We were awake early with bright sunshine streaming through the window. Breakfast was booked for 8:30am and we decided to finish the journey to Saint-Malo, even though it was two days until we were due to catch the ferry. According to the weather forecast, there would be an easterly wind, a crosswind for our direction of travel. However, reaching Saint-Malo today would give us a day free to explore the city on Tuesday, before our 8pm crossing back to the UK.
After a stop at the pharmacy to collect ibuprofen for my improving knee, and sun cream, we left Domloup at 10am. We decided to visit Auberge la Tourelle in Sens-de-Bretagne for sentimental reasons. I´d received such great hospitality when I arrived there cold, wet and exhausted on April 7, 2012, after covering over 200km on my vintage Thanet bike. We arrived at 12:15pm and enjoyed a great three-course lunch, including wine and coffee, for 14 Euro each. We had a chat with the owner about my previous visit. I´m not sure she remembered it but she did a good job of pretending to! I can´t recommend the auberge too highly, it´s what dining in France is all about and it doesn´t cost the earth either.
As we left the restaurant with about 40 miles to go to Saint-Malo, Andy noticed that he had a puncture in his back tyre. We fixed it on the steps of the town hall and were on our way again about 20 minutes later.
The route to Saint-Malo was lovely. It was sunny, about 18C, and with a cool breeze from the East. Ideal conditions for cycling. We were in rolling countryside so there were a few hills to climb but nothing of any consequence. We had a small beer about eight miles out from our destination then we dodged the rush-hour traffic as we entered the city.
We arrived into Saint-Malo about an hour earlier than we had indicated to our host so we sent him a text and had a celebratory Ricard at a bar just inside the ramparts while we waited for a reply.
Our apartment for the night was one room with a mezzanine floor for the beds – you could kneel beside the beds but not stand up and the steps leading up the mezzanine would be unlikely to pass any UK health and safety regulations. However, the building was clearly hundreds of years old. It was called ‘Le 1684’ and had great charm and character.
When I woke this morning, the first thing I noticed was the pain in my left knee. A good night’s sleep had done nothing to ease it. However, as I moved around the apartment, I though it possible that if we took things easy, we should still be able to cover the required 40 miles of riding to keep us on schedule. We agreed to split it into four ten-mile sections and to rest in between each. It should hardly be the most challenging of excursions.
After the usual confusion of trying to find the right way out of town, we found ourselves pedalling along quiet D-roads in glorious sunshine, albeit into a strongly northerly headwind that was to stay with us for most of the day.
I took a couple of ibuprofen to ease my knee pain and our Komoot navigation soon had us heading out into the countryside to continue our journey. A few parts of the route were on unpaved surfaces reminiscent of the L’Eroica vintage bike ride, but it was easy enough to navigate the potholes.
Large parts of the route were virtually traffic-free and we did see a few French cyclists. Just as in the UK, Sunday seems to be the main day for cycling. They’re not a particularly sociable bunch, most of our cries of ´bonjour´ being ignored.
We encountered a typical French market in one of the small towns en-route and stopped to pick up more water. We were also looking for a pharmacy so that we could buy more painkillers (for the misbehaving knee) and some sun protection cream, but it soon became clear that every French pharmacy, and most everything else except bars, are closed on a Sunday.
As we came to the outskirts of Chateuabriant, we were directed onto a cycleway that was once a railway line. At first we thought it was going to take us out of our way but Komoot directed us along it for 15 miles or so. The surface was perfect, the surrounding deciduous woodland so much more alive with birdsong than the pine forests in the South West we’d passed through earlier in the week, and we were sheltered from the wind, at least for a while.
After covering 35 miles since we’d set out, and having left the cycleway for roads again, we stopped to discuss where we should stay for the night. I looked up my blog post from 2012 to remind myself about the name of a loverly Auberge where i had dined and stayed overnight back then. It was 40 miles away but my knee was suitably numbed and so we set up a route to the destination in Komoot and started pedalling. One hour later we decided to check that the Restaurant Auberge La Tourelle would be open when we arrived. To our disappointment, it would not.
