By Maggie LaCoste
Looking back at my recent bicycling trip along the Atlantic Coast of France, the first word that comes to mind is adventure. This is funny because that really wasn’t what I had in mind as I embarked on this trip! This was my first trip to explore “La Velodyssee”, the French portion of EuroVelo 1, stretching from Roscoff to the Spanish border and I really had no idea what to expect as far as the route was concerned. I researched the route thoroughly, knew which deviations I wanted to take, and, like all cyclists, hoped that the weather would cooperate.
I spent 13 days in late May exploring this route from north of LaRochelle to Hendaye near the Spanish border. My trip was one month before the “grand opening” of La Velodyssee. I made many assumptions about the route that resulted in much more adventure than I anticipated, but looking back, it was the adventure that made this such a memorable trip, and provided some of the best memories. I hope that my experiences will benefit others planning to explore this route, so I hope you enjoy reading about my favorites, least favorites and what I will do differently when I return to the Atlantic Coast.
Atlantic Route Top 5 Favorites:
The Food–Oysters, mussels, langoustines, crevettes, sardines, Bayonne ham, goat and sheep cheese, gateau basque a la creme, and of course, canele. I’ve never met a bicyclist that didn’t enjoy great food, and this is definitely an area to indulge! The selections at the daily markets, at the fish stores and in local restaurants is fantastic. Just ask for whatever is fresh and you cannot go wrong!
Fantastic Beaches–Even on the rainiest days of the trip, the Atlantic Coast beaches were spectacular, especially at low tide. It is really amazing that access to beaches on the Atlantic Coast is totally open to the public. Few high rises or private access areas and some of the best campgrounds in France are located in the best beachfront locations, perfect for cyclocampers! A few of my favorite beaches in the Charente Maritime include: Le Bois Plage en Re on the Ile de re, La Palmyre in Royan, the Grand Plage of Saint-Trojan on the Ile d’Oleron. Take the ferry over the Gironde, and you enter the vast area of Aquitaine beaches. Aquitaine has the longest stretch of coastline in Europe, and not surprisingly, some of the best beaches. Some of my favorites: L’Amerlie in Soulac sur Mer, Hourtin Ocean, Le Grand Plage in St. Jean de Luz, and Grand Crohot near Cap Ferret with some spectacular dunes. Some of the best surfing beaches are also located in Aquitaine including Hossegor, Anglet and Hendaye near the Spanish border.
The Basque Region–a warm and inviting hospitality, great food, beautiful landscape and scenery and a laid back atmosphere make you never want to leave this area! It was a good thing that we ended our trip here, because if we had started here, we might not have ever left! I had never been to the Basque region before, and I cannot wait to plan a return visit. The bicycling in the region is great, but is much more challenging with more hills. Perhaps my next visit I will need to experiment with an electric bike, quite the rage in Europe these days! Bayonne, St. Jean de Luz, Hendaye, and a string of beach villages and hill towns make this a perfect area for exploring by bike. Most of the longer-distance bicycling in this area is on coastal roads and local routes, so it may not be suited to many recreational cyclists. But with the extensive local train network in the region, it is easy to travel from town to town via train, then bicycle in and around each area, thus avoiding travel on busy roads.
Oyster Villages–I love oyster villages. These picturesque villages exude charm that is really unique to the Atlantic Coast of France. The whole process of oyster cultivation is fascinating, and one of the best places to learn more about it is in Marennes, the City of the Oyster. The Marennes-Oleron area is one of the most famous and by far the largest oyster cultivation area in Europe. The entire area covers about 15,000 acres and the area accounts for around 45% of the entire French oyster industry. A visit to an oyster village or ostreicole will certainly be a highlight of your trip. My favorite oyster areas are Marennes, La Tremblade and the Arcachon Basin, including the oyster villages on Cap Ferret.
Laid Back Lifestyle and Fantastic People–There is something about the ocean that creates a perfect relaxing environment for the people who live there and the people who visit. This is definitely the case all along the Atlantic Coast of France. The pace is slow and relaxed, conversations are savored, life is celebrated. The people that we met and the friendships that we made helped make this trip one of our favorites. The residents and business owners of the Atlantic Coast are the region’s best tourism promotion, helping to make this a region that you want to come back to again and again.
