CYCLING SCENIC VELOSCENIC: PART TWO
‘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.
Steve Dyster’s pleasures include all three, so, having spent two days getting from Paris to Thiron Gardais, he was very much looking forward to the next three. His gravel-style drop-barred tourer form Fontainebleau Bike Hire was running beautifully, so he all he had to was turn the pedals and enjoy the ride.
Le Perche was a medieval county that existed as a political entity until the reforms of the French Revolution. Today, it spreads across the borders of several modern Departments, but the locals still think of Le Perche. I don’t blame them. The scenery is lovely, changing with each fold in the landscape, filled with pretty villages, sturdy farms, and welcoming towns.
I’d spent a happy evening in Thiron Gardais, a small town with some pretty corners. The official route takes these in, so don’t be tempted to cut the corner. Mind you, there’s a very warming climb after a kilometre or so, especially if you went for the third croissant during petit dejeuner.
The next few miles were enchanting; light mist slowly lifting as the sun warmed the early autumn air. A perfectly signed route along silent roads; ideal for just turning those pedals and filling the lungs. That’s what I call cycling.
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 sights to see and attractions to visit.
For the route and file download links go to 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, 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”.
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.
Along the Huisne
The rural miles end and we return to something more urban, but not too much. Nogent le Rotrou was the capital of Le Perche and your arrival is confirmed by the Chateau de St. Jean. On a sunny day it almost sparkles. Take a walk around the grounds, and admire. Inside, where the Counts of Le Perche once held court, you’ll find a museum and exhibitions.
The town spreads out below the castle. The main square is just off the route, and business seemed to be thriving in shops and cafes. Nogent le Rotrou is not a large town, and you are soon pedalling out of it along the valley of the River Huisne.
Condeau is a pretty village in its own right, but it is also the start of a recommended diversion to Villeray. Climb a short hill and you find yourself in a chocolate-box hamlet, full of typical Percheron buildings: rich stone crept over by wisteria and its relatives. The road descends steeply to an old mill, now a restaurant.
It is easy enough to find your way to the main route form here, but purists will turn back and follow the route to the start of the Voie Verte at Condé-sur-Huisne. There’s a handy railway station at Condé. Trains are not frequent, but I met two cyclists who had accessed the route by bike and train.
Traffic Free on the Grand Scale
Old railway lines can be depressingly enclosed in cuttings and so on. This one is not. Especially on the section before Mortagne-en-Perche, there are glimpses of farms, the little River Huisne, and peaceful countryside. It was not always thus; as information boards point out, the area had everything needed for industry – charcoal, ore, water.
The surface is hard-packed and very good. Moreover, were it not for a section needing repair, you’d get pretty much forty miles of traffic-free travel. Villages are signed at road-crossings, but don’t expect all to have a café in the shade of the Church. Check the website or the guidebook.
It is all entertaining enough, and great for rapid progress. If you get railway-track-fever, take a short diversion – it won’t be as direct, though. Don’t miss La Maison Ferré – a cider farm.
A very small sign points into an orchard through a gap in the hedge and you have to follow a grassy track. Have faith, there is a farm amongst the trees. The owner was away when I passed by – he was cycling to Mont St. Michel, or so my reliable sources said.
Needless to say, gradients are easy. I remember how contrastingly hilly things were when the diversion swept up and down and up into Mortagne-en-Perche. The town centre is off the route, in fact. There’s a cycling café by the traffic-free route, but I headed upward and onward to the market square.
There are several cafes. Needless to say, all looked enticing. Most served, amongst other goodies, ‘boudin noir.’ Fans of black pudding should aim to stay the night, or arrive during the annual festival. Add a portion of Tarte Normande, a glass of cider, and coffee, and the result was a much bigger lunch than is normal for me. This may have contributed to slower progress in the afternoon.
The old rail line comes to an end a few kilometres outside Alencon. The scenery here is of a broad plain with low hills lining the horizon. What took my eye though, was a young lady cyclist. Please do not misunderstand me, but read on. She asked the way to Alencon, and we got chatting. She wondered where the greenway had gone. There’s a short road section, before the last few kilometres into Alencon become traffic-free once again.
