Cycling holidays in Brittany - the friendliest part of France
Why Brittany before other areas in France?
We've cycletoured over just about every part of France and in the end I've come to the conclusion that Brittany is the best place for a cycling holiday - there - biased, but honest and where we are based - the village of Gouarec - is perfectly placed to access it all. As France is probably the best country in the world for cycletouring there's a lot of competition, and several areas of France: Dordogne, Loire, Provence etc would seem to have a better claim. So briefly what is it that makes Brittany so special?
Well below you can read more detail but I'll have a go at summing it up in a few sentences. First Brittany is cycling sized - unlike many areas of France (which is a big country) you don't cycle for 30 miles without passing bars or little restaurants or a village etc. The ride is always broken up into bite-sized, and interesting pieces - no cycling down a long straight road for hours, or in forests all day. This combines with a countryside that changes so much faster than any other part of France. In a 50 mile ride you can be cycling down a canal towpath, cross moorland, go through lush forest, old-fashioned, almost chocolate-box farmland, tiny villages, bustling market towns, past chateaux to rival anything in France including the Loire, and then hit a coastline that itself swings from golden sand to sheer cliffs in the space of a few minutes. Nowhere else in France is remotely capable of this sort of variety.
All this is within an easy day's ride of our Base at Gouarec
Then there's the feeling of 'age'. Most villages will have 300+ year-old houses, 500+ year-old churches and maybe a 5000 year-old standing stone - it's hard to describe but quite striking when you are here. This helped by the lack of tourist tat...
Daylight - an odd one this. Because Brittany is the farthest-west point of France, and yet runs both European Central Time and Summer Time, we are about 2 1/2 hours ahead of the sun. The sun reaches its highest point at about 2.30 pm and the hottest part of the day is about 4.00pm. This gives you lovely long cool mornings to avoid the heat of the summer when cycling, and daylight that lasts til 10.00 pm...
And then finally there's the weather - I'd say it's like 'Little Bear's' porridge - just right for cycling. Not too hot, no extremes of storms or heatwaves like you can get in the south of France - mild and temperate. Sure it can rain, but without rain you don't get green pleasant countryside, you get parched, bleached landscape by the end of the summer. Yes we get a lot of sun compared to most of the Uk for instance, but you won't get melted to the tarmac or have kids with heat-stroke...
Brittany is unique. Jutting out west into the Atlantic, it is the Celtic homeland of France. With strong links to Wales, Ireland and Cornwall it is utterly distinct from the rest of France. Reminders of its history are everywhere - lonely celtic crosses by the road, huge standing stones, the celtic names and the strange language spoken by the old folk in tiny village bars. The Bretons do not consider themselves to be truly French, rather a nation within a nation. As a people their warmth and friendliness seem inexhaustable and over the last twenty-seven years many of our customers have come back with tales of little kindnesses, long bar room conversations and simple generosity. Perhaps the most graphic example of this being that crime in Brittany is practically unknown. In all that time not one of our customers has had anything stolen, despite bikes and valuables left unattended for hours. In fact every year we get told of wallets or cameras forgotten in bars or shops being still there hours later. If you want to learn more about the area go see www.brittanytourism.com
Brittany has so much to offer the cycletourist. Our base is in the centre in a tiny French village called Gouarec; quiet, unspoilt, with few tourists and a rural landscape little changed in the past 50 years. Here the fields are small with tall hedges full of mature trees. As the farming is less intensive than in much of France there is wildlife in abundance, and some of our cyclists have even seen such rarities as wild boar; with deer, foxes, martens and the like being common... In spring and summer the hedgerows abound with wild flowers and the dawn chorus can be deafening:-) This abundance extends to insect life, but happily it's not an area which suffers greatly from biting or stinging insects - the lack of mossies and the like I put down to the fact that most water - still or flowing - seems to teem with fish so all those larvae get eaten...
This part is not totally flat, but has a gently rolling landscape. Very few hills will be steeper than 1 in 20 and most much less - perfect for cycling:-) The tiny country lanes that make up much of our routes are very quiet, you are more likely to meet a tractor than a car. These lanes link ancient villages, most with their own bar and often a baker where you can buy bread baked that morning, or the most mouthwatering cakes. For those who like it easy, we have the Nantes-Brest canal at our doorstep, with its cyclepath beside it running for over 100 miles. Other cyclepaths radiating from Gouarec mean that if you wish you could cycle off-road on the flat for most of a week. The rest of Brittany is within easy reach of our base in the centre, bustling market towns, wide lakes, and beautiful river valleys.
