Independent Cycle Touring

in France

June 2011: France - Upper Dordogne, Massif Central, Berry, Burgundy, Doubs. Germany - Upper Rhine and Bodensee, section of Bodensee to Konigsee cycle route, Bavaria. 6 weeks, 2700km
June 2012: France - Aude, Cevennes, Ardeche, Drome, Ain, Jura, Alsace, 4 weeks, 1800km.
June 2013: France - Riviera, Gorges du Verdon, Provence, Allier, Burgundy, Lorraine, Alsace. 4 ½ weeks, 1900km.
June 2014: France - Vendee, Brittany and Normandy. 4 weeks, 1800km.

June 2011: France - Upper Dordogne, Massif Central, Berry, Burgundy, Doubs. Germany - Upper Rhine and Bodensee, part of Bodensee to Konigsee cycle route, Bavaria. 6 weeks, 2700km

Upper Dordogne: we rode east from Souillac to St-Cere via Rocamadour. Also many pretty villages, and departed the valley via a tributary valley and up a quiet tiny road, almost a track, a long climb but magical on a crisp spring morning.
Massif Central - After leaving the Dordogne valley, made our way to Aurillac then up the Route des Cretes, a scenic route towards the Puy Mary. Many ups and downs on the way, followed by a long steep climb up the Puy Mary. I lacked power that day and pushed for ages, but was on my bike for a short section when I rode past bystanders and a woman clapped her hands at me and called out "For-mi-DABLE!" I felt better after that.
Over the pass, downhill to Salers, a famous pretty village which looked somewhat ordinary to us, and headed north out of there since that was about the only reasonable way to escape the hills. Lots of pretty quiet roads and secret valleys made it an enjoyable ride.
After getting to Ussel we were boxed in and the only way out was courtesy of SNCF, to Le Puy en Velay, on an amazingly complicated series of bus and train journeys with mere moments to connect. This was undertaken on a rainy day which turned a bitterly cold 8 degrees in Le Puy, (1 June - so much for summer) and we were forced to take a train to our booked accommodation and miss out on what would have been a spectacular ride down the upper gorges of the Loire. From Roanne we attempted the canal northbound from Roanne to Digoin. The towpath was rideable only for a while and the canal was fairly plain so it was not a sacrifice to rejoin the roads.

Berry - went in search of the ancient Canal du Berry and found a few traces, nothing rideable. Abandoned that idea and rode through farms south-east of Bourges, but on host's recommendation didn't go further north. Seems like the countryside would have been one wheat field after another. Standout place: Apremont-sur-Allier -  beautiful, stunning town. Returned to the Loire and rode north, where the Loire-a-velo route maddened us because of poor signposting.
Burgundy - entered from the Loire side, riding up to Briare to follow the canal to Rogny. Despite the impression I had gained from the internet, the canal was not rideable for most parts. We found a reasonable section of towpath in the mid section, but for the rest had to take to the roads.
We routed south to visit Guedelon, a medieval castle being built according to the old techniques, then east to Chablis and followed the Serein valley south. Although it got rave reviews in my guidebook, it was pretty but not spectacular, although we may have enjoyed it more if the weather was better. We based ourselves in Avallon for two nights and rode cross-country via the hidden, amazing Vallee du Cousin, to Semur-en-Auxois. Returning via random white routes, we had a lovely ride back. Further south, we rode to Bibracte, the ancient Gaulish capital, which as far as we could tell was positioned on the top of the highest hill in Burgundy. We continued eastwards, via Autun and many hills, and were relieved to get to the flat canal towpath again.

In the past we had avoided the Burgundy interior because of the hills, but it was well worth it for the country lanes and vistas.

Doubs, Jura - after leaving Burgundy, we headed west to east via the Doubs valley and Canal Rhone au Rhin. We hadn't known anything about the area beforehand and were stunned at how beautiful it was. From Dole northwards, the canal and river run together through sheer cliffs well away from the road and the ride along the towpath is spectacular and rewarding. We followed it north to Mulhouse and the Rhine with some side trips into the Jura and to Belfort. Highly recommended.
We rode south from Mulhouse along the Rhine towards Basel and stayed in Leymen on the Swiss border, where it was a whole lot cheaper than Switzerland. The river and canal were nice enough, but we were rushing as we were late from getting horribly lost in Mulhouse after trying to find the supermarket in stinking heat, then being unable to follow the cycle route when a bridge was closed.

Bodensee Around Konstanz, one sees very little of it as it is so built up. From Konstanz (very expensive to stay in) we took the car ferry across the lake and rode to Lindau. Again, the roads are mostly away from the lake shore and can get extremely busy, actually building up 'cycle jams'. No scenery.
Recommended stops - Lindau, Insel Mainau near Konstanz, and the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen.
Bodensee-Konigsee route As we were running out of time, we skipped the hardest part from Lindau to Fussen and took a train. From Fussen, which is close to Schloss Neuchwanstein, the cycle route goes via many little farm roads that reminded us of Switzerland. We bought a route guide that was a little old and found a few changes along the way, including some involuntary ones - when we had to carry our bikes through a forest stream where the road had washed away. Worth riding.

