel, the George Sands.
Overnight in Loches.
Day 5: Loches – Montrichard (30 miles/48 km)
Before leaving Loches, we will attempt to fill any gaps left in your knowledge of its medieval royal buildings. After this, we will head to the most visited of all Loire Châteaux, Chenonceau. Built as a bridge over the Cher and surrounded by ornamental gardens and manmade moats, this château manages to live up to the usual French hyperbole. It truly is unforgettable.
Most of the rooms are open, and this is a chance to see original floors, tapestries, and furniture. In general, French Châteaux 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.
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. First, it served as an army hospital in the First World War. In the Second World War, when the Cher formed the boundary between Nazi-occupied France and Vichy France, Château Chenonceau was a border post, each end of the ballroom opening into a different country.
Our hotel tonight is the Hotel Bellevue in Montrichard, a few kilometers upstream from Chenonceau, overlooking the Cher.
Overnight in Montrichard
Day 6: Montrichard – Chambord (35 miles/56 km)
A short ride beyond Montrichard are the fascinating mushroom caves of Bourré where Blue Foot, Shitake, Oyster, and Paris mushrooms grow. 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. You'll find this stop fascinating! Bring something warm for a visit of around an hour underground. As well as mushrooms, there are a few spectacular galleries where you can see fantastic sculptures of local village scenes through the ages carved from solid rock. If you’ve never seen a sheet of paper carved in limestone before, complete with curled up corners and the heads of the nails pinning it to a wooden notice board (also carved in limestone, complete with wood grain), then you’re in for a treat.
The end of today is a favorite 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 1 as a hunting lodge. It lies inside a huge park contained by the largest wall in Europe, all 32 km of it. 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.
Our hotel tonight is the Hotel St Florent, 10km further on from the château in Mont-pres-Chambord.
Overnight in Chambord
Day 7: Chambord – Amboise (35 miles/56 km)
The Loire cycle path into Amboise features a few hills, so be prepared for this. However, before that, we will visit and taste the wines at Vignoble Tevenot, a very traditional family winemaker in Cellettes, just on the edge of the enormous forests that surround Chambord.
The final destination of your tour is Amboise, where the setting of the château overlooking the Loire is one of the most used images of the Loire valley.
The town has a medieval center, largely pedestrianized and full of bustle. There are a number of bars and cafes sitting directly beneath the huge château walls, and 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. There are touching examples of his philosophy, and wonderful models of inventions that worked, like an ingenious water pump. Definitely worth visiting.
Tonight we are staying at the Hotel Vinci and we eat at the Lion d’Or.
Overnight in Amboise
Day 8: Departure
The most civilized 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 10:30am gets us back into Paris for late morning, for travel to London and places onward.