When I told my friends I was going on a five-day bicycling tour of the Loire Valley in France, they laughed. They knew what kind of shape I was in: ten pounds overweight and not a toned muscle in my body. I was determined to prove them wrong. Did I?
Yes, more or less. The brochure assured me the route was “flat and gently rolling.” It was, and anyone with just a little training prior to departure can travel France’s beautiful backroads with relative ease. But I soon learned I hadn’t trained enough. No matter: after the first day I found my bike legs. If I and the 72-year old gentleman who pedaled with us can do it, anyone can.
Alyson Adventures has put together several unique tours of Europe and the United States. Designed specifically for gay men, lesbians, and their friends, this year’s schedule includes six bike trips in France, a hiking trip in the Swiss Alps, and a mountaineering experience up Wyoming’s Grand Teton. Two are for gay or lesbian singles only. Next year, for starters, they’re planning a lavish trip to Australia for Mardi Gras.
France is never lovelier than in May and June. Some of its most pleasant scenery is southwest of Paris in the Beauce, France’s breadbasket. I felt at times as if I’d entered a Cezanne. Dotted with hilltop chateaux, country homes, ancient churches and quaint villages barely touched by the 20th century, it’s the perfect retreat from Paris’ hectic pace and high prices. Add rich cuisine, a variety of cheeses and desserts, and fine wines — most of it covered by the cost of the tour — as well as the warm camaraderie that our group developed, and you have the perfect vacation experience.
Our route took us from Orleans to Chateaudun, Vendome, the hill country to the west, and Blois. The area is filled with castles and country homes both large and small. Most of them are open to the public.
One of the more forbidding is at Chateaudun. Begun in the Middle Ages, it’s currently in a state of disrepair, but about to get a facelift. Its most unusual feature is the dungeon, located next to the main kitchen. What torment prisoners must have experienced chowing down on moldy bread while sumptuous meals were being prepared just inches from their noses: one of history’s more delicious tortures!
The prisoners at Meung’s chateau would have envied them: they were thrown into wells (called “oubliettes,” or forgotten places) and tossed scraps. More prisoners would be added from time to time, but the daily portions kept the same, giving new meaning to the term “survival of the fittest.” Oddly enough, the castle grounds are among the most beautiful in the area.
Of course, Chambord is a must. Reputedly designed, in whole or in part, by one of our own, Leonardo da Vinci, it’s perhaps the most magnificent French castle of all. You don’t have to go inside to appreciate its beauty: a well manicured lawn and an impossible roofline of turrets are wonders in themselves. Unlike many castles, it’s filled with antique furnishings — much of it original. Don’t be turned off by the thousands of American and Japanese tourists traipsing about: there really is a good reason for them to be there.
The picturesque chateau at Blois, on the western edge of the city, is also a must see. It comes complete with its own historic murder: the 1588 assassination of the Duke of Guise by associates of gay King Henry III. It’s also well-furnished and boasts a nice line of gargoyles — actually downspouts — on the exterior.
Ironically, the high point of the trip, for me, wasn’t a castle but the small town of Vendome, which must be one of the loveliest towns in France. Sitting astride the winding “little” Loir, it’s clean, well-scrubbed, and beautifully landscaped with picturesque streets and languorous squares. The walk along the river is relaxing. Vendome boasts a fine chateau above the town and a lovely cathedral, but the town itself is the main attraction: the nicest surprise the tour had to offer.
It was at our hotel — the Hotel Vendome, what else? — that we experienced one of the most exquisite meals I’ve had in some time. The main course was tender cod layered with finely minced tomatoes and mushrooms and topped with a lightly-baked cheese crust. It literally melted in my mouth. My only regret was the last bite: I wanted more. A selection of local cheeses and a marvelous apple tart splashed with a light caramel sauce made the meal one to remember. One hopes that the chef isn’t tempted to move to the big city: Vendome would be much the poorer.
Some of Alyson’s bike trips are more strenuous than others, but physical preparation is recommended for even the flattest. Besides hotel accommodations and the services of guides, the price includes most meals. The rooms are comfortable, if not quite up to current tastes in wallpaper.
There’s plenty of time for sightseeing. In case you get lost, or your bike chain breaks — as mine did one day — Alyson provides ample backup. You needn’t fear becoming a stranger in a strange land as long as you stick to their suggestions for emergencies. (I didn’t, but that’s another story!)
The company strives to have not more than fifteen or so people on any one tour. We had eight, which was very comfortable. A printed itinerary is provided; cyclists may easily follow it at their own pace. Although it proved to be way too detailed and could have been streamlined, it didn’t detract from my overall satisfaction.
Do you need to learn French? It helps. The French — like Americans, actually — will open up if you make an attempt to speak their language. Our arrogance towards the French — inherited from our British ancestors — is easily returned. Fortunately, non-Parisians are in general much friendlier. But for the French-deficient, as I was, both of our guides — Ed, an American who runs an Italian restaurant on the Isle St. Louis in Paris, and Veronique, a tres charmante artiste — were, thankfully, bilingual and steered us around the culture’s more intricate corners with ease.
The author wrote the above account of his Loire Valley bicycle trip for a local newspaper in 2002. We are reprinting it here with his kind permission.