After spending a few days in Nantes as part of the Travel Bloggers Unite conference, it was time to stretch my legs and see some more of the surrounding area before I headed off to Paris to round-off my holiday. My journey started early, so early in fact that even after arriving at the Gare de Nantes I had plenty of time to watch the sun rising above the parked trains and empty platforms, whilst enjoying one last almond croissant from my favourite patisserie in Nantes. Whilst admiring the view and questioning just why I was awake at such an hour when I was meant to be on holiday, I happened across Gariné and Pedro sitting outside as our train pulled into the station, fellow bloggers from the conference who were going to be travelling with me over the next couple of days.
Before long our train was speeding off into the morning, through acres of misty French farmland, bound for Ingrandes sur Loire. Our reason for heading further inland from Nantes was to experience part of ‘La Loire à Vélo’, a world-famous cycling route which links the source of the Loire River, near the city of Nevers, with the Loire-Atlantique estuary in St Brévin-les-Pins, which are more than 600 km apart. With only three days of cycling available to us however, we were to focus on the distance between Ingrandes and Fontevraud-l’Abbaye, roughly 100km of the trail.
After our short journey east, we were greeted at the station by Hélène, a keen cyclist and the press officer for Tourism en Anjou, who would subsequently be our guide for the first leg of our journey. We took took a short walk through the village, admiring the buildings as we passed; with less than 400 inhabitants, Ingrandes has retained a lot of rustic French charms despite being the victim of WWII bombings. Our first port of call was ‘Le Poisson d’Argent Hôtel‘, where we’d be stopping for a quick breakfast before picking up our bikes further down the road. Designed to look like the inside of a river boat and a favourite stop-over for people cycling along the Loire, we munched our way through baskets of fresh-out-the-oven pastries and home made jams, along with several cups of black coffee each in an attempt to counteract our early start.
As we began to feel our glucose levels rising from the sugary feast, we set off in search of our bikes. We’d rented them from Vert-Event, a cycle-hire company based in Angers who’d been kind enough to drop them off for us. A short distance from the hotel, in the town of Montjean-sur-Loire, we found a nerdy looking character tinkering about with a spanner and knew we’d found our man. A few seat adjustments and practise laps around a nearby car park later, we were off. The first 100m or so were tretcherous, narrowly avoiding river bank vegetation and tiny pieces of gravel in the road that threatened to throw me over the handlebars; talk about nerve-wracking! However it wasn’t the paths that were the problem, it was me! Turns out you really can forget how to ride a bike.
Before long I was back up to speed, zooming around the first section of our journey. Our starting point was Pont René-Trottier, a footbridge which connects Montjean-sur-Loire to the river island of ‘Île de Chalonnes’. For our first 20km or so, we were greeted with traffic free stretches of open roads, winding their way through the French countryside and into tree-lined footpaths that followed the river banks of the Loire. The island is only lightly inhabited due to the risk of flooding during the colder months, and it soon became apparent that cyclists own the roads here. Every few kilometers or some we were treated to a fresh wave of friendly ‘bonjours’ from families cycling the trail in the opposite direction, and even offered fresh fruit from the gardens of local residents who were pruning as we passed.
After about an hour of cycling, we reached the Pont du Grand Bras, our bridge off the ‘Île de Chalonnes’ and back onto the mainland. With two lanes of heavy traffic and a narrow footpath, it was quite the experience, but the views from the middle of the bridge completely made up for the near death experience of being narrowly overtaken by a tractor and a coach in quick succession.
After a brief pause to enjoy the scenery (and some biscuits) we pushed on, cycling down the D111, headed for La Possonnière. Despite being relatively flat, the next 5km jaunt was hard going as there was no shade along the entire stretch of road. In typical Sara fashion (you’ll know what I mean if you’re familiar with my Thailand posts), by the end of the day I was covered in mismatched tan (and burn) lines despite dowsing myself in SPF, including a particularly sexy one half way up my shin, courtesy of my cycling shorts. However, it wasn’t long before we reached La Possonnière, where a beautiful reconstruction of an old-style river port was waiting for us. We paused here to take photos of the river and the traditional boats moored to the jetty, foolishly attempting to cycle on the cobbles; fun at the time, yet something which I began to regret doing later in the day when bike seat began to feel more like a medieval torture device.
With the promise of lunch quite literally over the horizon we pressed on, veering away from the Loire to take the interior route via Belle Touche. Here we passed up and over the hills of vineyard country, admiring row upon rows of the plants which bear the fruit for some of the most popular wines in the region. After the short ride inland, hindered only by Pedro realising he had a flat tyre (I told you the cobbles were evil!) we arrived at ‘Le Chenin‘, a small restaurant in the village of Savennières. We were greeted by Olivier from Angers Loire Tourism who would be cycling with us for the rest of the afternoon, along with a tyre repair kit to mend Pedro’s broken steed.
Our lunch was fit for a king, and I chose to have a smoked sausage salad for starter, fresh salmon and vegetable crumble for my main and an amazing lemon meringue pie for dessert, all washed down with a glass of sweet white wine. I wouldn’t usually drink and ride, but seeing as we were deep in vineyard country is seemed rude not to. Our wine was a locally produced ‘Côteaux du Layon’, which was rich, fruity and sweet, and totally unlike anything I’ve ever tried before. Unfortunately for me however it seems to be particularly difficult to get hold of here in the UK, which just adds yet another excuse to the list to came back to the region, hopefully in the near future!
After lunch we said goodbye to Hélène, jumped back on the bikes (much more painfully this time around) and headed further into the Savennières appellation to visit ‘Domaine du Closel‘, the home of the ‘Château des Vaults’ vineyards. We were given a guided tour of the grounds by the owner, Viscountess Evelyne de Jessey-Pontbriand, a vibrant woman who took pride in telling us all about the history of their wines, and her approach to growing methods; turns out wine production is far more complicated than I thought it was! After our walk, we retired to the Chateau (ooh-err!) to try some two of the Vault’s wines; ‘La Jalousie’ and ‘Clos du Papillon’. Both have distinct tastes, which were totally different from the ‘Côteaux du Layon’ we tasted earlier, despite being produced only a few miles apart. These differences are mainly due to the variety of grapes being used, as well as changes in bedrock across the landscape. The ‘Château des Vaults’ vineyards grow high up on a hard, metamorphic outcrop, giving the wines their characteristic acidic, earthy tones. I do love it when geology plays a part in these things!
After resisting the urge to drinking more wine than we should, knowing we still had 9km left to go, we set off for the final time. The last stretch of the journey was eay riding, following the course of the ‘la Maine’ river north of Savennières. This took us out of the vineyards, instead passing through the town of Bouchemaine and the huge Parc du Maine just outside of Angers. Here the battle was against people more than the terrain, as the setting sun had attracted half the population to take a late afternoon run along the footpaths. Safe to say, road rage ensued on my part! It wasn’t long however until we reached the city centre, where we were able to drop our bikes off for the night and head to our hotel to freshen up before heading out to get some dinner at a local restaurant with Hélène. The beds at ‘Hôtel de l’Europe‘ was a welcome sight, as was the food at ‘Chez Remi‘ and the rest of the evening passed in a blur of wine, drowsiness and drunk students, celebrating their first night back on campus.