By Alison Dalby
We couldn’t believe how easy the journey was. We left Malton in North Yorkshire on the 06.45 train to York, where, after a quick change, we were soon on the express to Kings Cross.
A quick stroll next door to St Pancras with time to buy provisions for lunch, admire the beautiful architecture of the station and see ‘that famous statue’, before we jumped on Eurostar and settled back for the journey to France.
Some of the rolling stock is looking a bit tired now, but it was a smooth, uneventful journey to the Gare du Nord – which, in contrast to St Pancras, is not a place of great elegance! We had plenty of time, but didn’t linger at the station.
We took the direct Metro from Gare du Nord to Gare d’Austerlitz, preferring to spend our waiting time seated in the sunshine in the Jardin des Plantes next to the station.
Our last train of the day was on the short hop to Orléans. When you read it like this, it may sound like a lot of trains but it was an easy and enjoyable way to travel and the day (and the scenery) whizzed by without a hitch.
Our stay in the ‘Land of Kings’ began at the Hotel La Tonnellerie in the small village of Tavers – and we would be returning here at the end of our cycle. It’s a traditional French hotel run by a charming couple, Hélène and François Thevard. Hélène is the most natural and charming hostess you could ever hope to meet, greeting guests by name and offering suggestions for the day with a warm smile.
François heads up the kitchen – the restaurant here is exclusively for hotel guests and the emphasis is on good home- cooking using the most local of local ingredients and organic produce. The result is simple but tasty cuisine, like blanquette de veau – slow-cooked veal in a white sauce – following grandmère’s recipe. The buffet breakfast is a real treat, too, with an entire table devoted to home-made or locally-produced jams of all fruits and flavours.
Hélène and François are currently researching the history of their hotel and of the village of Tavers. It was originally home to a barrel-maker (hence the name) and a wine and vinegar producer, and Hélène showed us down steep, wide, stone steps that led into a vast cellar beneath the hotel, with a huge vaulted ceiling, a deep well, and a corridor leading off into the rocky depths. It is said that a network of underground passageways leads all the way from Tavers to the town of Beaugency, three kilometres away – though a local priest later had many of the corridors filled in, in an attempt to stop illicit nocturnal activities taking place!
The name of the main street, Rue des Sources Bleues, (roughly translated as ‘Blue Spring Street’) and the well in the depths of the hotel’s wine cellar is a reminder that water is everywhere in Tavers. A stream flows under the village and, just a short walk from the church, you can see Les Sables Mouvanis – springs bubbling up from the water table of the river Beauce, which make the riverbed sands ‘dance’ as though the water is boiling. It’s a truly captivating sight. From here, the clear blue-ish waters (caused by blue-/green coloured clay particles) flow into the mighty River Loire.
The beginning of the first day’s cycling is an utter joy. For the first ten kilometres, we followed a delightful, wide, traffic-free cycle path beside the river, passing through the beautiful historic riverside towns of Beaugency and Meung-sur-Loire. Here, we stopped to explore and buy a picnic. This section of the route also serves as a great introduction as to how well set up this whole area is for cycling: green and white cycle signposts are all over the place; each village has cycle racks for secure bike parking, and even when you stray off the dedicated cycle paths and onto a quiet, country road, drivers are courteous and pass by with a cheery wave. Some of the routes on this holiday are reasonably long but the cycling is easy; the terrain is flat and even when there is a hill, we’ve somehow managed to make sure that, (for the most part at least!), the route goes down them, rather than up!
The itinerary leads from the banks of the Loire and into the woodland and lakes of the Sologne. Here, the white and grey architecture of the Loire valley gives way to warm red-brick, timber-framed buildings – very photogenic. The myriad lakes of the Sologne are home to a vast array of flora and fauna and our cycle route leads past a lake-side bird-watching hide – binoculars are a must! We saw deer, red squirrel, an enormous musk rat (which we initially mistook for a European otter), and so many different birds and water fowl.
From here, the scenery changed again, as we headed west to Chitenay and the wine-producing villages of the Loire and Cher. Ever-so-gently rolling hills covered with vines hid small elegant châteaux, before we returned to the ‘big guns’ on the banks of the Loire – Chaumont-sur-Loire with its magnificent garden festival; Blois – a jumble of buildings clambering up the hillside above the river; and then, the biggest and best of them all – Chambord! Set in vast parks and woodlands, Chambord is a château on steroids – 440 rooms, 365 fireplaces, 13 main staircases and 70 back staircases. Fortunately, you can’t visit them all.
In summary, we were delighted with our three high-quality, family-run hotels, and I think you will be too. We enjoyed fabulous food and wine throughout and the fact that we include breakfast and dinner every day makes this a wonderful holiday. It’s a tremendously cycle-friendly area, and the routes take you on a two-wheeled journey of contrasts and variety – in terms of scenery and architecture. There’s a lot for ornithologists and nature lovers, while culture-vultures won’t be disappointed either: super châteaux at Chambord, Cheverny, Troussay, Chaumont, Blois, Beauregard and Villesavin, plus a fascinating history that takes in the Hundred Years War, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Joan of Arc and Leonardo da Vinci. Something for everyone…