Cycling the Nantes-Brest Canal
A thread of gold perfect for cycling holidays through the Heart of Brittany.
France is blessed with a wonderful network of canals and 'praise be' most of then have had their tow-paths converted into cycle-paths making wonderful, safe and child friendly places for a cycling holiday. But let there be no mistake – without question the Nantes-Brest canal is the most beautiful and varied of them all. A feat of engineering well beyond other canals – 385 km long, and a rise of 555m using 238 locks - those figures alone give you an idea what makes it special. To put it into perspective the more famous Canal du Midi is a mere 240 kms with a 189m rise and only 60 locks.
At the beginning of the 19c 'Britannia ruled the waves' and Napoleon needed to be able to transport heavy goods without having to use coastal shipping. He also wanted to 'tame' the wild-lands of Central Brittany. The idea of a canal linking the biggest naval port in France (Brest) with the city at the head of the Loire and hence the centre of France looked ambitious but the power of Napoleon's patronage pushed the project through – work began.
To cut a canal through mostly flat land is relatively straight forward, but the Nantes-Brest would have to rise over the hills of central Brittany. However nature did help a little because the engineers followed existing rivers as much as possible. For example the first section from Nantes to Redon and beyond followed the Villaine and was navigable from the end of the 16c. Cutting further inland took more effort, but the joining of 8 rivers, huge cuttings such as that around Glomel and some of the deepest locks in France (for example the double-lock at Coat Natous) made it all possible. The high point at Glomel was the location of the feeder lake for the canal and still today helps maintain water levels.
Finally opened in 1842 this magnificent canal wasn't without problems. Perhaps the worst being that the canal was largely dug by prisoners – many of them Spanish – it is said that one died for every km of the canal. From a technical standpoint the greatest effort was always in providing enough water from the feeder lake at Glomel to run the flights of locks running down from the highest point and this required excellent water management and keeping the locks in top – leak-free – condition.
The canal found that rather than military shipments, it's main use was the transport of lime from the Loire area. Brittany's largely acid soils (granite/schist based) required lime to grow crops, especially various vegetables. People along the canal would know when a barge was due and be there to collect and for the return journey load up with vegetables and other goods like wood from the extensive forests of central Brittany.
This was hard work – the bargees were not wealthy and few could afford a horse for the journey. The alternative was man-hauling – a cloth band around the waist and hour after hour of trudging down the tow-path. Nowadays it's hard to imagine, but 150 years ago people would completely wear out a new pair of clogs in one trip. For those using horses, it was usual to have a team of two as one would rest on the barge as the other hauled the load.
The coming of steam
The Nantes-Brest canal was one of the very last completed in France and its opening coincided almost exactly with the first steam trains in France. With hindsight it's easy to see that from that moment the canal was in trouble as a commercial waterway. By the end of the 19c railways were carrying much of the former traffic of the canal, especially perishable goods from Brittany such as vegetables, where the business disappeared completely. As time went on trains and then lorries increased their capacity to the point that only very heavy, low value products like sand were viable – the end was in sight.
The coming of steam and the internal combustion engine also sounded the death-knell of the horses as motorised barges were so much faster and cheaper to run. They also had the major advantage of being able to enter the 'Raid-de-Brest' and the mouth of the Loire in more open water, though this could be fraught with danger during times of high water flow and storms as the barges were hardly suited to the risks involved.
The 'cutting' of the canal
With the importance, both strategic and economic, largely disappearing the proposal to block the canal at almost exactly the mid-point by building the huge hydro-electric dam at Mur-de-Bretagne went ahead and produced the 10 km-long lake at Lac de Guerledan that we see today. At the time it was built a barge lift up the face of the dam was promised (and in the contract) but was never built. The result was inevitable - the canal West beyond the lake would be isolated and eventually die.
To the East the situation was happier, and the canal remained in operation far longer and from Nantes to Pontivy there came the point in the early 60's where the last commercial barges stopped just as the first leisure use of the canal began. The section from Pontivy to the Lac de Guerledan was however abandoned to all but wildlife.
As of today the canal is navigable from Nantes all the way to Pontivy, and work progresses to bring the Pontivy – Lac de Guerledan section back into use. At the other end the canal has been maintained and increasingly restored so that it is now possible to navigate all the way from below Chatelaulin (the exit to the Raid de Brest) to beyond Carhaix.
The sticking point has long been the section between the Lac de Guerledan and the Port de Carhaix. Where the rest of the canal was under the auspices of the Brittany region, this short section fell to the Department of Cotes D'Armor, and for a poor department, that considered tourism mainly to be of importance to the coast it was hard to justify the investment.
But at some time in the near future the responsibility for the this part will pass to the region and Cotes D'Armor has genrously started work to repair as much as they can of the canal. Work is already being carried out to re-open the central section to motorised traffic. For 2018 the section from the Lac de Guerledan to Gouarec reopens and work progresses to open the canal all the way to the Chapel de la Pitie (17km) over the next couple of years. This is significant because of all the sections of the canal in central Brittany this is probably the most beautiful and most adapted to tourism. From the Lake to Brest very few villages of note sit astride the canal, but on this section sits the complex of the Abbaye of Bon Repos with its historic buildings, restaurants, bars and market – and just 3 km further on the jewel of the canal that is Gouarec. Sitting fully astride the canal, Gouarec boasts one of the nicest centres in Brittany complete with a covered market-place, restaurants, bars, shops, banks and one of the prettiest campsites in Brittany.
