Two-wheeled tales from the riverbank in France
I'M AN experienced cyclist, yet on a recent trip in the Loire Valley I almost came to a sticky end just 20 minutes into a two-day bicycle tour.
As much as I'd like to blame French motorists, my unfamiliar rental bike or dangerous potholes, that wouldn't be fair.
The reason I nearly lost control while travelling at less than 12km per hour was that I was trying to take a photo of a man cycling with a baguette in his pannier.
The picture didn't come out, but that oh-so-Gallic image will stay forever in my mind.
My partner and I had arrived in Angers the previous afternoon.
The catalyst for the trip was the completion last year of the Loire à Vélo trail, an 800km network of signposted cycle routes running along the River Loire from the Atlantic coast to just outside Nevers in Burgundy.
Some of the trail is bicycle-only and some is shared with pedestrians, while the majority runs along quiet country roads. Dreamt up in 1995, it's been a long time coming.
Our steeds - chunky affairs with pannier, saddlebag, lock, pump, repair kit, helmet and high-vis jacket - were waiting for us when we arrived at our hotel. Détours de Loire will drop off and pick up bikes wherever they're wanted along the route and transfer your luggage, so you can cycle more or less unencumbered.
To qualify for the official Loire à Vélo accommodation mark, hotels and guesthouses must offer facilities for cyclists including secure bike parking, restaurants and repair kits.
The three places we stayed in are representative of the wide range available: from the cheap and cheerful Hôtel le Progrès in Angers to the quirky B&B Le Domaine de L'Oie Rouge in Les Rosiers-sur-Loire, ending up with the elegant Hostellerie La Croix Blanche in Fontevraud-l'Abbaye.
As it was too late to set off that day, we squeezed in a visit to Château d'Angers. This 13th-century castle is worth visiting for its vineyard-topped ramparts and landscaped moat.
The Apocalypse Tapestry, a massive 14th-century textile with scenes from the Book of Revelation, is an added treat.
This may have been the Loire à Vélo, but for the first few hours of cycling the following morning the river itself was nowhere to be seen. Just outside Angers the landscape became alien, the ground covered in fragments of the slate that has been quarried here for the past 600 years.
Trees and plants grew through and out of the top of enormous piles of the stuff - some pieces of which were twice the size of me.
A section of completely flat countryside followed, giving way by the time lunch came round to the more picturesque landscape of the immediate Loire river valley.
We picnicked in the main square of Saint-Mathurin-sur-Loire, whose austere church is oriented towards the Loire rather than towards the east. This architectural quirk, common to churches in the area, gives a sense of the influence the river has exerted here over the centuries.
An afternoon spent whizzing past absurdly picturesque riverside villages brought us to our rest stop for the night, Les Rosiers-sur-Loire, and the superb Restaurant La Toque Blanche. Oyster and foie gras amuses-bouches, the local speciality of sandre (pike-perch) in a lemon butter sauce and a giant macaron with crème Anglaise for dessert would have been too rich a combination in any other circumstances.
However, after cycling 39km (24 miles), this extraordinary meal felt entirely justified.
The Loire was blanketed in mist as we cycled away from Les Rosiers and east along the river in the shadow of imposing limestone cliffs.
Spindly trees leaned from the clifftop over houses built from the soft stone known as tuffeau, smoke puffing from their chimneys in the chill morning air.
At Chênehutte we slowed to admire beautifully tended front gardens built right at the water's edge and stopped to stroke rotund ponies with rock-star manes a few kilometres outside of Saint-Hilaire-Saint-Florent.
This town, named after the two Benedictine monasteries built here in the 6th century, looks ordinary until you descend to the foundations, which are riddled with 1,000-year-old tuffeau quarries.
On a tour of the cellars of sparkling-winemaker Bouvet-Ladubay, our guide pointed out a shaft rising 25m above our heads up through the tuffeau, explaining that this narrow tunnel had been the quarrymen's only route in and out of this dank warren.
A quick tasting back at the surface and we continued on our way in the now blazing sunshine, each weighed down with two bottles of bubbly.
A little way on in Saumur, I puffed my way up a steep hill to the fairy-tale castle, then got my breath back while taking in gorgeous views over the city on one side and the river on the other.
Almost every turn on the Loire à Vélo is signposted, so it's hard to get lost.
The problem is that few signs tell you which direction you're heading in, so things can get confusing when the route branches or you lose the track and try to get back on it elsewhere.
The plan after leaving Saumur had been to cycle along the river again for the next stage, including a section that goes through a tuffeau tunnel, but somehow we got onto an alternative route through the vineyards instead.
Freewheeling down roads littered with squashed grapes from the recent harvest was one of our most exhilarating moments.
We made it to Fontevraud and our hotel, a coaching inn dating back to 1796, just as night was falling. It felt strange leaving my bike, knowing that the next day I'd be swapping two wheels for four, in the shape of a taxi to Tours station, for our train home.
Another excellent dinner and a good night's sleep later, my muscles were still aching, but could not detract from the glories of Fontevraud Abbey.
As we dashed around the burial place of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine before heading to the station, I thought of the 83km we'd covered, and began plotting the next trip.
Only another 717km to go.
Jo Caird travelled with Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; raileurope.co.uk) which can arrange Eurostar to Paris and onwards train to Angers.
Plan your route and order guide books on the Loire à Vélo website (cycling-loire.com).
Maps are available at the Tourist Office at 7 Place Kennedy in Angers (00 33 2 41 23 50 00; angersloiretourisme.com).
Détours de Loire (00 33 2 47 61 22 23; detoursdeloire.fr) offers bicycle rental and luggage transfer.
Hôtel le Progrès, Angers (00 33 2 41 88 10 14; hotelleprogres.com) has double rooms.
Domaine de l'Oie Rouge, Les Rosiers-sur-Loire (00 33 2 41 53 65 65; domaine-oie-rouge.com) has doubles.
Hostellerie La Croix Blanche, Fontevraud (00 33 2 41 51 71 11; hotel-croixblanche.com) has doubles.
Brasserie du Théâtre, Angers (00 33 2 41 24 15 15; brasserie-du-theatre.com).
Restaurant La Torque Blanche, Les Rosiers-sur-Loire (00 33 2 41 51 80 75; restaurantlatoqueblanche.fr).