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The lure of the Loire – exploring landscape, history and gastronomy on foot

Most days, health policy analyst and Croakey contributing editor Dr Lesley Russell walks at least ten kilometres, conscious of the benefits of walking for health, wellbeing and cognitive function, especially as one grows older.

In her latest contribution to the #CroakeyEXPLORE series, Russell shares views, observations and culinary delights from a solo walk in France’s Loire region, and confesses that long-distance walking has become an addiction. She says:

…it’s the perfect way to combine exercise, travel and learning. I love the simple routine of every day and the longer the walk, the better.


Lesley Russell writes:

If you read my regular contributions to #CroakeyEXPLORE then you know I am a Francophile, never happier than when I am walking the many routes that criss-cross the French countryside, exploring French culture and history, and enjoying the local gastronomic delights.

In April I set off for my sixth walk in France, the third I have tackled solo. I chose a short and easy trek from the small village of Chenonceaux on the Sher River to Vouvray on the Loire River. I knew the temperatures in early spring would be good for walking and there would not be too many tourists, and so it proved.

Here’s a write-up in the hope that it encourages readers to follow in my footsteps, or cycle along the same route, or even just get out and enjoy walking in your local neighbourhood.

Preparations

I use a travel company based in Scotland for all my walks – they deliver an excellent package and have good back-up systems should something go wrong (which, fortunately, has never been the case).

They book accommodations (which includes breakfast), provide route maps, guides and commentaries, and (importantly) organise for my duffel bag to be transported each day so I just carry a day pack.

On this trip, dinners were not provided as there were good options in the towns and villages where I was staying.

However, this does mean you have to think ahead a little.

Even in early April the best restaurants are busy enough that reservations may be needed (in the absence of a reservation, it helps if you are just one and you ask nicely in your best French).

On Sundays the main meal is taken in the middle of the day and many restaurants are not open in the evening. Some are also closed on Mondays, as are some bakeries. Remember too that most businesses close for a long lunch break, so bear this in mind if you are thinking about purchasing a picnic meal.

But fear not, this is not countryside where you are going to starve! You can usually discover on-line when the local market days are for the areas you are visiting and these are well worth exploring for food, photos and conversation.

By now, with a number of long walks under my belt, I have all the gear and it has been well tested; I know what to carry in my day-pack and what to have in my duffel, and that black pants, a black top, black sneakers and a scarf worn jauntily will get you into any restaurant.

Read my previous CroakeyEXPLORE articles for what I take and my regime around blister prevention (and I’m happy to engage in email conversations about this).

The secret is to want for nothing on your travels, but not to over-pack. I’m not enthusiastic about doing the laundry, but on longer trips it is usually necessary to wash out socks and T-shirts (I take a small container of liquid detergent and most accommodations have places to dry things overnight).

Getting physically prepared is also easier than it used to be, because I am now in an almost daily regime of walking at least 10 kilometres. In the weeks before a big walk (which might entail covering 20-30 kilometres a day), I double or even triple this on some days, generally tackled in one go. Yes, it eats into work time, but it expands thinking time, and it trains the feet and legs for what is to come.

Travel tips

I buy needed train tickets before I leave via trainline.com because this means if there are problems with train schedules or industrial actions (always an issue in France) I will be notified by email ahead of time.

If you need to get to some of the smaller towns and villages where these walks often start, a good resource for the options available is the Rome2Rio website. You can usually find bus schedules online too (and check if these vary at the weekends and on holidays).

Not every small village in France has an ATM and having some cash for small purposes is recommended, although credit cards are accepted almost everywhere. I upload euros on my Qantas card when exchange rates are favourable and then there are no fees.

I take my iPhone (which I use mainly as a camera); my telecoms carrier charges $10/day for local service, so I can turn on the phone if needed, which is rarely the case. I have my iPad for books to read, keeping up-to-date with emails, Skyping back home and, of course, Twitter. Wifi and mobile phone service are ubiquitous in France, even in the most isolated areas. I eschew GPS in favour of map reading and asking the locals for directions.

All towns and many villages have information offices and it is always worthwhile to check in with them. They have local maps and information about local sights and sites and, in my experience, are always happy to talk with visitors. On previous trips I have sometimes emailed ahead of time for information about bus schedules and had prompt responses (in English).

Day 1. Chateau Chenonceau

I arrived at the small village of Chenonceaux after two train rides from Paris. There was a charming little railway station (closed) out of all proportion to the long platforms on either side and nearby a charming little mairie (mayor’s office), a cosy inn, a bakery and an upmarket boutique hotel.

That and a few B&Bs (including the one where I was staying) comprised the village – along with the very grand Chateau Chenonceau which is built over the Cher River and its very grand gardens nearby. (For reasons unknown to me, the village is Chenonceaux and the chateau is Chenonceau.)

This is the most visited chateau in France, as the car park and buses attested. Clearly not a place to visit in the summer at the height of the tourist season.

