Follow the River (1998)

Friday and Saturday, September 4 and 5

In the late summer of 1998, my boyfriend Andrew and I set out on a cycling trip in France’s Loire valley. Our plan to get to the Loire looked great on paper: New York to London to Paris by air. Train to Tours to Chinon in the Loire River Valley.

In between we had the bus to JFK, the bus at Heathrow to transfer terminals, the RER to the Metro to the train in Paris, a short train in Tours to another station, the train to Chinon, and a walk to our hotel.

We reached the Mont Parnasse station in Paris around 3:15 and bought tickets on the 5:15 train. By the time we reached Chinon our bags – packed light for cycling – were as leaden as our legs. Around 7:00 p.m. – after about twenty hours of travel – we knocked on the door of our hotel.

Sunday, Septemer 6

In between we had the bus to the airport, the bus at Heathrow to transfer terminals, the RER to the Metro to the train in Paris, a short train in Tours to another station, the train to Chinon, and a walk to our hotel.

We reached the Mont Parnasse station in Paris around 3:15 and bought tickets on the 5:15 train. By the time we reached Chinon our bags – packed light for cycling – were as leaden as our legs. Around 7:00 p.m. – after about twenty hours of travel – we knocked on the door of our hotel.

Susannah, the British representative, guided us from the hotel to the bike garage and fitted us out with bikes and panniers. She helped Andrew put on the saddle he’d brought from home and gave us a flat fixing lesson.

We just had time for a quick spin through town before returning to the train station to catch the steam train to Richleau, about 11 miles south. The steam train hissed and whistled out on the track where the modern diesel-driven one had dropped us the previous evening. Once we were ticketed, a friendly fellow cyclist hung our bikes in the train’s box car.

The first stop was at a country station offering souvenirs, ice cream, cheese, and wine. We tried the wine. As the train prepared to depart a young woman in milk maid attire boarded with a goat. Chattering away in French she came into our car and sat across from us. She told her story and let the children feed her goat. We quickly stowed our belongings in the goat-safe overhead rack. Shortly the conductor came in and the inevitable argument ensued, continuing in ferocious French until the next stop where the goat girl debarked with a wave.

There was a classic car show or rally going on at the Richleau station. We admired the cars, then rode up the road and through the city walls. A small bar proivded sandwiches and wine for lunch, then we visited Richleau’s les halles, a huge timber open marketplace, unused but cared for. On the way out of town we found a sign outside the moat explaining which buildings were built when. Oh well, we enjoyed them even without this knowledge.

We stopped at Chateau de Riveau where renovation and excavation were underway, replacing the lawns and views we had expected. Still, we were amused by the drawbridge mechanism and restored “secret” gardens, and we did wonder if the helicopter parked in the outer garden was original.

Monday, September 7

First thing in the morning our panniers were packed and our luggage stored in the hotel. We were looking at an aggressive itinerary for our first day of real travel: ten miles east to Villandry, then thirty miles west to Fontevraud. The weather forecast is for rain.

A couple miles down the road we turned north to enter Chinon forest and climb to the plateau between the Vienne and Loire rivers. Unused to such an abrupt incline, I failed to downshift early enough and my chain jumped off. I fussed at it with my Swiss Army knife until Andrew came back with the tool kit.

We’d planned a route that took advantage of serene country roads, or so we thought. Halfway across the plateau our secondary road became an unpaved one. We re-routed onto the main road, domain of trucks and fast cars. This proved faster because our legs were pumping out of sheer terror.

Our first stop, Azay le Rideau, stands on an island in a stream that forms its moat. Inside furniture and art are on display, but the real beauty of the chateau lies in its history, setting, and architectural detail.

After strolling around the grounds we picked a bar in town for lunch. My personal pizza was awash in delicious cheese. Andrew’s salad was covered with aromatic duck confit. The wine was, of course, quite good. And as a bonus the proprietor filled our bike bottles with tap water.

Villandry’s gardens are reconstructed from the original plans. They include a big kitchen garden, a maze, and the “love garden.” The view of them from the chateau tower was breathtaking, while wandering through them was fascinating on an entirely different level. The variety of plants used to create the textures and colors is remarkable. Beyond the ornate gardens is the “water garden,” an emerald lawn bordered by marching trees and with a round pool and fountain in the center. Due to the diligence of gardners on riding mowers and using manual tools not a leaf was out of place. Apples and pears on trees in the formal kitchen garden were temptingly within reach, but we restrained each other – there was a gardener nearby.

Stopping in the bathroom on the way out I looked at the brochure and realized we missed the hedge maze way out near the water garden and mule meadow. One of the disadvantages of biking is that we were too tired to walk back to it. It was already 5 p.m. and we had 20 miles to go. We decided to continue on the more direct highway in spite of the scarry traffic.