June 2012: France - Aude, Cevennes, Ardeche, Drome, Ain, Jura, Alsace, 4 weeks, 1800km.

Aude Started in Toulouse again and took a train to Foix to have our first look at the Pyrenees. Left our panniers down at our chambre while we rode to see Montsegur - and thank goodness, because it was up a serious hill. We looked for the marked voie verte to return to Mirepoix, a lovely medieval village, but it was a very rough gravel track, unrideable for our road bikes. After that, fairly ordinary ride to Carcasonne.

Approached the Cevennes from the south. Rode across a causse to the Cirque de Navacelles - a justified world heritage site, after being nearly blown off our bikes by the howling gale which seems to be a feature of the causses. NB - there is a long descent either side of the Cirque, unless you want to go back the way you came. In the Cevennes proper, we stayed for a couple of nights at a chambre in Cantobre, a wonderful little town perched on a rock like a mushroom - then rode the lovely Gorges de la Dourbie to Millau.
The Gorges du Tarn are one of the most spectacular sights on a bicycle - ride them from south to north, so that you are next to the river the whole way. We stayed with the Tarn towards its source and headed for the Ardeche, over the hills via Pont de Montvert which wasn't too bad a hill, and going eastward serendipitously chose the road along Le Luech river which had a splendid train viaduct and its own little gorge. Along the Gorges de l'Ardeche we were the only twits riding its up-and-down hills with panniers. Nevermind, we made it.
Through the Vaucluse near the Rhone the roads were incredibly busy and our Michelin maps misleading, so it was a relief to get into the sublime Drome again, where we spent time in the Royans region at the foot of the Vercors massif to ride the wonderful Combe Laval.

Ain - untouristed, pretty and friendly. Around Bourg-en-Bresse, one would gain the impression from all the lakes around that it is flat. It has constant rolling rises with little reward of a view. The scenery improved once we were at the Ain river itself.
The Jura was reasonable but included a night's stay in a hostel full of schoolkids in Morteau, victims of the dreaded Fete de la Musique. At least it was out of town where we couldn't hear the thumping. The next morning took us on a long, steep descent towards the valley of the Dessoubre - the reason for us going in that direction, a beautiful ride and worth it.
Alsace - Sundgau region and canals northbound: Flatter than one would think, considering Switzerland is right there (we crossed the corner of Switzerland northbound to the Sundgau) and our second time on the voie verte down to the canal. Also second time on the canal to Mulhouse, then picked velo routes and voies vertes northbound over the flat parts of Alsace. The canals south of Strasbourg are nice (to Colmar as well) and the northern parts of Alsace with timbered houses, each part with its own character. Certainly plenty of easy voies verts and velo routes, only getting lost a couple of times when signage went awry.
Rhine in Germany North of Alsace, this is the worst part of the Rhine we have experienced - the route hardly follows the river and there are many tedious, time-wasting detours through towns due to construction along the river. Gave up at Speyer and took the train.

June 2013: France - Riviera, Gorges du Verdon, Provence, Allier, Burgundy, Lorraine, Alsace. 4 ½ weeks, 1900km.

Riviera Flew to Nice and rode easily into town. Rode to Menton via the Haute Corniche (long uphill but worth it) and returned via the Basse Corniche. Detoured to Monte Carlo to check out Charlene's place and couldn't find how to get up into town, but found a massive parking garage dug into the rock and popped our bikes into the lift. The ride back to Nice on the Basse Corniche was not ideal as it is busy and the view is spotty.
The Gorges du Verdon ridden on the Northern side included the innocent-looking Route des Cretes circuit on the map, which involved an unexpected seemingly never-ending climb of several hundred metres and a white-knuckle descent on the other side. Only bonus: watching the soaring vultures - from above. The southern road along the gorges is possibly more scenic, but will require energy to tackle the undulations.

Provence - north and west Up the Buech valley to Serres, and back down south via the Gorges de la Meouge and Toulourenc to Montbrun-les-Bains which is a stuning place perched on the side of a hill. A lovely area, quiet rides, easy hills. From Montbrun-les-Bains we set off to tackle Mont Ventoux via Sault and back. A never-ending ride upwards until Chalet-Reynard, then the clouds rolled in and we toiled the really steep bit in freezing wind and fog - basically, the inside of a cloud. It didn't put hundreds of other cyclists off, though. I managed to ride my fog-squeaky bike past men who were pushing. My proudest moment, and at the top, my coldest one. Six degrees and about 20 knots of wind. Do not do this for the scenery but for the once-in-a-lifetime sense of achievement, especially if you are middle aged.
The western side of Provence - including Les Baux de Provence - not up to much, and Les Baux a tourist trap best viewed from a distance.

