JANE TREMBATH

Independent Cycle Touring

in France


IMPRESSIONS of FRANCE

- 1

Favourite areas: Dordogne, Lot, Nantes-Brest canal, Burgundy, Cevennes, Drome and Vercors massif, Doubs, Vendee, Gorges de la Tarn (upstream of Millau)

June 2005: Dordogne, Charente, Marais Poitevin, Loire and Loir valley, Normandy, Seine. 4 ½ weeks, 1500km

Dordogne: Highly recommended. Our ride from Souillac (where we disembarked from the train) to Bergerac was magical. Memories of dappled sunlight filtering through the walnut orchards, roses tumbling over stone garden walls, mediaeval towns and farmlands. Northwards from Bergerac via Riberac to Angouleme (Charente) was also very enjoyable over gentle hills, quiet and scenic.

Cognac: The Charente river, north of Angouleme, was somewhat average, but after that we quite enjoyed our ride northwest through the fields. We loved our nights stay with old folks at Nere who fed us rabbit for our table d'hote - something I surmised when we saw rabbit cages while parking our bikes.

Marais Poitevin, or Venise Verte: We based ourselves in Coulon, and rode through the marshes, along the Sevre river, and in the surrounding areas. Riding there, northwest from Nere to Coulon, was ordinary. We found the Marais area pleasant enough through the marshes, but otherwise unremarkable along the river. This area was not to our taste, although possibly felt spoilt by lousy weather. The highlight was the best garlicky moules ever in a restaurant in Coulon.

Loire and Loir valleys Upriver from Tours to north of Chambord. The river itself is not that exciting, but Amboise is very pretty, and it's an enjoyable ride up past Chambord - lovely forest cycle tracks giving tantalising glimpses of the chateau. Turning northwards to head for Le Loir (a different river from La Loire), the flat farmlands charmed us with steeples of several villages visible at once. We stayed in Lavardin in the Loir, which is a delightful area filled with troglodyte dwellings in chalk cliffs.

Perche, Normandy, Seine. Overland through the Perche from the Loir to Chartres is average riding. Chartres is a must-see for the cathedral and the Maison Picassiete - a house covered in mosaic.
    Normandy: the Eure valley quite pretty, and we got as far west as Bernay on the Charentonne river - beyond that Normandy looked too hilly. Reasonably attractive. There are a couple of voie verts, one on the Charentonne to Bernay and another north of Evreux.
    Seine: Les Andelys is a delighful town worth visiting. On the way there, riding northwards up the left bank of the Seine, we made a serendipitous choice of taking a road not marked on the map - a quiet narrow way right next to the river. A tributary of the Seine is the Andelle river, which we approached from the south over the plateau and rode west back to the Seine. An untouristed delightful valley with its own character and interesting discoveries, such as a ruined abbey and an abandoned Victorian cloth factory that looked like a cathedral. Returning south down the Seine to Vernon was unremarkable - too built up to have good views of the river.

June 2006: Valleys of the Lot, Tarn and Aveyron, and Camargue. 4 weeks, 1400km


Lot valley One of our favourite areas visited. Ridden westward in stages from Espalion to Aguillon, where it joins the Garonne. The Lot is easy riding, scenic, friendly, and filled with surprising pretty villages in addition to the famous ones such as Conques, St-Cirq-Lapopie and Cahors. We also rode the Cele valley between Figeac and the Lot - quiet and rural (although a major pellerin route, and accommodation fills up) We spent a couple of nights in Balaguier-d'Olt; a charming village tucked away and a hostess who was delighted to have South Africans to stay, as she had once had an SA boyfriend! We took a day ride from there to seek out cazelles, old stone huts made by shepherds and unique to that area.
    Conques is extremely beautiful. It is also up a steep hill and a major pellerin stop. We could only get accommodation at an expensive hotel. However it was in Conques that we discovered a French gourmet delight: aligot. This is potato mash with lashings of garlic and cheese. Yum.

Tarn We rode eastward upstream from Montauban - in retrospect not a good idea as the river climbs. In addition a strong easterly wind was blowing over those few days which made riding tough and very disheartening at times. Albi is a worthwhile stop for the cathdral, and upstream of that to Ambialet is nice riding, until the unceasing hills start. Just because the road shows next to the river on the map does NOT mean that it is flat along the bank! We had to head inland (via HILLS!) to our chambre d'hote and stayed with lovely old folks at Le Cayla. 
    The Millau Viaduc is spectacular, and justifiably a French tourist attraction. From Millau, despite the  hills to the West, we persisted northwards up the Tarn, and luckily so - it flattened out most comfortably. On the recommendation of the old chap at Le Cayla, we rode the Gorges de la Jonte to Meyruis and back instead of the Tarn gorge, and had a wonderful ride. (We subsequently rode the spectacular Gorges du Tarn in 2012.)
    In the Tarn area you will encounter tunnels, so take a rear light at least.