Dozens of troglodyte caves opened onto the highway just outside of Villandry. Many serve as wine cellars, others as storage caves. A few had chimneys and addresses, although they did not look lived in.

We soon noticed the effect of a strong headwind but our only option on the fairly busy road, and because of the late hour, was to keep pedaling. After ten miles we stopped at a roadside cafe and take a table in their garden. Just across the road is the gate to Ussé, a chateau we had wanted to visit but had thought was closed. It wasn’t, but now we didn’t have time for it. Too bad – but reason for another trip.

A fresh shower started as we finished our drinks and slices of honey tart and we darted out to cover our saddles with plastic bags. We waited under cover for another twenty minutes, then finally gave up and got moving again.

Detouring around the Chinon nuclear power plan in an vast open area the gusts must have exceded thirty knots. We learned to bike-tack back and forth across the now deserted road – the slight angle to the breeze really did seem to make it easier! I caught myself focusing on all the factors against us: headwind, heavy panniers, rough road surface, and more miles behind me than I’ve ever ridden before.

At last we reached the Vienne and paused on the bridge to consult the map. One more obstacle awaits: the final hill to Fontevraud.

First we steered through the one-street village of Cande St. Martin. We decided to abandon the main road once again in order to climb this last hill on the small streets. It was steep enough to put us on our feet pushing our bikes. At an intersection we consulted both map and GPS. The GPS directed us up a very narrow road where some locals gave us suspicious looks as they loaded crates of wine from a cave to a car.

The road widened and we pressed on alternately walking and riding until we reached Fontevraud and, finally at the top of the last hill, our hotel.

“Our room is two flights up and has only a shower, no tub,” I was informed after parking and unloading the bikes.

“What’s two more flights?”

Tuesday, September 8

Rain.

We were booked for two nights at the hotel in Fontevraud and we had planned a local ride sans panniers for Tuesday, after visting Fontevraud Abbey.

The downpour started while we were touring Abbey, and it hadn’t let up even after lunch in the local tea shop.

We asked about car rentals and were referred to Saumer – the large nearby town that would be our destination, were we able to rent a car.

After a couple hours in our room with the television we thought the rain had let up so we dressed and descended to salvage part of our cycling day. As we stepped out onto the patio where the bikes were housed it started again. We sat for a while under an umbrella feeling foolish, waving away a waiter who thought the silly Americans wanted to be served a drink in the rain.

Around four o’clock we decided to take a walk, rain or no rain. Half way down the hill we found a bus stop with a schedule of busses to Saumer. Disgusted with ourselves for not thinking of this option we bought cheese, pate, frut and wine for supper and retire to our room.

Wednesday, September 9

Determined to see at least some of what we missed due to the weather on Tuesday, we got an early start on Wednesday. We set out under cloudy skies for Brezé about five miles away by its posted opening time of ten a.m.

Entering the village of Brezé we found increased car and foot traffic centered around the church. Bells were chiming and crowd that seemed to include most of the village had formed outside. We paused and dismounted to watch a coffin unloaded from a hearse. Once the coffin had been carried inside and the mourners were following we walked our bikes around the crowd.

Brezé is a small chateau with an impressive dry moat spanned by a plank bridge. Each plank is four inches thick and two feet wide, cut from forests long gone in this region. We have time for a walk around the moat before the interior tour.

The walls of the chateau and the outer moat wall drop sheer to the grassy floor fifty feet below. Cut into the outer moat wall, down at the bottom, are chambers that once housed an army of four hundred. Live down in the hole must have been strange, especially with the chateau’s toilet drains above them.

Back at the office we were still the only guests so Claude, our guide, locked it up and we set out on a tour of two of the three wings. The family lives in the third wing, we were told.

Claude’s tour took us up to the roof and through rooms designed for a bishop and for Cardinal Richleau – a frequent guest. We saw splended rooms and unfinished rooms, family heirlooms and real treasures. The personal tour was one of my favorite of the trip.

Claude pointed out a secret door in a staircase, and the other end of the passage in the bishop’s office, saying it was for “serving girls to bring him water.” Uh huh, we said, and we all smiled. “I cannot say anything else,” Claude added apologetically.

A long gallery housed, among furniture, uniforms, and bric-a-brac, contemporary paintings of pre-revolutionary monarchs that had been hidden behind the wooden paneling and so survived the revolution. After the tour we sampled Brezé’s white wine. It was nice, but not worth carrying on a bicycle.

