Cycling along rivers is one of life's real pleasures. Richard Peace has 10 great long distance river routes in France.
This article is part of our rivers and canals series. See also:
French rivers offer some of the best cycling the country has to offer; often the terrain is not too challenging, especially when there is a riverside road, track or towpath. And if you're heading downstream, of course, you’ll be generally heading downhill.
The scenery along major rivers like the Loire and the Rhône can be stunning as the river carves its course, often creating a landscape that is easy on the eye and with many fine riverside towns to linger in, and you can fuel up at riverside cafes and restaurants.
I’ve picked out 10 long distance (usually) signposted routes along some of France’s major rivers just to whet your cycling appetite.
1. Via Rhona: Valleiry, Haute-Savoie to Port-Saint-Louis-du-Rhône
Guidebook for this route:
The River Rhone Cycle Route by Mike Wells, published by Cicerone.
Distance: 627km / 390 miles plus sections in Switzerland (Geneva and Lake Geneva) and links to Le-Pont-de-Beauvoisin, Ambérieu-en-Bugey, Montluel, Roussillon, Romans-sur-Isère, Lamastre, Intres, Allex, Orange, Sète.
Major cities en route: Lyon, Valence, Avignon, Arles
Linking routes: See our article on the route here for more information about the Dolce Via that heads into the Ardeche and also this article on the northerly section linking to Geneva. Note that from Arles there is a spur to the west linking to Sète for the Canal du Midi to Toulouse. While this will officially be part of the Via Rhona, much of it was still in the planning stages at the time of writig (April 2018). Our article on Epic Canal Rides article in fact covers the Rhône-Sète canal separately.
Via Rhona is a big route in many senses: down one of Europe’s great rivers, fed by glacier water from the Swiss Alps and also a lengthy challenge if you want to complete the whole route.
It takes in:
* Magnificent Alpine scenery on the upper sections.
* Cosmopolitan and wealthy Lyon (physically speaking France’s second biggest city and famed for its cuisine).
* Superb Roman remains at Vienne, Orange and Arles.
* Renowned vineyards and lovely valley scenery between Vienne and Valance, including the Ardeche (explorable via the Dolce Via linking route).
* Yummy Montélimar nougat
* Medieval Avignon, a UNESCO world heritage site.
Route conditions: At the time of writing (April 2018), there were several temporary sections that may be on busier roads (south of Seyssel, east and south of Lyon and around Avignon and Arles), though the final aim is to follow the course of the Rhône as closely as possible – which it already does along many well-signed, spectacular, traffic-free sections. Where the route is finished it mixes high quality tarmac greenway, minor roads and less frequent unsealed surfaces.
2. Loire à Vélo: Cuffy to St-Brévin-les-Pins
Guidebook for this route:
The Loire Cycle Route by Mike Wells, published by Cicerone
Distance: 800km / 497 miles
Main settlements en route: Nevers (near start), Gien, Châteauneuf-sur-Loire, Orléans, Blois, Amboise, Tours, Saumur, Chinon, Angers, Ancenis, Nantes, St-Brévin-les-Pins
Linking routes: Contiguous with Velodyssey (along the Atlantic coast) between Nantes and St-Brévin-les-Pins and Vélo Francette between Saumur and Angers and Eurovelo 3 between Orléans and Tours. East of Cuffy cycle route continues as Eurovelo 6 (Loire à Vélo is in fact part of EV6) to the French border at Basel and indeed beyond to the Black Sea! Our overview of cycling the Loire valley is here.
* Pleasant city of Nevers near the route start.
* Orléans, a beautifully elegant city.
* Attractive Beaugency and Meung-sur-Loire.
* Châteaux galore! A roll call of some of France’s most magnificent buildings including Montsoreau, Saumur, Chambord and Blois.
* Troglodyte dwellings around Parnay and Turquant.
* Leonardo da Vinci’s home at Amboise.
* Tours’ medieval area.
* Huge ruined castle at Chinon.
* Angers; the area around the place de Ralliement is very lively and attractive.
* Nantes’ historic centre (despite its reputation as an industrial centre and port).
