Le Vieux Moulin — Cycling Through France

Le Vieux Moulin — Cycling Through France

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cycling through CherWhen
I was a small child, one of my favorite books was a reproduction of a
medieval tome. I spent hours paging through the oversized volume,
puzzling out the calligraphied letters and marveling at the detail of
daily life shown in the pictures. Last spring, I had a chance to stand
where the illustrator stood, and (if you ignore telephone lines and
automobiles) the scene hasn’t changed all that much over the centuries.
The book, of course, was Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, and,
in May, I wandered the byroads of the nobleman’s historic domain.

My
husband and I had journeyed to France for a week of bicycling at Le
Vieux Moulin in Cher, just west of the border with Burgundy. He’s the
expert rider in the family–he even brought his own bike with our
baggage. I had every intention of riding, but once I picked up our
rental car, the siren call of sightseeing became irresistible.

Of
course, that’s one of the big advantages of a bicycle tour company like
Le Vieux Moulin. Instead of the usual hectic daily routine–up, pack,
depart and ride to a new place along the route, unpack again–Frank
Pettee and his team lead daily loops from an idyllic setting in tiny
Patinges (a few kilometers west of Nevers). You have to unpack just
once. If you’re not a rider (or just want to take a day off), you can
stay put to relax, read, soak in the hot tub, or do as I did: jump in a
car and spend the days meandering the back roads of the heart of France.

Each
evening, however, I was back at Le Vieux Moulin before 8 p.m. That’s
when dinner is served–and what a meal! Five sumptuous dinners are
included in the package price. Each features several courses centering
on a regional specialty. A couple of samples: one night we had pintarde
with prunes; on another, rabbit and white asparagus with a tarragon
cream sauce. Each meal includes a cheese course, and Frank, ever the
genial host, explains where each came from and how one sampled several
varieties while sipping red (never white!) wine.

In
fact, wine is one of the highpoints of the stay. It costs extra of
course, but his cellar is stocked with regional favorites at reasonable
prices. You don’t have to finish the bottles in one sitting (although
we seemed to manage this quite easily) because they can be recorked and
stored ’til the next evening.

The
English translation for Le Vieux Moulin is the old mill, and in this
part of Europe, “old” means 15th century. Frank, however, is an
American in his late sixties. About a decade ago, the Boston native
sold his stateside businesses and decided to follow his dream of skiing
half the year in Vail, Colo., and riding a bicycle in France the other
half. The result is part adventure tour company and part country inn,
but all wonderful. Frank bought an old stone mill house on a spit of
land between a small tributary of the Loire River and a now-disused
canal. The main building became his office, the kitchen, sitting room
and guest quarters, while a garage was converted to more guest
accommodations. Le Vieux Moulin, at full capacity, can take 24 people.
Each of the 12 rooms has a private bath. but none has a telephone,
radio or television. The surrounding gardens are idyllic. There’s no
traffic noise, just the sound of birds and gentle breezes.

Each
morning about 9 a.m., after a leisurely breakfast, everybody would
gather at the bicycle shed to get ready for the day. Sometimes they’d
drive in a van for a bit before getting on their bikes–each day’s ride
was different. Misa Kolvic (a native of Serbia) and his wife Alexandra
were on staff when my husband and I visited Le Vieux Moulin. My husband
and Misa would head off down the road as fast as they could go. The
rest of the riders, Frank included, got in line behind, and Alexandra
brought up the rear. Different riding ability levels were accommodated
without comment.

SancerreWhile
the group pedaled, I’d explore the countryside, then meet them for
lunch. No fast food here! Midday meal stops were an hour or two at a
café in a small village, with surprisingly good food, maybe a little
wine or beer and terrific conversation. Then it was back on the bikes
for the return–or, in my case, another side trip. Around every corner,
it seemed, there was another medieval chateau or ancient church to
explore. All-white Charolais cattle lounged in emerald green pastures
between golden yellow fields of rapeseed. Steeper slopes sported
orchards or vineyards (this was France, after all, and we were in the
region of some legendary appellations, including Sancerre,
Menetou-Salon and
Pouilly).

The various options for Le Vieux Moulin bicycle tours are detailed on the website,
or call +33 2 48760721. Prices range from $1750 for seven days/six
nights in a deluxe room with terrace all the way down to $750 for four
days/three nights in a “petite” room. An expanded continental breakfast
is included, plus one picnic lunch and five dinners for those who stay
a week. On the sixth night, you’re transported to Nevers for a dinner
out. We went to La Botte de Nevers to sample some of the local
Charolais beef (it’s on Rue du Petit Château, +03 86 61 16 93). Yum!

Each
day’s ride is supported and escorted from start to finish. If you don’t
bring your bicycle as my husband did, you ride one of theirs. Not
included in those prices is transportation from the United States, but
Frank Pettee also arranges packages that include airfare, hotels in
Paris and train tickets to Nevers. The town of Nevers on the western
edge of Burgundy is off the radar screen for American travelers. It’s
compact and not crowded but filled with ancient buildings and redolent
with history due to its location on the Loire River, a major
transportation artery in medieval France. It has a helpful Office de
Tourisme easily located by following the directional signs (it’s in the
lower level of the Ducal Palace on rue Sabatier) and
has a website
with links to area attractions. Nevers is best known for its faïence
(hand-painted ceramics), made in the town since the 16th century.

cycling through CherOther places to see in Burgundy range from contemporary to ancient. Just a few miles apart, you can visit Ste. Bernadette (http://perso.wanadoo.fr/sainte-bernadette-nevers/anglais/) in her glass coffin in a chapel in Nevers, and then drive to the archaeological digs at Bibracte (http://www.bibracte.fr/), the Celtic town where Julius Caesar stayed to write his memoirs about conquering Gaul.

To
the west of Nevers are the lands of the Duke of Berry. Go there after
looking at the illuminated book he commissioned in the early 15th
century. Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (
http://humanities.uchicago.edu/images/heures/heures.html)
remains the best record in existence about daily life in this part of
France. As I drove around the still-rural countryside between Nevers
and Bourges, some of the vistas seemed almost the same as those
depicted in the paintings done by the Limbourg brothers between 1412
and 1416. I spent two days exploring Bourges (
www.ville-bourges.fr),
another gem of a town well off the American tour circuit. I enjoyed
walking the winding streets of its beautifully preserved medieval heart
replete with half-timbered houses and visiting the enormous Gothic
cathedral at the top of the hill, and I really liked finding a
convenient internet café at 81 rue Gambon where I could catch up on my
e-mail when I tired of the sights.


Susan
McKee’s journalism career began in college when she got a job setting
type for the Daily Bruin (she soon became a staff reporter for the
paper, and a copy editor for the UCLA yearbook). Susan earned her first
freelance writing checks with chapters in an old Simon and Schuster
guidebook series, Where the Fun Is USA. She has a BA in Near Eastern
History from the University of California at Los Angeles and an MA in
American Studies from Purdue University, plus decades of experience as
a general assignment reporter for The Indianapolis Star and as a
freelance writer. Specializing in culture and travel, her tearsheets
number in the thousands.

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