She was on her way to stay with friends in the city, but had cycled from Conde-sur-Huisne, pulling a trailer for her dog, carrying full camping gear, and with a front rack on which was mounted a well-sheltered cage for her cat. “Well,” she said, “you cannot abandon them.”
Alencon is not a big city, but it is a significant regional centre. The traffic-free ride comes to an end close to the station, near to a number of hotels These included mine; The Hotel des Ducs. A quiet spot on the edge of the city centre, perfect for a wander into town for dinner and a look at the attractive area around the Cathedral. Needless to say, there was a warm welcome and secure storage for my bike, as promised by the Accueil Velo scheme.
The next day offered a lot of sight-seeing, and some good climbs, in the undulating Parc Naturel Regional Normandie-Maine. It did not disappoint, but I still took time to buy some lunchtime goodies from the Saturday morning market by the grey walls of the Cathedral. The produce made a rich splash of colour against the overcast sky and the medieval walls. The sunshine came along later.
Between Alencon and Domfront you’ll find the most challenging cycling on the whole route when it comes to climbing. Don’t panic, it is fabulously rewarding, and you could overnight in the resort of Bagnoles-sur-Orne to break things up a bit.
Apart from the scenery which just delighted me, there are several charming villages, and some sights of special interest. At Carrouges, you are spoilt for choice. Even if you haven’t time for a tour of the moated chateau, at least have a wander round the grounds. Carrouges is also home to the HQ of the Parc Naturel Regional Normandie-Maine. There’s an information centre with displays about history, flora, fauna, and human habitation in this rugged, forested region. It certainly tempts one to return for an exploration in depth.
When a business displays a the Accueil Velo logo, it means that you’ll be in for a warm welcome sympathetic to the needs of cyclists. Fundamentally, it’s 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.
It is not long before you find yourself in the woods. All very pleasant – and, in my case, sheltered from the headwind. Time for contemplative rumbles up the gradients and concentration on speedy freewheels.
Bagnoles-de-l'Orne gathers itself around a lake in a clearing. Chock-full of hotels, it is a Fin-de-Siecle resort, complete with casino. For me, it was a spot for lunch, and a very attractive one.
Back to the woods
Not as busy as threatened, a long, straight climb leaves Bagnoles-de-l'Orne, returning you to the forest. Eventually, traffic free paths head downward, before a final ramp-up brings you to the spur on which stands the old town of Domfront. More modern development spreads around the slopes, but the route takes you straight into the timber-framed centre: the welcoming Bar Normande seems to sit in the middle of the road, featuring on many a publicity photo. At the far end are the remains of a castle. You’ll soon work out its importance, when you look at the view. The hills do not stop at Domfront, but they sure give that impression.
There has been a castle here well before the Norman invasion of England. Frequently fought over by the Duke of Normandy, the Count of Anjou and their various vassals, it was in the possession of the Kings of England (who were often either, or both, Dukes and Counts) for most of its military life. Undefeated, it was destroyed as part of the treaty that ended the Hundred Years War. Have a wander.
Another reason for tarrying in Domfront, is that it is the centre of Poire (Perry) manufacture. Tastings and sales, are, needless to say, available, but check for opening times. If not, you’ll just have to visit a bar to try some. Cycling can be tough.
Lodgings for the night were, for me, at Belle Vallee Maison d’Hotes a couple of kilometres out of town. Hidden away in a valley, there was absolute peace and quiet. The house and annexes are owned by Victoria and Richard Hobson Cossey, an English couple, now happily ensconced in rural Normandy. “We get a lot of cyclists now. Often solo riders, but sometimes groups. When we get couples, one is often riding an e.bike and the other a normal one,” Richard told me. I can understand why, after a day from Alencon!
Traffic free former rail track takes you all the way from Domfront to the Bay of St. Michel. Given the head wind and the driving rain, I got my head down and went for it. Fortunately, I’d seen some of the sights on a previous visit.
Amongst these, Mortain is not only a pleasant town, but has the famous cascades. It is a little off the route, just follow the signs for the Tour de Manche. Most of the towns are a little off-route, even if only a short diversion. St. Hilaire du Harcouet and Ducey are both worth a look, if you have time.
As you’d expect, the going is not difficult. Even when a sign warned of “Attaques des Buses” things passed off without incident. Google translate stated “Nose attacks” although I suspect it was to do with birds protecting their nests or territory.