Route conditions: Generally a mixture of some very minor roads and mainly tarmac greenway that follow the course of the river pretty closely, though there are some unsealed sections at the western end of the route and several sections can be prone to winter flooding.
3. Seine à Vélo: Vernon to Le Havre
Distance: 268km / 165.5 miles
Major settlements en route: Vernon, Les Andelys, Pont de L’Arche, Elbeuf, Rouen, Caudebec-en-Caux, Lillebonne, Harfleur, Le Havre
Note on signage: As of the time of writing (April 2018), there was is no continuously signed Seine à Vélo route from Paris to Le Havre (this only exists between Elbeuf and Le Havre – see here for the current route), so this section details a route from Vernon and based on a route ridden for Cycling Northern France. Note by using the Avenue Verte between Paris and Bray-et-Lû then a connecting route to Vernon (via Giverny), you can complete a Paris–Le Havre trip over 384km/238.5 miles. See our report on the Epte Valley to Le Havre.
Linking routes: At Le Havre the route links to Eurovelo 4 along the coast (to the east also known as the Véloroute du Littoral). The lower Seine has a charm all its own; large meanders are backed in several places by picturesque chalk bluffs and many of the small towns have a continuously operating roll-on roll-off ferry link that take bikes, people and cars. There are also countless fruit orchards.
Particular highlights include:
* Château Gaillard, a superb crusader castle overlooking the Seine.
* Rouen, Normandy’s ‘capital’ with a lovely ‘medieval’ centre (amazingly much of it a modern recreation).
* Caudebec-en-Caux has a fine location on the Seine, with cruise ships floating past and a monument to the French flying boat the Latham 47.
* Crossing the Pont de Normandie road bridge (so high it is not for the faint hearted) allows a side trip to the historic port of Honfleur
* Le Havre is a 1940s attempt to show the future of a city in futuristic concrete – more interesting than it sounds!
Route conditions: Mainly minor roads with some tarmac traffic-free sections.
4. Mayenne towpath: Angers to Mayenne
Distance: 125km / 78 miles
Major settlements en route: Angers, Château Gontier, Laval, Mayenne
Interconnecting routes: The Mayenne towpath itself is part of La Velo Francette, which links Ouistreham on the Normandy coast to La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast. Angers is where the Mayenne meets the Loire à Vélo route.
* Angers, sitting between the Mayenne, Sarthe and Loire rivers, itself on the river Maine. It’s a good hopping off point to visit châteaux country to the east along the Loire and is itself a great place for rambling around Place de Ralliement but the best known attraction are the two tapestries housed in the massive château here.
* Château Gontier, Laval and Mayenne are three flower-bedecked towns with plenty of eating places, accommodation and attractions. Think medieval castles and town walls.
Route conditions: This is a remarkable route as an almost continuous towpath (unsealed but generally good quality) through gentle but picturesque countryside including locks and waterside cottages and mills.
5. Marne Valley – Paris to Champagne Country: Paris, Bassin de la Villette to Épernay
Distance: 245km / 152 miles (including loop spurs)
Major settlements en route: Paris, Meaux, La Ferté-sous-Jouarre, Jouarre, Château-Thierry, Épernay.
Linking routes: There are no major interconnecting routes along the way, but of course many national routes converge on Paris, and at Épernay it is possible to carry on the Canal Latéral de la Marne on what will be one day be Véloroute 52 linking Paris and Strasbourg. This connects you with Châlons-en-Champagne and beyond.
As véloroute 52 is still under development so most of this route follows a route along the valley from my own Cycling Northern France guide, using mainly minor roads criss-crossing the river in the course of its journey upstream to the heart of Champagne country (Véloroute 52 will look to follow the river more closely and use more off-road tracks). However between Dormans and Épernay, a signed route is now in place (completed 2017) with many traffic-free sections alongside the river.
* For highlights of the Canal de l’Ourq section see the Canals of Paris ride here (to come). We use the canal rather than the Marne out of Paris as that route is still under development. For a suggested day ride along the Marne out of Paris see our day rivers rides suggestions here (to come).
* Museum of WWI, north-east of Meaux.
