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.