Diary: Manche to the Med

We’re cycling from the north to the south of France, from St Malo to Portiragnes Plage on the Mediterranean coast. Our version of the popular Manche to the Med ride involves a route designed to avoid hills and about 65km of cycling a day.

Compared to many younger cyclists, we are taking it pretty slowly but we’ll have cycled over 1,200km by the time we plunge into the Med. We’ll be visiting the Loire valley, Cognac, Bordeaux, Toulouse and Beziers en route and cycling alongside the Canal du Midi.

Our inspiration for the route began with the France en Velo book and we’ll be following their route for the first few days. But in the hopes of avoiding some serious hills, we have decided to follow a couple of established French cycle touring routes – the Velo Francette which we’ll take from Chateau Gontier to Parthenay and the Canal Des Deux Mers A Velo which will take us all the way from Blaye to Portiragnes.

The bits in between we are making up as we go along using pages ripped out of an atlas of France. Here’s our day-by-day diary of the ride. There are also more pics and updates on Instagram.

Day one St Malo to Pontorson

Fantastic start, we were first off the ferry and on the road by 8.30am. We really zoomed along, helped by a tailwind. Naturally we assumed we were just incredibly fit as we clocked up the miles. We only really appreciated the wind factor when we cycled a few miles against it to get a closer view of Mont St Michel. Not so fit after all. We also made fools of ourselves by asking someone where there was a boulangerie while standing right next to a boulangerie. But it has been a lovely day and spirits remain high.

Stats: 45 miles/73km.

Day two Pontorson to Vitré

Bucolic was the word of the day. We spent the morning cycling through lovely farmland and saw more animals than people, including some cute horses and some hilarious-looking animals by a pond that turned out to be coypu. Almost every farm had a dog that did its nut as we passed, snarling and leaping into the air as if to jump the fence even though there was usually an open gate to run out of. There were also a lot of flies, some of which got swallowed. It was not very amusing for our bouches; and I don’t suppose the mouches liked it very much either. We had a good lunch in Fougeres – croque monsieur and a veggie tart with salad and fries to share. By the way, last night was pizza and beer so no gastronomic extravagances to report as yet.

Stats: 42 miles/67km

Day three Vitré to Chateau Gontier

Like the complete amateurs that we are, we left Vitré this morning having had no breakfast, with no water in our bottles and with slight hangovers. Last night’s dinner was fantastic. We ate at Les Pieds sous La Table which had a laid-back vibe but served excellent food. Chris had fois gras, followed by steak, then pudding; I had asparagus soup, fish and cheeses. Everything was delicious. The cycling today was tough. It rained all morning and it was incredibly cold. We stopped for breakfast after an hour and then an hour later for hot chocolate just to get out of the rain; lunch was a sandwich in a bus shelter. From Craon, we were up against the wind and it felt like we were going at a snail’s pace. This picture was taken in Chateau Gontier when the sun finally came out.

Stats: 36 miles/58km

Day four Chateau Gontier to Angers

What a difference a day makes. Today we cycled along the Velo Francette, mostly in sunshine. This route was almost entirely on a smooth, flat cycle path by the river Mayenne. There was no traffic to contend with and no map-reading to do. The river was stunning and every few miles there was an old mill next to a weir. We got close to Lion D’Angers by lunchtime. I have to admit we couldn’t be bothered to cycle the extra 5km it would have taken to explore this town. That’s the thing about bike touring – sometimes the effort involved in getting from A to B means you don’t do much sightseeing unless it’s actually on the route. We got to Angers by mid-afternoon. Planning a cheap and cheerful dinner tonight as we had another three-course meal with wine last night and it’s beginning to look bad for the budget and the waistline.

Stats: 38 miles/61km

Day five Angers to Saumur

It has been another lovely day, despite an inauspicious start. We set off from Angers and before we’d got very far Chris caught one of his panniers on a metal barrier and the crucial plastic fixing thing snapped in two. We had to tie it on; we’ve now bought some super glue to try and repair it. This did mean that we had to stick to roads in places where the cycle path was unpaved – the broken pannier couldn’t take too much bouncing around. It didn’t matter, we were soon cycling alongside the Loire and had fantastic views all the way.

