JANE TREMBATH

Independent Cycle Touring

in France


June 2008: Germany - Rhine, Mosel and Saar. France - Alsace and Burgundy. Switzerland  - Jura, Lakes Route. 5 ½ weeks, 2550km
June 2009: France - Gascony, Canal du Midi, Cevennes, Provence, Drome, Savoie and Haut Savoie. Switzerland - Rhone and Rhine. 4 weeks, 1800km.



I

MPRESSIONS of FRANCE

- 2

(+ Germany, Switzerland)

June 2008: Germany - Rhine, Mosel and Saar. France - Alsace and Burgundy. Switzerland  - Jura, Lakes Route. 5 ½ weeks, 2550km


The Rhine: from Bingen (reached by train) northwards to Koblenz. The ride was easy enough, although not as scenic as hoped, possibly also because the weather was gloomy and dull. (Subsequently the Rhine has proved disappointing.)

The Mosel, which looked marvellous in the literature, was rather plain from Koblenz south until the tourist centre Cochem, which is very pretty and worth a stop. Southwards it became a nicer ride, with our favourite town being Bernkastel-Kues - where we found the best and cheapest icecream we have yet eaten in Europe. We followed the Mosel until just after Trier. The Mosel was more attractive than the Rhine, but to get those tourist-brochure views of the vineyards you will have to make detours up the hills.
The Saar, ridden from Trier towards France, is a quieter river, less touristed, and prettier for being more rural. But from Dillingen to Saarbrucken, it became industrial and the cycle path was in poor condition, often requiring detours.

Alsace  We entered France at Sarreguemines on the Saar river, and looked for the best route through the upper Vosges mountains to reach Alsace. The route was good, the weather not - and we still had to find accommodation in the pouring rain.
    Upper Alsace was a bit disappointing for me, also because the weather was miserable. Further south, it became more scenic with the winelands and medieval towns, but by then we were tired of the hills. One treat was a chambres d'hote at a winery - our 'welcome drink' consisted of an extensive tasting of the vintner's products! We rode into Mulhouse to catch a train to Vesoul, at the top of the hills above the Saone. (Subsequently discovered it would have been an easy enough ride.)

Burgundy  An extensive area with lots of interest, varying from vineyards and canals to mediaeval hilltop villages, and we enjoyed it greatly. We entered it in the Upper Saone area, charming, but more ordinary as we rode south.
    The cycle route through the vineyards between Santenay and Beaune is pleasant, and we explored the valleys behind the hills, reached via the voie vert to Nolay, and got spectacular views. (2011 update: the voie vert to Nolay has sadly degenerated and needs maintenance.) A cycle breakdown and rain combined meant we spent an extra night in Meursalt, and went to Dijon by car with our fellow B&B guests, but the road between Beaune and Dijon looked uninteresting, so we caught a train to Dijon to pick up the Canal de Burgogne and continue westwards.
This was reasonably attractive, with interesting points along the way, such as Chȃteuneuf-en-Auxois, Flavigny, Abbey de Fontenay and the Forges du Buffon. We cycled as far north as Tonerre, with the curious Fosse Dionne, then took the train (mostly to get out of the howling wind) to Auxerre on the Nivernais canal. This canal had lots of variety and we enjoyed our ride southwards.
    Overland to Digoin, to pick up the Canal du Centre, was a bit of a hike. Digoin has its lovely canal bridge, and from then we found this canal had a charm of its own that grew on us. We followed it around to Chalon-sur-Saone, passing by Santenay where we had been a couple of weeks earlier.
    The route from Chalon-sur-Saone down to Macôn follows France's original 'voie verte', about 86km, mostly on a converted old railway. We trailed a rollerblader for the longest time, and he eventually told us that he skated a 100km round-trip that day - from Cluny to Chalon-sur-Saone and back! Although the route itself wasn't particularly scenic, it was worth spending time in the area exploring towns such as Brancion. We spent two nights at a charming chambres d'hote in Malay. South of Cluny, the voie vert no longer followed the train track  much and the ride was very up-and-down. We ended in Macôn, from where we took the train to Geneva.

