Paris to Nantes
30 June — 4 July 2007

thence to the English stage of the Tour de France and on to Hertfordshire, 8 - 15 July

maps: IGN bleu (Carte de Promenade) #20 (Paris-Orléans), #26 (Orléans-Tours), #25 (Angers-Chinon), #24 (Nantes-Châteaubriant);
Itinéraire Loire à vélo

I'd been invited to speak at the Institut Pasteur 29 June and the the University of Hertfordshire 15 July, so took advantage of the opportunity to get in some cycle touring.

I begin from Paris, cycling the Boulevard Pasteur to Rue Vercingétorix;, where I join Q. May's excellent route out of Paris via the Coulée Verte. (Note, however, that Rue Lucien Sergent in Massy has been renamed Rue Raymond. The old signs remain posted underneath the new, but I suppose that these may disappear eventually. Also, I was a bit confused by the instruction to "bear slightly right" at the hotel in Malakoff, since there is a path leading to the right around the hotel and under the railway. The proper direction seems to me straight ahead, not to the right.)

From Gometz I continue on the D988 to Limours, then on the D838 to Angervilliers, Saint Cyr, and Dourdan, the D5 to Corbreuse and Chatingonville, the D17 to Garancières-en-Beauce, the D118 to Vierville, Ardelu, Baudreville, Méronville, and Neuvy-en-Beauce, the D141 to Melleray and Oinville-Saint-Liphard, the D109 to Janville (which is a larger village with a few bakeries and small food shops), the D19 to Santilly-le-Vieux and Santilly, and the D355 to Dambron and Artenay. The wind across the plain blows fiercely, and directly against me. The French have taken advantage of it with a wind farm — another green source of electricity along with the nuclear generating stations that line the Loire, and the hydroelectric dams that I saw on my last French tour. In Artenay I stop for a couple of slices of pizza. I take one look at the N20, a fast road with no verge that covers the final twenty kilometres into Orléans, and decide that perhaps it may be wise to skip Orléans. Instead, I follow the D5 west to Sougy, then turn southwest to Lencôrme, Brilly, Coinces, and Chesne. On crossing the D955 the road becomes an unpaved track. (In wet weather this track is likely to be muddy, but can be bypassed via the D955 to the D3 in Saint Pérary-le-Colombe.) At a 'T' intersection with another track, I turn right to meet the D3, then left onto the D3 south through Saint Sigismond, Gémigny, and Rozières-en-Beauce. After a short distance on the N157 west (with the wind, for once!) the D3 resumes through Huiseau-sur-Mauve. Immediately after crossing over the A10 motorway, I turn right into Meung-sur-Loire, continuing through the village and across the N152 to the Loire-à-vélo route and my first sight of the Loire.

I stop in Beaugency and enquire at the Hôtel le Relais des Templiers, only to find that all the hotels are full. So I head across the bridge to the municipal Camping du Val de Flux on the south bank of the Loire. The tariff is only 4,65€, but in order to stay there I have to surrender my passport for the night and can't collect it till 8am when the office reopens — a shame since I prefer to get underway at sunrise. Nevertheless, it's a good campground with nice clean showers, for which I have ample need. (I retrospect, I could easily have snuck in without surrendering my passport, since the gate and the numbered spaces are only for cars and caravans.) I finish the day with a carafe of red wine at a café at the north end of the bridge.

I wake at sunrise to bursts of rain. The weather continues like this all morning. After an unsuccessful search for anything other than a boulangerie-patisserie that's open on a Sunday morning (it seems impossible to keep to a low-carbohydrate diet in France), I follow the Loire-à-vélo route through Tavers, Lestiou, Muides, across the bridge to the south bank again in Saint Dyé, Montlivault, Saint-Claude-de-Diray, Blois, Chailles, and Candé-sur-Beauvron. The Loire-à-vélo route is still under development, and there is a gap from here to Tours. From the D75 I turn inland, passing the Zen monastery La Gendronnière, and catching my first glimpse of vineyards at Valaire, then passing through La Pieuse to meet the D114 back down to the Loire at Chaumont. From there the D751 leads through Rilly, Moines, La Barré, and past several villages into Amboise and then Montlouis. I stay on the D751 at the first roundabout outside Tours, then at the next roundabout turn left onto the D141 through la Ville-aux-Dames and across the railway. There are some interesting technological sites along the route, including a nuclear generating station near Saint Dyé, a wine cellar with a display of tunnelling equipment near Montlouis, and a railway switching yard outside Tours. (I've always enjoyed systems of tunnels or railways or cycle routes; they give a sense of determinism and solace from an unpredictable world.)

La Gendronnière La Gendronnière

After traversing an industrial area where the terrain is open and the wind blows fiercely, I merge into the D140 which follows the north bank of the Cher. I cross the A10 again, then pass under a railway bridge, pass the N10 bridge, and then at the next bridge turn right (away from the bridge) onto rue Auguste Chevalier, where I stop for the night with my friend Marie and her partner Benjamin at their house on rue Stéphane Pétard. (There is an ATAC market near here — do not use it! If you enter with paniers or a backpack, a vindictive security guard will accuse you of stealing. Go to the Casino market instead.) I end the day with filet mignon and a bottle of Bourgeuil (produced just west of here) at a restaurant in the old city, catching up with Marie and Benjamin.

