As soon as you cross the channel you are overwhelmed with the euphoria generated by the iconic brand. For three weeks the sporting World’s eyes salivate over the prospect of men in Lycra demonstrating a desire and spirit unmatched in any other arena on the planet. The whole experience is one to savour, with a party atmosphere following every pedal stroke, every fiery disagreement (of which there are plenty) and every cinematic flyby provided creatively by the exemplary television coverage. By chance I had been invited to experience the northern section of the La Velo Francette and Normandy.
But there is so much more to cycling in France, instead of encountering the suffocating shroud of mass tourism, the independent spirted traveller can experience a period of isolation and sublime discovery. Satisfied that the monotony of traffic jams, people and packed accommodation is a distant memory, thus allowing the adventurous to concentrate and immerse in the sights, sounds and smells of a landscape, the culture and human interaction
There is an extensive network of cycle trails which can transport you and your bike anywhere in France, and throughout the continent.
The AF3V is a national organisation of French citizens who promote the development of greenways and long-distance cycle routes in France. Voie Verte is French for Greenways and they offer a wonderful signposted delve into rural France. Motor vehicles are prohibited and the majority of the routes follow the contours of river or canal towpaths and disused railways. Currently there are over 3,000 kilometres of Voie Verte across France with varying distances from 10km to 50km, offering something for both the committed or less frequent cyclist. The simple ethos is to provide clean, green tourism whilst encouraging active leisure and exploration. If you’re in a hurry, then forget it. The environs take over, they possess your body and mind, immersion is inevitable. The unhurried, relaxed approach is infectious. One of the main advantages of the routes are their flexibility, you can plan your day, commit to an agreed distance with breaks and stop whenever to discover places of interest. There is excellent access to road or rail networks and plenty of places to hire bikes, (if you don’t want to bring your own along), which make them a perfect choice for any type of break.
The Velo Francette trails its way south from the English Channel at Ouistreham and finally empties into the Atlantic near La Rochelle. My journey would take me south from the port, through Caen and finally into the Suisse Normande. I have become accustomed to travelling, it’s part of the job, and I find the ferry a relaxing mode of transport. My arrival in Ouistreham was greeted with sunshine and the welcoming smile from Armelle from the Calvados Tourist Board. A bike had been arranged, the bright red Specialised was equipped for more than my leisurely adventure, a mass of panniers bursting with tools and bike bits!
Day one – Ouistreham to Caen (http://cycling.lavelofrancette.com/etapes/voie-verte-ouistreham-caen)
Sunny cycling, it’s got to be best two words in any language. I left Ouistreham engulfed by a positive sunny disposition; the Velo Francette hugs (literally) the mesmeric Canal de Caen a la mer. The riding is easy, the route flat and clearly defined. Six kilometres in, you are exposed to history in the guise of the Pegasus Bridge. It holds a pivotal moment in the D day landings; its strategic location was recognised as a prime objective by the Allies. The subsequent acquisition of the bridge suffocated the ability of the Germans to effectively respond to any counter attack in the hours, days and weeks following the offensive on the Normandy coast. (www.memorial-pegasus.org/mmp/pont benouville)
Leaving the history behind the trail continued to contour the water until I encountered the stifling urban surrounds of Caen and the marina in the central of the city. Ok I have to admit I got spectacularly lost, throw in a chain malfunction and I was frustrated, caked in oil and warm. Caen is a lovely jumble of stunning architecture and wide boulevards, some dating back to William the Conqueror’s reign, who is buried there. There are plenty of designated cycle lanes and greenery, but it’s definitely a vibrant metropolis being the second largest city in Normandy after Rouen, and the 21st largest in France. Much of the heavy fighting that took place in and around Caen during the Battle of Normandy in 1944, destroying a large portion of the city. In remembrance a memorial of peace has been erected to preserve the memory of peace. My overnight stop was at the modern Hotel de France www.hoteldefrance-caen.com/Anglais/Bienvenue dinner was a sumptuous display of the best of French cuisine, however my early start enabled me to efficiently dribble sleepily into my main course.