Allier Train ride from Nimes to Clermont-Ferrand on the single daily train that goes through the Gorges de Allier, which can be seen from the train only - no road - and each bend reveals an exciting view.
In the department north of Clermont-Ferrand, it is untouristed and worth visiting. Far more chateaux dot the landscape than expected, and several pretty towns indicate a prosperous area. Definitely worth exploring.
Burgundy Our travels went up the Canal Nivernais again to visit our Dutch friends at their chambres d'hote in Marigny-sur-Yonne, and another example of how the scenery is different from the opposite direction. Afterwards we headed east towards Lorraine, and the only jarring note was the difficulty finding accommodation in the countryside towards Chatillon-sur-Seine, and landing up at an overpriced place run by a passive-aggressive man with a Japanese wife. Best part though - lots of skylarks above the wheat fields, soaring upwards with their twittering song.

Lorraine - an unremarkable department, unil we finally got to the voie verte along the Marne-au-Rhin canal enroute to Alsace. There is a very beautiful section of old canal east of Arzviller - pick it up and don't try to follow the new canal to the Plan Incline, it will simply mean a turn back at the end. Further east via Lutzelbourg to Saverne, the canal is a lovely ride through the Vosges.
Alsace South of Saverne there is a voie verte marked on the Michelin map which proves non-existent until you get to Romanswiller, and this caused some cursing due to facing sharp rises instead. We rode the old Canal de la Bruche into Strasbourg, but found it underwhelming.

June 2014: France - Vendee, Brittany and Normandy. 4 weeks, 1800km.

Vendee: Very flat riding and lots of salt marshes, birds, fishing ports and wind farms - very different to anywhere we had ridden before in France, but enjoyable, pleasant riding. Presence of wind farms is an indication to lots of wind. Highlight: The Gois to the Ile de Noirmoutier - a passage only uncovered at low tide, although the howling gale made riding it an exercise in staying upright.

Nantes and Saint-Nazaire are worth visiting - Nantes must be the world capital of steam punk with the attraction Ile de la Machine, and Saint-Nazaire has a fantastic bridge to approach over the Loire, and fascinating WW11 submarine pens and giant boats exiting via the sea lock.
Brittany We planned this route to go around Brittany clockwise from Saint-Nazaire, turned up at Hennebont towards Carhaix-Ploguer and the north coast, then the longest side east towards Honfleur. It was planned to take advantage of the prevailing westerly wind, which spent the entire north and eastbound rides as a blasting, freezing north-easterly. Never mind, the skies were clear when the centre of the country was lit up with orange storm warnings.
We did a couple of the voies vertes across country. Northbound from Carhaix to Morlaix (we branched off before the end to see the enclos parroises) and flogged into the wind north to Roscoff. Pretty coastline and if you catch the tide right, another gois to the jewel-like island at Carantec. After taking the train from Morlaix to Rennes (from previous experience we know it is hilly east of Morlaix), we enjoyed the towpath of the Canal Ile-et-Rance northbound from Rennes to Dinan, except for the horrible soft sandy stretches where it was being fixed for summer. The Rance and Saint-Malo area is fascinating and pretty. Followed the coast around to Mont-Saint-Michel, which is a tourist trap apart from the abbey.

Normandy We took the voie verte/ velo route towards Vire and further to Saint-Lo. Not much in the way of scenery due to the trees either side, and once off the voie verte we flogged and pushed up steep little hills on the outskirts of Swiss Normandy. Towards Bayeux things flattened out, and Bayeux is a must-see town for the tapestry - a remarkable artifact. We also saw the WW11 museum at Arromanches and saw the remaining bits of the Mulberry harbour on the landing beach. Despite having never been interested in WW11, it was fascinating and made it come alive. WW11 tourism is very big in Normandy and fortunately we hadn't planned to be there in the beginning of June around the anniversary.
We headed east to Honfleur although we did part of it by train as our time was running out, our rides having been cut short by rain, then made our way south to Evreux via the voie verte.


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Massif Central: Quiet road
Berry: Apremont-sur-Allier
Burgundy: Semur-en-Auxois
Burgundy: Vallee du Cousin
Doubs river
Bavaria: Bodensee-Konigsee route
Gorges de la Tarn
Drome: Combe Laval
Alsace, near Colmar: Non-cyclists claiming the chemin de halage
Riviera: Near Menton looking west
Provence: Mont Ventoux in the distance, before the clouds rolled in
Canal Marne au Rhin, Lorraine: Lock cottage along old canal near Arzviller
Ile de Noirmoutier, Vendee: Waiting for low tide to cross the gois
Brittany: Saint-Cado island in the Etel estuary
Ile-et-Rance canal, Brittany: Bridge at Lehon

© Jane Trembath 2014.  All rights reserved