If you are looking for an epic canal bike ride in France, then these 10 ideas from Richard Peace might provide the inspiration you need.
We don't mean to brag, but we have some mighty fine canals in France, and many (OK, *most*) are perfectly suited to epic multi-day bike rides.
This article is part of our rivers and canals series. See also:
1. Canal du Midi: Toulouse to Sète
Distance: Circa 240km / 149 miles (depending on end point)
Major settlements: Toulouse, Carcassonne, Béziers, Agde, Sète
Linking routes: At Ponts Jumeaux in Toulouse you can head west along the Canal Latéral à la Garonne (see below). These two canals taken together will eventually form the coast to coast cycle route known as Le Canal des Deux Mers à Vélo.
* The canal itself which is magnificent feat of engineering. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site with many sumptuous bridges and enormous locks.
* Toulouse is known as La Ville Rose, rightly so, as the ancient brick buildings of its centre are an incredible sight when hit by the evening Mediterranean sun.
* Carcassonne’s hilltop citadel is one of the best known spectacles in southern France.
* Béziers cathedral and the enormous flight of the Fonserannes locks.
* Sète is unusual, interesting and attractive, with its mix of canals and gridded streets from the 17th century.
Route conditions: There are short sections of excellently surfaced towpath, for example east of Toulouse as far as Avignon-Lauraget, a very short section east of Carcassonne and from to Béziers to Vias. However, outside of these ‘aménagé’ sections (ie recognised cycle route with a maintained surface) in the main expect bare earth and perhaps some rather sticky sections after rain. There are frequent diversions in place when towpath work is taking place.
2. Canal Latéral à la Garonne: Toulouse to Castets-en-Dorthe
Distance: Circa 199 km / 124 miles, with the option to turn it into a longer Bordeaux-Toulouse ride or Bordeaux-Steve
This the the 'canal proper' section of the Bordeaux-Toulouse bike route. When combined with a linking stretch to the Roger Lapebie bike path from Sauveterre, it makes a complete Bordeaux-Toulouse bike route. Together with the Canal du Midi (above), it forms the coast to coast cycle route known as Le Canal des Deux Mers à Vélo.
Major settlements: Toulouse, Castelsarrasin, Moissac, Valence, Agen, Tonneins, Marmande,
Linking routes: At Ponts Jumeaux in Toulouse you can head east along the Canal du Midi (see above) and the Roger Lapebie Bordeaux-Sauveterre path. The route also crosses with the Euro Velo 3 Pilgrim's route and can also be combined with the Gironde departmental bike route.
* Toulouse – as above in Canal du Midi.
* Medieval cloister at Moissac abbey.
* Montauban is actually a 14-mile detour up a branch canal from Montech and has the standout Place Nationale, surrounded by arched arcades. At Montech itself is an impressive water feature known as a ‘water slope’.
* Auvillar is about three miles south of the canal and is a pretty village with a unique grain market.
* The town of Agen is in a lovely setting, backed by verdant cliffs and you get a great view of this pleasant town from the nearby canal bridge.
* Le Mas d’Agenais is a pretty village and houses a world famous Rembrandt in its church.
3. Nantes-Brest Canal: Châteaulin to Nantes
Photo: Rob Glover
Distance: 365km 228 miles
Major settlements: Châteaulin, Carhaix-Plouguer (link to), Pontivy, Josselin, Malestroit, Redon, Blain, Nantes.
We already have a detailed article on the Nantes-Brest, but highlights include:
* Châteaulin is a pretty town with riverside market and salmon fishing.
* Abbey of Bon Repos.
* Josselin is best known for its elaborate château.
* Redon is a major transport hub and an attractive town in its own right.
* Château de la Groulais – restaurant in the King’s Lodgings especially impressive.
* Nantes features both an old and a new town and both are attractive. Les Machines de L’Îsle here features giant clockwork animals.
Route conditions: The towpath is largely unsealed but usually wide (often 2m plus). It’s hard to say which parts are best and worst as there has been a fairly recent upgrading programme, but be prepared for conditions underwheel to be variable.
4. Brittany Coast to Coast: St-Malo to Arzal
Distance: Around 200km / 124 miles
Main settlements en route: St-Malo, Dinard, Dinan, Rennes, Guipry-Messac, Redon, La Roche-Bernard
Linking routes: Brittany’s veloroute network is impressive and the ‘V2’ Manche – Ocean coast to coast route described here intersects with various other routes – see our overview here for more detail.
