Adventure

EXCLUSIVE: Le Grand Tour – Day 26

In the writing of the book about last year’s Grand Tour of Europe, I’ve arrived in the west of France, at a small family-run campsite near the coastal town of La Bernerie-en-Retz. I occasionally post what I’ve written to the website and below you can read my account of day 26 of the journey that took place in late July 2022. I have to say that this fourth book is taking me far longer to write than the previous books, but that’s for good reasons rather than bad. I have no pressure with this one. I ticked the box of having a book published through official channels with ‘Spain to Norway…’ and have as yet made no effort whatsoever to find a publisher for this fourth instalment of my travels. As a result, I have no deadline to finish the first draft. It will happen later in the year, perhaps even in early 2024 but I do feel that the quality of what I am writing is benefiting from the lack of external pressure. You may ultimately agree or disagree… but you might have to wait until the spring of 2024 to find out. If you are a publisher, feel free to get in touch.

Day Twenty Six: Frossay To La Bernerie-En-Retz (93km – 18km*)

Thursday 28th July

According to the European Cyclists’ Federation, the EuroVelo 6 is the most popular of their routes. It starts beside the Saint-Nazaire bridge at the mouth of the Loire estuary and finishes on the shore of the Black Sea at Constanta. Its route takes it across the entire continent of Europe passing through France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia and Romania before arriving at its destination in Bulgaria. It’s 4,448km long and follows the routes of three major European rivers; the Loire, the Rhine and the Danube. Indeed in France, the route is more widely known as La Loire à Vélo. If all were to go to plan (no spoilers here…), I would meet the EuroVelo 6 again in Switzerland when it coalesced with the EuroVelo 15 along the border with Germany, but here in France it was a fleeting romance that had the EuroVelo 1 and the EuroVelo 6 sharing the same path the short distance between Nantes and the coast. I suspected that many of the cyclists who had stayed on the campsite the previous night were just starting their journeys along the Loire, perhaps even as far as Constanta. It would also be my route at the start of day 26 albeit in the opposite direction towards the Atlantic.

Although I was still travelling in historical Brittany, there was a very different feel to the land on the southern bank of the Loire. This wasn’t altogether surprising following my train- and ferry-assisted lurch south the previous afternoon. The modest hills of Brittany had been gently disappearing ever since I joined the Nantes-Brest canal three days previously but the landscape that now surrounded me was a flat as a French crêpe. There was not a breath of wind and the dappled mackerel sky seemed to have the effect of deadening the sound; a motionless shag pile carpet hovering above the land and the increasingly wide estuary. It was both slightly eerie and ever-so-slightly magical. 

Following a brief pause for breakfast in the small town of Paimboeuf, I continued along the cycle route following a gravel path close to the water’s edge. In the distance I could see the Pont de Saint-Nazaire. The bridge will soon have notched up its half century but it remains, after all those years, the longest bridge in France at 3,356 metres. From a distance it was a low strip of concrete, its supporting pillars pushing it slight taller as it reached the middle of the estuary before once again sinking towards the land to the north. As bridges went, it wasn’t that impressive. 

Of far greater visual interest were the rickety wooden piers that had been built to connect the riverbank to fishing cabins on stilts located about 20 metres from the shore. Beside each hut was a large net suspended over the water. I’d seen these contraptions before and had always been a little sceptical as to how much ‘fishing’ was involved. A handy information board did the fishermen no favours: “As the tide rises and falls,” it explained, in English, “the nets are raised and lowered scooping up plaice, sole, mullet, prawns and more“. It was the marine equivalent of the pick ‘n mix at Woolworths, just not so bad for your teeth. But to what extent did it exploit the skills of an experienced fisherman? I remained to be convinced. 

With my mind mulling over the list of potentially nefarious activities that French fishermen might get up to in their cabanes de pêcheurs as they waited for the tide to turn, I was almost imperceptibly edging towards the distant long bridge and it was soon dominating my view. Perhaps my initial thoughts had been a little harsh. I could now see the twin pylons from which white cables fanned out to support the deck from above. However, the most striking design feature of the Pont de Saint-Nazaire could only be seen as I continued to cycle west. Very gradually its lateral curve was revealed; this was a cable-stayed bridge that didn’t just cross a river, it slithered over the estuary of the Loire and, up close, was, in fact, rather beautiful. It reminded me of the stunning – and much more modern – bridges that I had seen on my previous long trip in Europe as I had cycled along the west coast of Norway. Here on the west coast of France was a bridge with which they shared some ancestral genetic code.