The entire next day is spent in Tours, off the bicycle. I walk through the public gardens, where there are many exotic plants, including sequoia trees from California. I spend a couple of hours at a café in front of the hôtel de ville, sheltering from stop-and-go rain under the broad-leafed trees that line the avenue, and writing down some thoughts about a project that I need to finish.

The Musée des Beaux-Arts holds many paintings that once were in the private collections of the region's châteaux. My favourite is Jean-Baptiste Santerre's La Géometrie, from a collection held by Jean Bouterone d'Aubigny at the château de Chanteloup, near Amboise, between 1708 and 1732. It portrays a young woman over open books and a partially drawn geometric figure, pen in one hand, head in the other, and the perplexity on her face says it all.

From the Musé'e des Beaux-Arts I head to the cathedral which neighbours it to the north. The organist is practising, and the vaulted space swells with sound so solid and palpable, so defiant of time, that even these halting practice pieces bring tears to the eye. I always feel an intruder in churches — I mistrust things that are bigger than I am, and I'm a bit nervous that I might find myself suddenly in the midst of some service or other.

I leave the cathedral and walk along the south bank of the Loire to the Université François-Rabelais. Like many universities in Europe, it isn't much to look at — a tired old building fulll of grey corridors — but at least it offers shelter from the day's on-again, off-again rain. From the university I walk south into the old city, then west to the Centre Hospitalier du Bretonneau where Marie has a laboratory in the pædiatric psychiatry centre. That evening we open a bottle of a Saint Nicolas-de-Bourgeuil from La Chevallerie, a winery owned by the brother of the centre's director. The strong, rich wine adds an excellent finish to my time in Tours.

The next morning I say goodbye and head into the rain, south across the bridge to join the Loire-à-vélo route. I pass through Savonnières, then stop at the Château de Villandry, where I encounter a group of Americans on an organised cycle tour. (They're discussing travelling in their support van because they don't like the weather — typical.) As much as the cathedral at Tours is a testament to humanity's will to submit to the dominion of something greater than itself, Villandry and its gardens are witness to humanity's will for its own dominion over nature.

From Villandry I continue to la Chapelle-aux-Naux, Bréhémont, and Rigny-Ussé, then join the D7 which skirts another nuclear generating station. Unfortunately the visitors centre is closed — apparently permanently. There is a lot to see even from behind the perimeter fence, though: the containments and the associated cranes for fuel loading are very close to the road.

The D7 merges briefly with the D749 north, along the west side of the station, then turns off west again at the Loire and crosses the Vienne into Candes-Saint-Martin. The Loire-à-vélo route continues to Turquant and Parnay and into Saumur where I stop at a café in the town centre and then head to the nearby Maison du Vin, right on my route, for a tasting of the mild Saumur red (Domaine de la Seigneurie des Tourelles) and the more biting Saumur Champigny (Domaine Lavigne). Technological sites of interest include a sewer works on the way towards Saumur.

sewer works

The route continues into Gennes and Saint-Rémy-la-Varenne, then crosses the bridge into Saint Mathurin and continues into la Daguenière. The wind here is fierce again, and I angle inland on the D952 into the city centre to try to gain some shielding from buildings.

After crossing the Maine I stop for the night at a municipal campground on the D111 in Bouchemaine — no one in the office when I arrive, and no one when I leave in the morning, so I just split.

In Rochefort I discover that I'm just a few days too early for the mussel festival, alas. I continue through Savennières and La Possonnière, under the arches railway bridge and then across to the south bank again on the D961, to Chalonnes, Montjean, Saint-Florent-le-Vieil and Marillais. Outside Liré there's another brief burst of rain, and I stop for a look at the monument to four resisters executed by the Nazis on a nearby island in the Loire.

Beyond Ancenis the Loire-à-vélo route isn't yet determined, so I continue along the south bank, joining the D751 just beyond Drain. Outside Champtoceaux the road winds uphill, and at the town centre I stop at a café. Whilst I'm eating the rain begins again. I check out the view down into the valley, and look over the ruins of a medieval fortress overlooking the river, then head south and east along the ridge on the D153 and the D553 before rejoining the D751 at la Varenne.

I cross on the D37 into Thouaré, then turn immediately left onto the Promenade de Nantes. The Promendade is dotted with wild plum trees, and I'm not the only one who likes the plums:

prunes slug
In the city, I turn north to follow the signs for the station. After checking into one of the inexpensive hotels on the north side of the station, I finish the day at another café, in front of a bowl of mussels and a carafe of muscadet.

Just to show that the French are as capable of big and goofy monuments as anyone else, here are some of the larger-than-life representations that I encountered along the route — of course in France the gigantic things by the side of the road aren't balls of twine or dinosaurs or any of those pointless exercises. Instead, they're all about wine:

grands raisins près de Tours grand baril près de Candes-Saint-Martin grande bouteille près de Turquant

Back in London, I arrived at the Mall just in time to catch the start of the Tour de France (though not in time to extract my camera to snap a photograph of the riders, unfortunately). Then I headed north to the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield. On the way back, I stopped to snap a few photographs of the house in Barnet Gate that my mum grew up in, the neighbourhood round it, and the field in back where one can still find the crater made by a V-1.