CYCLING SCENIC VELOSCENIC: PART ONE
‘Iconic’ is overdone these days, but, in the cases of Notre Dame de Paris and Mont St. Michel, it is thoroughly justified. Veloscenic links them with 281 miles (435.5 km) of cycling enjoyment whether your pleasure be scenery, cidre, or something else.
Setting off from the heart of Paris, crossing the Haute Chevreuse, spending time along the River Eure, rolling through Le Perche and into the Park Naturel Maine et Normandie, the route ends at the “Merveille” that is Mont St. Michel. Magnificent historical sites are linked by quiet roads and long greenways, passing the chateau of the aristocrat, the farmhouse of the yeoman, and the cottage of the paysanne, not to mention lots of cafes serving local food and drink. Seven Day Cyclist’s own paysanne en velo, Steve Dyster, has been to ride Veloscenic.
First thing for a bike trip is a bike. Yannick Oven, from Fontainebleau Bike Rental met me at the Gare du Nord. We’d exchanged emails and he’d set the machine up perfectly. I’d gone for a road/gravel bike in preference to a hybrid. Yannnick had got me running around with the tape measure before the trip, confirming size, and other features. Well worth the fuss. I could not have found a more comfortable ride: or a more amiable fellow.
Flared drop-handlebars, disc brakes, 700x32 gravel-type tyres, proved just the thing for greenway jaunts and smooth tarmac alike. He’d have set a hybrid up just as well, I’m sure. Although he claimed not to race much anymore, Yannick looks to be a bit of a speedster. “Many people like to start their ride outside Paris, at Massy or Rambouillet. I think Fontainebleau is the only bike rental business that delivers to the heart of Paris.” There are several other bike rental companies listed in the guide and on the Veloscenic website. Others will deliver to central Paris. Coming from farther afield, prices are competitive for groups of eight or more.
Paris or not to Paris?
Cycling through the heart of Paris is not what it used to be in the nineties, fortunately. There’s been a lot of investment in infrastructure, matching the city’s desire to become a capital of cycling. Parisian cyclists – who know where they are going – must find newbies like me a bit of a pest as we get used to the ins-and-outs of capital city cycling French-style. The good news is that, once the initial green light motorised grand prix has juddered to a crawl a few metres after the start, the cars move pretty sedately. The real anarchists are the courier and take-away delivery fraternity, motorised or pedal-powered. Contraflow cycling features heavily in the narrow, tourist-filled streets – some a bit narrow; cycle lanes accompany the broader boulevards.
Veloscenic’s official start was out of bounds, following the fire at Notre Dame, though the destruction and rebuilding has done little to reduce the throng of tourists. Within a short distance, Veloscenic runs past numerous tourist attractions – not to mention those further afield. I can understand why a pre-trip day in Paris followed by a train ride to the suburbs would be attractive.
Mind you, a little beyond Montparnasse, the Coulee Verte extracts the cyclist, almost traffic-free, from the city. This linear park is not just pleasantly functional. Just off the route is the Domaine de Sceaux, for example, with its parkland and formal gardens surrounding a stately house, attracting visitors and locals alike
The Coulee Verte ends on the outskirts of Massy, a functional Parisian satellite town, with cafes amongst the office-blocks. Those eager to avoid encountering Parisian traffic might make good use of Massy’s railway station.
A decision must be made at Massy. A fully-developed and signed northern route goes to Rambouillet via the Palace of Versailles. The southern, slightly shorter Limours option, is not fully-developed or signed (at the time of writing), but takes in quieter, pretty countryside, before meeting the ‘northern line’ just before Rambouillet.
I went of the latter. Surprisingly, little traffic seemed to be on the roads stretching to Orsay, through what felt like commuter orientated towns that merged and mingled. Imperceptibly, the landscape began to roll, before it became obvious that one was entering hilly countryside.
Into the country
The route twists and turns a bit, making the GPS really useful. Climbing from Orsay, a rather optimistic cycle route sign pointed into a forest. The surface was decent enough, although the exact route wasn’t. A couple of sections tested the technical skills, but that could be because I’d strayed off the main drag.
The highlight along this old railway line was the view from the Viaduct des Fauvettes. Typical Haute Chevreuse scenery, with steeply wooded slopes rising above the rooftops. Again, a slight self-inflicted detour near Gometz-le-Ville added no more than a few metres to the journey, before picking up a long section of greenway.
