Travel: Chateau Life at Le Tour de France
The 2014 Tour de France visits the Bordeaux region with a stage finish and Time Trial start at the medieval town of Bergerac. France From Inside cycling tour’s Allan Reeves knows the area well – his family owns a chateau there, and guests will enjoy fantastic riding, exquisite French cuisine, and some big time bike racing.
In 2014 the Tour de France will pay a long visit to the southwest of France with both a stage finish and a Time Trial start at the medieval town of Bergerac along the Dordogne river. We know one person who’s excited about it. Allan Reeves is looking to combine his family’s nearby castle – the Chateau Pitray – and Le Tour for a week of cycling, wine and chateau living. It’s not every day that you get the chance to feel like royalty and see The Tour.
Chateau de Pitray on a warm sunny summer day. The west facade. Wow, look at the size of that place.
If you have ever wanted a truly exclusive and personal bike adventure, something that clearly differentiates itself from the more commercial varietals, then you should entertain a week stay a Chateau Pitray with Allan’s family. Some say “come for the chateau, but stay for the wine and food,” others say “come for the TDF, but stay for the cycling.” Bottom line, each one of these elements is reason enough to come. So combine all that with the hospitality of a local family (the chateau owners), who will welcome you like old friends, and you have something truly special, a slice of heaven.
Contador in yellow stays on the wheel of Vinokorov with Chavanel just behind.
Reside Like Royalty
Before we lick our chops about attending the Tour de France (stages 19 and 20), let’s find out a little something about the chateau and its surroundings. Chateau de Pitray was built in 1868 (good heavens that is 146 years ago), a classic grand 19th century French Chateau with a focus on luxury and style. Long gone are the medieval architectural traits of older castles built as forts to defend against hostile invaders. Sure there are towers, but these are stately and decorative with marble staircases inside. The rooms on the ground floor boast 20 foot ceilings, the walls are lined with oak paneling, and every room has a marble fireplace and hardwood floors. Rest assured that since it was built the chateau has been upgraded to incorporate today’s modern conveniences. Allan’s grandfather added a swimming pool, scaled to match the chateau’s proportions – that’s a very large pool – and an elevator in one of the towers in between the spiraling staircase.
There are two dining rooms in the chateau. This is the larger one, used when the dining party exceeds 8.
The Pitray estate has been in the "Segur de Pitray" family for five centuries, and they have been producing wine for more than four. A third of the property’s pastoral 200 acres are occupied by vineyards, the rest forests and fields. The chateau is located in southwestern France in the world renowned wine region of Bordeaux. It is a stone’s throw from the medieval village of Saint Emilion, a Unesco World Heritage site and also a very prestigious wine appellation. Wine lovers will be in for a real treat with all you can drink Pitray wines and the opportunity to taste some excellent wines from Saint Emilion.
The northern part of the estate is traversed by a pair of paved lanes that lead to the chateau’s stately entrance. The sheer size and scale of the place is hard to believe.
The view south from the top of the church bell tower at Saint Emilion. Vineyards as far as you can see. In 2000 the village was classified as a World Heritage Unesco site.
So where does the cycling fun come in? Beyond the borders of the estate are the rolling hills, farmlands, forests, and vineyards of Bordeaux, dotted with medieval villages and Roman history. An endless network of small country roads leads off in every direction, offering a varied mix of flats, rollers, short climbs, and brisk descents. A cycling paradise. So condensed is the countryside of roads that, within a 10 mile radius of the chateau, it’s possible to pedal 100 miles without riding the same road twice. Yet the sheer density of the options is not the only allure for a cyclist, it’s also the bounty and beauty of the landscape, and if you come from a crowded part of the U.S., you won’t believe the utter absence of auto traffic on such well-maintained roads.
Pictures don’t quite capture the reality of what it is like to be there, but they are helpful to put things into perspective.
Rollers, flats and short climbs … an endless maze of wonderment. A guest once said about the cycling in this area, “I can’t give it a 10 out of 10 because that doesn’t exist, so I will give it a 9 out of 10.”
Of course the vital feature of a cycling vacation are the daily bike rides, and the exceptional ones are those guided by a local, and that means back-roads – those roads that most definitely are not part of the commercial vacation offerings. Follow Allan who’s been riding theses roads for over 15 years, rolling along the tranquil Dordogne River, through the forests, past the vineyards and 12th-century churches, stopping at the crest of a hill to survey the vibrant but age-old landscape, you’ll need to check your smartphone for proof that you haven’t gone back in time.
Not all of the Bordeaux countryside is densely planted with vineyards. In fact as you head east of Chateau Pitray towards Bergerac the vineyards slowly give way to fields and forests, which makes for a wonderful variety of landscapes to ride your bike.
See Le Tour
And now let’s go see the 2014 Tour de France. This year’s edition ends by heading north from the Pyrenees to the town of Bergerac in the department of Dordogne, with the closing two stages – numbers 19 and 20 – before the final in Paris. Stage 19 will finish in Bergerac, giving Allan’s group a chance to experience riding part of the course ahead of the pros on race day. The plan, a long loop along back-roads from the chateau to merge with the circuit 20 miles from the finish, and then, like the pros, ride to the finish cheered on by the fans lining the roads. "I had a chance to do this 2 years ago and it is a thrill. It is one thing to see the Tour, but to experience it as a cyclist on the course is like being in The Show. Believe me, all the spectators are geared up and impatient for the race, and when they see cyclists they go nuts, especially the kids. It is a blast, not to mention totally surreal."
