Reflections on Cycling in Normandy and Brittany

My last cycling trip to Normandy and Brittany was amazing.  It was full of highs and lows, emotion, challenge, adventure and great new friends.   Even some of the low points of the trip are starting to take on a new, more positive perspective after being home just two weeks!  Without a doubt, I can definitely say that this bicycling trip gave me a whole new perspective on life and on experiencing life on a bike.

I still have a lot to write about my experiences bicycling in Northern France, but first I’d like to reflect back on some of of the places and people who made such an impact on me during this trip..  Hopefully these reflections and upcoming posts on my experiences will inspire you to consider a cycling trip to Normandy and Brittany too.  Follow along as I relive some of my fondest memories from my arrival in Carentan through my last night in Rennes.

As we stepped off the train in Carentan, the platform was lined with historical photos from June 1944. Despite how tired I am, I can feel the emotion already.

I was so happy to see a map of the Petit Tour de Manche cycling itinerary right as you leave the train station, and such was the case in Carentan. I knew this would be a great trip!

The comfort of bicycle route maps at train station

Bicycle route maps at train station, definitely a good sign of things to come

The Battle of Carentan was a pivotal battle during the Normandy invasion. It was fought by the American 101st Airborne Division, the first Allied troops to land in France. Control of the town was critical to the military objective of uniting Utah and Omaha Beaches. The sacrifice of the 101st Airborne to Carentan is memorialized everywhere you look in this small town. Our small B&B was located at 26, rue de la 101eme Airborne, how appropriate!

Tributes to the U.S. 101st Airborne Division everywhere

Tributes to the U.S. 101st Airborne Division everywhere

I always love the first day of a bike trip. There’s so much anticipation: the hope that you chose a great itinerary, the fear that all your stuff will actually fit in your panniers, wondering if there will be good signage on the route, and of course in Northern France, wondering if there will be clear skies. After loading our gear on our favorite rental bikes, the German Cube from Bikever, we were ready to head north toward Utah Beach, first stop Dead Man’s Corner.  It gave me chills to think that the road we were cycling on was the same road that was used by the solders of the 101st Airborne Division as they fought their way to Carentan.

I can’t imagine what it was like for the invasion troops to walk through the woods and fields as they made their way inland surrounded by German troops and tanks. But to trace their journey by bike was an opportunity to learn more about the incredible sacrifices that were made every step of the way.

The Dead Man’s Corner Museum was the first major D-Day Invasion historical site that we visited. This area was occupied by an elite group of German paratroopers and was located at the junction of the only road to Carentan suitable for American tanks. The Germans had orders to hold this position, whatever the cost.  The fighting was fierce and this museum tells the story of the battle.

Dead Man's Corner, site of a pivotal battle during Normandy invasion

Dead Man’s Corner, site of a pivotal battle during Normandy invasion

Throughout the Normandy area, great care that was taken to tell the story of the invasion, to emphasize the human element, to honor the contributions of the many men who died. Reading the personal stories of the soldiers was one of the things that made the experience so emotional for me.

Stories of the soldiers made the experience extremely personal

Stories of the soldiers made the experience extremely personal

Traveling by bike made it so easy to stop and read about the historical importance of various buildings and even fields along the invasion route, things that would be completely missed traveling by car.  I was grateful to the area tourism offices for the great care that was taken to present historical information in several languages at most of these sites.  This information and insight into the events of June, 1944 made following the itinerary so enriching.

A large number of buildings along the way played a part in the Battle of Normandy

A large number of buildings along the way played a part in the Battle of Normandy

Signs that you were on the path to freedom were everywhere.

A reminder that you are on the Voie de la Liberte

A reminder that you are on the Voie de la Liberte

While we enjoyed bicycling on paved and/or gravel pathways, the dense brush on the side of the path helped you understand the difficult conditions that invading troops had to deal with.

Easy to imagine the difficult conditions for invading troops

It was easy to imagine how difficult the conditions were for invading troops

Spending the afternoon at Utah Beach was a highlight of the trip.  I was surprised at how completely non-commercial the area around Utah Beach was.  I found this to be perfect way to pay tribute to all those who lost their lives in the D-Day invasion.

