Nantes-Brest Canal vs the Vilaine River

En route to Redon, Karin Badt wasn't sure whether to bike the Nantes-Brest Canal from Nantes or take the Vilaine River from Rennes – in the end, she took both.

Canaux de Bretagne

Karin's two waterside rides. The green line is the Cantes-Brest Canal; the blue line is the river Vilaine, which joins the Canal d'Ille-et-Rance further north. Map thank to Canaux de Bretagne 

Recently I decided to bike to the town of Redon in Brittany to participate in an acroyoga retreat. My first major question was whether it is best to do so taking the Nantes-Brest Canal from Nantes or the river Vilaine from Rennes. I ended up doing both – and the answer for me (as you can see below) is clear. The river!

A note before planning any bike trip in France. One of the catch-22s in France is that you cannot purchase the required bike ticket for a TGV on the internet from the SNCF website. And once your train ticket is purchased, you cannot add a bike later, no matter how much you plead with the conductor. (Note: you can, however, now book bikes on French trains via the Captaine Train website).

That meant that five minutes before I boarded my train from Paris to Nantes, I discovered I could not bring my bicycle.   The prim conductor told me “impossible.” Actually nothing is really impossible. I biked across the quai to the ticket counter, and asked a manager to write a note of permission allowing me to take the train, given the Kafkaesque fiasco of the internet policy. This worked. (I have used this technique before, so I knew it would).
 
Soon I was in Nantes.
 
Only to find that I should have taken the train to Rennes instead. A French friend had warned me that I should not go to Nantes because, he said, it would be difficult to bike out of this huge city. He was right. It is 30km just to get OUT of Nantes to that Nantes canal: up steep roads, past the university, on a highway. I even hopped a tram, with my bike, part of the way to get out of the mess. In other words, the “Nantes-Brest” canal is a misnomer, as it does not start in Nantes!

Once out of the sprawl of suburban roads, I stopped in the small village of Suces de Erdre and celebrated with a coffee.

Then 13km later, I found it: the entrance to the canal, unmarked, a dirt path.
 
A shock. This the Canal Brest-Nantes? I expected tarmac. This was wet gravel. It is very slow biking on wet gravel. And the canal – well, it was flat murky water contained by man-made concrete. Not much variation, unless you are an expert at detecting patterns between one dead-leaf formation and another.
 
Still it was amazing to be alone. Alone with the forest, the darkening water ...

Changing plans

In fact, I thought, why bother getting to Redon that night for my acroyoga workshop? By nightfall, I found myself before a majestic chateau in the town of Blain, staring at the door to the 16th century stables, where I would spend the night, for just €11 (a gite d’etape, it’s called), in a room with a view of medieval gardens.

Chateau de la Groulais Blain by Israel Gutierrez

The beautiful Chateau de la Groulais at Blain. Photo: Israel Gutiérrez

The phone rang. It was Sonia, my would-be host for the Redon yoga workshop. “I am coming to pick you up!” she said.  “I insist!”

“Sure,” I said reluctantly, but thankful. It meant not having to wake up at 5am to bike the other four hours down the canal.  But first I negotiated an extra hour with Sonia to be able to dine in town, along the canal, in a small tavern, served by one broken-toothed smiling man and his plump wife, who explained to me how she made the seared bass (delicious) and the béchamel-gratin-zucchini, while I drank two glasses of crisp fruity wine.

Sonia surprised me: a tall laughing woman, dressed in red shiny coat, multi-colour ball necklace, spiffy red shoes, bright lipstick.

“Come!” the energetic woman said and swept open her trunk for my bike.
 
An hour later, past dark quiet forests through the window, we arrived in an old village of stone homes to knock on her friend Peggy’s door, where inside I found a group of would be Acrobatic-Yogis lounged on chairs, drinking wine, most of whom were from the region. The next morning, we were all “flying” or “basing” each other.

Exploring Redon

After the day was finished, I had time to myself to explore Redon. I biked up and around the ancient church, which now doubles as a high school, along the cobbled roads, and had a glass of white wine in a local bar, where the man made me taste all three types of wine in shot glasses. I gazed out at the stony steeple of the church school. Three boys were laughing on the steps.

