Sunday May 22
We awoke to a grey morning, wet pavement and low flying swallows, always a sign of pending low pressure and rain. The forecast had called for rare averses or light rain but as the day wore on it became anything but light. Being a Sunday there is little traffic but as usual the Loire à Velo signs disappear just when needed. Another French angel, this time an older woman with a sweet smile and an enormous bunch of arum lilies on the back of her bike, tells us we have gone a couple of kilometers in the wrong direction. With her directions we are soon peddling fast down a fortunately empty major road before turning towards Saumur, our destination. By the time we reach the outskirts it is pouring and we arrive at our hotel soaked.
Hot showers and some food work wonders and we are soon in the lobby waiting for our taxi to take us to a performance of the Cadre Noir, the French equivalent of the Spanish Riding School, and a ballet troupe who will dance Coppelia with the cavalry officers and their highly trained horses. I confess that I had been more than sceptical about how this would work out, but in fact it was a lovely performance, excellent dancers though no à pointe work (difficult to do in sand), and the horses and riders were able to show off all their intricate dressage moves. Somehow it all worked and even David was moved. Our taxi driver was waiting outside and we soon learnt he was no ordinary cab driver but in fact owned the hotel and most of the buildings around it. Seemed he had made a fortune as a baker. Upon our arrival back at the hotel he insisted on showing us his bona fide taxi driver card. An early night as tomorrow we bike to Villandry.
Thursday, May 26
For breakfast our taxi driver/hotelier served us crepes and compotes that he had made, certainly a man of many talents. He also told us to be very careful on the road out of Saumur and just before we left showed us a photo of himself with a bloody and bruised face; the result of a collision on a traffic circle between himself on a bike and a car driver. I am nervous enough riding a bike in traffic and confess that image remains with me and am making David mad by refusing to ride on any road with with any traffic.
Its a lovely morning and we ride through the Troglydite village and the vineyards above the river to the Abbaye of Fontevraud, base for several centuries of the Fontevristes, an order of monks and nuns in which the women held precendence over the men. Many of the abbesses are famous in French history. The Abbaye is also the final resting place of the Plantagenet kings, Henry II and Richard the Lionheart, and a particular favourite, Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II, whose effigy is depicted reading a book. They lie in the magnificent Romanesque crypt.
The afternoon brings a very long but pretty ride along the Loire to Villandry. I am exhausted & not particularly happy to discover that our hotel is a kilometre up a hill but after a shower we walk back down to visit the gardens of Villandry chateau. They are rightly famous throughout France but, much to David’s disappointment, I find them too regimented.
Yes, Tessa did not like the gardens of Villandry, that I love; they are famous throughout France. She did like the gardens two days later; they were lawns…very English, very nice I found; I like lawns too. That chateau, Chevernay, was never looted and always in the same family since the 16th century. They live in a wing not open to visitors. Full of sumptuous tapestries, antique furniture, family portraits,painted ceilings, boiserie. Very impressive I thought, but Tessa feels it wasn’t that different than the stately homes in Kent she often visited as a child. Near the entrance there is the kennel (“chenil” in French from the word for dog – “chien”) that houses about fifty hounds. Presumably they hunt in the vast woods that surround the chateau but it was obviously not hunting season now.
But I’ve run ahead. The day before we biked from Villandry to the train station in the center of Tours, capital of this area (Touraine), and caught a train for the 30 km distance to Chenonceaux, before biking another 20 km uphill and against a stiff wind to our inn.
The Chenonceaux castle is known as the “ladies castle”, because its architecture and furnishings over the year were the work of women and because it was coveted by women: first by Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of king Henri II, and upon his death by his queen, Catherine de Medici (who moved Diane out); she governed all of France from the Green Study. Later, when king Henri III died Louise of Lorraine withdrew to Chenonceaux. Several years later very rich women owners, extended and restored the castle to its renaissance appearance. The furnishings were looted or sold off during the Revolution, but many traces of the original decor remain, along with lovely antiques and paintings added in recent decades. Beautiful Chenonceaux is built over the Cher river. It is well worth anyone’s visit.
Since yesterday we are no longer following the Loire bicycle route, but are charting our own way through the center of France to save a few days of riding. We fought stiff head winds yesterday to Chevernay and then onto our lodgings in Bracieux. Today we rode before breakfast up to and back from Chambord, the king’s castle , then rode through boring countryside to our lodging here in a tiny town of La Ferté-Imbault in the Sologne.
Because of the headwinds and the train strike today and yesterday, we are now one day behind our plan. Tomorrow: who knows. Every weather forecast has been wrong. If the forecast is heavy rain, it is actually only occasional light rain or sunny. If the forecast is sunny, it may turn out to be rainy. We’ll keep you posted.