The highlight of the day was lunch at a café by the river – Au Coin du Fleuve. We had only stopped for oranginas but the food looked amazing so we tried not to dwell on the baguette, brie and tomatoes we’d just bought for our picnic lunch and focused instead on the menu which included a fennel tart and a north African stew with couscous. Cheese sarnies for dinner then. We’re now in Saumur for a couple of days.

Stats: 38 miles/61km

Day six Saumur to Thouars

We left Saumur rested, wearing clean clothes and ready to get back on the bikes. The only problem was the grim weather forecast. As it turned out, we managed to avoid most of the rain but we had to contend with a formidable headwind which made us even slower than usual. Luckily, it wasn’t a long day. Still on the Velo Francette, this stretch was on country lanes that were so quiet we were only seeing about one car per hour.

The halfway point was Montreuil-Bellay which has a seriously pretty chateau and was the perfect café au lait/chocolate chaud stop. The most beautiful section of today’s ride was alongside the Thouet river between Taizor and Thouars. We didn’t bother with a picnic today as it was cold, wet and windy. Instead, we had a late lunch at La Feria, a tapas restaurant by the river in Thouars. Dinner was pizza and beer at Moopy’s Bay. The best bit of all was our B&B. Villa des Glycines has got to be the most stylish, comfortable and welcoming B&B we’ve ever stayed in.

Stats: 45km/28miles

Day seven Thouars to Parthenay

Today was a journey that took us from heaven to hell. Heaven was our B&B which we loved and which served the most exquisite breakfast. Hell was the weather – heavy rain and strong winds – and the truly terrible hotel we stayed in next – it stank of drains, there was no wifi (quelle horreur) and we were kept awake by a drunk man out in the corridor.

Anyway, the actual cycling was not too bad. We were back on the Velo Francette, following the Thouet river. We got to Airvault at midday. Apparently, Voltaire took his pen name from this town. More importantly, a boulangerie there had some tasty bread products filled with mushrooms and gruyere which we ate for lunch. I’m afraid Parthenay didn’t make a good first impression and once we saw our hotel it went down in our estimations. But we had a wander round town and found the pretty medieval quarter which slightly improved our opinion of the place.

Stats: 41 miles/65km

Day eight Parthenay to Usseau

When we first planned this trip, Chris expressed some trepidation about it and I told him it would be a piece of piss. Obviously, that was rubbish; suffice it to say, we are really feeling it now – there are lots of aches and pains and we are super tired all the time. Also, the incessant headwind is very dispiriting.

All that said, today was a good day. The good old Velo Francette came up trumps again with a quiet route to Niort through some pretty villages. Niort turned out to be pretty too which we weren’t expecting for some reason and we had a good lunch there before getting back on the route. The next bit was even lovelier – it was about 12km alongside the very beautiful La Sevre Niortaise river. After that we said goodbye to the Velo Francette, thanked it for its service and headed south to our next B&B, the Logis D’Antigny.

Stats: 50 miles/81km

Day nine Usseau to Cognac

Last night’s B&B was in the middle of nowhere and offered dinner to guests. What we hadn’t anticipated was that this would involve eating a four-course meal with our lovely hosts Bernard and Monique and having to converse in French for over two hours! I had to really dig deep in order to recall the French I had been taught at school over 30 years ago. A few glasses of rosé helped…

Today’s cycling was tough – not least because it was bloody raining again. Within an hour of setting off, we were back in another bus shelter waiting for a particularly heavy downpour to end. Other challenges included a road block that meant we had to go a long way around at a point when we just wanted to make some progress. Still, we eventually got to Cognac, found our Ibis hotel and immediately passed out on the bed.

Stats: 42 miles/67km

Day ten Cognac to Blaye

We didn’t do much in Cognac. Chris watched a rugby match on TV and I wandered around town for a bit and then we had a sandwich in our room. That was about all we could summon up the energy for. But I’m sure it’s a lovely place. Not eating a big meal and not drinking definitely made it easier to get going today. That and the fact that the sun came out. We even had our picnic by a lake – a far cry from the usual bus shelter.

It was all rolling hills, woods and acres of vineyards. As usual, every house had a dog and every dog went ape shit as we went by. It was all very predictable. We also heard a couple of cuckoos today – which means we have now heard a cuckoo at least once a day for nine days in a row. The daily cuckoo has taken on such a special meaning for us that we can’t quite relax until we hear it. From Etauliers, we found the 13km cycle path that took us all the way into Blaye – downhill to the Gironde estuary. A wonderful end to a long day’s cycling.