We carried on travelling North and at 5pm stopped in the town of Janzé to consider our options for a bed for the night and food. They were limited – no hotels in the town and one pizzeria that was due to open at 6pm. Further research turned up a gîte in Domloup, just northwest of the larger town of Chateaugiron. We booked a room and pedalled on into the continuing northerly wind, but at least it was sunny. It was our first totally dry day of the last five.
We arrived at La Métairie a little after 6pm to be greeted by Jo-Jo, the owners’ dog. The room was great but had just one double bed, not the two we thought we had booked. Alain, the husband of the couple running the establishment quickly reassured us that this would be converted into two singles while we were out for dinner. He then furnished us a bottle of local apple juice that we gratefully consumed while watching the swifts dart around the courtyard.
Being a Sunday evening, there was only one restaurant in the town open, and it was 2km away. Alain kindly offered to drive us there and back. The restaurant was a rather odd, modern, self-service place on a business park but the food was fine, if not exceptional, and we were glad of it, having cycled a little over 60 miles.
We made a late start after breakfast to allow the heavy rain showers in Les Herbiers to subside. After a few minor diversions caused by timing delays in the GPS app, we found the road North. It was a long but steady climb and we knew it would take us to the highest point of the ride towards Saint-Malo. At the top, there were ancient windmills to the left of us and an ancient church, with the obligatory stained-glass windows, to the right.
In an adjacent field the cattle were unimpressed and simply surveyed the surrounding countryside.
The northbound D160 felt reasonably safe but there was a fair amount of traffic so we once again decided that a detour onto smaller roads would be worthwhile. We stopped at the first village, sat on a bench and ate a couple of ham and cheese rolls that Andy had snaffled from the breakfast buffet. An almond croissant from the village boulangerie completed the meal.
The sun was breaking through frequently and we were lulled into a false sense of security that we wouldn’t see any rain before our next destination, the town of Ancenis on the mighty river Loire. The only problem was that a niggling pain in my left knee, which I first noticed on the way into Les Herbiers, had become a lot worse. It was really uncomfortable, limiting our speed, and we made a further stop so that Andy could dispense his supply of ibuprofen.
The pain dulled and we ploughed slowly onwards, incurring another delay when Andy noticed my rather deflated back tyre. It’s a tubeless tyre, like those on a car, and contains a fluid which seals small punctures on contact with air, although not without some loss of air as it does its job. We pumped it up, repeated the process a few miles along the road, and it appeared to be fully repaired, unlike my knee. (There was a puncture in my front tyre on day one of our trip too. That sealed well but only after spraying little dots of sealant over the front of my jacket!)
About 12 miles South of Ancenis, we stopped at a bar for a medicinal beer and logged onto Booking.com to search for accommodation. We were immediately struck by a smart, spacious Ancenis apartment in a good location near the Loire so we booked it. A rain shower passed over during our last hour of cycling but so quickly that we’d dried out by the time we reached the bridge over the Loire.
The apartment was one of two in a converted old building and the conversion was done with some great style. Andy was keen to cook again and there was a well-equipped kitchen.
After a short shopping trip, French-trimmed lamb cutlets with peppers and salad re-fuelled us. We ended these evening with a stroll to a nearby bar with the most fabulous selection of wines.
Rather than breakfast at the hotel, we perched outside of a cafe in the centre of Rochefort and shared a huge almond croissant. A couple of double espressos each kicked started us into riding North again and we enjoyed two benefits over the last couple of days: it wasn’t raining (well, not more than a few drops here and there) and we had a tailwind most of the time. We had about 230 miles to go to our final destination of Saint-Malo, so only needed to cover around 50 miles each day.
Most of the morning was spent on long, straight D roads with relatively light traffic so we made great progress, averaging 14.5 miles an hour by the time we reached our lunch stop. It was agreed that we’d follow my Komoot navigation and the previously evening I had carefully plotted a route that was reasonably direct but avoided major roads.
