When I set off in the morning, it was chilly and there was no one in sight. With a big day on the bike ahead of me I set Loches as my goal for breakfast. As I pulled out from the camp site and crossed the river I saw a sign to Francueil, my first waypoint, with a familiar bike route sign. Much like the signs indicating the Loire à vélo, these were for the L’Indre à vélo, the bike route following the Indre river. I wasn’t sure where it would lead me if I followed it all the way but it would get me to Francueil at least on a safe cycling route which a good start.
The route wound its way through wooded areas, along the river, up out of the valleys and through little villages. Unlike the Loire, this route was not flat, constantly rolling up and down. Some of the climbs were a bit of a pinch, particularly around the villages, but nothing too difficult. I didn’t quite make it to Loches before the hunger pangs hit me. It was 8AM and I had already been on the road for more than an hour. I found a boulangerie (bakery) with fresh croissants so grabbed a couple, then a little way down the road spotted a brasserie serving coffee. Perfect! Fuelled up I was back on my way.
With plenty of meandering and dawdling in the picturesque countryside, I got into Loches about 9AM as the town was just waking up. Loches is another awesome medieval town with narrow cobbled streets and buildings with impressive facades. On the wall next to the archway that leads to you to the citadel, is a plaque commemorating when Joan of Arc persuaded Charles VII to march North from here and claim the French crown. Heading through the archway I was greeted by more winding cobbled streets, that pitch quite steep in places. Reaching the top I found what remains of the Citadel, and did a lap to take in the views, before making the steep and narrow descent. I had been riding South all morning and now it was time to turn back and head North, still following the L’Indre à vélo. Just outside of Loches I found the ruins of a Gallo-Roman bridge. I was struck by the precise form of the bricks and neat shape of the arches. Pretty cool.
I continued on my merry way, through many little towns and breathtaking countryside. I stopped for a snack by a park in Montbazon around 11:30AM and set my goal of lunch at 2PM in Azay-le-Rideau. I was going well until I got into Mont where the directions for the track led me down a road with a sign “Route Barre” and “Deviation”. Having encountered road works before, this usually meant the road was closed to cars because of some minor repairs, but you could easily sneak through with a bike. Having no idea how I would find the route again I pressed on. The track took me away from the houses to a quiet narrow road through the trees then all of a sudden the road disappeared and I was presented with a sea of gravel and cars screaming up the Tours motorway. The road the route used to follow had been completely blown away. I felt a great disturbance in the force as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced… I had no choice but to turn the ship around (luckily there was no tractor beam to contend with). Finally after backtracking and following the “Deviation” around suburban Monts I bumped into my old friend L’Indre à vélo again and we were on our way. It is comforting not to have to worry about navigation and just pedal away grinning like an idiot.
Many miles later I was ahead of my goal time and came upon Saché, the place where single servings of ketchup were invented (ok, that fact is unverified). Saché has a Chateau and I just had to sneak a peek. The turn off took me across a series of narrow one-way bridges as the river criss-crossed the path to the town. Then there was the hill, surprise, surprise, another Chateau built on top of a hill… will I ever learn? I made the climb to the top and found a relatively modest building surrounded by a wall and gardens. The building was only 19th century (still older than the federation of Australia), and favoured by Honoré de Balzac, the famous(?) French novelist. Balzac was inspired by a lot of this area, and spent considerable time here (honestly I’ve never read his stuff, but apparently it’s good). So even with the detour to Château de Saché and the unplanned laps of suburban Monts, I rolled into Azay-le-Rideau about 10 minutes after 2, bought my ticket and took a seat at the cafe for a quiche Lorraine while I listened to the audio guide.
The Azay-le-Rideau Chateau was pretty cool. Originally constructed in the 16th century, it is lovely moat-ringed mansion with geometric windows, decorative stonework, towers and a wall walk to survey the surrounding gardens. One really interesting feature is the attic which still has the original massive wooden beams of the roof. The rest of the Chateau is decorated in an 18th century style when a good deal of restoration and alteration was done by the new owners. Still plenty of homage to François I though.
From Azay-le-Rideau I trekked north to Villandry, my brother’s favourite and as soon as I arrived I knew why. The gardens were amazing. I have never seen anything like it. An immaculate veggie garden was my favourite, so colourful and decorative. Who knew that food could look this good! The building itself was built really to show off the owners wealth, and you can see by the layout and function it was really designed foremost as a family home. However, much of the building is now a gallery for showcasing art, the majority of which is religious and a whole lot of creepy macabre stuff too (and the original LOL cats).
I left Villandry about 6 following the Loire à vélo, to give myself ample time to get sorted in Tours. Tours is the major rail hub for the region and it was from here that I would need to arrange the next transit stage of the trip to get into Italy. Tours is a big city divided by the Loire into Tours Nord (North) and Tours Sud (South). Just outside the city the cycling route leads you across the motorway and then I lost the signs. Just the appearance of a motorway was distasteful after so much tranquility, and now I found myself riding along side cars and trucks. As I crossed the river there were high rise apartments, shopping malls, and it put me off immediately. Get in. Get out. That was the plan. I got googled again finding the train station, but when I eventually did it was just before 7. I approached the information counter and it was bedlam. The transport strike was still on and I had no option but to come back tomorrow. I crossed the road to the tourist information office just in time to see the woman bolting the door for a 7PM close. I put on my best puppy dog eyes, and she grabbed me a street map. So now, armed with a street map in a big stinky city I needed some place to stay. I remember my brother suggest Fast Motel so I headed off there. Unfortunately it was all the way down in Tours Sud (Chambery), which was a decent 30 minute cycle navigating the roads and traffic, but I found it. I rocked in the door and asked for a room, and the girl politely informed me they were booked out. So I went next door and it was the same story. Every hotel in the area was booked out. Getting desperate I jumped on lastminute.com to see if I could find something and the only option was a $200+ room at the Mecure in another part of town. Tired and cranky, I gave up the dosh then rode over there. At least I would have a good meal, a bed to collapse into, a hot shower, WiFi, the World Cup, breakfast. Ah.
I arrived at the Mecure a little more tired, a little less cranky and showed Laura at the desk my booking confirmation. She informed me that the hotel was already full and they had nothing for me. My heart sank. Now I was really cranky. Despite getting a confirmation and spending 200 clams I was still stranded. Not happy. Laura did her best ringing literally every place in the area. It was now after 10 and there was nothing. I mentioned that I had a tent and she casually said, there is a lake beyond those woods, you can sleep there. Really? All this stress and I could just pitch a tent in the park? I just hope I don’t get arrested. I told Laura I would be back in the morning so they could sort out my refund with lastminute.com and reluctantly went off to McDonalds for a feed before setting up in the park under a tree with a view of the lake and the chateau. Nice, but still not worth $200. I love spontaneity, flexibility and not being too constrained by planning, but sometimes it bites you on the bum. Here’s hoping Tours gets better tomorrow…