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Tour de France: biking the opening Vendée stage | Travel

The seashores, forests, lagoons and marshes of the Vendée coast will present a scenic backdrop to the beginning of this yr’s Tour de France on 7 July. And whereas soccer followers can’t have a kickabout on the pitch earlier than a World Cup game, anybody with a motorbike can have a go at using a stage of the Tour.

But I seemed on the race route and shortly realised I’d greatest neglect the bits that use quick fundamental roads; as a substitute I’d observe the traffic-free coastal bike path, the longest of the Vendée’s 1,800km of waymarked, typically traffic-free biking routes.

Vendee

The Tour begins on the island of Noirmoutier, the place the white-painted homes with gentle blue shutters and terracotta roofs mix in with the simplicity of a panorama made up of sky, sea and sand. I rolled over the Tour’s begin line on my Brompton (lengthy story, see How to do it, beneath) and adopted the race route because it zigzags via the dykes, leats and lagoons of the island’s salt marshes. Here, salt farmers information seawater via a sequence of shallow basins, the place solar and wind slowly evaporate the water till salt crystals, generally known as fleur de sel, might be fastidiously skimmed off.

I rode south on a cycleway whose verges had been dotted with purple marsh orchids. I handed oyster farms, whitewashed windmills with witch’s hat roofs and a protracted tidal lagoon, home to a big and noisy inhabitants of seabirds. The salt marshes are a birder’s paradise, notably in winter, after they’re a stopping-off level for migrating species. Besides salt and oysters, Noirmoutier’s wealthy however sandy soil is thought for rising glorious potatoes. One selection, the bonnotte, claims the title of the world’s costliest spud. Grown underneath a mulch of seaweed and algae, bonnottes are harvested by hand and may fetch absurd costs in Paris.

Daily grind … Noirmoutier has picturesque windmills. Photograph: Alamy

Until 1971, when a bridge to the mainland was constructed, entry to the island was by the Passage du Gois, a 4km tidal causeway that’s satisfactory just for a couple of hours at low tide. The Tour de France first crossed the Gois in 1993 and had hoped to make use of it once more this yr, however the tides received’t permit it.

The Vendée coast is so flat that the street bridge from Noirmoutier to the mainland, at simply 33 metres above sea degree, was comfortably the very best level of my total journey. Once on the mainland, I picked up the area’s 200km coastal cycleway, which itself types a part of La Vélodyssée, a for much longer route alongside France’s Atlantic coast from Roscoff in Brittany all the best way to the Basque nation. It’s well-signposted and my first few hours took me via aromatic coastal forests of pines, evergreen oaks and mimosas bursting with scented yellow blossom.

Family cycling on Noirmoutier.

Slow lane … a household explores a village on Noirmoutier. Photograph: Julien Gazeau

If this stretch of shoreline has a downside, it’s its sheer reputation. At instances it felt like a steady strip of holiday houses, caravan websites, golf programs and amusement parks. I pushed on previous the beachfront residence blocks of Saint-Jean-de-Monts to succeed in the Corniche Vendéenne, a rocky headland of small sandy coves, sea stacks and a good-looking lighthouse which was extra just like the wild Atlantic shoreline I hoped for. Just past is Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, a fishing city that calls itself the sardine capital of France. Sardines are a seasonal catch from April to October and I ended at a roadside kiosk for a plateful contemporary from the grill and crusty with salt.

After extra sandy seashores, forest tracks, canals and marshes, I reached Les Sables-d’Olonne and the top of my first day’s journey. Its lengthy seafront promenade appears out over the most important expanse of sand I’ve ever seen, and its port is the beginning and finish level of the Vendée Globe, the solo round-the-world yacht race that is likely one of the few sporting occasions to rival the Tour de France as a take a look at of bodily and psychological endurance. It was as soon as home to the biggest cod fishing fleet in France, and fish are nonetheless huge business right here. Early morning guided excursions of the wholesale market and public sale halls can be found (€6.30, e-book on the vacationer workplace).

Plage du Veillon is huge and back by dunes.

Plage du Veillon is big and again by dunes. Photograph: Jack Thurston

The subsequent morning I ended for a swim at Plage du Veillon, an enormous dune-backed strand with a surf college and a classy, wood-clad beachfront bistro .

From right here, I adopted the Vélodyssée route inland throughout the Payré estuary. My vacation spot was Port de la Guittière, home to France’s smallest oyster farm, Viviers de la Guittière, the place the oysters develop in sacks tied to picket posts within the esturary’s clear water. Beyond the oyster beds are dunes, sandbanks and open sea. Under a cloudless sky, at a desk created from an outdated cable reel, I ate a dozen oysters (€10 with a glass of native white wine). It was arduous to get again on the bike.

Of all of the habitats I rode via, I found the dunes essentially the most beguiling. They interact all of the senses: the scent of the ocean, reduce with aniseed and wild thyme; the colors of blue-green sea holly and acid yellow and inexperienced euphorbia; the rustling sound of wind-blown marram grass.

