We sent Tracy Melass off on Veloscenic, the long-distance bike route from Paris to Mont St-Michel. Here's her blow-by-blow description of her 7-day adventure. Photos thanks to Chenél Ferreira.
Sitting in my office in Cape Town on a miserable winter’s day, a 433km bike ride through northern France seemed like the stuff of dreams. From a magnificent capital city to one of the most unique and beautiful UNESCO World Heritage sites, passing through four regions of northern France, 8 départments, taking in the country’s top three tourist attractions (Eiffel Tower, Palace of Versailles and Mont-Saint-Michel), more chateaux, cathedrals and churches you could shake a baguette at, eye-wateringly beautiful scenery, a bucolic wonderland of golden fields, endless tree canopies, voies vertes, rivers, chocolate-box villages, Percherons horses, men playing pétanque, al fresco pique-niques … Fade out.
Except it wasn’t a dream. As a temporary roving reporter/photographer team for this website, we had made it our mission to test this well-established, well-known French cycling route.
I'm an occasional cyclist (I've cycled across Cuba for charity and done the odd Cape Town Cycle Tour), while photographer Chenel is less a weekend warrior than bi-annual warrior. Neither of us had ever cycled in France, my French was barely passable. What would we do if we got lost? Or ran out of steam?
Nothing ever really quite prepares you for a physical – or orienteering — test, but we aced it. Not without a few mishaps, mind you. Did it live up to expectation? Far exceeded it. Was it an experience of a lifetime? Yes! Would I do it again? Definitely!
Day 1 – Versailles to Maintenon (82km)
Route: Shared roads and voie verte
It felt like we were on the Amazing Race. At the crack of dawn, clutching our Veloscenic Velo Guide, we posed for photographs with our bikes in front of Versailles. There were aerobatic butterflies, of course, but we were bristling with excitement. Miraculously, there was not a tourist in sight. It was still much too early for the flotilla of tour buses and their army of camera-wielding tourists.
Given time constraints (we had seven days to complete 433km, and, in some cases, had combined two days of riding into one), we had caught the RER from Paris (after a quick visit to the Eiffel Tower, of course) to the Versailles Rive-Gauche station the afternoon before.
We wanted an early start and the chance to visit the State Rooms and gardens at Versailles. It’s a good jumping-off point; close enough to Paris but a little less intimidating for novices to tackle on two wheels. And, well, who doesn’t want to take a selfie in front of the Palais de Versailles, in cycling gear, at sunrise?
We stayed at the perfectly appointed Hotel le Versailles (below) the night before, where we met our bikes for the first time (mountain bikes with slicks generously provided by the Yvelines tourist office, via Loca Cycles in Rambouillet). We packed and repacked our panniers (note to self: less is best), made a mad dash to a conveniently located cycling store around the corner to buy forgotten water bottles and a lock, bought a local SIM card and data in town, and studied our map for the next day’s route.
At dinner time we took a leisurely stroll into the old town for dinner at Restaurant Le Saint Julien – a charming 18th-century building close to the palace – for an unfussy but memorable meal conjured up by chef Jean-Baptiste. Co-owner Justine, his sister and manager, was warm and welcoming and full of tales of her own visit to South Africa. We dined al fresco outside until the heavens opened and water poured off the outside awning. Not what cyclists want to see the night before starting the Veloscenic. Especially as we had ignored all sound advice from this website to come prepared, waterproofs and all.
“It always rains in Normandy,” Lyn had said.
But it’s summer in France! I had thought excitedly, back in South Africa, having struggled through a gruelling Cape Town winter. The rain gear had been left behind.
At 7.30am the next day, we set off, preparing to gingerly navigate our way out of Versailles as the morning commuter traffic started to build. But it was dead easy. Standing with your back to Versailles, there’s a bike track on the right, leading you down Avenue de Paris and out of the city.
The route would take us via Buc, St Remy-les-Chevreuse, the stunning Cheveuse valley, charming little villages with exotic-sounding names like Les Loges-en-Josas, Chateaufort, Choisel, La Celle-les-Bordes, and then onto Rambouillet, Epernon and Maintenon.
We experienced bike paths in excellent condition, some shared roads (where you had to keep focused and ride carefully), and the voie verte, which would become my favourite cycling element of the whole trip. Smooth, traffic-less, well-maintained, tree-lined paths that wound through the French countryside.
We had been warned that this first part was a work in progress or 'experimental', with the Velocenic signage only starting in Epernon… We knew better, of course, treating a detailed map book and GPS with the same disdain we'd treated the waterproofs.
While it did not quite prove our undoing on the trip, it was enough to make me pronounce with utmost authority: take a detailed map book and a GPS.
We got lost on Day 1. Pretty badly. Part bad signposting, part bravado, part geographic ignorance. And we all know what that means; adding precious kilometres to an already gruelling first day of 82km.
