From the Coast of Normandy to the Atlantic Ocean
From June 17 till 23, 2018
Preliminary (with already some conclusions….)
1. La Vélo Francette (VF) runs from Ouistreham on the Normandy coast to La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast for about 628 km. It offers an ideal opportunity to visit lesser known “départements” like Calvados, Mayenne, Maine-et-Loire and Deux-Sèvres, to get to know underappreciated cities like Caen, Laval, Angers, Saumer and Niort and to discover exquisite gems like Clécy, Domfront, Le Thoureil, Montreuil – Bellay, St Généroux, Damvix and Coulon. And with a magnificent last stretch through the Marais de Poitevin and La Rochelle as a sparkling finish!
2. The route is only since 2016 completely marked and this with a pink “weathercock”. We called him disrespectfully “red chicken” when we could not find him fast enough, but this did not happen often!
3. The route is officially referred to as the V43 and belongs as such to the French cycling network. There is a very good French guidebook with detailed descriptions of itineraries and sights, published in 2016 by Editions France-Ouest. (see http://www.lavelofrancette.com – to download the route on GPS as well, visit http://www.editionsouestfrance.fr.) To our knowledge, there is no English Guidebook as of today; but most probably Cicerone is busy compiling one…! Hence, we will retain some of our conclusions in these preliminary notes.
4. The author of the French guidebook describes the VF as “also best do-able with families”. But we have strong doubt as to whether he really has done this himself?! For older teens in particular – less practice or for lack of stamina? – we would definitely recommend renting an e-bike, just to keep it pleasant. At least, this is our strategy when we go for a day cycling “en famille”. This because there is quite some climbing work to do on the VF, especially between Clécy and Flers, between Torchamp and La Grande Boufferie (before Mayenne), between La Daguenière and St. Rémy-de-Varenne and from Thouars all the way to Niort. We cycled for 7 days and had 646 km on the Garmin of which 3369 meters ascent.
5. But there are also wonderfully relaxing stretches like the beginning from Ouistreham up to Clécy, the whole end along the wonderful Mayenne river and from Niort all the way through the marshlands to La Rochelle.
6. We estimate that about 50% of the route runs on car-free paths. The rest follows traffic restricted or traffic calmed roads except when a city needs to be crossed. But the VF manages to negotiate most cities in a comfortable and pleasant way, often even highlighting the nicer sides of them! This is certainly the case for Angers and Niort! In fact, Britain and Normandy and their cities must be commended for their great efforts in offering cyclists priority in traffic! The motorists in the cities also remarkably show a lot of respect for the biker, which cannot always be said on the countryside…
7. We bike on Koga Worldtraveller, 40 mm tubes and only back panniers. No tent, but with a “bug bivy” of Outdoor Research to enjoy a bug-free siesta. With picnic and water about 10-12 kg. Great bikes, btw!
8. On the VF you come across many other long cycling routes: the Central Europe Route (EV 4) in Ouistreham, La Véloscenie in Domfront (from Paris to Mont St Michel), La Vélodyssée (EV1) in Marans (the VF and VD run together from La Rochelle – see our VD report!), and La Loire à Vélo in Saumur are the main ones.
9. An observation we want to make here and which does not only apply to the VF but what we experienced many times along the VF: as a cyclist when you come across a sign “route barrée” or “déviation”, don’t pay attention to it! It is well possible that the sign has been there already for weeks or months and will only disappear at the end of December when the municipality will do the annual stock taking and notice that there are a few sings missing in comparison with last year’s.
10. A lot of the roads you share with local car traffic get the sign “route déformée”. This condition applies to most secondary roads in France! They are like patch work: not sewn together but for decades patched up with here and there a patch of tar and gravel… The bumpiest roads are the ones from which a layer of asphalt has been scraped off already for years and are waiting for a budget allowing a new layer of asphalt. In fact, you should deflate your tires a bit and let them run less hard but then you risk more punctures…
11. Below we have per day indicated “time in the saddle”, ascent and descent according to our Garmin. (not the consumed Kcal because according to my bike speedometer we only consume half of our Garmin readings. So, as we are not sure which one is correct, we don’t record it. However we tend to believe our Garmin as it allows for a daily dessert…)
Day 1: From OUISTREHAM to FLERS: 101 km, 5 h 39 min, 795 m climbing and 628 m descent.
At Ouistreham the route follows “Le Canal de Caen à la Mer”. You pass by the Pegasus Bridge, the first bridge freed by the Allies in WWII. In Caen you are guided safely through the city towards the hippodrome where a very pleasant, smooth as a billiard table and car free stretch on a former railway brings you to Clécy. When we passed by road works were going on so we suspect this path will continue till Pont d’Ouilly! From then on some serious climbing is required and this all the way to Flers.