The first part of the ride isn’t actually waterside, though we have included it as many people will arrive by ferry at St Malo and it also gives the opportunity to ride from coast to coast. From the ferry port of St Malo you have a choice of route to Dinan. Either take the seasonal shuttle ferry across the mouth of the Rance estuary to Dinard and join the easy railpath to Dinan or use the alternative road route roughly parallel that lies to the east of the Rance estuary. From Dinan to Rennes you are on the Ile-et-Rance towpath and from Rennes to Redon alongside the canalised river Vilaine. Thereafter tracks take you along the south side of the Vilaine estuary and finally into pretty little Arzal. Read our ride report of the St-Malo to Rennes section here.
* St-Malo has labyrinthine cobbled streets, a harbour and a walk around the ramparts is a must.
* Dinan is an ancient fortified town full of charm.
* Léhon has an old castle, an abbey and a fine swimmng pool in the form of Piscine Les Pommiers* Hédé has a 13th century castle but is best known for the incredible flight of locks here.
* Rennes is one of the smallest cities in the world and boasts impressive public buildings, half-timbered houses and fine parks and gardens.
* Redon has many attractive waterside areas.
Route condition: Road or crushed stone from St-Malo to Dinan then towpath all the way to Rennes, some crushed stone, some tarmac. Note that the route between Redon and Arzal is under development but there are various options listed unofficially online which should help in allowing you to plot your own route between the two using mainly minor roads and tracks.
5. Troyes canals: From Crancy to Dienville
Distance: 101km / 51 miles for the three traffic-free sections as detailed below. Option for a grand circular return to Troyes from Dienville, following minor roads and tracks to the south of the Lacs, using route 19 as shown on the local map. This would take the total to 217km / 135 miles and by adding on a 12km return trip you can plan an overnight stay in attractive Bar-sur-Aube, surrounded by Champagne vineyards.
Main settlements: Saint-Julien-Les-Villas, Lusigny-sur-Barse, Geraudot, Radonvilliers, Dienville
Linking routes: This will ultimately be part of veloroute 16, linking Paris and Strasbourg via the Seine valley.
This ride stretches from the tiny village of Crancy in the north, through the city of Troyes and on to the lakeside village of Dienville in the south. It can conveniently be broken down into three sections which have in fact developed separately; the voie verte du canal de la Haute Seine, the voie verte de la Seine and the Velovoie des Grands Lacs de la Fôret de l’Orient.
There is plenty of information covering the Haute Seine Canal and Grands Lacs routes, but little covering the Voie Verte de la Seine through Troyes, or indeed the ensemble. The best information covering all three is the leaflet "L'Aube a Velo", downloadable at www.aube-champagne.com. Overall, a more varied 82 km of voie verte would be difficult to find, from quiet rural scenery to busy city centre to holiday leisure activities.
* Lac d'Orient. Three sandy beaches and all manner of non-motorised water sports from sailboarding to electric boats, but, above all, sailing.
* Lac du Temple is a nature reserve.
* Lac Amance is allocated for power boats and jet skis and other motorised water activities. Port Dienville marina offers evening dances and a variety of other events.
*The Maison du Parc tourist office is open all year on the south side of the lakes between Lac d'Orient and Lac du Temple.
*Attractive end of the ride Dienville has cafes, bakeries and other services, including campsites if you want to make it more than a day ride.
* For secure bicycle parking while you explore the city, or to have a tootle around it on an electric hire bike, go to the Halle aux Velos at 25, rue Louis Ulbach.
* Saint-Lye is worth a detour - it's pretty and has a cafe and shops.
* Mery-sur-Seine near the ride’s western end, is accessed by the pretty canal basin and in the town centre you’ll find bakery, bar/restaurant and many local services. Set nicely on the north bank of the River Seine.
* Troyes is the capital of one of the Champagne producing regions, but don't expect the streets to be flowing with the stuff. These days, Troyes is renowned more for its many factory outlet shops, especially the ones selling clothing and textiles. Medieval old town with cobbled streets and brightly coloured half-timbered houses. Great range of museums and art galleries, of churches (some noted for their stained glass) and also of parks and gardens. Aux Oiseaux de Passage is a well thought of family restaurant on Mail des charmilles and Midi aux Halles at 11, place Saint Remy does good value plats du jour. The Troyes Andouillette is a sausage made from pork chitterlings.
* The Parc des Moulins. 20 hectare ecopark lying right alongside the voie verte.
Trains run from Paris-Est to Nogent-sur-Seine which is on the canal west of Crancy and take an hour. Unofficial route sites suggest that the towpath from Nogent to Crancy is passable by bike but you should enquire locally as to the best route. Nogent has a tourist office all year round.