We rode several sections on dedicated cycleways, some alongside rivers and canals, and passed through lovely villages and towns in the Vendée.
At one point, Andy noticed a huge bicycle frame attached to the side of a building so we went back to photograph it. We’ve no idea who built it or why, and the local guard dog had no intention of letting us in to find out.
As we continued North, the terrain became hillier after the first 50 miles and just after 3pm it started to rain again. It wasn’t heavy but it was persistent. Despite this, we decided to carry on to the next major town, Les Herbiers, so that we would have miles in hand. It would give us the option of shorter days ahead, or exploring a little more.
We had a sufficient break from the rain to dry out whilst riding but as as came into Led Herbiers, with 80 miles covered, it started to rain again. We took immediate shelter in a hotel doorway, then we went inside and booked a room at Hotel de Relais. It had its own restaurant so after showering and changing we took dinner there. We were tired and it was raining again, so there was little temptation to explore the town.
When we woke on Thursday morning it was raining and there was a strong westerly wind. Apparently, there had been gusts up to 100km per hour overnight and they were still reaching over 40km per hour. After breakfast, we both set our route for La Rochelle into Komoot and headed north, following the voice instructions. La Rochelle was 48 miles away so it would be a short day’s riding, or so we thought.
We had already decided that Eurovelo 1 would add too many miles, meandering as it does around every little nook and cranny of the coast, so we were relying on Komoot’s ‘touring cycling’ route to provide a more direct line of travel. In this instance, it turned out to be a mistake because we were taken onto the main road our of Royan and the traffic was horrendous. Trucks and buses buzzed within a few feet of us every few seconds so we pulled over and decided to plot a longer route to the West to avoid the worst of the traffic. It worked well at first and we found ourselves on quiet roads running through pretty French villages. It was an altogether more interesting experience than endless miles of forest tracks. However, progress was slower than we expected, particularly as we accidentally went off-route a number of times due to confusion with directions. This invariably led to numerous stops and a 10-minute discussion at each about how to get back on track. In the course of the day, these cost us about two hours of lost cycling time. At least the rain had eased during the day. We even had 5 minutes of sunshine.
These delays were nothing compared to those caused by trying to get across the Charente river into Rochefort. The main bridge had the narrowest of lanes painted on it that were possibly cycleways but we couldn’t be sure. Traffic was heavy across the bridge, the Martrou viaduct, which appeared to be about a mile long, and while Andy was happy to give it a try, I was more cautious. The mapping software showed another crossing just a few miles to the East, so we headed in that direction. When we arrived at the right spot at about 3:30pm, it turned out to be a ferry crossing. The next ferry was not due until 6:30pm. On the basis that there was bound to be another bridge somewhere, we cycled East.
At one point, we thought we could see a way across but it was an ancient construction from 1900, Le Pont Transbordeur. The so-called transporter bridge is an engineering monument spanning the Charente and it is supposed to be possible to cross by foot or with a bicycle from April until October but we could not find any kind of entrance to it.
Eventually, we found a small pedestrian bridge and crossed the river but by the time we then cycled back West into Rochefort, we had already covered 50 miles and we were tired, not least because of many frustrating diversions of the day, some of which were caused by contradictions in the instructions that Andy was receiving from his phone with those that I was receiving from mine. We made two decisions. First, we would stay in Rochefort for the night, rather than push on to La Rochelle. Second, one of us would take sole responsibility for navigation each day, the other would choose the hotels.
Andy found a great value hotel in Rochefort, just half a mile from where we were sat at bar doing the research, and we checked in. Dinner in a restaurant in the centre of town was good but unremarkable, and we looked forward to better day’s riding the following day.
We caught the 10am ferry from Arcachon to Bélisaire on Cap du Ferret in pouring rain. The crossing, on a small boat, took about 20 minutes. It continued to rain for the next hour or so and, apart from a nice, new Gortex jacket keeping my top half warm, the rest of me was cold and wet, and wondering how much of this I’d want to tolerate in a day.
