Norman conquest: cycling from Paris to Mont Saint-Michel

The Véloscénic cycle route takes in Normandy’s beautiful – and beautifully flat – greenways, Unesco sites and delightful museums. And there’s a new guidebook to lead the way

Four regions, eight départements, three parcs naturels, four Unesco world heritage sites and, if you’re lucky, one wannabe Marcel Proust … Welcome to the Véloscénic, the long-distance cycleway from Paris to Le Mont Saint-Michel that opened in 2013 and now, at last, has its very own guidebook in English.

Normandy cycle

Richard Peace’s slim volume, Veloscenic: Paris-Versailles-Mont Saint Michel By Bike, came out in March and splits the 281-mile route into 10 easily rideable sections. Along with detailed mapping and directions, it includes photographs and useful information on bike hire, attractions and accommodation, such as the boutique Hotel Jeu de Paume (doubles from €85 room-only) just around the corner from Versailles, where I spent my first night.

At Paris’s Gare du Nord, I picked up a hybrid hire bike, and headed for the starting point at Notre Dame cathedral. With some help from the guidebook, I eventually found the Véloscénic route, a largely traffic-free greenway snaking south-west through the suburbs towards the château at Sceaux.

Perche, Veloscenie cycleway, France
The ride is split into 10 largely traffic-free sections Photograph: ©La Véloscénie – David Darrault

I’d given myself six days to get to Mont Saint-Michel, covering nearly 50 miles a day. That may seem quite a distance, but the course the Véloscénic charts across north-west France is not just picturesque but remarkably flat and cycle-friendly. A full 115 miles of it is on traffic-free greenways, including two extended lengths of disused railway line on which the miles flew by. (Even the most challenging section – a 15-mile stretch between Alençon and Carrouges, which I tackled on day four – is little more than a series of gentle inclines culminating in the very pleasing Château de Carrouges, where I ate a picnic lunch on the terrace.)

My second day was spent under a broiling sun amid arable farmland, woods and hamlets. I replenished my dwindling stock of water by working a little rotary pump by the crumbly stone church at Choisel; and indulged my inner-schoolboy at Rambolitrain, the wonderful little model railway museum in Rambouillet, where over a quarter of a mile of tiny track passes through lovingly handcrafted scenery recreating the local area in the 1930s.

The gardens and ruins of aqueduct at Château de Maintenon
The gardens and ruins of aqueduct at Château de Maintenon. Photograph: Dixe Wills

I still had enough time in the day to fall in love. The Château de Maintenon is on a more human scale than Versailles and was my favourite of the many imposing chateaux on the route. It was built by Madame de Maintenon with the spare change given to her by her lover, Louis XIV. The lush gardens include the picturesque remains of a stone aqueduct, a folly that was intended to take water 50 miles from the Eure river to Versailles but managed only 32 before the Sun King’s finances dried up.

The Véloscénic traces a long-established pilgrimage route and, sweeping around a corner, I experienced something of the shock the medieval faithful must have felt at their first sight of Chartres cathedral, a colossus dominating the landscape for miles around.

It was a pleasant contrast to find myself in the rather humbler surroundings of La Maison de Tante Léonie, 17 miles south-west of Chartres. Léonie was Marcel Proust’s aunt, and her home in the small town of Illiers-Combray features heavily in A la Récherche du Temps Perdu, the author’s wistful exploration of the mysteries of memory. The museum is a little piece of lost time itself: filled with furniture and objects that Proust himself would have known.

A former railway station on cycle path between Illiers-Combray and Alençon.
A former railway station on cycle path between Illiers-Combray and Alençon. Photograph: Dixe Wills

The small towns along the Véloscénic all offer good-quality hotels, pensions and chambres d’hôtes. In the village of Thiron-Gardais, for example, I had a room at L’Auberge de l’Abbaye (doubles from €75 room-only) overlooking a delightful walled garden with an abbey behind it. My dinner included some combinations I’d never experienced before: beetroot, crystallised orange and spring onions on pearl barley may never become the new avocado-on-toast but it was surprisingly tasty.

At Nogent-le-Rotrou, former capital of the Perche region, Château Saint-Jean is a hulking great Norman affair presiding over a town whose Saturday market I plundered for fresh produce to eat on the banks of the Huisne. Surging into Normandy on quiet country lanes, my way was garlanded with bluebells, cowslips and purple orchids. I scooted through the Andaines forest to spend the night in Bagnoles de l’Orne, where the French come in droves to improve their physical wellbeing in the town’s spas while risking their financial health at its casino.

