05 November 2009


Before last week, I'd never been to the Loire valley. What I knew of it-- lots of over-the-top chateaux, along with the Poitou-Charentes region to the Southwest a major source of French goat cheese, and an abundance of crisp wines-- didn't sound half bad. Seemed ripe for a pre-Halloween bike trip.

The opportunity to venture down came last week, when Karen had a particularly ridiculous business trip: 40 h of traveling for a 2-h work meeting. Since she didn't know she was going until the last minute, my plans were similarly hasty. I found Monday evening a bike-friendly hotel and 1-star restaurant in the town of Blois, made reservations (hurray for the low tourist season), and spent an hour or two on Google maps working out a rough sketch of a route to get down there. Planning a second route for the return trip would have to be done in Blois using paper maps. Tues AM I packed my bag with a change of clothes for dinner, my maps, and my cookies, and set off.

I'd like to say that the ride down was breathtakingly beautiful. But the landscape between Paris and Blois is mostly just flat, very flat, farmland. Nice enough as far as endless miles of flat farmland go, and it was a beautiful autumn day, so it could have been a lot worse. I had a cross-head wind for company all the way down, and judging by the plethora of windmills on my route, I'm guessing that wasn't unusual. But that, too, could have been a lot worse. With nowhere to hide, a blustery in-your-face full-on headwind could have made for a very long day.

As it was, I was going pretty good. I passed a huge pile of what in the early morning sun appeared to be rocks, and I figured that a farmer had been clearing a new field. Didn't really make sense, though, since this area has been farmed for centuries. And then I saw another rock pile, then another, and another. I finally stopped to check one out, and they were... parsnips? Maybe. Definitely some root vegetable, vaguely in the white-to-brown color range, smelling (I picked one up) of parsnip, or parsley root, maybe. But they were huge. So then I started wondering, is there really enough demand for giant parsnips/parsely root/celeriac to merit half-kilometer piles of them all over central France? The varieties of celery and parsley grown for their roots are not the same as those grown for their leaves, so they probably weren't by-products of another crop. Maybe they're used for animal feed. Or for some non-culinary use, like weapons production or computer chips. In searching for any other use online, I saw a reference to the use of parsley root tea as an enema. Ummm, well, the French are hypochondriacs. So who knows? Color me baffled.

Big pile of parsnips (maybe) with windmills in the background. There were dozens of these huge piles along the roads, and there was a ton of spider-web-like stuff floating in the air in these areas. I suspect it must be some kind of grub webbing liberated in the unearthing of these crops. I was covered in it all day, both days. Spoooooky. Apparently a similar event occurred in the US in 2002. Oh yeah, UFOs and government conspiracies sure make a lot more sense than spiders or other insects...

Chateau Cambry, outside of Germignonville, a sort of practice chateau for the trip. Originally built in the 15th century, most of the central part visible today dates from 1650 - 1700. Privately owned, I think.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of cycling in France is difficulty in obtaining food. With France's reputation as a culinary wonderland, and the density of boulangeries and cafes in Paris, this may be counter-intuitive. But one can ride for hours, through towns at 3-to-5-mile intervals the entire way, without seeing a single restaurant, cafe, boulangerie, grocery store, even bar/tabac. Some of the small towns here get regular visits from a boulanger or butcher. Rather like ice cream trucks, these delivery vans pull into town and honk to alert the residents that they're available for sales. And Lord help you if you roll into a town that actually has one of these things, and it's even a minute past 13.00-- no food for you! This is probably the biggest difference between France and Italy, along with the presence of water fountains. In Italy, even the smallest town on the most remote hilltop has a bar where you can get a sandwich, and almost every town has a public fountain with potable water. When we rode last year up Monte Amiata in southern Tuscany for the sole purpose of eating at the restaurant (owned by a friend of a friend, who had called ahead to make sure it would be open) near the top, and it was closed when we got there (not that surprising, because we were in Italy), there was only one other building up there, a little bar/caffe across the street, and though closing, the owners fed us sandwiches and hot chocolate before the cold, rainy descent. Not in France.

So when planning a long ride, where I prefer to ride the smaller roads, it's imperative to scout out the most probable food-and-water-containing towns and make sure you pass through at times where something is open. On the Blois trip, I miscalculated. There were a bunch of towns on my route that looked big enough to have at least a little grocery store. But as it got to be 12.30, not one of them panned out. Tired after hours of riding and having eaten most of my cookies and finished most of my water, I started to worry a bit. Once 13.00 rolled past, it would be several hours before anything would open again. There were 2 towns I might be able to make in the half-hour I had left, and I gambled on Ouzouer-le-Marché, arriving into town as the church bell rang 1. Uh-oh. I found the boulangerie almost immediately, but its window shades were already pulled down. The door was still open just a hair, though, and I startled the woman when I pushed in and asked to buy food. Bless her soul, she sold me a sandwich, 2 big bottles of water, and a couple of viennoiseries (only in France would you feel grateful that somebody in a shop deigned to actually sell you something), but she closed the door firmly and quickly behind me. Even if it was a jambon beurre (as much as I love the butter here in France, I've not yet gleaned the appeal of butter with ham, and especially on the bike, it just doesn't work so well for me), it was a pretty good lunch.

