Biking in France: The Atlantic Route

It is so cold here I can’t believe it.  The thought of getting on a bike makes me shiver.  But it’s December and it’s time to start planning my bike trip to France for next summer.  As excited as I always am about the planning process, I find it really difficult to narrow the choices down to just one route. The French government has spent millions of Euros over the last 5 years developing a first class bike network and the choices for recreational cyclists are amazing.  The new routes are either totally car-free or rural roads with very limited car traffic and are signposted so that it is very difficult to get lost.  This new generation of French bike routes are great for all ages, skill levels and families.  The routes are mostly flat, and many are along rivers and canals. So if you’ve ever considered biking in France, join me over the upcoming weeks as I explore the best bike routes in France.  Maybe you’ll decide to plan a bike trip to France too, or add a weekend trip onto an upcoming trip to France!

Last year I considered doing the French portion of Euro Velo 1 which runs along the Atlantic Coast from Scotland to Spain.  I ultimately decided not to do this route because my vacation coincided with the French summer holiday in mid-August–probably a good choice!  But next year I will be biking in mid July and this would be a perfect time to bike along the Atlantic Coast of France, so this route will be the first one I explore.

The Atlantic route is the dark blue line running on the upper left, from Morlaix with its artichoke and cauliflower fields, along the estuary to the historic naval town of Brest, through Western Brittany where crepes and cider are supreme.  From the small town of Chateaulin, the route follows the towpath of the Nantes to Brest canal.  Around Noirmoutier Isle you enter the land of oysters and the marshes of Poitevin, as you work your way down to the beautiful historical gem La Rochelle.  A deviation to the spectacular Ile de Re is a must as the island is a treasure to explore with bike paths from one end to the next. Continuing south is Rochefort with Vauban-designed military fortifications to the peaceful forests leading to the seaside resort of Royan.

A ferry ride takes you across the Gironde River to the northern most point of the famous Medoc wine growing region and home to over 1,500 vineyards.  This area just north of Bordeaux is perfect for deviating off the Atlantic bike route;  how could you miss visiting the famous vineyards like Margaux and Pauillac?  This area is covered with small local roads, perfectly suited to travel by bike, as a matter of fact, there is a totally traffic-free path that runs from Lacanau all the way to Bordeaux, a wonderful destination for wine, food, shopping and some history.

If you manage to stay on the Atlantic Route, you will travel through the incredible Landes Pine Forest, the largest maritime pine forest in Europe, ultimately ending up at the amazing Arcachon Bay, favorite destination of outdoor enthusiasts. The area is perfect for cycling with bike paths around the entire Bay.  Close to Arcachon Bay is one of the most important wetlands in Europe and also the 100 meter tall Dune du Pyla, the largest sand dunes in Europe. Continuing south along the Atlantic Route are the famous seaside resorts of Bayonne and Biaritz, and finally the Spanish border.

One of the many things that makes this route so perfect is that it is easily adaptable to many modifications.  Unless you bike this route during July and August, it’s not necessary to book hotels ahead of time, thus making your trip very flexible.  If you get to an area that you love and you want to explore that area, there are plenty of local bike routes to do that.  For example, there is a bike route that goes all around the Bay of Arcachon and you could easily spend a week leisurely exploring this area, and eating the wonderful local seafood.  On my typical Slow Travel Adventures trip, biking is simply my means of intimately exploring the French countryside, so a route such as this, with so many options makes it a leading option for 2011!

Hopefully you are starting to understand why this process is so difficult.  What I haven’t even touched on is the incredible, lovely inns in towns and villages along this route, the history to be discovered, churches, monastaries, museums and markets.  And since this route is along or near the sea, the food choices would be endless.  It will be hard to top biking the Atlantic Route in France, but I have a feeling that we’ll come close.

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