Some of you may have seen the BBC series 'Coast' where a whole programme concentrated on just the Brittany coast-line, and you get the feeling they could have done a series just on that... Without question the Brittany coast is one of the most beautiful and varied coastlines in Europe and longer than the rest of the French coastline combined. It's hard to describe because the coastline doesn't just vary between the North, South and West, but can change utterly in the space of a couple of kilometres. Around Morlaix there is a huge tidal range and beaches that go out metres as the tide ebbs. There row upon row of mussel beds line up like soldiers, exposed by the retreating waves. The cliffs are virtical with a jumble of massive boulders at their base. And yet go a little west towards Roscoff and the coastline softens, the area becomes full of coves and inlets. Go south near Carnac and you'll see a 20 km long beach of golden sand backed by rocky pools and the remnants of Rommel's Atlantic Wall WWII defences. The far west has some of the most dramatic and rugged coastline in Europe with huge granite towers resisting the Atlantic breakers.
Perhaps you'd like a tour to one of the offshore islands on the north or south coast or cycle up to the windswept moors - anything is possible. One thing is for sure, everyone who comes here falls in love with the place. You could come cycling with us year after year and feel like you'd come to a different part of France each time! For more 'heavy sell' on cycling in Brittany.
Brittany is on the west coast of France and in summer it has a warm temperate climate. It does rain sometimes, which is one of the reasons its countryside is so green and wooded, but it would be an unusual week if there was not more sun than cloud. On average Brittany gets only 5 days a month when rain (even light rain) falls during the summer months of June, July, August and September, so a wet week is unusual to say the least. It can get pretty hot in the summer months, up to about 30 degrees, but unlike France south of the Loire, you are unlikely to get scorched to the tarmac, believe me we've cycled in the south in August and it can be blistering! Overall Brittany has an ideal climate for cycling as it doesn't suffer the extremes of heat and rain/storms etc that you risk further south, but bring waterproofs as well as a sunhat! BUT the most important thing is that whatever the weather you will have a good time providing you are prepared. When cycling in the rain you can only get so wet, after which you just drip. As it won't be cold and you are generating heat you'll not be cold and wet (or miserable) and the rain will provide more excuse to dive into bars to dry off. On the other hand if the temperature gets very high then the secret is to do much of the ride in the cool of the morning and then enjoy the sun in the afternoon. If you come properly equipped and most important of all, in the right frame of mind, the weather; good or bad, is just part of the holiday. In 2007 for example, it was a grey damp summer (as was all of France) and yet no-one said the weather had ruined their holiday, several said that they preferred it to being too hot and the general opinion was that it was of minor significance. The important thing is that several said that they would not have come if they'd known the weather would be like it was, but after having cycled the week they realise what a mistake that would have been.
France is wonderful for food. It still makes up a major part of the culture, and most important, regions retain their diversity - you can almost tell which part of France you are in by what is on your plate:-)
Brittany is no exception... Thankfully the Bretons are big eaters and much of their food is what Elizabeth David would call 'peasant cooking'. That means they don't generally go in for the peeled prawn, sprig of dill and some 'drizzled' pink sauce that you might get in Paris or some other parts of France. Here if you want seafood (and it's some of the best in the world) they give you a lot! The major characteristic is that here meals are likely to be fairly simple, copeous, and most importantly the ingredients will be both local and fresh whether it's vegetables from North Brittany, beef and pork from the heartland or fresh fish from the coast.
The 'signature' dish of Brittany is the crepe or 'Galette'. These are NOT the small thin and sweet pancakes you might get elsewhere in France. True Breton Galettes are made from Buckwheat ('ble noir') which is a traditional breton crop more related to peas and lentils than normal wheat. Cooked in butter and contaning cheese, ham, eggs, seafood etc they are extremely filling and most people (especially children) find them delicious. A couple of these followed by a 'sweet' crepe - more like a traditional pancake - is a meal that leaves me ready for a good lie-down and I'm a big eater...
It is true that as with most of France vegetarianism is rare in Brittany, but having said that the local delicacies of Crepes, wonderful salads and the ubiquitous (and excellent) pizzarias mean you won't starve and most restaurants have ceased to call a bacon omelette 'vegetarian'.
French beer is usually the fizzy, strong 'Euro Lager' of which I'm not a huge fan, but Brittany boasts several breweries (e.g. Coreff) that make excellent beer. As you cycle through the countryside you'll pass the apple orchards that produce some of the best 'cidre' in the world (and an evil spirit called Eau de Vie), really refreshing on a hot day. As for wine very little is produced here, but that doesn't mean that you can't get a perfectly drinkable bottle of 'plonk' for a couple of Euro!
For more on this delicious topic see my food article and for ideas on campsite cooking Jenny and Evelyn's Gourmet Guide...