A farm shack selling oysters and mussels.

A farm shack promoting oysters and mussels. Photograph: Alamy

After serving as prime minister in the course of the first world warfare, French statesman Georges Clemenceau selected this peaceable panorama for his retirement. The beachfront fisherman’s cabin he rented in Saint-Vincent-sur-Jard is now a museum (grownup €6). Beguilingly spartan, it’s adorned with unique artefacts and searching trophies: a tiger pores and skin rug, and a stuffed crocodile over his mattress. But Clemenceau’s best pleasure was the backyard, which he designed with the painter Claude Monet, a detailed pal. It is an impressionist imaginative and prescient of a Vendée dunescape, with free drifts of crops in a naturalistic fashion that was forward of its time a century in the past.

Dubbed “little California”, the world round La Tranche-sur-Mer is all holiday villas, coastal forests and a seemingly limitless sandy seaside that’s excellent windsurfing, kite-surfing and, when the tide is out, sand yachting. But the biking is just a little uninteresting right here, as a lot of the cycleway runs alongside a busy fundamental street; it will get extra attention-grabbing across the mussel nation of L’Aiguillon-sur-Mer. Everywhere I seemed little locations had been providing moules marinières.

Jack Thurston and his Brompton

Jack Thurston and his Brompton.

At this level the Tour heads inland, and so did I. After 160km of gloriously car-free and carefree biking, I bade farewell to La Vélodyssée and set out on farm lanes via huge fields of wheat, maize and sunflowers. The land has been reclaimed from what was as soon as marsh and, centuries earlier than that, the open sea. The story of the Marais Poitevin, of its Dutch dyke-builders and the extraordinary Collibert individuals, who lived semi-aquatic lives, searching and fishing within the swamps till nicely into the 20th century, is advised in La Maison du Maître de Digues, a small museum simply exterior Chaillé-les-Marais (grownup €5/grownup).

In each village alongside the race route, there have been brightly painted bicycles and do-it-yourself banners welcoming the Tour. It’s an honour for a city or village to be on the route, and councils vie to host the beginning of a stage or, even higher, the end. For the Tour is way more than the world’s greatest bike race; it’s a three,000km rolling jamboree during which France celebrates biking and itself.

With 20km to go at this level, the groups will probably be ramping up the tempo as every lead-out prepare jostles to ship its star sprinter to the entrance of the pack within the closing few hundred metres.

My Brompton and I continued our extra leisurely journey, following the meandering River Vendée upstream to the ending line within the city of Fontenay-le-Comte. I had ridden 225km in three days. The professionals will cowl the space in lower than 5 hours. But I’d seen an entire lot extra of a nook of France that, for surroundings, meals and stress-free biking, is difficult to beat.

How to do it

Ryanair flies to Nantes from Stansted and Edinburgh and to La Rochelle from Stansted; easyJet flies to each cities from a number of UK airports. Brittany Ferries sails from Portsmouth to St Malo.

Bike rent
For quick journeys, it’s normally not price taking your personal bike, as bike rent is extensively accessible within the area. Reckon on €100-€120 every week for a good hybrid or tourer. Lyn Eyb of freewheelingfrance.com presents a free service matching cyclists with bike rent suppliers and arranging one-way hires. Regional trains carry bikes totally free and are a good way to get again to the beginning level of a linear journey. Unless a motorbike folds – reminiscent of my Brompton – and might be checked in as regular baggage, airways levy an additional price for bicycles (£40 every method). Eurostar fees £30 every method.

Where to remain and eat

Le Petit Bouchot, an elegant seafood restaurant in Noirmoutier

Le Petit Bouchot, a sublime seafood restaurant in Noirmoutier.

• On Noirmoutier, Hôtel Villa en l’Île (doubles from €62 B&B) is between the city centre and the wooded north coast, which has the perfect seashores. Rooms are spacious, breakfast is great, and there’s a pool and visitor bikes.

• Le Petit Banc (dinner solely, three programs €25.50) has simply seven tables and serves conventional Lyonnaise delicacies. For seafood, Le Petit Bouchot (menus from €20.50) is a sublime restaurant with tough limestone partitions and an outdoor terrace.

• In Les Sables d’Olonne, Maison l’épicurienne (doubles from €85 B&B, two nights minimal) is a boutique B&B by the seaside, which additionally has visitor bikes.

• At Plage du Veillon, La Plage (mains €12-€17) is a classy bistro serving moules frites, shellfish, burgers, salads and veggie choices.

• In La Tranche-Sur-Mer, Les Isles presents a bewildering selection of artisanal-ice lotions and sorbets whereas Slice Cafe breaks from French staples to serve fancy burgers, bagels and vegetarian dishes. L’Equinox has an important terrace by the seaside.

The journey was offered by the vacationer boards of Vendée and Pays de la Loire

Jack Thurston is the writer of the Lost Lanes sequence of biking guidebooks


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