My Cycling Destination For 2014: Normandy and Brittany

To explore the WW II battle sites and memorials in France is always a special experience. But to do so by bike during the 70th anniversary celebration of the Normandy invasion is a once in a lifetime opportunity, one that I couldn’t pass up.  In just over a month, I leave for Northern France to tour the Normandy battle sites in a way experienced by few tourists–by bike.  From the Normandy beaches to the Vire River Valley, to Mont Saint Michel, along the Emerald Coast to Cancale, and finally to Dinan and Rennes, this trip will be full of adventure, history, priceless memories and great food!

Utah Beach, the starting point of my bicycling trip

Utah Beach, the starting point of my bicycling trip

During this trip, I’ll have the opportunity to report back on several new cycling itineraries: the D-Day Landing Beaches to Mont Saint-Michel route, which shares its itinerary with the Petit Tour de Manche, and then the Canal Ille et Rance from Dinard to Rennes.  The total estimated distance we’ll cover in 11 days is just over 400 km.

I timed the trip perfectly so that we’ll end in Rennes just in time for the famous Saturday market, one of the largest in France. After spending the morning at the market, we’ll hop the TGV to Paris. We’re going to take a short stopover in Paris to visit Giverny by bike, via the train to Vernon.  This day trip is one of my most popular blog posts, so it will be fun to take some new photos and check out new restaurants in the village.

Here are some details about my itinerary:

There are three possible starting points on the D-Day cycle route: Port-en-Bessin, Arromanches and Sainte-Marie-du-Mont. I’ve chosen to begin the route in Sainte-Marie-du-Mont. Since I’ll be traveling during the busy vacation month of August–busier than I like, but hopefully good for weather–I made all of my room reservations in advance. There are parts of the itinerary without a lot of lodging options, so I definitely recommend reserving rooms in advance in any season. Watch for a follow up post detailing my lodging choices for the trip.

D-Day Beaches to Mont-Saint-Michel Itinerary

D-Day Beaches to Mont-Saint-Michel Itinerary in green

The first few days will be spent exploring the major WW II sites near Utah Beach by bike. From a base in Saint Marie-du-Mont, my husband and I will bicycle the Open Sky Museum, a 50 km tour of the “must see” events of the Landing.  I’m not exactly sure if this tour is meant to be done by bike, but we’ll quickly find out!  This GPS lead tour includes testimonies, archives and videos to help visitors better understand the events and history of each area.  We have been reading Steven Ambrose and watching Band of Brothers in preparation for our time here.  There is so much history in this small area of Normandy that we could probably spend a week here exploring!

After spending several days exploring historical areas in and around Utah Beach, it’s time to hit the road and head inland, following the route of the Allied invasion.  Our itinerary takes us to Carentan, a town that was practically destroyed during the Normandy invasion.  The town was vital to the Allies and was integral to the invasion’s success.  South of Carentan you cross the Cotentin marshes and you are soon treated to a greenway that follows the banks of the River Vire to Saint Lo.  No where along this itinerary was the Normandy invasion felt more than in Saint Lo.  All but 5% of this city, whose walls were built by Charlemagne was left standing by the end of the war.

From Saint Lo, the greenway continues and leads cyclists to an area called the Bocage, an area defined by hedgerows. Roads in the bocage are very narrow with dense hedgerows on both sides. During the Battle of Normandy, the bocage severely limited the ability of the Allies to advance inland.  The hedgerow made it very easy for the Germans to hide their Panzers.  Allied tanks, too wide for the narrow roads were prevented from advancing against the Germans, thus requiring more physical and bloody hand-to-hand combat.  There’s no question that many lives were lost during the war in the Bocage. While many of the old hedgerows have been widened since the war, it will still be amazing to bike through this area that was so critical to the liberation of France.

