Sunday, 31 July 2011

Day 9: From Sully-sur-Loire to Orléans. A day spent battling with a relentless headwind that resembled riding into a the blast from a huge hairdryer.

I left La Ferme des Gorgeats at about 9.30 after a noisy breakfast punctuated by loud disputes among the children and accompanied by the inexhaustible prattle of their loquacious mother. It was already warm as I set off despite the cloud cover and I stopped in Sully to buy water.

Le Château de Sully.

The cycle-track from Sully was brand new and surfaced with gravel, so added to the headwind, this made the going quite tough. The work on the cycle track was in process as I rode along it and a few kilometres outside of Sully I came on the heavy earth-moving and road-surfacing machinery. This was the end of the track.

The view on the Loire from the 'levée' between Sully and Châtauneuf

I then followed the river using the GPS and arrived in Châteauneuf-sur-Loire at around 10.30. A drink at the bar just at the end of the bridge and then across the river to get back on the levée. I had the address of a couple I'd met in the first B&B and an invitation to drop in if I passed by. I dropped in, unannounced, and was immediately invited to lunch. I guess they thought I'd turned up around lunch-time hoping to be invited, but they were very gracious nonetheless and I left at around 2.30 extremely well-fed.

View Sully-sur-Loire to Orleans in a larger map]

From this point onwards, the day continued to get hotter and the trouble in my nether regions more difficult to ignore. Pedalling against the wind seemed to aggravate the piles and by mid-afternoon remaining in the saddle was pretty excruciating.

The view on the river from the bridge at Jargeau

The approach to Orléans leaves the levée and winds goes through an area of parkland and around the

View Sully-sur-Loire to Orleans in a larger map]

many lakes formed by the various former beds of the river.

The view approaching Orléans

I arrived in the centre of Orléans at around 4.00. A quick visit by bike and the thought of a shower

Orléans cathedral

and a change of clothing drove me to the chambres d'hôte in the avenue Dauphiné. I was unpleasantly surprised to find that the bathroom was shared with an unknown number of other guests. Nothing had been said about this in the description of the accommodation so I complained to the proprietor and was granted access to another bathroom. I didn't appreciate the fact that the good lady demanded payment in advance, so I was pretty forthright in my comments.

Madame Canada's house didn't agree with me. It was stuffy and full of clutter. I took my shower, paid my bill and took off for the town centre.

Street in Orléans
L'Hôtel Groslot, Orléans.

I ate an indifferent salade niçoise and a doughy pizza and wandered for a while in the town centre. As is to be expected, Jeanne d'Arc figures prominently in the town's iconography.

La Rue Jeanne d'Arc Orléans

The citizens of Orléans never forgot their gratitude to this young girl for her role in 1492 in delivering the city from the dastardly English and beginning the reconquest of the territory held by them. The city authorities gave her a fine house in Orléans and even contributed a part of the ransom to deliver her from prison - a ransom, moreover, that was never paid since the French Dauphin, now king thanks to her help, kept the money for himself - as you do.

There is a wealth of architectural detail in the city but it requires quite a lot of footwork to see it all. Here's a façade almost worthy of Barcelona and Gaudi:

Number 10 quai Barentin, Orléans

Day 10: From Orléans to Blois. A day of scorching heat, totally unrelieved by the headwind: another day in the hairdryer with frequent water stops.

Breakfast was a rather chilly affair. Madame Cañada clearly resented my complaints of the previous evening.She tried to be chummy, but she quite put me off my coffee and croissants in the process.

I left as soon as I could. Once out on the streets, it was clear that the day was to be a very hot one as the weather forecast had predicted, with temperatures in the mid thirties. I was immediately aware of the pain in the backside and not very keen on a day of switching uncomfortably from one buttock to the other. Still, there was nothing much to be done but to carry on. The idea of jumping on the train at this stage in the proceedings occurred, but was immediately rejected.

I crossed the Pont de l'Europe and after a few miles of cycle path along the road, it was back to the levée to Meung-sur-Loire

A field of poppies somewhere near to Meung-sur-Loire

View Orleans to Blois in a larger map]

Meung-sur-Loire - pronounced as though it were written 'Min-sur-Loire' - is a pleasant little place, so I stopped for a while.

Le Château de Meung-sur-Loire

I had a look at the castle,

Église Saint-Liphard de Meung-sur-Loire

the church or collégiale,

The 'Porte d'Amont' the clock on which has 61 minutes marked on its face.

and the town gates.

