Total Distance: 600 odd km
Distance we travelled: 390km (roughly)
Time taken: 11 days (7 days cycling, 4 rest days)
Maps used: La Velo Francette web page (for route planning although double check the locations of campsites or you’ll end up wandering around Flers for forty minutes before, pathetic and grateful, you follow a local who shows you the way), various free maps of the different departments from campsites and tourist information for route finding, Le Loire a Velo maps from Angers onwards.
Why: We’d originally planned to catch a ferry from Plymouth to Rosccoff to join the Eurovelo 6, which follows the Loire river snaking east across France from Nantes to Basel in Switzerland. However, ending up in Cambridge it made more sense to catch the ferry from Portsmouth to Ouistreham/Caen, and wind our way down to the Eurovelo. Although this increased the kilometre-adge it gave us a chance to sample one of the newest cycle routes in France: La Velo Francette. Travelling from the Channel to the Atlantic, the route promised to be well signed, mostly easy riding, with long stretches on French Greenway (off road paths closed to cars/motorised traffic that are normally smoothly tarmacked and generally lush!) and lots of accommodation options for cycle tourers.
Getting There: We stayed overnight in portsmouth, and the ferry was super easy to reach (we were very impressed by the bits of cycling infrastructure we saw in portsmouth fyi). As a cyclist, you check in with the cars rather than in big building for pedestrians. This is a little uncomfortable, and I always find processes I don’t fully understand and which aren’t totally laid out for me super draining. I felt on high alert, but once we were through and lined up, the people in high vis were very competent and clear about what was going on, where we should stand etc and didn’t seem to mind when I needed them to repeat it. We left our bikes in the little area down in the garage where the crew would secure them and took our bag of goodies (food, games, lino, books, water) up to the deck. Our tickets were £100 and then we’d paid £31 extra for a cabin with two beds and a window, which we’d decided to do after the disaster of the ferry we took to the hook of holland in 2016 where we didn’t have any stuff and nowhere to sit and we just lay on the vibrating deck outside and tried to sleep… Paying a bit more for a cabin was a great idea cos we had a cool quiet space to retreat to, and we both immediately fell asleep. 10/10 would recommend.
It was v.on brand of us to take a ferry across from Portsmouth to the beaches of Normandy, the day before the 75th anniversary of D-Day, and not realise until we wheeled our bikes into the ferry’s garage to be surrounded by vintage army jeeps and lots of middle aged white men who really want to talk to us about ww2. it felt v.v.uncomfortable to be surrounded by such aggressive actions of ‘remembrance’ and i think it’s intensely bad that we are obsessed with moments in history where we feel like the ‘good guys’ who won against the ‘bad guys’. Obviously everyone would have had gone ballistic if someone was there in a Nazi uniform and quite right, but also the British army committed massive atrocities and genocides specifically in that period (and beyond) but people think it’s fine to unequivocally celebrate them. Basically war is a tragedy, an outrage, an action of colonialism, fought along lines of class, and gender, and rather than celebrating maybe we should find a way to think about it in all it’s complexity. Also literally a day later we read this article (CW: sexual violence, misogyny, mention of suicide) about how French civilian women were treated during the liberation and ALL OF THIS is submerged in the flags and … triumph? I was conflicted between playing the dumb millenial and asking anyone who came up to me whether they were in D-Day or pointing out that the turning point of the war was really Stalingrad and how D-Day was more about the americans being worried russia wld take Berlin and where were the russians at this event anyhow since like 26 million died, do we just not remember them?
As we sat watching the beaches come into view we were next to a D-Day veteran, who was sitting alone whilst his family went to get some food. It was a moment of sadness, like the sharp tip of something, before he was caught up in people (ok, i say people to be generous but i basically mean like a bunch of white american men) who insisted on coming over to talk and shake his hand and generally I don’t know, congratulate him.
The Route: After a day at a campsite in Ouistreham we beat a hasty retreat South into France. Our first ride was sheer joy – after the stop start of England, we zoomed along 60kilometres of uninterrupted Greenway. As expected, for the whole 400-odd kilometres we were on it, La Velo Francette was perfectly signed and mostly easy off road riding. it would be great for a first tour and i was a little sad we had to leave it behind to head east. I would have happily followed it to La rochelle. The only exception was the 45 kilometres between le vey and flers which was hilly and demanding and pretty much all on road (although these were v.quiet and drivers mostly respectful). We (psychologically) split this into two lots of 10km and then a final 20km, and wound up at the campsite in Le Vey (in a place called La Foquerie) incredibly tired and sweaty and dead. It would probably be manageable without fully loaded bikes even if you weren’t an experienced rider, but be prepared.
Accomodation: We stayed at campsites marked as ‘Accueil Velo’ on the Velo Francette map online, and they were all very welcoming to bikes/cycle tourers. Most offered a special discount price as well and they ranged from costing 8 – 13.50 Euro a night for the two of us. They all had free wifi, the showers/toilets were nice in all of them (bear in mind, in most french campsites you need your own toilet roll, and they often don’t have toilet seats which can be a bit of a shock when you sit down on one in the pitch black). Many of them also offered ‘Bivoaucs’ – wooden treehouse like structures, with bed space on top and picnic space at the bottom. For the sake of this blog, we made the great self-sacrifice of staying in one at Chateau-Gontier for 20EUR (which was also when the rain was really bad..) and we really liked it. ((The kinda fabric campbeds they provide are not sturdy enough to accommodate two people sitting on (we ripped one, but the campsite manager was v.nice about it and basically it turned into a conversation where she was like ‘je suis desole’ and i was like ‘non, je SUIS desole’ and she was like ‘non, je suis desole’).)) Anyway they were super cute and available at every place we stayed, so if you wanted to tour without taking a tent then they are a good option (although you have to be able to climb a ladder.)
