St Malo to the Loire – August / September 2014

I absolutely love cycling in France and so, just over 5-weeks since we returned from touring Lower Normandy we went back again; the only reason we came home was to avoid the summer holiday crowds.  The weather was again very good at the end of August and we decided to undertake a longer trip than usual and venture further afield, achieved in part by using the French trains to get back to the ferry at the end of the tour.

Probably the classic cycle tour in France, if not in Europe is the River Loire, which we therefore decided to undertake this time.  As in July we would again take the night crossing to St Malo but now heading south until reaching the River Loire and then cycling upstream.  Finally a direct 3-hour train journey back to Caen and thence Ouistreham ferry port would allow us to spend the maximum time in the Loire region.  Seemed like a good plan, and it was.

The River Loire

The River Loire

The popularity of the Loire for cyclists is easy to appreciate and it was heartening to see cycle tourists everywhere we went.  Whilst the main attraction of the Loire are the spectacular chateaux, local food and wines, combined with the beauty of the river itself and great riding conditions makes it an easy but nonetheless wonderful cycling experience – it’s clear to see why for centuries the French nobility were attracted to the region.

Saumur Chateau

Saumur Chateau

Once in France it took just over three days to cycle form St Malo to reach the River Loire via Rennes.  Thereafter we spent a week cycling up-river, via a detour along the River Cher tributary to Montrichard, then on to Blois on the Loire before returning to Tours.  The scenery throughout the Loire is very beautiful. Along the lower section of the Loire the river is in a state of maturity and therefore is characteristically wide and flows in a languid fashion towards its estuary beyond Nantes and on to the Atlantic Ocean.

Whilst the most popular tourist areas tend to be higher up between Saumur and Blois where the chateaux abound, we especially enjoyed the quieter more open scenery downstream between Angers and Ingrandes.  Interestingly the 2,764 kilometre Eurovelo-6 cycle route from Nantes to Romania initially runs along this part of the lower Loire until Degoin, before turning off to Mulhouse on the Rhine and beyond – we would follow much of this route during this trip.  I had previously not been aware that at 629 miles, the Loire is in fact the longest river in France and I am tempted to one day take the train back to Tours and continue upstream to Lyon, the acknowledged culinary capital of France.

Day-1  Redhill to Portsmouth: 5 miles

Basically this was a repeat of the journey we had made just over six weeks earlier.  However, on this occasion for an additional £55 we treated ourselves and took a cabin on the ferry to try and get some better sleep.  From the experience and given the price, I would say it was worthwhile.

Day-2  St Malo to Tinteniac: 37 miles

Unlike before, this time the direction from the boat was south so as to follow the River Rance for two days all the way to Rennes, capital of the Britany region.  Whilst a route using the smaller roads is possible, I was again attracted to a voie vert which initially runs just west of the Rance before joining the river shortly before Dinan and thereafter, follows the river bank to Rennes.  In order to first join the voie vert near St Malo it was necessary to cross the River Rance just outside the town on the D168, which runs across the top of the Rance tidal power station.  Built in 1966, the 750 metre barrage and related hydro-power scheme was the world’s first ever tidal power station and still remains very unusual.  I was very interested to see the barrage nearly 50 years after studying it in geography at school – it is impressive and the power of the river and sea water flowing back and forth with each tide was visibly immense.

D368 across the top of the Rance tidal barrage.

D168 across the top of the Rance tidal barrage.

The power of the incoming tide was immense.

The power of the incoming tide was immense.

Shortly after crossing the barrage we joined the voie vert and headed south, soon thereafter reaching the very attractive harbour in Dinan, itself quite an attraction and clearly a favourite stopping point for tourist boats on the river.  The section immediately south of Dinan, a gorge, was very difficult to navigate.  Although we followed the correct signs, unusually the track was in very poor condition and would have probably been impassable on my audax bike in wet weather.  Notwithstanding, it was attractive verdant scenery running along the somewhat serene riverside.

