By Maggie LaCoste
Rennes, the capital of Brittany and a vibrant university town is just a 2 hour TGV ride from Paris. I had never been to Rennes, nor had I ever bicycled in Brittany, so this was going to be a real adventure. Little did I know. We arrived into Rennes late, so we had a quick dinner and planned our first day of bicycling the Ille et Rance Voie Verte. This car-free bikeway is one of the major greenway cycle routes in Brittany. The route from Rennes to Saint Malo is 107 kms, with 85 km running along the Ille-et-Rance Canal, with 48 locks along the way.
Construction on the canal began in 1804 during the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, but stopped after Napoleon’s defeat in Russia. Work did not begin again on the canal until the mid-1820′s and was completed in 1832, providing a safe way to ship goods from the ocean to Rennes, the capital of Brittany. While not used any more for commercial shipping, the Ille-et-Rance Canal continues to be a very popular route for recreational boating. And luckily for cyclists, the canal towpaths have been renovated and improved and now offer a wonderful avenue to explore the Brittany countryside.
We awoke to clear skies and no rain, always a good thing in Brittany. The weather forecast was clear, with high temperatures near 80, definitely not something we anticipated for the end of September! After breakfast we were met at our hotel by John and Veronica Hall of Brittany Borders Bicycling, the company that we rented bikes from for the weekend. This charming couple offer several self-guided bicycle tours of Brittany and Normandy through their company, Brittany Borders Bicycling, and were kind to rent us bicycles for our short weekend trip to Brittany. We packed up our panniers and we were on our way. Since we would be returning to Rennes at the end of our long weekend, we decided to save exploring the town till then.
Since Rennes is right on the Rance River, it took us only a few moments to pick up the bike path. Our destination for the day was the incredible medieval fortress of Dinan, viewed by many as the most beautiful town in Brittany. Since we only had two full days to explore this route, we wanted to spend our one night mid-route in Dinan, because it came so highly recommended. The mileage estimate to Dinan, depending on which map you used was between 65 and 84 km, quite a bit of a difference. We consulted John Hall about the distance before we left Rennes, and he felt that it was closer to 65 km, so we felt comfortable that we had a manageable ride ahead and opted not to take the train 15 miles north. Big mistake!
We settled into our ride on the towpaths, which were mainly packed gravel, quite safe but not great for making good time.
For the first hour or two, we passed a steady succession of small communities on or near the river. There are signposts along the route, showing which communities have restaurants, hotels or supermarkets, making it easy for cyclists to determine where to leave the trail for coffee, lunch or supplies.
These signs are very helpful as many of the towns are located several kilometers from the canal, so you don’t waste your time riding to a town that doesn’t have what you are looking for!
By early afternoon, several hours into our journey, somewhere near Hede, we realized that riding to Dinan was really 85 km, not 65, and that our progress on the dirt paths was very slow. Mild panic set in, as I computed that we had at least 45 km still to go, and we had not even had lunch! We decided to stop for a quick lunch, review the maps and assess our situation. The area around Hede is amazing. First of all, a former lock house has been converted into the Maison du Canal, the museum of the Ille et Rance canal, and it is a wonderful source for historical facts about the building of the canal and its use in the late 1800′s. Too bad that we didn’t have time to visit! At Bazouges-sous-Hede, there are a series of 11 locks, each about 200 meters apart, that take boats through an 88 feet change in water level. This is an amazing engineering feat, and a real time challenge to boats cruising up or down the river. Any interest I may have ever had about taking a leisurely cruise in a barge was cured after watching the tedious process of going through locks.
For bicyclists taking a long weekend trip along the canal, the area around Hede,Tinteniac and Saint Domineuc would be perfect for spending the first night. There are a number of lovely bed and breakfasts and gites in the area, and plenty of restaurants serving typical Breton food. But for us, this was roughly the half way point of our trip, and if we wanted to get to Dinan before dark, we had some serious bike riding along the dirt paths to do. I’m not exactly sure how we made it through that afternoon. It still is a blur. From Hede to Treverian and Evran, most of the towns were well off the canal, so there wasn’t much to see other than chestnut trees…miles and miles of chestnut trees. If you tried to bike too fast on the dirt paths covered with chestnuts, it was easy for your tires to spin out. This happened to me as I navigated around a barrier meant to keep cars off the greenway. My front tire got crossed between some loose gravel and a lot of chestnuts and I literally just fell over. Nothing serious, other than some dandy road rash to contend with for the rest of the day. My experience this afternoon would definitely be good material for a post on what not to do on your next bike trip!
Despite the difficulty of the ride this day, the late afternoon light along the canal was spectacular, and definitely enriched the experience in an odd sort of way. It was nearing 7:00 when we reached the charming town of Lehon, a mere 6 km from Dinan. I imagined sitting down for a minute on the bed at our hotel and just relaxing for a minute. But there was one more cruel development to deal with. When we arrived in Lehon the bike path took an unusual turn, what looked to us like a deviation. With no one around to ask, nightfall rapidly approaching and against my husband’s better judgement, we decided to follow the signs for the deviation. For the first kilometer, the deviation followed the road through town, and then instantly put us in the middle of a deep forest, definitely not on a bike path. We were now biking over deep piles of the autumn fallen leaves, around huge tree trunks and limbs, with trees so tall and dense that daylight could barely be seen. It wasn’t scarey, but was definitely a bit spooky! We entered a tree bank that was one of the more spectacular tree banks I have ever seen, and I took some pictures to record our experience. I am so glad I did, as they are some of my favorite pictures of the trip.
Not long after going through these trees, we found ourselves in what appeared to be an overflow parking lot for Dinan. As I looked across from the parking lot, the sun was setting on the hills on the other side of the river. Another priceless picture.
We had made it….or had we? 80+ km and there was still to be one more cruel joke before we could call it a day. Why do medieval towns always have to be located on the top of mountains? Only after walking through the parking lot and up the hill were we able to see Dinan, at least one mile up hill. At this point, all we could do was laugh. We had managed all the challenges of the day, a town at the top of a hill wasn’t going to deter us. We did wish that we had a bottle of wine though, because we would have stopped and drank it, soaking up the gorgeous scenery around us. The sight of the port of Dinan, viewed through the bridge was another one of those special photos that hardly look real.
We walked up the hill to Dinan that night. The sun was setting, it was very warm, the traffic was light, and there was only one bicyclist in spandex who passed us, returning from his afternoon ride in the hills. I only wish I could have told him about my day, and why I chose to walk up that last hill. As we entered into Dinan, I was overcome by the beauty of the town. I could not wait to find our bed and breakfast, have a glass of wine, walk around the town, and of course eat dinner. Our experiences of today added new meaning to slow travel adventures, but we made it to our destination safely and before dark, and most important, we didn’t let adversity spoil a great day of biking in France!