The chateau was built in the 16th century on the site of a fortified castle and mill, of which only the round medieval keep, restored as a Renaissance -style tower, remains.

The history of the chateau is dominated by women. In 1547 King Henri II gave Chenonceau to his mistress Diane de Poitiers who built a bridge extending from the chateau over the river. On Henri’s death, his widow Catherine de Medici removed Diane and governed as regent from here. She had the galleries built on top of the bridge. The royal presence ended with the death of Henri III’s widow.

The chateau was saved during the revolution by Louise Dupin and in the 19th century Marguerite Pelouze, from a family of wealthy industrialists, spent a fortune on restoring the estate and gardens.

During World War I, Simonne Menier used her family’s fortune to install and equip a hospital to care for the wounded and she also carried out many brave acts for the Resistance in World War II. During this time the Cher River was the line of demarcation: the entrance to the chateau was therefore in the occupied zone and the south door of the gallery gave access to the free zone on the other bank of the river. The Resistance was able to move many people to safety through the chateau.

The gardens here are magnificent. It was too early for roses, but there was wisteria coming into flower everywhere and masses of tulips. The 16th century farm buildings nearby were surrounded by vegetable and flower gardens. The rooms in the chateau were decorated with produce from these gardens, and there were wood fires burning in the huge fireplaces (highlighting how cold the rooms would be otherwise).

Day 2. Around Chenonceaux and along the River Cher (20 km)

This particular Loire walk was organised so that I spent two nights in each location. That meant that I only had to pack up every second day and also I had great opportunities to get to know my hosts.

Today, fortified by a substantial breakfast with local produce from my charming host, I did a loop walk through vineyards and forests of beech and oak, then along the river bank past the remains of the moat that once surrounded the chateau.

A feature every day of this walk was the variety of birdsong that filled the air, although I rarely saw the birds. And I was surprised that in six days I did not encounter any other long-distance walkers, although there were locals to talk to and plenty of cyclists.

In the evening I enjoyed tasting the local sauvignon blanc – dry and fruity, perfect with my dinner of white asparagus and a local fish.

Day 3. Walk from Chenonceaux to Amboise (23 km)

The trails I took on this walk were generally well marked, sometimes with the familiar red and white stripes of the Compostelle de St Jacques (this branch of the Camino starts in Paris and goes through Tours), and sometimes with local markings (generally yellow or blue).

Often I was walking along the Loire à Vélo, the magnificent network of cycling trails that covers this area and which are signposted in green.

 

The day started out shrouded in a mist that never really lifted until the late afternoon, but it enhanced the beauty of the walk along the Cher River. The air was heavy with the fragrances of apple and cherry blossoms, lilacs and wisteria. Just outside the town of Bléré, I crossed the river and headed across farmers’ fields to the tiny village of Dierre, then up onto a plateau and into the Amboise Forest.

Here the tarmac walking/cycling path inexplicably ran dead straight for over five kilometres through the forest. It was very boring walking, relieved only by investigating every fungi and flower I encountered and a competitive concert with the birds from my repertoire of Willie Nelson and Beatles songs.

Then suddenly through the trees an unexpected sight – the Pagoda of Chanteloup, all that’s left of a grand chateau and gardens that were destroyed in the 1850s. I didn’t stop to explore but headed on down into the old town of Amboise. Here big gates in a high wall led into a peaceful garden courtyard and my accommodations in a beautifully restored old building.

I had time to do a reconnoitre of the town and decide on a place for dinner. Spoiled for such choices, I chose a wine bar that totally delivered on its promise of fresh, local fare.

Day 4. Exploring Amboise and Leonardo da Vinci’s legacy

Amboise has existed since Neolithic times and there have been fortifications here since the 4th century.

The Royal Chateau of Amboise was built in the late 15th century by King Charles VIII. It’s quite charming and almost delicate but sits on top of a huge fortifications built on a rocky spur overlooking the River Loire.

It was the heart of royal power during the Renaissance for the Valois royal families. The chateau is surrounded by beautifully-tended gardens.

I was surprised to discover that Leonardo de Vinci spent his last years here. He was invited to Amboise by King François I in 1516, when he was 64 years old and already much celebrated. He was given a home (the Clos Lucé – which was the Royal family’s “summer house”) and a pension and he devoted his time there to drawing and teaching, town planning and architecture.

When he died in 1519, he was granted the privilege of being buried in the tiny Gothic chapel opposite the Royal Chateau. Now Amboise is preparing to celebrate the 500-year anniversary of his death.

The Chateau du Clos Lucé and the nearby Parc Leonardo da Vinci are well worth a visit.

The home is quite elegant and contains da Vinci’s workrooms and office. Apparently da Vinci was attracted to France because he feared competition from the upcoming artists Raphael and Michelangelo.

He rode a mule over the Alps, bringing with him some pupils, some of his most famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and his papers.

