Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Day 1

The MV Bretagne docked in St Malo under lead-coloured skies and a thin drizzle. This was not how I expected or wished my trip to begin. The plan was to find the V2 cycle-route across Brittany and to follow it to my first stop at Saint-Germain-sur-Ille. The cyclists were disembarked first, to the evident irritation of vehicle-drivers and we filed down the ramp, a pretty motley bunch, the eldest of whom must have been in his eighties, a stringy old bird with a chirpy manner and the oddest assortment of clothing you could imagine.

St Malo in the rain

I rode to the town and took a quick look around. It appeared more like a stage set than a living community and I decided that there was nothing to detain me any further there. I went down to the jetty from which the St Malo - Dinard ferry leaves and found that the next boat was due to leave in over an hour. I chose therefore to go to the beginning of the cycle-track by road. Thus my grand intentions of steering religiously clear of routes bearing motorised traffic fell at the first hurdle. The ride around the coast via the Barrage de la Rance (the only tidal power-station in the world)

Le Barrage de la Rance

was nerve-wracking as there was absolutely no provision at all for cyclists, and lorry-drivers, in particular, seemed to be out to get us. I was only just beginning to get used to my front-mounted load and wobbling quite a bit. So I was very relieved to find access to the piste cyclable just south of Dinard. Once on the piste everything changed. The weather started to perk up and the traffic became a distant memory.

The 'piste cyclable' towards Pleurtuit

The surface of the cycle-track, which runs from the centre of Dinard to Samson-sur-Rance on the route of the former Dinard-Dinan railway is a sort of coarse grit for the whole of its length. This surface can at times get a bit waterlogged after heavy rain and at some points, the effect can be like riding on wet sand. But it appears to drain quickly and soon the going was tolerably easy.

My new nobbly Panaracers slowed me down appreciably, but I doubt very much whether slicker tyres would have improved things at all. The track itself rises on a slow gradient out of Dinard and runs in long straight lines due south.

The cycle-track near Pleurtuit

I only ran into trouble at one point on the whole length of this particular track and that was just south of Pleurtuit where an underpass under a road had been built for the cycle-track without apparently any thought having been given to drainage. The tunnel had a few inches of water in it and under the water was a thick bed of sticky mud. I hit this at speed and came to a grinding halt in the middle of the underpass, at which point I had to put my feet in the gooey mess and push myself out the other side.

Between Samson-sur-Rance and the tow-path along the Rance itself, the route is well marked and there's no chance of getting lost. There's a bit of the river-bank to do between Taden and Dinan before one gets to the tow-path of the Canal d'Ille-et-Rance proper that constitutes the next stage of this particular route across Brittany.

The path into Dinan is very pretty and the town itself fairly easy on the eye.

Arriving at Dinan

Short of tackling a steep climb, however, it's difficult to visit anything but the touristy bit down by the river. This is pleasant enough though quickly visited. A coffee in a bar was about all I could manage before continuing along the chemin de halage. I didn't stay long because there was a bunch of raucous Brits on the terrace, already drunk at this time.

Coffee in Dinan

At Lehon, I almost ran into a lady who had set up her easel and paint-box right in the middle of the cycle-track in order to paint the abbey. She took a step back from her painting just at the wrong moment and I had to swerve to avoid her and left her looking daggers at me.

The abbey of Lehon

After Lehon, the weather perked up considerably and the track dried out. I made rapid progress and was in Evran for lunch. I sat on the canal-side and munched the cheese andsaucisson sandwiches I had made from rather dubious-looking provisions bought from the only shop open in Evran - a little delicatessen the gloomy interior of which didn't allow any close inspection of what was for sale. I think the shopkeeper had been waiting for a character such as me in order to offload his dodgy wares. Across the canal a bunch of school-children shouted abuse, secure in the knowledge that there was no way I could approach them.

The Canal d'Ille-et-Rance near Evran

Encouraged by this to finish my lunch, I polished off my faintly rancid sandwiches and set off for Saint-Germain.

The tow-path is a very interesting ride because it becomes obvious that this canalised river was state-of-the-art transport technology at the begining of the nineteenth century when Napoleon I authorised its construction on the 21st of pluviôse of the year 11, in response to threats of a blockade by the perfidious English. The bridges, lock-keepers' houses and the locks themselves testify to a single, co-ordinating design.