The next village after Meung was Beaugency, another of the towns liberated from the English by Jeanne d'Arc.

The remains of the Château de Beaugency

notable for its Mousterian (i.e. Neanderthal) remains and for the remnants of its eminent medieval past. It has a bridge dating from the eleventh century, though numerous disasters, floods, wars and the like, and subsequent repairs and restorations have hidden the original character of the construction.

The 'Pont de Beaugency'
The clock tower in the rue du Changé, Beaugency

After Beaugency, the scenery was ruined by yet another nuclear power-station at Saint-Laurent-des-Eaux. Again, it was a question of getting past and beyond it as quickly as possible.

After a lunch stop at the artificial lake near Suèvres called Le Domino I kept up a reasonable pace along the levée all the way to Blois even though the heat around 2.00 pm was pretty exhausting.

View Orleans to Blois in a larger map]

As I arrived at my destination at around 3.30 a digital thermometer outside a chemists registered 38 degrees Celsius. I made straight for my hotel, the inappropriately named La Renaissance. A shower and a nap and I was ready for a look around.

General view of Blois from the left bank of the Loire

Blois is a pretty town with a royal castle slap bang in the middle of it. At least this impressive pile can use the termRenaissance of itself without inviting derisive sniggers, though it is a collection of buildings of various architectural styles from medieval Gothic through Renaissance to Classical.

Le Château de Blois


Le Château de Blois from the other side.

The Eglise Saint-Nicolas has a choir and transept dating from the twelfth century and towers from the thirteenth.

Eglise Saint-Nicolas, Blois, from the Place du Château.
The facade of the Eglise Saint-Nicolas

The Cathédrale Saint-Louis has been rebuilt numerous times - notably in the twelfth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries over the original Carolingian crypt. The present building is late Gothic.

The 'Cathédrale Saint-Louis', Blois.

After a tour of the sights, I had dinner on the Place Louis XII and then spent a hot night at the Hôtel La Renaissanceplagued by the most alarming noises from the plumbing.

Day 11: From Blois to Tours. Another day of high temperatures, two notable 'châteaux' and a lot of winding through the countryside.

I left La Renaissance at about 9.00 and the day was already hot. I crossed the Loire at the Pont Jacques Gabriel and made straight off down the bank of the river. I was forced to return after a few minutes when I realised that I needed to buy water. I set off again carrying three litres of the stuff and already thirsty.
The cycle-track didn't stick to the levée because this was occupied by a busy road. It ran parallel to the road for a while and then snaked off through the countryside on small roads, passing through the village of Chailles, then Candé-sur-Beuvron, before coming back to the river just upstream from Chaumont.

Approaching Chaumont

I was now in the heart of the real château country, but I'd decided that I'd only take a look at those châteaux that were easily accessible from the cycle-track, so the big names would have to wait for another occasion.

The Château de Chaumont.

Still, Chaumont is quite a big name and easily visible from the river bank.

View Blois to Tours in a larger map]

Then it was back to the small roads through Rilly-sur-Loire, Chargé and Le Clos du Saule before arriving by a circuitous route in Amboise. This detour enabled me to get a look at the Manoir du Clos-Lucé, the house occupied by Leonardo da Vinci during his time in Amboise.

Le Manoir de Clos-Lucé




The view from the Pont du Maréchal Leclerc with Amboise and its Château in the background


The Château d'Amboise

From Amboise, I decided to follow the D751 rather than sticking to the cycle-track that shot off into the countryside at regular intervals following small lanes. I was suffering pretty badly with my piles and the climbs that had to be tackled as soon as one left the river bank were a bit of a trial as was the searing temperature and the road seemed to be the easiest option. Fortunately, it was Sunday and the lorries were not a problem.

View Blois to Tours in a larger map]

I followed the D751 as far as Montlouis-sur-Loire, shortly after which I got back on the cycle-track since it now ran parallel to the road. And that was how I arrived in Tours.

The part of the city on the left bank around the end of the Pont Wilson was closed to traffic because of an antique car rally. I joined the crowds of onlookers for a while, admiring the old cars

Antique cars on the Pont Wilson


More antiques



I watched the parade of old sports cars

Old sports cars.

and then went off to find a hotel. As it happened, I was very lucky and probably got one of the last rooms in town. Every hotel was full because of the antique car festival, but somehow, the Hôtel Colbert in the rue Colbert happened to have one room left. I took it without hesitation and, after the obligatory shower went to have a look at the rest of the town.

