Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Cycling in the Loire Valley


I dreamed of a cycling family holiday ever since reading the Globe and Mail travel article "Pedalling through France's Loire Valley with my Princess". Only two problems: 


  1. The trip described in the article was and is a little bit out of my price range. 
  2. My husband thought the idea of cycling holiday with a 5 and 7 year old, the youngest still using training wheels and the oldest just out of them, was a wee bit crazy.

But I was determined to find the perfect cycling holiday for our family. That's where Loire Valley Breaks stepped in. Loire Valley Breaks is a family run business, owned by British expats Debbie and Mark Willes. It is located in the market town of Bourgueil, in the centre of the Loire Valley. Loire Valley Breaks caters to tailor made breaks, whether that's walking tours, wine tours or self-guided FAMILY CYCLING TOURS. Unlike cycling tours that move from location to location, the Loire Valley Break Tours use Bourgueil as the "home" location and day cycling trips are planned for the family. These trips include short "treasure hunt" discovery trips, to longer journeys that involve commuter trains (which are well equipped for bikes). I find for small children the ability to stay in one spot, unpack and become "settled" makes for a more enjoyable time than having a new bed every night. Additional bonus, it was/is significantly more affordable than the tour companies I was researching.

Mark and Debbie are very experienced with tailoring cycling trips for families of young children, not only planning trips for their guests, but also their own family trips with their children. Each morning one of them will meet with you to describe the day's adventure and provides you with maps. They make sure that your bikes are in working order and you have everything you need to ensure a great day.


Cycling Map provided by Loire Valley Breaks



So, how did this all turn out? We stayed at the Loire Valley Breaks for 5 nights and opted to cycle for 3 days and do car trips for 2 days. Over the three days we cycled 80 km (yes with a 5 and 7 year old) and had one of these most memorable vacations in our family travel experience. Once our boys knew what they were in for, they ran to their bikes first thing after breakfast ready for another day's adventure. Both boys were disappointed that we opted to do car trips our last two days, but admittedly the parental units need a bit of a break. I highly recommend this type of family trip and staying with Loire Vally Breaks for a memorable family vacation.


Getting to Loire Valley Breaks


We flew into Paris and spent a few days exploring that wonderful city, and then took the train to Tours. In Tours we rented a car (and GPS) and drove to Bourgueil. Why didn't we just drive from Paris to Bourgueil? Driving out of Paris can be a complete nightmare, but the train system is wonderful. So, to save everyone pain (and stop the children from learning a few new words), we ALWAYS take the train out of major city centres in Europe and rent cars (if necessary) in the smaller destinations.

With both our GPS and Mark and Debbie's detailed directions, we easily found our way to Bourgueil and Loire Valley Breaks.
Flat cycling paths



Accommodations


The Loire Valley Break Accommodations owns several accommodations in Bourgueil. We opted to stay directly on their property in one of the two-bedroom family suites that are located within a beautiful restored farm building. This gave us access to the pool, the trampoline and the games room. My boys particularly loved the games room with the foosball table.

Loire Valley Breaks is a Bed and Breakfast, so each morning there was coffee, homemade goodies, croissants, yogurts and jams.



Our Bikes and Our Activities

The Bikes

Loire Valley Breaks have a variety of bicycles for families. We used a "tagalong" bike, a bike that does not have a front wheel and attached directly to the adult bike, for our youngest son (the one still in training wheels). Our eldest son had his own bike, but we were provided with a "trail gator". A trail gator is an attachment that converts a child's bike into a tagalong bike, so is useful if your child becomes tired. Even though we had some long days, my eldest never asked to be pulled by the trail gator.

Panniers, locks, and water bottle holders were also provided.

Our bike with the tagalong bike

We opted to bring our own bike helmets with us as they are not provided, but highly suggested by Debbie and Mark. 

Loire Valley is geared towards cycling tourism, so there are many separated cycling paths. When you are called to "share the road" the drivers are very courteous and provided loads of space. Bicycle parking is abundant in the major tourism facilities and often unique.

