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Cycling the Loire Valley

After our fourth child left for college three years ago and Barb and I became empty nesters, we decided to pursue our passion for travel and adventure.

We both had traveled in Europe and thought a cycling vacation there would be a wonderful way to combine exercise, adventure and culture. Our first cycling trip was in the Netherlands through the provinces of north and south Holland on a "bike and barge" tour. We cycled along dikes and bike paths dotted with windmills and dairy farms during the day, then slept on our boat at night. Emboldened by our initial foray, the next year we cycled from Vienna to Prague through the Czech Republic, a more challenging route. The cities of Vienna and Prague are European jewels of architecture, art and music.

The two countries were ruled by the Hapsburg dynasty for 600 years and we cycled through history via rolling hills, vineyards and castles. The people and beer were both wonderful. One especially sobering sight was a remnant of the infamous iron curtain: a stretch of barbed wire with machine gun guard towers overlooking a barren, open field.

Cycling in Europe is a lifestyle and we adopted it with unbridled enthusiasm.

Last September, Barb and I set off with our good friends Bryon and Sheryl Van Fleet of Klamath Falls on a bike trip through the Loire Valley in north-central France. The terrain is very flat, and so it's conducive to spouses/partners/friends who are recreational riders, and who love traveling and adventure.

We cycled from Blois to Angers, roughly 325 kilometers, covering about 50 kilometers a day, which gave us lots of time to explore and enjoy the spectacular chateaux. Remember when you were a kid and went to Disneyland? It was just like that; I felt like a 12-year-old, tingling with excitement, when I set eyes upon the castle of Chambord, our first stop on our Loire a Velo, a journey through a land of enchantment.

We took in the sound and light show at the chateau in Blois, which was narrated in French, but which was visually stunning. The next day we started our odyssey, riding through a (former) royal forest. When we emerged from the trees we burst upon Chambord, a fantasy castle right out of a fairy tale.

We parked our bikes and spent the rest of the day exploring the rooms, chambers, alcoves, turrets, chapels, stairways and ramparts. The castle boasts more than 400 rooms, but only 70 or so are open to the public. Richly woven tapestries line the walls and an ingenious spiral stone staircase winds upward to the towers (designed by Leonardo Da Vinci so that the queen would not see the king's mistress ascending to his chamber as the queen descended to hers).

Our bikes were French-made upright hybrids with 24 gears. They were perfect for the terrain, though we did not have adequate tire-repair necessities. Next time we're bringing our own flat/repair kit. C'est la vie.

On most mornings we departed around 9 a.m. after a typical French breakfast of coffee, croissant, butter, jam and juice. On our way out of town, we'd stop at a local market or boulangerie (bakery) and procure fresh bread, yogurt, cheese, nuts, chocolate and fruit for lunch. Every town had a boulangerie, and it was always a cultural experience to stroke into one and order the day's fare; the wonderful aroma was intoxicating. Whoever said "man cannot live by bread alone" never went to France.

Our route took us along the Loire and Cher rivers on paths especially designed for cycling in the Loire Valley. The paths — very well maintained and marked — are paved or made of packed dirt and meander through forests, meadows and along the river banks. On the weekends saw local pelotons decked out in their garish club colors. During the week we'd run into other cyclists from Europe and the States.

From Chambord we rode to Chenonceaux, an elegant chateau that spans the Cher River. Here, Henri II entertained his wife, Catherine de Medici, and cavorted with his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. Centuries later, Louis XIV, the Sun King, held court. Sixteenth century Flemish tapestries adorn the walls and Italian renaissance armoires grace the bedrooms; it is flamboyant and magnificent.

We'd typically arrive at each day's destination around 5 p.m., where we would spend the evening strolling along the place (town square) or sitting in outdoor cafes and people-watching (a highly developed art form in France). Then we'd ask locals for a restaurant recommendation. We always had a sumptuous repast with a bottle of the regional wine, and we were always the only American patrons.

Our modest French endeared us to the locals and our pronunciation brought smiles to their faces. However, the language barrier is not without its mishaps. On one occasion after perusing the menu, I ordered in my fluent French what I thought was a plate of veal in white wine, only to discover to my chagrin and horror that I'd actually ordered calves' liver.

Every day was a new adventure in scenery, architecture and culture, and every evening was a culinary adventure. We'd experiment and try things we had no idea how to pronounce, much less what they were, but always loved our selections. Traveling expands the mind and the soul. The French people we met were friendly and helpful. As you may surmise, cycling is revered in France and this attitude is evident everywhere, from the fabulous cycling paths, lanes and routes to cyclist-only street lights, special parking areas for bikes, and accommodations for cyclists and their gear. It is a spiritually uplifting experience.

Halfway along our sojourn we had one of those experiences that make traveling so rewarding; it's where you discover some thing, place or experience that you never knew existed, and it is so incredible and exciting that you are enthralled and amazed. So it was that we happened upon the gardens at the chateau at Villandry and discovered acres and acres of exquisitely landscaped ornamental gardens featuring brilliant red, yellow and pink flowers arranged among sculpted green shrubs. It was a scene right out of Alice in Wonderland. Beyond these ornamental gardens were acres of vegetable gardens — in giant beds arranged by color — planted in geometric designs. It was visually overwhelming to gaze upon them from the castle tower, and it is a priceless gem of the Loire Valley.

We loved the trip so much Barb is taking French at the college and I'm researching self-guided cycling tours in Burgundy for fall 2008. We are on the brink of our sixth decade, and so we plan to smell as many roses as we can for as long as we can.

Barbara and Carlyle Stout have lived in Ashland for the last 28 years.

Carlyle and Barb Stout pause outside the south entrance to Chateau Chambord, “easily the most flamboyant and extravagant of all the chateaux in the Loire Valley,” Carlyle Stout says.