After the famous Eleven Locks of Hédé, the cycle-track joined the GR 37 footpath and left the canal-side proper. It also became noticeably less bike-friendly with ruts, tree-roots and deep puddles to make the going tough. It was at this point that a thunder-storm arrived. I was under the trees near the Bassin de Bazouges and hadn't noticed the arrival of the black clouds. But once the rain set in it was of the wettest variety possible and I was soon soaked to the skin despite my waterproofs.

Near the 11 locks of Hédé

By the time I got to Montreuil-sur-Ille, the sun had come out again. But I was seriously wet and I stopped to take rueful stock of my situation. I was disastrously unprepared for the rain. Every stitch of clothing was soaked. My shoes were full of water and squelching disagreeably. The banana-bag around my waist containing all my documents, money and camera was also soaked. However, everything wasn't entirely swamped. I'd had the foresight to put all of my spare clothes in waterproof bags inside my panniers, so all of the contents of these were perfectly dry. I stopped in Montreuil at a supermarket and squelched in leaving puddles of water behind me to buy some provisions for my dinner, since I knew that Madame David at the chambres d'hôte of La Touche Allard didn't provide any. [ see: ] I made sure I got a good bottle of Médoc as compensation for my soaking and for the prospect of a fairly dismal evening meal.

I arrived at Saint-Germain-sur-Ille which is just south of Montreuil at around six. Madame David turned out to be a motherly little woman who quickly agreed to wash and dry out all of my soaking things. The accommodation is more gîte than chambre d'hôte, but comfortable nevertheless and reasonably cheap. The establishment is a working farm, producing kiwis, and the accommodation is in converted farm-buildings. The interior is a little gloomy, but perfectly decent. I shared this space with a chap who had just found work in the area. He was a melancholy sort of bloke who told me numerous tales of French discrimination against the Bretons such as the disproportionate number of Breton deaths in the wars and the origin of the verb baragouiner (to babble incoherently) in the Bretonwords for 'bread' and 'wine'. Uncharacteristically for a Breton he didn't drink much, so I finished the bottle of Médoc single-handed and retired gratefully for the night, in readiness for a very early start the following morning.

Day 2

I got up early and went to breakfast in the David dwelling. Breakfast consisted of first-rate coffee, four varieties of crusty bread and a couple of croissants, salt-free butter, various conserves, most of which were made from or contained kiwis, yoghurt and a bowl of fresh kiwis. I met the farmer Monsieur David, the kiwi specialist who showed an almost childlike pride in his product, insisting that I visit his kiwi fields before leaving the area. The Davids are a thoroughly decent and likeable couple and their establishment which is less than half a mile from the canal [bookable at:] has my unreserved recommendation.

The day was fairly gloomy and uncertain-looking. But at least it wasn't raining heavily. The light drizzle came and went as I began the last bit of the tow-path along the Canal d'Ille-et-Rance to Rennes.

The previous day's rain had not only waterlogged the grit of the cycle-track's surface, but also loaded every overhanging branch and clump of grass with gallons of water. Even though the rain stopped completely at around ten o'clock, I nevertheless got soaked again from puddles and downpours from the vegetation. I arrived in Rennes at around 10.30 am and had a look around.

Street in old Rennes

The Parliament of Brittany

Although the Rando-Breizh website shows a cycle-track going all the way from St Malo to Arzal on the southern coast of Brittany without a break, [see: ttp:// ] I had been warned by a comment on the AF3V website [] to expect difficulties on leaving Rennes. Moreover, the website that features the cycle-track along the river Vilaine [ ] shows the thing beginning at Pont-Réan. Taking these things into consideration and since the sky was starting to look threatening again, I jumped on a local commuter train and took a short ride to just beyond the southern suburbs of Rennes. I picked up the chemin de halage that runs along the river Vilaine just south of Bruz. That was where I began the second leg of my trip proper to the second chambres d'hôte located on the edge of the Gannedel marsh north of Redon.

The weather perked up almost as soon as I started riding and it was soon warm and sunny. I stopped just south of Pléchatel for lunch and was told by an old chap fishing there that I could easily have followed the tow-path all the way from the centre of Rennes. Moreover, the AF3V site also indicates the existence of this path from the centre of Rennes [see:] but I'd missed this particular bit of information. Anyway, I'd dried out almost completely on the train, so I didn't regret taking it. Nor did I regret missing the struggle through the morning traffic south of the city, for that is what I would have done had I not taken the train.