These days, my cycling trips are about enjoyment, rather than endurance. If the going gets too horrible, I’m happy to change plans at the drop of a hat. I did this last year when the ‘Beast from the East’ brought snow to parts of Spain (and much of the rest of Europe) in late March. Then, I put the bike in a cardboard box and flew to Tenerife, where it was more like 20C, rather than 2C.
However, by just after midday, the rain eased and we started to dry out a little.
We ploughed on until we noticed a Centre Ville sign to the left of the cycleway. It was a fortuitous diversion because we found a great little restaurant and enjoyed a leisurely lunch.
Looking at our progress, we realised we had a good chance of catching the 7:30pm ferry from Le Verdon-sur-Mer to Royan and kept up a good pace on the cycleways with the odd diversion to smaller roads where we could cycle a little faster. At one point, we were directed onto a single-track concrete path. It had seen better days and slowed us down for a few miles but we were soon picking up the pace again.
At one junction we spotted a couple of other cyclists and ended up following them along a stretch of cycleway. They had panniers on their touring bikes but were keeping up a good speed. As we pulled alongside and started chatting, it turned out that Colin (from Wells) and Neil (from Bristol) had set out from Bilbao and were heading the Cherbourg for a return ferry on Saturday evening. Their goal was to ride 120 miles per day, a very long way when fully loaded for touring! Within a few minutes of meeting them, Neil had a puncture. Andy and I agreed to go on ahead but to call when we arrived at the ferry to let them know the time of the last sailing of the day.
We saw the 6:15pm ferry departing as we pulled into the terminal, which gave 30 minutes for a beer at a bar across the road before boarding the 7:30pm ferry. We’d contacted Colin and Neil to let them know that the 7:30pm sailing would be the last of the day but they arrived in good time, so we went across together on the 20 minute trip and then all checked into a nearby hotel. We didn’t see them again because we were dining separately.
Andy and I then had the best meal of the trip so far in Le Petite Bouchon, just across the road from the hotel. We then enjoyed a night cap in the bar above the restaurant before heading back to the hotel.
We’d covered around 77 miles and the plan was then for a shorter, 48-mile ride, from Royan to La Rochelle, the following day. But plans don’t always work out…
We washed most of our clothes on Monday evening so Tuesday morning was a slow start while we waited for them to finish drying. We left at about 9:30 and had little trouble finding our way back onto Eurovelo 1. The weather was again warm and sunny.
Just a few miles into the ride we met a British couple. They were cycling south to San Sebastien on heavily-loaded touring bikes and wild camping, hence the large volume of provisions.
Once again we were riding along perfectly smooth, quiet cycleways no sign of traffic, except as we passed through small towns.
It was remarkable how few opportunities for refreshments there were. Some were open in the towns close to the cycleways but many were not. Early May is clearly out-of-season in this part of the world.
This is one significant disadvantage of following Eurovelo 1, the other being boredom – the scenery is great for a while but it’s just mile after mile of pine forest. We did have a bright green gecko cross our paths at one point, but that was the high point of the wildlife experience too.
We started to alternate between the signposted Eurovelo 1 route and using Komoot. One advantage of the Komoot app is that it’s easy to zoom out and look at the map on a smartphone screen, rather than have to squint at it on an impossibly small Garmin screen. Personally, I can see no reason for Garmin to existing now that Komoot is available. Garmin is over-complicated in every way and I’ve developed an aversion to going anywhere near them over the years. When you consider that Komoot gives you global maps too, and all for a £29 on-off lifetime payment, Garmin hasn’t got a leg to stand on. Yes, there is potentially an argument about battery life in smartphones, but I don’t find any problem for most rides and carrying a small back-up battery is not a problem for longer days in the saddle.
Towards the tail end of the ride, we were running parallel to Europe’s largest sand dune. This is what Wikipedia has to say about the Dune du Pilat:
The dune has a volume of about 60,000,000 m³, measuring around 500 m wide from east to west and 2.7 km in length from north to south.Its height is currently 110 meters above sea level.