Bicycle Parking


Activities


The Loire Valley with its gentle landscape (read: flat!) and preserved natural areas (read: safe biking) is the perfect place to have a family cycling holiday. Our cycling day trips took us to through beautiful villages and allowed us to experience many festivals, such: river festival, wine festival, nature festival and a yard festival. We also visited gorgeous castles. Here are some of our stops:

Le Saut-aux-Loups (Montsoreau Mushroom Cave)
Located in a cave that has been used for extraction of limestone since the middle ages, the Le Saut-aux-Loups is both a mushroom museum and active mushroom farm. It's an interesting place to see all sorts of different mushrooms, and purchase some samples. For my kids they were not as interested in the mushrooms as they were being IN A CAVE!! There are also several very good carvings throughout the cave that my boys loved.

Bring a sweater or coat as it's 13C in the caves.


Le Saut-aux-Loups


Château de Montsoreau
Located in the town of Montsoreau, the chateau built in the 15th century by Jean de Chambes, a senior advisor to King Charles VII. The chateau is the setting for Alexander Dumas' novel "La Dame de Monsoreau".

The Château de Montsoreau offers stunning views of the Loire River and the valley from the rooftop. But watch the kids! Free activity books are available for children to complete. I believe they are only available in French.


Château de Montsoreau


Château de Langeais
Château de Langeais, located in the village of Sanmur, was built by Louis XI in the 15th Century on the grounds of a much older castle. The Château is well preserved and furnished, thanks to a Jacques Siegried, a wealthy businessman who purchased the castle in the late 1800s and then spent the next 20 years restoring it. He bequeathed it to the Institut de France in 1904.

For families, the Château offers both a 1-hour family tour and an activity book for 7-12 year olds. Both are available in French only. My children are both in French immersion and my husband speaks French so we opted for the French activity booklet, which was quite good. But if the tour and activity books are not for you, the castle is still an enjoyable visit.

The big selling feature for the castle for children is the AMAZING park on the castle grounds. There are gardens, walks and several playgrounds throughout the park, but the pièce de résistance is the 6-storey treehouse built in a centuries old cedar.


Expect to spend about an hour inside the castle interior and about 15 hours in the park (joking...sort of).



Treehouse at Château de Langeais


Troglodyte des Goupillières
The Loire chateaus were built from tufa, a form of limestone, which is found throughout the region. The tufa was mined from slopes and rock faces, leaving the area full of caves. Peasants from the middles ages to around the 17C moved into these caves and made them their homes, and you can see how they lived at Troglodyte des Goupillières.

It is an interesting place to visit, to see how people used their environment as well as to compare the life of a lord and lady in their castle to that of a common peasant. Children will love it as there are farm animals throughout the site as well as children play areas. A small restaurant is on site that serves, among other things, ice cream.




Restaurants


A quick note about eating in the small villages in France. Most families eat later than what we may be used to with children in North America, so expect restaurants to be open for the evening meal around 7 pm at the earliest.


Most restaurants do not have a children's menu. You can often ask for a half portion of an adult meal, or if travelling with two children, find something they both like and they can share it.

Children are expected to be well behaved at restaurants and to participate in the conversation. So, you will not see the French children with ipads and ipods or other hand held devices. We normally bring colouring books and crayons for the kids, but you will notice that the French children do not even require these items to "behave" at a restaurant.

Loire Valley Breaks - Loire Valley Breaks will provide evening meals a few times a week for a small price. They are typically local dishes that include wine and are delicious. It's a great opportunity to meet your fellow guest and share your experiences in the Loire Valley

La Trattoria - located in the village of Bourgueil, this is a good, small family restaurant that serves pizza, pasta and crepes. 


Market - Bourgueil holds its market on Tuesdays, a perfect opportunity to sample the local food. Loire Valley Breaks has a guest fridge and kitchen to store and cook your purchases.
Cheese from the local market

Car Seats

Please note, that while I try to keep the section on car seats updated, laws do change. This is only meant as a guide and you should review the laws from the appropriate government website.

In France, car seats are compulsory until the age of 10 or your child is tall enough to use a seat belt (between 1.35 m - 1.50 m). The car seat must be in compliance with European standards (look for a circle with the letter E in the middle). 


Children under 10 must sit in the backseat in their appropriate car seat.
Car seat laws in France can be reviewed at Association Prévention Routière. Yes, it is in French, so a second option is to visit the Official France Tourism website's section on driving in France.

Books

This is one trip where I could not find a specific child friendly book about the Loire Valley. If anyone has any suggestions, please post them in the comment section.

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