We had blow-by-blow instructions from the kind people at Yvelines tourism (also downloadable on Veloscenic.com) but, as is often the case with map reading, it can be open to interpretation. Or maybe that’s just my map-reading skills... We knew the general direction, but had to be careful not to turn onto main roads and motorways — which is what my iPhone GPS kept insisting we do.
We didn't just take a wrong turn, the whole day was one, long wrong turn. Take this example: after pushing our bikes up the vertiginous Chemin des Rosiers, we discovered that, we, in fact, had to descend it again. And after cycling through Chateaufort, we discovered it again, about an hour later. It was like Groundhog Day…
But did we grumble? No!
It was a blast. We were forced to interact with all manner of locals: asking anyone from a postman, to a policeman, to a gravedigger (dragged from his digging in the Chateaufort cemetery), the friendly lady on reception at a Mairie in some or other small town …
And where we didn’t ask, we didn't have to. Standing next to our bikes, peering at the map in our Velo Guide, we had people pulling over in their cars, off the road, to offer advice and directions. Take it from me: You may get lost; but you will never get truly lost. And contrary to popular belief, the French are utterly delightful and friendly.
We didn’t even mind when the heavens opened outside of Rambouillet and we had to huddle for shelter under a, er, leafless tree. Okay, we did mind. We had plastic covers for our panniers though, which meant it was just egos and cycling clothes that got soaked.
Lunch was a baguette warmed from the sun (breakfast leftovers) with squishy Camembert oozing out the sides, boiled eggs, melted chocolate and tepid water from a tap at the Chevreuse municipal building. Eaten, wait for it, sitting on the pavement in the main street of exquisite Chevreuse.
Our entrée has been a ride through the exquisite Chevreuse Valley, with magnificent views on our descent, and a pretty ride along the Yvette River, flowing though the Yvelines and Essonne departments.
As we entered the département of Les Yvelines, there were some challenging slopes, but our reward was to come in the form of cycle tracks through Rambouillet Forest (see here for guided bike tours).
After exploring the Jardin Anglais at Rambouillet, we joined the Guéville Valley, with pleasant little roads leading to Epernon, perched above the confluence of three rivers.
We made slower time than expected though, and the rest of the day was a slog to make it to Maintenon by nightfall. When finalising our itinerary, we had opted not to stop our journey at Epernon (where the official Veloscenic signs begin), but to continue onto the Maintenon. The reward was worth it. Pristine scenery, excellent paths to whizz along, cool shade at the end of a very long day in the saddle…
Day one’s terrain was a mixed bag of steeps hills, crazy downhills, miles and miles of undulations, windy roads through picture-perfect villages and lots of flats. It was stunning but it was also the toughest day by far. We were flattened and exhausted as we entered Maintenon. I had never been so happy to see the Veloscenic sign jauntily sticking out the corner of the Rue du Bassin.
Our home that night: Aux Charmes de Maintenon, where we got a first-class welcome to soothe jangled nerved and tired limbs.
Recommended sights en route: Chevreuse Valley, Château de Breteuil, Château de Dampierre, Abbey of Les Vaux de Cernay, Chateau de la Madeleine (11-12th century castle above Chevreuse); the Rambouillet Forest, historic town centre of Rambouillet, historic Epernon.
Day 2 – Maintenon to Chartres (20km)
Route: Shared roads and voie verte
With Aux Charmes de Maintenon’s owners Jose and Carmen (above) exuberantly waving us goodbye from a sash window, we set off to visit the famed Chateau de Maintenon. The state rooms were suitably spectacular but the highlight was a lazy amble through the beautiful gardens and along the river Eure — music playing in the background — without the tourist hordes of Versailles. Interestingly, the garden was only established in 2013, a faithful reproduction of the original.
Louis XIV’s aquaduct may have been a vanity project (and it may have been a failure) — to feed the fountains of Versailles — but it provides a spectacular backdrop to many of the sites in Maintenon, ever present and arching high up into the blue sky.
The kind people at the chateau have made provision for cyclists, so you can safely tether your steed inside while you take in the sites of Madame de Maintenon’s opulent but elegant home. She may have been a nanny to the Sun King’s children before she became his “secret wife” but she did pretty well for herself, considering.
We were relieved that Day 2 was a short one: a welcome respite after the gruelling efforts of the first day. It was also the best signposted — by far – which took some of the pressure off of having to navigate and concentrate too much. We could pedal, freewheel, and whizz along, revelling in the wind in our hair and the visceral delights of the journey.
We left the imposing arches of Maintenon and headed to Chartres. I was giddy with excitement — Chartres would be a real highlight. I had wanted to see its famed cathedral all my life.
