Warm Showers

October 10, 2019 0 By Viktor
Chateau of Chambord near the Loire

We spent a pleasant night under the mulberry trees of the campsite in Muides and around 9 we were ready to go. A bit too fast perhaps because we only noticed in the afternoon that we left our solar charger there in the grass…

The Loire Valley is famous for its palaces or chateaux and one of the top sights was nearby so made a little detour to the Château de Chambord. The road led through a nature reserve, an old forest of oaks and pine trees. But the real surprise was when we glimpsed the palace itself, positioned majestically by a pond at the end of a long promenade lined with trees and now used as a cycling path. Approaching such a beauty on two wheels was one of the highlights of the days we spent by the Loire.

The seemingly chaotic ensemble of roofs and chimneys on Chambord Castle.

This architectural masterpiece is a must-see for anyone who visits the Loire and its unique appearance is matched by an eventful history. King Francis I was the builder and the construction was completed in the first half of the 16th century. His idea was to use it as a hunting lodge whenever he needed a little extra adrenaline. He certainly didn’t need it as a permanent residence as he also owned nearby castles in Blois and Amboise.

The architect behind this magnificent beauty isn’t known for sure but Leonardo da Vinci may have been involved. Red caps of the French revolution were less impressed but the building survived with minor damages to its furniture. Centuries of neglect followed but the palace came handy again during World War II, when it served as a safe haven for art treasures of the Louvre. And today, completely restored to its old glamour, it’s open to the public to admire how medieval royalty lived.

The front facade of Chambord Castle

After we slowly cycled around the building and took lots of photos, we continued our way towards Blois. Sports facilities in this part of France are enviable. There are separate tracks for cyclists and runners and you can canoe on the river. You can fill up your bottle from public taps and the free toilets are spotlessly clean. All this and the friendly campsites make it ideal for an active holiday.

Two gems: Blois and Amboise

The first thing that caught our eye in Blois was its medieval bridge, Pont Jacques-Gabriel, with an elegant spire in the middle. We crossed the bridge and rolled downhill towards the old town. The Saint Luis Cathedral looked down at us from the hill on the right as we slowed down before the Escalier Denis Papin, a long flight of stairs leading to the upper town. When we were there, the vertical sides of the steps were decorated so that they composed Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa when viewed from the bridge.

Pont Jacques-Gabriel

We admired the rich houses along the main thoroughfare and then had our lunch in a shady park on the grass. Right between the Chateau de Blois and the Church of Saint Vincent-de-Paul!

In the hot afternoon hours we had to stop for an hour to cool ourselves in the river. The water level was quite low but we had no idea the Loire would practically dry out a few weeks later. Before Amboise the road leads past a steep hillside of volcanic rock. Inside there are cellars offering the local wines, which we tasted and loved.

We closed the day with another miraculous historical town, Amboise. The grandiose castle on top of the hill dominates the view but there are many other beauties to marvel at. The narrow streets of the old town are lined with confectioneries, cafés and bars. A pretty clock tower guards one of the alleys, where a street musician played his violin to our delight. If this is not enough, there’s a second, smaller palace a short stroll away.

The municipal campground occupies a prime location on the Isle of Gold opposite the castle. We felt this was the right place to spend an extra day and night. And, as it was a really hot day, we paddled a little in the Loire, too. Another great place to view the old town from.

Old houses and stories

A fellow traveller on the bus to Paris mentioned an online community to me, whose members are cyclists and they offer accommodation to each other. I registered and by this time my profile was finally active so I gave it a try. To my surprise, a man in a small village accepted my request right away so now we just had to get there. This meant a long day of nearly 100 km plus the missed turns…

Following the bicycle path along the river, we soon arrived in Tours, another city oozing history. Apart from the Cathedral, I was most impressed by the century-old timbered houses in the medieval centre. The remaining 80 or so kilometres loomed heavy on us so after a quick look around and a beer in a laid-off bar we headed west again.

We stayed on the southern bank, which is less developed and there is much less motorised traffic. Our path crossed some quiet villages, like Bréhémont, where an enthusiastic old biker runs a friendly bar. We sipped our ice-cold drinks while he was telling us about the time he visited Hungary and Romania in the late 80s. Soon after that we had to say goodbye to the Loire and its birds as we turned south towards Chinon.

“You speak French!”

It was now late afternoon and we were still more than hour away from our host’s village but took some time to look around this pretty provincial town. I chose a route that leads straight into the centre, not knowing this meant that we had to climb a steep hill and then take even scarier streets downhill. There’s even a lift for lazier tourists who want to visit the castle on the top of the hill… Just as we arrived safe, I decided to phone Nicola, our host, to confirm that we were on our way. Now although I learnt French for some years during my university studies, I hadn’t used it for more than a decade. Besides, making a phone call in a foreign language is always a challenge anyway. I somehow managed to explain what I wanted and understood more or less everything, to my great surprise. But the funniest thing was what my wife said after I finished the call, “You speak French!”

New friends

After the glamour of the medieval towns and castles along the Loire, we entered a more modest region where life is still centred around agriculture. The villages of massive stone houses are surrounded by vast fields of sunflower, wheat and other produce. Nicola and his daughter were already waiting for us, leaning against their bikes and waiting to greet us.

Our Warmshowers membership couldn’t have started better. We met Nicola’s wife and sat down on their terrace to talk while we caught our breath after the long ride. The first idea was to camp on the well-tended grass by the house. But as time went by and we were still happily chatting, they soon offered that we could sleep in a room upstairs (we finally got two rooms). So it happened again! But before we could enjoy our comfy beds, we had superb white wine from Saumur and a nice dinner together.