Surprises and curiosities

Briare : bateau et cyclotouristes sur le pont-canal Briare : bateau et cyclotouristes sur le pont-canal © C. Mouton

The Loire valley: a heritage packed with surprises

Every bend in the river brings a thousand unexpected discoveries

A navigable waterway held up by pillars? Surprising but true: at Briare an enormous canal-bridge allows barges to cross the Loire. This metal structure is directly inspired by Gustave Eiffel’s creations, including his famous Tower in Paris.

Pile funéraire romaine de Cinq-Mars-la-Pile Pile funéraire romaine de Cinq-Mars-la-Pile © L. Savignac

A church as old as Charlemagne? Get on your bike to find it, at Germigny-des-Prés. This oratory, one of the oldest extant Christian structures in France, was created for a close adviser of the Emperor.

As you travel through the Loire by bicycle, you’re sure to come across many examples of the region’s curious, fun and unusual heritage… Following the flow of the river, you will arrive at Saint-Dyé-sur-Loire, chosen by King Francis I to serve as the port for his new château at Chambord. La Fontaine, Molière and D'Artagnan were all visitors to this charming village, just 15km from Blois.

A lighthouse, this far from the coast?

A little further downstream, but still over 150 km from the sea, why is there a lighthouse? The curious brick tower of Cinq-Mars is not in fact a light house, but a Gallo-Roman funerary monument dating from the second century AD. This 30m tall cenotaph is extraordinary, and may mark the final resting place of a high-ranking military officer.

At Bréhémont, 12km or so further on, are those little buildings I see antique newspaper kiosks? Not quite! Famous throughout the region, these are the last 2 surviving examples of the 5 public urinals opened in 1872. They proved very useful to the sailors who helped make the village rich!

The hidden beauty of cave life

A unique local favourite, this complex of houses hewn from the rock contains plenty of surprises

Passage troglodytique à Souzay-Champigny Passage troglodytique à Souzay-Champigny © J.P Klein

The site of these cliff faces dotted with doors and windows, and visible from the cycle track, never ceases to amaze. From Chaumont-sur-Loire to Saumur, the banks of the Loire rise to form steep hillsides into which our ancestors carved their extraordinary cave homes. The finest example? Surely the fascinating Troglodyte valley of Goupillières at Azay-le-Rideau.

Spend a night in the rock face

Nowadays, you can try out one of these bizarre houses “for real”. Guest rooms or entire hotels carved into the rock allow you to live like a real cave man… with a few added comforts! Les Hautes-Roches in Rochecorbon, Troglododo in Azay-le-Rideau, and Demeure de la Vignolle in Turquant all offer the chance to spend a night inside the cliff face.

Rock-carved dwellings also exist on flat ground, with underground burrows and former quarries waiting to be explored between Doué-la-Fontaine and Louresse-Rochemenier.

Ideal conditions for preserving Loire valley wines

Les caves du Saumurois Les caves du Saumurois © E. Caracciolo

What are the main advantage of these caves? Inside, temperature and humidity levels remain constant, and thus ideal for storing wine! In these galleries of stone the Loire’s finest sparkling wines (from Anjou, Saumur and Touraine) are left to mature in peace. It is here that Saumur Brut wines realize their illustrious potential. Uncover the secrets of these remarkable wines with a visit to the underground cellars, and marvel at the endless maze of tunnels.

Going underground for some great traditional fare

The expression “dig in” takes on a whole new meaning... with underground cooking! La Fouace is special bread which was a particular favourite of François Rabelais, served fresh from the wood-fired oven. With a good paté, goat’s cheese or some fresh local beans (mogettes), it’s pure perfection… Tempted? Head to Rou-Marson, Grézillé, Louresse-Rochemenier or even Doué-la-Fontaine and Tours to try it yourself.

Poires tapées Poires tapées © C. Lazi

In the region around Tours, pears are ‘beaten’, in the same way as Anjou apples. This is a medieval recipe for preserving fruits, which involves drying them, then flattening them out with a mallet. ‘Beaten’ pears and apples are thus served as dried fruits, or rehydrated with the aid of wine (a local wine, of course). They can also be used in marmalades or terrines, served as an aperitif or a dessert.

A paradise for mushrooms

These numerous quarries and caves, with their shady, damp atmosphere, are an ideal habitat for mushrooms. The region around Tours and Saumur produces three quarters of France’s white mushrooms. Our top tip: after visiting one of these mushroom caves, take a break and taste the local specialty galipette – a big stuffed mushroom, roasted in a bread oven. Delicious!

 Down the Loire by boat

Taking to the water can be another good way to explore the Loire valley. Take a flat-bottomed barge or pedal boat, for a long, romantic cruise or just a quick crossing! The river is thankfully very easy to navigate, so it should come as no surprise that the Loire has long been a paradise for boat lovers. But there are also plenty of professionals among the amateurs, as you’ll see in the port town of Bréhémont, where the quays are lined with houses built by the master mariners, and still feature to antique urinals from 1872, installed for the comfort of the river’s many sailors.