We agreed that there’s nothing like being at “bike level” to really engage with people and places. We could really absorb the surrounding sights and smells: from farming manure to fresh washing hanging on lines, to the whiff of flowers and plants as we brushed past, to the sound of cow bells, to the mouth-watering smells from boulangeries, to sheep bleating in passing fields…
It was a perfect day. We rode along a combination of shared roads and voies vertes, through a never-ending scattering of pretty villages. The roads were quite and safe. It being the height of summer, it seemed the French had all left town for their own holidays in the south of France. In some places, there was not so much as a curtain twitch. Not a soul walked the streets. Windows were closed; as were shops.
We found this rather quaint and amusing until we got to Jouy at lunchtime and we met with shuttered shop fronts. Doorway after doorway was shut. Firmly. Boulangerie. Shut. Supermarket. Shut. Charcuterie. Shut. Restaurant. Shut.
Lunch had to be a bar of leftover chocolate and water.
We whizzed through and continued along our route, marvelling at the impressive churches, watermills, golden fields of wheat, grazing horses, hay bales… It was a real rural idyll. There were crucifixes and statues of the Madonna at many of the intersections, a nod to France’s Catholic heritage, beautiful, imposing churches seemingly too big for the tiny villages that hosted them, mairies, war memorials, fluttering French flags… It felt like a back lot of Universal Studios. I kept expecting to hear the Le Marseillaise blaring out from a hidden PA system.
The quality of the voies vertes was outstanding. Smooth tar, no obstructions, no cars! What a pleasure. It made the journey stress-free and easy. We rode through shady forest-scape, tickled at the signs warning motorists to be careful of nocturnal frogs outside St Prest La Villette. The signs were not unusual to us – but the silhouettes of the crowned frogs were.
Eventually we hit the Plan Vert de Chartres Metropole, a gorgeous greenway leading to the famed pilgrim city. It was a wooded canopy next to the Eure, which made the last five kilometres to Chartres every cyclist’s dream. It was just the thing to ease out any stiffness from the previous day.
We arrived at the base of the town, grimacing at the climb up the hill. It was Chartres, we thought, surely better to arrive on foot as pilgrims? So we got off and pushed our bikes up the hill. It seemed apt: Outside Chartres, near Leves, we discovered a sign marking the crossing of the Paris and Anglo-Normandy routes of that of the St Jacques-de-Compostelle pilgrimage route.
Arriving at the top of this stunning provincial town, we were awarded with early glimpses of spires and flying buttresses from Chartres Cathedral.
We were in Chartres; how could we possible get lost? But lost we did. It took use a while to find our digs for the night. Courtesy again, of some friendly French folk. We made peace with the fact that not knowing where we were going was part of the adventure. Actually, a major part. It was here that the unexpected happened — in a good way.
We spent the afternoon exploring the city. Much of Chartres’ charm stems from its great age, history of pilgrimage, and the atmosphere that oozes from every stone and step, worn smooth by time and use. The top town and bottom town are linked by tertres – passages, some with tumbling stairways and without — straight from the Middle Ages.
Walking them will yank you back in time, especially when all you hear are the echoing footsteps in adjacent streets. And that’s before you get to the humpback bridges, wash houses, watermills, and the plethora of medieval timber houses.
We knew it would be folly not to want to dine in the shadow of the magnificent cathedral — in fact, it’s such a magnet, you felt like you wanted to spend most of your gazing at its splendour. Really.
Our choice was spot on. If we got any closer than the Le Bistro de la Cathedrale, we’d be dining on its front steps. Its staff was trés friendly, there was a pleasing buzz — no overwhelming crush of tourists — and its food offering is unpretentious traditional with a dash of flair.
For starters, we tried the award-winning pâté selection from the Val de Loire region; crunchy radishes offered the classic, yet very simple, French way — served with fresh butter and salt — and then the poule au pot, a tender chicken dish from the Basse-Normandie region.
At 10pm we joined tour guide Veronique’s group outside the Maison du Saumon, a timber treasure, dating back the 15th century and one of the oldest buildings in the city. It also happened to double as the Chartres tourism office.
For the next three hours we were blown away by Chartres en Lumieres. The light show, for which the city is famous, costs a cool million or so euros each year to stage, but draws three million tourists. Not a bad ROI. Around 26 historic spaces and buildings are lit up for a period each summer through a series of dramatic multimedia presentations. The ancient walls of this medieval city shimmer to life via exquisite animation. The grand finale at 1am involved a 12-minute light extravaganza projected onto the façade of the famed cathedral. Dazzling stuff!
We fell into bed after 1am, exhilarated by the spectacle. Christine Leray’s City Break St-Pierre, our home for the night, was a highlight of the city. Not an easy feat in a city filled with highlights.
Recommended sights en route: Chateau de Maintenon, Aquaduct de Maintenon,Plan Vert de Chartres Metropole, Ancient Moulin de la Roche, Chartres Cathedral, Chartres en Lumieres, Centre International du Vitrail (stained-glass centre).