So refueled and re-watered, with just an hour and a half or so left to Blois, I made the rather unfortunate decision to take a detour. Figuring there was a good chance I wouldn't get down there again before we left, it seemed silly to ride straight to Blois, which might not be all that interesting, when there were other sites, cheateaux the Loire itself, probably worth seeing. So I rode instead to Meung-sur-Loire to see the chateau there. A few miles in, now into a direct and brisk headwind, my knees started to hurt. And whereas the cheateaux at Meung-sur-Loire and Beaugency after that were nice enough, the long now-painful grind along a busy highway, with essentially no view of the Loire itself (and really not that much to see, anyway) made for a can't-wait-for-it-to-end finish to the day.

Chateau at Meung-sur-Loire, home to the bishops of Orleans back in the day. Started in the 11th and 12th centuries, added onto and modified since. Apparently still has dungeons-- more Halloween-appropriate stuff.

What's left of the chateau at Beaugency. Beaugency otherwise is a peaceful and pretty little town today, but as the only bridge across the Loire between the larger towns of Orleans and Blois, it was frequently attacked and occupied during the Hundred Years' War, so probably not so pretty or peaceful then.

One of the medieval gates in Beaugency.

The Loire, at Beaugency. The medieval 26-arch bridge that was the subject of so much fighting is just to the right of this shot, now part of highway D25.

Oh what the heck-- what's one more picture? Here's the bridge.

A shower, some NSAIDs, and a stroll around Blois mostly took care of that. Blois, one of the exceptions that proves the rule that most words in French have nice sounds, was a surprisingly charming place. Bigger than I'd expected, with a spectacular chateau, lots of pedestrian shopping streets, 2 jazz clubs, and narrow winding streets up the hills that reminded more of an Italian hilltop town than the French cities I've been in. I recognized most of the clothing store names, but the clothes displayed on the window mannequins were notably more practical than their counterparts in department 75. I was similarly disoriented when a driver waved me across a pedestrian crossing, even though she had the right of way. Oh right-- I'm not in Paris. I quite enjoyed my few hours there.

In any event, I had a great evening wandering around and a tasty dinner at Le Medicis, despite the name in no way an Italian restaurant. The meal consisted of an amuse of thinly shaved cured ham in a girolles mousse, roasted squab breast on a slaw/caesar salad hybrid, wonderfully tender and creamy veal sweetbreads with a barley pilaf, a real cheeseboard (increasingly a rarity in France, supplanted these days by the kitchen's choice of 3 cheeses) from which I chose a young goat cheese, an aged goat cheese, a reblochon, a camembert, and a hard sheep cheese from the Pyrenees, all of them good, but not surprisingly the goat cheeses standing out as truly exceptional, and finally chestnut-filled eclair with a mandarine sorbet. The meats were cooked perfectly, and the sauces were very good. It bothered me that the kitchen used the same garnishes for both savory dishes, though-- the olive pieces, the toasted pine nuts, the sesame seeds, and even the sprig of chervil made their way onto both plates, which while not inappropriate flavor-wise per se, seemed a little lazy, especially when ordering off of prix-fixe menu, where there's a decent chance those dishes will follow one another. There were other flavors in those dishes to be emphasized and explored. Small quibble. For 44 euro-bucks, a very nice dinner, and the service was very good (especially important when dining alone).

One of the pedestrian shopping streets in the center of town. Lots of people out, a nice vibe.

The cathedral of St Louis, with its rather odd and overwhelming bell tower. Still, pretty spectacular at night.

The next morning I went out to find breakfast of quiche (my new favorite on-the-bike breakfast, whipped lighter here than is typical in the US) and pastries, wandered around town some more in the daylight, repacked my bag and set off for Paris, wishing I'd had more time in Blois to see more.

Chateau de Blois, the main street side, which is the back side of the Francis I wing. Several French kings lived here, Louis the XII having bought it in the late 14th century. Ees a very beeg place. And spectacular at night, since all of the window arches, painted inside with rich red or blue with gold gilding, are lit. Sadly, my little cell phone camera couldn't handle that.

Facade of the Louis XII wing.

Detail of the door of the Louis XII facade. You can see a little of the window arch detail here, as well.

View out to the Loire over Blois from the chateau. It's kind of a magical garden early in the morning.

One of the walls of the chateau.

A small hillside street.

There are a number of half-timbered houses like this one in Blois. The carvings have that middle ages whimsy about them.

In a lot of ways, Blois is like a much smaller Paris. For example, I'd bet that both Parisians and Bloisians would take exception to that characterization...

The chateau at Talcy, built in the 16th century by an Italian (well, Florentine) banker. Compared to its contemporaries elsewhere in the valley and in Italy, it's surprisingly Gothic feeling. Not much else to Talcy, but I guess a cool chateau is enough.

Not a very noteworthy trip back except for its shortness. The knee pain from the day before picked up early but waned a bit over the first couple of hours. After another ham-and-butter sandwich lunch pause, the pain in my left knee was excruciating on starting back up. I decided to ride it a ways further to see if it would ease out again, and it got me another 25 km to Toury, which though about 25 miles short of where I'd hoped to get (Etampes), had a train station with service to Paris. Unfortunately, the next train that stopped there wouldn't come for 3.5 hours. I debated pushing on (I could ride to Paris in that time), but decided the responsible thing was to suck it up and wait. Good thing, too, because when I got back on the bike to ride the several blocks to the town center, I couldn't pedal with either leg and had to walk it. I changed clothes, wandered around town, which even with a couple of nice sites didn't take as long as I'd hoped, and then sat down on a bench in a park and studied my maps for the next trip to the Loire, hopefully next time with Karen.

The portico at the old church in Toury.

The town hall in Toury.

The non-stop 44-minute/13-euro-buck sag-wagon back to Paris.

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