Dinan harbour.

Dinan harbour.

Thereafter the path became a towpath and was easy riding, however, as it followed the meandering river this significantly increases the mileage compared to a more direct route on the roads.  From time-to-time there were paths on both sides of the river and it was not always clear which was correct.  As a result at one point I followed the wrong track, which after a few miles degenerated into a muddy track.  We persevered but, I suspect this section was partly responsible for a major equipment problem two days later. We considered pushing on to Rennes (which with hindsight would have been a bad decision) but instead stopped at a small, municipal campsite in the small town of Tinteniac, right next to the river.

At one point on the voie vert the lock keeper had planted a wonderful avenue of colourful flowers.

At one point on the voie vert the lock keeper had planted a wonderful avenue of colourful flowers.

Day-3  Tinteniac to Rennes: 31 miles

The section south of Tintaniac was much like the previous day, until eventually we rolled into the northern suburbs of Rennes and miraculously navigated our way directly to the excellent municipal campsite, located about three miles north east of the city centre. The cycle routes and general facilities for bikes in Rennes were good and that evening we took a spin into town in order to look around and find a meal.  As we cycled into Rennes I started to notice a slight wobble from the rear wheel but couldn’t find anything, my only thought that was that it might be a throwback to a broken spoke – now repaired – a few weeks earlier and otherwise thought nothing of it.  Whilst not unattractive I found the city to have any special merit, moreover, although it was Saturday we were unable to find anywhere other than McDonalds serving food until after 7 p.m.

Rennes Cathedral

Rennes Cathedral

Day-4  Rennes to Candé: 64 miles

Being Sunday morning the streets in Rennes were quiet and, though complicated, we soon navigated our way quickly to the D463 on the south eastern city perimeter and set off for our planned overnight stop at Pouancé, a comfortable ride of about 40 miles.  I had found the section between Rennes and the Loire difficult to plan, in such a way as to produce balanced mileage for the next two days that would also enable us to camp.  Whilst we have generally found camping in France to be excellent, I have always found it difficult to find a reliable and comprehensive camping guide for the purpose of planning and usually have to resort to a combination of various books and websites, with varying degrees of confidence.  Notwithstanding, so far it had always worked out but today we were to experience the opposite, with France at its worst and thankfully its people at its best.

The ride to Pouancé was rolling countryside, pleasant but nothing special, though the weather was outstanding, even hot at times.  Being Sunday we decided to do as the French and have a full lunch stop at Martigné-Ferchaud, which was to prove very helpful later in the day.  With just about 10 miles cycling after lunch we pedalled lazily along and looked forwards to arriving early at the campsite with the prospect of relaxing for the rest of the day.  As we approached the town our road was barred for a triathlon event, which we subsequently discovered was based at our proposed campsite, on the edge of a lake.  Furthermore, when we arrived it transpired that the campsite was closed, not just for the triathlon, but for the rest of the year!  I know this is France but this was 30th August and it was already closed for the year – what is the matter with these people?

However, the campsite office had what seemed a helpful map outside the office showing other campsites in the region, we reluctantly therefore set off for the next campsite shown down the road at Challain-la-Potherie.  Whilst not the end of the world, it was an inconvenience and we were hot and tired.  When you think you have arrived and it turns out you have not, it is necessary to adjust your mindset, furthermore, another 15 miles or so with fully loaded touring bikes is always hard work.

Our first chateau in the Loire reigion at Challain la Porth

Our first chateau in the Loire region at Challain-la-Portherie

About an hour later we arrived at Challain-la-Potherie , a small village adjacent to a spectacular chateau around which the village was built.  A short way past the chateau next to a lake, we found the campsite sign – we breathed a sigh of relief soon to be replaced by feelings of despair.  On inspection it quickly became clear that it had been a long time since the site had been used for camping and was now in a derelict state, with people just hanging around getting drunk and fishing – it was certainly not suitable for an overnight stop even roughing it, which we’re both quite capable of doing if necessary.  There was no alternative, we would have to push on to the next town of Candé which looked quite large on the map and was also shown to have a campsite back at Pouancé.