* Rides from La Ferté-sous-Jouarre. A laid-back base from which to explore the impressive abbey town of Jouarre and to head up the Ourq valley to take in the landscapes that inspired artist Henri Hayden’s work.
* Château-Thierry is synonymous with a first world war battle of the same name. Take in views from the 13th century battlements or visit the local art house cinema, the cinéma-théâtre Jean Cocteau.
* Épernay is a Champagne town par excellence. It has an avenue de Champagne and even if you have no interest in the bubbly stuff, the tree-lined streets of this small town are a lovely place for a stroll or pavement cafe sitting.
Route conditions: The Canal de l’Ourq towpath is tarmac until Claye-Souilly, after which there are a couple of short unsealed sections of the route amidst mainly minor roads before your arrival in busy Meaux. Note there may be further sections of traffic-free route that have been added alongside the Marne since I rode this route and one of those links Dormans to Épernay using many sections of Marne towpath, just about all of it on smooth tarmac. More detail on the latter section.
6. Meuse à Vélo: Montigny-le-Roi to Givet
Distance: 403km / 250 miles (French section only – see here for full route)
Major settlements en-route: Neufchâteau, Commercy, Verdun, Stenay, Mouzon, Sedan, Charleville-Mézières, Bogny-sur-Meuse, Revin, Fumay / Haybes, Vireux-Molhain, Givet.
Linking routes: There are no major interconnecting routes along the way as yet but in the fullness of time Meuse à Vélo should link to Véloroute 52 between Paris and Strasbourg. The start at Montigny-le-Roi lies just north-east of Langres which is on Véloroute 53 that heads north-south along this stretch of the Marne Valley. At its northern end this fully signed route continues along the course of the Meuse into the Belgian Ardennes and through Liege to the Netherlands and ultimately into the North Sea (the official website for the whole route suggests a gap in eastern Netherlands).
* The fortified town of Langres is a good start, though not directly on the route (around 20km / 12 miles) from Montigny-le-Roi.
* Joan of Arc’s birthplace at Domremy-la-Pucelle.
* Château Stanislas at Commercy.
* Verdun – site of the infamous WWI battle.
* Sedan’s huge fortress.
* Charleville-Mézières has the lovely place Ducal and a museum to poet Arthur Rimbaud.
* The Meuse – Ardennes scenery on the northern section of the route, including strange rock formations such as the Roc de la Tour near Monthermé.
* Givet’s hilltop fortress.
Route conditions: The section before the Trans-Ardennes greenway uses mainly minor roads but the greenway itself is superb traffic-free tarmac (now extended so it starts south-east of Sedan at Remilly-Aillicourt).
7. Véloroute de la Vallée du Lot: Aiguillon to Cahors
Distance: 163km / 101 miles (see here for full route)
Major settlements en route: Aiguillon, Villeneuve-sur-Lot, Monsempron-Libos / Fumel, Puy L’Évêque, Cahors.
This véloroute follows the valley but not always the river and we have already detailed the lower section here.
There are no major intersecting routes but at Aiguillon there is short cycle route link to Damazan on the Canal Latéral de la Garonne, meaning you can easily link it to the Garonne towpath and on to Toulouse and the Canal du Midi.
* Clairac is a small, unspoiled river town and is particularly attractive around the river.
* Villeneuve-sur-Lot has a lovely central square with fountain all surrounded by arcades, an impressive church and pretty river walks.
* Penne d’Agenais is a hilltop village overlooking the Lot valley with a ruined castle.
* Bonaguil lies on a link route north of the valley at Fumel and boasts the last medieval castle built in France.
* Puy l’Évêque is one of the most visited places on the Lot because of the old town’s picture postcard appearance above the river.
* Luzech is another extremely picturesque spot, crammed into a loop in the river.
* Cahors is perhaps best known for its wine, but is attractive in its own right, and houses the remarkable Pont Valentré.
Route conditions: Mainly quiet minor roads. There are currently four greenway sections; 5 miles coming into Villeneuve-sur-Lot (tarmac) and three shorter sections east of there which are unsealed.
8. La Flow Velo: Île d’Aix to Thiviers
Distance: 264km / 164 miles
Main settlements en route: Thiviers, Nontron, Marthon, Chazelles, Angoulême, Châteauneuf-sur-Charente, Cognac, Saintes, St-Savinien, Rochefort, Fouras.