The sight of orchards near Domfront reminded me that the guidebook had promised some time in perry and cider country. The Musée du Poiré is in a former perry-producing farm, and after I’d gawped at some fantastical contraptions from days of yore, I enjoyed a little dégustation. Then came the difficult task of choosing just one bottle from the vast range of local perry, cider and calvados to pack into my pannier.

Cyclists take in a view of Mont Saint-Michel
Cyclists take in a view of Mont Saint-Michel Photograph: ©La Véloscénie – David Darrault

And so to Mont Saint-Michel. Or nearly, anyway. Having ridden 280 miles from Paris, I was defeated on the last stretch. In summer, bicycles aren’t allowed on the controversial new(ish) bridge to the tidal island, so I had to park my steed and walk the final mile. This “Marvel of the West” is more than a tad touristy, but the abbey that dominates the little hill is still something else: a writhing mass of medieval chapels, cloisters and crypts, balancing precariously on each other’s shoulders. I drank in the view of the immense sandy bay from on high as the afternoon sun bathed the entire scene in glory. From somewhere deep within the complex came the timeless sound of nuns singing a mass.
The trip was organised by La Véloscénic. Bike hire from around €95 for a week with one-way service from companies listed at Rail travel was supplied by; from London to Paris, returning from Pontorson, tickets start at £89.50

Looking for cycling holiday inspiration? Browse The Guardian’s selection of cycling holidays on the Guardian Holidays website


Dixe Wills

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The ebike revolution: Cycling in the Alps? No sweat
Ebikes aren’t just easing the pain of hill climbing, they’re changing the face of cycling. There’s even a new festival in Verbier celebrating their popularity

Alf Alderson

09, Jun, 2019 @11:00 AM

Article image
A cycling tour of the Normandy D-day landing beaches
Taking in the heroics and horrors of the D-day sites is a moving experience for our writer and a fitting way to mark the 75th anniversary

Dixe Wills

06, Jun, 2019 @5:30 AM

Article image
A family cycling holiday in Normandy: flat, easy and the trail all to ourselves

Amelia Gentleman finds a family cycling break in Normandy surprisingly relaxing – provided the kids are well-fuelled with sugary treats

Amelia Gentleman

18, Apr, 2014 @6:22 PM

Article image
10 of the best easy cycling holidays in Europe
While Geraint Thomas wannabes might tackle the Alps or Pyrenees, here are 10 less-challenging but equally scenic routes for families and newbies

Rachel Dixon

08, Jun, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
10 of the best hotels for cyclists in the UK, France and Spain
Even the fittest riders need a place to relax, refuel and carry out repairs. Our expert knows the best bike-friendly hotels and B&Bs in cycling hotspots

Jack Thurston

08, Jun, 2019 @11:00 AM

Article image
Readers' tips: Best holidays in Brittany and Normandy

See contemporary art in the chapels of Morbihan or drawn on Disney appeal to introduce the kids to Mont St Michel – our Been there readers give their top tips for holidays in Brittany and Normandy

25, Jul, 2011 @8:43 AM

Article image
Tour de France: cycling the opening Vendée stage
The grand départ of the 2018 Tour takes place next weekend on the Atlantic coast. Our writer rides his Brompton through dunes and forests with pit stops to sample fine local seafood

Jack Thurston

01, Jul, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
The best walks in northern France: readers' travel tips
Canals, wetlands and amazing coastline in Normandy and Picardy offer great hiking – plus excellent fish cafes and crêperies for refuelling in afterwards

Guardian readers

07, Sep, 2017 @10:45 AM

Article image
Scenic cycling routes in Europe: readers’ tips
Our tipsters weave their way through mountain ranges and alongside rivers and the sea, mixing family-friendly trails with thrilling climbs and downhill stretches

Guardian readers

06, Jun, 2019 @12:29 PM

Article image
‘I always come back from Chianti a kilo or two heavier'
Colin O’Brien, author of a new book about the Giro d’Italia, celebrates the Tuscan region’s enduring legacy of cycling heroes and simple-but-superb food, as well as its working class roots

Interview by Andy Pietrasik

24, Mar, 2017 @11:05 AM