A bicycle trip this summer gave us a variety of fun facts to pass on. “Fun” could perhaps be separated into categories of “really fun,” “sorta’ kinda’ fun” and “seriously?” It is left to the reader to decide; and of course the stories all get better with age.
One: Airport public address announcements repeatedly reminding people not to leave unattended items in the terminal should be taken seriously. After landing at DeGaulle Airport, we were making slow progress toward the passport control booths, when they all suddenly shut down and the agents disappeared.
We were told to vacate the area and herded a couple hundred feet back, then held in an open area near the rental car counters for about an hour. Eventually the word made it through the packed crowd that an unattended bag had been found, forcing the evacuation. Once the very capable authorities were satisfied the threat was resolved, we were allowed to inch back to the booths and be on our way. Welcome to Paris!
The next day a one-hour train ride took us to Orleáns, for the start of our self- guided bicycle trip through the beautiful Loire River Valley and its numerous princely chateaus. This lovely medieval city impressed us with its well preserved historical district, its walkability and its large statue of Joan of Arc in the main plaza.
Two: Take plenty of water! We had started the bike ride with the usual sixteen-ounce size bottle of water for each of us, not anticipating the strong sun and heat, and were parched by mid-day. Thankfully, we happened upon a casual performing troupe setting up a trailside venue and were able to purchase an oversize bottle of water – a big help getting to our day’s destination, the sleepy village of Beaugency. Our hotel room was a splendid high-ceilinged, 18th century room, with huge hand-hewn beams, a nice deep soaking tub and excellent air conditioning. A delicious steak dinner in the hotel dining room rounded out the day.
We pedaled the next morning to the huge Chambord chateau complex, one of France’s largest and most imposing, dating from 1519. Additions and restorations occurred during the following centuries, along with acquisition of surrounding land. The chateau was used during World War II to safeguard thousands of French artworks; and the entire domain was established as a wildlife preserve following the war.
Three: Don’t assume French 3 and 4 star hotels offer air conditioning. After an overnight in Blois, we pedaled to Amboise through forests and vineyards and fields of wheat, corn and sunflowers, in steady 100-degree heat as verified by a pharmacy sign on reaching town, to a hotel with no air conditioning. A single small table fan in our room was augmented by a second one on request, each aimed at us while sleep came fitfully.
The next morning’s ride took us to the busy city of Tours and the Saint Gatien Cathedral with its glorious 15th century stained glass windows. Our large modern hotel was in the city center adjacent to a main traffic circle with fountain. We enjoyed lunch at a neighboring brasserie, where a wedding party of French naval officers in dashing formal uniforms complete with ceremonial swords, and their ladies in elegant gowns, dined before heading across the street for a city hall ceremony.
Four: Every trip has its best place. For us it was the exquisite village of Azay le Rideau and the gem of Chateau d’Azay le Rideau. The morning brought us to the fully modernized 18th century Hotel le Grand Monarque, centrally located, an easy amble to everything the village has to offer, including a pedestrian-bridged lily pond that could easily be the inspiration for an Impressionist masterpiece.
We strolled to the Chateau grounds, with its secret garden just inside the wall producing fresh produce and herbs. The chateau is one of the smallest we found and also the most charming, especially since its recent three year restoration. Faithful period furnishings are in all the rooms, as well as whimsical mirrored pieces, artwork and a unique dining room set up with moving banquet items synchronized to music.
The building is surrounded by a moat and luscious grounds anchored by hundred-year-old trees from around the world. A pleasant outdoor café on the grounds serves ice cream and delicious lunches, leading to naps on the grass for some visitors, including your humble scribe.
We enjoyed our best dessert at the small family run Cote Cour restaurant that night on the quiet pedestrian street just outside the chateau; outdoor tables sparkling clean after a brief shower. Ham and juicy ripe melon were followed by wonderful fish and precisely cooked vegetables, capped by a perfect, poached pear torte.
A contender for favorite place followed in the quite pleasant town of Chinon, in the shadow of the imposing hilltop Forteresse Royale de Chinon. The fortress dates to the 12th century and was pivotal in history from the time of King Henry II of England through the Hundred Years War in later centuries, with visits by Joan of Arc while she helped a future king fight for his throne.
Our spacious top floor room in the centrally located Hotel de France overlooked the Place du General de Gaulle and its three restaurants offering outdoor seating for lunch. Just behind the hotel was the glass-walled, freestanding elevator providing easy access to the fortress and its history lessons. We were also able to stroll between the warm afternoon showers through the old central neighborhood with its medieval architecture, quiet during the French version of siesta.
We enjoyed another memorable dinner on a quiet narrow street a few blocks away at At’able. Salmon and sturgeon were actually braided and sautéed and presented in a slightly smoky tomato based sauce. Heaven on a plate.
On to Saumur the next day to the 18th century Hotel Anne D’Anjou and our l room overlooking the Loire. A drizzly walk in the shadow of the hilltop chateau led to a charming plaza with shops and dining venues; and a few blocks further we found the town center including the opera house. A short taxi ride outside town brought us to the Musée du Champignon, a slightly musty self- guided cave experience showcasing a countless variety of growing mushrooms, well-signed to teach us everything we never thought we needed to know about fungi, at 50 degrees.
That evening we were able to score an outside table at Les Minstrel restaurant, overlooking the quiet garden between it and our hotel. Heaven was once again plated as one of us enjoyed succulent rabbit while the other found equal pleasure with salmon accompanied by cucumber salad, with the stellar service and sauces that no one masters better than the French.
Morning came cooler, windy and rainy; and we were glad to be cabbing the final 57 kilometers to Angers rather than pedaling through the weather all day. We gazed on orchards, and fields of sunflowers, wheat, corn and hay while cruising along the Loire.
Angers is a city of about 150,000, built around the meticulously landscaped Angers Chateau, which over the centuries served as a fort, prison, chapel and king’s palace, all designed and built to be self-sustaining and able to withstand sieges.
Five: the French take security and anti-terrorism seriously. On the day before Bastille Day, waiting to board our on time TGV fast train for Paris we saw pairs of soldiers with machine guns patrolling the station and its environs. We had heard that an additional 86,000 police and soldiers had been mobilized for this major holiday. The train streaked through the countryside before pulling into the Paris Montparnasse station a couple hours later. We found a creperie close to the Pantheon, not wanting to leave Paris before enjoying a buckwheat crepe with ham and cheese topped by a fried egg.
Six: Bastille Eve is not a quiet night in Paris. In our normally quiet hotel on the Left Bank we were entertained by almost constant sirens, fireworks, music and reveling in the streets until at least two in the morning.