Around the Bay
The old rail line ends at the bay, amidst old bridges and the smell of the sea. Salt marsh stretches away and the breeze whistles, although the sun may shine, too. I’d cycled the sweep inland before, so decided to keep close to the coast. Mind you, I bet it could be a busy road in the high season.
The big advantage of following this road is the plethora of hotels, restaurants, gites, and general holiday facilities. Most claim some kind of link to or view of Mont St. Michel, and are more or less optimistic. Sooner or later, you’ll see the real thing.
End of the Road
Veloscenic officially terminates at Mont St. Michel. However, technically bicycles should not be ridden up to the tidal-island. A few wrong-doers clearly succeeded in reaching the historic site, but I ditched the bike at the Hotel Relais du Roy. The mass of tourists, require masses of hotels and restaurants. Mine was one of a group about two kilometres away from the island. There’s a free bus, which runs really late into the night, that will take you to the causeway.
Remembering that access involves a tidal causeway (closed or around two to three hours each high tide), and told that the strong north-westerly would enhance the tidal bore, I walked across and took position on the ramparts to observe nature at its best.
Show over, I ate at the legendary Mere Poulard, long-time provider of renowned omelettes (amongst other offerings) to day-trippers and a host of illustrious folk: waiting for you omelette work your way round the walls and decipher the signatures. Bear in mind, that Mont St. Michel brings a price-premium par-excellence to anything you buy to eat or drink.
Mind you, it was a great to explore the fortress-monastery in the dark, as the tide slowly withdrew and the crowd watched as impatient travellers found that the waves had not retired as far as they thought.
Back to Paris?
I’d arranged to meet Yannick back in Paris, to hand over the bike. Having enjoyed riding it so much, I half wanted to risk heading for St. Malo for the ferry home in the vain hope that my hosts would just have forgotten who I was. If I’d been on my own bike and was returning to the UK, I think it is an option I’d seriously consider.
As it was, I took train from Pontorson to Rennes, for a connection to Paris Montparnasse. Check times and booking requirements. I’ll not go into detail about the ride back across Paris. It was the day of the funeral of former President Chirac. South of the Seine, the traffic was held back as the security guards waved me through. Terrorists, it seems, do not arrive by bicycle.
That will provide me with vivid recollection, but even without it, I’ll carry images of Veloscenic in my memory for many years. I really enjoyed the ride. Scenic, often very; full of variety; lots to see; a great introduction to cycling in northern France.
Steve got a bike from Fontainebleau Bike Rental .
In Alencon, Steve stayed at the Hotel des Ducs .
In Domfront, or rather just outside, a peaceful night was spent at Belle Vallee Maison d’Hotes .
The final night of the trip, at Mont St. Michel, was spent at the Hotel le Relais du Roy (Extramuros).
PUBLISHED JANUARY 2020
….. take time to enjoy the scenery of Le Perche. The suggested detour to Villeray is top-notch, whether you retrace your steps or cut the corner to re-join Veloscenic.
As a student of the middle-ages, he’d not miss the Chateau St. Jean, Nogent le Rotrou, or the heart of Alencon. Don’t overdo it, but Maison Ferre offers Cidre Artisanale .
Should you stay at the Hotel des Ducs, please take care not to tread of the very amiable, but very large, dog which takes up much of the floor space in reception.
If you stay in Alencon, Carrouges is an obvious spot for a stop. The Chateau is beautiful – don’t miss it by mistaking the gatehouse for the entirety. The bigger local picture can be found in the Regional Park Centre, just before the Chateau is reached.
Do set time aside to explore Domfront, or just sit about in it. The castle grounds are spectacularly situated, but the two contrasting Churches are very interesting, too.
On the way to Mont St. Michel, Steve was aiming to beat the bad weather, so missed the Poire Museum in Barenton.
The Chateau de Montgommery, where he’d been before, is spectacular and a must for fans of grand stately homes. The Montgommery family played a very important part in the history of France.
On the inland sweep, which Steve ignored, is a remarkable World War II Cemetery. The Mont des Huisnes contains the bodies of German war dead, assembled from many different parts of France.
Then, of course, there’s the Mont itself …. the location, the bore, the treacherous sands of the bay, the monastery, the fortress, the history …..