Discover the history of sailing on the Loire

Une toue cabanée sur la Loire Une toue cabanée sur la Loire © J. Damase

For many thousands of years, men have been navigating the Loire in traditional flat-bottomed vessels. Why the flat bottom? To avoid getting stranded on one of this mischievous river’s many sand banks. Have a look around, and learn to spot barges, punts and ‘futreaux’. The sailors who still use these traditional craft will be only too happy to share with you their love of the Loire.

You can hop on a boat at almost any point along the Loire à Vélo route: at Sigloy (Loiret), Blois, Chaumont-sur-Loire (Loir-et-Cher), Candes-Saint-Martin (Indre-et-Loire), or Angers (Maine-et-Loire). For a family meal, a romantic afternoon or just a guided tour, there’s something for everybody.

Loire ferries 

Bac de Loire Bac de Loire © J.D Billaud / Nautilus

There are now many bridges crossing the Loire, with the largest being the 52-metre tall Chéviré Bridge which stands astride the river at Nantes. But at the dawn of the 20th century the situation was very different. To compensate for the lack of a bridge over the Loire estuary, five ferry lines acted as conduits for road traffic. These days only two remain, between Basse-Indre and Indret and between Le Pellerin and Couëron. The Loire à Vélo trail takes the ferry from Couëron to Le Pellerin.

This free ferry crossing is a truly surprising experience, which will entertain young and old alike. Whether you’re travelling by foot, bike or car, give it a go.

Something a little different... the aquacycle

Pédalo sur la Loire Pédalo sur la Loire © D. Dodokal - Loire Vélo Nature

There are only 20 of these bizarre vehicles in the world, and one of them is right here on the Loire. How to describe it? Well, it’s a cross between a pedalo and a catamaran, dreamed up by an aeronautical engineer from Guadeloupe.

Unsinkable, easy to handle and not at all physically demanding, the aquacycle can reach anywhere on the river, even areas of shallow water, allowing you to explore the little islands populated by beavers and herons… From Bréhémont, take a three-hour guided tour by aquacycle, and discover the river from a new perspective in the company of an expert naturalist.

Truly unique places

Placed transformed by man or returned to nature, the Nantes ‘estuary’ and the Trélazé slate mine are truly unique sites

The Nantes estuary at Saint-Nazaire: an open-air art gallery

The initiative is totally original: to install works by renowned contemporary artists along the 60 kilometre stretch that separates Nantes and Saint-Nazaire… and make sure that these works stay in place. Fifteen works have already been installed, spread throughout the estuary where they interact with the countryside, the environment and the history of the landscape which frames them.

Daniel Buren et Patrick Bouchain, Les Anneaux, Nantes, oeuvre pérenne Estuaire 2007 Daniel Buren et Patrick Bouchain, Les Anneaux, Nantes, oeuvre pérenne Estuaire 2007 © J.D Billaud / Nautilus

One of the most well-known artists on display is French painter and sculptor Daniel Buren, whose luminous rings mark the entrance to Nantes’ fashionable Hangar à Bananes.

At Couëron, Danish artist Jeppe Hein has installed his piece Did I miss something? When a visitor sits down on a certain bench on the riverside, he will be suddenly entranced by the jet of water leaping 20 metres out of the Loire into the air. As he stands up, the water stops, and the spectator realises that it is he who triggered the phenomenon.

Misconceivable de Erwin Wurm, Le Pellerin, oeuvre pérenne Estuaire 2007 Misconceivable de Erwin Wurm, Le Pellerin, oeuvre pérenne Estuaire 2007 © Gino Maccarinelli

Another joke at Pellerin, on the other side of the river, with Austrian artist Erwin Wurm’s floppy boat. Misconceivable is a 9-metre long sail boat perched on the bank of the Canal de la Martinière. The boat seems to be irresistibly attracted by the water below, twisting, losing its form and literally nose-diving towards the river...

A new lease of life for the Trélazé slate mines

Mines ardoisières de Trélazé Mines ardoisières de Trélazé © F. Tijou / Angers Loire Métropole

Much of the famous slate which adorns the rooftops of Anjou was mined in Trélazé, the “slate capital”, where the building material has been mined since the 15th century.

Nowadays, slate production has halted at Trélazé, but the site has been transformed into a unique, hundred-acre nature reserve. Admire the flawless blue colour of the lake, and discover the incredible flora which thrives in this dry, rocky soil. Relax in the shade of the oaks and birches, and watch the Lapin stream flow by.

The Eastern section of the Loire à Vélo route around Angers passes through this remarkable site, between the Paperie and the Port de la Chevallerie.

The surprises in pictures