Day Two – Caen to Pont d’Ouilly (http://cycling.lavelofrancette.com/etapes/vallee-de-l-orne-a-velo-caen-thury-harcourt) and (http://cycling.lavelofrancette.com/etapes/thury-harcourt-conde-sur-noireau)
The route between Caen and Thury Harcourt is a flat joy, dominated by isolation and an abundance of greenery. The route follows an obvious disused railway line, remnants of past glory’s discarded in a bewildering rusty fashion, train enthusiasts will be salivating at the prospect of the history on tracks. It’s impossible to get lost as it also hugs the contours of the River Orne as it meanders south. The weather offered a surprising warm hug, to be fair it was possibly too hot to be pedalling but one shouldn’t complain (so typically English). The Voie Vertes dissects a collection of small hamlets and most memorably the Foret de Grimbosq with its intoxicating tree cover, the shade was most welcome. In the town of Thury-Harcourt there was a colourful market taking place; it was a hub of activity. The smell of fruit and vegetables lingered refreshingly in the air. The sound of animated conversation and chirping from the fluffy poultry echoed from every corner of the main square. It was still early but the locals appeared to be out en-masse. I stopped for an alfresco coffee as the clouds became ominously darker. It was obvious that the town had a significant industrial past, with tanneries and enamelling factories flourishing, however the village suffered terribly at the hands of the German forces in 1944, unfortunately most of the town had to be rebuilt.
I begrudgingly left the flat Voie Vertes behind in Thury Harcourt and reverted to the bucolic country highways. The terrain became noticeably challenging, I had hit the La Suisse Normande. Over time the Orne River has carved dramatic gorges into the rock formations which are known as La Suisse Normande or Norman Switzerland. At its highest it reaches over 1,000 feet, making it the most elevated points in Normandy. The climbing was achievable but with a hefty rucksack it did require endeavour, in recompense, the views of the surrounding untouched countryside are magical and thought provoking. Complete isolation is its major asset the peacefulness and quiet roads, are expected but always surprising. No matter what time of day or day of the week, rural France always appears deserted, like a ghost town from a 1940’s movie.
After some lengthy inclines and welcoming descents, I arrived in the beautiful Clecy. I stopped and locked directly outside the church, which was being enthusiastically attacked by a mass of flourishing greenery. It was lunch time and business appeared brisk in the collection of bars and restaurants. The village is set into the side of a slope and is captivated by a dramatic outcrop known as the Pain de Sucre (Sugarloaf). I had a quick caffeine kick in a nearby café and pedalled off following the signs for Conde-sur-Noireau.
My overnight stop was in Pont d’Ouilly, the town holds a beguiling presence, its rural France on speed. The town is bossed by its bridge and the ferocious interaction with Orne River. The cascading waters permeate through everything and everyone, it’s unmitigated and infectious. My hotel was a delight, clean and comfortable, dinner was another mouth-watering exposure to local cuisine.
Day Three – Pont d’Ouilly to Ste Opportune (https://cycling.lavelofrancette.com/etapes/Conde-sur-Noireau-flers)
Over my breakfast, I caught a glimpse of the local Ouest France newspaper, the front cover was influenced by the UK’s EU referendum. I chuckled I couldn’t even escape the tiresome debate in rural France. The weather was rather gloomy as I departed. I followed the green Veloroute V43 signed Conde-sur-Noireau/Flers which took me over the still excited water.
I encountered Conde-sur-Noireau mid-morning, the locals frenetically catching up, the bars and cafes were already bustling. I found myself sat outside the Hotel – de – ville in the grounds of a small park with the River Noireau carrying out its daily routine.
It was a short ride to my next stop; an appointment had been made for me to visit La Monnerie Distillerie in the pretty village of Cerisy-Belle-Etoile. Its location is dramatic set at the foot of La Mont de Cerisy. The Maison Legay is a collection of traditional buildings in the heart of Ornais Bocage and has been the home to the family of distillers since the early 1920s. They specialise in Cider, Apple liquor and the much-prized Calvados. The actual distillery is a short distance from the main house; however, the owner suddenly appeared in a vintage car emblazoned with all manner of logos and transported me at speed to the business end several kilometres away. The tour in French was informative and interesting, my concentration at times distracted by the pungent aromas of the fermenting liquors. http://www.distillerie-monnerie.com
I had to negotiate the urban confines of Flers, the ensuing short pedal ride was mostly on the flat or downhill and in no time, I was sat at the crossroads of the town. The heat was now stifling, the roadways a concentration of chugging industrial vehicles. To be honest I couldn’t wait to leave Flers, its controlled chaos was Just simply frustrating.