It’s worth spending a day in Ouistreham before you set off! The town is of course best known as one of the Allied landing sites at the end of WW II. But it is also a delightful town on an attractive coastline, bordered with nothing more than beautiful late 19th – beginning 20th century villas. And traffic free along the beach all the way to St Luc. On the Saturday afternoon in Lion-sur-Mer, enjoy watching serious “ jeux de boules” – petanque – competitions being played around the church. And restaurants l’Ecume des Mers and La Cabane du Vivier both also in Lion-sur-Mer are highly recommended! (reservations needed!)
Caen is a beautiful green city with the Orne and the marina in the centre bringing extra ambience. And don’t miss walking around and visiting its castle (of William the Conqueror fame).
We lunched in Thury-Hancourt in Auberge la Suisse Normande, the best way to understand the description “Swiss -Norman”!
Clécy is a beautifully situated village on the Orne river – best viewed from the railway bridge when crossing over – advertising itself as the capital for abseiling, canoe, luge and via ferrata.
Pont d’Ouilly is world famous for its “La Guinguette”, literally: “a small inn somewhere outside the city” but currently referring to: “a place where you can dance to old tunes”, often impromptu. In Pont d’Ouilly this happens in an idyllic setting on the banks of the Orne (see picture). Don’t miss it! (Normally only on Saturdays and Sundays!)
And to make sure that today is forever engraved in your memory, you also pass Condé-sur-Noireau, the birthplace of admiral and explorer Jules Durmont d’Urville (“Dudu” for the friends) after whom one of the islands at Marlborough Sounds in New Zealand is named (See our travel report NZ)
In Ouistreham we slept in Ibis Styles for 119 € with breakfast (wbf). “Styles” probably means that the rooms fit tightly around the body. And the hotel advertises itself as Accueil Vélo but for that you have to carry your bike down the basement.
In Flers we stayed at Hotel Le Galais, 79€ wbf, a Logis de France (LdF) but weird hotel. Dinner in Pizzeria Tuscany, about the only thing that was open that night. Nothing except the pizzas was Italian (or of Italian origin) but they were good! And a bottle Côtes de Blaye red for 14€ made it a perfect evening. (Flers didn’t really leave a good impression but it was Sunday as mitigating circumstance). If we were to redo it, we would stay in Pont d’Ouilly for the night.
Day 2: From Flers to MAYENNE: 72 Km, 3h 51 min, 340 m climbing (without the climb to Domfront), 442 m descent .
You start with a quiet run on the former railway to Domfront for which you need a steep climb to reach. Definitely worth the effort! Torchamp has a good picnic area in the bushes just above the canoe rental. Also ideal for a siesta, weather permitting.
You will need it because there is some rolling work to be done afterwards and this to La Grande Boufferie (but less steep than the day before). From there you can relax on the former railway to Mayenne: city, river as well as the name for a “département”. (Note that just before Mayenne we did not make the extra detour to Jublains because of the weather. And the day after, we simply forgot. But according to the guide it is best worth the while!)
Mayenne is quite okay as a city and this through Mayenne as a river and the old castle with garden overlooking it. The département was once owned by Cardinal Mazarin, the successor of Richelieu. The castle allegedly has an interesting collection medieval toys.
We stayed at Le Grand Hotel, a magnificent LdF for 80 €, w/o bf. The hotel has also a very good restaurant! (Note though that the day after, at the lock of Sainte Baudelle just outside Mayenne, we passed by a nice and quietly located hotel/restaurant: Le Beau Rivage; worth checking out! )
Day 3: From Mayenne TO GREZ-NEUVILLE: 106 km, 5h 23 min, 152 m up and 198 m down
A blissful day through delightful landscapes! And an almost flat day along the Mayenne with just one serious climb between Ecluse de la Roche and Petit Lourdes Angevin for which you will receive Mary’s blessing as a reward!
The river is from Mayenne downwards commercially navigable and therefore there are more potential culinary stops. But still not as much as there are castles. At every glance you will see one from behind the woods peeping up! According to the locals the region’s richness comes largely from intensive cattle breeding and rearing…
We had a coffee break at La Guinguette in Montflours at the Pont de Rochefort; we cycled through Laval but ignored Château Gontier. When passing the fully occupied terrace of restaurant Ecluse de la Bavouze at 03.00 pm and looking at the attire of the guests you get to fully understand what “Living like God in France “means: everybody was definitely “at the office”!
Ménil has a nice-looking camping ground and is renting out caravans as well. We didn’t branch off to Lion d’Angers and booked instead just after Grez- Neuville le Manoir de Grez-Bois, a very nice and cosy B&B for 100 € wbf.