From Geneva, following bad advice, set off to cycle along the lake. It was a fine Sunday afternoon, and so every resident within 100km was at the beach, with their cars  parked in the cycle lanes along the pavements. After Nyon, we hopped on a train to Lausanne and began the hunt for the official guides to the cycle routes. Despite the comprehensive route network on the internet, no Swiss, not even the cyclists, appeared to have heard of the system. After many dead ends, we finally found the books at a regular bookshop, Payot, and set off.
The Mittelland route didn't live up to expectations. We had been further badly advised - by Swiss - to ride it because it was flat. It wasn't. The route takes you up hills to avoid the highways, and on one we nearly got taken out by a very aggressive driver overtaking another car in the rain.
    The section we rode, from Lausanne to Biel, went past lakes, but the view was mainly of the back yards of Swiss wooden holiday cottages. No chocolate box scenery in sight.  After a night in disgusting accommodation outside Biel/Bienne I was ready to pack up and go home.
Instead, we bought a Lakes route guide in Biel and caught the train to Spiez - the route we had considered doing in the beginning but been discouraged by various Swiss cyclists.
    From the ridiculous, we had arrived at the sublime. Heading out of town, we serendipitously took an incorrect road up a hill, with amazing views. The route took us to Interlaken, Meiringen, and then on a short train ride up the precipitous Brȕnig pass. From the top we whizzed down to Lungern, where we spent the night at the welcoming Haus St Josef. What a difference! This day, assisted by perfect weather, stands out as my best day of riding, ever, in my life.
    From there, the route remained wonderful. It was scenic and interesting - routing on small roads with perfect views, through shooting ranges, cycling tunnels, and over a military airfield. We rode between fields that assailed us with the intensely... farmy aroma of liquid manure, crossed turquoise lakes on bridges, passed cycling nuns, and pushed up intense green hills amidst clanking cow bells.
    The route took us to the Rhine down to the Bodensee and we turned into Austria, to skirt the lake on a short lovely ride to Lindau in Germany.


June 2009: France - Gascony, Canal du Midi, Cevennes, Provence, Drome, Savoie and Haut Savoie. Switzerland - Rhone and Rhine. 4 weeks, 1800km.
Gascony Be prepared for hills! Neverending, rolling hills. Unfortunately for us cycled in very hot weather. Favourite towns: Nerac, Fources. Disappointment: Larresingle. Hyped, but not a patch on the mediaeval hilltop towns of Burgundy. We found the tourist office in Auch to be the least helpful we ever encountered in France who flat refused to phone accommodation for us. Next day, the train from Auch to Toulouse was replaced by a bus at the last minute, losing us two hours. Overall, Gascony is worth a look around if you are in the area, but don't make a special diversion for it.

Canal du Midi Historic and pretty with the plane trees along most of its length. Good cycle path for several km out of Toulouse, but after it ends, track degenerates for the remainder of the canal and is rideable with difficulty in places - narrow and rough. I had read a travelogue describing how a member of their party fell into the canal, bike and all, after riding over a tree root. I took it easy, not wanting to suffer the same fate.
     It rained, and we got so muddy that my back wheel seized from mud caked under the mudguard. We stopped at a boat hire company in Bram busy washing their boats, and asked them to hose down our bikes.  After Carcassonne, (a disappointment given its hype) the map indicated a voie vert. No such luck - a rough gravel path again, that we eventually abandoned for white routes in the vicinity of the canal. Stopped in Capestang for two days, and our host drove us to St Chinian to get a bike repaired - good bike shop. Just as well we hadn't gone to the big town of Beziers to look for a cycle shop - apparently there are none! After Capestang, headed north-east towards the Cevennes but the scenery was just miles and miles of vineyards.

Cevennes St Guilhelm-le-Desert is very well worth seeing. We then tackled the hills northwards to Ganges - a surprisingly easy ride for us who used to shy away from hills. After Ganges, we rode west to Uzes and the Pont du Gard. Nice ride in a quiet part of the country. The Cevennes also includes the Gorges de la Jonte, where we had a lovely ride a couple of years before.

Provence I had once read that one should ride in Provence before the middle of June, due to the heat. Make that heat, tourists, prices, accommodation, etc... It was the middle of June but already stinking hot - almost dangerous to ride - and already chock-full of tourists, so the only accommodation we could find was a very expensive 1-epi chambre near Lacoste. Be prepared for the prices and if possible book ahead. Riding in Provence, the pretty villages are mostly on the perimeter of the valley, reached via nasty steep little foothills. However, it is very pretty and the Petit Luberon is very well worth visiting. We didn't explore much of the Grand Luberon as it felt duller, accommodation was full, so we pressed on.