Tours is totally clogged with traffic and every little island of old buildings is surrounded by huge roads with volleys of traffic hurtling along them. Not much remains of the old town.
I took a look at the cathedral, a fine Gothic pile built between 1170 and 1547,

Cathédrale Saint-Gatien de Tours

and the château, a fairly undistinguished building that once housed an aquarium and now accommodates a number of collections of twentieth century art.

The Château de Tours.

Hunger soon drove me to find a restaurant. I had dinner in a fairly indifferent Italian establishment in the Place Foire le Roi, argued with the waiter for a while about the bill and then gratefully went straight to bed.

Day 12: From Tours to Saumur. This was the last day of my ride and also the longest, hottest and most painful, but also the most interesting.

Getting out of Tours is, as Higginson notes, a bit of a chore. I left the Hôtel Colbert a little over-full of coffee and croissantsand not before I'd dealt with the puncture that the bike had apparently suffered during the night. Actually, I found no puncture at all, and the tyre, once blown up, remained that way, leading me to suspect that some wag had let the air out.

Once I'd found the cycle track out of town, I met up with another cyclist who insisted on riding with me and offered me hot green mint tea. When I pulled a skeptical face he launched into a long tirade about the ruinous effects of cold water on the body in hot weather. Apparently, according to this chap, drinking large quantities of water in hot weather makes one sweat more and makes the kidneys work overtime. The more you drink, the more you want to drink and the whole thing degenerates into a vicious circle of dangerous sweatiness, over-consumption of water and kidney-damage. Hot green mint tea, on the other hand, satisfies the thirst more rapidly, has a beneficial astringent effect, and hydrates without causing sweating. The result is that one drinks less and retains the water more.

That was the substance of his long sermon. So I accepted the tea gratefully. It seemed to work, though he was sweating far more than I was.

View Tours to Saumur in a larger map]

We reached the Chateau de Villandry after an hour or so and I left my companion who was dripping with perspiration. He accused me, to my considerable surprise, of having pushed him too hard. It was only when I had left him that I began to notice the heat, partly because the trees thinned out and the shade disappeared, and partly because I was making a bit more effort.

The Château de Villandry seen from the cycle track along the 'levée'

I took a quick look at the Château de Villandry, but it was impossible to get a decent view of it since it's surrounded by a thick wall of trees on all sides. The picture below is taken from inside the grounds. The Château was the last of the greatRenaissance piles to be built along the Loire.

The Château de Villandry

From Villandry, the cycle track follows the D16 which runs along the levée through Bréhemont -

The Loire at Bréhemont

where I took a mint tea - as far as Rigny-Ussé, the location of my favourite Loire château, the very romantic Château d'Ussé owned by the comically named Count of Blacas.

The Château d'Ussé

From Rigny-Ussé the cycle track follows the D7 as far as Candes-Saint-Martin and then skirts around yet another monstrous nuclear power station, the Centrale Nucléaire de Chinon. It was here that the heat began to get to me quite seriously. The road around the plant was another of those shadeless new constructions that appear to run through a desert without trees or human habitation and pervaded by an ominous low rumbling sound. By the time I got past the vile place, I was feeling distinctly queasy and had to stop under a tree to lie down for a while.

View Tours to Saumur in a larger map]

I was drinking so much water that I ran out in an area where there were no shops. I was reduced to begging a drink at a house in Savigny-en-Véron and the heat at my lunch stop in the shade of a tree here was so intense that it was a relief to get back on the bike and back in some moving air.

At Montsoreau, I stopped at a breezy café with a view on the château and drank another green mint tea.

The Château de Montsoreau from the river bank

The château is another notable Resaissance pile, but it was made famous by Alexandre Dumas's novel La Dame de Montsoreau.

The Château de Montsoreau seen from the café terrace.

After Montsoreau the cycle track leaves the roads and takes a number of annoying detours through the countryside and out-of-the-way places. But at least in following this, I got to see the famous troglodyte village at Souzay-Champigny. The cycle track runs right through the middle of it.

Inside the troglodyte village
Troglodyte village

After the troglodytes, all that was left of my trip was a quick dash down the trail to Saumur where I arrived at around 4.30. The sense of relief was immense, but only because it meant an end to the torments from back, backside and all the rest. If it hadn't been for these annoyances, I would have been quite ready to carry on. As it was, I was happy to end what had been the longest, hottest and most uncomfortable day of the whole trip, but also probably the most interesting and rewarding.

