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axolotl 07-11-10 07:34 PM

notes from a recent trip to France (Provence, Burgundy, Normandy)
I recently (May/June) spent nearly 3 weeks biking in 3 different regions of France on my folding Bike Friday New World Tourist. I started out in Avignon is southern France. I first biked south to Arles then east to Cavaillon to begin the véloroute Autour du Luberon (around the Luberon), a very pretty region of Provence I had somehow missed on previous trips.

Here's a link for an English-language website which describes the route.

It is well signposted, and is almost entirely on little used roads or paved farm paths. The scenery along 95% of the route is gorgeous. It's 236 km long (141 miles). There are a couple of other signposted véloroutes which branch off from it. The route is not flat. In fact, near the eastern end near Forcalquier, you climb up to about 800m (2,500 ft), but the gradients aren't too bad. I was surprised that there were views of the Alps near Forcalquier. The route goes through lots of picture-perfect villages. I followed about 80% of the route, but sometimes took detours to see other villages. The southern half of the route has fewer tourists. Free bilingual French-English brochures of the routes are available in tourist offices in the region.

Rather than return to Cavaillon, I headed north through the very pretty Nesque gorge to Sault and then climbed Mont Ventoux. Sault is the easiest of the three approaches to the 1,912 m (6,273 ft) summit. It wasn't as difficult as I feared, but the last 6 km are quite steep. Since I had panniers, all of the racing types were passing me. It was a gorgeous spring day and there were hundreds of cyclists riding up from all directions that day. There was quite a zoo at the summit.

From the summit, I descended the steep road to Malaucene and continued to Orange in the Rhone valley. The next day I took a train to Mâcon in southern Burgundy (I had to transfer in Lyon). On most non-TGV trains in France, it is very easy to board a train with your bike. Certain rail cars had hooks to hang your bike from. It couldn't be easier, and your bike travels for free. (on TGVs which take bikes, you have to pay 10 euros)

A short distance west of Mâcon there begins a 70 km paved rail-trail ending in Chalon-sur-Saone to the north.

It's a wonderful trail. In the south, you're riding through the Mâcon-Villages wine area. You pass through a superb 1.6 km (1.0 mile) tunnel called "Bois Clair". It's well-lit, straight, and flat. It's closed during the winter months and at night. It's a bat habitat. Along much of it, TGV train tracks are nearby. It's the main TGV route from Paris to Lyon and the Mediterranean, so trains are going by every few minutes. For a moment as a train approaches, the noise sounds like a jet is about to fly overhead. Then the train comes and goes by in a few seconds.

From Chalon-sur-Saone, another bike path goes to the northwest. I followed it for a while then branched due north to a signposted véloroute to Beaune and Dijon. Along this route, you pass through the most famous vineyards of Burgundy and some pretty villages.

From Dijon, you can head to the northwest along the Burgundy Canal, an unpaved towpath. In some portions, the towpath was a bit soft which slows progress a bit, but it was usually fairly smooth. Near the castle and town of Ancy-le-Franc, there are signs indicating it was not (yet) permitted to continue along the path, presumably because the path hasn't been improved yet. However I continued to ride with no problems, though the path became narrow and the surface a bit bumpy. I then left the trail and continued to the gorgeous medieval village of Noyers, then though the Chablis region, and on to Auxerre. Free maps are available in tourist offices for these bike paths and canal routes.