Day 3 Chartres to Nogent-le-Rotrou (75km)
Route: Shared roads and vole verte
It was back to the long distances and we were feeling a little fatigued after a late night. Chartres’ hospitality lingered though via Christine’s hearty breakfast (she was horrified to learn we were cycling all the way to Mont-Saint-Michel: “Zat’s soooooo farrrrrr baai baike!!!” she shrieked before collapsing into peals of laughter) and we set off with confidence towards the rough halfway point of Illiers-Combray and then onto Nogent-le-Rotrou.
We spent an hour trying to get out of Chartres, mindful of not taking the direction that would head back up the hill and back into town. Trust me, it’s easier said than done when you realise that the Veloscenic runs in both directions with identical signs. Eventually, we found the Parc de Coudray, the iron bridge and the route out.
This stage would lead us on towards the Loir Valley and Illiers-Combray. Around Illiers, the countryside began to change from the Beauce Plain to the more undulating landscapes typical of the Perche area. In other words, out with the flats, in with the hills…
The road to Illiers-Combray is a highlight of this ride. Flat, well-maintained bike paths that in many places run parallel to the road; golden wheat fields that stretch as far as the eye can see.
While Chartres is the capital of the department of Eure-et-Loir and considered the most important town in the Beauce district, it’s also a rich farming are, known as the “granary” of France.
It’s stunningly beautiful. We were treated to blue skies, wide expanses of gold, quiet roads, beautiful, hand-carved crucifixes randomly planted as intersections… we stopped for chocolate and water breaks, and watched wild rabbits racing through harvested wheat fields…
We got to Illiers-Combray at lunchtime, just in time to visit Maison de Tante Léonie, the Marcel Proust Museum. Proust spent many holidays here and referenced the area in his writings, hence the town’s association with the great French author.
After visiting the museum, Julianna, the curator, gave us some background on Proust and the museum, before trying to direct us to a lunch spot. To no avail. I don’t know what the French do on Sundays, but I do know they don’t drive into the countryside for lunch.
Eventually we found a rather formal sit-down restaurant, La Madeleine, opposite Eglise St Jacques but the owner kindly agreed to make us some “sandwiches avec fromages et jambon”. That’s another thing. There are no vegetarians in France. Ask them for just a cheese sandwich and they’ll mutter and frown. I had to remove the slivers of ham for the vegetarian in the reporting team.
This is also where we met two Londoners, Tom and Jay, also riding the Veloscenic, and who had opted for the kebab shop nearby. We compared notes on the ride. They were loving it, but had also got lost. “I have lost count of the number of times we have got lost,” said Jay. They didn't have a detailed map book either or a GPS for that matter. Getting the message yet?
From here it was roughly 22km on to Thiron-Gardais, the gateway to the Pecherons region. Very rustic and rural, it was a stunning backdrop to our ride. Not least of which was the very spartan but remarkable abbey and its grounds.
We parked our bikes against one of the abbey walls and set off to explore the abbey and the gardens. But, a little fearful of Julianne’s warning that “the hills are coming”, we left the rest of the sites for next time. And trust me, there’s a lot to see that we sadly had to fly past. While your inner cyclist may want to pack in longer distances, it's probably not recommended for those keen on detailed sightseeing. We manage to perfect the art of “express sightseeing”, but felt a little sad that some had to pass in a blur.
The change in region was quote pronounced here. It became greener and more undulating. Just after Mereglise, we saw a sign welcoming us to the Perche region.
The riding became a little more gruelling after that, zigzagging through a maze of narrow country roads across the Perche hills; it was thigh-burning stuff but the views were magnificent and it was exhilarating speeding down hills and around corners. At times, I flattened my torso, and let loose, hoping against hope a tractor wouldn’t come around the corner.
It was beautiful and tranquil. Just when we thought the rural idyll couldn’t get it better, it certainly did. A group of villagers waved after us as we cycled past, fields of sheep grazed and bleated, an elderly couple worked in their veggie garden, a woman collected berries with a basket over her arm, there were forests, lakes, tiny hamlets, farmhouses, flights of swallows.
It was quite a distance though and with all out stops — and more wrong turns — we almost never made it by nightfall. There were some anxious moments, but eventually we clapped eyes on the famous Château Saint-Jean, and knew we had arrived in Nogent-le-Rotrou, the former capital of the Perche region.
The comforts of authentic 15th century Perche manor (link to review here) Manoir Michelet (above) and a welcome dinner at Brasserie de l'Hôtel de Ville soothed out somewhat battered egos and weary limbs.