Stats: 48 miles/76km

Day eleven Blaye to Bordeaux

We arrived in Blaye and found it was buzzing with busy cafes and tourists taking horse-and-carriage rides. Like many of the places we’ve been to it completely took us by surprise – which probably says a lot about our lack of research. Our AirBnB apartment was stylish, spacious and came with a plate of homemade cakes so it really hit the mark. We could have cooked dinner I suppose but we were so tired we went to a fish restaurant for what was one of the best meals of the trip so far.

Crossing the Gironde river the next morning felt like a milestone. We were joined on the ferry by five bikes, ten cars and two tractors.  Half an hour later, we’d docked and after a quick stop for coffee we made our way to Bordeaux – going from vineyards to urban sprawl. Bordeaux has been a delight; we’re staying in a quirky apartment that used to be a small art gallery. And we’re right in the heart of the city, in a maze of narrow streets and close to squares full of cafes. Leaving here tomorrow might be hard…

Stats: 30 miles/50km, one cuckoo

Day twelve Bordeaux to Créon

We didn’t leave Bordeaux until the afternoon. This was partly because we wanted to hang out in our cool pad a bit longer and partly so we could try and get a replacement part for Chris’s broken pannier. Sadly, the pannier mission failed but we had a picnic in a park to cheer ourselves up before we finally left Bordeaux.

 

All this hanging around was possible because it was a really short ride today – just 15 miles from Bordeaux to Créon. We cycled south alongside the Garonne river and after a few miles, we turned east and the path started to climb.  On paper the elevation looked horrendous. In reality, the tarmac bike path was on an old railway line so the ascent was pretty gentle. Or perhaps we’re getting fitter … who can tell?

Stats: 15 miles/24km, two cuckoos

Day thirteen Créon to Marmande

Today we rejoined the Roger Lapébie bike path, named after a French cyclist who won the 1937 Tour de France.  It’s an impressive 55km of smooth traffic-free path from Bordeaux to Sauveterre-de-Guyenne. It’s also pretty much all uphill but not steep. The thing about cycling on a tree-lined path is that you can’t easily see the hill, you just know it’s there because it’s tough to pedal. Here’s a funny story about Roger Lapébie – his win was controversial because he was the first rider to use a modern derailleur.  Everyone else had to actually get off their bikes to change gears!

From Sauveterre-de-Guyenne we made our way to the Garonne river at La Réole and then on to the Garonne canal. We had been worried about the state of the canal path but it was more smooth tarmac. The highlight of the day was visiting the Museum of Matches. A lovely old chap called Gerard showed us his models of famous buildings, including Versailles, all made from thousands of matchsticks. It was incroyable, magnifique and fantastique as we said to Gerard in our best French accents! Before we left, he made us a small heart out of two bent matchsticks.

Stats: 48 miles/76km, four cuckoos

Day fourteen Marmande to Agen

It wasn’t a great start – we set off in pouring rain and an impatient idiot overtook us on the narrow bridge taking us out of Marmande and almost hit an oncoming car. We got back to our lovely canal path as soon as we could. Playing the glad game, despite the rain, we expressed our appreciation for the cover of the trees, the lack of flies and the slight tailwind that helped us along.

We stopped in Le Mas-d’Agenais to visit the church of St Vincent where there is a Rembrandt painting. As it transpired, the real deal was in Bordeaux and there was only a cardboard replica to look at. We then stopped for lunch at a small restaurant on the canal run by an English couple and had a gastro-pub-style burger and chips. It was freezing cold by the time we left so we put on some more layers and pressed on to Agen. We spent the last hour or so desperately listening out for a cuckoo. Sadly, there was none.

Stats: 39 miles/63km

Day fifteen Agen to Moissac

A short day has meant we were able to get most of the miles done in the morning, have our picnic lunch by the canal and arrive at Moissac about half an hour later. We probably confirmed all prejudices about the English by ordering two teas in a bar on our arrival but that was just what we needed at that point. We went back to the same bar at about 5pm for our pre-dinner beer and cards, thus improving our street cred somewhat.

