At the end of the day, the greatest pleasure is on the table. Dinner comes
with a sense of entitlement and a decent bottle — be it réserve du patron or
a grand cru classé – bought with euros not spent on petrol. French food
never tasted so good, and after a week on the road you will have lost
Try France on two wheels, self-propelled. It is not the only way to travel,
but it is a good way forward. Here are three suggestions of areas to
explore, with itineraries – hotel prices are guides, per person based on
Three top itineraries
Along the Loire from Saumur to Orléans (about 155 miles)
This is the historic section of the Loire Valley, through the vineyards and
orchards of Touraine, the Garden of France, via gracious Renaissance
châteaux as far as the river’s northernmost point at Orléans. Trains run
along the Loire, so a cycling trip could scarcely be easier. Drop the car at
a station, pedal along the river bank until you’ve had enough, hop on a
train and return to Go. Or do the whole thing by train from the UK. Riding
upstream may seem counter-intuitive, but gives you a better chance of wind
Vineyards in Touraine
La Loire à Vélo (www.loireavelo.fr)
is an itinerary designed for cyclists, on a mixture of minor roads and
dedicated cycle paths, mostly following the river. Signage is a bit patchy –
as a general rule, keep to the quieter road along the left (south) bank.
The greatest problem is what to leave out: this stretch of the Loire, not
forgetting its tributaries the Indre and Cher, could fill a month. For those
less well-versed in French kings, mistresses and religious wars, châteaux in
private ownership such as Cheverny and Ussé may be more fun to visit than
the grandes machines such as Chambord, Amboise and Blois.
Châteaux are not the only attraction. Saumur’s Ecole Nationale d’Equitation,
the equine Académie Française, is worth visiting, as is nearby Fontevraud
Abbey with its Plantagenet royal tombs. Troglodyte dwellings in the white
cliffs beside the Loire and Cher are a local feature – the attractive little
town of Montrichard is a good base for troglo-tourism and wine tasting.
Orléans has a lot going for it: cheerful bars and restaurants in the old
quarter between the cathedral and the river. Make your entry via the Pont
Royal, up the arcaded Rue Royale to the vast Place du Martroi, where St Joan
rides a green horse.
Travel: either overnight car ferry Portsmouth/Caen (Brittany Ferries, www.brittany-ferries.co.uk),
or by train from London via Paris.
Day 1: Saumur – Fontevraud, stay at Hostellerie la Croix Blanche £90
Day 2: Fontevraud – Candes – Ussé – Langeais – Azay le Rideau, stay at
Le Grand Monarque £90 (0033247454008; www.legrandmonarque.com)
Day 3: Azay-le-Rideau – Montbazon – Azay sur Cher – Chenonceaux, stay
at Le Bon Laboureur £150 (0033247239002; www.bonlaboureur.com)
Day 4: Chenonceaux – Montrichard – Cheverny – Chitenay, stay at
L’Auberge du Centre £90 (0033254704211; www.auberge-du-centre.com)
Day 5: Chitenay – Blois – St Dyé – Chambord – Beaugency, stay at L’Ecu
de Bretagne £85 (0033238446760; www.ecu-de-bretagne.fr)
Day 6: Meung sur Loire – Cléry St André – Orléans 15 miles. Train to
Saumur or London via Paris.
Château de Cheverny
Vallorbe to the Loire. About 250 miles.
The TGV makes light work of the journey to Switzerland — three hours from
Paris to the border at Vallorbe. Hop off here, and save most of the sweat of
the long haul up from Lake Geneva to the crest of the Jura at the Col de
Jougne (1,008m). From which point it’s freewheeling all the way through
Franche-Comté in long rolling stages, the landscape changing from forest and
timber mills to vineyards and vegetable gardens. After Arbois, a grey-gold
town of rhythmic arcades and interesting local wines that rarely make their
way abroad, come the wetlands of the Bresse, a quiet corner of la France
profonde best known for its chickens, which have their own appellation
contrôlée. Burgundy spells hills, history and rich rewards for the gourmet
Call a halt at Beaune for sightseeing and wine tasting at the Hôtel-Dieu and
Marché aux Vins, but don’t overdo the intake: many ups and downs lie before
the fortress village of Chateauneuf-en-Auxois, a good stopover above the
motorway and Canal de Bourgogne.
From Vézelay (off caps for the pilgrimage church and Marc Meneau’s pilgrimage
restaurant) there are a half a dozen possible routes through peaceful
Puisaye. We chose the one with the prettiest-sounding villages – Lucy sur
Yonne and Druyes les Belles Fontaines – and Guédelon, a 13th-century castle
under construction in the middle of nowhere, and scheduled for completion in
2025. The route reaches the Loire near Briare, famous for Mr Eiffel’s
aqueduct, which carries the Canal Latéral à La Loire over the Loire to meet
the Canal de Briare. Wine buffs might prefer to aim for Sancerre or Pouilly,
exactly half way between the source of the Loire and the Atlantic, finishing
the ride with goat’s cheese and flinty white wine. Catch the train back to
Paris from Tracy (opposite Sancerre) or Briare.
