Countryside and Regions of France
Or... where on earth are we going to go cycling in France next year?
In this section I'm going to do a brief description of the pro's and con's of regions that I've cycled in throughout France – so sweeping generalizations only;-) ALL the areas are well worth visiting, so negative comments need to be taken in this context. As time goes on I'll link from each description to various other pages – sample routes and so-on – to build a large archive of information...
For – My favourite part of France for cycling holidays of course. The most varied countryside in France. In 50 kms you can see gorgeous coasts, picture book countryside, market towns, bleak moors, lakes, forest, chateaux and 5000 year-old monuments. Cycling is Brittany's 'National' sport and it shows. Very distinct culture of which the locals are fiercely proud – music, dance, language, art and food all being quite different to elsewhere in France. The Breton countryside has just enough population to support bars, restaurants, bakers and the like in larger villages. Small farms means a maze of tiny lanes just made for cycling. Coast varies from 'Caribbean' beaches to rugged 'Cornish' cliffs and thousands of islands – both inhabited and uninhabited. Honest, copious country food – specialties include crepes (savory buck-wheat Galettes), cider and the freshest vegetables and finest seafood in France. Terrain gently rolling in most areas – few really serious hills. Real flat cycling relatively rare but Nantes-Brest and similar canals flat and traffic free. Very quiet all year in all areas except for right on the coast. Easy to get to from UK. Weather very 'little Bear's porridge' – it's rarely too hot to cycle, storms, floods, high winds etc are unlikely but you don't get such gorgeous green countryside without some rain.
Against – No gorges, mountains, volcanoes and the like – the countryside is cyclist sized rather than dramatic and monumental. Few massive tourist attractions (Carnac and Mont-St-Michel excluded). Hotels limited to small and 'homely' in all but the few large towns and the most touristy areas of the coast. Tourist season very short so that even in June or September many areas 'dead' (good or bad thing?) with campsites etc closed. Some coastal areas can be busy in the last week of July/first 2 weeks of August. Inland few speak English (though they'll love to try and the area is very friendly). Lovely place for a first tour in France.
More detail on Brittany here
For - mainly rural and good network of lanes. Near the coast some areas are fairly flat, but the 'Swiss Normande' is very hilly though probably the most beautiful part of the area. Full of wonderful cheese, and like Brittany good honest cooking. But probably the most history packed area of France. The D-day beaches and area are good cycling and heart-wrenching – Bayeux excellent, and overall 1000 years of the most intense historical landscape in France. Very easy to get to from the UK. Weather moderate, but often very open countryside can give problems with headwinds. Lovely place for a first tour in France.
Against - Sort of 'Brittany lite' in that it doesn't have quite the countryside (far fewer trees), or the coast, or the moors, or the variety and the village 'life' is less. Less varied and just (whisper it) a bit boring in comparison. Farming more intense in many areas and somehow a little 'bleak'. Coast mostly rather characterless and frequently windswept. Several 'industrialised' ports, large roads and conurbations which are best avoided.
For – Stunning mountains. Of all the areas of France this is the best for mountainclimbing. A chain that you can cycle along and do all the major peaks. Mountains often green, forested and mostly quiet climbing. Inbetween each col there is a village/town, campsite, B&B's etc so taking the classic route is easy. Good food, great cheese little wine;-) Best split to do the East and Western ends unless you are very fit and/or have lots of time. Fabulous wildlife (especially birds-of-prey) – magic. Weather 'mountainous' i.e. you can get snow in August or T-shirt weather in January – be sensible – be prepared, but as a narrow chain the mountains are easy to escape into their wonderful foothills (see Ger). Fly to Biarritz, Toulouse or Carcasonne.
Against – They are mountains what do you expect? Some climbs blighted by campervans (Tormalet for example). Some scarring from ski resorts, but very few. Not for beginners, but doable by any regular cyclist. Can be very, very hot in summer beware. But overall – DO IT!