The tow-path from Pont-Réan to St Malo-de-Phily

The ride from that point on was a real pleasure, passing through some very beautiful scenery. Sometimes a bit of road follows the river for a good few kilometres and presents an alternative to the surface of the tow-path.

The section of the tow-path from St Malo-de-Phily to Langon

The journey from Pléchatel to Messac and Guipry and from there to Langon went off without a hitch in bright sunshine. The only obstacle on the tow-path was a group of about fifty school children all wobbling uncertainly and shrieking with excitement as they made their way along the river under the rather careless supervision of a couple of put-upon teachers. I seized the opportunity presented by a piece of road parallel to the river to overtake them. Otherwise I think I would have spent a long time gasping with impatience and trying in vain to get past.

The Vilaine valley towards Messac

I arrived at the exit-point from the tow-path that the proprietor of that evening'schambres d'hôte had indicated in her directions, but a passing horseman advised me to carry on a bit further in order to avoid the hill rising from the river bank at Trégut. I followed his advice and arrived in the village of Gannedel, on the edge of the Gannedel marsh at around 6.00 pm.

The accommodation, 'L'Hôt'Berge', was in an old Breton property that had been the home of Madame Guémené's grand-parents. [ see: ] At that time it had been a fairly primitive sort of house the upper floor of which was reached by an external ladder. Madame Guémené had completely transformed the place, into a sort of showpiece of eco-friendly restoration with bare wood and lime and straw render everywhere. The guest-rooms, however, were far from spartan as such an arrangement might lead one to expect. Surprisingly they were decorated according to various themes associated with various types of boat. I was given the felucca room with its Egyptian décor.

Hot'Berge Chambres d'Hôte, Gannedel, La Chappelle-de-Brain

As the only guest in the establishment, I was received with some generosity if not extravagance. Dinner was provided here and after sampling a local apéritif based on honey and quince I was served toasted chèvre on pain d'épices and green salad, followed by a magnificent fish couscous. Various Breton cheeses appeared and then fresh garden strawberries and cream to finish off. Madame Guémené joined me for dinner and told me the history of her property. The place is slightly more pricey than the previous night's accommodation, but the food was excellent and the company (Monsieur, a local GP joined us later) quite entertaining.

The section of the tow-path from Langon to Redon

I spent an excellent night in the Egyptian room and Madame Guémené's advice for the continuation of my trip beyond Redon was to prove invaluable, as was her abundant packed lunch, containing, as she said lots of sucres lents for the restoration of flagging muscles. Again, I have no hesitation at all in recommending 'L'Hôt'Berge' to anyone planning to cycle along the tow-path of la Vilaine.

Day 3

The third day began with cloudless skies and brilliant sunshine. This continued throughout the whole day's ride and resulted in my getting fried without realising that it was happening.

Breakfast at 'L'Hôt'Berge' was as abundant, appetizing and remarkable as dinner had been. I sat down at the long table in the dining room in front of a spread that looked as if it was for a large party. Cheeses, cold meats, numerous jams, yoghurt, fresh bread of various sorts, croissants, fresh fruit, several juices, and, of course a large pot of first-rate coffee. Apparently Madame Guémené (her family-name presumably some reference to the town of Guémené-Penfao, about 20km east of Redon) had formed the opinion from yesterday's performance at dinner that I ate like a bird and insisted that I make a more valiant effort this morning, given the exertions to come. I attacked the food with all the gusto I could muster, but hardly succeeded in making a dent in it. Being rather paranoid, I began to feel that I was being tested. At all events, I concluded that I had failed the test when I made a mess of Madame Guémené's special cheese-paring thingummybob. I mention this simply as an example of her attention to detail. This particular item on the breakfast table had intrigued me from the start. It was a perfectly round cheese that sat upon a round, flat metal plate and was transfixed to this plate by a metal spike to which was attached a horizontal blade. I thought this device was a conventional cheese cutter and vainly tried to press it downwards in order to cut a wedge-shaped piece from the perfectly round cake-shaped chunk. Of course this attempt failed, because the device functioned quite differently. The perfectly intact crust around the cheese should have given me a clue, as should the fact that the crust on top of the cheese was missing and the exposed surface of he cheese perfectly smooth. In fact one was supposed to rotate the blade on top of the cheese (there was a knob at the end of the blade for this purpose) and produce thereby a very thin, circular slice that folded itself up into a fan shape in the course of the procedure. A number of these fan-shaped slices were already on the plate, to give me the right idea. Bone-headed and overawed by the breakfast as I was, I followed my first idea and damaged the perfectly round cheese pretty badly. Madame Guémené, when she appeared, surveyed my efforts with dismay and a tiny hint of exasperation. I had clearly failed that particular test. Anyway, I failed the principal test as well, since I clearly did not do the expected justice to this marvellously Pantagruelic breakfast.