Tribute to the officers and soldiers of the US Navy who were part of the invasion troops–Utah Beach

Tribute to the officers and soldiers of the US Navy who were part of the invasion troops–Utah Beach

Anyone who has ever seen the movie “The Longest Day” is familiar with Sainte Mere Eglise and scenes of paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne descending into town.  One memorable scene shows one paratrooper, John Steele(played by Red Buttons for those of you old enough to remember!) whose parachute caught on the church steeple, while the night’s battle raged beneath him.  A dummy paratrooper hangs from the church spire today, commemorating the story of John Steele.

Tribute to paratrooper John Steele in Saint Mere Eglise

Tribute to paratrooper John Steele in Saint Mere Eglise

One of the most moving experiences on this trip was visiting the new Operation Neptune exhibit at the Airborne Museum in Saint Mere Eglise.  The exhibit was an incredibly realistic simulation of the experience of paratroopers on the famous night in early June, 1944.  From boarding a C-47 to parachuting over Sainte Mere Eglise with bombs exploding and Germans firing from the ground, this exhibit couldn’t have been done better by Steven Spielberg.  Operation Neptune brings the D-Day invasion alive for visitors and was moving beyond explanation.

Parachuting over Sainte Mere Eglise, Operation Neptune exhibit at the Airborne Museum

Parachuting over Sainte Mere Eglise, Operation Neptune exhibit at the Airborne Museum

One of my favorite photos of our time in Normandy was taken during a water stop at a local grocery store in Sainte Mere Eglise.  It doesn’t need any explanation.

A celebration of freedom

A celebration of freedom

It was an incredible experience to visit the German battery at Azeville, an important installation of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.  Touring the bunkers at Azeville, seeing how the German soldiers stationed there lived was unlike anything I had ever experienced.  An excellent audio tour made the visit truly come alive.

 

Bunker at the Battery at Azeville

Bunker at the Battery at Azeville

After the several days we spent exploring the D-Day Beaches, it was time to start heading south to our next major destination, Mont Saint Michel.  This journey was challenging, partially due to overly ambitious itinerary planning by me, partially due to the challenging terrain in the Normandy countryside, partially due to missing route signs at critical junctions and partially due to weather.

On our way to Mont Saint Michel

On our way to Mont Saint Michel

Lucky for me that my husband and travel partner is such a great sport and navigator.  I’d probably still be trying to find my way out of the Normandy hills if it were not for him!

Famous Normandy cows

Famous Normandy cows

As we bicycled through the Normandy countryside, we were never far from a herd of the famous brown and white Normandy cows. It’s said that they are descended from cows introduced to the area by the Vikings.  Whether that is just a tale or not, they produce milk with a high amount of butterfat, which subsequently makes the most incredible cream, butter and yogurts that you have ever tasted.

Picnics with mystery meat

Picnics with mystery meat

My husband bought some lunch supplies from a great charcuterie in Saint Marie du Mont and one of the items became a favorite, but we had no idea what it was.  We enjoyed that mystery meat at our picnic lunches for several days!

Disappearing bike paths

Disappearing bike paths

While the signage on the Petit Tour de Manche was very good overall, there still were areas where you couldn’t quite figure out what to do!

Colette and Daniel Martin, our hosts in Torigni sur Vire

Colette and Daniel Martin, our hosts in Torigni sur Vire

I’m not sure what I was thinking when I planned a 7 km deviation off the bike path to spend the night in the medieval town of Torigni sur Vire.  It looked like such a small deviation on the map, but I really should have remembered a hard learned lesson: deviations=hills!  Despite the fact that we arrived at our B&B looking like we had just bicycled the 87km that we had, Colette and Daniel were two of kindest, most welcoming hosts that we had ever met.  They will never know how they touched our hearts with their kindness.  Spending the night at their incredible residence was a highlight of our trip.

Normandy's endless rolling valleys

Normandy’s endless rolling valleys

I definitely need to review elevation maps better before I plan my bicycling vacations!  There were several days where it seemed like all we did was bicycle uphill!

Our rainy day lunch stop

Our rainy day lunch stop

I will never forget this little roadside bar/cafe in the small town of LeNeufbourg just north of Mortain.  This was where we stopped for a hot lunch on a very miserable rainy day.  We practically flooded the floor in the cafe wherever we walked, and when I took my rain jacket off, they had to literally bring out the mop to mop the floors!  And in a way that only the French can do, they acted as if our soaking wet condition was totally normal.  Tables were complete with a bottle of the local cidre and carafes of wine.  The hot lunch of the day and wine and cidre cost a whopping 11 Euros for 2.  By the time we finished lunch and got ready to leave, many of the regulars were trying their best to convince us to stay out of the rain and have just one more carafe of wine!

