The Vélodyssée in Brittany
A perfect first cycling holiday in France (with cheats!)
The Vélodyssée (Eurovelo 1 or EV1) is the major cycleroute down the West coast of France. Surprisingly it begins in the UK rather than France, in Cornwall and Devon, for those wanting to trace the whole route, and finishes on the French – Spanish border after 1200 kms. Unlike some of the Eurovelo in France the vast majority is on dedicated cycleroutes and also relatively flat being based on canal towpaths, old train routes and the flat West coast beyond Nantes. Read on!
With such a distance and on easy terrain it's possible to do the whole trip in a relatively leisurely two weeks but of course as with any cycling holiday the daily distance is very personal but it makes a great first adventure for a cycling holiday in france;-)
It is a route that takes you through varied countryside but by far the majority of that variety is in the section from Roscoff through to Nantes. Breton Bikes is based in the centre of Brittany, and the Velodyssee passes our door so we're hopelessly biased and of course our experience of that section is considerable. So forgive me, but this article will concentrate on that wonderful section through the Heart of Brittany rather than the West of France. Local knowledge also means the following will include 'cheats' (in italics) to take you off the route for various reasons that will become apparent...
The Velodyssee route – Roscoff to Nantes...
At about 350 km this section is an easy 50 km a day ride in a week. If you look at the map below you'll see that it very quickly cuts inland and once you leave Morlaix is almost 100% cyclepath and canal towpath all the way to Nantes! At various points it is possible to 'cheat' and shortcut on roads, bringing the total to well under 300 km and giving you some alternatives if you want to get away from cycle-paths for a while!
Section 1 - Roscoff to Morlaix
Brittany Ferries run a great (if a bit expensive) service to France and my strong advice would be to get an overnight ferry and splash out on a cabin. I've done the crossing 100's of times and the one thing you don't want is to arrive in Roscoff late in the day (though if you do Roscoff itself is a lovely little place with several hotels) – or at the crack of dawn having had no sleep... When we were students we could hack it, but now in late middle age I really need to be on form when I get onto the road!
This section is a bit tough as the first few miles out of the ferryport are a bit daunting and involve climbing up to the 'plateau' above the coast. St Paul de Leon is a lovely little town to stop for breakfast (great baker in the centre for your first French bread) and once through you start to get into the smaller lanes.
Here a personal choice, but rather than follow the EV1 which takes you cross country to Morlaix I'd be really tempted to hug the coast road (D73). Yes it is a larger route and the road is a bit more busy but French drivers are generally careful of cyclists, but apart from holiday traffic it's pretty quiet and it means you get to see this pretty part of the coast and then run all the way up the estuary to Morlaix. I can see why the EV1 chooses to avoid this but I think that for most cyclists it's a shame to miss it. Whichever way you choose there's no way to avoid all the hills (though nothing dramatic) though I suspect the D73 with its better surface will be the easiest start to your holiday.
Once you hit Morlaix you'll discover a bustling little port straddled by a spectacular viaduct. There are plenty of hotels from stupidly expensive to bargain basement but the one we have used for years in our 'To the Bay of Morlaix' cycling holiday is the Hotel du Port which you'll pass as you enter the town on the D73.
The one big problem with Morlaix is that bizarrely it doesn't have a campsite – nor are there any other campsites directly on the route in the next section, but we'll cover that later;-)
Section 2 – Morlaix to Carhaix-Plouguer
In Morlaix you'll pick up the EV1 signs (and get maps from the excellent tourist office) and you'll find you have a short sharp climb up to the old railway station where you pick up the old railway track. This is the most 'challenging' section of the entire Brittany route, the hills are 'railway' grades so very gentle but with the often slow surface – especially when wet – and gentle climbs lasting many kms you do need to allow a bit more time.
But that said it is glorious with some of your time pretty high up (hence the climb) with the path cutting through farmland, forest and even some moorland – it is really lovely;-)
If you don't fancy this then there is a much quicker road route (partly because of the surface) that again though wide is very quiet and excellent for cycling – this being the D769 with takes you almost all the way and crosses the cyclepath at several places so you can change your mind at those points...
If you want to stop for the night on this section then your best bet is to detour 4km to the lovely little town of Huelgoat. Here you'll find a couple of campsites, and in the centre both a hotel and Chambre D'hotes (B&B). We use the 'Hotel du Lac' for our cycling holidays through Huelgoat and it's a good, well priced stop with a good restaurant.
Staying on the route you'll find few watering holes or restaurants until you get to Poullaouen where there a bar and small restaurant, but I'd hold out for a few more kms until you get to the Relais de Anne at Plounevezel where the D54 crosses the path – you'll eat all you can for about 12€ and in a great atmosphere – a real worker's stop;-)
Not long afterwards you'll find yourself in Carhaix – a bit of a haul up to the town which is pretty big by Breton standards (i.e. not that big at all) and you'll find several places to eat and stay there. The campsite is lovely (we use it for our cycle camping holidays) but be warned it's at the bottom of a big hill so do all your shopping before you go down to it...
