A ride along France’s bike trails in Brittany begins in St Malo, but it’s not all downhill from there. By Adam Ruck
France has worked so hard to make a parallel road network for cyclists, it would be churlish not to plan our touring holidays around voies vertes and véloroutes. Wouldn’t it?
My first attempt to engage with ‘3V France’ was a ride along its showpiece, the Loire à Vélo trail from Nevers to St Nazaire. Imagining a well-marked and seamless path along the river bank via a succession of historic towns, corduroy vineyards and turreted châteaux, my navigator and I set off with no special apps or guides to the trail and found it surprisingly difficult to follow.
Targeting Brittany next, and determined to do better, we did our prep before catching the overnight ferry to St Malo and read about an alternative to the ‘dangerous’ main road over the dam in the Rance estuary. The Corsaire Bus de Mer (sea bus) would ferry us and our bikes across the water to Dinard and from there a disused railway-line voie verte would take us to Dinan.
Dinard to Dinan is the first section of a projected north-south cycling highway from the Channel to the Atlantic, at which point the cyclist can head up the Loire, down the Atlantic coast on the Vélodyssée to Biarritz and beyond; or across Brittany on the 385km Brest-Nantes canal.
Brittany Ferries carries more than 50,000 bicycles a year and looks after this growing market well, inviting us to walk our bikes on and off the ship before any motorists or truckers are allowed to move, much to their annoyance. St Malo’s passport controller waved us through with a smile and the whole thing worked so well, we found ourselves with an hour and a half to kill on a cold, damp morning before the Corsaire’s first sailing. ‘We’ll be off to a café then,’ said the leader of a peloton of Chichester ladies called the Biking Belles, in
pink, polka dot Lycra. Our schedule allowed for no such dalliance. With 100km to pedal before our day’s appointed end at a small hotel in Ploërmel, there was nothing for it but to brave the perils of the main road. It seemed manageable enough, as we crossed the dam without mishap and paused to inspect the workings of its usine marémotrice.
Turning off at the first opportunity, we rode through sleepy hamlets and quiet farming country to Dinan where we stopped for coffee and sightseeing at about the time the Biking Belles must have been carting their wheels down to the sea bus.
Later in the day, having been held up by a familiar combination of hills, headwind, punctures and lunch, we were beginning to worry about the deadline for supper when we found the voie verte and covered the last 20km in 45 minutes, which is almost a Personal Best. Disused railway lines are not the most interesting cycle routes, but they have their uses.
The same goes for canal towpaths, we agreed, looking down on the Brest to Nantes canal from a disused railway bridge the next morning. The towpath looked safe, tranquil and, before long, dull. Who wants to go to Brittany and not see the sea? We continued south towards the Gulf of Morbihan.
Our plan for a coastal tour had been formed on the back of a beer mat by adding up distances between the main towns. It didn’t take a much closer look at the map to realise that the coastline itself is so intricate and interrupted by so many estuaries and inlets that a serious attempt to hug the sea would require a cycling holiday of several months, or a boat.
Our solution was to pick sections of the coast and connect them by train: fortunately not all the track in Brittany has been given over to two-wheeled rolling stock. With the assistance of a ferry or two, this worked well as a week-long boat, bike and train holiday.
The tourist boat that shuttles pedestrians and cyclists across the narrow entrance to the Gulf of Morbihan would be one tempting option. We devoted our time instead to Vannes, the old river port of Auray and Carnac, where we unbent our stiff backs to pose for cycle-selfies among the army of standing stones.
Lorient’s network of sea buses gave us an easy way through that proud nautical city and brought us to the ideal cycle track, between the coast road and a 10km stretch of surfing beach.
Guidel Plage, where this fine trail expires, is a typical example of the inlet problem. A few hundred yards of water separated us from the Hôtel du Pouldu, a substantial building with lunch written all over it. By road, it was more than an hour away.
We rolled down to Guidel’s little harbour more in hope than expectation and found a net-mender to ask if he or anyone else would take us across. The man pointed to a pole with a piece of string and a bit of wood nailed to it. ‘It’s the signal for le passeur,’ he said. ‘Pull the string and he will come.’
With no ferry in view and thunder in the air, this had the makings of a good joke at the expense of two hungry tourists. But we kept the faith and after a fifteen-minute soaking it was rewarded. In view of the weather, the delay and our distressed demeanour, le passeur reduced the fare from €2 to €1.
The Hôtel du Pouldu took us in, dried us off and served the best fish soup and Muscadet of our lives; and when we asked about Gauguin, Madame la Patronne went upstairs to fetch a fragment of plaster with the outline of a bearded face painted on it. ‘It’s a portrait we found in the attic,’ she said. This might also be a joke, but I would happily return to check, preferably at lunchtime.
Tea and art galleries at the painters’ village of Pont-Aven, and Concarneau’s walled citadel were more predictable treats but none the less enjoyable for that.
After a night in a beach hotel below Fouesnant we headed north on a day of hill cycling and churches. Either side of the ‘mountain’ that forms the spine of Brittany – top height about 1,000ft, where we crossed it – Pleyben, Guimiliau, Lampaul-Guimiliau and Saint-Thégonnec are prime examples of the Breton Parish Close: an elaborate complex of church buildings involving a gateway, a Calvary, an ossuary and the church itself, all elements richly decorated with wonderfully lively naïve carvings.
These monuments boast an impressive aggregate of eight stars in the Michelin green guide. We liked Guimiliau best for its Calvary, Lampaul for the church interior, Pleyben for the grandeur of the overall effect, and Saint-Thégonnec for its auberge of the same name which has no Michelin star but deserves one.
Brittany’s north coast is if anything more hilly and cut up than the south. The section we chose, from Morlaix to Perros Guirec via the Corniche de l’Armorique and the Corniche Bretonne, delivered handsomely on the scenic front but was not all plain cycling: Lannion and Morlaix are hilly places to negotiate on a bike, and the main road from Locquirec to Lannion is unavoidable, busy and in places steep. Voie verte required.
These difficulties behind us, our thoughts were turning to the bar when we came across a cider farm, the Verger de Kernivinen, with a sign inviting us in. Pannier space was found for a bottle of fizz to consume on the balcony at the Hotel de la Plage in Ploumanac’h, looking out over the prettiest bay on Brittany’s well-named Pink Granite Coast.
With that, our time was up. A three-stage train journey (Lannion to Plancoët) with an hour’s bike ride at each end, brought us back to Dinard in time for the last Corsaire sea bus of the day. As all ports should, fortress St Malo shows its best profile to the approaching mariner. It was good to know we were travelling by the approved route at last.
Crossing the Channel
Brittany Ferries: £88 return with a bicycle. www.brittany-ferries.co.uk
Le Cobh, Ploërmel +33 (0)297740049, www.hotel-lecobh.com, from £70 pp in a double room, b&b and dinner.
Le Tumulus, Carnac +33 (0)297520821, www.hotel-tumulus.com, from £95.
Bellevue, Cap Coz (Fouesnant) +33(0)298560033,
www.hotel-belle-vue.com, from £70.
Auberge Saint-Thégonnec +33 (0)298796118, www.aubergesaintthegonnec.com, from £70.
Saint Guirec et de la Plage, Ploumanac’h +33 (0)296914089,
www.hotelsaint-guirec.com, from £115