Route conditions: The voie verte du canal de la Haute Seine is excellent smooth tarmac, uninterrupted by road junctions and ideal for recumbents or bikes with trailers. It's green, it's rural and although you can't see them from the canal, there are villages nearby.
The Canal de la Haute Seine at Barberey-Saint-Sulpice.Saint-Julien-Les-Villas is a high quality tarmac path crossing the delightful city of Troyes, linking the existing cyclepath alongside the Haute Seine Canal with the existing route out to the Lac d'Orient and taking in some nice waterside riding in the process, even in the centre of the city.
The velovoie des grands lacs is an excellent tarmac cyclepath alongside the Canal de Saint-Julien and the Canal de Morge to the lakes of the Parc Naturel Regional de la Foret d'Orient where it runs by the lakes to Dienville at the eastern end of them.
6. The Burgundy Canal (Canal de Bourgogne): Dijon to Migennes
Distance: 211km / 131 miles
Major settlements: Dijon, Pouilly-en-Auxois, Veneray-les-Laumes, Montbard, Tonnerre, St-Florentin, Brianon-sur-Armançon, Migennes.
Linking routes: This section of the canal is part of véloroute 51 that continues south of Dijon through some of the world’s most famous vineyards. At its nothern end it joins the Nivernais canal (see following ride), also véloroute 51.
In many ways the canal and its scenery are the real highlight of this route; it’s viewed by many French as perhaps their most beautiful canal. However, there are plenty of specific attractions en route too:
* Dijon is a joy to wander around; smart and modern feeling in places but also with a wealth of historic buildings too, most especially the Ducal Palace.
* Montbard is a compact town with a fine art house cinema.
* Fontenay Abbey near Montbard is one of the oldest cistercian abbeys in existence.
* The fine 16th century château at Ancy-le-Franc.
* Semur-en-Auxois is a 12km detour (one way) from the canal but worth a visit just so you can see why its such a huge tourist draw; it’s rocky natural setting is home to some fine old buildings.
Route conditions: Tarmac towpath until Fleurey-sur-Ouche then mainly unsealed towpath beyond, largely in good condition until a deterioration on the very far northern section after Flogy-la-Chapelle, where the towpath is not yet official cycling route.
7. Canal du Nivernais: Auxerre to Decize
Distance: 176km / 109 miles
Major settlements: Auxerre, Clamecy, Cercy-la-Tour, Decize
Like the Canal de Bourgogne for the Nivernias canal the scenery itself is the real highlight of the route and like the Canal de Bourgogne it is highly regarded by the French themselves.
Other highlights include:
* Auxerre has a splendid waterfront area and the main town on the hill next door is a fine old place.
* Villages and towns of the Avallonnais include the fortified village of Mailly-le-Château, panoramic Châtel-Censoir and pretty little Lucy-sur-Yonne.
Linking routes: At its northern end there is a provisional signed route along minor roads and tracks to join the Canal de Bourgogne at Migennes. At its southern end there is a short link to Decize where you can join Eurovelo 6 that goes on to the Loire.
8. Canal des Vosges: Socourt to Corre
Distance: 101km / 63 miles
Main settlements: Charmes, Nomexy/ Châtel-sur-Moselle, Capavenir-Vosges, Épinal
The canal starts at Socourt, a small village just north of the town of Charmes, and ends at the Corre village marina. It joins the canal, the River Coney and the River Saone
* Charmes - small town by the canal near the start of the ride and a good place to head for if you've a motorhome or tent to pitch. Railway station on the line from Nancy - about half an hour.
* Châtel-sur-Moselle. The remains of a giant medieval fortress in a commanding position by the Moselle.
* Épinal. Nice town on the River Moselle reached alongside a canal spur. Range of museums, nice parks and gardens and plenty of accommodation if you want to based there. Famous for its woodcut prints, "Images d'Epinal".
* Lac de Bouzey. Feeder reservoir for the canal. An hour and a half walk around its perimeter. Supervised swimming in high summer. Campsite with beach, sports and entertainment.
* Bains-les-Bains. Small spa town offering a range of geothermal treatments in delightful surroundings.
* Selles is a tiny place but has a busy little metal swing bridge over the canal and a nearby bar and restaurant named in its honour.
* The ride ends at Corre where the canal meets the River Saone. The village has bakery, post office, bar etc and the marina between the village and the river has a very nice restaurant open all day every day except Tuesdays.