Continuing further on we eventually covered 64 miles that day, far greater than intended but thankfully now benefitting from the full lunch we had eaten earlier.  We rode directly into the centre of Candé looking for the campsite, which after a while and some enquires became clear didn’t exist and never had!  Looking at the map and considering the time and energy left at this point in the early evening, it was clear we could no longer go on – by now the rear wheel wobble had also become quite severe and it was obvious that something was very wrong.  We therefore decided to find a hotel and stay the night.  Although this was Sunday the centre of the town was almost completely dead and when we did find the one and only hotel in Candé, it was closed!!

Despite having travelled and toured in France many times I was not aware that a Hotel de Ville is in fact not a hotel but the town hall.  We discovered this fact on investigating the Hotel de Ville in Candé, at which point we had completely run out of all options, or so we thought.

Whilst I peered into the Hotel de Ville in search of an actual hotel, Mrs G was speaking to an older couple out for an evening’s walk about our problem and asking for advice on campsites and hotels, only to confirm that there were none. But understanding our desperation they immediately offered us beds at their house for the night – I was staggered and relieved at the same time.  We gratefully accepted and walked back with them to their very nice house, where we were given a lovely room for the night and a fabulous impromptu evening meal and wine with them prepared by Jacqueline.  Her husband Jean-Marc was a retired local farmer and we enjoyed a wonderful social evening sharing information and stories about ourselves and families.

What an unexpected oucome. To say that our fortune had changed dramatically for the better that evening is something of an understatement.  I was greatly humbled by the generosity of Jean-Marc and Jacqueline and will be forever grateful. It also bolstered my sometimes flagging faith in mankind and in particular on this occasion French people – but not those responsible for running campsites and hotels in France.

Unfortunately I discovered the one outstanding problem of the day once I had unloaded the luggage and, on upturning the bike, could then see that the tread was separating and the whole rear tyre had delaminated and was probably about to explode!  For now however, I was comfortable, relieved and happy as I went to sleep that night in a bed.  Serendipity sure has its surprises when cycle touring, which despite the occasional difficulties usually makes it all worthwhile and greatly enriches the experience and often life in general, such as on this occasion.

Close call: no wonder the rear wheel felt wobbly.

Close call: no wonder the rear wheel felt wobbly.

Day-5  Candé to Angers: 41 miles

First things first, it was essential to find a new rear tyre.  It was Monday in France, which is not a good start, located in a relatively small town where so far everywhere had been closed and I needed a 700c x 28 rear tyre,  which not being of a standard utility type I thought would be difficult to find.  Jena-Marc suggested the nearest hypermarket would have a suitable tyre but as that’s not what I am accustomed to in UK supermarkets I considered the possibility unlikely, at best – what do I know?  Sure enough the local Super U had a small but quite varied selection of bicycle tyres, including a suitable Chinese one retailing at €5.65 and 30-minutes later we were on our way again.  Furthermore, the Chinese tyre rode well and would see me safely to the end of the Loire tour and beyond – now that’s what I call value for money.

The 17 mile ride from Candé to the Loire was quite ordinary until we eventually rode downhill and looked out over the river Loire, we had made it.  Whilst planning the trip I had always been unsure where to join the river but had been considering either Acendis further downstream near Nantes or Angers, further upstream. In the end because of the previous day’s problems we had been drawn to Ingrandes, an attractive but unassuming small town on the northern bank of the Loire between the aforementioned locations.  Connected to the southern bank by a large steel bridge, at this point the Loire river is very wide, with numerous large sand bars spread across.  Today the sun was glistening off the surface of the water and the overall view was spectacular – the prospect of cycling upstream for the next week now held much promise and made the ride from St Malo all worthwhile.