On the subject of accessibility though, one of the great things about greenways is that because they are designed for bikes to use, they are well suited to wheelchairs and other mobility aids and i think there’s a lot more that could be written and said and a lot more work that could be done by cyclists to think about the ways that cycling infrastructure and accessible infrastructure intersect. On the sustrans routes we took across england, there wasn’t a day where we didn’t have to get off our bikes to push up over a bridge, or down some steps or like one day literally lift our bikes over an inexplicably locked gate, and i think that not even marking these points on a map betrays an assumption that all cyclists can self-ambulate or are able-bodied (and also ride bikes light enough for them to lift/carry/push up steep slopes) and this has been much less of an issue in France so far and you really do feel that tangibly when you are cycling a route. It doesn’t feel like a battle, y’know?
Anyway, my favourite campsite was just out of Flers called Camping de la Fouquerie. it was super cheap (like 8 euro a night), the campsite manager walked me through organising a pitch in French like a languages teacher willing you to figure out what they’re saying in your oral exam, and it had a banging dry room (sort of an enclosed marquee with wooden flooring) where we holed up for a day of torrential rain and high winds with another cycle touring couple.
My second fave place we stayed wasn’t a campsite at all! For Abi’s birthday she wanted two things: to be dry and not to have to eat porridge for breakfast. We ended up staying in a super idillyic wee wooden caravan in the grounds of this french farmhouse/BnB. There was a literal sauna in one of the old barns which really eased off our cycle touring muscles, and it was just luxury to lie in a bed for a whole day n eat crisps n watch harry potter movies.
The Weather: I make this joke where I’m like ‘Scottish people sell this myth the weather is bad in Scotland to stop the English moving up there’ which is only like, partly true. Basically where we live in Scotland, on the east coast of Fife, the weather is pretty good/standard for the UK/the climate change nightmare we are living in. We had this image of France from our last tour which was like, endless warm late autumn days and clear skies. What we didn’t expect on La Velo Francette was to end up stuck in a rain vortex on the third day, which didn’t really shift until Abi’s birthday a week later. The result of the 30-40 km ph winds n rain (which we elected not to cycle in) was that for two days follwoing our route was littered with fallen branches, leaves, smaller tree trunks which we had to haul our bikes over and at one point a whole massive oak tree which we had to clambour through, skirting the steep bank of the river. This sort of killed my whole ‘France’s greenway’s make the outdoors so much more accessible’ vibe although tbf folks were out with chainsaws removing the fallen trees pretty quickly, and by the third day our path was clear again. Then, on the last two days of our route, it got incredibly hot. 27-30 degrees, unrelenting sunshine, the tent is some kind of hell furnace hot. Right now, sitting in a campsite a little way along the Loire, I can not remember what it is to be cold. This is the world we live in now. (Editing this blog post on our return from the tour, I’d like to point out that what followed was a week of 40 degree heat, and some of the hottest temperatures France had ever seen.)
Food: Last tour we went through France, Germany, The Netherlands and Switzerland and we definitely found it hardest to find vegan food in France. Three years later and there’s definitely more stuff available. It’s easy enough to find all the staples, and we were surprised to find Lidls and Aldis to shop at, as we hadn’t seen any before in the south of France. Obviously, you can fill up on baguettes and even if you can’t find a boulangie most campsites offer the option to order bread for the morning (although obviously you pay a premimum.) French manufacturers do do some odd things (putting yoghurt in houmous?!) The best thing about France imho is that you can get local, seasonal fruit and veg, plastic free, pretty much everywhere and it’s super affordable. I had to restrain myself several times from just ladling fresh blueberries from their bucket into my mouth. We also managed to eat out at an all vegan place in Angers for Abi’s birthday – it was this canadian chain so we had burger and buffalo wings and poutine and it was the first meal that truly saited my cycle touring hunger. For more on vegan food in France see Abi’s blogpost.
- Greeeeenwayyyyyyy – I can’t overstate how much easier riding is with access to good off road cycle path. On top of this the infrastructure for cyclists on the route was great. Every lock house on the mayenne river had a little thing with bike tools, there were bike pumping stations, loads of good picnic benches and also (fairly) regular public toilets.
- Angers Chateau – for Abi’s birthday we visited the castle in Angers and got to be tourists. The castle was v.cool and intact and had a herb garden (!) and also housed the massive apocalypse tapestry which was awe inspiring.
- Hanging out in the dry room with Swiss cycle tourers Chris and Martina on the v.windy day in Flers.
- Seeing a coypu in Ouistreham. I know (thanks to google) they are an invasive species but also I had never even heard of them before so it was kinda wild to see essentially a massive guinea pig with a big old tail just casually disappear into an irrigation ditch as if this was just totally normal.
- A zero waste shop in Angers. I was super excited to chance upon a zero-waste shop in angers with loads of gravity dispensers and other cool stuff including…..NOOCH. Like, every meal we had we were like this is nice but would be better with nooch so when we found it we decanted some into an old baby food jar and are now treating it like gold dust.
Ouistreham -> Le Vey, 55km
Le Vey -> Flers, 45km
Flers -> Mayenne, 72km
Mayenne -> Chateau-Gontier, 75km
Chateau-Gontier -> Lion d’Angers, 35km
Lion d’Angers -> St Gemme, 50km
St Gemme -> Saumur, 50km