The next morning: three more hours of  “flying” with very tired Yogis. We did headstands on each others' upraised feet, two metres off the ground.

It was fun, but still I wondered if I should skip the communal massage that afternoon and instead bike the river back to Rennes.
 
I biked the river back to Rennes: 60km along a sun-splendid river, past trees, with every so often a passing parent with a child in hand, or two lovers holding hands under a branch. Each would smile to me as I passed, sharing the river day.

This was so much nicer than the canal! On and on, I biked: raised high in my seat, the water free and running. Along the river, I found lines of poetry engraved on a tree: “The banks are there to make the river flow.”

Vilaine et Canal carrefour Destination Pays de Redon

Where the river Vilaine meets the Nantes-Brest Canal at Redon. Photo: Destination Pays de Redon

A short cut by train

The sun was beginning to set, however. There was no way I would be in Rennes by nightfall. I decided to snake up the hill to a local village and cut the route by 20km by taking the train a leg. 

A man passing on horseback indicated the path by the woods into a village. Another man, in the village, told me to keep biking until I passed a “cemetery”. I found the station just in time: there it came, the last train of the afternoon, a TER which takes bikes with no tickets at all!
 
“I just want to take the train a few kilometres,” I told the laughing conductor.  “What do you think? Should I stop at either Guichen or Laille?”
 
“Guichen!” the conductor said.
 
In Guichon, I easily found the road back down to the river, by curving around the train station. The river was cooler with the setting sun and wider with water, and full of people ambling home: families and couples and old people holding hands. The paths were no longer packed hard dirt, but rocks – and sometimes mud. Every so often, I would bike into the grass, or actually get off and walk, creating a soothing rhythm to the journey. 

Midway, I took a break. I biked up into a village and stopped in a local bar of drunken marauders, pulled out my iPad and had a chardonnay – delicious and crisp – interrupted only by a man calling out: “Are you a gringo like me? What in hell are you doing in this Godforsaken town?”
 
A beaming American stood before me with a beer in one hand, and a waif-like child in the other: Josephine, who asked her Daddy to read her the “joke” written on her candy bar.

He read it carefully: “A fish asks to go to the supermarket, and is stopped by the red light.”

She smiled.

“Do you like that joke?” I asked, dubious.

“Oui!” she smiled.

She nudged her father.

“Can you read it again?”

His blonde wife came to join us, and they spoke about their love of New York and offered me a drink, but the sun was going down, and Rennes was still miles away.

Vilaine river at Rennes by Florent MORITZ

The river Vilaine at Rennes. Photo: Florent Moritz

On to Rennes

Back to the darkening river, now muddy and rockier: the people gone, just me along the dirt paths, with the sounds of night-birds. Alone now, I grew desperate to make it to the edge of Rennes before the night became black.

I biked one kilometre after another, racing the darkening sun, finding no city in sight, just grass and then suddenly a path that was slippery gooey mud, splashing up my legs.

Rennes, old town. By Jacqueline Poggi.

Rennes' old town. Photo: Jacqueline Poggi

As the sun twinkled its last, I made it: I biked into the city, along the river bank, passing first metal housing projects, then the fancier penthouses, and then, ahead: the old centre of the town. People were jogging by. I threw myself on the banks of the river and lay down, my back sinking into the grass, exhausted from three hours of acrobatics, five hours of biking….

“Are you okay, Madame?”

I look up and see two twenty-year-olds, befuddled at finding a woman flat on her back on the river.

“Quite fine,” I said.

I loved that river ride.

At the train that night, I swiftly leaped into the carriage and hid my ticketless bike, and off the train went, effortlessly, back to Paris.

Karin Luisa Badt is a professor of cinema and theater at the Universite de Paris VIII, and a regular lecturer at New York University.  She is also the author of a series of children's books and plays. She is a regular blogger on the Huffington Post, where you can read more from her.

More information on cycling in Brittany

For more on the Nantes-Brest Canal, see our cycling guide and our overview of its history.

We have this overview of cycling in Brittany, as well as an article on Brittany's greenway routes, or voies vertes. For bike rental across Brittany, see our bike hire listings.

Check the map below for bike-friendly places to stay, or browse our Brittany accommodation suggestions and those also for Pays de la Loire.

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Nantes Brest Canal guidebook

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