For the past two summers, Mike Wells has been cycling up and down the Loire Valley in central France researching his new guide to the Loire cycle route. Here he recaps some of the challenges he had to overcome and the surprising things he encountered.
My knowledge of French is passable, in that I can hold a hesitant conversation in the language. This would surprise Keith Hasnip, who tried to teach me French at school in the 1960s and who put me down as a language failure. However, during the summers of 2015 and 2016 I learnt two new French nouns to add to my lexicon: la canicule (‘heatwave’) and l’inondation (‘flood’). Two trips by bicycle down the Loire in completely different circumstances gave meaning to these words.
Heatwave in 2015
A strong anticyclone settled over western Europe between late June and early August. Fuelled by hot air moving north from the Sahara, this area of high pressure brought record temperatures to many areas, including central France. Daytime temperatures in the shade first exceeded 40°C on 30 June, and then continued around that level for two weeks. Meanwhile overnight minimum temperatures generally stayed above 20°C, meaning hot, sultry nights. Official French government records show 3300 deaths caused by this extreme heat. Very little rain fell, and the level of water in many French rivers dropped dramatically. This was particularly noticeable on the Loire, which for most of its length is classified as a fleuve sauvage (‘wild river’), with very little hydrological infrastructure (dams, cuts, polders) to maintain river levels.
One word featured on every newspaper headline and opened the TV news every evening for a fortnight: la canicule.
Cycling in relentless heat became a daily challenge. I tried to get away early every morning. There are very few youth hostels in the Loire valley, and as I mostly stayed in guest houses, local inns, or the small hotels which in many places double as the village café, it was generally easy to have breakfast at 0630 and be away before 0700. I’d cycle until about 1230, then ideally a light lunch would be washed down with a glass of pression (draught beer) and a copious amount of water to rehydrate me, followed by leisurely relaxation in a shady place during the hottest part of the day. I’d set off again about 1500, cycle until 1800 and then find a place to stay. Then I’d make for a cold shower, to bring my body temperature down and wash off the dust of the day.
Food and drink along the Loire
If there was one thing that drove me on at the end of a long hot day, it was the thought a nice al fresco dinner, accompanied by local wine, eaten at an outdoor restaurant table. I like to research local food and drink, and include recommendations in my guidebooks. In this respect, France is both challenging and rewarding: challenging because of the way the French eat a three-course prix fixée (set-price) meal at lunchtime – when I want just a snack – and because of the sheer variety of dishes I want to try in the evening; rewarding because of the quality of food offered in every class of restaurant, and for the variety of wine available. Beer is another matter: I don’t find mass-produced French lager particularly appealing, but even here the growth of artisanal microbreweries and the widespread availability of bière blanche (wheat beer) has improved the lot of the beer drinker in France in recent years. The Loire cycle route passes through some of France’s most well-known appellations (premier wine growing districts). Dry, often crisp white wines are produced in both the eastern and western parts of the Loire valley, with Sauvignon Blanc in the villages of Pouilly and Sancerre, in the east, and Muscadet in the far west, around Ancenis and Nantes. In between a mixture of less dry whites (with the better ones often having an almost Germanic-tasting honeyness) and light reds are produced. Vouvray, between Amboise and Tours, is a medium–dry white wine from Chenin Blanc grapes, while Chinon in the Touraine near Tours makes soft, easy-drinking reds. Saumur also produces medium dry whites, but is also known for Crémant de la Loire, a méthode champenoise sparkling wine produced when acid levels in the grapes are too high to produce conventional Saumur. Anjou is famous for pink rosé, both still and sparkling.
The cliffs bounding the river are chalk and tufa conglomerate limestone, and have in many places been quarried to provide building stone. Many of the caves left by this quarrying have been turned into accommodation: at Souzay-Champigny there is an entire troglodyte village, with an underground main street used by the cycle route. Some caves have been converted into mushroom farms (the Loire valley produces most of the cultivated mushrooms served in Parisien markets and restaurants), while others in wine producing areas have been adapted for use as wine cellars. A late afternoon break on a hot day is an ideal time to sample a small glass of cold dry white or sparkling wine in a cool cellar cut into the hillside.
