I did promise to write one of the reviews after each country (here’s the one about Spain) but I am only now sitting down to write the review about cycling in France. As before, it may make more sense if you go back and read the post I wrote earlier in the year about my plans for cycling in France. Done that? O.K…
So, how did I get on? Well, some things worked out as planned, other things were very different. I did indeed start my French journey in the overly hyphenated Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the traditional starting point for walkers (and some cyclists) who are heading in the opposite direction towards Santiago de Compostela. The campsite in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port was an excellent reminder as to just how good a simple municipal campsite in France can be. It was, basically, a field with a hut for a reception, a line of cubicles containing showers, toilets and the like and no real security. But it was great! And, of course, cheap; just €10. Other municipal sites can be all singing and dancing but if most sites were like the one in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port I think I’d be happy. That said, many wouldn’t…
As planned I made my way to the Atlantic coast at Bayonne and started to head north along the ‘Velodessey’ as the French portion of the Eurovelo 1 is called. It was generally well signposted and I kept following it, on and off, until La Rochelle, somewhat further north than I had initially intended. Why? Well, the friends that I had planned to meet in Bordeaux couldn’t (for good reasons) make it to Bordeaux in time for my arrival so I abandoned that idea choosing instead to simply continue hugging the coast to the north.
Foul weather as I approached upmarket Arcachon resulted in my first French ‘sod this I need a hotel’ moment and I paid through the nose for a place by the seafront. Was it worth it? For my sanity, yes, but the following morning I only cycled a short distance along the coast to a municipal site to sort myself out with clean, dry clothes etc… Cycling along coastlines has some major attractions, mainly the views which can be spectacular so once I was well embedded on the Atlantic coast I needed good reasons to leave it. Not wanting to spend endless days cycling through potentially mundane countryside inland, I stuck with the coastal route much further north than I had initially intended.
The ‘Velodessey’ route was generally OK although it did suffer from poor quality surfaces all too frequently, especially through the forests where the root systems of trees make for a very bumpy ride along the tarmac. In Belgium and The Netherlands, their country cycle paths tend to be made from concrete and it does mean that roots cannot penetrate the surface. The downside of that is that you have a regular jolt between each piece of concrete that has been laid and it’s not quite so attractive but given the choice between tarmac and roots and concrete and regular jolts, I’d go for the latter. The other issue with the Eurovelo 1 along the Atlantic coast was its annoying tendancy to take you around the houses. This is a common problem not limited to this cycle path in western France. South of La Rochelle is took on comical proportions as twisting routes took me well away from cars but resulted in lengthy detours. Quite frustrating!
My one French Warmshowers host was in La Rochelle. He couldn’t meet me until 9pm so I was left shivering near his flat until later in the evening but he was a decent, interesting host. After my lack of success in staying with Warmshowers people in Spain I was a little less enthused to contact more of them in France and get the same low response rate although now that I am in Germany (as I suspected) the response rate is much better. More people who are willing to host as well as be hosted. It’s not, I believe, in the Mediterranean psychi to be comfortable with people coming into the family home. We northern Europeans are more laid back about such things.
On the subject of accommodation, this is how things worked out. Compared to Spain, the number of campsites that I stayed in has rocketed but I’m still partial to the ocasional stay in a nice hotel. Alas in France (and further north in Europe) the budget €25 places are simply not available so all of the hotels I did use were more than €50 per night. The place in Arcachon was double that. The nicest hotel was in Niort where I stayed at the Hotel Particulier La Chamoiserie. It wasn’t too expensive but I was the only guest that night. I had booked into there because it was election night back in the UK and I wanted to watch events unfold on TV (which I did via BBC World). I felt like a prince in his palace, my every whim being attended to immediately.
Campsites – 16
Hotels (budget < €50) – 0
Hotels (a bit less budget > €50) – 5
Youth Hostel – 0
WarmShowers – 1
Friends – 2
But back to post La Rochelle. The area between the Atlantic Coast and the Loire Valley was a bit of a surprise. Very picturesque indeed! I wasn’t expecting anything much at all so it was a delight. Then the Loire, an area I know well. Starting off with Saumur, then Tours, Amboise and Orleans. The cycling was easy and the towns interesting. Alas I had previously rummaged around most of them when I lived in the area so it was not so much a case of discovering them as noting how they had changed. I think I prefer the discovery bit of travel.
The best campsite of the trip so far was to be found in Orleans. Camping d’Olivet. Simply fantastic! Beautiful, friendly, eco-concious… I can’t fault the place. And then to Paris. The night spent in Montargis was a bit dodgy. I didn’t feel comfortable on that site at all. Fortunetly the campsite in Fontainebleau was much better (although I wasn’t a great fan of the chateau – too many tourists and not enough symmetry!)
Paris was a bit of a holiday from the holiday where I had a chance to meet up with some former teaching colleagues and about 30 children, most of which I used to teach. The site I stayed at in Paris was top quality – Camping Indigo – which although not cheap (€21 per night just for a tent) was located just to the west of the Bois de Boulogne. If you can put up with the lines of prostuitutes in the park, then it’s a great place to stay in the French capital.
The final section of France – from Paris to the border with Belgium – had to be endured rather than enjoyed but it had its moments. I loved the chateau at Pierrefonds; it was everything that Fontainebleau wasn’t (mainly in that it was deserted when I arrived at 9am) and had a curious history to it. The crossing point with my 2010 trip from the UK to Italy came, as I suspected, in Maubeuge. I ate in the same restaurant but couldn’t quite bring myself to stay in the same hotel. I have to say my impression of the town was a bit more positive this time around than it was back then. From Maubeuge it was only a short cycle along the canal into Belgium…
As with the post reviewing my cycle through Spain, all the photos were taken in France and posted to the Cycling Europe Instagram page which you can find here.