Cycling in the Loire Valley

Ruby Wax and Kathy Lette in the Loire

“We’re going on a cycling trip,” Ruby Wax enthused, thrusting some hideous padded cycling pants at me. “Through the Loire.”

The look on my face must have registered more surprise than the congregation at Oscar Wilde’s wedding. Ruby? Cycling? I immediately pictured myself peddling frantically on a tandem bicycle, drenched in sweat, while my best pal lounged back in our communal bike basket, nibbling a croissant.

While Ruby conjured up images of us in berets, nonchalantly humming Edith Piaf songs as we meandered through sun-drenched vineyards, I suspected the reality would involve me doing all the leg work, hauling our luggage in my pannier, getting hopelessly lost and being forced to bivouac in some nettle-infested field. Yep. The thought of Ruby and me enduring a self-guided cycling trip, seemed as plausible a proposition as Madonna in a nunnery or a Mormon with a bar tab.

Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong, because Ruby had booked with “Cycling For Softies”. This meant that every morning our luggage was collected from one quaint little boutique hotel and deposited at the next. We didn’t even have to lug around any emotional baggage because all decisions had been made for us, including the best restaurants bookings. All we had to do was mooch through picturesque, river-side villages and explore formidable fortresses at our leisure, pausing only to devour a gateau in every chateau. Because of course, cycling means guilt-free gormandizing. There’s no need to regret a baguette or not nosh that brioche, as you simply peddle off the pounds afterwards.

The only real danger of cycling through the Loire with Ruby was running into lamp posts from laughing too hard. This was mainly due to our cycling pants. These padded shorts are designed to prevent chronic bum-numbing and also painful bike friction on those parts of your body primarily reserved for giving birth. But it also meant that our rear ends were arriving about five minutes after we did. Hell, they had their own postcodes.

Ruby was convinced she now looked like a Kardashian and took to twerking at pedestrians as we whizzed by. And of course, I couldn’t resist glancing over my shoulder to catch their incredulous expressions. Which is why I kept colliding with inanimate objects such as cars, carts and cows which stubbornly refused to take evasive action.

Besides multiple bruises from lamp post pileup’s, the only other obstacle in our way was a dodgy sat nav. When it died on day one, we quickly realized the inadequacy of our French vocabulary which was limited to “rendezvous, champagne, liaison, lingerie and croissant” – words that can lead a girl to one place only: off the path of virtue. Cycling from Chenin to the sleepy little town of Montsoreau we tried asking a few French people for street directions but Rue-d the day when we found ourselves inhaled into a forest of disdainful nostril hair. Still, it was a glorious morning, with fluffy white clouds scudding across an azure sky – who cared if we got lost?

Twenty two miles later, we fluked it to our first destination – the luxurious spa hotel Le Marine. With the restraint of an Exocet missile we were out of our sweaty clothes and into a bottle of local white wine, feeling an exhilarated sense of accomplishment. Believe me, nothing whets the appetite more than cycling through what you’re going to be drinking that evening.

Also, having exercised so strenuously meant we could devour all four courses at the charming Le Montsorelli restaurant, with no calorific qualms. Ruby even managed not to flambee her eyebrows when she got over-excited by the waitress lighting the brandy on her Baked Alaska. (I hadn’t seen this dessert since the 70’s. I suppose you’d have to call it ‘dining with an old flame’.)

Day two began in a wash of syrupy sunlight. We had thirty five miles to cover along the river to the medieval village of Azay-le-Rideau. The path took us past the legendary Le Chateau d’Usse. This jewel of Renaissance architecture is so magical it inspired Charles Perrault’s tale of Sleeping Beauty. We may have had quiche for lunch, but it was kitsch for tea, as we toured the tacky mannequin display depicting this famous fairy tale. Ruby found the Disneyfication of this distinguished World Heritage-listed castle hysterically funny. But I found myself surprisingly swept up in the romance. Exploring these Rapunzel-like turrets made me fantasise about being rescued by a French knight in shining Armani.

Thoughts of a one-Knight-stand at our age only brought out Ruby’s black humour. I tried to go along with her Loire Noir, until we cycled past another elegant, architectural masterpiece – Chateau L’islette. By standing in front of the sign and obscuring the first few letters, it looked as though I’d stumbled upon my French ancestral home, Chateau Lette. “Lette them eat cake,” I decried, going full Maria Antoinette.

“Madame de Fage is my role model,” Ruby said crisply, edging me dangerously closer to the moat. Luckily she was distracted by the perfect mirror reflections of her padded Rear of the Year in the pond which surrounds the sumptuous chateau.

It’s easy to see how the sculptor Rodin and his 17 year old pupil Camille were also seduced by this romantic mansion. A cache of letters on display reveal how they chiselled away at their love affair here, until Camille realized that ‘mistress’ is nothing more than a mattress.

A gourmet binge at Le Coté Cour and a little pampering at the bijou Hôtel de Biencourt, and we were ready for our final day – a fifty mile, uphill ride back to Chenin, through ancient royal hunting forests.

Gazing up at the steep, wooded hills, Ruby and I both made a noise like a bike tire going flat. Should we perhaps just call the paramedics in advance? But the organisers simply swapped our bikes for electric cycles. Dubious about their abilities, we reluctantly saddled up and then…. vrooooom! It felt as though our bicycles had drunk an espresso. We whooshed up those inclines as though sharing a tandem with Lance Armstrong.

With wind whistling through our hair, we felt sure we’d soon catch up with the Tour de France – or the de-tour de France, as we couldn’t resist veering off course to a paintball centre in the woods. The French are so chic we had no doubt their paint blobs would be artfully aimed, each splodge landing with pointillist precision. But this arty diversion underlined the fact that the whole trip felt as though we’d fallen into an Impressionist canvas; the glistening Cezanne poplars, soft Corot-esque woods and shimmering Monet waterways, it was literally – picturesque.

At the conclusion of the cycling trip, sitting on our Chenin balcony in Hotel de France, sipping wine, listening to music wafting up from the square below: the 12 century Plantagenet fortress home of Henry 11, Richard the Lionheart and Joan of Arc standing sentry above, Ruby and I toasted our peddling prowess. Not bad for two gals in our sixties. We’d carpe-the-hell-out-of-diem-ed in calf-shaping style.

The Loire is known as the Garden of France. Cycling through its tapestry of strawberry fields, forests and vineyards, was not only beautiful but beguiling. Casually strewn with medieval citadels, crumbling abbeys and enchanting Renaissance Chateaux – the whole area haemorrhages history; offering a host of ghosts in every nook and cranny.

And exploring by bike gives you time to drink it all in – while drinking. Best of all, in France, it’s always wine-o’clock; and the wine is of such good quality that we never once felt the wrath of grapes.

We headed home feeling fitter, half a stone lighter, closer friends than ever, and so, so sorry to say ‘au revoir, Loire’.

Now that lockdown’s eased, we’ve just booked another cycling trip – a little something to do with the fact that when I stood on my talking bathroom scales, they said “Please use social distancing. One person at a time.” Although even after we peddle off those Covid kilos, I don’t think I’ll ever get Ruby out of her cherished padded cycling pants – at least not without an Oxy Acetylene cutting torch.

 

 

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