Aveyron Famous for all its medieval villages, such as Najac, Cordes and Bruniquel, but more touristed and not as charming as the Lot. One of my worst cycling experiences was the road out of Najac, pushing the bike up an interminable hill. With each approaching bend, we thought that we might have reached the top - but we must have pushed for about 6km. Naturally, the other side was too steep to enjoy - brakes on and gritted teeth!

Camargue We visited here spontaneously, having run ahead of schedule, despite no research or preparation. In Montpellier our handlebar bag with passports was stolen in the tourist office. Once we had recovered from the shock, we headed for the marshes. The Camargue is quite different - very flat, but mosquito-infested, as a sleepless night in Saintes-Maries -de-la-Mer proved. It's worth seeing only for a change. Beyond the flamingos in the etangs, the odd white horse (no longer wild) and herds of taureaux (black bulls) - are lush green rice paddies. We cycled through them in stifling heat and humidity, once rained on by muddy drizzle, the sky shedding its load of Sahara dust.

Paris We had arrived back in Paris early to arrange for emergency passports, and had time to kill, so we rode extensively around the city, making use of the cycle lane map (Paris a Velo) we picked up at the Mairie. It's very exciting to negotiate the Arc de Triomph on a bike! It was also enjoyable to take the train to Versailles, (where one can ride around the massive grounds) and ride back into Paris, stopping for coffee icecream (our favourite) in the Bois de Boulogne.

June 2007: Loire valley, Nantes-Brest Canal, Northern Brittany and Mayenne/Sarthe. 3 weeks, 1250km


Loire valley Started in Orleans and rode down to the Cher river. We found the area a bit disappointing until we reached the Cher (our impressions of our respective chambres d'hotes also played its part: near Chambord, it was average, expensive and the hostess barely civil. On the Cher, in Bourre, we had a wonderful stay.)
Further down on the Loire again, the velo route did not necessarily follow the river, but provided variety by taking us through fields and up the occasional steep hill, from where we approached Saumur from the back with a spectacular view.

Nantes-Brest Canal, Northern Brittany Starting from Nort-sur-Erdre, a little way out of Nantes, we commenced our trek up the towpath. It was our first canal, and the further up we went, the more enchanted I became by it - the history and the scenery. It seemed like a well-kept secret, as we encountered few people on the towpath. The town of Redon did not impress us, mainly because there was no reasonable accomodation in town, and we spent the night in the last available room of a hotel in the parking lot of a supermarket. At least the staff were friendly.
  Further up, the towns of Malestroit, Josselin and Pontivy were all gems. From Pontivy we did a day ride down the Blavet river, also navigable and with a towpath. We had an enforced extra night in Pontivy because of a derailleur that broke, 11km up the towpath heading out of town, on a Sunday. LUCKILY the very professional cycle shop there was open on Mondays. Although we had not intended at first to go much further than Pontivy, we were so charmed by the canal that it became a calling to go to the end.
    The canal breaks at Lac Guerledan, where a hydro-electric scheme was later constructed. Circumnavigating the lake, one encounters the hills of Brittany. There is a secret cycle track along the path of an old railway, which is not marked, and we knew of it only from reading a French canal guide.
    West of the Lac, the canal passes through Cotes d'Armor department, and they, of the three departments that the canal traverses, clearly spend the least effort in maintaining the cycle path. Consequently, the surroundings were wilder and more beautiful.       
    Crossing into Finistere it instantly felt flat and lacking in life - we saw only one jay, compared to the dozens we had seen in Cotes d'Armor. Our last day on the canal, the weather had turned on us, and we rode in drizzle to Guily Glaz, the marine lock near Chateaulin.
    In another last-minute change of itinerary, we headed up to the north coast of Brittany for a couple of days. Although it was beautiful, the rolling hills were never-ending, and the weather was lousy. It is definitely colder and wetter in Brittany than anywhere else in France!

Mayenne/Sarthe We had a few days to explore the Mayenne and Sarthe. I found the Sarthe more charming than the Mayenne, and it was fairly close to the Loir valley, which I loved in 2005. We rode to Le Mans to catch a train back to Charles de Gaulle. Although reasonably priced accommodation was difficult to find in Le Mans, it is a city well worth visiting for its spectacular mediaeval quarter, the Plantagenet City.

Continued on Impressions Page 2













June 2005: Dordogne, Charente, Marais Poitevin, Loire and Loir valley, Normandy, Seine. 4 ½ weeks, 1500km
June 2006: Valleys of the Lot, Tarn and Aveyron, and Camargue. 4 weeks, 1400km
June 2007: Loire valley, Nantes-Brest Canal, Northern Brittany and Mayenne/Sarthe. 3 weeks, 1250km

Dordogne: a feast of roses and stone walls
Dordogne: Beynac-et-Cazenac
Dordogne: Chateau de Montfort
Lot: Saint-Cirq-Lapopie
Tarn: Pigeonnier
Tarn: Albi Cathedral ceiling
Lot: Conques
Lot: Cazelle - Ancient stone shepherd's cottage
Loire: Poppy field
Nantes-Brest Canal: Lock at Josselin
Sarthe: Parce-sur-Sarthe

© Jane Trembath 2014.  All rights reserved