I often get asked why I only write about biking in France since I’ve cycled all around Europe. Without question, there are other great places to bicycle, but France has the perfect combination of qualities that make it a perfect choice for a recreational cyclist. Other countries have great food, wine and markets. But France has a perfect blend of these top 10 features that consistently place it at the top my list of safe and relaxing cycling destinations. So if you are contemplating your first bicycling trip in Europe, or are simply looking for a relaxing, slow-paced, safe environment for a cycling trip with your spouse, friend or your family, take a look at my top 10 reasons to choose France for your next cycling trip!
From escargot in the Loire to Cassoulet along the Canal du Midi, to Coq au Vin and Boeuf Bourguignon in Burgundy, to seafood in Brittany and the Atlantic Coast, France is a food lover’s paradise! Sweets like walnut cake, crepes, tarte tartin, souffles, caneles and light as air macaroons make all the hard work on your bike worthwhile. I’m always so glad that I’m bicycling in France as it makes me feel like I have earned the right to eat my way through the countryside!
No matter where you go in France and no matter what your budget, you will always have an incredible variety of local wines to choose from. Whether biking in Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Cotes du Rhone, the Loire, Provence or Champagne, just stop into the local grocery store and pick up a bottle to go with your picnic lunch or dinner. On my recent trip to the Loire River Valley this summer, you could buy local wines from 2 Euro on up. Almost all restaurants feature several local wines by the half bottle or carafe, oftentimes for less than the cost of a Coca Cola.
In one of my August blogs, I described the local French market as a 4th of July for the senses, and I can’t think of a better way to describe it. The brilliant colors of flowers and fresh produce, the intoxicating smell of lavender and fresh herbs, samples of cheese, foie gras and local delicacies all make market days a highlight of any trip to France. A trip to the local market is an opportunity to experience French life up close and personal, to find new adventures around every corner. From early morning set up, to shopping for the perfect ingredients for a picnic lunch or dinner, to just people-watching, local markets are one of my favorite French experiences. Local market days are one of the first things that I put on my calendar when I plan a bike trip.
#4–The Happy Sound of “Bonjour”
Nothing brightens up a morning on a bike more than endless greetings of “bonjour” from fellow cyclists along your route. No matter how dreary the day, an always cheery bonjour seems to make everything seem better!
#5–The French Picnic Lunch
There are few things I love more about France than the picnic lunch. Sometime between noon and 1:00, the work day comes to a halt as people rush home, to their favorite restaurant, to the closest picnic table or to any available bench to enjoy lunch with family and friends. Everything about the picnic lunch is fun; planning and buying supplies for the lunch are almost as much fun as eating it. There is something so comforting, old-fashioned and deliberate about the picnic lunch. There is no rush. It is a time for story-telling, sharing thoughts, discussing politics. It is the antithesis to the lunch on-the-go that we eat here in the U.S. The picnic lunch is one of my favorite parts of the day when I am in France, and it is one of the things that I miss the most when I leave.
Where else in the world would you find cheeses that have AOC status similar to wine? France has 42 cheeses with AOC status, a quality label granted by the government, designating cheese from a particular area of France that has been made using very specific methods of production. From Epoisses in Burgundy, rumored to have been Napoleon’s favorite cheese to Valencay and Saint Maure in the Loire, to hundreds of goat cheeses and cow’s milk cheeses, France is a playground for cheese lovers. Regardless of your budget, regardless of whether you prefer hard or soft, strong or gooey, you will never run out of cheese options in France. With ham or salmon for breakfast, with bread and apricot jam and cold cuts for lunch or as a pre-dessert course at dinner, a meal without cheese in France is like a day without sunshine.
Thick crusted pain de campagne, whole grain pain aux cereales, sourdough pain au levain, baguettes in every size, croissant as light as air. Bread in France is an institution in and of itself.
France has made a major commitment to expanding the network of safe bicycle routes throughout the country. Over the last several years, the number of voie verte, car-free bike paths, and veloroute networks across France have increased dramatically. There are currently close to 3,000 km of flat, safe, marked routes on quiet country lanes perfect for families or those preferring local excursions of 20 to 50 km. Biking on these car-free paths through the countryside and along canal towpaths is a real treat. There are greenways in virtually every region of France, and new routes are being added every year.
In addition to the shorter distance greenways, the number of veloroute itineraries in France is also growing by leaps and bounds. Veloroutes are regional cycle routes that feature small local roads with very limited traffic, normally under 300 cars a day. These routes are very well marked in both directions and, while not totally car-free, still provide a very safe and relaxing environment for recreational cyclists. La Loire a Velo and the Tour de Bourgogne are two of the more popular veloroutes in France. For those seeking a cycling experience extending past the borders of France, 7 French veloroutes connect to the Eurovelo system.
After biking for years along major highways in Europe, the peacefulness and tranquility of this new level of recreational biking in France is hard to describe. Biking along towpaths, voie verte or veloroutes such as the Loire a Velo is safe and fun for families, first-time cyclists, the young and the old. So whether you are looking for an outing for a day, a weekend, a week or a season, France offers a safe and welcoming environment where you can experience the joys of exploring the countryside by bike.
#9–Great support services
France is not only committed to the expansion of safe, limited traffic bicycling routes, it is also committed to expanding the scope and quality of support services for cyclists. Led by the “Loire a Velo” and the “Le Tour de Bourgogne a Velo” organizations, more and better support services are available along the major routes throughout France.
Networks of accommodations, bike rental and repair services, baggage transfer services and route maps in English are available, making travel along the major routes easy. Depending on the specific route that you have in mind, a local bike outfitter can provide you with a bike ideally suited to the route and distance you will be traveling. Also renting a bike locally is much less stressful, a major interest of mine when planning my Slow Travel Adventures.
#10–Easy access to bike routes on the train
France has a great train network and most major bike routes in France can be accessed within 2-5 hours from Paris on the TGV. I try to plan my trips so that I take the TGV right from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris to my destination. Even if I have to wait a few hours for the train, it is much less stressful than traveling into Paris, especially since I’m usually pretty tired from the overnight flight. Within a little over 2 hours you can be in Angers, a great starting point for the Loire a Velo, or in 3 hours you can be in Beaune, ready to cycle the wine route. Bike rental agencies are usually located within 5-10 minutes of the train station. And if you encounter bad weather or get tired, most local trains accept bikes. Just look for the train car with the bike symbol, and be ready to hop on quickly when the train stops.
So that’s it! My 10 reasons to choose France for your next bike trip. Actually choosing France is the easy part. Deciding which area in France you are going to bike is the difficult decision! Over the next couple of months I will be planning my 2011 cycling trips, so I hope that you will come back often to see how I narrow down my choices. Also stay tuned for more information on my new book on recreational biking in France.