Section 3 – Carhaix-Plouguer to Gouarec
Today is significant because here you join the Nantes Brest canal – and from here on in you pretty much stick to it almost all the way to Nantes. It's just a three km descent to the canal – turn left and that's it;-) In my opinion the next 40 kms or so are the prettiest of the whole trip as the canal rises to its highest point (at Glomel) into almost moorland, through the huge cutting or 'tranche' at Glomel before gently falling down to the Blavet river valley. The canal is only navigable in shortish sections from here to Pontivy where it becomes a 'working' canal again.
But here there is another alternative. Almost as beautiful and considerably shorter is the option of taking the V6 cyclepath from Carhaix all the way to Gouarec. This is very pretty and formed from the old railway so pretty flat and the surface reasonable. It's a tough choice and actually if you want a loop from Roscoff you could do a there-and-back turning at Gouarec and then taking my alternative 'cheats' on the return?
Back on the canal you'll find this section very quiet – the countryside rugged and unspoilt. You climb significantly up lock after lock until you reach Glomel. Unfortunately here the village with its restaurant, shop and bar are a good 3 km up hill from the canal, but actually on the canal is a small canoe-hire centre which doubles as a cafe/creperie so you won't starve.
From Glomel the canal now drops down – at first down a dramatic series of locks, but once in the valley the canal levels off and there's little to disturb your contemplation of nature (kingfishers, otters, herons etc) for 20 km or so after which you pass the small village of Plelauff (there a bar but it's closed in the afternoons and Monday and Tuesday) and then on to the simply wonderful village of Gouarec.
A jewel set on the banks of the canal and at the crossroads of the canal towpath and V6 cyclepath this village has pretty much everything you need. As you enter you pass our campsite and bunk-house (the old lock-keeper's cottage) and though I am biased it's the best campsite you'll find on the canal for cycletourists – covered areas, big tents and little caravans available for 15€ a head and a fully equipped bunkhouse for the same price – campers are just 6€ a night.
OK Campsite plug over...
In the village you'll find three restaurants, a well stocked shop, baker, banks etc. It's also really pretty. What you wont find is a hotel but there are several lovely B&B's in the area that we can point you to. Of course 4 km further on is the Abbaye of Bon Repos where there is a small hotel (classed as a B&B but hey) – but that's for the next section...
Section 4 – Gouarec to Rohan
Resisting the temptation to spend several nights in Gouarec (or not) this is where the character of the canal changes to become softer and less rugged. Firstly, as mentioned before you follow the canal 4 km to Bon Repos. This section is the only place where the V6 follows the canal directly.
Bon repos is well worth an hour's stop as the ruined Abbaye and surrounding complex of picnic areas, bars and restaurants is a local tourist trap – it even has a narrow gauge railway...
The huge Lac de Guerledan drowns the canal at this point so it's a short 200m (length not height!) hill to get up onto the V6 cyclepath running north of the lake along the bed of the old railway. This gives great views of the lake and will take you almost to Mur-de-Bretagne (famous Tour de France hill here). It's quite possible that here you'll want to just pop off the path to the village to shop/eat but it's easy to pick up again – if you're lost just follow signs to St Aignan and it's all downhill to the canal.
There are two cheats here! A quick glance at the map shows that the Velodyssee to Pontivy is both a bit of a detour and also the path following the canal is incredibly wriggly. If you want to by-pass Pontivy entirely and save some 30 km you can stay on the V6 rather than take the canal. Follow this all the way to St Caradec then take the road via Hemonstoir and continue south until you hit the canal...
If on the other hand you just want to shorten the cycle to Pontivy then it's pretty simple – just dive down to St Aignan then get on the D156 which will take you parallel (but much straighter) to the canal to Stival and then Pontivy where you'll hit the canal (actually the Blavet river at this point) and turn left to follow the canal.
But if you've the time the canal is a lovely quiet section, some of it drained or overgrown but showing signs of rebuilding. And after a couple of hours of weaving about you'll hit the large Napoleonic town of Pontivy, complete with hulking great chateau (the 'Keep out' type not the 'pretty' type). The canal gets you right into the centre without battling traffic and you'll find all you need there. There are several hotels and the one we use on our cycling holidays is the Hotel de l'Europe which is simply wonderful.
From Pontivy it's simple to get back on the Velodyssee – just get onto the canal and cycle all the way to Rohan. Again it's lovely gentle cycling though less 'deserted' than the Carhaix area. Rohan is a nice, quite large village with a lovely campsite right by the canal that Breton Bikes uses and everything you need (though no bike shop) though sadly the hotel is closed. There are B&B in the village however.
Section 5 - Rohan to Josselin
From here descriptions become shorter, not because the distances are less but simply because the route follows the canal and as the population density rises you find more going on right on the canal and a general busier air. Also all the towns you pass have accommodation and campsites so it's much more straightforward.
