Our first ride in France

March 14
Montargis >Combreux

We arrived by train in Montargis, France last night at around 830 pm, after a long journey from Heide's Oma's house in Langenfeld, Germany. It was difficult to book our bikes onto French trains, so our journey took us over 9 cities and towns in a span of 22 hours. Whew!

We were happy to wake up in our hostel just off of the Canal d'Orleans, and eager to begin the ride to our first host farm. This ride would take us over 300k over the next 6 days: we would follow the Canal d'Orleans from it's origins in Montargis to it's terminus at the Loire River in Orleans, then bike along the Loire from Orleans to Chaumont-sur-Loire, and, finally, head south from Chaumont into the forested lakes of the Parc naturel régional de la Brenne.

When we loaded up and shoved off (ahoy!), we were surprised to see that the trail along the Canal d'Orleans was not much more than a little-used towpath, sometimes very narrow and muddy. The first 6k took a difficult 45 minutes of riding/pushing our loaded bikes through mud and ruts. Hmm, this changed our timeline a bit, but we had given ourselves plenty of extra time.

Our street-shiny bikes getting their first bit of trail dust!

The canal was built in the 1600s by a timber baron, in order to transport lumber felled in the region. The canal is no longer navigated by ships, but most of the locks and lock-houses are well-maintained and in beautiful condition. The total length of the canal is about 85k.

Here we are getting the first flat tire of the trip at the end of day 1! The sun was beginning to set, so we decided that it would be a good time to set up camp along an old road bed/hunting corridor.

March 15
Combreux > Meung-sur-Loire

Our second day of riding along the Canal d'Orleans took us past more beautiful canal-side homes, and we moved from the densely wooded, rural portion of the trail to more populated areas closer to Orleans. 

We met the Loire just east of Orleans. Although the ride along the canal was beautiful, in this photo we are really looking forward to biking on pavement for a while...

Riding into Orleans, this narrow wall between the Loire and a small canal provided a beautiful, windy stretch of pavement. 

We love the fact you can camp just about anywhere in rural France, and always look forward to setting up camp. We found this campsite in a wooded area just outside Meung-sur-Loire.

Yoga mat/kitchen prep zone: an item that just barely made our packing list, but one we have thoroughly enjoyed having on hand. Also essential: a broad-bladed lightweight knife and a thin cutting board.

March 16
Meung-sur-Loire > Blois

During our first full day along the Loire cycle route, La Loire à Vélo, we fell in love with how well-signed and well-designed the route is (check out the website here). The route covers over 800k in total, and many portions are along bike-dedicated pathways or roads with extremely limited auto traffic. We saw many other bikers and walkers along our way (though no loaded touring bikes), and came to enjoy the typical greeting of "bonjour!" by passers-by. When we stopped to picnic, this greeting was often followed by an enthusiastic "bon appetit!"

High-quality trail surface, typical of the Loire ride.

The Loire valley has some 300 châteaux built by nobility between the 10th and 20th centuries; the area is sometimes called the Valley of the Kings or, for it's rich soils and successful wine-growing climate, The Garden of France. One of the several châteaux we passed was Chambord, the largest in the valley, and considered to be one of the most spectacular in France. Most incredibly to us was the fact that it was not designed to be truly lived in - it served as hunting retreat for François I, who only spent 7 total weeks there in his lifetime. So rare were his visits that it was kept unfurnished, and all furnishings were brought along for each hunting expedition. Amazing.

We treated ourselves to a shower and a bed at the end of this ride and overnighted in Blois, a medieval town along the Loire.

As we arrived, their annual carnival parade was in full swing, and passed right by our hotel. A very different atmosphere than our forest camps...

March 17
Blois > Loches

Today we turned south from the Loire and the signed route, and began following our own mapped route to take us the final leg our first host farm. We mapped the route ourselves using google maps and street view, and then highlighted our path on 1:100,000 IGN maps. We decided not to buy a GPS for this trip, and are using the maps in conjunction with a mounted compass and an odometer. We also pre-loaded tricky sections of the route onto our iPhones, and took detailed screen shots in areas that seemed like they could be complicated. We were excited to see how it would work out.

Much of the day's riding took us past open agricultural fields on narrow roads - Heide used her helmet for the first time on the trip because cars sometimes passed closely and quickly (Patrick left his in Germany - oops!).

Navigational success! With a few map consultation sessions along the way, we found our way to our desired campsite - a national forest just north of the town of Loches. 

Our Swedish-designed Trangia camp stove has served us well thus far along the ride. Wonderfully silent, with a graceful simmer. No rocket fuel here. 

March 18
Loches > Azay-Le-Ferron

Our morning in the forest dawned damp and misty, and after a few kilometers of riding through the wooded trails we began to navigate through narrow and sometimes busy country roads. Our plan for the evening had been to camp in the Parc naturel régional de la Brenne, just north of our host farm, but finding a suitable "wild" campsite proved very difficult, and we learned that all the organized campsites had not yet opened for the season. Instead, we ended up overnighting in a cozy hotel in Azay-Le-Ferron, and were grateful for the comfortable beds as it began to drizzle in the early evening.

March 19
Azay-Le-Ferron > Domaine du Verger

The morning in Azay-Le-Ferron dawned in a dense, white fog, and we needed our front and rear lights for the first time on our trip. While it made visibility a struggle, the fog was beautiful and stayed with us for over 25k.

We reached the town of La Blanc under sunny skies by about lunchtime - La Blanc is a town of 7,000 that lies 15k north of our host farm.

It will become our closest "big town" during our 5-week stay, and we look forward to exploring it in the days to come.

A defunct rail line serves as the main cycle path out of town - the trail starts at the old train station and follows the viaduct you can see in the photo above.

Old stations and bridges along the trail are overgrown, and the last train ran through this area about 25 years ago.

And then, at last! 330k after leaving Montargis, we arrive at our host farm, Domaine du Verger. In a way it is a bit sad to end the lovely first ride we had, but we are excited to see what the next weeks have in store for us. Stay tuned!