We sent Jacqui Brown off to bike the 75km Dolce Via veloroute in the Eyrieux river valley of the Ardèche. Here's her report.
The Dolce Via is a remarkable bit of recycling that has created a brand new cycle way from the old railway line, which first opened in 1891 to get supplies and people up to the cut-off community of Le Cheylard in the Ardeche. It was well used, especially in the inter-war years, but its usage declined after then with the arrival of motor vehicles. It was closed in 1968 and the rails were removed in the 1970s. It was then abandoned but has now been restored, along with its tunnels and viaducts, and a new lease of life has been given to this secret route along what must be one of the prettiest and most tranquil cycle path in France.
We used our road bikes (with 25c and 28c tyres), but it does state in the brochure (available to download from the official site) that some of the surfaces are not suitable for road bikes. This view was echoed by the chatty lady who runs a sweet little café in the grounds of the old station in Chalencon, and who seemed to think we were mad to attempt it on our bikes. We seemed to become the talk of the tea bar for a while as we could hear her discussing our foolish idea with everyone else who arrived after she had discovered where they were from and where we were going.
However, while we did have to be careful in places and it wasn’t always the most comfortable ride, we didn’t have any problems. The surface changes regularly from gravel to tarmac, as there are some sections shared with cars (limited to 30km/h) where access to houses is necessary, so we weren’t always on rough tracks.
Taking the Train de l'Ardeche
To start our Dolce Via circuit, we let the train take the strain out of climbing the 25km from the River Rhône in St Jean de Muzols (four kilometres from Tournon-sur-Rhône) to Lamastre in the hills.
The sun was shining and, for the first time in days, we could feel the warmth on our faces as we waited excitedly on the platform for the Train de l’Ardeche, a tourist steam train, to be prepared. Hoping the sun was here to stay, we chose to sit in an open carriage where we could watch all the action from the driver and fireman, as well as the scenery, for the hour and 40 minute trip.
For the first half of the journey, you steam up the craggy gorge, looking down on the River Doux tumbling over the rocks as it makes its way to the Rhône – and it really is stunning.
Top tip: sit on the right-hand side, as you will get a better view.
After a short water refill stop, the scenery becomes more meadows and forests and, having had a few early morning starts, we both felt rather sleepy with the gentle motion of the train. However the weather had other ideas, as the closer we got to Lamastre, the heavier the clouds looked and eventually the rain arrived. This was not much fun in an open railway carriage.
As our bikes were first into the goods wagon, they were the first two of 25 stacked against each other, which left Adrian a little nervous. Thankfully, the other cyclists were as careful as we were and there was no damage (we were told that there will soon be a carriage with bike racks built in, which will be a great improvement).
By the time we left the station, it was pouring with rain and a lunch in a bar was out of the question as there was nowhere dry to park the bikes. We found a sheltered alleyway and bought two hot cheesy baguettes from a boulangerie for our lunch and waited patiently for the rain to ease, which it did after about half an hour.
Soon after setting off, the sky cleared and luckily the sun returned for the rest of the day.
The Dolce Via will soon be open from Lamastre, but during our visit (June 2016) we had to take the roads. We found our first glimpse of the actual route in Nonières after a steep downhill path took us from the village to the old railway line below. This brand new section with gravelled pathways, wild flowers on each side and pretty much no pedalling for the 8km into Le Cheylard was perfect and so easy.
We stayed the night at the Hotel des Voyageurs, an accueil vélo hotel, which provided secure storage for the bikes, a cold plated meal (as we were in town on a Sunday when all the restaurants are closed) and a filling breakfast that included homemade cakes using the local chestnut puree.
We set off to a day so much brighter, bluer and warmer than the day before that just added to our excitement of seeing what the Dolce Via had to offer.
A bit of research had shown that the route was rather remote, so to avoid going hungry at lunchtime we bought a baguette and a jar of local paté in Le Cheylard and this proved to be a wise move and saved us a lunchtime detour. We also noted that there is no shortage of picnic tables and benches all along the route.
Almost immediately after we left Le Cheylard, we found ourselves stopping to look at and photograph the scenery; the River Eyrieux, the steep sided gorge, the ironwork and the forests, it was all so beautiful.
To begin with we were treated to a tarmac path and, as it is a gently descending route all the way to the Rhône (48km away), we could have cruised along at quite a pace, however we were as slow as snails. It was just too beautiful to rush and we wanted to it to last as long as possible.
Every corner showed a new vista, that needed yet another photo.
We cycled over restored viaducts, through dark, damp tunnels and at times felt we were the only two people on Earth. We could see nothing but trees and the river, hear nothing but the birds and the river and we had no phone service – it was bliss.
Sometimes we meandered around the gentle curves of the river, other times we disappeared into rock cuttings that silenced the river and were home to collections of ferns. The sunnier, open stretches gave us wildflowers, cherry trees and the odd remote houses and gardens to look at.
So long as you can ride a bike, you can enjoy all that the Dolce Via has to offer as it really is effortless cycling. Even Adrian, who has discovered a thirst for challenging mountain climbing, enjoyed it, as the scenery is breathtaking. I certainly found my cycling heaven.
To complete our circuit back to Tournon-sur-Rhône, we joined the Via Rhôna from La Voulte-sur-Rhône and followed the mighty River Rhône. While not as dramatic as the Dolce Via, it is a flat, fast running, cycling superhighway from Lake Geneva in the north to the Mediterranean in the south.
We did find it rather bleak and industrial around La Voulte-sur-Rhône, but from Valence it is decorated with steep vineyards. A point worth noting is that in times of heavy rainfall the cycle way along the Rhône can be liable to flooding and although usually marked with ‘route barre’ (route closed) signs, this is not always the case.
Bikes may not have motor engines that are liable to die when flooded, but we now know from experience that flood water and sticky river mud is not much fun and doesn’t do the bikes much good either.
We stayed the night in Le Cèdre de Soyons and the young couple that run this elegant accueil vélo hotel were most welcoming, even though we were hot, muddy and needed assistance with bike maintenance, which was provided. We couldn’t have stayed anywhere better.
The following morning we left fully refreshed for Valence, which was worth a detour into the town centre for morning coffee, and then Tain l’Hermitage (above), where we crossed the Rhône via the impressive old footbridge back into Tournon.
Our little tour of just some of what the Ardeche has to offer for cyclists was over and we were sad to be leaving such a beautiful area of France.
All photos copyright 'French Village Diaries'.
Our guest reporter Jacqui Brown writes French Village Diaries, a blog about life in Poitou-Charentes, cycling, French food, travel, and books.