Since the weather was holding we pressed on to the medieval walled town of Montreuil-Bellay. A few rain drops started to fall as we were selecting a lunch spot, so we tucked the bikes under an arch beneath the bridge to the local fortress and retired to a creperie.

Such marvelous things, those simple country crepes: ham and eggs were nestled inside the delicate pastry with green salad on top. We followed these with sweet crepes – chocolate for me and raspberry for Andrew.

The rain dissipated while we ate and we were soon on our way due north to Saumer.

It was already two o’clock so we steered onto the main road to compete with the trucks. We were keeping an eye out for signs of “the Grand Dolmen,” a prehistoric artifact noted on our map. We expected to see standing stones from the highway, but what we found was much more prosaic: an actual sign directing us to take a certain exit.

Since we were entering the south side of Saumer I followed the sign off the highway and to a busy intersection. I was sure this wasn’t right – we were already in the town. But another sign directed us to turn right, so we did and pedaled along a suburban road past houses and small businesses.

At a bend in the road a sign on a building wall advertised “Dolmen Bar” with an arrow pointing across the street.

“On no.”

Across the street a closed gate in a wall next to the bar had a small barred window in it. We peered through and saw, through the trees, huge standing stones. A sign on the gate next to a button said to buzz for entry. So we did. Shortly a man came from inside the bar, opened the gate, and waved us in bikes and all. He collected a few Francs each and gave us a flyer in English.

The dolmen hulked there in the bar’s yard, one of the oldest structures in Europe surrounded by cafe tables and trees. We read the flyer and examined the big old stones. Even in these strange surroundings there was an unmistakable sense of age and mystery.

From the dolmen we rode on into Saumer and locked our bikes next two two others with even more luggage than ours. We rode an elevator up into the chateau, which has been converted to a museum of ceramics and equestrian artifacts. After the visit we took a pastry break in Saumer’s shopping district, then set off on the final leg of the day.

Our hotel was in the tiny village of St. Martin de la Platz, about four miles west on the north bank of the Loire. Cycling along the embankment we spoteed a mini-dolmen in a field. Much as we wanted to believe it was ancient, I suspected that the farmer had plowed up the stones and arranged them that way.

We found our hotel with only one wrong turn – pretty good in a town with only one street! Our upstairs room looked out into an enormous weeping willow and had a smelly electric toilet, the point of which baffled us. We took a stroll across the street to watch the river with it’s reportedly dangerous currents. The town didn’t have much more to offer, so we retired to supper in the hotel.

Thursday, September 10

As anyone who has cycled or backpaced for several days knows, the evening routine includes “rinsing out a few things.” Andrew hung his t-shirt on a hanger hooked over the top of the window, which we left open to the pleasant evening breeze. But the zephyrs became more playful with the dawn, and we were awakened by the clatter of the window blowing shut, hanger and shirt sucked out. Andrew opened the window and leaned out to see his shirt draped over a rose bush in the garden below.

Giggling at the image of our proprietress coming across the garment during an early morning constitutional, Andrew quickly dressed and slipped out to retrieve his wayward clothes. He crept down the stairs avoiding the creaky ones and crossed the front hall to the door. We had been instructed the previous evening in the hotel’s security procedures. A length of string passed through a hole in the front door was used to unlatch it from the outside. Our proprietress pulled in the string before retiring, so guests coming in late were subjected to the embarrassment of knocking and awakening the whole house.

Andrew successfully passed the string through the hole so that he could get back in, then went around the building to the garden and got his shirt. Feeling victorious, upon re-entering he pulled the tell-tale string back in to conceal his early-morning expedition. When he turned back toward the stairs he found the proprietress watching him curiously from the rear of the hall.

With a courteous good morning he trotted up the stairs, holding in his laughter until he could share the tale wtih me in our room.

The same proprietress had arranged a taxi to take us to Angers, a town just far enough away to make cycling there and back in one day – with time to see the sights – prohibitive. The “taxi” appeared to be a friend with a car, but whatever her license status, she dropped us in Angers at the chateau as requested.

This moated castle housed deer and ornamental gardens down in the depths. We followed a printed guide along the battlemetns and into the inner court. It led us to our primary goal, the Apocalypse Tapestry. The fourteenth century tapestry comprises a dozen panels each nearly fifteen feet high and totaling almost one hundred forty linear feet. The tour, in English, took an hour and it was time well spent. But we could tell the nearby French guide was providing a much more dramatic interpretation than our soft-spoken guide.

After an uninspired lunch in a busy cafe we visited the Cathedral S. Maurice to see its lovely stained glass. We followed part of a Michelin Green Guide walking tour of town with side trips for shopping and a visit to the bank to exchange an outdated 200 Franc note. At 4:30 we boarded the bus back to St. Martin de la Platz.