Linking routes: Eurovelo 3 (La Scandibérique) joins Flow Velo at Chazelles and leaves it at Châteauneuf-sur-Charente while Eurovelo 1 (Velodyssey) briefly joins Flow Velo around Rochefort. You can also use this linking route to join the V90 at Perigueux.
* Nontron is the official centre of the Perigord Vert region of the northern Dordogne, set high up over the Bandiat valley. It has a quiet but pleasant centre with a number of interesting buildings to admire. There are half-timbered buildings and ramparts to walk along. It’s well-known as a knife production centre.
* Angoulême, capital of the Charente département, is dominated by its cathedral and impressive town hall, but there’s also a warren of older streets full of cafes and restaurants ideal for exploring on foot.
* Cognac is an attractive town in its own right, but best known for its eponymous brandy that can be smelt throughout the town.
* Saintes has some sizeable Roman remains, including an impressive amphitheatre.
* Rochefort was built as a naval base and is today best known for its nearby transporter bridge and the old ropemaking factory, the Corderie.
Route conditions: Currently this signed route traces the line of the river Bandiat valley in Dordogne and then heads between two valleys briefly to join the Charente at Angoulême, and is around 65% traffic-free currently. The plan is to have a 90% traffic-free route by 2020.
9. V90 River Isle Véloroute: Escoire to Le Pizou
Distance: 116km / 72 miles
Major settlements en route: Périgueux, Saint-Astier, Mussidan, Montpon-Ménestérol
* Périgueux is the main town and a real highlight of the Périgord Blanc area. Blanc indicates the colour of the local stone and there is an impressive five-domed cathedral here.
* Saint Astier has some half-timbered houses and also unusual underground lime quarries (tours available)
* Neuvic has a 16th century château right by the river.
* Montpon-Ménestérol is famed for the beautiful organs in two of its churches
Route conditions: One of the highest quality sections of the whole route is the smooth tarmac cycle paths along the banks of the river Isle at Périgueux, linked by some impressive cycle bridges. Note there is currently a short gap in the route north of Razac-sur-L'Isle. The route is a mixture of (mainly) minor roads, long sections of tarmac voies vertes and a few sections of unsealed track.
10. Along the Moselle Valley: Nancy to the border with Luxembourg and Germany at Apach
Photo: M. Laurent
Distance: Circa 165km / 103 miles
Major settlements en route: Nancy, Pont-à-Mousson, Metz, Thionville
Linking routes: When finished, national véloroute 52 (Paris to Strasbourg) will head across the Moselle valley around Nancy.
* Nancy's standout attraction is the magnificent Place Stanislas and the city also has a decent and developing cycle lane network.
* Though industrial in background, the town of Pont-à-Mousson boasts a fine waterside abbey.
* Despite an industrial history, Metz is an attractive place of museums, galleries, flowerbeds and a magnificent cathedral.
* The Amnéville complex lies just to the west of the route half way between Metz and Thionville. The main draw is the Musée de la Moto et du Vélo but it's a huge family entertainment complex including a zoo and a thermal treatment centre.
* The whole of the valley is well-served by trains with numerous stops, meaning 'route hopping' and return journeys are easy.
Route conditions: This route is a work in progress and will eventually form part of national véloroute 50, extending south into the Vosges and leaving France along the Moselle valley will give the opportunity branch off into either Luxembourg or Germany or just continue on to join the Rhine river at Koblenz.
Currently (April 2018) there is a large gap between Custines and Pagny-sur-Moselle, but there is the option of using other minor roads or looking at sites like Openstreet mapping or gpsies.com that appear to show the final alignment of the official route and asking locally about the condition of the tracks and trails used on those websites.
The many sections of route currently in place feature long sections of tarmac greenway linked by shorter sections of road and track.
About the author
Richard Peace is the author of the official English-language guidebook to the Veloscenie Paris-Mont-Saint Michel bike route and the Sustrans guide to the London-Paris Avenue Verte. He also contributes to A to B magazine, Bike Europe and Eurobike Show Daily.