Another former railway line, this was rejuvenated in the nineteen-sixties as a test track for the first Maglev train. Although it never really got off the ground, so to speak, at a speed worth travelling at, it set the tone for more successful attempts in the future. Stubs of concrete piers run down the centre of the line – cut flush to the surface.
Through pleasant countryside, with a good look over Limours, the greenway gives way to quiet roads. If you are after a café, you need to get off the route and head into Limours or St. Arnoult. It would be great if café owners put signs to point the way – with opening times, too.
After the greenway, the little country lanes that turned and switched across small streams running amongst copses made a nice change. Yvelines is neat country, with lots of horses. A short diversion at Longvilliers gets you to the gem in the diadem – Rochefort-en-Yvelines. Cafes aplenty are set amongst old buildings that sweetly merge into the countryside around. Yvelines may not be on the first page of English-language guides to France, but I’d not miss it out by starting at Rambouillet – and there are tourist sites as well as charming countryside.
For stocking up, I used the supermarket on the outskirts of St. Arnoult. A bit beyond it, Veloscenic took a left onto a forest track. These tracks are not uncommon, adding a bit of rough-stuff to the fun while taking you closer to nature. Just keep an eye out for sand-filled dips, especially if gathering speed. It is not difficult to find a road alternative, if you prefer.
Approaching Rambouillet through Espace Rambouillet, along wooded lake-side cycle tracks, before hitting the road, marked a fitting end to a day. Lucky Rambouillet, also boasts a similarly charming exit. In between is a bustling town for a pleasant evening or to stock up in the shops. With the former in mind, I headed to the Relays du Chateau, quietly situated opposite the town hall at the end of one of the shopping streets.
The great and the humble
I like to make a good start of a morning, but the Domaine de Rambouillet – the chateau gardens and park – made for a slow departure. Even under the eaves of a flat, grey sky, the cleverly designed waterways and vistas of buildings and statuary drew the attention away from a faster cadence. Then there’s the farm where Marie-Antoinette enjoyed her version of the simple life, not to mention a ‘shell house.’
For me it was away into the gentle countryside of the little valley of the Drouette. I’d a plan for the day, with lots to see. Epernon would have merited more time, but drizzle invited pushing-on. Likewise, the Chateau de Maintenon, from whence Madam de Maintenon exercised her charms with such success that she became a powerful political figure at the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV.
Water-associated features became prominent on the ride. A chance halt to read an information board by a narrow bridge on the outskirts of Hanches caused me to look over my shoulder. There was a long, low shed by the river. Open along the front, with a board, inclined away from the decking, running the full length. This was the Lavoir Municipal. I spotted several more during the day. Veloscenic was in danger of becoming ‘Velolavoir.’
On a vastly grander scale, an aqueduct, left half-built by Louis XIV, arches above the route near the Chateau de Maintenon, like a roofless cathedral. Vaulting above the road and marching away on a stone-faced embankment, it is a magnificent sight to see. The contrast to the functional, newer, humble lavoir was total.
My big plan for the day – and the reason for sacrificing Maintenon’s chateau, was to have a couple, of hours in the medieval city of Chartres. The route to the city follows roads, then greenway, more or less close to the River Eure. Many were barred to traffic for some major project or other, but workmen happily waved me through. In my experience, ‘route baree’ is not applied to pedestrians and cyclists: unless circumstances are exceptional, it is worth having a go.
Combine the main features of the English cities of York and Lincoln, and you have some idea of Chartres. The over-sized cathedral stands on a hilltop – it is a World Heritage site – surrounded by squares and narrow medieval streets. Tourists wander about, so there are bars and cafes aplenty. Down in the lower town, where even narrower streets take their names from medieval trades and the Eure splits into two, is quieter, occasional views give you some idea of the grandeur of the cathedral.
Veloscenic runs through the lower town, leaving Chartres on a path that draws slowly away from the river to commence the crossing of open farmland to Fontenay-sur-Eure. It became clear that a headwind was strengthening. By the time I headed out of the village, I knew the miles to Illiers-Combray would be tough.
Ambush and the Dance of Death
The first sign of this was the emergence of three piratically dark shapes from the roadside ahead. An ambush! They trundled toward me menacingly, until I noticed they were commercial-sized wheelie bins set adrift by the wind. I lay my bike down and went to halt them, but was beaten to it by a spritely gentleman who dragged them home as he called out unnecessary apologies.