A savory and then a sweet pancake on the terrace at the lock Grez-Neuville as dinner.
Day 4: From Grez-Neuville to SAUMUR: 97 km, 5h 30 min, 375 m ascent, 355 m descent
Note that there is still a “déviation” sign after Grez-Neuville. Ignore it! The route along the Mayenne is open. Of course we took the detour, but never mind… We had coffee at the beautiful Port de l’Ile just before Angers (just take “le bac” – the ferry – across the river).
You may have noticed: we love coffee stops, we enjoy observing the world from a nice and pleasant looking terrace. Whether it’s really pleasant – and if so, this usually results in a second coffee – depends on a few things: friendly service, relaxed, no smokers on the terrace, a little sunshine or a nice little breeze, no dogs under different tables barking or growling at each other, not too many roaring Harley’s passing by, and nice coffee…!
“Coffee in France” can be a source of inspiration for a columnist, also because the name covers different content. After all these years in France we usually order “un grand café crème ” and that’s about in half of the cases what we really want: a pretty strong large coffee with a dash of warm milk. Previously we ordered “un grand café au lait” but either it came with cold milk next to it – or even worse: with a “plastic” milk – or you get more milk than coffee; but when our order was immediately corrected as “un grand crème, alors!” then we knew we were at the right address for a good coffee.
I actually prefer black coffee. But then you either get an inch of liquid tar – after two of these you start shaking on your bike – or I asked for “un café Américain” which should be an espresso with some more hot water but usually comes as hot water with some coffee. Nowadays you can go for “un café allongé” but this is still often an excuse to serve water with some coffee… That is why I have settled for the compromise and stay with “un grand crème”.
But when our first impression of the waitress or “le garçon” is good, we sometimes try “un grand café avec du lait chaud a coté”. This allows us to add milk to our liking. But again we may still be corrected with “un grand crème, alors!”
The route takes you smoothly around Angers with great views of the old town, best viewed from along the river Maine on the “Quai des Carmes” accompanied with delicacies from the bakery des Carmes there. (See picture)!
You continue along Le Lac de la Maine and the magnificently located Bouchemaine on the confluence of the Maine and the Loire. Between La Daguenière and St. Remy-la-Varenne, before the crossing of the Loire, there are quite a few slopes to work on and still a few after, all the way to Le Thoureil. But here you will be rewarded for all your labour with a delicate village on the Loire. Le Thoureil deserves a longer visit, for lunch, dinner or even overnight!
The higher road takes you further then passing Cunault and Trève, both with splendid views. A final “warm-down” up to the Gulf of Saumur brings you to the city for a well-deserved shower and dinner!
We stayed the night in Adagio (Best Western) for 90 € w/o bf. And dinner just next doors in La Bouche à l’Oreille. We couldn’t bring ourselves anymore to look any further that evening… Both ok.
We did not even visit Saumur the day after ……. not done!!
Day 5: from Saumur to ST. LOUP SUR THOUET, 89 km, 5h 05 min, 599 m climbing, 538 m descent.
A wonderful day along Le Thouet but again one whereafter a good dinner will be well deserved! Montreuil – Bellay is gorgeous! Definitely take time to have a look around it. At Thouars, just after the Eiffel viaduct, you’ll need a racing bike with no luggage to bring you up – walking will also do…. . Any way, you will be puffing and heaving for a city which doesn’t seem to offer much at first sight but turns out to have a beautiful church and town square and an imposing fortress a bit further along the river…
The route continues up and down with a must stop at the church of St. Généroux. It could be the oldest church in Deux-Sèvres and dating from the Carolingian era. Anyhow they don’t come more Romanesque in style than this one. And a bit further down the road is an early medieval bridge in very original condition. The village also has an auberge, evidently called “Au Bon Acceuil ” offering halfboard for 54€ pp.
All these beauties will take you further over multiple hills to Airvault. Everything was fully booked there; a pity because the town looks inviting. We paddled on to St. Loup-sur-Thouet, a quiet uninteresting little thing you may think first, but indeed with two castles. We stayed at the crackling and squeaky but cute Le Relais du Chapeau Rouge for 71€ wbf, an LdF run by a charming lady. And a tasty menu for 24€.
Day 6: From St. Loup-sur-Thouet to NIORT: 88 km, 5h 08 min, 991 metres climbing and 1012 m down.
