Cycling in Brittany July 2004

In 2004 we decided to go cycle camping in Brittany.  Our previous experience of cycle camping was limited, but I had unhappy memories of a heavily loaded  bicycle that was both heavy to pedal and suffered from the dreaded low speed shimmy. In order to get around the second of those two problems we invested in a BOB trailer, a single wheel device that costs rather a lot of pennies, but which is excellently designed and made. We now feel obliged to use it for shopping in order to get a return on our investment! This beast tracks happily behind the bicycle; you wouldn't  know it's there were it not for the extra drag on the hills. The capacious and water resistant bag will hold your tent, sleeping bags, mats, and small pillows. It's probably waterproof but we put our precious sleeping gear into plastic sacks to ensure it arrived dry.

Bob trailer

We drove down to a relative's house who lives nearby and cycled over to Gosport in order to catch the Brittany Ferries service from Portsmouth to St Malo. The provision of cycle infrastructure is good in Gosport but we were not at all impressed by Portsmouth in that regard - the marked cycle routes end abruptly, or seem to direct you into four-lane speedways.

This overnight ferry crossing is very convenient, but is rather expensive, particularly as you have to pay extra for the bikes. We were impressed by the friendliness and helpfulness of the French crew, but struggled to understand the heavily accented announcements over the PA system. Be warned, they do allow smoking in public spaces onboard.

Arriving at St Malo the sun was shining and the place had a magical look to it with the green topped cliffs and numerous small islands that are characteristic of the area.


Arrival in St Malo

Leaving St Malo

Cycling south out of St Malo, the most direct route heads across a barrier over the river Rance. Now the barrier is a very interesting bit of kit, as beneath the surface are 24 bi-directional turbines that are driven by the tides,  generating a substantial amount of electricity, but the road over the barrier is a heavily used dual carriageway and is a tad scary for cycling. We did cycle over the barrier on four occasions and suffered no ill effects, other than  frayed nerves, but it is better avoided if you can.

Most cycling guides refer you to the scenic route alongside the Rance estuary, using the D12 to Dinan. There are lovely views of the river from the road, but it is a series of climbs and descents and the road can be busy. It takes a good hour to reach Dinan by this route.

Late during our holiday we did discover that there is an alternative route which avoids the barrier crossing and other traffic, possibly takes less time, but reveals less of the landscape.  They have converted an old railway line into a cycle track and this track runs from Dinard (over the estuary from St Malo) to within five kilometres of Dinan. You can take a small ferry over to Dinard from St Malo and then pick up this route. It has an unsealed surface, but we found it perfectly acceptable for touring bikes. There were no signs at any point along the route advertising its presence or stating where it went, if you don't know it's there you are unlikely to find it. The best guide I can give is to say that the Station Hotel (Hotel de la Gare) is adjacent to the start of the track which emerges from the site of the old station and goods yard, a derelict mess and car park in 2004. It is midway between Dinard and St Enotat, two blocks behind the coast. (Again, for those  travelling south of Dinan, there is a better surfaced path between Mauron and just south of Ploermel - see later. If the separate stretches could be joined, it would provide a fantastic bike freeway into southern Brittany). Most tourist offices seem unaware of these paths. 

Path to Dinan

The path ends at St Samson, where somebody has bought the old station building and converted it into a rather nice house.

St Samson

Cycling on the Roads

Cycling on French roads provides a mixture of experiences. The busy trunk roads should be avoided (all of the N and the more important D roads), as they carry a heavy load of fast traffic. D roads range from the idyllic to the distinctly unpleasant, but sometimes there is no alternative. On occasion you find yourself on a D road constructed to the standard of a single carriageway UK A road, but hardly any traffic.

We used maps from the TOP100 series, and they show the relative importance of the D roads by means of the colour and width of the strip representing the road. The more important roads are shown in yellow, with the minor roads as an unfilled pair of lines. Generally speaking most of the roads adjacent to the the busy holiday centres, and particularly around the coast, where there might be few alternatives, are busy, but get inland and on to the roads that are not coloured and you hardly see a car. The TOP100 maps are a bit disappointing when it comes to navigating through the warren of smaller lanes in the country areas, as many of the lanes are not marked.