For - A huge area and a 'massif' rather than a chain like the Pyrenees so you can only do a small part of it. Very dramatic – even more so than the Pyrenees – but perhaps slightly easier. Some areas (Mont-Blanc Massif) almost Himalayan in their aspect. Weather as Pyrenees but much more so.
Against – been a tourist area for 100 years and it shows. Can be very busy and often expensive, many mountains horribly scarred by ski resorts and the resorts themselves hideous. Choose areas as far from the beaten track as possible. Can be tricky finding food etc out of tourist areas and population density frequently low.
For – another massive area and with some of the most dramatic scenery in France. Gorges, massive forests, pretty mountains, mighty rivers etc. Many beautiful roads and generally very quiet with few industrialised areas and those areas that are 'tourist traps' are large and spread out so never too crowded. Summer season blends into a winter walking/ski season so in many areas the campsites are open all year. Good place for high season touring because generally not too hot and frequently lots of cover. Food excellent if you like 'heavy' cuisine – lots of cheese and prepared meats.
Against – pretty serious cycling – both hilly, and out of tourist areas distances between 'watering' holes can be large. BIG country so you can be cycling in similar countryside (e.g. forest) all day. Lowish population density doesn't help.
For – In the foothills of the Western Pyrenees, both BIG country – huge rolling hills, huge vistas but much more open and less forested than the Auvergne. Low population density so quiet roads and essentially undiscovered as a tourist area. Red roofs and cracked limewash walls make it classically southern France and the Basque area adds a distinctive 'national' feel. Lovely food getting slightly 'Mediterranean' – towns often with wide squares surrounded with shops and bars. Can be very hot and dusty in summer and both cold and windy later on.
Against – low population density means you need to get kms under your belt to go from town to town. Generally pretty serious cycling, not as mountainous as the Auvergne, but long and frequently steep hills. Little shade from the extremes of sun and wind that can occur...
For – Classic destination for the Brit. Often beautiful, almost idealised British countryside – real picture postcard stuff of small fields, woods and gentle valleys. Population density high enough to support village and market towns and some of the best food in France. Lots of vineyards – frequently small so worth visiting. Fruit on the trees and confit de canard almost worth coming for alone;-)
Against – The Brits. They are everywhere and every bar seems to have a couple of English of a 'certain age' propping up the bar and pretending not to be alcoholics whilst complaining about immigrants. Can be hilly but countryside would be the lesser without them.
For – Very varied and wonderful. Some mountainclimbing but from Lyon you can run a stunning tour looping down one side of the Rhone and back the other, with the challenge of the Ventoux at the mid point. Gorges, tunnels, rivers, lakes, mountains dominate what is mostly limestone country. Frequently dry and 'burnt' rather than green but beautiful. Lowish population density means very quiet roads and the feeling of space that goes with it. Few tourist traps. Food and wine OK but nothing exceptional.
Against – serious country – hilly and you need to be able to do 40+ kms with ease to run stops together. Can be hot and exposed.
For – Probably the no1. destination for cyclists in France. Excellent marked cyclepaths and the Loire itself majestic. The rollcall of 'sites' trips off the tongue – Saumur, Chinon, Chenonceau, Langeais. Lots of history (pick the 'real' castles rather than the Disney ones), very well organised tourist industry and just a step back from the Loire is the wine industry. Masses of available accommodation in the tourist areas and no problem finding places to eat or buy food. Good climate. Countryside away from the main Loire area can be pretty and relatively quiet though agriculture, both arable and vineyards, is quite intensive.
Against – It's a tourist trap. Albeit well done as only the French do, in season it is crawling with tourists mostly non-French. June or September are acceptable - the rest hatefull. The attraction of the chateaux can wane especially when you realise that many – rather than being of historic value – were merely the holiday homes of the obscenely rich and are little more than pretty shells nowadays. Out of that melee the countryside is OK but nothing special and the tourist concentration seems to have sucked the life from the surrounding areas with empty villages and small towns. The further you get from the main drag the better. Can be fiercely hot in summer and little cover.
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