Just south of Flers I pedalled into La-Selle-la-Forge, from this point I headed east and away from the section that links to Domfront towards a strategic point in my journey, La Carneille. I was heading towards my overnight stop just on the outskirts of the small village of Ste Opportune. Unfortunately, it falls six kilometres from the Velo Francette which denies its inclusion in the Accuiel Velo. After several impromptu stops to ask directions, what a surprise I got lost. I arrived in a sublime sanctuary.
La Bergerie is located in the southern part of the Suisse Normande, a few kilometres from the sleepy village of Ste Opportune. The property consists of a collection of former agricultural buildings which have been magically transformed and restored using ancient methods and materials (mud, lime and hemp). Sylvie and Frederic offer a heavenly oasis with a selection of accommodation options available, 3 Gites and several B&B alternatives, all set amongst a euphoria of flora, blossoms dominate, the fragrance hangs blissfully in the air. That evening I was exposed to some wonderful Normandy homemade fare at the hands of Sylvie. The conversation was again dominated by the joys of Brexit, it was obviously becoming more of an issue for the French, than it was for me. I retired relatively early, and was asleep before I had chance to peruse my La Velo Francette guide.
Day Four – Ste Opportune to Pont d’Ouilly (http://cycling.lavelofrancette.com/etapes/pont-douilly-la-roche-doetre-flers+)
I awoke to the soothing sound of the local birdlife. A simple breakfast fuelled me for my advance back to the enchantment of Pont d’Ouilly and the prospect of La Roche d’Oeutre which is recognised as one of the most mesmeric panoramic viewpoints in western France. The site is protected and is located in a collection of the oldest mountain ranges in Europe, the Armorican Massif. At 118 metres high it delivers unspoilt views over the wooded landscapes of the Rouvre River gorge.
I said farewell to Sylvie with regret and pedalled back the six kilometres towards La Carneille. It was definitely going to be another hot day with minimal cloud cover and bright vibrant blue skies. As soon as I had rediscovered La Velo Francette, I deviated from it. The riding was a mix of colourful climbing with the occasional exhilarating descent.
After negotiating several small hamlets, I found myself on the assault to La Roche d’Oeutre, ok assault might be a strong, slightly impassioned term. The climb was moderate but the heat was impacting on my progress, finally after much perspiration I had arrived. The view simply opened up magically before me.
I re-joined La Velo Francette once again in the commune of Pont d’Ouilly, my riding was nearly over. I breezed wilfully over the bridge and the welcoming sight of the local supermarket, a sugary concoction was much overdue and devoured with zeal, sat in the shade on the banks of the River.
I met Carole from l’Orne Tourisme, she was desperate to show me some more attractions of the local area, and rightly so. The Department offers so many great things, the culture, people and memories of the fierce fighting especially in the 1940’s, none more poignant than at a small museum in the Orne fields. The village of Berjou and the surrounding countryside are synonymous with an important strategic battle of WWII. I was lucky enough to visit the small but highly evocative Museum of Liberation. It recounts the endeavours of the 15th, 16th and 17th of August 1944, by the Allies and how under constant onslaught from the Germans they managed to navigate their Sherman tanks across the Noireau river and through the steep, wooded hills to capture the elevated Berjou ridge which ultimately allowed the 43rd Infantry Wessex division and the 8th Brigade Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry to suffocate the Falaise Gap.
The objects provide a stark and emotional image of the hardships of war. The museum was the brainchild of Romain Pon, the local man discovered several objects in the nearby fields and this piqued his interest and after interactions with the local elders who recounted their personal experiences, the story is now immortalised in this wonderful collection. It was hard to imagine this peaceful countryside overrun with military and their vehicles. It was a rather surreal experience and makes you realise how lucky we are today’s, thanks mainly due to the heroics of a small band of fighters on the near continent. Lunch was a recognisable home from home treat at L’Auberge Auvraysienne in the peaceful village of La Foret Auvray. The typical French ambience is wonderfully juxtaposed with a menu touched with a slice of England. Unsurprisingly, the restaurant is owned by an English couple who now are fully immersed in their new culture but still fondly reminisce about their previous life through their food.
For more info see:
Orne Tourist Board – https://www.ornetourisme.com/
Normandy Regional Tourist Board – http://en.normandie-tourisme.fr/normandy-tourism-1-2.html
Author, ‘Simple Words from the Saddle, Simply More Words from the Saddle & The Way of St James’