The dining room in Madame Guémené's 'Hot' Berge' guest-house.

I was anxious to get off to a good start and quickly thanked Madame Guémené, paid, pumped up my tyres and took off, feeling a little overfed, but full of beans nonetheless.

When she learned that I was planning to follow the river Vilaine beyond Redon, Madame Guémené explained that I was quite wrong to assume that the tow-path would continue beyond Redon for the simple reason that from the coast to Redon, barges had moved up and down the river under sail and no tow-path had ever been constructed. She advised against trying to find a way of following the river by either road or path since that required an intimate knowledge of the area and would almost certainly result in enormous loss of time in my case. Instead, she advised that if I followed the Brest-Nantes canal as far as the Pont de Miny, from there I could use the small roads to Séverac.

The route from Gannedel to Séverac

From Séverac, it would then be small roads all the way to Missillac, La Chappelle-des-Marais, St Lyphard, Guérande and then from there to La Baule, my destination for the evening. This turned out to be the best route, given the time constraints, I could have used. It gave me time to visit Guérande, which was one of my intentions. But it didn't allow me, obviously, to use the coastal paths around the various headlands from Pénestin that had been part of my original plans. I was a little annoyed to begin with that I had thus to abandon my purist intention to keep away from traffic-bearing highways. But in the end I don't think I could have done it any other way without vastly more time.

I pedalled off to Lezin and joined the river bank there. The weather was perfect: not too hot despite the brilliant sunshine and with a light breeze at my back. There were faint skeins of mist on the surface of the river, but apart from that the air was perfectly clear. The only other human being I spotted in my ride to Redon was the guy in the picture below in his rectangular boat, fishing with a strange sort of net that he constantly raised from and lowered in to the water without apparently catching anything.

Early morning fisherman on the river Vilaine

On arrival in Redon, I quickly visited the town, located the Brest-Nantes canal - not a difficult task, given the small size of the place - and set off along it.

The canal tow-path was a pleasant enough ride, well-surfaced and fairly scenic. But I almost missed the Pont de Miny which was not signposted. A passing postwoman told me that the Pont de Miny was the one I was looking at; and without that I would have just carried straight on and got lost. The roads to Séverac were also difficult to find and I was reduced, again, to asking locals every so often. Once at Séverac, however, I simply followed the D2 to Missillac,

Château de la Bretesche at Missillac

then to La Chappelle-des-Marais and from there the D51 to Saint Lyphard

The pink church of Saint Lyphard

and Guérande.

Guérand is a small medieval town entirely built of grey stone and surrounded by a thick ring of ghastly suburbs, commercial parks, modern hotels and large roads.

The main square in Guérande

A quick look around the town, which was preparing for some sort of festival and had irritating piped music in every street, a beer in a café and I was back on the road again, heading for La Baule



I tried in vain to find the cycle-track that apparently links Guérande and La Baule and simply set off on the small roads, following my map. I arrived in La Baule at around six-thirty and located my hotel, the Hôtel Marini on the Avenue Georges Clémenceau.

Hôtel Le Marini, La Baule Escoublac

I had time for a quick visit of the town, a trip to the supermarket for provisions for my evening meal and that was about it.

The sea-front in La Baule

La Baule is a pretty unremarkable place despite its reputation as a chic resort. The old part of town is a jumble of largely nineteenth-century villas on a warren of small roads. But this part of town is screened from the sea by a forbidding wall of high-rise twentieth-century appartment-blocks and hotels.

I dined on the usual cheese and charcuterie washed down with a bottle of Médoc and I fell gratefully into bed, conscious that my arms were on fire. I was badly burned not only on my arms but on my face as well. This came as a bit of a surprise because the day had not been hot. But the sunlight had been intense and the burns were badly blistered in no time.