Saumur from the Pont Cessart.

I found a hotel in a back street - l'hôtel Volney in the rue Volney (see: - showered and then set off for a look around town and a meal.

The Château de Saumur
A street in Saumur
The Hôtel de Ville, Saumur

I had a first rate dinner in a simple crèperie on the riverside. Then it was off to bed. It was so hot in the room, that I had to get up three times in the night to take a cold shower and go back to bed dripping wet. The night was made more difficult by the raucous singing and laughing of a gang of drunks just across the courtyard and crowds of revellers yelling and fighting in the street. Had I been facing another long ride the following day, I might have been a little peeved, but I wasn't. That was a great relief

Day 14: Le Puy-en-Velay. A bike-free day spent catching up on the sights of Le Puy-en-Velay, an odd little place dripping with religiosity.

Day 13 doesn't figure in this blog because it was a long, slow and tedious train-journey with five changes lasting the whole day. This journey was inevitable since I had to get back to my car in the Auvergne and there was no quicker way to do it since the TGV that could have shortened the day by half didn't take bikes.

Day 14 was a day spent visiting the town of Le Puy-en-Velay after a second night spent in Madame Caro's B&B. The poor lady had to wait up for me since my train arrived at 11.30 in the evening. She opened the door to me looking bleary-eyed and snapped, "where are you coming from at this hour?" She seemed to have forgotten both that we had agreed on my late arrival and that I had had to get the train back from my final destination at Saumur. The following morning, after breakfast, I think she was heartily glad to see the back of me, since we repeated the comedy of lugging the bike up from her cellar and since she was still fussing about my back, she felt obliged to help.

Le Puy-en-Velay is well worth a visit.

The old town has a peculiar quality for anyone nor accustomed to seeing buildings constructed from black basalt. Even the streets are cobbled with the stuff.

A street in Le Puy-en-Velay

The arches are built out of it.

A street in Le Puy-en-Velay

And so is everything else.

A street in Le Puy-en-Velay

I took a look at the cathedral, which is notable as one of the most significant works of Romanesque art in Europe.

The façade of the cathedral Notre-Dame of Le Puy-en-Velay
The façade seen from the rue des Tables

It's approached by a grand staircase that emerges in the middle of the nave.

Looking down the grand staircase of the cathedral.
The cathedral of Le Puy-en-Velay

It's entirely built of volcanic stone of various colours and shows a wide variety of influences including Byzantine and Islamic. The cathedral dates from the eleventh century, but was so delapidated in the nineteenth century that Viollet-le-Duc virtually demolished and rebuilt it, so extensive was his restoration. But then he had very definite ideas as to what constitutes restoration and boundless confidence concerning his own judgement.

The interior of the cathedral of Le Puy showing its Byzantine influences

The church has a number of so-called 'black Madonnas', one behind the main altar

The Black Madonne of Le Puy

and another in a side chapel.

Another black Madonna in a side chapel

Theories about the origin of black Madonnas abound and range from speculations about a christianization of the Egyptian goddess Isis, holding the baby Horus (a common image in ancient Egypt) to flat-headed rationalistic explanations involving the effects of wax- and incense smoke on the colour of wood.

The cloister is more or less intact, though many of the Romanesque capitals on the columns are faithful

One of the few original Romanesque capitals on the cloister columns

reproductions of the originals. It resembles in many respects the architecture of the cathedral (once grand mosque) of Cordoba.

The Romanesque cloister of the Cathedral

Thanks to the efforts of Prosper Mérimé a number of works of art were discovered and saved from destruction, including the almost Byzantine painting of the fresco in the salle capitulaire below.

The very Byzantine fresco in the 'Capitolarium'

The east and west sides of the cloister are quite distinct.

The East side of the cloister

At the end of the western side of the cloister is a magnificent medieval wrought-iron gate.

The medieval wrought-iron gate at the end of the western cloister.

The frieze running around the roof of the cloister has a wealth of carving, some humorous, some scurrilous.

Frieze sculpture around the roof of the cloister

The one above, for example, shows the Devil having his tail yanked by a mischievous dog.

The most intriguing site in Le Puy-en-Velay for me, however, was the church of Saint Michel in the suburb of Aiguilhe.

Built on top of a volcanic plug, from the distance it appears to be no more than an excrescence from this rocky outcrop.