The River Loire at Ingrandes

Mission accomplished: the River Loire at Ingrandes

I had previously been planning to camp in this area but having cycled so far the previous day, we reached the Loire much sooner in the day than expected, effectively almost gaining a day.  After an excellent early Bistro lunch in a perfect setting overlooking the river at Ingrandes, we therefore set off upstream towards a campsite just outside Angers.  It was usually possible to cycle either along the north or south bank of the river.  In this case we crossed the bridge and first followed a small road on the south side, soon afterwards crossing partly back and then cycling along an island in the river which was very quiet and agricultural, before crossing back once more to the south bank.  This pattern of crossing back and forth continued during the afternoon as we sought the best roads and views, which usually tended to run along the top of large levees that followed the river’s edge for mile after mile.  It was near perfect cycling.

Looking south across the Loire bridge at Ingrandes.

Looking south across the Loire bridge at Ingrandes.

The route around Angers was a little tricky and I unfortunately missed an easy cycle path that ran by the railway, which meant we instead had to make a long, steep climb – Mrs G was not pleased and nor was I.  The campsite at Saint-Gemmes-sur-Loire was located out of the way on the northern bank of the River Loire, about 3-miles south-east of the city centre.  The setting was almost idyllic: green and slightly wooded with wide views across the river to an island with large sand banks, which in the evening were covered with birds catching insects and enjoying the sunset.  With only two or three other tents and no campervans it was also very quiet, except for the call of the birds on the opposite bank – by comparison, on the rest of the trip as the roads and railways inevitably followed the river, we were to find that other campsites could often be quite noisy.

View fover the Loire from the saint-sur-gemma campsite outside Angers.

View over the Loire from the Gemmes-sur-Loire campsite just outside Angers.

Day-6  Angers: 4 miles

Having been on the road for five days since leaving home, already cycled nearly 200 miles and given it was a very nice campsite, we decided to stay 2-nights at Angers for a rest and to take a look at the city.  Angers occupies an important strategic position at the confluence of the Loire and Maine rivers and had previously been the capital of the Anjou province.  Today it is at the centre of the Maine-et-Loire department and the city still plays an important regional role.

Angers Chateau

Angers Chateau

Reflecting the city’s historic importance, Angers Chateau overlooks the aforementioned river confluence and was our first visit of the day.  Unlike most of its more ornate counterparts along the Loire, Angers Chateau is a solid, majestic looking structure, which provides fine views over both rivers and the city.  However, now the castle also houses one of the world’s most impressive tapestries.  The Apocalypse Tapestry is the oldest surviving French tapestry, made between 1377 and 1382 it is 100 metres long and depicts the last chapter of the New Testament of St John that includes some very graphic illustrations.   We had never heard of this before but the tapestry is truly  a striking piece of work with fascinating scenes, quite different to and in my opinion perhaps superior to the Bayeux tapestry that we had seen only a few weeks before – what an unexpected discovery.

Apocalypse Tapestry at Angers Chateau.

Apocalypse Tapestry at Angers Chateau.

Detailed scene from Apocalypse Tapestry, one of 90 scenes in all.

Detailed scene from Apocalypse Tapestry, one of 90 scenes.

Day-7 Angers to Saumur: 31 miles

Back on the road again and my interest in our next stop at Saumur was entirely hedonistic, wine.  At various times we continued to cycle either along the north or south river banks, depending on what we perceived to be the more attractive and easiest route.  As ever the river continued to change its nature, becoming less wide and with less frequent sandbanks.  The ride was not long so we arrived at Saumur around lunchtime and, as we passed through the western outskirts of the town, made a mental note of the wineries present in order to return for a visit later in the afternoon.

Southern bank of the River Loire beneath the Saumur Chateau.

Southern bank of the River Loire beneath the Saumur Chateau.

