The pounding morning rain is growing puddles everywhere in Tours but we have to visit that saint in that chapel in that cathedral, absolutely, Dain won’t have it any other way. I’m still trying to figure it out, his fascination. Late that night, ducking bats at an eerily lit chateau, I have an inkling. Meanwhile, we have a long day of riding ahead of us. The sun comes out and dries up the puddles and we churn west along what turns out to be a famous path: “La Loire à Vélo.”
This cycling trail starts in Saint-Brevin-les-Pine near Nantes on the Atlantic, crisscrosses the valley – steering cyclists away from urban and industrial areas – and ends 800 km later near Never, where it joins up with the western end of the “Eurovelo 6.”The trans-European trail offers cyclists a sweat-equity way to discover Europe. Not surprisingly, this morning we encounter lots of cyclists. Many are in it for the long haul (I’m a little envious) and loaded down with camping gear (okay, not so envious).
Dain, our intrepid ten year old, gleefully takes advantage of their heavy loads and passes whomever he pleases. Emboldened, he confidently attacks a BMX bike track he finds all but lost amid weeds in a trail-side park. Seeing the photo I snap of his wheels achieving “significant air,” he shouts “Yes! Finally!” He has made his bike depart from earth.
Moments later, Daiga hollers, “I just found paradise,” interrupting our high-fives.
At Savonnieres, the river turns. The water here is a clear blue and tumbles over rocky rapids. Green banks and shallows thick with water lilies occupy the far shore. The occasional fish leaps clear as we watch. Hugging the left bank at the turn is a medieval stone village with a tall church steeple and shoulder-to-shoulder farmhouses. Strollers enjoy the tree-shaded path that winds past one-masted wooden fishing sloops. It is so picturesque, Daiga refuses for several minutes to ride on.
Our destination promises a renowned chateau (quel surprise), but in the hills south of the European path, Dain proclaims that he’s the velo king, so we pride him into accepting a detour up a steep incline into sleepy Saché. The Chateau of Saché is where Honoré de Balzac regularly escaped his busy life in Paris and wrote several of his more than 100 novels. The “debris” chateau, as Balzac called it. Really more of a lodge, it is surrounded by lawns, farm fields, forest. Several rooms have been given over to busts of the lodge’s famous guest. More interesting to me is the upstairs room with his desk. He wrote in cursive using pen and ink. Some of his manuscript pages are on display. I am surprised how neat and orderly his handwriting is. Even more surprised by how little re-writing or editing there seems to have been. Maybe this a final draft? Then again, more than a hundred books? Written by hand? He must have been channeling something. Whatever it is, I’d like to have more of it myself.
Surely the lodge’s sequestered calm is what appealed to the writer famous for his coffee intake, but we have a destination to reach. After pedaling seven kilometers through farmland and woods and over streams with stone arched bridges, we emerge amid sandy hills pocked with grape vines and roll downhill into Azay-le-Rideau, the unqualified, in Daiga’s view, paragon of picturesque charm.
After learning we’d ridden over 50 km, the kindly proprietor at the three-star Hotel de Biencourt (7 Rue Balzac 02 47 45 20 75) – a former boys’ home converted to a modern hotel with a quiet inner courtyard – suggests remedies for our “discomfort.” Step one: walk one block down the cobbled street to “Epicerie Fine, La Balade Gourmande.” The small shop specializes in fine food and regional wines. We score a dry Vouvray. Dain talks soccer with the shop owner, who mentions, when he learns we arrived by bike, that just the year before the Tour de France rolled through here.
Step two in our proprietor’s plan for our comfort: we buy Dain a frozen “Tropical” then park ourselves on a bench in front of a view made for jigsaw puzzles. Flowerpots awash with blooms festoon the nearby bridge arching over the Indre River. In a placid emerald pool replete with water lilies and surrounded by botanical gardens, local teens steer a canoe over a three-foot waterfall while friends cheer leaning out of a balcony. Dain desperately pleads to go swimming despite the signs forbidding it. Green rowboats bob against stone walls that are well more than half of a millennium old. The chilled and slightly bubbly Vouvray goes down a little too easily in this slice of heaven. We give each other a look and all three utter Dain’s mantra: “Je suis de soie.”
Step three: circling back through narrow cobbled streets to Rue Balzac, we sit at an outside table for dinner at “Côté Cour.” The tiny restaurant boasts local and organic food and is close to the chateau entrance. We watch visitors parade by while enjoying tender, buttery locally caught whitefish (probably pike) served on a bed of ratatouille. We opt for a chilled local rosé to top off the Vouvray. Dain opts for – guess – Orangina. Happy and pleasantly tired, we find out why our little rue is so busy with foot traffic. The chateau stays open until 10 PM and offers night tours and a light show.
Azay-le-Rideau, an 11th century fortress rebuilt as a renaissance chateau during the reign of Francois I, the same savvy young king who invited Leonardo Da Vinci to Amboise, occupies a tiny island in the Indre and is said to have been described by Balzac as “a facetted diamond.” Out tour starts in the attic. You’ve never seen so much old-growth timber in one place till you’ve seen the undergirding of one of these chateau roofs. We wander through rooms and halls so dimly lit by battery-powered faux candles that the many notable portraits and tapestries are hard to see. Shutters are closed tightly. We surmise that there is a reason for this.
Dain sets off an alarm. A young guard rushes our way, earbud and mini-lapel mic at work. The nineteenth century apartments have been recreated to simulate a quiet evening at home for the Biencourt family, last royal owners of the chateau. We are so intimately close to their personal things, it is as if we’d been invited to dinner. Dain’s arm brushed a porcelain bowl. Moments later, a visitor behind him does the same. What is surprising – it helps that we’ve had plenty of wine – is this feeling that we are haunting the royal family’s inner sanctum at such an intimate hour.
That haunting mood continues outside. Dark is closing in. We sit under massive ancient hardwoods across from the river and watch a black light show transform the royal residence into a ghost house. All too real bats flit past our ears.
Ducking those bats, looking at that ghost chateau, remembering that feeling that we’d stepped inside a secret life, I admit something to Daiga I thought I’d never admit to myself. This undemocratic royal excess, this ostentation is sending tap roots down into a value that gets lost in the electronic buzzing that jangles most of our waking hours. We are not spores that drifted down from an alien planet. These monuments connect us to an enduring past. And when I say enduring I do not mean enduring only in stone. I mean enduring in our psyches, in our hearts. We are many things but we are also guests at the Biencourt table. Had curious Dain not set off the alarm I might not have noticed.
Riding bicycles slows us down, enough to allow us to gather these moments. Connecting to that enduring something that is larger than myself, I feel more viscerally alive. I’m guessing Dain’s curious devotion to that saint in that cathedral in Tours was tapping into something like this same connection. But there is more. This is why you gotta love children. An adventure awaits. Identities are formed in these adventures.