Le Vieux Moulin — Cycling Through France

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Le Vieux Moulin — Cycling Through France
  When 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. While 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…
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