Written by Zachary Moses
…Kings -yes, Valley of the Kings – and we’re not talking about King Tut’s burial place in Egypt. Our Valley of the Kings cycling tour in the Loire Valley of France has so many chateaux built by Kings that we have renamed the tour Valley of the Chateaux.
I had the pleasure to be a guide on our September 2011 tour, along with our experienced French bike tour guides Charly and David. This tour was a blast! We must have seen two or three chateaux every day, each more grand then the last.
During the free day between our Big Loire, Little Loir cycling tour and this tour, Charly, David and I went to a nude beach in the middle of the Loire river. Charly told me the water was a nice temperature, but I thought it was dreadfully cold. I guess living in Key West has thinned my blood out. There were a couple of German guys who laughed when my nether regions hit the icy water. I guess squinching up your face and groaning painfully crosses all language barriers. It was all great fun after getting used to frostbite…I was sad when it was time to go back to work.
After the swim, it was back to Blois where we would welcome our next group in the morning. We did some restaurant scouting, which was awesome, because when the restaurant knows you might bring a big group, they try really hard to impress you. The owner came out and gave us some mousse and local wines; the food is the best part of the job.
Our first day with the guests got off to a great start. All the bikes fit with few adjustments, and everyone seemed to be in a good mood. Before dinner, we had a nice tour around the city, complete with the usual 10 French cathedrals, 85 fabulously unreal bakeries, beautiful vistas, grand staircases, sexy people, and a statue that seems to be vomiting into a pool.
We started off our next morning bright and early. Breakfast was the classic croissants and a piece of ham. Ah, France. I wished I had time to go by a bakery where I could have gotten something truly amazing.
Everyone was in high spirits, (since no-one had wind in their faces yet). Our first destination of the day was Chaumont, famous for its yearly garden festival. Each year the individual gardens follow a specific theme. This year’s theme was sustainability. There were gardens with elaborate mushroom statues that made compost, gardens grown in bags of garbage, a garden draped in a wazoo of strange ribbons, and my favorite of all – the set of floating flax seed globes on pikes (seen here with castle in the background.) Chaumont is a classic example of pre-modern fairy tale architecture, sitting on a hillside with its cute little drawbridge and its knights in shining armor.
From Chaumont we rode toward Amboise, which also happens to be the final resting place of Leonardo da Vinci. His house, Le Clos-Luce, was very lovely and contained scale models of his famous inventions. We took some video of me talking about it, but my hair was all windswept to one side, so I decided not to show that bit. Instead, here is our friend Faiyaz at the huge Amboise Chateau. It has a spiral stone entryway so that horses could pull carts up from the bottom of the cliff. Believe it or not, it was once twice the size that it is today. The enormous chateau was largely demolished two centuries after it was built, when maintenance costs got too high for the owner.
This restaurant/bar actually had fresh squeezed orange juice. It was the only good juice I had the whole time I was in France. (The French are good at food, but horrible at juice). Of course I went and ruined the juice by adding Vodka to it, then spending a couple more hours chatting with my new friends.
After the evening out with the guests I had to get up early to help prepare the bikes for the day’s ride. The guests all got to sleep in, but there is no rest for a bike guide. And no, I did not learn my lesson to go to bed early!
Day three: our first stop, Chenonceaux. This chateau is famous because it is built over the river. It is awesome! With all the money and technology today, I would love to see more marvels like this one. Our modern claim to fame? Really tall office buildings. Boring compared with this centuries-old handiwork.
I loved Chenonceaux. It has amazing gardens built on fortified islands, and the entire castle is a bridge. So you can imagine that the nobles were thinking “you want to cross to the other side, you’ve got to come through my living room, and why should I let you come through my living room?” Can you imagine if the San Francisco Mayor decided to build his house on the Golden Gate Bridge? It would be a nightmare.
I went down to the arches of the bridge in the basement. This is where the kitchens are. They had some really amazing stuff down there. I know a lot of people who would be proud to have this cooking range even today. The kitchen was equipped with a winch to bring water up from the river. If you’ve read any Game of Thrones books you would realize this is not so good during a seige, because your enemies will just pile dead bodies upriver.
The next day we bicycled toward Azay Le Rideau. This was my favorite of all the towns on the tour. Our hotel was on the cobblestone road leading up to the chateau, which I never made got to see, as I fell asleep the moment I got into the hotel room.
That night we had our wine tasting. Charly gave me and David a fright when he told us that we would have to run the wine tasting on our own. I know nothing about wine. There was no way that I could wing my way through a wine tasting in France…I can’t even pronounce the names of California wines! I studied the wine, I studied my map, I panicked. Mean ol’ Charly was there after all and had just wanted to mess with us. After that, the wine tasting was lots of fun; I didn’t drink a whole lot since I was coming down with a cold so I poured most of my wine into a friend’s glass every time he looked away. He got a bit silly by the end of the evening.
We set out the next day for Villandry. This Chateau is famous for its three formal gardens. It takes a staff of 12 full-time gardeners to maintain them. The views of these gardens were spectacular. They looked absolutely amazing anytime you could get above them and really see a birds-eye view of the patterns.
My favorite parts of this chateau were the trellises covered in grapes. I ate so many grapes it was ridiculous. While everyone else was touring the castle, I was walking back and forth gorging myself. I must have eaten at least 652 grapes. Luckily I was driving the van. Besides, it was worth it, since these were by far the best grapes I had ever had. I definitely ate my way through my 6 euro entry fee.
The last visit was to Chateau de Langais. This was my favorite chateau of all. Most of the chateaux in France were redesigned during the Renaissance, leaving only the keep or the dungeons in the original medieval design. Chateau de Langais is still intact. With its fantastic towers and arched windows, it looks like it’s right out of Camelot! All the furniture inside is even original, including thousand year-old chairs and 600-year-old tapestries; it was truly amazing. Plus there was a yummy cafe across the street.
Dinner that night was in a cave…the restaurant was literally built into the side of a cliff. The food was incredible as always. My trip to France answered my lifelong question “How good can butter and baguettes actually get?” — VERY!!! My Key West Cuban bread just cannot compare.
Alyson Adventures really does spoil everyone. Come join me or any of our other fabulous guides on your next trip.
If you want all of the beauty of traveling, but none of the pedaling, check out our HE Travel Classic tours.