Cycling the flat lands of France
Mid May saw us off on our annual French trip with me cycling and Dennis travelling by car. I'd really like to go to the more mountainous parts of France but I can't face the long drive required to get there so this year we decided to cycle the lower reaches of the Loire and then head south down the Atlantic coast. It would be an ideal route for someone who likes to cycle on flat, well signposted, traffic free cycle paths. For someone who had to keep in contact with their partner in a car it was rather less ideal – especially if you like a few hills in your landscape!
We started off in Angers and enjoyed a faily uneventful day of easy cycling to Ancenis in rather unseasonably chilly weather. I always enjoy cycling over bridges and as we crossed and recrossed the Loire there was quite a variety to choose from.
We woke the next day to heavy rain and decided to delay setting off in the hope that it would clear – after all it doesn't go dark until 10.30 so there was no great rush! It was after 3.00 before it stopped and we hastily downed tent and moved off. I was following the 'Loire a Velo' route signs down tiny lanes that eventually became a rough track by the river. Signs warned of the dangers of flooding and the appearance of some mud splattered mountain bikers convinced me to give up and head for the road. It was already drizzling and by the time I reached the road it was bucketing down. The road was busy with fast traffic throwing up clouds of spray and the visibility was very poor. Perhaps the river bank would have been a better idea! The only ray of light, both literally and metaphorically came from my Cateye rear light. I'd almost left this behind as I didn't expect to be cycling in the dark but I was very glad of its strong pulsing light. The traffic could certainly see me and, being French, they gave me a wide berth. Dennis reckoned my rear light could probably be seen from space! Fortunately we were soon able to get onto quieter roads and made our way towards the outskirts of Nantes. The rain was still sheeting down and camping was losing its appeal. Unfortunately Dennis missed a crucial turning and found himself on the motorway heading for Poitiers! I sheltered in a church porch until he finally reappeared and we gladly followed signs to an Etape hotel. This was ideal – fairly cheap with spartanly furnished rooms ideal for parking Roberta and getting the stove out to cook. It was a bad mistake trying to clean Roberta in there though, it took me ages to clean the black gunge off the floor!
The rain had stopped by morning and we set off to cross Nantes and then take the ferry over the Loire (my fondness for bridges doesn't extend to the huge scary structure at St.Nazaire!).Early on Sunday morning there was very little traffic and the wide cycle lanes and clear signposting made it easy to cross this large city. By early afternoon the rain had returned with a vengeance and the roads were busy with traffic streaming back from the coast. We again took refuge in a Chambre d'Hote but unfortunately this was not so ideal – full of frills and flounces but nothing useful like a working radiator. I suspected Madame would take rather a dim view of me trotting along the corridor to drain the pasta in the bathroom sink so we had to settle for sandwiches. I did still use the stove for tea though, taking great care not to set fire to the frilly draperies!
As we continued down the coast the sun finally appeared and we switched suddenly from winter to summer. Complaints changed from 'Bloody Hell, its cold!' to 'God, its hot!' as the temperature signs outside pharmacies rocketed from 12 to 34! This is prime French holiday territory with resorts all down the coast. There was certainly no shortage of campsites, in fact we were spoilt for choice. We just picked the cheapest ones with fewest chalets and no water slides! Away from the coast the scenery was pleasant, in a flat watery sort of way.
The Tour de France came this way last year. I'd forgotten about that until I passed an electricity box that had been specially painted for the Tour.The stages were very long and fast, I doubt if they spent much time admiring the poppies!
I was keen to visit the Ile de Re which I'd heard was a cyclists' paradise. I'd also heard that it was extremely busy in July and August but assumed that at the end of May it would be fairly quiet. The roads got busier as we approached La Rochelle and I left Dennis to make his own way as I followed a gravel track along the coast. I could see the bridge in the distance and it looked a bit scary! It looked even worse close up!
I needn't have worried. There was a 2 way bike lane seperated from the traffic by a wall with a wall at the other side as protection from the drop into the water. I enjoyed the ride across but couldn't believe the amount of traffic on the far side – it was like the M6! I took the cycle path that ran alongside the main road all the way to the principle town St Martin de Re where we spent 2 nights on the municipal campsite. I was initially very disappointed, the traffic was horendous. However cycle paths left St Martin by the medieval entrance gate and led down tiny lanes beside the salt pans and little fishing villages. It was a beautiful place and deservedly popular with cyclists including several crocodiles of kids on a school trip.
Leaving the Ile de Re I made a major blunder. I had arranged to meet Dennis on the right hand side and take the first right turn to avoid the centre of La Rochelle. I returned the same way as I had come, on the bike lane on the left side of the bridge. It had never crossed my mind that there would be a bike lane on the right hand side as well. In England you're lucky to get one bike lane, there is no possibility of two! I now found myself across the bridge but totally unable to cross 6 lanes of traffic to get to the right hand side. Finding a cycle path signposted La Rochelle I decided to follow it and hope to turn off right later. There was no right turn and the path led into the outskirts of the city before disappearing to leave me surrounded by blocks of flats. I phoned Dennis to explain my plight and decided to follow signs for the city centre. Happily I soon came to a sign for 'La Plage' followed it to the coast and continued to the old town of La Rochelle where I asked for directions in the Tourist Information. Directions were basically 'keep the sea on your right and you can't go wrong'. Great, that's my sort of navigation! I phoned Dennis and we arranged to meet a few miles down the coast.
Unfortunately while I enjoyed a pleasant cycle along the coast path he got horrendously lost and arrived much later than me. Tempers were now somewhat frayed and feeling that I was being unfairly blamed for his misfortunes I pedalled off in a bit of a huff without properly arranging our next meeting place. Bad mistake! Suffice to say that I waited at a camp site at one end of town while he waited at one cunningly concealed at the far end. His phone chose to stop working at this point – it seemed to be calling me but nothing was happening. When I called him all I got was the answerphone. Initially we each thought the other had turned their phone off in a sulk. Hours passed as I cycled round and round the town looking for him. Surely he couldn't still be angry with me? Neither of us is prone to long sulks. Eventually Dennis realised something was wrong with his phone and called from a call box. What a relief! I didn't fancy being abandoned in France – he had the tent and tea stuff!
I was now somewhat stressed and happy to just spend the next day wandering along the sea front. Dennis had also had enough of driving round in circles so I enjoyed a pleasant out and back ride to Rochefort the following day before we began the long drive back to Le Havre.
It would be possible to enjoy virtually traffic free cycling in this area by following the many cycle paths. However the watery nature of the landscape means that, unlike other parts of France, there is no network of quiet lanes and the main roads are busy. It is a popular holiday area so there is no shortage of campsites but I would imagine it gets horrendously busy in July and August.