Travel: Saddle up and explore France on two wheels
Published 31/03/2014 | 02:30
Napoleon was a great man for thinking outside Le Box. Sick of those damned English blockading the harbour at Brest, he decided that a canal linking the port town with Nantes would allow quick transportation of soldiers and weapons – even if "les rosbifs" stayed at sea, blocking the sea lanes. And so work began in 1811 on the 365 kilometres of waterway and more than 200 locks across Brittany.
Of course, by the time this stellar feat of civil engineering was actually finished in 1858, Napoleon had been dead for some 37 years and the military imperative that was the catalyst for its construction had long since passed. Worse still, even in peace, the Nantes-Brest Canal quickly became something of a white elephant, as more and more heavy freight was moved by steam train rather than the stately canal barge.
But, more than 150 years later, the French are now justifiably proud of the canal, a wonderfully wide and picturesque waterway that links four major river valleys – the Loire, the Vilaine, the Blavet and the Aulne. I'm guessing, but in most parts the Nantes-Brest Canal is some two to three times wider than our own Royal and Grand Canals and has the feel of a meandering river rather than a ramrod straight channel carved through the French countryside. The scenery is wonderfully varied and the canal passes beside some of the most lovely towns and villages in this part of France.
We had intended to do some cycling on our two-week break, and it was no hassle to load up the bikes on a carrier on the back of the car and take the Brittany Ferries sailing to Roscoff on board the rather swanky Pont-Aven. But this was supposed to be a holiday with some cycling rather than a full-blown attack on Brittany and Normandy on two wheels.
As it turned out, our sojourn coincided with a spell of fine settled weather and we spent far more days in the saddle than we thought we would. This is great cycling country. The canal towpath is superbly maintained and flanked by mature trees that provided welcome dappled shade in the heat of the midday sun.
We had brought racing bikes with us, which were brilliant on the rolling supersmooth roads of Brittany. On the gravel of the canal path, perhaps a hybrid bike, with its wider tyres and easier riding position, would have been more comfortable A hybrid would also have provided more scope for panniers for longer overnight trips.
Simply, it is a joy to cycle in France. French drivers don't hang around but there is an in-built respect for those on two wheels, and cyclists are given at least two metres road space by passing cars and lorries – even in busy towns.
Actually, we are quite lucky here in Ireland in that regard. Most Irish drivers are relatively tolerant of cyclists and there is none of the intense anxiety I associate with cycling on the other side of the Irish Sea, where there can be a disturbing and dangerous hostility toward those on bikes.
If you want to take your life in your hands, try a few days on a Boris Bike in London.
France, of course, has a wonderful coffee culture and the appetising aroma of freshly baked pastries every morning as we passed yet another sleepy village provided plenty of opportunities for taking a break every 25 kilometres or so. Of course, that meant that after cycling a few hundred kilometres over the course of our holiday, we actually packed on a few pounds' extra baggage.
France has some 550,000 miles of roads, not including motorways – and almost all of this massive network is open to cyclists.
We also left the canal path to explore Britanny's voies vertes, or Greenways. Motorised traffic is banned from the voies vertes and the gradients are gentle. Plan your route with care and you could spend days without sharing a roadway with a car. The network of roadways is open to cyclists, walkers and those on horseback – many of the trails are converted from old narrow-gauge railway tracks. Signposting is clear and there are six separate routes which join to form a network across Brittany.
The V4, for example, is a mainly coastal route from the Normandy border near Mont St-Michel to Roscoff, and the V5 takes it on from Roscoff, around the western peninsulas and along the south coast to the Brittany border in the south-east.
There is a very useful, clear and well laid out independent website, www.freewheelingfrance.com which gives further details of the voies vertes and gave us some valuable information about routes and where to stay.
France has already made substantial progress in the creation of its part of a continent-wide cycling road network known as the EuroVelo.
EuroVelo 6 is one of 12 routes in the network and runs from Saint-Nazaire on the mouth of the Loire, along that river eastward through France before heading into Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Slovakia Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania, finishing at the Black Sea. The French part of the route takes in many of the magnificent chateaux of the Loire region.
It is worth remembering that cycles can be taken free of charge on many trains in France, especially TERs, the regional express trains that cover the whole country.
In France, cycles must be equipped with a bell, fully functioning brakes and, after dark, reflectors and front and rear lights. Cyclists must also wear a high-vis jacket if cycling after dark outside urban areas. While a helmet is not compulsory, anyone who doesn't wear one is a fool. In urban streets, cyclists must use marked cycle lanes.
Cyclists are allowed to ride two abreast, but only during hours of daylight. At night, single- file cycling is the law. And, while it's tempting to enjoy a glass of wine with lunch, it should be remembered that cyclists are subject to the same alcohol limits as other road-users.
More than 90,000 bikes have been purchased under the Government's Bike to Work Scheme – reflecting a huge increase in interest in cycling nationwide.
If you are going to France this year, think about bringing the bikes. You won't regret it.
A family of four can travel with their car on Brittany Ferries, staying in a four-berth cabin, from €66 per person each way, a total of €528. Bookings can be made online at www.brittanyferries.ie or by calling 021 427 7801. Brittany Ferries offers the fastest direct ferry crossing from Ireland to France, taking 14 hours and operating on a weekend schedule. The Pont-Aven vessel is the newest ship on any direct crossing between Ireland and France. On-board facilities include pool and bar areas with panoramic sea views, two cinemas, shopping mall, spa treatments and a wide range of restaurants. Brittany Ferries operates weekly sailings from Cork to Roscoff. The new sailing season has commenced and will run until November 1, 2014.
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