 

Moissac is very old and Pierre, our AirBnB host, kindly gave us a potted history about the place. The big attraction is the medieval Abbey and its beautiful cloisters – a world heritage site that is on the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route. While we were wandering around the Abbey we realised that all the groups of walkers we’d seen on the canal path today must have been doing the pilgrimage.

Stats: 27 miles/44km Still no cuckoos

Day sixteen Moissac to Toulouse

We started the day with a coffee in the square and then picked up some cheese from the food market and our usual baguette and croissants from the boulangerie. The route out of Moissac featured an impressive aquaduct taking the canal over the Garonne river. All in all, the cycling was easier today so perhaps I am finally getting into my stride – just in time for a few days off in Toulouse.

 

Coming into Toulouse this afternoon, we met a family who helped us with directions. They asked where we were from and when we said Bristol, the man mentioned Filton, the part of Bristol where Airbus is based. (Airbus also has a base in Toulouse). I told him we lived just a few miles from Filton and he said proudly, “In Toulouse, we know Filton”. It was a lovely introduction to the city. No cuckoos again today by the way; maybe they’ve flown north.

Stats: 42 miles/68km

Day seventeen Toulouse to Castelnaudary

We spent three days in Toulouse visiting the indoor food market, the Basilica of Saint-Sernin and the modern art gallery and exploring our own little area, St Cyprien, just south of the river. One of the nicest things about St Cyprien was L’Estaminot, a cute café/bookshop which we loved and where we had lunch twice. Best of all, we met our lovely friends Claire and Patric last night and they are doing the rest of the ride with us.

 

It was great cycling as a four today and there was a lot more chatting than usual! Also, C&P brought the sun with them. The route took us alongside the Canal du Midi, which we joined for the first time in Toulouse. With heavy rain forecast for tomorrow (yay!), we may have to divert onto roads if the towpath gets too muddy. Highlights of today included seeing some otters in the canal and meeting a young man named Vincent who was embarking on a three-year world cycling tour.

Stats: 38 miles/61km Otters: three

Day eighteen Castelnaudary to Trébes

Last night we did some serious card playing while having our pre-dinner drinks and again at the restaurant when we weren’t actually eating. Let’s just say it is game on and no-one is taking any prisoners. We knew it was going to rain today and it did. The rough path by the Canal du Midi was really muddy so we had to improvise a route on the quietest roads we could find.

 

Sadly, this brought us in close contact with some hideous drivers. Lorry drivers, in particular, resented our very existence; one of them hooted loudly as he passed Patric and then proceeded to cut him up just to show him who was boss. By the time we got to Carcassone, we were soaking wet, freezing cold and scared out of our wits. Even a bowl of soup couldn’t warm us, so we set off in the rain again towards Trébes. This time, we inadvertently found ourselves on a dual carriageway heading for a motorway and had to walk our bikes down a slip road into incoming traffic to escape. So we were super relieved to get to our lovely AirBnB house which has bags of character and a small swimming pool in the garden.

Stats: 34 miles /55km Near-death experiences: too many to count

Day nineteen Trébes to Narbonne   

We were lucky today; the threatened rain didn’t materialise and the wind was behind us so we were being propelled along at a pretty amazing rate through some lovely rolling hills dotted with vineyards. Nothing could dampen our spirits – not even when one of us (who shall remain nameless Chris) took us the wrong way and added quite a few kms to our route.

 

We had a lovely picnic lunch by the Canal du Midi (whose towpath we continued to ignore because it was too bumpy) and, after getting a bit lost in Narbonne, we eventually arrived on the doorstep of Claire and Patric’s friends Annie and Den who are very generously putting us up and feeding us tonight. They live in a small chateau and have a vineyard so we’re super excited to be staying here in proper French style.

Stats: 42 miles/67km

Narbonne to Portiragnes Plage

Annie and Den cooked us a roast chicken dinner last night which went down an absolute treat. Today, the wind was still blowing us along and we got to the Med before 2pm. It felt fantastic and having Claire and Patric with us made it even more special. So, we did it and the truth is it wasn’t even that hard. I know at one stage I vowed never to do anything like this again but we really have had the best time. Chris and I have already chatted about what’s next. Barcelona to Dubrovnik via Venice is favourite at the moment.

Stats: 30 miles/48km Whole thing: 753 miles/1212km