Four areas, eight départements, three parcs naturels, 4 Unesco world heritage websites and, should you’re fortunate, 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, eventually, has its very personal guidebook in English.
Richard Peace’s slim quantity, Veloscenic: Paris-Versailles-Mont Saint Michel By Bike, got here out in March and splits the 281-mile route into 10 simply rideable sections. Along with detailed mapping and instructions, it consists of images and helpful data on bike rent, points of interest and lodging, such because the boutique Hotel Jeu de Paume (doubles from €85 room-only) simply across the nook from Versailles, the place I spent my first night time.
At Paris’s Gare du Nord, I picked up a hybrid rent bike, and headed for the place to begin at Notre Dame cathedral. With some assist from the guidebook, I finally found the Véloscénic route, a largely traffic-free greenway snaking south-west via the suburbs in the direction of the château at Sceaux.
The trip is cut up into 10 largely traffic-free sections
I’d given myself six days to get to Mont Saint-Michel, protecting almost 50 miles a day. That could seem fairly a distance, however the course the Véloscénic charts throughout north-west France isn’t just picturesque however remarkably flat and cycle-friendly. A full 115 miles of it’s on traffic-free greenways, together with two prolonged lengths of disused railway line on which the miles flew by. (Even essentially the most difficult part – a 15-mile stretch between Alençon and Carrouges, which I tackled on day 4 – is little greater than a collection of light inclines culminating within the very pleasing Château de Carrouges, the place I ate a picnic lunch on the terrace.)
My second day was spent beneath a broiling solar amid arable farmland, woods and hamlets. I replenished my dwindling stock of water by working a bit rotary pump by the crumbly stone church at Choisel; and indulged my inner-schoolboy at Rambolitrain, the fantastic little mannequin railway museum in Rambouillet, the place over 1 / 4 of a mile of tiny observe passes via lovingly handcrafted surroundings recreating the native space within the 1930s.
The gardens and ruins of aqueduct at Château de Maintenon. Photograph: Dixe Wills
I nonetheless had sufficient time within the day to fall in love. The Château de Maintenon is on a extra human scale than Versailles and was my favorite of the numerous imposing chateaux on the route. It was constructed by Madame de Maintenon with the spare change given to her by her lover, Louis XIV. The lush gardens embody the picturesque stays of a stone aqueduct, a folly that was supposed to take water 50 miles from the Eure river to Versailles however managed solely 32 earlier than the Sun King’s funds dried up.
The Véloscénic traces a long-established pilgrimage route and, sweeping round a nook, I skilled one thing of the shock the medieval trustworthy should have felt at their first sight of Chartres cathedral, a colossus dominating the panorama for miles round.
It was a nice distinction to search out myself within the moderately humbler environment of La Maison de Tante Léonie, 17 miles south-west of Chartres. Léonie was Marcel Proust’s aunt, and her home within the small city of Illiers-Combray options closely in A la Récherche du Temps Perdu, the writer’s wistful exploration of the mysteries of reminiscence. The museum is a bit piece of lost time itself: full of furnishings and objects that Proust himself would have identified.
A former railway station on cycle path between Illiers-Combray and Alençon. Photograph: Dixe Wills
The small cities alongside the Véloscénic all supply good-quality lodges, pensions and chambres d’hôtes. In the village of Thiron-Gardais, for instance, I had a room at L’Auberge de l’Abbaye (doubles from €75 room-only) overlooking a pleasant walled backyard with an abbey behind it. My dinner included some mixtures I’d by no means skilled earlier than: beetroot, crystallised orange and spring onions on pearl barley could by no means develop into the brand new avocado-on-toast however it was surprisingly tasty.
At Nogent-le-Rotrou, former capital of the Perche area, Château Saint-Jean is a hulking nice Norman affair presiding over a city whose Saturday market I plundered for recent produce to eat on the banks of the Huisne. Surging into Normandy on quiet nation lanes, my approach was garlanded with bluebells, cowslips and purple orchids. I scooted via the Andaines forest to spend the night time in Bagnoles de l’Orne, the place the French come in droves to enhance their bodily wellbeing within the city’s spas whereas risking their monetary well being at its on line casino.
The sight of orchards close to Domfront jogged my memory that the guidebook had promised a while in perry and cider nation. 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 loved a bit dégustation. Then got here the troublesome process of selecting only one bottle from the huge vary of native perry, cider and calvados to pack into my pannier.
Cyclists soak up a view of Mont Saint-Michel
And so to Mont Saint-Michel. Or almost, anyway. Having ridden 280 miles from Paris, I used to be defeated on the final stretch. In summer time, bicycles aren’t allowed on the controversial new(ish) bridge to the tidal island, so I needed to park my steed and stroll the ultimate mile. This “Marvel of the West” is greater than a tad touristy, however the abbey that dominates the little hill remains to be one thing else: a writhing mass of medieval chapels, cloisters and crypts, balancing precariously on one another’s shoulders. I drank within the view of the immense sandy bay from on excessive because the afternoon solar bathed your complete scene in glory. From someplace deep throughout the complicated got here the timeless sound of nuns singing a mass.
• The journey was organised by La Véloscénic. Bike rent from round €95 for per week with one-way service from firms listed at veloscenic.com. Rail travel was provided by OUI.sncf; from London to Paris, coming back from Pontorson, tickets begin at £89.50