La Loire a Velo, Cycling the Loire Valley in France. A photo Essay.

This is not a wine or chateau guide in case you were wondering, I don’t drink so there’s not much point. In my early twenties I twice picked grapes in Aloxe-Corton, Burgundy, which was a wonderfully timeless experience and I drank more than enough of the local produce on that trip to satisfy my curiosities. I often thoroughly research my travels in advance, but this time I wanted to travel with as few a preconceptions as possible to see what I could see from as fresh as possible perspective. I do though know France fairly well, and buried deep in the architecture of my brain is French language ‘O’ level (age 16 language qualification in the UK) which when in France miraculously starts to re-surface after a few conversations. So beyond the logistics of getting to Lyon in S.E. France from Totnes in S.W. England (not insignificant: four trains, a ferry and an overnight stay) and mapping basics, I decided that language skills, the fact that it is a well marked popular route, the plentifulness and generally high standard of French campsites and it being summer ought to be enough to just go.

The source of the Loire is actually in the Massif Central, mountains just West of Lyon, but time contraints meant starting from Lyon and pedalling across the northern areas of the Massif Central to join the Loire at Charlieu. So the first day was seven hours of huffing and puffing, and even pushing the bike at times; I NEVER push my bike as a rule, but some of those hills… It was a Sunday and much of this region of France seemed to be eating, drinking and putting their feet up while we sweated incongruously through the mountains.

Lyon’s Basilica de Notre Dame de Fourviere, above the Rhone, the first hill out of the City.
In the foothills of the Massif Central.

A long 30 minute joyous descent to Charlieu to join the Loire was the reward for the days work. From here all the way to Nantes (the official end of the Loire valley) the going was largely flat or gently downhill with only a few ascents. Overall it’s an accessible bike ride for almost anyone. There was only one disappointment for me, I was hoping to have cooling swims in the river (despite knowing little about it in advance), but this really wasn’t possible as virtually everyone said it was unsafe due to dodgy currents and quicksand. I actually didn’t see anyone swimming the whole trip.

The couple of days cycling towards Nevers in central France were full of the charm you would hope to see in rustic rural France.

Monday morning market in Marcigny and a convenient coffee stop. It never seems to be too early for people to have a beer, wine or anything alcoholic in France whilst retaining an air of sophistication.
Hotel Globe in Marcigny may have seen better days, but typical of some of the crumbly rural charm to found in central France.
Spaciousness is perhaps a defining feature of the French countryside. France has the same population as the UK but is physically four times larger, it feels roomy compared to many places in the world.
Eurovelo 6 is the European cycle route, named in France as La Loire a Velo. There are signs for both, so along with the presence of the river itself it’s hard to get lost.
Some cafes and restaurants in France are very formal, this one refreshingly not.
The view from the campsite at Nevers. A distinctly Roman feel to this region.
The cheapest camping on the trip was here at eight Euros. Right next door to Bellville Sur Loire nuclear power station, the only other people on site where power station workers. We received a warm welcome and lots of chat at the office as not many stop here. Belleville Sur Loire is still a pretty village situated on the Canal Lateral a la Loire, a side channel of the Loire often used for boating.

There are many nuclear power stations in the region, 70% of French power is nuclear. They’re perhaps not classically beautiful, but with zero carbon emissions, maybe something that should be taken more seriously. Along with more and better cycling facilities of course.

Belleville Sur Loire.
Many nuclear power stations popped up along the horizons.
Cycle graffiti on a lunch picnic bench.
Despite this eco-cyclist graffiti, French car drivers are pretty respectful towards cyclists, cycling is embedded in the culture.

The riverside and surrounding woodland is rich in wildlife spotting opportunities and conservation projects. I saw several red squirrels (virtually extinct from the UK), a beaver just biding its time next to some woods a little away from the river, lots of birdlife and somewhat incongruously some Asiatic water buffalo. Indigenous European water buffalo are long ago extinct, so any of these creatures now in Europe are a reintroduced Asiatic breed. I didn’t see wild boar, deer or wild cats but all are apparently there. Underwater there is the upsized combative looking Perch -the Black Bass.

There’s a lot of creatures hiding in and around.

The valley region is fertile and there’s an impressive range of growing. Large cheap jars of pulped apples, pears and other fruit in many shops attest to the volume of the fruit harvests, and of course there are plentiful vineyards (if you drink wine there would be much to enjoy). I was also impressed by the fact that there was evidence of natural pest control in some fields, with wild flowers at the borders and in amongst the crops in some fields. There were alway patches of rewinding with some fields left as long grassed flower meadows.

A lunch stop under a walnut tree with vineyards behind.
I’m not sure what about the internet?

A little beyond Blois unexpectedly we passed a region of caves carved in the limestone formerly inhabited by troglodytes, but now turned into art galleries, museums, cafes and the odd hotel. A pity it was raining, it would have been good to explore more.

At times along the valley there was a distinctly olde worlde feel, perhaps partially curated for tourists, but understated with an authentic feel for those dreaming of an older sleepier France with regular lunch times and wooden boats.

St Florent le Vieil

We cycled from Lyon to Nantes over 12 days, averaging 80 km (around 50 miles) a day. We mostly camping with our own stuff except for when we hit rain. Luckily most French campsites have options of pre-set up tents or wooden pods which save the day. We had two days off, some may prefer more especially if you really want to explore some areas in more detail.

The cycling itself was also a joy, a slowish pace, the opportunity to get fitter, and after a few days the sense of heart and lungs pumping and blowing along together harmoniously and legs feeling stronger. This, combined with the repetitive meditative pedalling process and being out in nature and the elements seems to facilitate a reflective and slowly clearing state of mind. Yoga on a bike.

Safe and happy pedalling !

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