Signage is a whole lot better than I remember from previous trips to France, but still not up to UK standards. In some rural areas they use signs that show maps to indicate all of the destinations in a certain direction, and you should sketch the map if you need to get to one of the locations on there.

Most French motorists are much more considerate towards cyclists than those in the UK. You often hear them changing down through the gears as they approach from behind and then wait until they can safely overtake by straddling the middle of the road. If you do get your panniers skimmed, chances are that the pillock behind the wheel will be driving a car with GB plates.

The great majority of vehicles on French roads are diesel powered as diesel is significantly cheaper than petrol there. This results in a nasty diesel smog on hill climbs, just when you could do without it. I grew to hate the smell of partially burnt diesel!

The best time to cycle is between 12 and 2 when people are taking lunch and the roads are quieter. There is hardly any commercial traffic at weekends.

Brittany is hilly but not mountainous. We encountered a lot of long drags, but nothing that we could not get up using bottom gear. The small chain wheel on the bike did a lot of work! In the vicinity of the coast, particularly around Erquy to the west of St Malo, there is a relatively flat plain inland, but the roads leading down to the coast are steeply inclined. The craggy coastline means that there are few roads skirting the shore, in order to get from A to B you have to climb away from the coast, cycle around to a location above the next town, and then drop back down again to the coast.

Camping in Brittany

This is a holiday area and has been for many years so there is a well established infrastructure catering for the tourist. Most of the towns have a camp site or two. They vary greatly in terms of the facilities provided and the fees charged.

At one end of the scale are the Camping Municipal sites which are run by the local councils. Those in remote areas can be very cheap, costing about 4 euros per night for two persons, but providing clean, if basic, facilities. Indeed all of the sites we visited had commendably clean and well maintained toilets and showers.  The camping municipal sites are not always staffed, you might have to rent your pitch from somebody at the town hall (Mairie), but somebody comes to inspect the site possibly twice per day, while the facilities are cleaned at least daily. Shower temperatures are cunningly set to be just above the minimum tolerable level at most sites, but one larger municipal site we used had good hot showers.

At the other extreme, the large commercial sites on the coast with a swimming pool, shop, restaurant, bar etc, charge up to 20 euros per night. We looked at a few of these sites but did not like the large concentration of caravans, camper vans and tents, not to mention the swarms of kids!  These are no doubt ideal for a family holiday but we've got the T shirts on that one and now prefer more peaceful surroundings. The most expensive site we stayed at cost 14 euros per night, while we paid between between around 4 and 9 euros elsewhere.

When we camped at the municipal site at St Meens we were the only people staying that night - spooky!

Our Itinerary

The master plan involved cycling south across country to Carnac, as a colleague at work had insisted that we visit that city. Accordingly on our first day we headed south and got as far as St Meen le Grande, a distance of about 45 miles. That day the sun shone and it was pleasantly hot. That night the rains began and continued during the following day. There was a serious amount of water coming down, and we cringed in our tent wondering what to do. Eventually we were persuaded by the relatively warm conditions that we should break camp and head further south. As we were the only people on the site, we were able to monopolise the toilet block for the purposes of drying the tent, despite the rain. The photo below gives some idea of the conditions!

Sheltering in toilet block

Having loaded the bikes we struggled against strong winds and driving rain, not to mention some fairly long and arduous climbs, to Josselin, a distance of about 30 miles. We were able to find a suitable pitch at the Bas De Lande camp site near to the river and not far from the centre of the town. That night the winds increased in their fury rendering sleep difficult for the noise of driving rain. The next day we emerged to observe a tree blown down on top of a camper van  two pitches along from ours. Clearly the gods were being kind to us, had it fallen on our tent.......

Fallen Tree

Fortunately no one was hurt and the damage to the van minimal. The Norwegian occupants slept through the whole thing, only discovering the tree the following morning!

During the rather painful journey against the weather to Josselin my right knee started to give trouble. I can normally cycle all day without bother, but the extra load of the trailer, coupled with the adverse weather conditions, was just too much. We therefore took the decision to halt our southwards progress, and give my knee a rest by exploring the area around Josselin with unladen bikes, and then to cycle back up north to find bases in that area for further exploration.

Josselin is an attractive town with a very imposing castle by the river Rance.

Josselin

You might just be able to make out a lock to the right of the weir, the river is navigable, being used by the Canal de Nantes a Brest.