The plan was not to cross the bridge myself. I had long wanted to pay a visit to the Nazi submarine pens that were located on the northern side of the estuary but that would have to wait for a future trip. Although cyclists were not banned from bridge, the three-lane carriageway resembled an uninviting motorway and it would be an uncomfortable, potentially dangerous long slog across to the other side of the Loire. But then, just as I was about to pass under the southern edge of the bridge, I noticed a sign:

Cyclistes

Une navette gratuite vous permet de traverser le pont de Saint-Nazaire

A free shuttle bus for cyclists who wanted to cross the bridge? A big red arrow pointed me in the direction of the departure point and I went to investigate.

Within 20 minutes I was on board, Wanda securely fastened into the multi-bike trailer behind the van, admiring the views from the bridge. It looked as though I would see those submarine pens after all. Fewer than 20 minutes after having set off I was back on the bike cycling in a very different, industrial landscape, warehouses to my right, shipbuilding facilities to my left, freight wagons defaced with graffiti on the unkempt railway lines beside the cycle path and then, at the farthest end of the Boulevard Paul Leferme, a looming block of concrete: la base sous-marine de Saint-Nazaire.

Living and working in France in the 1990s, I remember the Saint-Nazaire submarine base featuring  occasionally on the television news. One memorable fact stood out in these reports; that in the post-war era, such was the impenetrable nature of what the Nazis had built that it was now simply too expensive to demolish it. Constructed in 1941 and 1942, it contains nearly half a million cubic metres of concrete. At 300 metres long, 130 metres wide and 18 metres tall, it could safely accommodate up to 28 U-boats. And they were certainly safe. The walls are 3.5 metres thick and the depth of the roof up to 9.6 metres in places. The original roof was constructed from layers of concrete, reinforced concrete and granite but when the allies began to drop ‘Grand Slam’ bombs weighing up to 10 tons it was strengthened still further with external steel cross beams. It is, without any doubt, one of the most wonderfully ugly buildings in the world. 

In 1994 the local council decided to redevelop the area and the building now houses a museum dedicated to life on board the luxury ocean liners which once set off from the port before the arrival of the Germans, a contemporary art exhibition area and a concert venue. Yet much of the 40,000 square metres of submarine pen remains as it was when the soldiers surrendered in May 1945 and I went for a long wander through much of its empty vastness. In places the concrete had crumbled revealing the rusting steel bars that it contains but it was otherwise in pretty good shape. Perhaps if the Nazis had gone into the business of building secure multi-storey carparks rather than concentrating their efforts in the area of crimes against humanity, they may ultimately have been more successful.

The day had taken a rather unexpected turn, literally, seeing me travel some 18km – in the shuttle bus and then on the bike – away from the route of the Vélodyssée and then back. I’d inadvertently forgotten to switch off my GPS tracker so the day’s cycling statistics were destined to be somewhat skewed as a result, especially considering the minibus reached speeds of nearly 70km/h crossing the bridge. I made a mental note to strike the 18km from the record at a later date.

In contrast to the earlier trip north when I had been one of many customers, the shuttle bus on the journey south had just one passenger and one bike. I chatted to the young woman driver and she spoke about her own cycling plans to travel further afield once the summer bus service had finished at the end of the tourist season. Any cyclists who chose to visit the submarine pens in October would have to brave it with the motorised traffic. 

Upon arrival back at where we had started earlier in the morning, I bumped into a family of cyclists from the Scottish Highlands; mum, dad and two primary-school aged boys. They’d been cycling around 50km per day, travelling along the Loire from Orléans and were about to head off on the train to Saint-Malo and their ferry home. It had taken them around two weeks to arrive at the Atlantic coast and they talked about what such a positive experience it had been cycling beside the Loire, camping as they went. Their tale was testament to just how family-friendly the route had become over the years; predominantly off road, lots of places to stay and ample opportunities to explore the pretty towns and the river’s magnificent châteaux along the way. 

