France: Eat, drink and pedal (+photos)

By Roger Hall

For my entree on the first night I had to decide between roasted scallops with asparagus juice and sorbet flavoured with violet or Burgundy snails with quail fillets and sorrel sauce.

For the main course, should it be roasted sea bream on its skin and risotto with cress, or beef fillet from Charolais, pancake of potatoes and sauce, or veal fillets with mushrooms and roasted foie gras? It got worse.

After the main came the rattle of the cheese trolley approaching the table. There were about 16 cheeses on display. We were encouraged to try at least four of them. In theory one could have more, but I didn't want to be like the diner in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life who exploded after being persuaded by John Cleese to have just a "teeeeny bit more".

Besides, there was still the dessert to come: apricot iced cake with peach juice, cake with cream cheese, or creme brulee? No, I firmly settled for thin slices of black and white chocolate with Grand Marnier sauce.

The meal was served in elegant surroundings, on beautiful Villeroy and Boch china - and all this before we'd even got on a bicycle.

It was our sixth trip with Cycling for Softies and this time we had chosen Burgundy and Beaujolais as the region we would cycle in.

For the scenery, certainly, but one of the attractions of these holidays is the superb food served every night.

As "Softies" suggests, these are not holidays for those groups of brightly-garbed, shaven-legged hearties who bend over the handlebars as they speed along. This is more sit-up-straight and look at the countryside and if the hill is a bit steep get off and push. We're in our late sixties and in the guests' comment book was an entry from a couple in their late seventies. Many quite young children do the tours too. The distances between each destination are fairly short, usually four to five hours of cyling is all that is required.

It is not even cycling in a group (unless you have formed one of your own); you are given maps and set off on your own.

Susi Madron, who runs Cycling for Softies, works out the itinerary and books the hotels. You stay two nights in each hotel, so you don't even have to cycle every day if you don't want to.

The hotels are always pleasant (and they seem to be getting better each holiday) but, as as you may have gathered already, it's not the bedrooms they are chosen for but the restaurants.

The meal described above was served to us at Chateau de Fleurville, our base hotel.

We stayed there for the first two nights and again on our last night. Thus three times we were faced with those difficult choices from the €50 ($95) set menu.

At the base hotel you pick up your bikes from the local representative, in this case a charming Yorkshireman called Frank, who briefed us on our itinerary. It was worth taking careful notes on what he had to say as there were several places en route where it was not clear which road or path to take (one day, Navman might produce a version for cyclists). And Frank was on standby if we needed help; he was just a phone call away.

Burgundy and Beaujolais are, of course, wine districts, but we hadn't realised quite how important wine was to the region until we had visited The Hamlet of Wine in Beaujolais, a massive museum devoted to wine grown in the region.

A slide show extolled the differences and virtues of each district, an animated theatre laboriously went through the work in the year of a winemaker, and there was even a musical comedy film in 3D about wine (dead boring, actually).

There are also displays of how wine is transported, huge presses and equipment, and one room devoted entirely to cork and cork-making. This was not the place to mention a preference for screwcaps and we moved hastily on to where we could taste some of the wines. As the admission fee was a hefty €16 each, we felt entitled to a bit of quaffing.

The museum also had possibly the finest toilets in France with china also supplied by Villeroy and Boch.

We could even have lunch at the museum restaurant (a satisfying croque-monsieur) before heading off to the museum's production area, full of massive steel vats that even Fonterra couldn't match, and hundreds of barrels.

As we were walking there a pleasant woman from the museum gave us a lift. She was excited to know we were from New Zealand because the previous week (this was in early September) the presidents of the French and New Zealand rugby unions had visited the museum and the vineyards (ah, so perhaps there was where it all began to go wrong).

Every village has its own vineyards, all of which offer tastings. Most of their customers are tourists eager to load up their cars with fine wines and drive them home. On bikes, this was not possible, so it was as frustrating as going to Epsom on Derby Day just for the salts.

This being autumn, the vineyards were turning brown, sycamore seeds rotated to the ground, our tyres crunched over acorns and chestnuts. A few sunflowers remained, and the blackberry bushes were laden with accessible berries.

Many of the fields that weren't growing grapes were used for grazing. Charolais cattle, those calm white beasts that originated in the nearby district of Charolles and which, on a plate, go so well with many a red wine from the district. I have a photo of a Charolais and another of a bottle of red wine. Possible caption: "This goes with this."

While most of our cycling was in rural areas, we did visit the town of Tournus with its fine abbey. We arrived on a Saturday morning, street market day (ideal if you are looking for cheap bras).

But the cultural highlight of the trip was Cluny, which for several centuries was home to the biggest and most powerful abbey in the West.

Its buildings covered 17ha, a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture. Alas, most of these were destroyed after the Revolution, but enough remain to provide an insight into the abbey's magnificent past and why it is still a major tourist attraction.

One of the buildings houses the National Horse Stud, which tourists can visit - not racehorses but the working variety, such as percherons. There were 30 stallions, each housed in his box, there for the winter to recover from their brief but fruitful dates throughout the breeding season.

We were put up in the best hotel in Cluny, right beside the abbey. It was pleasant (with fine dining of course), but the best place we stayed at was Chateau des Pommiers in the tiny village of Ige (15km from Cluny), run by an English couple, Steve and Vivienne Taylor.

All the rooms are big, luxurious and beautifully fitted. The grounds are lovely too, with a summer house and a small swimming pool to cool off in.

The food here was splendid with (mercifully) not quite as many courses as the €50 menu. Steve and Vivienne were charming and hospitable hosts, and we realised it would make a great base for a stay in the district if you didn't want to commit to cycling all the time. In fact, on our free day there we went for a 15km walk, using a printed guide provided by Steve.

Then back to the cycling, through rolling countryside, up to one of any number of villages. Just a kilometre or so away was another village looking as if it had been placed there by Cezanne just so it could be painted.

Not that it was all hilly. From a purely cycling point of view, one of the highlights of the trip was the Voi Verte, a former railway track (now replaced by high speed tracks where TGV trains hurtle past at close to 300kph). Being a former railway line it had, at worst, gentle inclines, and was paved with the smoothest surface any cyclist could desire. No motorised traffic was allowed, so fellow-users were walkers, joggers, mothers pushing strollers and, of course, other cyclists. In addition there was a tunnel, picturesque, cool, windless, silent - for 10 minutes or so it was like riding in a vacuum.

On our last day, we cycled through the picturesque town of Macon, down through pleasant malls and cafes, right to the banks of the River Saone, an impressive river, bigger than any we have here.

Another walking/cycling track let us ride along its banks for a couple of hours, past herons and hawks. Then it was Fleurville again for our final night.

Back to the Chateau, with its large grounds, heated swimming pool, and the last of our €50 meals - thin slices of black and white chocolate with Grand Marnier sauce just one more time.

TIP ONE
If you have the time, do go for at least seven days. We once went for five and by that time we were fitter than when we'd started and regretted that we hadn't made it longer. (Once we managed 15 days in Provence, unlike Tour de France riders, unassisted by drugs)

TIP TWO
To get to many Susi Madron base hotels from a station often necessitates using a taxi. Therefore try to avoid starting or ending your holiday on a Sunday when taxi fares are higher.

TIP THREE
Not all of the Burgundy tours go to Chateau des Pommes but you can request for it to be included in your itinerary.

CYCLE TOURS
Susi Madron's tours are available in 10 areas of France and last from five to 14 nights. Our nine-night tour cost 1230 ($3300). which includes hotel accommodation, all meals (excluding lunches and drinks), hire of bikes, maps and back up support from leader.
See www.cycling-for-softies.co.uk.

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