Follow the flag

Following the flag got me through the day

The only thing that got me through this rainy day was just following the American flag that was on the back of my husband’s bike.  Thankfully he had the presence of mind to snap this photo when we arrived at our hotel for the night in Ducey.

First sighting of Mont Saint Michel

First sighting of Mont Saint Michel

I will never forget cycling down a rural road outside of Pontaubault when I saw Mont Saint Michel for the first time.  The fog was so heavy over the abbey that I almost missed it.  It is really amazing because at this point, we were more than 16 km away, so capturing this photo with my camera was amazing!

One of my favorite views of Mont Saint Michel

One of my favorite views of Mont Saint Michel

Viewing Mont Saint Michel from the salt meadows was incredible, and a view not often possible from a car.  Just one more reason to explore this region by bike!  Mont Saint Michel bay is the largest area of salt meadows and polders in France, and is the home to the very famous salt meadow lamb which I came to love on this trip.  At this point, we were still more than 10km away from Mont Saint Michel!

The German Ossuaire in Huisne sur Mer

The German Ossuaire in Huisne sur Mer

One of the more sobering sights during this trip was the German Ossuaire or Mausoleum high on a hill overlooking the small town of Huisne sur Mer and Mont Saint Michel.  11,956 German soldiers killed during WW II are buried here, at the only German Mausoleum in France.

The weekly market in Pontorson

The weekly market in Pontorson

One of my favorite towns of the trip was Pontorson.  If you are planning a trip to Mont Saint Michel, this is the perfect town to stay in.  It is the quintessential Normandy town, oozing with charm, great restaurants and lacking all of the commercialism of other towns near Mont Saint Michel.

Mont Saint Michel from the Pontorson greenway

Mont Saint Michel from the Pontorson greenway

Bicycling to Mont Saint Michel on the greenway from Pontorson is an experience well worth the trip.  It was breathtaking to see the abbey gradually reveal itself with each pedal stroke.  This experience was priceless, a one in a million, and definitely something not possible to do by car.

The views along the Emerald Coast

The views along the Emerald Coast

As sad as it was leaving Normandy and Mont Saint Michel, we had no idea the beauty that lay ahead in Brittany!  The ride along the Emerald Coast from Mont Saint Michel to Cancale was spectacular in every way.

The gorgeous town of Cancale

The gorgeous town of Cancale

Definitely another highlight of the trip, Cancale was the kind of inviting town where you just felt like you belonged, especially after the day’s crowds left.

Don't miss low tide in Cancale

Don’t miss low tide in Cancale

Eating oysters right on the Bay. Priceless!

Eating oysters right on the Bay. Priceless!

Everything about our time in Cancale was an incredibly perfect memory, from the people to the scenery to the salt air to the food.  This is definitely a place to return to!

Hands down my favorite new treat of the trip!

Hands down my favorite new treat of the trip!

How could something made out of dough, local butter and sugar turn into something so delicious?  I am so glad that I didn’t discover how incredible these were until the end of my trip!  The Breton specialty, Kouign Amann or butter cake, is basically pastry dough with layers of rich Breton butter and sugar that slowly cooks until the butter puffs up the dough and the sugar carmelizes.  It can be served plain or can have fruit on top.  My favorite:  Kouign Amann with apples!

The gorgeous port of Dinan

The gorgeous port of Dinan

Even though I had been there before, the beauty of Dinan makes it one of my favorites in Brittany.

My last meal in Brittany at my favorite: La Saint Georges Creperie

My last meal in Brittany at my favorite: La Saint Georges Creperie in beautiful Rennes

We found ourselves in Rennes at the end of our trip much too soon.  There was still so much to see and do.  If only I had another week to bicycle down the canal from Rennes to the Loire.  But that will have to wait for another trip.

I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing some of the highlights of my trip.  Choosing such a few photos from over 1500 photos that I took was an incredible challenge and took much longer than I expected.  Stay tuned for more Normandy and Brittany stories including posts on what I would do differently and my favorite places to go and places to stay!

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.