Soon, after 26 kilometres of humming and pedalling, the Château du Rivau appears. Pepina and I have time to wander the whimsically renovated 15th-century castle before joining the other cyclists for an outdoor lunch. After a glass of wine, the parents set off for the next hotel and I join the kids to paddle the Vienne River, its placid nature interrupted only by our gang's water fights. We eventually pull up on the banks of the medieval town of Chinon. That evening at the Château de Marçay, Pepina and I sample our first Michelin-starred cuisine and my daughter identifies the flavours of her first crème brûlée as “eggy, marshmallow-y and syrup.” She makes me proud.
The next day, the children are fighting on the wide lawn in front of the imposing château. Paired off, they're attacking each other with swords – well, foils actually, Rudi van Oeveren corrects. The fencing expert who has taught three national teams is coaching the children and a few parents on the finer points of the sport. En garde, touché and the click of foils can be heard. “Don't hop,” he says. “Move your feet.”
“This is the moment I've been waiting for,” my daughter says as she pulls off her fencing mask and we wait in the shade to watch a duel.
The afternoons are well organized for the kids, who range in age from 4 to 14. The adult highlights are memorable too. Before lunch one day, we tour the Fontevraud Abbey, a former monastic city, where a guide named Hilde sings a verse of a 13th-century mass in the nuns' dining hall and I imagine these women in their long black wool robes, singing, praying, waiting for their first meal. On another night, we enter the cool darkness of an 11th-century quarry-turned-wine cellar. Stéphanie Caslot explains how her family has been growing grapes here since the 1600s and hands out samples of the full-bodied reds of Bourgueil that we've been cycling past. We then pick bottles to accompany dinner in the vineyards. In one of those spontaneous moments of travel, the Californian winemaker in our party invites everyone for a meal and cycling in his vineyards.
But it isn't all smooth parrying along the way, and the long, late style of French dining proves sometimes difficult. (You try rushing a French waiter.) The guides, however, work ceaselessly to arrange earlier meals, order morning omelettes and locate missing helmets.
My own challenge comes from my daughter, or perhaps an affliction I've long endured: high expectations. I had pictured this mother-daughter trip as the perfect bonding journey away from the distractions of sibling squabbles and housework. Though my daughter has always been more Joan of Arc than princess, I hadn't anticipated the tantrums within the terroir. While the other kids seem to thrive – they easily eat and play together and one morning I see two siblings, ages 9 and 11, glow with accomplishment after cycling more than 40 kilometres – my own child is sometimes grumpy when she rejoins me at day's end.
Still, I take comfort in the fact that parenting is all about keeping things in perspective. Take Charles VII at age 15. Insulted by a guard when passing through Azay-le-Rideau, a chateau we visited the first day, he ordered the execution of the captain and his 350 soldiers, and had the town burned to the ground.
My last European cycling adventure had been in Holland when I was six months pregnant with Pepina. I remembered biking along the Dutch dikes, the sun warming my growing belly, and wondering about the journey that lay ahead. Just like the fairy tales before Disney got his hands on them, motherhood, life and travel with kids had proved both more difficult and more deeply wonderful than I'd imagined. Sure, it was easier to bike without her, but somehow I still preferred towing her along (there were reports of little pedalling at the back), listening to her hum Jingle Bells. Now, spent from a long day, my daughter lay in our shared bed under the timbered ceiling, asleep with two teddies – a kitty and a lambie – tucked under her arms. At this moment, she was asleep and serene, my own sleeping beauty.
IF YOU GO
- Butterfield & Robinson offers “With the Kids” trips for a range of destinations including Costa Rica, the Galapagos Islands and New Zealand. Its Loire Valley Family Biking package has two scheduled summer trips in 2012. 1-866-551-9090; butterfield.com
- Air France offers a daily flight to Paris from Toronto and daily flights from Montreal. 1-800-667-2747; airfrance.ca
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