That’s what journalist Adam Wakelin said after he experienced our tour “Fine Chateaux of the Loire”.
“I’d never booked a holiday before that brought my wife to her knees. This one did, before we had even left the house.
‘Stand still!’ Babita ordered, trying to thread the tape-measure up my thigh as I jiggled about like a small boy with a full bladder. ‘I can’t. You’re tickling me!’ I laughed. ‘What’s this for, anyway?’
‘The travel company need our inside-leg measurements so they can make sure our bicycles are the right size,’ she explained.
They also wanted to know we were fit enough for a 121-mile cycle ride through France. Fortunately, that didn’t require the divulging of any more vital statistics. If they had, the answer may well have been a hoot of derision. In my case, anyway.
This was to be our first biking holiday and it wasn’t booked without a little trepidation. The exploits of our Olympians had inspired us to saddle up for a tour of the Loire Valley’s fine chateaux. But my wife was no Victoria Pendleton and, aside from a fondness for Paul Weller and the fags, I was certainly no Bradley Wiggins.
We would begin in Blois, a lovely little place on the banks of the Loire, and finish four days later in the city of Tours. Our route was a medium-difficult Level 2 – suitable for those with ‘some cycling experience and a reasonable level of physical fitness’. That sounded like us, but you never know, do you? Maybe our definition of ‘reasonably fit’ wasn’t theirs.
France looked picture-postcard pretty as our Ryanair flight from Manchester descended into Tours. But I wasn’t bothered about that. I was too busy trying to spot potentially troublesome hills. We needn’t have worried. The Loire Valley’s not quite pancake-flat, but it doesn’t hold any horrors. The only thing that really took our breath away was the view.
A carefully thought out itinerary kept us mostly on gently winding cycle paths through vineyards, forests, villages and sunflower fields of loveliness. Our luggage went on ahead, courtesy of impeccably efficient travel reps who picked it up at 9am.
Our first day of cycling was a 34-mile loop around Blois that took in the Chateau de Chambord. King Francis I began Chambord as a hunting lodge in 1519. His successors extended, embellished, twiddled, teased, turreted, dormered and domed it into palatial magnificence. It is by common consent the most spectacular of the Loire’s many chateaux.
The interior, aside from its remarkable double-helix spiral staircase, is slightly more low-key than you might expect. The grounds, though, are beautiful. Apparently, Francis I spent only 72 days here. Lucky man, if he had somewhere better to be.
It was a sweltering late summer day and we decided to eat the picnic, prepared for us by our hotel, in the chateau’s gardens. My wife’s herring salad had leaked out of its tupperware on to everything in my pannier. The smell must have got back to Blois a good hour before we did. We took a few wrong turns on the way. The scenery and maps always seemed slightly out of sync, like the words and action in a spaghetti Western.
Some of the instructions seemed to gain a layer of idiosyncrasy in translation. I should, perhaps, have paid closer attention to Chloe, the lovely travel company woman who visited our first hotel in Blois to deliver our bikes, panniers, puncture-repair kits and enough maps to fill the travel section in Waterstone’s.
‘You are sure you know where you are going?’ said Chloe, seeking a final reassurance as she climbed into her car. ‘Oh yes,’ I said, eager to get sightseeing. ‘Are you sure?’ whispered my wife. ‘Definitely,’ I lied.
Like Bonnie Tyler, we were often lost in France. Unlike her song, it didn’t make you want to weep. If anything, it added to the adventure. We were never too far off track, the locals were mercifully free of the disdainful shoulder-shrugging you get in Paris, and the Loire Valley is a smashing place to lose yourself in.
Day two, another scorcher, saw us ride through the Foret de Blois before following the river to the Chateau de Chaumont and then the town of Amboise. My wife, perhaps feeling the effects of the heat or the herring, was a little poorly, but I was in fine fettle. You can almost feel your cares falling away and your brain easing down a gear as you pedal through lethargic little villages, tranquil vineyards and cornfields with the sun on your back.
We didn’t go inside the chateau in Chaumont, preferring to spend a couple of hours marvelling at its Festival of International Gardens in the grounds. Billed as ‘Gardens of delight, gardens of delirium’, the pleasantly potty plots featured everything from a battalion of gilded gnomes, apparently inspired by the Arab Spring, to a pastry-themed dis- play with girl hiding inside a giant pie so she didn’t have to be a nun. It was wonderful.
Our next hotel, the Domaine de l’Arbrelle, was pleasantly situated at the edge of a forest on the outskirts of Amboise. It was also up a steepish hill. My still poorly wife pulled a stricken face. ‘It’s not up there, is it?’ she said, harbouring a forlorn hope I’d gone wrong again with the maps.
The hotel’s outdoor pool made the climb worth the effort. Being able to have a dip was heavenly after a long day in a hot saddle. On a similarly spiritual plane was the food. The Loire is rightly lauded for its cuisine, but our four courses at the hotel were extra special. All were washed down with a splendid bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. We ended the evening on the little patio outside our room drowsily looking up at the stars. I’ve had worse days.
Day three brought another loop, taking in the forest of Amboise, the lake Grand Etang de Jumeaux and the Chateau of Chenonceau. The chateau, elegantly perched on the River Cher, looked to Babita as if it had sprung straight from a book of fairy tales. It reminded me, sweeter in tooth than disposition, of the place where the Milk Tray Man delivered his chocolates.
On a more modest scale than the sprawling Chateau de Chambord, this romantic pleasure palace was easier to get a handle on and enjoy. Mary Queen of Scots, promised in marriage to the future Francis II, lived there for a while.
Her Scottish guards took it upon themselves to graffiti on the chapel’s walls. You can still read ‘Man’s anger does not accomplish God’s justice’ and ‘Do not let yourself be won over by evil’.
Louise of Lorraine’s bedroom, which she decorated entirely in black and adorned with symbols of death after her husband King Henri III was assassinated, is a teen-age goth girl’s delight. Louise hardly left that room. My Twilight Saga-loving missus made a beeline for it. ‘Will you do this for me if I go first?’ she asked, all misty-eyed and mourn-ful. Not likely. ‘Of course I will, dear,’ I said.
Amboise, like Blois, was nice. We gravitated to the cobbled, higgledy piggledy, half-timbered olde-worlde bits, but our sightseeing was, to be honest, whistlestop. After a day on a bike, what you really want to do is park your derriere on a chair outside a cafe and have a beer or two and a meal.
The last leg of our journey, 19 miles along the River Loire to Tours, was a doddle. Tours, known as the ‘Garden of France’ thanks to its many parks, has all the elan you might expect from a French city.
After a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon cycling its grand, tree-lined boulevards and twisty-turny medieval district, we headed down to the banks of the Loire. The sun, as bright and smiley as a children’s TV presenter, was beginning to set on our holiday.
I sat sipping a beer as my wife played backgammon with a lovely old Syrian guy we’d got talking to. He let her win. ‘It’s great here, isn’t it?’ she said. Yes it is, and there’s no better way to see it than by bike.
If you’re thinking about a cycling holiday, don’t. Just book it. If we can do it, anyone can.”
This article appeared in the Mail on Sunday 27th January 2013, you can read the full version here.
Travel Facts : Freewheel Holidays (0116 255 8417, www.freewheelholidays.co.uk) offers a five-night self-guided holiday from Blois to Tours, including accommodation, bike hire, maps and airport transfers, from £699 pp. Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) offers flights to Tours from Stansted and Manchester. One-way fares start at £28. Rail Europe (0844 848 4070, www.raileurope.co.uk) offers return rail fares via Paris on Eurostar and TGV from £89.