Recommended sights en route: Maison de Tante Léonie (Marcel Proust museum); Pré Catelan garden; Abbey of Thiron-Gardais; Medieval gardens; Church and “Danse Macabre” of Meslay-le-Grenet; Château and gardens of Frazé; Church de Saint Martin, La Croix du Perche, Château Saint-Jean.
Day 4: Nogent-Le-Rotrou to Alencon (77 km)
Route: Shared roads and voie verte
Determined not to get lost against, we roped in Manoir Michelet’s charming owner. He went above and beyond the call of duty and drove us to the Veloscenic departure point. Well, he drove at a snail’s pace and we followed behind, somewhat winded when it came time to say “au revoir!”
The route from there was the dummy cyclist’s version of a voie verte. Just what the doctor ordered! We followed undulating forest roads during the beginning stage — quiet roads, smooth tar, green, wooded forest — and then joined the greenway from Condé-sur-Huisne to Alençon, cutting through a myriad towns and villages. Like Condeau, in the Orne départment (Normandy region) where we met a young mum, taking her toddler and baby out for a ride. They start them young in France.
The pretty town was charming, all windy roads, flower boxes, a beautiful stone church. We parked our bikes in a golden field and took pictures against hay bales. It’s that kind of place.
The voie verte kept on, sliced at frequent intersections by crossing roads, and signs pointing to villages with exotic names. They were green and canopied and the crossings offered glimpses of open fields of grazing animals, farming scenes, a patchwork of different shades of green, and very occasionally, a passing vehicle. We came across a couple of paddocks, each housing sleek, expensive, highly-strung racehorses. They whinnied and ran away at high speed before racing back again to the fence. They were putting on a show for the visitors.
The route following an old disbanded train track, and there were scores of delightful old station-master houses — some in a state of collapse, others partially restored and many fully restored and occupied. Families went about their business with their front doors open, watching TV and eating their evening meals.
The lanes were lined with sprinkles of multi-coloured wildflowers, blackberries and blueberries. Every now and then I’d let out a whoop of joy. It was just so downright pretty. You couldn’t help but be full of the joys of life.
At 1pm, Celine Maudet kindly met us in front of the Mairie in the hamlet of Corbon to take us for a Percheron carriage ride. We were supposed to cycle to her farm, but as this would add on another 8km to our already full day, she kindly came to our rescue.
Celine’s mother started breeding Percherons on the family farm, Ferme de l'Absoudière, some years ago, but now Celine has taken over the reins, so to speak.
Celine is kept super-busy giving Percheron carriage rides to visitors (she is one of only two in the area) and she also breeds them. Her passion and knowledge for her charges is evident, and she can answer virtually any question about this famed breed of sturdy animal that has been exported to every corner of the world.
We had an idyllic carriage ride through the Reno-Valdieu forest, in the heart of the Perche, with Celine telling us all about the area. Very occasionally, she’d mutter “allez” under her breath, and touch them lightly with a string attached to her “whip”. But they obeyed instantly.
I tell you, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t good to get out of the saddle too.
By then it was late afternoon, so we had to make up ground — fast. We still had to cycle about 50km to get to our overnight stop of Alencon and it was late afternoon. Fortunately, it was flat and easy — voies vertes for the rest of the run, and we put our heads down and rode like the wind.
Of course, as always, we stopped to admire the pretty wildflowers, eat berries, take the umpteenth picture of photogenic hay bales, jump up and down on top of the hay bales…
The Parc Naturel Régional du Perche gave way to the adjoining Parc Naturel Régional Normandie-Maine, just before Le Mêle-sur-Sarthe. The lake here provided a great rest stop.
A pristine trail led us through the Bourse Forest, along the Vésone River, towards Alencon.
Cycling into the town was a little stressful, a shock to the system after the tranquillity of the greenway. But we made it, grateful as always that our hotel, the Hotel des Ducs was close to the end point, as well as a short stroll into town for a superb dinner at Le 64 by Fano at 22 Rue Saint-Blaise (opposite la Préfecture).
Recommended sights en route: Boissy Maugis; Percherons carriage ride — Ferme de L’Absoudiere; Comblot — Cider producer Grégoire Ferré at La Maison Ferré; Museum of Fine Arts and the Lace, Alencon; Musée des Beaux-Arts et de la Dentelle.
Day 5 – Alençon to Domfront (75.2km)
Route: Shared roads and voie verte
We started the day with a pleasing amble down the main street of Alencon, pushing our bikes in the cobbled pedestrian area near the imposing Notre Dame Basilica. The city centre is small, easy to navigate and — with its cobbled area — very pretty and atmospheric. We felt a little sad that we couldn’t spend more time here.
Perhaps our foot dragging also had something to do with the fact that there we knew there were some hills scheduled for today’s route. After some backtracking and signage interpretation issues, we hit the bike path.