Floods in 2016
During the hot summer of 2015 the Loire was a mere trickle, a narrow course winding between large sandbanks and seasonal islands, many inhabited by large numbers of migratory birds. When I went back in June 2016 the scene had been transformed, for another meteorological phenomenon had arrived: la grande inondation (‘the great flood’). The river now lapped right up to and sometimes over its protective flood dykes, with all sandbanks and mid-stream islands submerged beneath several metres of water. On the evening of Saturday 28 May, heavy rain began falling across the hills of central France, particularly in northern Burgundy (where the Seine rises), and in the Bourbonnais, around the sources of many left-bank tributaries of the Loire. The rain continued falling for several days, in almost biblical proportions. We had set off from the source on the previous day and caught the edge of the storm as we cycled from Le Puy-en-Velay to Feurs on the Sunday. We got a little wet, but were not otherwise inconvenienced. That night the TV news showed pictures of flooding on the upper Seine around Montargis. By the following day, with rain still falling in Burgundy, the news was dominated by predictions of what would happen when this high water reached Paris.
The rising level of the Seine in Paris dominated the news for the next three days. Metro lines were closed and riverside boulevards evacuated. But we heard no news of what the deluge had done to the level of the Loire, even though the hills that held the headwaters of the Seine were also the source of a number of Loire tributaries. The upper Loire, which we were following, was not affected. The source of the Loire is in the Cevennes mountains, which had missed the worst of the storm, and a series of small hydro-electric dams – and a big dam at Villerest above Roanne, opened in 1984 to regulate the flow of cooling water to four nuclear power stations beside the river – kept water levels steady. We continued for two days, unaware of what was happening to the river ahead, until we reached Bourbon-Lancy, where the first tributary flowing from the Burgundy hills meets the Loire. Here a shallow seasonal ford over the river Somme, which had been dry when I crossed it the year before, was a raging torrent over 25m wide. We tried to wade across, pushing our bikes, but soon abandoned this as the water became deeper and the flow strong enough to push us off our feet. I consulted my map and we set off on a detour to cross the river by a bridge several kilometres downstream.
This was a foretaste of what was to come. While the Loire was generally well constrained behind sturdy flood dykes, every tributary from here on was in full flood, overflowing into riverside meadows and fields for several kilometres both upstream and downstream from its confluence. The problem seemed to be that these secondary rivers were not protected by flood dykes. There were frequent diversions to avoid flooded roads and tracks, usually heralded by a yellow warning sign: ‘Route Barrée, Inondation’. At Decize the Aron was bringing huge trees down to the Loire, while at Le Bec d’Allier, near Nevers, the confluence of the Loire with the Allier, its most important tributary, had become a huge lake covering the riverside flood meadows. For the next week, for over 500kms downriver almost to Nantes, we encountered considerable flooding. Some sections of shallow water could be cycled through, while deeper floods required long diversions. On the Île de Challones, near Montjean-sur-Loire, we cycled for 10km through shallow water only to reach an impassable section which forced us to backtrack the whole way.
Châteaux of the Loire
The Loire is known to the French as the Royal River, thanks to the Loire Valley’s long association with the kings of France. Between the 15th and 17th centuries successive monarchs developed a series of ever more spectacular châteaux along the valley. Blois and Amboise were great palaces where the royal court resided to escape political turmoil in Paris; Chambord was a glorious hunting lodge, from where the king would spend long days hunting in the forests of the Sologne; Chaumont was a home first for the mistress and later the widow of Henri II. The preference of the royal family for life along the Loire stimulated other members of the court to build their own châteaux in the area, and today over 50 châteaux beside the Loire and its close tributaries are recognised as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Although most of these were sequestered, damaged and looted during the French Revolution, 20th-century restoration has breathed new life into them and many have become popular tourist attractions.
Many of these châteaux were affected by the floods. When building his great castle at Chambord, François I wanted his Italian architects (who included Leonardo da Vinci) to divert the Loire to form a moat around the castle. When this proved impossible he settled for having the river Beuron diverted into the moat instead. When this flooded it cut off Chambord from its car parks and visitor centre, damaged part of the ground floor and closed the castle to visitors. I had planned to take the definitive Loire château picture, with the multi-turreted Chambord reflected in its moat with cyclists passing by, to appear on the cover of my guide, but this proved difficult because of the flooding. At Villandry, the last great Renaissance château built on the Loire (completed 1536) was remodelled and surrounded by four magnificent gardens in the 18th century. When I passed, the road past the castle was closed by flooding and parts of the lowest gardens were overrun by water: this attraction too was closed to visitors.
I should add that both the heatwave and the flooding were exceptional events.
In most years, the Loire route is a benign, bike-friendly trail that can easily be followed by cyclists of all ages. Take two or three weeks off this summer to ride it, and see why it is France’s most popular cycle route.