Atlantic Route Top 5 Least Liked:
Lack of Consistent Signposting–The cycle route along the Atlantic Coast of France, now referred to as La Velodyssee is in a transition stage. Prior to my latest trip, I had assumed that the signposting on this route would be much more advanced, particularly since EuroVelo 1 through France is considered close to complete. Such was not the case. Signage on the route was inconsistent making route decisions difficult at times. Several readers who have ridden parts of this route in the last few weeks report that signposting is improving, but that it is spotty, with some areas still with no directional signs. Route improvements and sign installation are normally done on a jurisdictional basis, so for the upcoming year, there will continue to be areas with improvements and areas without. Bottom line, make sure that you are traveling with a good map, monitor the route information on the LaVelodyssee website, and seek out local bicycling information from Tourism offices along the way.
Bicycle Paths that Abruptly Ended–On three different occasions, the bike path that we were riding on abruptly ended. We had numerous conversations with other cyclists on the route and they expressed similar experiences. This situation is complicated by inconsistent signage on the route, because every time it happened, we assumed that we had somehow taken a wrong turn, but after consulting our maps, saw that this was not the case. I would assume that as more uniform signposting improvements are made to the route, this problem will be minimized.
Pine Forests and Sand: Too much of even good things can get old really fast. I found this to be the case with pine forests and sand. After about the 5th day of bicycling through pine forests with an occasional dune or beach sighting, I didn’t want to see any more. I guess you could compare it to getting tired of too many castles on the Loire. Since this was my first time cycling this route, this was an important lesson, because it will enable me to make better recommendations to others interested in cycling this region.
Tourism Offices With Little/No Knowledge of Bicycling Routes in the Region–It is always disappointing to me when local tourism offices have little, if any knowledge of regional cycling routes. I found this to be the case in many instances along the Atlantic Route. I would hope that as the support services for La Velodyssee continue to grow, that local tourism offices will be provided with resources and training to competently advise visiting bicyclists on routes to explore local communities along the route.
Distances Between Towns on the Route–If you are planning to cycle this route, be sure to plan carefully as there are sections where you may have 25km or more between towns where you can buy water and food supplies. In some areas, towns are located off the main route, but oftentimes cyclists don’t want to take a 4 km deviation to purchase food or water.
Top 5 Things I Would Do Differently:
Spend More Time Exploring the Ile de Re and Ile d’Oleron–There is so much to see and do on these coastal islands, and great bicycle routes to explore. These islands are paradise for safe and relaxing bicycling, exploring, relaxing. Perfect for families, couples or single travelers, these islands merit a week between the two of them!
Spend More Time in Cap Ferret–Between the beaches, oyster towns and villages to explore by bike, great local restaurants and laid back atmosphere, Cap Ferret is an area where you just want to unpack and act like a local for at least a few days.
Spend More Time Around Arcachon Bay–It is almost 80 km around the Bay, with one charming town and village after another. I never imagined that the Bay would be as lovely as it is. While this area is chaos in July and August and on holiday weekends, a mid-week visit during any other time of the year would be ideal. Bicycle paths rim the bay and deviations allow explorers to venture off the beaten track, exploring the many attractions of this popular holiday destination. I did not have time to visit the Parc Ornithologique du Teich, the bird sanctuary in La Teich, but will definitely do so the next time I visit. It is one of the largest bird sanctuaries in Europe, with over 260 recorded species 80 of which breed in the reserve.
Choose Specific Parts of the Bike Route to Explore–The next time I bike the Atlantic Coast, I will choose several specific areas to explore, rather than biking the entire route. The type of attractions along this route are very different from other French cycle routes such as the Burgundy Canal, the Loire, the Nantes-Brest Canal or the Canal du Midi. The Atlantic Coast is an area where the coast and the beach towns and villages are the attraction. To really get the most out of a bicycling experience in the region, you need to spend a day or two to enjoy the beach, the sand dunes, the oyster farms, and the laid back atmosphere that people travel here to enjoy. Take a surfing lesson, go to the market, make a new friend. Simply passing through these areas by bike defeats the purpose of exploring this region of France by bike.
Eat More Oysters–Out of all the food that I enjoyed along the Atlantic Coast, oysters were my favorite. When I go back, I will learn how to make the special local sauce that brings out the best taste in the oysters.
Please let me know if you have any likes or dislikes from a recent trip to the Atlantic Coast, and if there is anything that you would do differently if you did the route again.
Check back often for updates on the Atlantic Coast route/La Velodyssee as the local departments continue to make more improvements to this route.