The campsite was almost completely full with campervans, with just a few tents confined to a strip of grass along the boundary fence.  Saumur is one of the big attractions on the Loire, so everywhere was busy in town and prices were noticeably high.  We returned to the Bouvay Ladubay wine cellars later and just managed to get on the last cave tour of the day before engaging in the real objective, wine tasting.  All the wines there are sparkling and compared very well with Champagne.

Day-8 Saumur to Langeais: 30 miles

Our approach to places of interest, in this case the Loire chateaux, is usually to just view them from the outside – thereby avoiding the crowds, the cost, the time and all that junk inside!  Like my battlefield tours it is the setting and aesthetics of the architecture that I find most interesting.  At this stage we mainly rode on the small back roads or cycle paths, just pootling along the river banks taking it all in until finally crossing a large steel bridge and in to Langeais.

Main Loire bridge into Langaeis.

Main Loire bridge into Langeais.

There was no particular reason for coming here except for the campsite’s location being just outside of Tours.  Nonetheless it was a pleasant small town, with fascinating old architecture, of which the main church and castle were particularly noteworthy.  Whilst the campsite was OK there was one big drawback, noise.  As previously noted the main roads and railways all have to follow the Loire valley and therefore are difficult to get away from, a feature we often came across as we pedalled further up the river.  In this case, despite the rural setting on the outskirts of Langeais, the Paris to Nantes TGV passed close to the boundary of the campsite and made considerable noise throughout the night.

Railway passing by Langeais and the campsite!

Railway passing by Langeais and the campsite!

Day-9  Langeais to Montrichard: 49 miles

Today’s route consisted of three distinct sections, with two objectives.  As we would have to double back to Tours from wherever we eventually reached upstream, insofar as possible we did not want to cover the same ground twice and therefore decided to loop eastwards along the River Cher shortly after Tours – an area which is also known for its wine.  However, we would still have to pass through Tours and therefore decided to take the opportunity to reconnoitre the city and the trains for when we would later come back to catch the train to the north coast.

After initially continuing to follow minor roads and cycle paths along the river, the route into the centre of Tours became quite difficult and we got lost on a number of occasions; it didn’t help that there are two main railway stations, one for the TGV and one for other trains.  After checking out the trains, we then pursued the same route out along the Loire that we would later use on our return to catch an early morning train a few days later, thereafter crossing over the hills and vineyards of Montlouis before coasting down into the River Cher valley and on to Montrichard.

Cher riverside at Montriachrd.

Cher riverside at Montriachard.

Day-10  Montrichard to Blois: 26 miles

The campsite at Montrichard was located immediately next to the River Cher and early in the morning we followed the river bank into town for a coffee and cake. Thus fortified the road climbed steeply out of town onto something of a plateau before eventually dropping back again into the Loire river valley and on to what was to be our furthest point upstream before turning back, Blois.

Chateaux to gateaux: French patisserie at is very best in Montrichard.

Chateaux to gateaux: French patisserie at its very best in Montrichard.

Viewed from the southern bank of the Loire, the town of Blois forms a wide and beautiful scene, punctuated by church spires and the magnificent Blois Chateau overlooking the river from its elevated position.  The campsite formed part of an out-of-town sports and nature park, situated next to the river and after settling in, we returned to town for some sightseeing and beers at the Jimi Hendrix café!  It was a very enjoyable bustling town that evening and we had a great time. Unfortunately on returning to the campsite a major party was underway at the central sports building which was very, very noisy and continued until after 1 a.m.!

Looking almost like a Canaletto painting, Blois viewed fom the southern Lore river bank.

Looking almost like a Canaletto painting, Blois viewed from the southern Loire river bank.

Day-11  Blois to Montlouis: 36 miles

As we had previously diverted from the Loire to Montrichard, the ride back to Tours was mostly new to us.  The whole area is peppered by chateaux, most noteworthy of which is that at Amboise, which was therefore completely overrun by tourists.  In order to catch an early train the next morning we chose to camp east of Tours just beyond Amboise at Monlouis, a white wine appellation situated adjacent to the better known Touraine appellation.  Unfortunately from our subsequent experience of wine tasting at the Montlouis wine caves, we were not impressed.

