Brittany and Normandy - why this corner of France is still a rich tapestry for tourists

The very popular tourist destination of Mont St Michel.
The very popular tourist destination of Mont St Michel.
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There is a saying that you should never go back and revisit a place from previous travels as first impressions count the most.

Thirty six years have gone by in the blink of an eye since my last visit to Brittany and Normandy for a bicycle tour. I can’t remember most of the first visit but the respect for cyclists, the quality of light and the hills are still there.

The old streets of Dinan.

The old streets of Dinan.

First off the ferry into St Malo gave us the chance to get through the port into the countryside and away from traffic. Unfortunately our route took us through congested roadworks and a tough climb away from the Rance Barrage. Patience from French drivers was evident as we laboured up the drag past the roadworks.

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Swooping down to St. Cast-le-Guildo was pure delight. The long beach, almost unoccupied, stretched out in front of us and the sea, in shades of differing blues, sparkled under a clear sky. Four riders gently ambled past us to exercise their ponies on the beach as we rested for a few minutes soaking up the view. Continuing along the coast we cut across to Cap Frehel to get off our bikes and enjoy a leisurely walk to the lighthouse. After a refreshing glass of beer we made it to our lodgings for the night and an evening meal of fish and chips. Very British food done in a style that only the French do.

Each day evolved its own regime but a stop for coffee became a feature of mid morning and the chic streets of le Val-Andre, even the bucket and spade shops had a certain ‘chic’, provided plenty of cafes for us to indulge. In mid June these resorts were fairly busy, mainly with visitors who don’t have to stick to school holiday timetables, but there was a good supply of cafes to cater for them.

Continuing through Hillion we arrived at Yffiniac, birthplace of French professional cyclist and five-time Tour de France winner, Bernard Hinault. As I pushed my tourer up the hill, I wondered how many times Bernard had ridden up the climb, a lot faster than I was. Afternoon tea was needed.

A level section on the way to Dinan.

A level section on the way to Dinan.

Fortified we turned the bikes inland and rode south to Moncontour, a beautiful Medieval village that was our next stop for the night. The roads leading to the hilltop town are steep and we pushed our bikes to the centre and our hotel. The church of Saint-Mathurin dominates the once defensive stronghold of Moncontour and an evening wander took us around the historic town at a gentle pace.

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Next day started with breakfast chatting to a young German couple who were on a short break visiting distilleries in search of new whiskies. Maybe he had a secret supply that would have helped us get up the hills in the area. The sun was high and hot as we stopped for a late coffee at St Meen le Grand. Directions out of the town were needed and an 80-year- old cyclist, resplendent in his local club colours guided us to the right road.

The route was up and down and starting to take its toll but eventually we rolled into Bedee for the night. We arrived to coincide with a prize presentation for the local half marathon, part of a weekend of festivities that would include an evening feast outside our hotel. When in Rome.

The next morning was a sluggish start as we bade farewell to our host whose team had catered for over 100 townsfolk intent on having a good time.

We were on the road to Dinan, a short day’s ride by comparison. Through rolling countryside, we were in the historical city of Dinan by early afternoon. We checked in at our hotel as soon as we could and had a stroll around the old centre, enjoying the ramparts, half timbered houses and narrow cobbled streets.

We crossed the magnificent viaduct leading out of the city and walked up the steepest hill on the tour, an eye watering 21 per cent. The rain was relentless as we rode into Comburg in search of a warm cafe. The town’s Sunday morning market was poorly attended and traders looked doleful as any profit to be made dripped away. We found a busy cafe and had the only hot chocolate of the trip.

Back on the road and it was a slog in the rain to Pontorson and our B&B. The rain had eased to a fine drizzle when we arrived to a wonderfully warm welcome and the fact that the next day would be spent off the bike visiting Le Mont-St-Michel. We took the service bus from Pontorson station for a 20 minute ride to the island via a new causeway. We were advised to get an early bus to avoid the bulk of tourists arriving late morning. Visiting the famous island abbey and settlement involves a lot of steps, up and down, but it’s worth it for the history and views.

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The rain hadn’t completely disappeared as we set off to St. Lo and we were chased by a thunderstorm that breezed past leaving blue skies and a hot sun. Facing a strong headwind we stopped for a refreshing ice cream, eventually arriving in St. Lo climbing away from La Vire river.

The final day took us to the ferry at Ouistreham via Bayeux with its world famous tapestry and the largest Second World War Commonwealth War Graves Commission site in France.

A visit to the tapestry is a must and includes an audio explanation as you move along the 70 metre panel of history bringing to life that dry school history lesson about the Norman invasion.

This time, for our visit, the invasion was reversed and we met smiling faces and helpful residents who we keen to share the experience of their Brittany and Normandy with a couple of

British blokes on bikes.

Getting There

Brittany Ferries operates the longer routes from Portsmouth, Poole and Plymouth direct to Brittany and Normandy saving miles of unnecessary and costly driving. Travel overnight by luxury cruise-ferry in the comfort of your own cabin with en-suite facilities or be whisked across the channel in as little as 3 hours. Fares start from £85 each way for a car plus 2, or £35 each way for a bicycle plus rider. Book online at brittany-ferries.co.uk or call 0330 159 7000.