Courtesy of Livingbattlefield.org

Courtesy of Livingbattlefield.org

Much of the route through the Vire Valley is a dedicated cycle path so I anticipate it should be a great ride. The cycle path passes right under the Roches de Ham, the Ham Rocks which veer 100m up from the bike path. I hope it’s not a busy day when we go through as it sounds like an area for a lot of photos!  Most of the towns along this part of the route are quite small, and there are not a lot of places to stay, which I found to be a challenge when organizing our itinerary.  Continuing south, the next major town is Vire, another strategic crossroads for the occupying army.  Like Saint Lo, 95% of Vire was also destroyed in June, 1944.  Nearly all remnants of the towns history were destroyed.  This area is best known for the local specialty, andouille sausage.  A bit further south is the town of Mortain, regarded as a turning point in the Battle of Normandy.  A fierce battle took place in Mortain between the German Panzer divisions and the Allied forces.  Ultimately the Germans were forced to retreat, and the tide was turned in the Battle.  Like Saint Lo and Vire, most of Mortain was destroyed during the war.

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After the town of Mortain, the bike path takes a turn to the west and we start watching for the signs to Mont-Saint-Michel.  I have never approached the Abbey by bike so I am full of anticipation of the first view of the Abbey from afar.  There are so many bicycle paths around Mont-Saint-Michel that we will spend several days exploring them and enjoying the incredible seafood of the coastal areas.  I am particularly looking forward to eating mussels in Le Vivier-sur-Mer and oysters in Cancale.  The stretch of road between the two towns is dedicated to seafood.  I cannot wait!  Oh, and by the way, by this time we are in Brittany, home of one of my favorite indulgences:  crepes!

My favorite Brittany specialty

My favorite Brittany specialty

From Cancale, we head for Saint Malo, the most popular resort in Brittany, but definitely a town much too busy for me.  We have traveled there before, so we will pass through this trip, preferring to spend our last day along the Ille et Rance Canal en route to Rennes.  It will be a bit of a long day, but the prize at the end of the road will be charming Rennes, one of my favorite B&B’s, Symphonie des Sens, and the very popular Rennes Saturday market.

View along the bike path north of Dinan

View along the Ille et Rance Canal

I can’t wait to report back every day on our experiences.  We’ll be exploring some terrific new bicycle routes and I can’t wait.  Watch for my first report in mid-August!

Posted by Maggie LaCoste

I love the adventure and unpredictability of experiencing France by bike. Cycling in France is the ultimate slow travel adventure, an opportunity to see it through the back door in a way few tourists experience. One week on a bike in France and life takes on a different meaning! I created Experience France By Bike to inspire recreational cyclists to visit France the slow way....by bike, and to be the best source of information for planning the perfect bicycling adventure. I encourage readers to embrace the uncertainty of the road ahead and to take the path less traveled, exploring roads, towns and villages that you would never experience traveling by car.

  1. Sounds like a great bike trip.

    Bayeux (specifically the tapestry) is on my bucket list. Do you know if there are any bike paths near there?

    1. Hi Kevin!

      So funny that you would ask about Bayeux! It was incredibly difficult to choose which of the D-Day Beach starting points to take. Both the Arromanches(Gold Beach) and Port-en-Bessin(Omaha Beach)starting points go through Bayeux and also are close to Caen where the Caen-Normandy Memorial Center for History and Peace (http://normandy.memorial-caen.com/the-museum) is located. I spent a month in the spring developing different itineraries that included Bayeux and Carentan, Bayeux only and ultimately Carentan only. I ultimately opted to begin the trip near Utah Beach for 2 reasons: first, it was much closer than Bayeux to pick up our rental bikes, and second, we wanted to visit the memorials and museums in and around Utah Beach, as well as to bicycle through the Vire Valley and visit many of the towns in Normandy that suffered so much during the War. It was a really hard decision for me, as I too have always wanted to see the Bayeux tapestry. Truth of the matter is that you could easily spend two-three weeks just bicycling in this part of Normandy. So to finally get to your question on are there any bike paths near Bayeux, the answer in yes, there is a lot of cycling in and around Bayeux. You can download some maps of the area with this link: http://cdt14.media.tourinsoft.eu/upload/CALVADOSAVELO-2014-PDF.pdf. I will be doing a follow up post with more information on attractions and resources for planning a trip to this part of Normandy, so I will be sure to include some information on Bayeux.

      I am looking forward to when you start crossing some of these adventures off your bucket list!

      Thanks again for your comments!

      Maggie LaCoste
      Experience France By Bike