Amboise Chateaux.

Amboise Chateaux.

The trains again kept us awake at the campsite that night!

Day-12 &13  Montlouis to Ouistreham & Redhill: 17 + 6 miles

Today was all about getting back to the coast by train in order to catch the ferry home the following morning.  With the exception of travelling on Eurostar to return from Paris to London in 2009, I had not used French trains for bike transport before and was a little apprehensive.  As a result of the prior visit a few days before, we knew where the station was and how to get there.  From enquiring at the ticket office I was also assured that the tickets we had purchased in the UK were OK and that furthermore, the train would takes bikes but it was not possible to reserve bike places i.e. space was on a first come basis.  While the outcome of taking bikes on trains has usually worked out for us, such is the complexity that one is always left uncertain beforehand, making the experience quite unnerving.

Journey's end: Tours railway station.

Journey’s end: Tours railway station.

This was our first September tour and as a result of the longer nights, we rose and packed up in the dark in order to get to the station in good time.  There was no doubt that we were the first at the station with bikes for our direct TER train to Caen but as the actual train only pulls in about 10 minutes before departure, there was still a chance that we might not get a place for the bikes.  When the finally train arrived it was soon clear that we would have to remove all touring and camping luggage from the bikes in order to store them vertically in the limited spaces provided along the carriage wall – what an impractical pain.  Notwithstanding, it worked out (though not for others joining the train with bikes later who could not find spaces) and the 3-hour journey was thereafter pleasant and easy.

Bike storage on the train - French style.

Bike storage on the train – French style.

Although I had been to Caen before it took a while to get orientated and find the cycle path that runs along the canal from Caen to Ouistreham and back to Les Pommiers campsite where we had been only a few weeks before.  After that it was mussels for dinner, an early ferry the next morning and the train home once again from Porstmouth, all of which worked like clockwork.  I’m sure we’ll be back there again for another French cycle tour at the earliest opportunity.


STATS – MAPS – STUFF

Tour: 28th August to 9th September 2014, 13 days

Total Mileage: 428 miles

Maps: Michelin 1/150,000 numbers 309, 316, 317 (310 & 303)

Route:

DAY PLACE DIRECTIONS MILES
1 Redhill to Portsmouth TRAIN: Redhill  to Portsmouth Harbour 5.20
Portsmouth to St Malo FERRY: Brittany Ferries
2 St Malo to Tinteniac  37.50
3 Tinteniac to Rennes 30.50
4 Rennes to Candé 64.23
5 Candé to Angers Via Ingrandes (17 miles) 40.60
6 Angers 8.00
7 Angers to Saumur 30.50
8 Saumur to Langeais 29.68
9 Langeais to Montrichard 48.68
10 Montrichard to Blois   25.50
11 Blois to Montlouis   36.00
12 Montlouis to Ouistreham Train #: CIC dep Tours 09.07 arrv Caen 13.18 £21×2 Ref-28767062Alt TER Dep 14.22 arrv 17.09 16.90
13  Ouistreham to PortsmouthPortsmouth to Redhill Ferry: dep 08.30 arrv 13.15Train: dep 14.12 arrv 15.48 6.17
  TOTAL   317.46

Camping:

Tintaniac (Municipal) @ €6.08 p.n.
Rennes  – Camping des Gayeulles (Municipal) Rue du Professor Maurice Audin @ €14.60 p.n.
Angers – Saint-Gemmes Sur Loir (Municipal) €9.00 p.n.
Saumur – Ile d’Offard  (Municipal?) @  €14.55 p.n.
Langeais (Municipal)  @ €12.44 p.n.
Montrichard – L’Etourneau (Municipal)  €10 p.n.
Blois – Les Peupiliers
Oustreham – Les Pommiers (Municipal Camp) @  €14.76 p.n.
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