I took a train to go from Auxerre to Paris, then another from Paris to Carentan in Normandy, near the D-Day beaches. In Paris you have to ride across town to go from one train station to another. I found myself in Normandy over the 66th anniversary of D-Day (June 6), and I was surprised by all of the ceremonies and remembrances. In Carentan, for example, there were hundreds of small allied flags (France, USA, Canada, UK, and also EU) strung up all throughout the business district of the small town. Lots of shops had special window displays with old WWII artifacts. The nearby Cotentin peninsula and Carentan itself were liberated by American soldiers, and I was surprised by how many private houses were displaying either all of the allied flags or 2 flags, French & American. I came across a wreath-laying ceremony at Utah Beach, a parade and street fair in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, and a special ceremony further east at a British & Commonwealth cemetery east of Caen. At the church in Ste-Mere-Eglise, there was a dummy hanging from a parachute caught on the roof, just as an actual paratrooper had been caught. (he survived) Throughout Normandy, there were vintage US army jeeps driving around everywhere I went. In the Cotentin, there were permanent memorial markers to individual soldiers every kilometer or so. I came across many small memorials in villages or just along a rural road, honoring the British, Canadian, American, Danish, & Belgian soldiers who took part in the liberation of Normandy. There were re-enactment camps in various places. Lots of flags in these camps, including the old Canadian flag pre-maple leaf. There were a lot of things I learned while biking in the area. For example, I had no idea that Danish, Belgian, & Luxembourg soldiers took part in the allied campaign. For whatever reason, there seemed to be more villages and individual homes which were displaying flags in towns and villages liberated by American troops, than in towns liberated by Canadian or British troops. One British cyclist noticed the same difference.

There are many museums throughout the area, often quite good. In addition to these WWII museums, there's also the superb Bayeux Tapestry you can see.

The US cemetery near Omaha Beach is a remarkable place, with over 9,000 graves on a magnificent bluff overlooking the sea. One significant difference between the US & British cemeteries is that the British generally buried their war dead near where they died, whereas the American war dead were ultimately grouped together in a few large cemeteries. Therefore there are a lot of small British & Commonwealth cemeteries. I came across several in isolated places, often surrounded by farm fields. Regardless of their size, all of these allied cemeteries of every nationality are immaculately maintained.

I ended my cycling in the pretty beach towns of Deauville & Trouville and then spent a few days in Paris. I had great weather for nearly all of the cycling, though Provence & Normandy were unusually warm. I enjoyed all 3 regions. I had been to Normandy & Provence previously, but not the specific regions I biked in this time. Although I recommend all three regions, my favorite part of France for touring remains Perigord (Dordogne & Lot valleys) in the southwest.

NoGaBiker 07-11-10 08:19 PM

What a wonderful trip! I had the good fortune to travel about 250 miles around the Luberon last September with a close friend from London. We headed southeast towards Menerbes out of the Avignon TGV station. Eventually looped up north to Sault, stripped our bikes and left the gear in the hotel to climb Ventoux then back to Sault for the night. What a great climb, and even better descent!!! :) Eventually crossed our own earlier path as we headed southwest through Cavaillon to Arles'

For us, the wonder of this trip was that it was entirely unplanned. Each night we'd stop at the town we were closest to when we started getting hungry. Stop in at the Office de Tourisma and ask for a Gites or Hotel de Chambre (sort of B&B in a farmhouse on the outskirts of town, usually). We'd call the madame, make arrangements, pedal out to her inevitably gorgeous and happily situated ancestral estate, shower and change in our spacious, well-appointed upstairs bedroom/suite, then pedal back into town for a 3000-calorie feast. Between courses one of us would pull out the Michelin and say, "Hmmmmmm... how about we head up to Antoine-sur-la-Lac tomorrow? Looks like a scenic route to me," and that would be the sum total of our route planning.

It was the most leisurely time I've ever spent on a bike, and it changed everything about my riding. We did the whole trip on Lynskey ti race bikes with seatpost racks, but I now would redo the trip on relaxed geometry touring bikes, even if I wasn't carrying any more stuff. We averaged 12mph for the whole trip because so much time was spent coasting or climbing slowly through ancient villages of unspeakable beauty. To go any faster would have been to discard beauty with heartbreaking wantonness.

Glad you got to see this region. Sounds like your other two destinations were just as fantastic!


prxmid 07-12-10 06:23 AM

any pics?? would love to see your set-up and some highlights

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