My own journey would now be due south hugging the coast and continuing to follow the signs of the Vélodyssée. I wasn’t quite sure where I would complete my cycling day but I guessed it would be somewhere near the town of Pornic. I was, of course, now heading into one of France’s most popular summer holiday destinations and this was immediately obvious. Almost all of the coastline was built-up, but not in a brutal way. Small summer houses and modest apartment blocks vied for position in a polite competition for space leaving plenty of unoccupied land upon which the pedestrians, cyclists and cars could mingle. It was only fleetingly picturesque but never ugly and although the high temperatures I’d encountered earlier in the month were now a distant memory, the sporadic clouds in the sky had no impact upon the willingness of the holidaymakers to strip down to their speedos and bikinis to lounge on the beaches. I was amused by the name of Saint-Michel-Chef-Chef (“so good they named a bit of it twice!”), there were more cabanes de pêcheurs hiding their work-shy fishermen and they’d even hoisted the Union Flag beside the French tricolour to welcome me at La Pointe-Saint-Gildas. Had they seen me coming?**

Had this been the 1950s, I might well have stumbled into Jacques Tati preparing for his next scene in Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulo; laid back, relaxed… nice. It was that kind of place. 

Up, that is, to a point. And that point was Pornic. But before I could get that far I was, once again, struck by a sudden deep feeling of exhaustion. It seemed to happen every few days and I would struggle to maintain the motivation required to keep pedalling. Much of the fatigue was physical and could clearly be attributed to the lack of quality sleep that I was getting after several consecutive nights in the tent. There had only been three of them since my two nights in the hotel in Morlaix but the other factor in play was that the cycling was perhaps… too easy. Moderate to strenuous cycling required regular injections of adrenaline to be fired into my biological system. When the cycling was too easy it was almost as if the tap had been turned off and, as a result, I was left bereft of energy. On this occasion I resolved to call an end to the cycling day and head for the nearest campsite. 

That campsite happened to be the four-star Camping Eleovic about 15km west of Pornic. It was a very busy establishment but my arrival just after two other cyclists who successfully booked themselves in was a good sign.

Yes, you can have an emplacement for the night,” explained the woman at the reception desk “and it will be €53”.

At this point, my adrenal glands pounced into action.

Mmm… I just need to check something on my phone,” I explained before heading swiftly back outside, mounting Wanda and heading off at speed back in the direction of the cycle route. However tired I might have felt, there were limits to what I was willing to pay and €53 was well above that threshold.

The experience had, however, re-energised me and by the time I arrived in Pornic it was with newly acquired enthusiasm for life on the road. (Perhaps popping my head into the reception of an exorbitantly priced campsite was a tactic I could employ when the next bout of fatigue hit me hard.) It was just a pity that ‘life on the road’ was the main issue I had to contend with as soon as I arrived in the centre of the coastal town. I hadn’t encountered so many people in one place since Mont-Saint-Michel and it was somewhat overwhelming. Pornic was, without any doubt, a beautiful seaside town situated around an elongated bay complete with ornate turn-of-the-century buildings beside the water and a small chateau poking out from a wooded area towards the ocean. But it was excessively busy. I weaved a path through the crowds until a man in uniform started wagging his finger at me and instructed me to get off the bike and push. In fairness, this did seem like a reasonable request. A couple of teenagers on scooters were willing to have an argument with him when they too were at the sharp end of his oscillating digit but, post-Brexit, you never know what it might take to instigated deportation so I was happy to comply.

My arrival at around 4.30pm had coincided with the annual parade of traditional boats organised by Pornic’s Yacht Club Royal Old (they really need to sort out the order of those adjectives) that had kicked off only an hour earlier. Every mariner worthy of their (sea) salt seemed to be in attendance and it took some time to escape but mercifully the pretty corniche road on the southern side of the bay was much easier to navigate. If the prospect of paying €53 to camp overnight hadn’t woken me up, the hustle and bustle of Pornic most certainly had.

Campsite salvation arrived in the form of the comical Camping la Goelette, a further 10km along the coast from Pornic. It was a family-run affair, this particular family consisting of an elderly mother and her two middle-aged sons who had clearly spent the afternoon checking the quality of the stocks of beer in their caravan which doubled as the reception. It was much more my kind of place and was home to a number of travellers in small tents. For a mere €11 I secured a pitch within 30-seconds walk of the beach and it was to there that I repaired later in the evening to spend time checking the quality of my own small stock of beer. 


* Keep reading. All will be explained…

** No, they hadn’t. The flag was beside a memorial to those who lost their lives when the RMS Lancastria – an ocean liner requisitioned by the British government during the war – was bombed and subsequently sank some 15km off shore in 1940 whilst attempting to evacuate allied soldiers from France. Upwards of 4,000 people perished and it remains the greatest loss of life in British maritime history. 

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Categories: Adventure, Cycling, Le Grand Tour, Travel

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2 replies »

  1. Just about to cycle up to Pornic on our trip up the Velodyssee. It certainly is a great route along the coast.

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