Travel: by train via London/Paris
Day 1: Vallorbe-Malbuisson, stay at Le Bon Accueil £100 (0033381693058; www.le-bon-accueil.fr)
Day 2: Malbuisson- Salins – Arc et Senans – Arbois, stay at Les
Messageries £40 BB (0033384661545; www.hoteldesmessageries.com)
Day 3: Arbois – Pierre de Bresse – Beaune, stay at le Grillon £45 BB
Day 4: Beaune – Fussey – La Bussière – Châteauneuf, stay at Hostellerie
du Château £85 (0033380492200; www.hostellerie-de-chateauneuf.com)
Day 5: Châteauneuf – Saulieu – Quarré les Tombes –
St-Père-sous-Vézelay, stay at La Renommée, £40 BB,
(00333 86332134) 55 miles
Day 6: St-Père – Sancerre – Chavignol , stay at La Côte des Monts
Damnés £110 (0033248540172; www.montsdamnes.com)
A view towards the fortress village of Chateauneuf-en-Auxois
A circuit in the Massif Central, starting from Vichy: Up the Upper Allier,
down the Upper Loire. About 310 miles.
Conquerors of giddy Alpine passes would not raise a sweat in the Massif
Central, but if your bicycle frame of reference is flat to undulating, as
mine is, the upper reaches of the Allier and Loire are hard going, rewarded
by some of the wildest country in France, now being recolonised by wolves.
We tackled the Allier by mistake, having planned to travel up it by train to
Langogne, our intended gateway to the source of the Loire. But the railway
was closed for maintenance – this happens every autumn — and in retrospect
the scenery was worth every bead of sweat. Cycling down from the source of
the Loire to Le Puy has its steep moments too, because there is no road that
follows the river’s infant contortions exactly, so the idea of cruising
easily down country lanes beside the water is fantasy.
Although the main appeal of this circuit is scenic, there are beautiful
churches to visit at Issoire, Brioude, Lavaudieu and Le Puy; the macabre fun
of visiting the Auberge de Peyrebeille, notorious for its serial killer
hosts (early 19th century); and the mouth-watering prospect of a lifetime
lunch chez Troisgros at Roanne (lunch menu 100 euros; 0033477716697),
followed by an hour’s snoring on the train back to Vichy. More energetic
cyclists might prefer to pedal over the hills (about 40 miles).
Travel: by overnight car ferry or train via London/Paris
Day 1: Vichy – Lezoux, stay at Les Voyageurs £70 (0033473731049) or
Château de Codignat £200 (0033473684303; www.codignat.com)
Day 2: Lezoux-Issoire-Brioude, stay at Poste et Champanne £70
Day 3: Brioude – St Ilpize – Langeac – Alleyras, stay at Le Haut-Allier
£125 (0033471575763; www.lehaut-allier.com)
Day 4: Alleyras – Auberge de Peyrebeille – Ste Eulalie, stay at Hotel
du Nord £70 (0033475388009; www.hoteldunord-ardeche.com)
Day 5: Ste Eulalie – Gerbier de Jonc – Goudet – le Puy – Vorey, stay at
Les Rives de l’Arzon £70 (0033471011399; www.hotel-rives-arzon.fr)
Day 6: Vorey – Chambles – Feurs, stay at Etesia £40 BB
Day 7: Feurs – Roanne. By train to Vichy.
Don’t carry anything on your back.
My solution to the problem of valuables is shorts with zip pockets.
Keep your mouth shut and always wear sunglasses.
Take a spare inner tube. It’s quicker to switch tubes by the roadside and
repair a flat tyre later.
Don’t be too proud to get off and walk. It will be a welcome change for the
leg muscles and backside. And what’s the hurry, anyway?
French railways are generally bike-friendly. Unfortunately not all high-speed
trains accept bikes. Find out more via the SNCF website (www.voyages-sncf.com),
clicking the details icon of suitable trains – a picture of a bicycle means
the train has bike spaces. These cost 10E, must be booked at the same time
as the ticket and cannot be booked online. Calling Rail Europe (08448 484
is the simplest way to book (though with an extra charge for telephone
booking). A bike space on Eurostar (0844 822 5822; www.eurostar.co.uk)
costs £30 each way. If you dismantle your bike and pack it in a special bag,
you can take it on any train at no extra charge. But bike bags are too bulky
to carry while cycling, so this option is impractical unless your ride is a
circuit. Bicycles are not permitted on the Paris Metro but can be taken on
the suburban RER network outside rush hour, and this will get you between
Gare du Nord and Gare de Lyon or Montparnasse, if you don’t want to cycle.
Maps: Michelin road atlas (1:200,000), for greater detail, and contours, IGN
Adam Ruck’s book of long French bike rides, France On Two Wheels, is published
by Short Books @ £8.99. www.france2wheels.com.