It was a crisp morning, blues skies, and the best weather of the trip so far. We headed on a flat, meandering bike path through the Alencon countryside, with lovely views of the Ecouves Forest, towards Cuissai, a charming little stone village. From here onwards the shared road became somewhat less, should we say, hospitable.
The steeps hills came out of nowhere. It was something of a shock to the system after the rather flat topography of the previous days’ riding. Hill after hill, bend after bend, it was harrowing stuff. But we pushed and grunted, and, in some spots, got off out bikes and pushed. (Warning: pack light!) We felt we had earned it.
In Carrouges, we lunched on a bench (handy hint: crêpes from a crêperie very near the church) in front of the church, and then left our bikes tethered to a pole and went to explore the famous Chateau de Carrouges.
It’s a lovely stroll down to the park via a wide avenue. It’s a puffer of a walk back up the hill, but a worthy way to spend a lunch break. Built between the 14th to 16th centuries, the castle’s various wings, made of brick and granite, surround a courtyard. The buildings, which include two square corner towers, a keep and a gatehouse, are surrounded by a moat. The building is now home to the Parc Naturel Régional Normandie-Maine.
From there, it was a relatively stress-free 23km ride to Bagnoles-de-l’Orne, the famed spa town in the Orne department, south-east of Normandy. It’s unlike anything else you will experience on the trip — more Alpine retreat than French town.
Bagnoles-de-l’Orne, which apparently dates back to the Middle Ages, is known for les thermes — its thermal baths — and it seemed the half of France who were not sunning themselves in the south of France were here to “take the waters”.
A chocolate-box pretty town on the edge of a forest, it's frequented by the well-heeled and elderly taking strolls around the lake, sipping on smoothies and looking flushed after their treatments.
Everyone gravitates towards the lake, peddling around on pedalos. The lake is formed by the River Vée, a tributary of the Mayenne, before it enters a deep gorge cutting through the massif of the Andaines Forest. A little too manicured for my liking, but I could see its appeal as a venue for some R&R.
Spa treatments, forest walks, lazy cycles around town, window boxes, actually splashes of colourful flowers everywhere – what’s not to like?
We opted for an ice-cream over a smoothie and then felt an urgency to be on our bikes, as we still had to get to Domfront behind nightfall.
This stage took us through beautiful, quintessential Normandy countryside, with traditional hedgerows, apple orchards and woods. We cycled along quiet roads, with occasional spectacular view over Les Andaines Forest.
The last 7km through the Route Forestiere de Lucé was a real slice of paradise. We ran into Jay and Tom again, compared notes, and then waved them off before enjoying our own chilled ride through this pristine stretch of forest.
The road wasn’t great – gravelly and rough — but it didn’t matter. The birdsong, shade, smell of timber and forest undergrowth, the ferns… were just sublime. We had a few mild undulations before hitting the steep descent into Perrou.
As we rode in at high speed, the bells were tolling 7pm, someone had rolled out barrels of flowers for our arrival and the church dazzled with its blue stained-glass windows.
The last stretch was more of the same sublime rural mainlining: grazing cows, yellow fields, overpowering smell of the earth (or was it manure?)
And then we hit impressive medieval Domfront. It was just as I expected but better. Everything smacked of medieval: Old stone walls, castle ramparts, narrow alleyways, leaning houses, so old they looked like they’d collapse at any moment.
We were a little anxious to discover that our hotel was at the very bottom end of the town — a vertiginous drop (near the old tannery district) — as we were anxious not to have to climb the same steep hill the next morning.
We were pleased to learn then that the Veloscenic starting point for the next day was just around the corner from the Hotel de France. Choose your accommodation wisely….
Also make sure you don’t lose the Veloscenic sign on your descent — very possible if you’re going too fast. We took the wrong road – i.e. the main road out of town – and had a couple of stressful moments avoiding heavy trucks careening around corners very close to us.
Dinner was one of the highlights of trip. In the Hotel de France’s own grill room, which looks out onto a stunning garden, we tucked into generous portions of delicious home-cooked food, conjured by up Monsieur. It felt like we were just hanging in their dining room; we were left to enjoy our meal and make our notes, while the rest of the family packed up and went off to bed.
And of course one of the best parts was being able to stagger upstairs, from dining room to bed.
Recommended sights en route: Chateau de Carrouges, Les Andaines Forest, Route Forestiere de Lucé, Chateau de Domfront, old town of Domfront
Day 6 Domfront to Ducey (66km)
Route: Voie verte
Anne-Laure (below), of the Domfront tourist office and tour guide extraordinaire, collected us at our hotel the next morning for a whirlwind tour of the old city. Her English is impeccable, she’s very knowledgeable and she is able to bring this fascinating city to life with her vivid storytelling.
Not least about the dispossessed Henry I, youngest son of William the Conqueror, who rallied support among local lords from the strategically sited castle of Domfront — with a great bird’s eye view over the surrounding area — and eventually went onto to rule the Anglo-Norman dominions as Henry I of England. Like I said, Domfront is old.