Long-term the plan is to re-open the entire canal including the building of the barge-lift at the Barrage de Guerledan some 100 years after it was first promised.
The story of the canal as far as boat traffic has been a mixed one, but the use of the canal for leisure cyclists has seen a steady rise since the 1960's to the point that as a cyclists route it now rivals far better known cycle routes such as the Canal du Midi and the Loire river – and with good reason. The surface throughout is good, being mainly a 'cinder' track which doesn't suffer the cracking and potholes caused by trees which plague the well-intentioned efforts of some areas to make cycle-paths out of tarmac... To be technical you are best off with a 28mm tyre as a minimum, but personally I go with 35mm or the 1- ½” of our BB Specials on their 26” wheels. Beyond that although the path does rise and fall you can get away with few or even no gears and of course your load doesn't have much effect either.
As already noted the canal has a much greater rise and fall than other French canals and is combined with the canalisation of many rivers. The result is that unlike many canals where the first 10 km is much like the next 200, the Nantes-Brest shows amazing variety and you're never quite sure what will greet you as you round the next bend.
From the rich areas after the head of the Loire at Nantes the canal runs through busy towns like Redon, Josselin (with it's magnificent Chateau and medieval centre) and on to the Napoleonic centre of Pontivy. This first half of the canal is beautiful and you pass through smaller towns like Maelestoit and Rohan. The countryside is generally open (for Brittany) with the traditional avenue of trees – and it does resemble some of the prettier canals of France though there is always something rugged about the Granite of the buildings and lock basins themselves. At all the above towns you'll find campsites right on the canal and either small hotels and/or B&B's widely available.
The place where the character of the canal changes fundamentally is at the break at the Lac de Guerledan. At the lake itself the towpath is flooded, so instead for a short 10 km section you pop up onto the V6 Cyclepath (which forms part of the Velodyssey/Eurovelo) then back down to the Canal at Bon Repos.
Bon Repos is a gorgeous spot to explore with the ruined abbey, restaurants and bars set by the canal, but the temptation is to continue another 3 kms to the village of Gouarec which is really a gem on the canal. The campsite sits on the canal bank and the village itself straddles it, with restaurants shops etc all within 100m of the cycle-path. This little oasis though is the last stop before the canal goes deep into the countryside as it climbs up to the high point near Glomel. This section is almost devoid of habitation and achingly beautiful as it winds its way along the old path of the Dore river. Increasingly rugged it begins to feel almost like moorland in sections before plunging though thick woodland, the spectacular cutting at Glomel and the haven for birdlife in the various lakes to be found as the canal widens towards the top.
The actual village of Glomel is set 2 km from the canal and so you continue seeing only the occasional lock house (though an 18 lock descent!) for 40 km before reaching Port de Carhaix. Once a busy 'port' on the canal this is pretty much abandoned with Carhaix itself and its excellent campsite 3 km distant (and up hill) – the temptation is to just keep going... But unlike the Eastern section you are now in the 'wilds'. You'll see only the occasional cyclists and walkers – otherwise you really are in the most peaceful, undiscovered landscape where the sound of your freewheel and the call of birds are all that disturb the peace.
And from here the rest of the canal follows a familiar pattern. Unspoint, wild and with very little 'civilisation' – of course this is wonderful, but you can't rely of finding food and the like without detours from the canal so be prepared. After 30 kms you reach Chateauneuf-de-Faou – again the town and shops are up a big hill from the canal, but the campsite is at the bottom. It looks a lot shorter on the map but the canal now follows the path of the old river and as in nears the coast it meanders to a ridiculous degree such that the 15 km (as the crow flies) to Chateaulin takes 45 km on the canal from Chateauneuf-du-Fou!
But the ride is worth it as Chateulin is set right on the canal, is a bustling town and has both excellent hotels and campsites. It's the last stop before you continue the final few km to the coast and the Rade-de-Brest
Do it all?
To cycle the canal in its entirety is a challenge, but one that is immensely rewarding, and one of those rare trips where you can let young children cycle off in safety and gain the independence they crave. Many people ride the whole canal and then just turn round and ride back – inevitably everything looks very different going in the other direction.
The beauty of the canal is that it is accessible at many points and links up with various other cyclepaths – the natural centre and crossing point of these is at Gouarec where the Nantes-Brest canal meets the EV1 Eurovelo route and also forms part of the Velodyssey down to Biarritz. And for variety nothing matches mixing sections of canal with the tiny lanes that abound in central Brittany and using them to explore the villages, towns and historic buildings just a few short km from the canal - at Breton Bikes we have created a special route using the canal, the V6 and V3 cyclepaths that gives a spectacular loop through the area. Likewise the Velodyssey will bring you to the canal all the way from Roscoff and provides another stunning off-road route suitable for families and at Pontivy the Blavet river splits from the canal (but has its own towpath) which will take you all the way to Lorient.
So whether you ride the whole canal, or just dip in and out, or even simply hire bikes for a day from Gouarec you'll find out why many people are calling this the finest cycle-route in France.