France's Loire Valley is a paradise for bike touring

I had visited France one before and I had a nice time traveling through the country by train, but it wasn't until I came back to France with my bicycle that I fell in love with the country.

Traveling by bike is an excellent way to see a place, but it can often be a lot of work. France is an exception. Incredible scenery, quiet, well-maintained roads, an abundance of delicious food and good, cheap wine make cycling here an easy vacation.

Despite all these great attributes, perhaps the best thing about cycling in France is the way you're treated by other people. My first few days riding from Paris, I would cringe at the sound of an approaching truck and hug the shoulder so that I wouldn't be run off the road, habits of self-preservation I've picked up while cycling at home and in other countries.

However, cars and trucks always slowed when they approached, driving patiently behind me until it was safe to pass, and then passing slowly, giving me plenty of room.

The only drivers who honked at me were the ones who wanted to make sure I saw them wave hello. Eventually, I was able to relax while riding my bike, knowing that the drivers would extend every courtesy to me as a cyclist since they believed I had a right to be on the road.

Several times, people stopped to give me directions when I was lost, or even personally showed me the way, driving slowly in front so I could follow on my bike. What a treat!

Exploring Loire

One of the best regions in France for bike touring is the Loire Valley, home to small, scenic villages and impressive chateaus. The roads are flat, plenty of campgrounds and small inns provide convenient places to stay, and it's easy to find fresh fruit at the markets, a variety of cheeses at fromageries, and wonderful breads and pastries at boulangeries for great meals.

You don't have to follow a specific route while cycling in the Loire Valley. Armed with a detailed road map, you can't go wrong by choosing any of the the smaller "D" roads. If you have a chance, take one of the "R.F." roads, which are paved cycling paths (closed to cars) running through the forests.

Paris makes a convenient starting point, although riding out of the city can be hectic. For an easier start, take your bike on the train to Versailles, check out the palace, and start your ride from there. Head to Chartres to see one of the most beautiful cathedrals in France, and continue riding towards Chateaudun.

Check out the chateau overlooking the valley below, and then make your way to Blois. Consider taking a detour to see one of the old windmills in this area, and if you pass a small sign with "fromagerie" written on it, pointing towards Villeberfol, it will be well worth your time to ride the extra few kilometers for some delicious chevre goat cheese purchased directly from the farmer who makes it.

Chateau hopping

Once you've reached Blois, you'll have to choose which chateaus to visit, since there are simply too many to see them all. The earliest chateaus were built as medieval fortresses in the 8th and 9th centuries and converted to palaces during the Renaissance period.

Some highlights include Chambord, which houses an impressive double-helix staircase, beautifully furnished Cheverney and Chaumont, located on a bluff overlooking the Loire River.

In Amboise, stop at the chateau and spend some time exploring the town where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last few years of his life. You'll have many opportunities for wine tasting on the route from Amboise to Tours. Two excellent chateaus in the Tours area are Chenonceau, known as the "Sleeping Beauty" castle, and the Chateau d'Azay-le-Rideau.

You can either end your trip here in Tours, or you can continue on to Angers, stopping at more chateaus on the way. It's usually no problem to take your bike on the train (ask before you purchase your tickets), so you can easily get back to Paris for your flight home.

When to go

Late spring or early fall are the best times to cycle in France. If you're traveling before May, be prepared for some potentially bad weather. The best way to deal with the cold and rain is to make frequent stops for espresso and pan au chocolate. Also note than many campgrounds are closed until Easter. In summer, you'll be more likely to get good weather, but you'll also have to deal with the crowds.

Learn a few phrases in French before you go, and you'll find the people will be much more open. The French tend to dress up a bit more for restaurants, so if you plan on eating out in the nicer places, a good pair of pants and shoes (not cycling apparel) are a must.

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