Robert and Libby Adamson's experience on the Two Centre Tour

Leisurely Week Cycling in Brittany

From London we took the Eurostar to Paris and the TGV west to St Brieuc in Brittany. Then a taxi took us through pretty farming country to Gouarec in the heart of Brittany, where we met our cycling holiday organizers, Geoff and Kate Husband of “Breton Bikes”.

From their range of cycling holidays – hotel or camping, following a circuit of villages or radiating from a couple of hotels - we’d chosen the last (two hotels). We loaded up the panniers on our two touring bikes with enough gear for a week and meandered down the tow path along the Nantes – Brest Canal, to the Hotel Bon Repos. This is in a restored wing of the ruined 12th C Abbey de Bon Repos. What a great spot for four nights.

Sunday morning, we meandered back to explore Gouarec, a very pleasant and picturesque old village, venerable stone houses with slate roofs, others almost like “dolls houses”. The pretty gardens full of pink and blue hydrangeas – they were everywhere. For our first picnic lunch of baguette, cheese, ham, tiny tomatoes, cherries, washed down with local cider, we sat on a bench at the side of the canal. So peaceful. (This part of the canal is rarely used for boating now, due to a large hydro-electric dam nearby.)

In the afternoon we cycled some kilometres up the road to “Les Forges des Salles”, a fascinating old foundry complex which used to produce iron from iron ore brought in on the canal, and charcoal from the surrounding Forêt de Quénécan. The complex dates back a couple of hundred years, beautiful old workers’ cottages, the iron master’s imposing house, the mill-race for the water-powered machinery, it’s now sympathetically restored.

Back at Bon Repos, we wandered through the abbey, so historic, magnificent. A portion has been partly restored, but most is left as ruins. Dating from c1180, there are cloisters, towers, ruined windows and arches, what a delight. Between the abbey and the canal is a jousting yard and several mounted “knights” were sharpening their skills for the up-coming annual August Medieval Tournament, a most appropriate setting.

Following suggestions on the very comprehensive info sheet from our “bike people”, on Monday we cycled to Plounévez-Quintin. The road we wanted was closed to traffic but after an abortive detour, we found a muddy track suitable for walkers and cyclists across where a four-lane highway bypass is being built. Cycling through rolling farmland, lovely little villages, the sides of the road were full of wildflowers, dominated by the glorious purple of fox-gloves. Dairy and beef cattle, sheep, and crops – wheat, barley, maize, oats, potatoes, peas, you name it, it grows in central Brittany. Lunch was another picnic sitting in the sun on a stone wall at the side of the road. After stopping to admire a lovely old stone church at St Tréphine, we coasted down the road through the spectacular Gorge de Daoulas, passing under the mossy high stone bridge of a disused railway. We reckoned we deserved a coffee and a beer at the bar, “Bout du Pont” ( end of the bridge) over the canal.

Tuesday – “It’s market day in Rostrenen”, said the events sheet. We set off on a delightful cycling / walking rail trail. Forest and fields, signs to beware of deer and wild boar – but they were wary of us. Delightful vistas across the rolling farmlands, a flock of gulls followed a farmer’s plough. After passing through a couple of tiny hamlets, we reached Rostrenen, quite a large town and centre of the region. The market was fascinating, tempting food of all kinds, clothes, flowers, cookware. The cherries and strawberries! Lunch was a beer and a croque-monsieur, sitting in the sun outside a bar, people watching - and marvelling at the cars and vans negotiating impossibly narrow spaces at the back of the market stalls. An imposing old chateau / “college” in the centre of the town is now an un-employed peoples’ centre. Dinner that night was at the local creperie (buckwheat crepes are a Breton specialty) with cider, different and very tasty. It was still light after 9pm, we were delighted to see a couple of otters swimming along the canal.

Wednesday – from Bon Repos to Glomel. With our bikes and loaded panniers, we set off in light drizzle. Firstly to Gouarec to change some pounds to euros – and the bank directed us to the Post Office! It rained on and off but the bikes performed well along the muddy tow-path. With the essential full mudguards, I could indulge in splashing through muddy puddles with feet up, a guilty pleasure long-forgotten since childhood! We cycled from Lock 139 to Lock 160. Each lock has its own lock-keeper’s cottage, all built to the same basic design but all different, some dilapidated, a few almost in ruins; others are holiday houses and a few permanently occupied. The cloud lifted to reveal lovely reflections in the canal. Forest and fields again, we passed a double lock and the lovely Chapel de la Pitié, several lakes (canal reservoirs) and through the Grand Tranchée, the big cutting. This is the highest part of the canal – 184 metres above sea-level. Its construction was a mammoth undertaking in the early 1800s, by labourers and Napoleon’s Spanish prisoners-of-war.