There is a useful path running along the river bank in both directions from Josselin. I guess that it is used to maintain the locks along the route, but it is very good for cycling. We used this path to visit Rohan, a round trip of about 25 miles. I have discovered that one of the least reliable pieces of cycling equipment is a computer, having consumed a number of these devices over the years. True to form, the torrential rain over the last couple of days caused it to pack up.

Rance Path

The weather remained miserable, but there were some dramatic scenes of light and dark.

Light and dark

We discovered a great Italian restaurant in Josselin, which was just as well as the inclement conditions made us disinclined to cook. Boringly enough we ate there on three consecutive nights, but the food was plentiful and beautifully prepared, while the prices were very reasonable at about 33 euros for two, including wine.

On the following day we cycled along the D724 to Ploermel, a round trip of perhaps 25 miles. This apparently major road was empty of traffic, perhaps because the N24 provides a more direct and speedier alternative. The market was on in that town, a typical French country market full of colour and interesting aromas. There was also a visiting circus, with a variety of unusual animals grazing adjacent to the big top.  One thing we did observe, you can often buy stuff cheaper in the supermarkets than in the country markets.

It was in this town that we discovered our second ex railway cycle path, that which runs from Questembert to Mauron. This path is a very posh affair having a smooth tarmac surface, elegant clear signs and comfy seats, presumably having benefited from lots of EEC grant aid.

Posh railway path

I do appreciate being able to ride without the noise and stench of motorised vehicles, while the gentle gradients make for easy cycling, but you miss the variety of landscapes that the roads provide. We decided to use the railway route to ride as far as the river, where we picked up the canal path back to Josselin. By this means you can cycle from Josselin to
Ploermel without using roads. The photo below shows where the two paths cross, the railway route crossing the river on the bridge.

Railway river junction

A feature of the river cycle path are the gardens associated with the locks and lock keepers' cottages.

Lock keeper' cottage

Having cycled to the east and west of Josselin, we decided to head back north, and made use of the river and railway routes to get as far as Mauron, and then minor roads took us to Broons (pronounced Brun, a kind of grunting sound). The drier weather saw my cycle computer restored to full health when it recorded some 45 miles this day.

We stayed at the municipal camp site at Broons situated adjacent to the outdoor swimming pool and making use of the buildings for toilet facilities. Pitches are booked at the town hall, or you can pay the municipal policeman who visits early in the morning. It was at this site that we experienced our intruder. At about 3 in the morning I became aware that there was someone walking around the tent and disturbing the Bob bag. I made it known that I was coming out and carefully took my time to dress so that the person concerned had gone by the time I got out. We moved the bag into the tent, but had to trust our cable lock for the three vehicles. Later we heard the sounds of what appeared to be drunken youths congregating nearby,
there were two gunshots, and then they walked slowly past. It was all a bit un-nerving, but no real harm was done. This was a Saturday night, and scaring the campers might be a local pastime. If you do camp at Broons I would recommend snuggling up to another tent or caravan and keeping away from the perimeter of the site where there is a dirt road leading out into the countryside.

After our overnight stay at Broons we headed north again to the area near to Erquy on the coast, a distance of around 35 miles. We were fortunate to discover  a recently established, and almost empty, campsite near to this popular resort - the Camping de la Vallee du St Pabu. The photo below shows one view of this quiet site.

La Vallee site

There is a much larger site nearby and closer to the coast which boasts a shop and bar. We were able to buy a cooked chicken from that site, and returned to cook some potatoes and veg on our single gas ring.

Erquy

There are some very attractive bays around Erquy, including that adjacent to the Plage Saint Michel where there is the Ilot Saint Michel on which is constructed a church  - a lot smaller than its more famous namesake further east.

Saint Michel

Ilot St Michel

Just along coast from our camp site, and before the town of Erquy, is the smaller settlement called Caroual. We walked there using a cliff top path, and looked forward to a cooling beer as we approached the village. At first it seemed that we would be out of luck in this unspoiled village, but there is a single bar where we enjoyed a drink. The water temperature was surprisingly high, 15-16 degC from memory, and it was pleasant to wade along the sandy beach for a mile or so while watching paragliders float above the nearby cliffs.