Route conditions: Lying under the western side of the Vosges mountains south of Nancy, this considerable length of canalside riding, mainly on tarmac or similar surfaces, is interrupted by only a couple of road sections. The railway line from Nancy has stations at various places between Charmes and Épinal and further south at Bains-les-Bains. Scenery is varied, the canal running through much forest and making for a relatively effortless journey through the hills and valleys of the area, and sometimes paralleling the Moselle. There are many small towns and villages around the canal with plenty of services and accommodation should you want to do the ride over a few days. The route is part of long distance veloroute 50 which you may see signed along the way as more and more sections become ‘officially’ available and the even longer veloroute Charles le Temeraire, stretching from Belgium to Burgundy and passing through Nancy and along the Canal des Vosges.
9. Rhône to Rhine Canal: St-Jean-de-Losne to Bâle
Distance: 253km / 157 miles
Main settlements: St-Jean-de-Losne, Dole, Besançon, Montbéliard, Mulhouse, Bâle (Basel).
Linking routes: You are following Eurovelo 6, which heads west from St-Jean to Chalon-sur-Sâone and then further west along the Canal du Centre to become the Loire à Vélo route. National route 50, which is still a work in progress, crosses this route at Saint-Jean-de-Losne.
This is a fine way to get across eastern France if heading onward to Switzerland or for southern Germany. When not following the canal towpath you will be alongside the various rivers that the canal dips in and out of on its way. If you head to Dijon by train from Paris (about 1hr 45mins) you can catch a connecting local train to St-Jean-de-Losne or even Dole. Main sights include:
* Dole is an attractive provincial town with a lovely area by the River Doubs.
* Besançon is set on a grand loop of the Doubs valley on the edge of the Jura mountains. As the capital of the Franch-Comté region it has some fine buildings and plenty of fine eateries to be worth at least a night’s stopover.
* Some old Germanic style buildings are to be found in Montbéliard, as you might expect from somewhere that has only been part of France since the late 18th century.
* Baume-les-Dames is both an historic town and a popular spot with boaters who use the pretty moorings here.
* Mulhouse is industrial in history but with a fine claim to fame as home to Automobile City, displaying over 600 cars, some dating to the late 19th century.
* Bâle or Basel is only part French – it also lies partly in Switzerland and Germany. It’s star is the river Rhine which has a fine old bridge, cable ferries and allotted public swimming areas in summer. Riverside cycle lanes let you drink in the whole scene.
Route conditions: Some minor road sections but more usually tarmac or well-surfaced unsealed voies vertes. Wide waterside paths but with quite long distances between stops.
10. Rhone-Marne and Saar Canals: Strasbourg to Saarbrucken and St-Jean-de-Losne to Bâle
Distance: 176km / 109 miles
Main settlements: Strasbourg, Saverne, Saarbourg (link from the canal), Sarreguimines, Saarbrücken (Germany)
Potentially useful if heading along a south-north axis through north-eastern France but also a fine ride in itself, in a relatively little-touristed corner of the country. This is part of the developing Eurovelo 5, the Via Romana that will link London to Rome.
This ride is made up of the Rhône-Marne canal from Strasbourg to Gondrexange, passing through the northern tip of the Vosges mountains, and then heading north up the beautiful Saar canal, before finally crossing the Franco-German to a fittingly impressive endpoint at Saarbrücken.
* Strasbourg is a fine cyclist’s city and boasts and incredible cathedral and fine historic squares made for al fresco dining allowing you to sample unique Alsatian cuisine (you may also hear the local Alsatian language). The route start itself is attractively placed to the north-east of the centre, as the Rhine-Marne canal runs right past the attractive Parc de l’Orangerie and many of the European Union’s modernist buildings.
* Saverne is a lively market town and jumping off point for visitors to some of the spectacular castles in the northern Vosges mountains. Housed impressively in the Zorn valley, it is picturesque in an Alsace way (geraniums and more geraniums!) and has the fine Château de Rohan by the Rhine-Marne canal.
* Just over the boder in Germany is Saarbrücken which, despite it’s industrial past, has a fine Baroque town centre and an attractive nightlife area across the river Saar in the St Johann district.
Route conditions: The Rhine-Marne canal is generally well-surfaced tarmac with well-managed crossings, as you would expect in Alsace. Much of the path alongside the Sarre Canal (formerly the Canal des Houllières de la Sarre) is also tarmac, though beware it can be quite close to the canal. The southern section of the Sarre valley in particular is picturesque.
About our contributor
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.