We saw a few other cyclists and walkers during the day and took the odd detour to look at the sea but for the most part we intent on reaching Arcachon, one possible destination for the evening, and perhaps even crossing over to Bélisair on Cap Ferret by ferry. As it was, when we arrived in Arcachon we were told (incorrectly) that the last ferry had departed for the evening so we walked into the first half-decent hotel we stumbled upon and booked a room for the night. It was a bit above our budget but we were tired and it was the easy option. The adjacent restaurant provided good, fishy sustenance.
We’d covered another 69 miles into the northerly wind but with otherwise good weather.
Despite the best intentions, I rarely get around to blogging in the evenings. After a long days’s ride, all I want is a shower, food, and more food! Hence it’s now Wednesday morning, with two days of riding behind us and this post is about Monday. I’ll try to catch up, and perhaps add more photographs, later.
On Monday morning, we set off from our Hendaye hotel, a modern but unremarkable place, in search of Eurovelo 1 heading North. Accommodation was booked for Monday night in Saint Juien en Born, a little over 70 miles away. As is often the case, it was a little tricky navigating the pretty coastal town but there were plenty of cycleways and we found our way through. We then had quite a long stretch of road with moderately heavy traffic and some significant, if not particularly challenging, hills. Eurovelo 1 keep detouring from the most direct route to take us around every little loop that brought us close to the sea and most of this was on cycles lanes that were completely devoid of other traffic. After a couple of hours, we encountered a small restaurant, over looking the sea, that was just opening up. Six large oysters and a glass of wine for ten Euro was a tempting offer but we had to get some miles under our belts so we pressed on.
It continued to be quite hilly as we passed through Biarritz, which was very smart, apart from the large amount of construction work in progress, then on towards Bayonne. We passed through some industrial areas, but still safely on cycleways most of the time.
About 25 miles into the ride, the terrain became almost entirely flat, and so it was to continue for the rest of the day. It was sunny and the temperature rose to about 18 or 19C, idyllic weather for cycling. The only downside was that we were cycling into a 14mph headwind much of the time, but even that wasn’t particularly challenging.
By early afternoon we were ready to eat but there was no sign of the kind of oyster restaurant that we’d encountered earlier in the day. We decided to keep things simple, buying bread, local paté, ham and olives from a Spar supermarket and devouring these whilst sitting on a bench in the small town we were passing through. I can’t remember its name. However, just as we were leaving the town, we rode alongside a beautiful estuary and sure enough, there was the next oyster restaurant. Oysters and a dry white wine for desert. What could be better!
After lunch, we soon headed into the pine forests of Les Landes. The cycle paths were mostly the width of a car lane, perfectly smooth and many of them straight for miles on end. Although we were close to the sea, we saw little of it. Trees hid the beaches from the cycleways. There were only a few other cyclists and walkers around because the holiday season had not started. There were numerous lizards dashing across our paths throughout the day, but we managed to avoid them.
At around half past six in the evening, we arrived at our destination for the day. A house in the middle of a forest camp site, where our host, Maylis, greeted us warmly and told us where we could find the local supermarket.
After a brief shopping trip, Andy cooked up steak with endive salad and we collapsed into our beds to recover from the day’s efforts.
We’d covered 83 miles and climbed 3,600 feet, which was somewhat more than we were expecting when we set off in the morning.
I’ve been keen to visit the Landes region of South West France for several years and when I discovered Eurovelo 1, a cycling route that stretches from Portugal to Norway, in part running north-south along the French Atlantic coast, it seemed a good way to explore the region, at least in part. Eurovelo 1 offers the attraction of long stretches of traffic-free cycleways and where it does venture onto roads, these are usually quiet ones. This would make for a relaxing tour with all the usual attractions of cycling in France, good food and wine at the top of the list.
My old friend Andy and I have done a few cycling trips together, including my local Wiltshire Cycleway and the vintage bike ride, Eroica Britannia. We were both able to grab a couple of weeks’ holiday at the beginning of May to tackle the French section of Eurovelo 1. It runs from Hendaye in the South West corner of the country to Roscoff in the North West.