The following day we cycled over to Pleneuf-val-Andre for the Tuesday market where our enjoyment of a grand cafe creme was rather spoilt by the price at 2.5 euros a cup.  We also visited the harbour at Dahouet where there is a modern marina as well as a small fishing port. There was an interesting antique shop at Dahouet.

Antique Shop

Now the colleague who had instructed me to visit Carnac also insisted that we should sample the famous Fruits de Mer or sea food platter which is a speciality of the area. Having failed to reach Carnac it was clearly imperative that we did eat some Fruits de Mer, despite the concern that it might result in some Mal de Mer. Accordingly we cycled into Erquy to try our luck with the seafood.

Fruits de Mer

The platter does look to be pretty impressive, but a lot of the space was taken up with ice and seaweed, while the amount of meat that you can extract from a small crab's claws would not be enough to feed a tiny bird.  What people see in oysters I do not know, singularly tasteless. However the Muscadet was good and we suffered no ill effects. Fruits de Mer for two, including a bottle of wine, desert and coffee came to 74.70 euros; not something to be done every day.

After a few pleasant days at the Camping de la Vallee we decided to move closer to St Malo for the final part of our holiday. By this stage we were judging campsites by the number of pitches available, the smaller the better, although this criterion was compromised to some extent by the necessity of finding a washing machine at the next camp. An establishment that appeared to meet the bill was the Camping Municipal at La Richardais some miles inland from Dinard. This  was a pleasant enough site, with a friendly supervisor whose daughter, we discovered, works in the UK. The camp was almost full however, and it appeared at first that there may have been no room available, but skilful juggling of little metal discs on the campsite map and reference to the booking register, did allow our helpful host to find us a spot. If you intend to use this site I would recommend ringing in advance of your arrival. From memory, the cost was about 7 euros per night and the distance from Erquy about 35 miles.

It being the 14th July the shops all closed at half day, so we were obliged to eat out again. We were referred to the restaurant La Petite Cale, a short walk away. We were concerned that the place was empty on our arrival, and during the time we were there only one other table became occupied,  by a Dutch family. We normally like to try to eat where the locals eat, but in this case our concern was proved to be groundless, as the meal was excellent, and much better value than the sea food place at Erquy. A three course meal for two including house wine came to 46 euros.  Presumably the French don't eat out on the 14th. That night we were kept awake by the sound of fireworks exploding all around, and then by the sound of a young child crying, presumably frightened by the noise. Despite being tired it would have made more sense to have gone out to watch the fun.

The following day we cycled to both Dinard and St Malo. Dinard is very much a beach resort, but in the old fashioned style, with rows of municipal striped tents arranged on the sands.

Dinard tents

St Malo is altogether a larger town, as well as being a commercial seaport. The attraction here is the old walled city, no doubt built to keep us Brits at bay!  Full of tourist shops and eating places, you can spend an interesting couple of hours wandering around the streets or on the city walls, but I thought  it a tad bleak with its high stone walls.  In addition there is a large supermarket just outside the town, follow signs for Rennes.


St Malo
Being an engineer, I found one of the most interesting attractions in the area to be the tidal power station that spans the Rance between St Malo and Dinard. A man made barrage controls the flow of water within the estuary and 24 large bi-directional  turbines work beneath the surface to generate something like 6% of Brittany's electricity requirements. There is a visitor centre on the Dinard side of the barrage where the workings of the system are explained and there are interactive displays demonstrating a variety of methods of generating electricity from renewable sources.

That evening an itinerant paella seller came to call at the camp site, and we each enjoyed a huge helping with both prawns and chicken, for 6 euros.

The following day started wet, which encouraged me to cycle without socks - bad move, the sun came out and burned my ankles! We followed the Rance down to Dinan. Now on our first day in Brittany we had cycled through Dinan en route south, and I got a pretty poor impression of the town as it was full of cars and we only saw the commercial area. This time we approached via the port, and what a difference! In order to ride down to the port, having followed the D12 from Dinard, you go straight on at a roundabout at Taden which has signposts to Dinan both straight on and to the right..









The city is split between the development along the river side and the remainder perched high above the valley.

Dinan Harbour 2



This is a truly beautiful place, no trip to Brittany can be without a visit to Dinan, and, of course everything looks so much nicer when the sun shines. There is a long and steep climb from the harbour area to the town, but it is well worth the effort.


