There's a castle in my bike's side-view mirror. But it's not just any castle. It's the castle said to have inspired the tale of Sleeping Beauty. Built against a hill in the beautiful pale tufa stone of these parts, the Château d'Ussé overlooks the Indre River and is all towers, turrets and tight winding staircases.
It's one of the hundreds of châteaux, both grand and crumbling, dotted throughout France's Loire Valley. The landscape gives easy rise to fairy-tale imagination. Pumpkins in country gardens evoke Cinderella's carriage. The nearby wooded trails of the Chinon forest bring to mind a young girl skipping a dangerous path to her grandmother's house. And in the original story of The Sleeping Beauty, at least as established by Charles Perrault in 1697, the tale goes on to reveal the Princess's mother-in-law as a child-eating ogress who demands her granddaughter for dinner: "That is my wish," she says. "And I want to eat her with onion and mustard sauce." No whistling bluebird and dancing chipmunk in this story. And, here in the Loire Valley on a mother-daughter cycling trip, my own daughter is missing. Sort of.
Earlier in the week, we had joined a family cycling trip with Butterfield & Robinson. It's part of the active adventure company's "With the Kids" series, which declares that just because you're in the Cheerios zone doesn't mean you have to surrender your passport.
The five-day adventure promises something for both generations, namely the chance to bike along fields of sunflowers with heavy, bent heads and eat at restaurants where they sweep breadcrumbs off the table. When the kids get bored (yes, bored!) of pedalling through the bucolic scenery, they can experience the region by canoe, sword or paintbrush.
So on this day, Day Five, there's no chatty five-year-old on the attached trail-along bike, cheerfully pumping her legs and exclaiming about the fields of gold and stone villages that you can almost reach out and touch. Pepina has instead been seduced into what has become known as the "party van" that sweeps our route, offering granola bars and scooping up the group's younger kids.
And now, as I set out to pedal toward a ham baguette with a view of the château where a teenage Anne of Brittany married Charles VIII in 1491, my daughter is off with the other children preparing to brush, saddle and ride horses.
"You know," Pepina says as we cycle away from the Château de Brou. "The kings and queens used to play here." This privately owned estate sets the standard for future sleeps, which involve a combination of soft sheets, sprawling grounds and château-chic style that has me keeping an eye out for Colin Firth in breeches. It's Day Two of the trip, and the sun is out after a rainy start.
The evening before, in the chandelier-lit dining room around a table set for 22, we met, sans helmets, our guides and fellow families. It's an entrepreneurial, successful, well-travelled crowd. There's an investment banker from Tampa Bay, Fla., a lawyer from Toronto and a winemaker from California. The guides include the unflappable American expat Karen, the adventurous Emily and the soft-spoken Thomas, all of whom are charting lives away from the 9-to-5.
On this morning, Pepina and I are first out of the gate and we exit the damp forested lane for the country roads. The sun warms us, the trail-a-bike feels solid and the small roads are well paved and for the most part free of traffic. Everyone cycles at their own pace, following the detailed instructions handed out after breakfast – 100 metres at the T-intersection, turn left; 400 metres later at the Y-intersection, turn right and so on – but we often group together for snack breaks at the support van. While I'm towing Pepina, and an exuberant four-year-old named Max is in a bike trailer, most of the children are riding on their own.
The scenery here in the Touraine region, an hour train ride from Paris, creates a snapshot of country life: chickens crossing the road (we can cross that off our bucket lists now), a family harvesting potatoes and an elderly woman receiving a delivery of baguettes at her front gate. The biking is easy, except for the long, slow hills, but there's always time to catch one's breath at the top. And with a tip from a fellow traveller, a Colorado mother named Rebecca who looks like an outdoorsy Sarah Jessica Parker, I initiate games to keep the spirits of my little cyclist up. "Guess this hum" proves popular.
The peaceful scenery belies the drama of the past: the stake-burning, the battles with England, the religious wars. This is the territory of warrior-saint Joan of Arc, satirist François Rabelais and the royal stomping ground of Henry Plantagenet (King of England) and Eleanor of Aquitaine (a fairy-tale figure herself, as Queen-Consort of France she joined her husband, Louis VII, King of France, on the Second Crusade; after divorcing Louis, she married Henry and became Queen of England). Home to powerful dukes, the Loire was a hub of court life until the political focus shifted to Paris at the end of the 16th century.
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
Special to The Globe and Mail