Really hardcore mile-eaters say that when things are tough, focus on lots of little targets; ten turns of the pedals, the gate five metres ahead etc. Attempting to adopt this approach, I couldn’t help thinking that a visit to the church at Meslay-le-Grenet might help.
In this rural church is a very fine fifteenth century Dance of Death. You know the sort of thing. Wraith-like Death leads poor and rich dancing hand-in-hand toward their inevitable doom. Given the headwind, I thought it might have put the headwind in perspective.
In search of lost energy
More corporeal relief took the form a welcoming supermarket on the edge of Illiers-Combray. The ‘Combray’ is a recent addition, celebrating close associations with the famous novelist, Marcel Proust, who spent his childhood summers
When a business displays the Accueil Velo logo, it means that you’ll be in for a warm welcome sympathetic to the needs of cyclists. Fundamentally, it is the national endorsement from
France Velo Tourisme for businesses. It applies to accommodation, restaurants, tourist offices, bike businesses, and visitor attractions. Think German Bett + Bike.
Businesses must be within 5km of a cycle route; have “adapted equipment” e.g. secure storage, repair kit; offer a warm welcome and information, offer services useful for cyclists, e.g. laundry facilities, bike rental, bike cleaning.
there and incorporated it in “A la Recherche de Temps Perdu.” You can visit sites associated with him and his relatives. There’s also a very neat lavoir en route, too.
Even better, the route swerved north, creating a side-occasional-tail-wind. Moreover, the broad agricultural plateau gave way to a mixture of woodland, pasture, and twists and turns crossing small valleys. Fiery bracken shone along the banks, shaded by broad-leaved trees still in full leaf. All making a fine wind-break and boosting the spirits.
Nor was the beauty purely natural. Entering Frazes past a neat little lavoir, I was totally unprepared for the glorious, multi-towered chateau and vast church. A real hidden gem to be found at the top of the high street.
More lovely woodland led to a pause in the heart of little Croix du Perche. The old County of Le Perche has no official status, but is very recognisable by its architecture and landscape. A personal favourite, it is an area to which I shall return.
The day finished at Thiron Gardais, a small town, with an ancient abbey, a lake, and handful of shops. At the heart of the town is the Hotel de l’Abbaye. The owner stowed my bike in a locked storeroom at the back, and I settled in for the night. Very nicely, the vegetables for the evening meal were just being brought in by the chef. Very tasty they were, too.
To be continued
….. amongst all that is on offer …. The Domaine de Sceaux, for some post Paris relaxation ….. lunch or overnight stay in Rochefort en Yvelines for a break in picturesque surroundings…….. joint the locals for a wander round the Espace Rambouillet, keeping an eye out for the incredibly varied wildlife.
You can’t miss the aqueduct at Maintenon, but if you have time, take in the Chateau. You really must not miss Chartres with its fabulous Cathedral and medieval setting; World Heritage Sites are not two-a-penny …. If you get the chance, refresh yourself with a beer from the L’Eurelienne Brewery in one of the bars.
I did not expect the Pre-Catalan Garden at Illiers-Combray to be my cup of tea, but even an old geezer on a bike can live and learn.
Riding in Le Perche was a pleasure … with Frazé a wonderful surprise.
Steve was sad to miss out on the restored Military School and English Gardens, at Thiron Gardais. Although he was pleased to meet a multi-coloured cow in the garden of the hotel. On first acquaintance, Thiron Gardais looks like a work-a-day little place, but has some very pretty corners … so follow the route, despite a very sharp climb!
Covering 285 miles of the best bits of the Ile de France, Centre Val de Loire, and Normandy, Veloscenic passes through great countryside close to a whole host of f attractions.
For the route and file download links go www.veloscenic.com .
More about each region can be found at Hauts de Seine Tourism and Yvelines Tourism for the section from The outskirts of Paris to around Rambouillet. The Eure valley, including Chartres is dealt with at Eure et Loir Tourism . Beyond there you need Orne Tourism and, finally, for all the detail on the final destination, The Mont Saint Michel Tourist Office.
Of course, there’s the guide book, too. Read our review of Richard Peace’s “Veloscenic” here.
The trip was hosted by www.veloscenic.com and the local tourist boards, who paid for return travel between London and Paris, one way travel from Pontorson to Paris, bike hire, and half-board accommodation.
PUBLISHED DECEMBER 2019