If you played your cards right these crowds were cheering for you earlier in the day.
And if that isn’t enough, the following day you’ll return again by bike to Bergerac to see Stage 20. People travel from all over the world to see just one stage, and it is the rare occurrence for a town to host two stages, and therefore an extraordinary opportunity to make it big and see the Tour twice in two days. In this case the ante is upped again by the fact that stage 20 is a Time Trial. That means an all day party cheering on one rider after another as they launch themselves onto the course. By the end of the day you’ll be on such a high that the 30 mile ride home will be the perfect cool down.
Rider after rider tackles the course alone, with the yellow jersey going last. By this time you’ll be hoarse from cheering all day long.
Ah, The Cuisine!
What happens when you get home at the chateau? You’ll eat and drink like Kings and Queens. Henri de Bornier from the 19th century once wrote that "every man has two countries, his own and then France." It does have a certain poetic truth as France is a country that has many wonderful attributes, not the least of which, an understatement, is food and wine. As I mentioned earlier, "come for the TDF stay for the wine and food," or something to that effect. Up to this point I’ve talked about the chateau, the region, the race, and now it is time to concentrate on the cuisine.
First-rate French cuisine and vintage Bordeaux wine – grown and aged on the estate and served in the sumptuous dining room – are an integral part of the routine at Pitray.
French cuisine is exquisite, the best dishes, the best pates, the best breads, the best cheeses, the best wines, the best vegetables, the best salads, the best deserts, the best fruits, and on and on. Why is it so good over there? Let’s just call is savoir faire. It defines and preoccupies French culture. Now imagine yourself inside the Chateau Pitray in an elegant dining room relishing such wonderful food and good cheer, talking about the day’s excitement cycling through empty backroads and attending the Tour de France. Wake up man, this is for real. You did ride on the course today, and you are enjoying a Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classe with that Comte cheese.
You are expected to indulge yourself and savor the food over long lazy lunches, sipping wine and trying to save some space for desert. But isn’t this one reason why you ride a bike?
Home made apple pie French style. But first that comte cheese accompanied with a robust Pitray red wine. I suppose there could be an argument made as to which is the real desert!
It’s no secret that France reliably produces most of the world’s best wines. Naturally so since they have been at it for eons, and in the Bordeaux region, specifically Saint Emilion, the history of wine making goes back to the 2nd century. Over the course of so much time, knowledge and techniques have been refined and perfected. The concept of “terroir” is French, the idea that the right grape needs to be matched with the correct soil and climate. For example, the climate and terroir of Bordeaux is ideal for the merlot and cabernet grapes. These varietals achieve their greatest demonstration on Bordeaux soil, and this is the reason that their wines are delicious, viscous and robust. Even though the focus of this trip is cycling and the Tour de France, it is also your prime opportunity to introduce yourself to one of the most esteemed wine regions of the world.
The Chateau Pitray winery produces about 200,000 bottles per year, and these are divided into 3 separate productions: “Madame” and “1er Growth” and “Pitray Wine.” It goes without saying that there will be an unlimited supply during your stay at Pitray.
Living out of the chateau like royalty for a week will be most relaxing, especially owing to the graciousness of the hosts, Monsieur et Madame Count de Boigne, and the elegant accommodations. Not having to pack and unpack for a week will make for an even more pleasurable experience. You will feel comfortable, at home, and part of the family. From the stand point of cycling you will have the amazing fortune to see the Tour de France on two back to back days, live and up close as you ride on part of the course one day, and return the next to see a coveted time trial stage. All this while you ride the endless backroads of the region with Allan as your guide. Pez Cycling gives a big thumbs up to this trip. Check it out.
The estate grounds were professionally designed and landscaped on a grand scale, with the planting of forests on the perimeter, and the intentional design to plant the vineyards away from view at the chateau. Hence when you look south out over the pool you will see only fields and forests.
The bedrooms are spacious, with hardwood floors and high ceilings, and decorated with antique furniture.
One of the bedroom bathrooms remodeled several years ago.
Chateau de Montbadon from the 16th century … there is a valid reason why the Tour de France has a “cultural” commentator along with the other cycling race analysts … history is everywhere.
The gothic church tower built on the lyme stone plateau of Saint Emilion. The view from the top of the church steeple is a wonder. Be sure to make the effort to climb the narrow windy staircase to enjoy the view, the highest point in the Gironde region.
The Bordeaux wine region is not all vineyards along the rolling hills. As you can see there are forests and fields, which adds a pleasant variety to the landscape and makes for excellent cycling atmosphere.
Enjoying a pre-dinner cocktail on the balcony overlooking the forests ringed fields, taking the sun by the pool below the chateau; you’ll experience life as it was lived by a former aristocracy. A bird’s eye view of the south facade of the chateau.