Saint-Michel-d'Aiguilhe seen from the distance.

But closer up, its architectural features become apparent.

A closer view of Saint-Michel-d'Aiguile.

And closer still, even more so.

A closer view of Saint-Michel-d'Aiguilhe.

I walked to Aiguilhe while waiting for the cloister to open at the cathedral, but in the end I found this little chapel on top of its pinnacle more interesting than the cloister.

I paid my 2€ 50 and climbed the 268 steps to the chapel. The volcanic plug upon which it stands once held a prehistoric dolmen which is now incorporated into the church, as are the remains of a Roman temple dedicated to Mercury. Apart from the increasingly dramatic view of the town, the first thing that strikes you on reaching the summit is the doorway.

The entrance to Saint-Michel-d'Aiguilhe.

The multifoil arches and the vegetal tracery within them recall the Islamic architecture of Omayyad Cordova, influence from which spread along the pilgrim routes of Saint-Jacques de Compostelle, particularly along the Via Podiensis that begins in Le Puy-en-Velay and still attracts thousands of pilgrims every year to this day. Above the arch are representations of Saint John, the Virgin Mary, Christ, the archangel Saint Michael and Saint Peter.

The interior is no less striking. Cut out of the rock,

The steps up into the chapel of Saint-Michel-d'Aiguilhe

it resembles a cavern with stalactites meeting stalagmites more than a church.

The interior of Saint-Michel-d'Aiguilhe.

Medieval paintwork from the tenth century still survives around the altar.

The altar in the chapel.

And the ceiling has a striking design from the same period featuring the four evangelists surrounding the very eastern motif of Christ in glory.

The painted ceiling of Saint-Michel-d'Aiguilhe

The whole site is surrounded by reminders of the medieval piety in which this town is soaked.

At the foot of the pinnacle is the Chapelle Saint-Clair a little octagonal building dating from the seventeenth century.

The Chapelle Saint-Clair, Aiguilhe.
The interior of the Chapelle Saint-Clair.

The information plaques one comes across everywhere stress the volcanic nature of the landscape and there is as much detail on the geology of the area as there is on the religious history.

The Chapelle Saint-Michel appears to be a continuation of the volcanic ejection and the only difference between the stone of the pinnacle and that of the church is that the latter was put there by human hands rather than by the so-called 'blind' forces of nature. Whether such a distinction is in any way valid is a matter for debate. For me, the little chapel of volcanic rock on top of its volcanic spike stressed the complete continuity between the forces that have shaped the planet and those that have shaped human culture. I am unable to identify any hiatus between the two material processes.

I bought a few souvenirs of Le Puy including a bag of the local lentils, a bag of verveine and a piece of nineteenth century lace form the lady below, the last real producer of the genuine article in a town where lace production was once a major industry.

The lace-maker of Le Puy - the only one left to ply this traditional trade.

After this bit of shopping, I collected my bike and set off for the Place Michelet. I had arranged to meet a certain Monsieur Gardès here who, Madame Rippert from La Bigue had assured me, would transport me and my bike most of the way back to her B&B. My telephone conversation with him hadn't inspired me with confidence, since he had grumbled about the strangeness of my request and seemed to doubt whether the bike would fit into his vehicle. It turned out, however, that he was a charming chap who ran a minibus service between Le Puy and Le Béage twice a week. (Tel: 04 75 38 83 67)

He had thoughtfully removed two seats from his minibus specially to cater for my needs and the bike went in with ease, so that was that. We waited a little while for his passengers to arrive - all from the country and in the town for shopping - and then we left. He entertained me and the old ladies travelling with us during the hour-long journey to La Bigue with tales of his ancestors, all of whom had run a transport service from Le Béage to Le Puy in previous centuries, a journey that, before the internal combustion engine had taken three complete days and sometimes more in winter.

Monsieur Gardès, the minibus driver.

We arrived in Le Béage in a thick mist and a horizontal drizzle. Monsieur Gardès went out of his way to take me as close to my destination as possible without driving me the whole way there.

I rode the last few (downhill) kilometres and arrived back at La Bigue a little damp, but relieved that I hadn't had to do the first day's ride in reverse. The large, over-friendly dog was there to greet me but got rather short shrift. I somehow think I wouldn't have survived the climbs, the wind and the driving rain, since the fatigue that had built up over two weeks and that had been kept at bay by the determination to finish the trip, was beginning to make itself felt.