Fascinating as it was, the road was calling and we had to leave its evocative charms.
The roads were starting to get busier – with bikes and cars — as Mont-Saint-Michel came tantalisingly closer. But the Veloscenic joined a greenway, allowing us to enjoy the beautiful, typical Bocage Normand countryside, and cycle along the beautiful Sélune River.
It is also just outside Domfront that the Veloscenic crosses with La Velo Francette, and we came across cyclists in their throngs, all ages and nationalities. There was a fantastic community vibe as we all greeted each other, swapped stories, and wished each other “bon route!”
At our lunch spot, we shared cherry tomatoes with a French family, swapped notes with some Danes, listened to a Belgian couple — cartographers and musicians living in Spain — playing a karimba.
An elderly French couple were tickled we were from South Africa and proudly said “Welcome to Normandy!” before wanting to know all the details of our ride.
On our lunch menu? More sandwiches oozing fromage warm from the sun — courtesy of the Hotel de France. We ordered them at breakfast. One solution to the French “siesta” issue.
We came across a family of four — also doing the Veloscenic — with one child as young as six pedalling away. Their Rolls Royce of bike trailer/strollers was impressive – with their morning’s washing hanging neatly off pegs at the back.
This stage was almost entirely on greenways, except for the unavoidable link to Mortain.
The voie verte offered up its usual loveliness: idyllic rural French scenes, lanes lined with berries (we grabbed them and stuffed out mouths full as we rode), old men walking with baguettes, fat, white bleating sheep, apple and pear orchards, goats tied to a washing line, sprinklings of brightly-coloured wildflowers.
There are a number of route switches here, with various options to get to Mont-Saint-Michel — as well as signs for the Tour de Manche and Petit Tour de Manche — so be mindful of which route you’re on. Very mindful.
We added an extra 8km on to our ride, convinced we were meant to ride via the pretty village of Mortain. It was only after seeing the very lovely waterfall and examined our map that we realised we needed to head to Saint-Hilaire-du-Harcouet instead.
No matter, by then the excitement of finally getting to our destination Mont-Saint-Michel was building. We saw our first signs for Mont-Saint-Michel that day, and it was spine-tingling stuff.
By late afternoon, we had arrived in Ducey, the last stopover before reaching Mont-Saint-Michel.
We were a little impatient to be staying over — when we were so tantalisingly close to our end point (just 20-odd kilometres away). But I’m so glad we did. Ducey is a charming little town, situated right on the River Selune, and offering travellers charm in bundles with its beautiful 17th century Chateau des Montgommery and church, the obligatory boulangeries, patisseries, creperies, old stone bridge over the Sélune, lovely greenery and flowers everywhere ...
Bear in mind, it’s small though.
“We’re off to explore the town,” we said to the hotel receptionist after dinner.
“See you in 10 minutes!” she quipped. It’s that small.
But it’s a lovely little town. It’s a “village étape” —a village with fewer than 5,000 inhabitants situated close to a motorway and a good refuelling point with specific facilities. But that offers absolutely no indication of its appeal.
Its surrounds also offer lovely walk, hikes, bike tides, fishing and other leisure activities — if you feel like ditching the route for day or two. Its location on the Sélune meant it was a good stopover point for pilgrims en route to Mont-Saint-Michel, and it still plays this role today. It’s a great spot to relax, refuel, stroll along the rover and take in views of the historic bridge — lit up at night — and prepare yourself for the vigours of visiting its famous neighbour.
Our shelter for the night — Le Moulin de Ducey — was an absolute delight. Staff and owners welcoming and friendly, and willing to help and advise with absolutely anything. Or just chew the fat. As we discovered the next morning when it took us four hours to leave.
Day 7 – Ducey to Mont St Michel (31km)
Route: Shared roads and a small section of voie verte
We got off to a late start the next day; partly due to the wine from the previous evening, partly the thrill of only needing to ride a short 30km, and partly because we didn’t want the Veloscenic to end. We ordered sandwiches at the bounlangerie in town (seul fromage et jambon!), said a long goodbye to the delightful Patricia and Claude, the hotel owners, and saddled up for the final stretch.
Just 4km in, we hit Pontaubault (the 2016 Tour de France will pass through there — the posters were already up, shouting about it: Ici passera le Tour 2016!) Famous for the Aubaud Bridge, which crosses the Selune, General Patton’s VIII Corps crossed into Brittany here on August 1, 1944 after the success of Operation Cobra.
We stopped and breathed in the history.
Then it was on to the greenway from Pontaubault to Mont St-Michel, a real pleasure to ride. Smooth surface, no hills.
