In the Valley of the Kings

The English-language edition of the guide to the Loire à Vélo cycling trail reached me recently.  I opened it with interest, having been surprised, when we cycled along the Loire in 2011, by how elusive the trail seemed at times, and frustrating at others. Was that our fault, or the trail’s?

LavThe book has an official look to it, with a Preamble written or at least underwritten by the regional tourist boards.  The price tag is impressive too: 14 euros for 143 pages under a soft cover.  Had I known of its existence three years ago, I expect I would have been too mean to buy it.

The guide tries to pull off the ambitious trick of doing everything: a map of the entire route from Nevers to the sea; descriptions, hotel recommendations and pretty pictures.

The maps are the most important part: numerous, colourful and presented in a ring-bound, 15km-per-page format designed sensibly enough for easy consultation while cycling.  They are a bit light on information, a defect the author attempts to justify by arguing that the trail is so well signed, place names and road numbers are unnecessary. That sounds like a feeble excuse – and why not mark the recommended hotels, or include a separate hotel map?  The colour coding also leaves a bit to be desired.  Purple for a dedicated cycling trail and red for a public road can be hard to tell apart, through dark glasses.

Fairytale chateau

Fairytale chateau

The written part of the book lets it down badly.  Readers of a sensitive disposition are advised to take a tranquilliser and swallow hard before starting. Stand by for an epidemic of exclamation marks (Attention! Turn left on the D951!), a scattergun approach to quotation and a sub-GCSE standard of translation, among other editorial crimes.

Credit where credit is due, the day’s route starts with a “privileged” crossing of the Loire!  

The most basic mistake is to translate ‘château’ as ‘castle’.  Can any guide to the Castles of the Loire hope to be taken seriously?  Chenonceau is ‘one of the most prestigious castles in the Valley of the Kings.’  Isn’t the Valley of the Kings in Egypt?

Bigger dead than alive

Bigger dead than alive

Equally crass, in a different way, is the mistranslation of one of the most famous quotes in French history – ‘il est plus grand mort que vivant’ – as ‘he is greater dead than alive’.  (Henri III said it, allegedly, of the Duc de Guise, whose assassination he had just ordered and witnessed, and he was referring to the Duke’s size, not his greatness).

The words are frequently incomprehensible, starting with the first sentence of the book: “The Loire is an obvious and natural guide to use if you want to discover the landscapes and inhabitants of this river.”  I have puzzled long and hard over these words, without managing to extract meaning from them.

Tours and Orléans are alike in being “subject to the constraints of two SNCF railway stations.”  The foundations of an old bridge at Orléans are visible at “neap tides.”  373km from the sea, this phenomenon sounds almost worthy of an exclamation mark, but doesn’t get one.  Amboise is a “logistics platform” by virtue of its location within 100km of most Loire castles, which sounds like a logistically challenging set of bike rides; while a number of other places, including the confluence of the Vienne and Loire, are “nerve centres”.  How can a river junction be a nerve centre?   Do they mean central Nevers, perhaps?

The Loire’s moods will often force you to travel to Savennières via Epiré.”  This peculiar statement had me wondering if moods might be a misprint for floods, but for some reason the guide refers to floods as ‘spates’ so it can’t be.

Chaumont’s gardens are “ephemeral,” which seems a bit harsh.  Azay le Rideau is “an attractive small town or rather a neighbourhood if you limit yourself to the area around the castle.”   Could the mot juste that eludes the translator in this instance be village?

On the subject of this neighbourhood castle, “access by bicycle is possible as far as the entrance.”  This sounds like a weird way to say access by bicycle is not possible, or am I missing something?  And why would we want to tour a castle by bike, anyway?

loirecroc 032

Access by bike possible as far as the entrance

In many places the translation appears to have been carried out mechanically, without thought.  What is the point of translating into English, word for word (or so I assume), advice aimed at French cyclists – to follow the example of British visitors and wear a helmet?  The Tour Operators listing consists of three French domestic companies.  Could do better.

The Preamble raises the tempting prospect of friendly hoteliers transporting luggage between stages of the journey.  The guide gives no further details of this key consideration for holiday cyclists.  ‘Greenway’ is not defined, nor is it at all clear – to me, at least – what ‘secured’,  ‘non-secured’, ‘reinforced’ and ‘stabilised’ mean, as descriptions of a road or path.  How about rough and smooth, or car-free (if that’s the meaning)?

Having got that off my chest, what about the route itself?   Michel Bonduelle’s book suggests that in some places there is not one Loire à Vélo trail, but several.  In the central zone usually known – although not in this book – as Château Country, he tells us there are 11 itineraries from 16 to 32 km in length, amounting to 300km, which suggests that most of the 11 must be nearer to 32km than 16.   The multiple choice routing around the Vienne/Loire nerve centre is incredibly confusing.   No wonder Galaxy and I got so lost.  This may also explain the official claims that the Loire à Vélo is 800km long, while the actual river distance from Nevers to the Atlantic is more like 550.

Somewhere near a nerve centre

Somewhere near a nerve centre

Bonduelle tells us so often how faultlessly well-marked the trail is, I assumed he must be writing under promotional orders from the tourist office.  But there are times when he dares to suggest leaving the marked route. “At Saint-Gondon the official route offers a long detour via Saint-Florent, but it is always possible to opt for a more direct route.”

We found ourselves frequently opting for a more direct route and, now that I have studied journeyman Bonduelle’s diligent guide, I feel less guilty that we did so.

It would indeed be interesting to know why the trail makes big diversions such as this.  Might it have anything to do with the commerçants of Saint-Florent and their desire to have a stream of thirsty holiday cyclists passing through?

An Amazon reviewer of this book gives it five stars and suggests that you could cycle the Loire without needing another map. That may be true – though I’m not sure how you’d find your accommodation.

If I was doing the ride again, I would prefer the old fashioned option of buying a proper map for purposes of navigation – Huber Verlag does the Loire à Vélo in 3 maps (1:100,000) @ 3.80 euros each – and a proper guide for background information.  The Michelin green guide doesn’t weigh much, doesn’t take up much space in the pannier, and refers to its subject as The Châteaux of the Loire.

The Complete Loire à Vélo Trail by Michel Bonduelle is published by Editions Ouest France

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