Val de Miscon, Drome (Haut Provence) We took the train all the way up to Luc-en-Diois, at the top of the Drome valley. Spectacular train ride from Veynes to Luc. Very pretty, cooler and quieter after the madness of Provence. Cycled over the Col du Miscon - a lovely ride in a wild valley.
    Our hostess persuaded us to go over the Col de Rousset and Vercors massif instead of around the mountain to Grenoble. A 20km long ride, climbing 850m, but well worth it. Got surrounded by huge clouds of flies during the climb, but Tabard mosquito repellent did the trick! On the massif it was almost a secret world, following beautiful roads, especially the spectacular Gorges de la Bourne. Went back to the Drome for a second look in 2012. My favourite department.

Savoie, Haut-Savoie North from Grenoble to Chamonix: Took a train from Grenoble - only red routes to the east - to Pontcharra, then up the Isere valley through Savoyard villages - very different from other parts of France, and a lovely ride.
    Instead of going through Albertville, we tackled the Col de Tamie, but it wasn't worth the effort: steep climb and no view on the descent. Only saving grace - grassy banks on sides of road were overflowing with ripe wild strawberries.
    Annecy is a pretty town with a 42km ride around the lake. The voie vert on the southern side is  very busy on weekends. Enroute from there to Chamonix, we had to brave the cold and tackle the Col des Aravis as the main valley road from Ugine to Megeve was closed due to rockfalls. After a spectacular descent to meet the valley road to Megeve, the road from Flumet was busy, an unpleasant ride. Gave up at St Gervais-les-Bains and took the train: too cold, plus a horrifying looking red route to Chamonix including a very long tunnel.
    When staying in Chamonix, you will get a guest card which gives free travel on the valley train. Enroute to Switzerland, we used it to bypass the busy section to Vallorcine, then rode over the Col de la Forclaz to Martigny. Easier done than we thought.

In Switzerland, we headed up the Rhone - uphill towards the source but the gradients looked fairly gentle. The first day was very flat along the river and through apple orchards.
    The second day was just a grind  through towns and industrial areas. We made a mistake after lunch of staying on the main road instead of the official route up the hillsides, as advised by our hosts the night before. It was just as much of a climb and had heavy traffic. Swiss drivers are much more aggressive than the easygoing French. We had to cross over the river and push the last 2km up into Ernen, realising we had missed out on great scenery. We had a good night though, staying in a B&B in a 500-year old wooden house in Muhlebach, and walked back to Ernen to eat at the St Georg restaurant, where we ate outstanding food (the Friday night special menu) for unsurpassed value for money in Switzerland.
    The next day the cycling was better through the flower-filled meadows most of the way to Obernach, from where we caught a car train to transit the Furka Pass.
Tip: The car train costs half the price, as you only have to pay for your bicycle. (Swiss trains require a full ticket for your bike in addition to yourself) You don't even have to crouch behind a car's bumper on the open coaches either - there is a closed motorbike coach at the end with a few seats!
It dropped us just the other side of the tunnel and we rode about 20 chilly km to Andermatt. From there, we took a passenger train to the top of the Oberalp Pass - luckily the weather had cleared on the north side for a spectacular descent from above the snow line.
    This was the beginning of the Rhine route, a pleasanter ride than the Rhone, although it had fairly long sections of gravel tracks which slowed us down a lot, at one stage having to push up a steep slippery slope where the path had collapsed. The route took us through many charming villages and along one spectacular corniche road. Finally, along the river, it intersected with the Lakes route. Our last night we slept in Altstatten, in the Gasthaus Ziel, where the accommodation guide failed to mention it was 3km out of town up a steep hill. But it had a great view and excellent breakfast. The next morning we continued up and over the steep mountain, on a regional cycle route, for variety from last year. Fortuitously, every time racing bikes came past us, we had stopped to photograph the view, so they didn't spot us puffing up the hill at a snail's pace.
Tip: Peruse your guide carefully for hotel closures, both weekly and annual. Many private Swiss hotels close for the holidays....!

Continued on Impressions Page 3
Mosel river: Cochem
Saone river: Misty afternoon
Burgundy: Slate roofed market, Nolay
Burgundy: Abbaye de Fontenay
Burgundy: Fosse Dionne, Tonerre
Switzerland: Lakes Route, near Interlaken
Switzerland: Brunig Pass view of Lungern
Gascony: street scene
Canal du Midi: Oval lock
Petit Luberon, Provence: Peeping through the cedars over Bonnieux
Drome: Col de Rousset
Drome: Gorges de la Bourne
Switzerland: descending into Martigny
Switzerland, Rhine valley cycle route:  fountain near Surrein

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