As we got closer and the distances on the Veloscenic signs got less and less, we pumped our legs hard on the pedals, laughed and whooped. We also cursed the route designers, who seemingly had us weaving around, between villages — Courtils, Huisnes-sur-Mer (with its German WWII cemetery), Les Pas, covering ground we were convinced we had covered before, taking the very scenic but long way round to the island.
I suppose we were also procrastinating, wanting to get there but also not. We stopped off en route and had a coffee and pastry, watching the holidaymakers trundle past in their scores, cyclists, campervans, cars.
Less than an hour after leaving Ducey, we had our first glimpse of Mont-St-Michel rising up in the bay like a mirage. It was heart-stopping stuff.
From that point on, the spectacular abbey revealed itself in different light and with different backdrops, each one more stunning than the last. It was like a magnet; we couldn’t get there quickly enough.
Eventually we hit Beauvoir, on the outskirts, and the rather ugly and purpose-built modern town servicing the millions who descend on Mont-St-Michel each year.
But we were breathless with excitement. We were finally here.
We didn't need directions this time. Everyone was heading in one direction only. Walkers, cyclists, buses, cars, moving toward the stunning new boardwalk — constructed in 2014 to stop the degradation of the bay and erosion — which would take them to the mount. (Well, only cyclists, pedestrians and buses are actually allowed on the boardwalk).
I had been a little dismissive of the idea of the causeway (in previous years, visitors could only cross at low tide, lending the whole experience an aura of excitement and mystery), but I understand the reasoning and it's been beautifully executed.
We set our bikes on their stands on the boardwalk and took the obligatory first photo, then the second, then the third … each more beautiful than the last. Then we cycled up to the mount, tethered our bikes and braced ourselves to battle the tide of people flowing through the narrow alleyway of the village, and the steps leading up to the imposing Benedictine abbey.
The medieval village itself is small, full of souvenir shops and overflowing restaurants, but once you reach the abbey, the magic starts to take hold.
As we had stretched out the final route, we had missed the timed entry we'd booked, so we opted for the nighttime walking tour from 7.30pm. What a coup! It was crowd-less, evocatively lit, magical and quiet.
The views of the mudflats from the Grand Western Terrace at sunset are nothing short of spectacular. Actually, all of it was spectacular. From the beautifully spartan Benedictine abbey, to the courtyard gardens, to the smooth stone stairs, to the mind-blowing views of forever.
You could spend days in there and never tire of it.
We spent the evening and toasted our good fortune and sense of accomplishment with a shared bottle of warm Eurelienne beer I'd carried along the entire route from Chartres.
Eventually we had to tear ourselves away, giddy with delight on our bikes, and headed back to Beauvoir and a slap-up dinner at Hôtel le Beauvoir. Wow! We couldn’t have ordered a better swansong meal. Seafood platter, salmon terrine, coquilles St Jacques and the finest steak frites I’ve ever had.
We were exhausted and happy when we finally hit the sack in our chalet at Camping Aux Pommiers.
I’ve never stayed in a French campsite before and was blown away. Granted, it was bursting at the seams, but it was spotlessly clean, quiet (after midnight), well laid out, well lit and with all the mod cons you could want. It even had a heated indoor pool.
Recommended sights en route: Pontaubault, the Roche Torin (viewpoint over Mont-Saint-Michel), Abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel.
Day 7 – Stage: Beauvoir - Gare de Pontorson (6km)
Route: Voie verte
All that was left was for us to get up early, feast our eyes on the dramatic mound of Mont-Saint-Michel for the last time — even more magical in the early morning light — and cycle the last 6km of the Veloscenic to the station at Pontorson and catch the train back to Paris.
What a pleasure the train journey was. Anxious about lugging our bikes onto two trains (Pontorson to Rennes, Rennes to Paris) in terms of space, timing and inconvenience to other passengers — we soon realised that it’s not an oddity in France.
You can take your bikes on the train with ease. There’s plenty of space, and on the TGV from Rennes, the conductor showed us to the bike carriage, and even buckled them into their own safety belts. It was quick, easy and efficient.
This does not apply to all trains though, so make sure you do some homework beforehand. (See here for comprehensive info on taking bikes on French trains). See Voyages-sncf.com for tickets rates. Here's how to make a reservation for your bike on a French train.
To really bring our journey full circle, we changed trains in Paris and made our way back to Versailles where we handed over our bikes outside the Hotel le Versailles – where it had all started.
It was a bittersweet moment. I knew at that moment, however, that this is something I would do again and again and again. It’s the best way to travel.
For more information on the Veloscenic Paris to Mont St Michel bike route, see the official website. (Note the route is called La Veloscenie in French).
See our page on planning your own Veloscenic bike ride, including a full list of places Tracy and Chenel stayed, plus their route advice and top tips.
Accommodation for cycling Paris to Mont St Michel
Zoom into our map below to find bike-friendly accommodation on your route.