Our delightful small hotel (chambres d’hôte) at Glomel, “Canal Chouette” (owl), overlooked a large lake on the canal. Our room was quite different to the hotel room, we had a king-sized bed, a good shower – and a kettle! More like a good Australian motel room. Marie-Jeanne, our host, has a spacious guest lounge with an excellent collection of tourist brochures and maps on Brittany, and quite a library of books and magazines. There is a telescope for watching the birds on the lake. And she sports very chic French specs! It helped that I could speak a bit of French from my University of the 3rd Age French class; we were the only guests that night. Dinner – hors d’oeuvres with cider, asparagus and pea soup, sausage and vegs with a carafe of red wine, Breton tart. Real French home cooking, very welcoming. Our charming hostess a few years ago walked the Pilgrim Way of St Jacques, not just from the Spanish border, but all the way from Brest in far northwest Brittany, to Santiago de Compostella in western Spain. May to August, what a journey.

Thursday, it rained much of the morning so we relaxed in our room (why not), with a selection of Madame’s books and magazines. It turned out a sunny afternoon so we set off further down the canal, passing another 30 locks in about 12 km, a fairly steep descent (for a canal). Sadly, locks on this part of the canal are not navigable, they only have an upstream gate, which works solely as a dam. Most lock-keepers’ cottages have lovely gardens, being summer, they were full of flowers, again hydrangeas everywhere, some beautiful shades of blue and pink. We detoured to the beautiful old Chapel de St Eloy at Lansalaün. Just by the front door there is a tiny stone building (dated 1687) which houses a holy spring or “source” – water still runs through it – most intriguing.

Back at Glomel, three French cycling couples arrived a short while after us, just as heavy rain and a thunderstorm commenced. They’d ridden 90 kilometres! So “Canal Chouette” was full that night. At dinner, over soup, lasagne, and cherry tart, we tried to chat with these interesting people but unfortunately with my rather rudimentary French, (and their equally rudimentary English) we couldn’t understand much of the conversation. The setting sun emerged about 9pm, glistening on the wet trees and lighting a lovely scene across the lake to the lock and its cottage – and we were delighted to see more otters swimming nearby.

Friday – and back to Gouarec. Breakfast with the French couples; I tried French hot chocolate, yum! Toast – a variety of breads including brioche, and pancakes, with pear and strawberry jam. On the outskirts of Glomel village we found a prehistoric menhir – a standing stone – quite amazing, it’s about 5 metres high, so how much is in the ground? How many tonnes does it weigh, and where was it brought from and how? (I’d read some of a book on prehistoric Brittany the night before in Marie-Jeanne’s library. Brittany has lots of prehistoric sites with menhirs and dolmens etc.) Then back to the canal, we crossed on the steep narrow iron bridge, it was bikes first then panniers. At lunchtime a wild wind gust whipped off my Aussie hat and blew it into the lock – merde! Sadly there was no handy fisherman nearby to ask to fish for my hat. Another lovely afternoon unfolded, and the varied lock-keepers’ cottages and gardens continued to delight. Back in Gouarec, the sunny afternoon altered the appearance of the village, so we had another meander through back streets to admire the handsome Hôtel de Ville (town hall), the church with its war memorial cross, and narrow street-scapes. A stone tablet set in a wall, “XXXXX, Martyr de la Résistance 1915 – 1945” gave us pause for reflection. Back at the Breton Bikes base, we unloaded our panniers and re-packed our cases, what a let-down! Early next morning we were off back to Paris by TGV, and a flight to Toulouse in Languedoc to meet up with our two daughters Jane and family from Perth and Cath and family from London, for a rather different holiday together, a week sharing a large house (6 adults and 4 children) near Carcassonne.

Robert Adamson
Brisbane Australia
Thursday, 1 November 2007
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