If you’ve ever wondered why the French love cycling so much, hop on the saddle, hit the road and you will soon be hooked too. Justin Postlethwaite visits the tranquil islands off La Rochelle and falls in love with life in the slow lane.
Before visiting La Rochelle late last summer I was a French cycling break débutant – a vélo virgin, if you will. But now I’m hooked, and for reasons other than the obvious. The aesthetic and sensorial charms of touring this much loved, Atlantic-facing side of l’Hexagone on a bike are undeniable, yet it’s the experience of being a respected road user that cemented my two-wheeled love affair.
Given that it’s the home of the world’s greatest cycle race and that the joy of cycling is embedded in the national psyche, it’s no surprise that in France, even cyclists of the non-professional variety are accorded near reverence on the roads. As Mike, my über-friendly and helpful host from Freewheel Holidays points out during our route-planning rendezvous in the lobby of my La Rochelle hotel, “In France, you will be treated like a first-class road user.”
So it proves: ‘Partageons la rue’ signs inviting me to join the road are everywhere; motorists don’t get annoyed or impatient and give me plenty of room even when I stick well within marked cycle paths alongside the road; and at roundabouts I am granted time and space to negotiate turn-offs. During my few days in the saddle (I am on a truncated version of one of Freewheel’s specially tailored breaks) the only reason my heart rate quickens is due to the occasional steep incline, and never courtesy of an angry honk issued by a furious French driver.
La Rochelle, the base for two of the day-long tours, clearly loves its cyclists. For evidence, head to the beautiful port area, framed by magnificent defensive towers and a giant clock tower keeping watch over the old town’s arcaded boutiques and grand squares. Lined up in neat rows are dozens of bright yellow bikes for hire, each Vélo Jaune a ticket to explore the town’s park cycle paths or beyond the aquarium to the pleasure port. This ‘Yélo’ scheme (get it?), a pioneering one in France with origins back in the 1970s, has grown to incorporate a 150km network of cyclable routes, over 350 bikes for hire and public transport deals that include bike transport.
A sure-fire way of working off the calorific damage inflicted by a moelleux au chocolat with ganache and Chantilly cream – my dessert of choice at a quiet restaurant in the St Nicolas district the evening before – is to climb aboard a touring bicycle and power your way down the French coast for three hours. So here I am, passing through Chatellaillon-Plage, a delightful family seaside resort south of La Rochelle, en route to Fouras, from where I catch the ferry to Île d’Aix. When I say ‘power’, of course I mean ‘pootle’, for, having safely negotiated concrete paths and stony tracks to get here, I am easing gently along the one-way promenade. I stop for a quick drink beside an incongruous Cuban-themed beach bar and resume my journey to Fouras.
I follow the route waymarked in my handy map, housed neatly in the flap of my front pannier. You can keep your electronic route-finders that bark orders, this is old school map-reading – Sat Down Nav, if you will. The highlight of the roll into Fouras takes me along a lane parallel to a busy main road – thankfully there are few seat-of-the-pants, scary segments on these cycling breaks, which makes them perfect for cyclists with no experience. The last of the summer hay sits in ordered rounds as cows, lazing in the afternoon warmth, look up quizzically as I ping my bell. This is up-close French rustic heaven as witnessed on the move, with the benefit of a breeze on the face and all the sounds and scents that car travel won’t allow.
In Fouras I find the ferry port, camp out on a restaurant terrace for a quick (if dreadful) bite to eat and soon I am on the waves, spotting Fort Boyard – the old fortification made famous as an adventure game show location – in the distance as Île d’Aix looms large.
Once on terra firma it becomes clear that the ferry has taken me back in time. This island is like a postcard scene from 50 years ago, all whitewashed bungalows festooned with vibrant geraniums and tall hollyhocks, the single lane roads traffic-free apart from an occasional horse-drawn cart laden with snap-happy fellow sightseers. It’s bike heaven (you can hire one if you have arrived sans vélo), so I take a quick whizz around its circumference, passing secluded beaches and through forested trails, pausing for photo ops and an undeserved an ice-cream break (the salted caramel flavour is especially delicious, given that the salt is actually the finest fleur de sel from Île de Ré).
Catching the ferry back at tea-time allowed me to head back out of Fouras just in time for the train back to La Rochelle. Train travel is a very useful component of a cycling holiday in France, and the SNCF network’s efficiency and value need no plugs here.
Next morning, as we drove across the 2.9km toll bridge to Île de Ré, Mike was on hand again to check that our accommodation and equipment had been as tip-top as he hoped (it was). He also pointed us to some must-see villages to explore from our St Martin base. This is the island’s capital on the northern shore, at its heart a beautiful port clustered with restaurants and boutiques as fishing boats and cruisers bob around the horseshoe-shaped Quai Launay Razilly. This is purportedly where wealthy Parisians and France’s rich and famous come to spend their summer breaks – they have no trouble dispensing euros in the fine boutiques and arty outlets.
By bike is the perfect way to get to know Île de Ré. Leaving the buzz of the Saturday market behind after collecting my bike I headed west, negotiating smooth and well-marked cycle routes past oyster shacks and salt marshes towards Loix, a scenic village with a couple of restaurants and a carousel. Next stop a few miles south (after a fairly exhausting, wind-buffeted pedal past salt flats) was La Couarde-sur-Mer, a village as pretty as they come. A striking church steeple looks down on bunting-lined, narrow streets, whitewashed walls splashed with a lovely palette of pastels and reds from shop signs and hanging baskets. I wanted to stay longer than lunch but Ars-en-Ré was my next destination.
With its very cute, bar-lined pleasure port, Ars-en-Ré is decidedly lovely, an ideal spot for me to sip a beer after a day in the saddle. I checked out a few antiques shops and watched some regulars order half a dozen oysters in the fading evening light.
Next morning, another quick scoot out on the bike from St Martin and my all-too-brief debut en vélo was sadly over. I probably lucked out when choosing La Rochelle and Île de Ré as a first-timer but such is my new-found fondness for being carefree on the French trails that a cycling trip will be on my list every year without fail. Where next I wonder? The Loire, Provence, Brittany…?