Dinan HouseDinan Roof




Clock TowerDinan Clock Street


Train buffs should make a further effort to visit the interesting Art Deco station in which there is a map of the railway lines that used to serve the area. Some of them are now cycle paths.

Dinan Station


Located within the station buildings there is a small railway museum that is run by volunteer staff. There are no locomotives or rolling stock, but loads of models and railway artefacts, including some advertising posters by Dali.  There is a visitor guide written in perfect English, I suspect that an ex-pat has been involved. Finally there are videos to be seen and a collection of slides.

That night Carol insisted that we try some of the spicy sausages called Merguez, an African import. We made a ratatouille using the sausages, onion, tomatoes and sliced courgette. Washed down with a bottle of Rose and supplemented by fresh French bread it was a feast fit for a king. An excellent end to a great day.

The following day we cycled to St Briac sur Mer, but encountered quite a bit of traffic along the coastal road and decided to ride along the railway path from Dinard to St. Salmon (5 km from Dinan), see the map above! We encountered a group of three vintage French cyclists from the Pleurtuit cycling club who were happy to sit and gossip on a thoughtfully provided bench at the end of the track.

We were now approaching the end of our trip to Brittany, the following morning we were due to cycle to St Malo and catch ferry back to Portsmouth. After a spell of dryish weather, the rain gods decided to punish us and we awoke to the sound of a heavy downpour. For the second time during this holiday we had to break camp in very wet conditions, but again we were able to make use of the toilet block to at least partially dry the tent's outer skin before packing away.


A Conclusion

It had been an interesting and varied two weeks, and, despite the occasional wet conditions, the weather was always warm. One thing that we do love about France is that it is often possible to sit outside on a summer's evening and enjoy a meal or read a book in a comfortable temperature. This is rarely possible in the north east of England where we live. On the downside, we did encounter some heavy traffic at times, but there were ex railway and river paths where you could completely escape from the diesel fumes, while inland the minor roads were empty. There are parts of this coastline that are very much geared towards tourism, but nowhere do you see the brash commercialism that might be associated with certain UK or Spanish resorts, while the combination of sandy beaches, cliffs and green foliage make for some really lovely bays and inlets. Some of the towns are truly gems, with Dinan probably our favourite.

Overall a successful holiday, and we would be prepared to return to Brittany in the future.


Some Notes on Cycle Camping

We are relative newcomers to cycle camping so it is bit presumptuous of us to offer advice on this topic, but we have picked up a few tips from more experienced practitioners and we do have some real experience of camping.

Modern tents do not leak, unless they get damaged. We have suffered torrential rain and winds strong enough to bring down trees whilst camping in Poland, Germany, and France, but the tents have never let us down. The only summer weather likely to cause catastrophic damage to a tent would be a freak hail storm, but you would be very unlucky indeed to suffer that misfortune. I get a child like satisfaction from listening to the sound of gentle rain playing on the outer skin of the tent, while I am warm and snug in my sleeping bag. On other occasions we have been kept awake by the sound of a ferocious downpour drumming on the fabric, but, once you have confidence in your tent, this is not a worry.

Perhaps the most important thing is to emphasise is that you must minimise the weight that you are carrying. Every item you bring along must fully justify itself, while weight is one of the most important criteria when selecting equipment. 
Modern panniers and trailers allow you to carry a large volume of stuff, but you will not like hauling them up and down dale if the resulting load is too heavy. Inevitably there has to be compromise between utility and mass, and that compromise will be different for different people. On this holiday we decided not to move on each night, rather to make camp for a few days and explore the area; using this approach you can justify carrying rather more load.

Tents are sold according to the number of people that they will comfortably accommodate, e.g. a 2 person tent. Two people can indeed sleep in a two person tent, but there is precious little space for your other possessions. If maximum mobility and light weight are your key aims, then you will be prepared to put up with this, whereas if you wish to stay for several days at any one location and can reduce the daily mileage while moving between sites, you will probably want a bit more space. It is also very useful to have a small canopy outside the main body of the tent under which you can cook and eat.

