Dates: 16 April – 13 May 2019 (27 days)
Distance cycled: 1,300km
Regions covered: Normandy, Pays de la Loire, Poitou Charentes, Perigord, Dordogne, Midi Pyrenees, Languedoc-Roussillon
Key towns & cities: Arromanches-les-bains, Bayeux, Angers, Poitiers, Perigueux, Tolouse, Carcassonne
Blog posts: Three – read them here
- Visiting Bayeux – the tapestry was awe-inspiring and the war cemeteries were incredibly moving.
- Discovering the town of Chinon; we had a perfect view of this beautiful fortified town lit up at night from our campsite across the river.
- The Saturday market in Perigueux. A truly French experience.
- Being able to roll in to a bakery to pick up pain au chocolats and bread every. single. morning. Heaven.
- The amazing warmshowers.org hosts we stayed with
We essentially cut through the heart of Western France, starting in the north and heading down to the southeast. (Note: the Google map shows roughly all the places we stopped, but not the exact route. See Navigation below for more info.)
We followed sections of many national cycle routes and river paths. These are very easy to follow, but they also have their own websites, which are really useful for planning how to break up your route (also for the odd bit of navigation when you’re desperate!):
When we weren’t following established cycle routes, we used the excellent navigation app Komoot. It was very useful at keeping us off the busy D-roads and – we hardly ever cycled on a main road, meaning it often felt like we had the roads to ourselves.
France also has an incredible network of voies vertes – old train tracks that have been converted into walking and biking routes. There is a website, but we didn’t find it very useful for detailed planning. Instead we’d recommend going old school; look out for green road signs and take an up to date road map – they usually highlight these routes in green. Komoot is also quite good at putting you on to them.
We recorded where we didn’t use national cycle routes or voies vertes on Komoot. All recorded routes can be found on Milla’s profile.
A quick tip – it seems obvious, but when leaving a big town or city try to avoid the roads in rush hour, which is between around 7-9.30. It’ll just make your ride more manageable.
UK – France
We took the Portsmouth – Caen ferry with Brittany Ferries. A very easy crossing; you secure your bike in the hold below and just enjoy the ride. The ferry actually docks at Ouistreham, which is north of Caen. There is a cycle route that literally starts at the entrance to the terminal and takes you all the way along the D-Day beaches to Arromanches and beyond.
We wanted to get in at least a little climbing through the Pyrenees, so we crossed the border at Perthus, although the Perpignan border on the coast is very popular with cyclists. Perthus is less a of town and more of a crossing with lots of duty free shops and there is nowhere to stay – you have to carry on to La Jonquera if you want a bed. We stayed in a good hotel in La Jonquera, but discovered some lovely-looking wild camping spots just on the other side of town the next day – it seems loud and busy, but you’re very quickly in the countryside. Alternatively you could stay in one of the many campsites on the French side in Estagel and cross the border the next morning.
We had grand plans of wild camping as much as possible, but actually found at the beginning of our trip this was quite challenging, so most nights we went for campsites and also treated ourselves to a couple of B&Bs. Being completely new to cycling, we were desperate for showers almost every day – very important to stave off saddle sores, which constantly threatened while our bodies got used to the bikes.
In the north of France, we discovered the marvel that is the camping municipal: subsidised campsites, often very close to the town centre. Every camping municipal we stayed at was clean, safe and had a good shower block with hot water, and never more than €7. Sadly these are a bit of a dying breed, and as we went further south it was more private campsites. However, as we were travelling in the low season many sites had just opened, so it wasn’t too bad; our most expensive night was €20, but generally we paid between €10-€15.
We enjoyed a couple of “sneaky” wild camping spots, but also asked people a couple of times in more rural areas if they had a space where we could pitch our tent; they were always very nice and helpful, and we slept more easily knowing we had permission.
About once a week we would take a break from camping and stay with a host from Warmshowers. This was the absolute best part of cycling through France; Milla blogged about Warmshowers because it is so fantastic – read more here.
France is a big country; it can often feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere and have it all to yourself, but one thing’s for certain – you are never too far from a bakery. We weren’t particularly adventurous with food, because when you can have a pain au chocolate for breakfast and a ham and cheese baguette for lunch every day, why would you deviate?!
In the evenings we would usually cook our own food on the camp stove, normally pasta or stew. Because we almost never cycled on the main roads, we would have to go out of our way to find one of the famous massive French supermarkets, but when we did we would just stock up as much as possible. Ham and cheese lasts surprisingly long in a pannier!
Equipment and supplies
One word: Decathlon. Most major towns have a decathlon on the outskirts and they have everything you need: camping gas, multipurpose soap, spare guy ropes and bungee cord were just some of the things we bought there. An absolute life saver.
Drinking water can be found in cemeteries in every town and village, so you never need to take too much at a time. These are usually well-signposted.
Almost always dry, sunny, classic European spring weather. If our tent was wet from condensation we would get it out to dry on our lunch break. We had a couple of downpours around Toulouse and Carcasonne, but they were manageable.
Est-ce que vouz pouvez remplir nos bouteilles/ma bouteille avec de l’eau?
Please can you fill up our bottles/my bottle with water?
Ess-cuh voo poo-vay rom-pleer noh boo-tie/ma boo-tie a-veck do low?
Nous cherchons un lieu pour monter notre tente. Es-ce que vous pouver nous aider?
We are looking for somewhere to pitch our tent. Can you help us?
noo sher-shons uhn lee-oo por mon-tay not-reh tont. Ess-cuh voo poo-vay nooze ay-day?
Ou est [la boulangerie/le camping/le supermarche] plus pres d’ici?
Where is the nearest…[bakery/campsite/supermarket]?
ooh ay [la boo-lahn-jerry/le camping/le soo-per-mar-shay] ploo pray dee-see?
To wrap it up
Well, in case you didn’t realise already, we just loved France. For first-time cycle tourers it is an absolute dream. We’ve both been across the channel a fair few times, but seeing so much of this country by bike really opened our eyes and has left us wanting to keep returning. We were lucky to have a decent amount of French between us so we could have nice conversations with locals and get to know people a little more. This did enhance the trip, but you’d have an amazing time regardless. There are so many towns to discover beyond the regular tourists spots, with culture and history in every corner.
As for whether it was good preparation for the Andes? Well, it was hardly extreme altitudes, harsh climates or basic living, but for us it showed us that we could cycle long distances and that, really, it’s not that hard. This was a massive advantage for us mentally, as if we had flown straight out to Peru we would have been even more scared than we already were!
Got any questions for us? Drop them in the comments below and we’ll get back to you