In that respect this short section is typical in that after only 25 km you hit Josselin. This is a place to stop and so it makes sense to make this a ½ day so you have time to explore the village with its Chateau (very much the 'pretty' type).
Several places to stop in the village itself, but we use the Au Relais de L'oust which though modern is family run and set on the canal just before the village. Likewise the main campsite is just before the village on the opposite bank.
The surrounding area now becomes much flatter as you go east so if you do want a day off to explore it's easy riding and the surrounding villages all seem to be pretty and usually have a bar at least.
Section 6 - Josselin to Redon
Now as mentioned above the whole character of the ride changes. The area is much less hilly and the countryside opens up with far fewer trees and a generally more 'open' feel. The fact that this section of the canal now runs through older parts of the canal means that towns along its length are larger and feel more wealthy and prepared for holidaymakers – you can almost feel yourself approaching the riches of the Loire.
As before this section is 100% on the canal so no map reading, and you'll cycle past the large and well equipped villages of Monterlot, Roc-St-Andre, Malestroit all with places to eat, accommodation and campsites. Of course Redon is a much bigger place with historic cobbled centre and enough to keep you exploring for hours.
Section 7 – Redon to Niort-sur-Edre (almost)
Here a little sacrilege. If I personally was riding down the west coast of France I'd leave the Velodyssee at this point. Why? Because if you look at the map (and google maps will show it too) you'll see that you can bypass much of the Velodyssee and the hassle of the city of Nantes by taking the ferry over the Loire. Look pretty much due south of Redon and you'll see a couple of little ferry crossings – I took the Le Pellerin crossing. Depending on your daily mileage you can easily save a couple of days doing this and the cycle to the crossing is flat, easily navigated and takes you straight into quiet countryside on the southern bank of the Loire where you can soon pick up the Velodyssee again. The alternative is a day weaving in and out of the busy city of Nantes. Just an idea...
Apart from crossing the Villaine river you are now still on the canal, but cross into the department of the Loire Atlantique. Again it's pretty much plain cycling as you follow the canal, now almost devoid of locks and now you are in more civilised areas the path is generally tarmac. Again beautiful and often hemmed in with deciduous trees it's a lovely last section on the canal.
On this now very old section of the canal (the river has been navigable for 300 years) the villages come closer together and the number of tourist craft and supporting infrastructure (restaurants;-) multiplies quickly. At regular intervals you'll go through pretty villages with all you need – Fedreac, Guenrouet, St-Omer-de-Blain, Blain, and La Chevallerais, all waiting to relieve holidaymakers of hard earned cash... You turn south towards Nantes 3 km before you get to Niort, which is a shame and Niort does make a good stop.
Section 8 – Niort to Nantes
This section is sadly the least pleasant of the whole trip. After all the easy navigation on the canal this cycle is a little more demanding as though almost entirely flat it does involve a bit of (to my mind) rather pointless weaving about to avoid roads that in normal circumstances I'd be quite happy cycling. Most notably I don't see any reason not to just get on the D26/D69 for most of it – it's barely two lane, flat and easy... If you insist on following the actual route (if you have children or a real phobia about any traffic) then this section though fiddly is well marked.
Suce-sur-Erdre makes a great little stop better than the larger La-Chapelle-sur-Erdre where regardless of route you will now leave the D69 and follow the well laid out cyclepath parallel to the main road.
But from here-on in you are on a typical cyclepath which is trying to get you into a major city in a reasonable distance and avoiding as much traffic as possible which means one minute cycling at 90 degrees to the direction you want, then being spat out onto a major junction before picking up another fragment of path or a painted 'cycle-lane' at the side of the road. I don't like this sort of thing, am not fussed about cycling through cities on a bike - hence my advice at the beginning of the last section. No doubt someone will write and say it was the best part of the whole trip and if you need to catch a train back to Roscoff then fine, but it's not for me;-)
I hope the above helps as many people as possible enjoy this brilliant cycle ride. I've spoken to many people who've done the whole Velodyssay and almost without exception they say that the Brittany section is the best. If nothing else it will give you an introduction to Brittany, make you realise its size (as big as Wales) and the huge possibilities once you leave the cyclepath.
I hope and expect to see many of you out on the road;-)
With few hills and little traffic you can do the whole thing on just about any old bike you have handy. The one proviso is that it is happy on the sort of surfaces you'll encounter. The section from Morlaix to Carhaix in particular can be muddy and a bit rough, and the canal towpath cinder rather than tarmac so I'd strongly recommend you use something that can take a decent width tyre – I'd say 28mm as an absolute minimum, but preferably 35mm+ if you only have a few gears then maybe you'll walk some short sections but most of it could be done with three or even one if well chosen. The important thing is for the bike to be comfortable and reliable – everything else is window dressing;-)
You'll find links to the various hotels we know personally in the text (tell them I sent you) as well as links to pages that may help on the main Breton Bikes site. Beyond that you'll find that the local Tourist office (Morlaix for example) should be able to provide you with a superb set of detailed maps of the route and all for free.
This is the Official Velodyssee site.