For those who have not camped before, modern tents comprise two basic components, an outer waterproof layer and an inner non waterproof tent that has a sown in ground sheet and a mosquito net to keep the bugs out. I like tents in which you erect the outer skin first, so that the inner tent can be put up or taken down under guaranteed dry conditions. Of our embarrassingly large collection of tents, only one has this facility, and, fortunately, it was the one we took to Brittany! When buying a tent I suggest that you make this design feature a priority.

Your comfort is highly dependent upon your ground sheet remaining watertight, and we have been advised to carry an additional separate ground sheet to place beneath the tent in order to protect the base of the inner tent from possible damage from sharp stones or other objects. Alternatively you can scour the ground for such items before you set up camp - but think of the circumstance when you arrive late, it is becoming dark, and the rain is pouring down!

Your choice of sleeping bag will be influenced by three parameters, cost, weight/volume, and thermal insulation. Cheaper bags are relatively heavy, occupy a large volume when folded, or do not offer much protection. If, like us, you intend to constrain your camping to warmer periods of the year, the thermal insulation is less critical. The volume that sleeping bags occupy is a major problem, particularly if you do not use a trailer. Look carefully at this aspect when choosing a bag.

Beneath the bag soft people such as us use a mat, which can be of spongy material  - less comfortable and more bulky - or a compact self inflating thermal insulating mat that folds quite small - a good deal more expensive, but a lot better! Some people use both, but we can sleep quite well on top of a single mat.

We have found that a small pillow really does help to improve sleeping comfort, you can tolerate a relatively hard bed if your head is nicely cushioned, but pillows take up a lot of room and you may wish to use rolled up clothes as very second rate alternative.

We do not carry a mallet for driving home the tent pegs, one experienced camper told us that if the ground requires a mallet you are going to bend the pegs!

For cooking we use a camping gaz ring and two aluminium stacking pans, one with a lid. The pans have a common detachable handle. Some people carry a kettle, and if we were using the car to carry our gear we would normally take one, but a pan with a lid will boil your water just as effectively. You can cook potatoes in the larger pan, while the smaller pan sits on top of the boiling water and contains something else, for example tinned peas. The easiest food to carry and cook is probably flavoured pasta, but that can become boring and you can be more adventurous, particularly if you are not moving on every day.

When you are not cooking, one of the pans contains an inch of cold water in which your milk and butter/spread containers stand. The evaporating water keeps these items considerably cooler than if they were just left inside the tent.

An essential accessory is the bottle opener, don't forget the lighter or matches, while few of the sites provide toilet paper. Plastic cups and plates are OK but you do need metallic knives and forks.

You should also carry a small chamois leather, as this will enable you to wipe off the worst of the water if you have to break camp in the rain, while it is also useful to dry off condensation from the inside of the outer tent - more a problem in the UK than France.

We carried a pair of small collapsible fabric covered stools; it makes all the difference if you can sit down to cook, eat and read, but if your aim is minimal weight and maximum mobility you would dispense with these.

A collapsible plastic water container is a useful accessory as it obviates the need for frequent trips to the tap, which might be some distance away. Again high speed, light weight, campers would do without.

You can buy travel towels, and we know people who use them, but we have no direct experience of these light, rapidly drying, towels. We take a small container of shower gel which is used for all personal washing, while you might also want to carry small quantities of washing up and clothes washing liquid. It is possible to buy a small tube of toothpaste, intended for travellers, but they are becoming hard to find. A short clothes line and a few pegs will help dry your stuff. Finally a tiny bottle of shaving oil will save some space and mass compared to most other alternatives.


Photographs

On previous trips I have carried a single lens reflex camera and taken negative film, whose results have been scanned to provide digital images which were then tweaked using Photoshop. This time we took a Canon Powershot 80 (4 Megapixel) compact digital camera. I missed the accurate and bright viewfinder of the SLR,  the instantaneous taking of the photograph on pressing the shutter, and the easy access to aperture and shutter speed controls, but in most other respects the digital camera was superior. The digital images are a lot sharper than my scanned efforts, with more realistic colours, while the camera is a good deal smaller and a bit lighter. The Canon has an LCD screen that you can angle such that you can position the camera above your head and still see what is being taken, a useful feature for some shots.


Carol and Bryan Attewell

28/7/04

If you would like to ask any questions about this article, feel free to get in touch with Bryan Attewell

For details of more cycle tours that I have documented, please look here

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