Fancy taking a peaceful cycling holiday in France along a beautiful waterway? Wendy Mewes, author of the Nantes-Brest Canal guide, has this overview of cycling the canal.
The 365km Nantes-Brest Canal can be cycled at a leisurely pace in a week, or walked in a little over two.
The canal passes many places of interest: the bustling town of Redon (French only), home of the canal museum, medieval towns like Malestroit and Josselin, where the huge castle towers over the river, Pontivy with its contrast of ancient and Napoleonic architecture and a huge Monday market, and the picturesque abbey of Bon Repos in its idyllic setting. Nature is all around with constantly changing landscapes, from flat marshes in the east to granite heights in the centre and the lush Aulne valley through Finistere in the west. Copious wildlife can be seen, with otters, coypu and water-rats to look out for and abundant birdlife on the water or calling out from surrounding woodland. Altogether it provides a wide-ranging experience of Brittany’s landscape, history and culture.
Nantes in Pays de la Loire is a busy city, but cycle-friendly on the whole, with easy bike-hire and parking. It is connected by train to all major cities in France. The old centre around the Chateau (now a stunning modern museum in a medieval building) is small enough to explore on foot. Don’t miss the cathedral!
Cycling the Canal
The canal begins in Nantes, with a lock (not the original first one) off the Loire. But from there the free-flowing Erdre goes north without a towpath (except short distances in the city), so most walkers and cyclists begin at Quiheix, Lock 2, where the canal proper goes off this river to begin its journey westwards. It is possible to cycle there from Nantes, taking the D69 via Sucé-sur-Erdre, and turning right to the canal just before the junction with the D26. The Nantes-Brest Canal guide has maps.
There is a cyclists’ Station VTT at the Rond-Point, Lac de Guerlédan in the heart of Brittany with bike hire and information about many circular trails in the area. The tourist office in Mur-de-Bretagne (French only) near the lake has cycling maps. It is best for cyclists to go round the lake by the northern route.
At the western end, the canal finishes at Guily Glas, just beyond the town of Chateaulin. Brest, in Brittany, is still nearly 40km away, and the great Aulne river does not go all the way, disgorging into the Rade de Brest at Landévennec, but without riverside paths for cyclists. A complicated and not very attractive route of major and minor roads is required to reach Brest, as the straightforward expressway (N165) has to be avoided. A much better idea is to get a train from Chateaulin to Brest, and then sit on the Cours Dajot, a panoramic promenade also built by prisoners from the gaol, and marvel at the sight of the Rade de Brest, largest roadstead in Europe.
There are many circular cycling routes starting from points along the canal, which are detailed in local communes and tourist offices along the way. If you want to get some idea of the variety and atmosphere, my travelogue Crossing Brittany describes walking the whole length of the canal.
Wendy Mewes is the author of eight books about Brittany, including the Footprint guide to Brittany and the Red Dog guide The Nantes-Brest Canal (UK, Fr, US). She organises many walks and provides professional guided visits through Brittany Heritage Services. You can follow Wendy on Twitter @brittanyexpert
Accommodation along the Nantes-Brest Canal
Zoom into the map above, or check here for links to accommodation in France, including hotels, gîtes, gîtes d’étapes, B&Bs, self-catered and campsite options. In particular, check out the La Maison du Canal.
Details of accommodation and facilities within striking distance of the canal can also be found in The Nantes-Brest Canal (UK, Fr, US) which gives maps of the entire route. It is also available as an e-book here.
For bike rental in France, see our bike hire listings.