The toughest day with some steep ascents! The approach to Parthenay is annoying because you have the city in front of you for which you go up and down about three times without seemingly gaining any height! And this on a “route seriously déformée”! The half-timbered medieval houses in the center of the city and the many coats of arms in the streets offered some charm but I did not immediately feel an urge to go and save damsels out of the hands of villains…
Upon leaving Parthenay we lost the red chicken; we only saw an indication for St.Aubin-le-Cloud without chicken and according to our GPS the wrong direction. After some searching, we did follow it and at Parthenay-le-Vieux the route took the right direction.
There are some amenities in Mazières-en-Gatine; in Champdeniers-St-Denis everything was closed when we passed. (Lunch breaks are sacred in France!). The road keeps on undulating and brings you passed the castle of Coudray-Salbart, another medieval stronghold.
From here on you start following the often idyllic La Sèvre Niortaise (and this all the way to the Port de Marans). You enter Niort along the river and le “Donjon” tries to impress immediately. It is nice strolling around the old city halls and on Sundays there is a cosy market. We stayed at the Interhotel du Moulin, close to Le Donjon, for 86€ wb. Ok. (Take a stroll as well to the renewed “Port Boinot”).
We had dinner along the “Esplanade de la République” with an abundance of choices. But our choice wasn’t very impressive.
After the main course the waitress asked whether “tout c’est bien passé?” literally whether “all went well” … This is a question you get more and more all over France and mostly from young restaurant staff. Maybe a typical question from an internet generation? Whether the food arrived safely in the stomach? No unexpected errors when downloading? Was your Caps lock still on when entering?
You normally expect to hear whether “you liked the food?” (well, that is what we expect in Belgium!) to which you answer “c’était bon” or even “délicieux!” to the degree of satisfaction. Whether “everything went well” you rather expect in the waiting room of a maternity, whether “the delivery went well?” … If the situation would stand the comparison, then it certainly had been “hard labor” in this restaurant!
In restaurants you can hear more and more of these new stereotypical expressions. Our favorites are “ça marche”, usually after you made your choice from the menu and to be sure that this is passed on – correctly – to the kitchen. And “taque” which means as much as “voici” or “here you are”. But completely childish is “uppah” a variant on “here you are”…
Day 7: from Niort to LA ROCHELLE: 93 km, 4h 58 min, 217 m up and 192 m down.
The good news first: no more climbing except for a tiny little one just after Magné. From then on you cycle through the marshes of Poitevin and along canals to bring you to La Rochelle.
Indeed, another blissful day of cycling through an area with exquisite little works of art like Coulon, Damvix and le Port de Marans and along little canals and scenery which actually deserve your attention for a whole week!
La Rochelle or the “white city” and the capital city of la Charente-Maritime make its location and its Old Port appeal a deserved finishing point for a beautiful cycling route like the VF.
We slept in Hotel Henri IV for 80 € w/o bf. Good. But very noisy at night in the old town!
We had a fantastic seafood dinner in Bar André, another “institution” like Chez Paul in Arcachon and Chez Leon in Paris. And, in summer do not forget to go to “La Belle de Gabut” on the eponymous Quai Gabut where a daily kind of modern Guinguette is being organised until midnight.
LA VELO FRANCETTE: MORE CONCLUSIONS
1. The VF is of course highly recommended! And should definitely be on the wish list of every bike and France lover!
2. The climbing should not be a deterrent! Just make shorter stages.
3. Where we would probably like to stay a possible next time:
1. Ouistreham or anywhere along the coast with more interesting museums re the Allied Landing
3. Clécy, possibly spending half day abseiling
5. Mayenne (in “Le Beau Rivage”)
7. Le Thoureil
9. Coulon or Damvix
10. Châtelaillon-Plage: located about 10 km south of La Rochelle (Follow the Vélodyssée, see also our VD report!): A beautiful stretch of sea and beach with fine little houses directly to the beach. So, with a traffic free coastline. And with some cute hotels: “Clarion les Flots” and “les Goélands”
4. After La Rochelle, we continued cycling direction Royan and along the VD and stayed at delightful Saint-Palais-sur-Mer, just north of Royan. Then cycled further to Bordeaux via Blaye, so along the right bank of the Gironde: to our pleasant surprise also very well signposted! And passing another gem: Talmont-sur-Gironde. We write about this in a separate report: Royan to Bordeaux via Blaye.
5. Actually, we started this trip in Bordeaux, then cycled to Lacanau-Océan from where we took the Vélodyssée direction north to Roscoff. The Velodyssee is amazing as the route runs for 80% on car-free roads, through varied nature for hours on end without encountering another soul (see our VD report). The intention was then to follow “the Channel route” or “La Tour de la Manche” (EV4) to Ouistreham and start the VF there. But bad weather delayed us for several days. So, we took the train from Morlaix to Caen (Via Rennes).
6. Enjoy the ride!