The Parc is a wonderful place – beautiful gardens that are reminiscent of Monet’s Gardens, mock-ups of da Vinci’s machines and gadgets (fun for kids young and old), art hanging in the trees, places to picnic, and a first-class restaurant.

Day 5. Walk from Amboise to Vouvray (25 km)

My breakfast spread covered the table and the pastries were still warm from the bakery. That did not prevent me from stopping by the local market to sample bread, cheeses and fresh fruit as I headed out of Amboise on a walking/cycling track along the south bank of the Loire River, enjoying the sunshine and the water birds.

The weather on this trip was perfect for walking – fine and sunny but surprisingly cool. I wore a fleece all day every day and at nights really needed my Gore-Tex jacket.

Today’s walking took me through a series of small farming villages, much of it along the Loire bicycle path. This was well-utilised and I saw several family groups on laden cycles obviously on long-distance trips. The relatively flat countryside makes for easy riding and easy walking.

A path literally overhanging the river, with great views, brought me to Montlouis-sur-Loire, a famous troglodyte village with houses and wine caves built into the tufa stone cliffs and a church dating back to the 12th century.

Then I was a little shocked that my directions had me walk over the railway bridge to cross the river (although there was a narrow footpath). Fortunately, there were no trains as I crossed – I had previously observed the speed at which the intercity trains travelled on this line!

The walk into Vouvray was along a tree-lined grassy embankment which also marked the intersection of two of the French Camino routes, the GR3 and the GR 655. (The Camino routes to Santiago de Compostela in Spain criss-cross Europe – there’s a good map here.)

Day 6.  Loop walk around Vouvray

Vouvray is a charming village built along the banks of the Loire Rive and climbing up the tufa hillside. I was staying in a troglodyte home, built into the hillside where stone has been quarried since Roman times for stone for chateaux and municipal buildings.

Breakfast was an amazing feast of a huge selection of compotes, cheeses, breads and pastries.

I ate my fill, and then set off to walk a local route that took me up on to the plateau above the river, through fields and vineyards, past tumble-down wine-growers’ huts, prosperous farms and yellow swathes of canola.

I was excited to find the rare and protected vin tulips blooming alongside the gnarled vines that were just beginning to shoot.

And on an old house in the hamlet of L’Epinay I saw a shell ornament that indicated the owner (presumably the builder some 400 years ago) had made the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

Of course, after some 20 kilometres of walking, my dinner treat was a lovely sampling of the local white wines.

Day 7. To Tours

A 15-minute taxi ride from Vouvray took me to Tours, with an historical centre that is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

I had a day to explore the narrow streets, visit the flamboyant 15th century Gothic Cathedral, the St Martin’s Basilica and the Charlemagne Tower, and to drink coffee in the Place Plumereau. It was Sunday so, like the locals, I treated myself to a late and leisurely lunch and still had time to see the local Museum des Beaux-Arts.

The next day I caught the train to Paris. Sadly, I spent my last night in Paris watching Notre Dame burn.

The next morning, before catching my flight back to Australia, on a morning that was fittingly grey, I stood in silence with hundreds of others just mourning the loss and pondering how the enormous structural and architectural damage can be rebuilt.

Some public health observations

The health and wellbeing benefits of walking are increasingly well documented. These were exemplified when a recent health check-up had me performing well above average for all the important measurements.

People in my age group do worry about our current and future physical and mental fitness, so I’m always cheered by reports that justify the time I spend on exercise, including a recent study that highlighted how exercise can improve memory with ageing.

I confess that long-distance walking has become an addiction and it’s the perfect way to combine exercise, travel and learning. I love the simple routine of every day and the longer the walk, the better.

A recent article for CroakeyEXPLORE highlighted the mental health benefits of living simply and presently and I concur. It’s no surprise then that the end of a walk always has an element of sadness mixed in with the sense of achievement.

Many people are surprised/curious/amazed that I often choose to travel solo. I enjoy it – although I’m willing to confess that my best walks have probably been those shared with others.

Travelling solo in France always feels very comfortable and safe for me. I think this article, The Pros and Cons of Solo Travel, sums it up well – I like freedom, I like to push myself, I don’t like the additional costs.

On this trip I determined to speak French all day, every day.

I had just one conversation in English, when I had to sort out a hotel booking with someone whose first language was not French. My vocabulary is pretty good, but I do get stuck on the tenses (when to use the imperfect or the conditional?). If I am engaged in a long conversation (for example, with my B&B hosts) I will often ask them to correct me.

My best conversation on this trip was with the grandchildren of one host who were keen to talk about Australian animals (in particular, le diable Tasmanie) and not at all shy about correcting my grammar.

Again, there is research to show that learning and speaking a second language improves brain function and cognition.

One final point – highlighted to me by my GP when I showed up for a flu injection with stories of my latest travels: with walks like this, through farmland, make sure your tetanus vaccination is up-to-date.

• Read previous articles in the #CroakeyEXPLORE series.

 

 

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