There were only six passengers and we wondered how the bus line could possibly make a profit. The mystery was solved when it stopped at a school. We dropped the students in twos and threes in various tiny villages along the Loire until when we rolled into St. Martin de la Platz we were the only passengers left.

Friday, September 11

The Saumer Riding Academy show is at ten a.m., so we were packed, fed, and on the road before nine. As we peddled along the embankment a passing bus tooted its horn at us: it was our driver from the previous afternoon. We crossed the river at Saumer and turned west to find the academy.

There’s no doubt that this is horse country. The riding academy show included dressage, lunge jumping, and military airs, and it’s all very serious and “horsey,” not intended to please a non-riding crowd.

Our next planned stop was a mushroom/troglodyte cave near Cande St. Martin. As we rode along the river the rain, which started while we were at the horse show, keeps falling and roughly paved road drags at our tires. Fortunately, the breeze that was a headwind a few days ago is now in our favor.

The mushroom cave looked very touristy, but we parked the bikes in the toilet building (as instructed by a sign) and followed a footpath up a cliff. After all, mushroom caves should be warm and relatively dry.

For a few francs each we were given a printed tour and told to follow th ered arrows. The cavern path was lined with plastic bags of soil sprouting various varieties of musrooms. Further in a diorama with posed mannequins was just too tempting. Andrew stepped over the guard rope and tugged at a mushroom. It was plastic. And it was attached. We giggled hysterically, but did not double back to check the shitakes in the plastic bags.

We had thought to have a cepes lunch, but the mushroom restaurant was closed so we decided to press on to Chinon, about seven miles, in the rain.

The week had caught up with me and I ached all over. When at last we entered Chinon and reached our hotel we were given a lovely room with a heater in the bathroom and I felt like I’d found heaven. Susanna came around to collect the bikes and sympathize with us about the weather.

Refreshed, we we went out to see Chinon. The chateau, a glorious ruin, required a an uphill hike. But I knew if we skipped it later someone would say “you’ve been to Chinon? Isn’t the chateau marvelous?” It was worth the climb for both the interesting ruins and the lovely view of the Loire. And a couple weeks later, back in New York, someone did say something very like that to me.

We rounded off the evening with supper and a visit to the Chinon night market before hurrying back to pack. Our train to Paris was at seven in the morning.

Saturday, September 12

We already missed our bikes as we carried our bags through the pre-dawn drizzle to the train station. We boarded thirty minutes early and watched a woman sweeping the aisle around our feet. The lights flickered, the engine sputtered. Train men wandered back and forth outside of our window. A few minutes before seven the engine started and a few more passengers boarded.

Once again we transfered trains in Tour and then doze our way in to Paris. From the Mountparnasse station we transfer to the Metro and walk for blocks through the underground tunnels to the correct subway line.

We eventually emerged on the Rue di Rivoli in the Marias and lugged our bags over uneven cobbled streets to the Hotel St. Merry. It was still morning and our room wasn’t ready so we left our bags, noting that the proprietor put a cable lock around them, and sought breakfast.

After cafe creme and croissants we shopped for French rock at Fnac, by which time the hotel could accommodate us. Sort of. Our room was very dark and barely large enough for the bed. But although the toilet was down the hall, we had a bidet.

Despite the stormy weather, we ventured out to the department store Samaritaine to their rooftop observation deck. The view would have been great if the mother of all squalls weren’t blowing through just then. I endured it as long as I could before the wind and rain drove me back down the spiral staircase.

Back at street level we crossed the Seine to see Notre Dame, then meandered back via the Ile St. Louis. We dined at a wonderful bistro in the Marais where the stairs to the basement were accessed through a cabinet in the kitchen. I kept watching the wait staff disappear into the cabinet as if it were C.S. Lewis’s wardrobe, only to emerge with bottles of wine a few minutes later.

Sunday, September 13

We took turns picking cheap attractions, including an exhibit of city planning maps and diagrams showing the historical development of Paris and a visit to the maritime museum in the Trocadero. Looking for a fountain on the left bank that’s Andrew’s favorite we passed by Paris’s Roman bath ruins (calderium, tepederium, frigidarium . . .).

Monday, September 14

On Monday morning we shopped for travel provisions at the Galleries Lafayette food halls – rather like grocery shopping in Macy’s Cellar or Harrod’s food court. It was time to reverse that complex travel route, taking the train to Orly to fly to London, transfer terminals, and fly to New York. Heathrow security takes the prize for diligence – although nothing like what we’d experience in the next few years – by hand searching all of our bags after they don’t pass the x-ray test.