A plan formed to take a ferry from Portsmouth to Santander in northern Spain, then travel to Irun near the French border before hopping across to Hendaye and cycling to Roscoff. I did look at cycling into France from Santander but most of the stuff I read suggested either a lot of climbing, a lot of traffic, or a lot of both. Taking the train looked long-winded but there is a bus, which takes about 3.5 hours and departs from a point less than 1km from the ferry terminal. The bus was easy to book online and I was even able to reserve two of the four dedicated bicycle spaces on the vehicle, online. The bus goes to Irun, from where it’s just a few km to Hendaye.
After checking out the Brittany Ferries schedules, it was clear the St. Malo to Portsmouth would be the more convenient route by which to return. The ferries from Roscoff sail to Plymouth, rather than Portsmouth, and if we decided to cycle home on the final day, it would represent a considerably greater challenge than doing so from Portsmouth.
Days one to three – South Wraxall to Portsmouth, the ferry and the bus
We’d agreed that if the weather was reasonable, we’d cycle to Portsmouth on Friday, May 3rd. If it was lousy, we’d take the train. Apart from being a little chilly at the outset, and with the promise of some light rain from mid–afternoon, the weather was fine so we set off around 8:30am and decided to follow the Wiltshire Cycleway to Salisbury. The last time I rode to Portsmouth, it was 84 miles to the ferry terminal and our hotel was near there, so that’s the distance we expected to cover, with a short break in Salisbury for coffee or lunch.
About ten miles before we reached Salisbury, another cyclist joined us. He introduced himself as Paul and he’d taken the train from Bristol to Warminster before setting out for Portsmouth on his single speed, steel bike. Paul was visiting his father in Portsmouth before travelling on to the Isle of Wight to take part in a 100km ride around the island on 5th May. We were glad of his company, not least because we were unsure of our route from Salisbury to Portsmouth and he knew a couple of options. In the end, we used a combination of his knowledge and some directions from the excellent Komoot app to weave our way through Eastleigh and the outskirts of Southampton to arrive at our destination, the Village Hotel, in Portsmouth. Paul peeled off to his destination just a couple of miles before we reached ours.
As we approached the hotel, we had cycled 98 miles. Andy had never ridden 100 miles in a day so we just had to tack on a couple so that he could achieve that milestone. It is a landmark thing to do when you’re a keen cyclist. We rolled into the hotel car park with 100.2 miles on the clock. Food, drink and relaxation preceded a sound night’s sleep.
Not all ferries are created equal
Neither Andy or I have used ferries for several years and I should have done my homework more thoroughly when booking the Brittany ferry crossing from Portsmouth to Santander. I was imaging a mini cruise with a cinema on board, a smart restaurant and live music in the bar for the Saturday night. It’s a 36–hour crossing and that was my recollection of a previous trip. However, I should have noticed that the ferry company now has two classes of journey – Economie and Cruise. Our booking for the outbound crossing was the former. As one fellow passenger put it, ‘it’s for the truck drivers’. Despite that, we had a comfortable cabin, there was a half–decent, self–service restaurant and there was a bar, albeit without entertainment, except sport showing on the TV. With no usable internet connection (despite the promise of free WiFi on our tickets) there was little to do except read, watch the news (most other TV programmes were in French), or just relax. As Andy put it, “I haven’t slept so much during the day since I was a teenager!’
We arrived in Santander on time, although it took about 30 minutes to disembark. We then had a short ride to the central bus station where we caught the bus to Irun, near the French border. We had to simply remove the front wheels of the bikes to fit them into the storage bay on the bus. The bus was air conditioned, had USB sockets to keep phones charged and WiFi connection. Some of the coastal and mountain scenery was spectacular. We checked into our Hendaye hotel around 8pm then walked into town to find somewhere to eat. At one point it seemed that everywhere was closed but we finally located a small restaurant run by a Belgian couple and had a simple meal washed down with a bottle of Rioja to end the day.