CHINON, France — Pedalling through the Loire Valley, alongside brilliant yellow fields of mustard, down country lanes bordered by blue irises and red poppies, past ripening vineyards and ancient châteaux, I'm prepared to believe I'm in a fairy tale. And in a way, I am: I'm headed to Sleeping Beauty's castle.
With three friends I am taking Detours in France's self-guided cycling trip, following the signs for "La Loire à velo," the bike path along the Loire River. On this tour (normally five days and four nights, but it can be customized) accommodation is pre-arranged and luggage looked after — we only need to show up in time for dinner. We will spend our days strolling the exquisite gardens at Villandry, admiring the Italian Renaissance architecture of the Château Azay le Rideau with its beautiful arches over the Indre River, exploring sleepy valley hamlets and climbing hills to vineyards where we will reward ourselves with glasses of wine. (The Loire is fairly easy cycling, but it does boast some challenging hills.)
Of all the jaw-dropping moments on the trip the highlight is perhaps the moment when we first catch sight of the Château d'Ussé. This is the castle that the French writer Charles Perrault had in mind when he penned La Belle au bois dormant — better known to us as the tale of Sleeping Beauty.
Perrault wrote the story in 1697, having visited the château. Originally a fortress, but much-changed over the centuries, by Perrault's time it had lost almost all of its defenses and added the lovely formal gardens visitors see today. The château is still lived in, but visitors can tour parts of it, including the secret tunnel that its inhabitants could use to escape into the Forêt de Chinon, and what's now known as Sleeping Beauty's Tower, which gives panoramic views of the Loire and Indre valleys.
At the end of our day's 36-kilometre ride (the distances cycled varied from 32 to 50 kilometres a day) we pedalled into Chinon. A pretty city with a medieval fortress, it was here, in 1429, that Joan of Arc persuaded the French dauphin to give her an army with which to fight the English. You can still see 600-year-old half-timbered houses in rue Haute St-Maurice, where Joan of Arc stayed. Chinon was also the birthplace of the writer François Rabelais (1494-1533), known for his bawdy eat-drink-and-be-merry tales.
(If you go in the fall you could be part of the Marché Rabelais, when events take place throughout Chinon's old quarter. There is a craft fair, singing and dancing and people dressed in period costume.)
Having worked up a thirst, we stopped first at Couly Dutheil Cellars for a tasting and to purchase a few bottles. Then, bumping on our bikes down the city's cobbled streets, we came to our accommodation for the night, the Gargantua, built in the 15th century and named after Rabelais' most famous series of tales. Up the well-worn, circular staircase to our rooms we went, thinking, perhaps a bit hazily, of Rabelais' philosophy: "Drink well, drink always."
ACCESS:For more information on Detours in France visit its website at www.detours-in-france.com.
For information on travel in France visit the French Tourist Office website at www.franceguide.com.