Cycles of nature

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Catherine Scott discovers a hidden gem off the tourist trail in a region of Normandy with her cycling mad family

The Orne is a region of contrasts. In the east, there are the wide open fields filled with horses and stud farms.

To the north west, the landscape becomes more rugged and dramatic and it is no surprise that it is known as “Suisse Normande” or Swiss Normandy.

Then to the north east there is a gastronomic delight. The bursting orchards creating the famous Normandy cider and of course the apple brandy, Calvados are everywhere. Then there is Camembert, the town made famous by the cheese which was reportedly invented amid the green hills of the Pays d’Auge by Marie Harel in 1792.

There is a chateau and museum in the village which gives the history of the famous cheese which is given its distinctive flavour by the lushness of the grass in the fields throughout the area – you get a free tasting with your entry fee. You can also visit the creamery where the famous cheese was made and of course a shop where you can make your own cheese to take home. It really is a green and pleasant land.

We were staying in the centre of the Orne, the region which takes its name from the river l’Orne which winds its way through the area.

The magnificent gite lovingly restored by owners Emmanuelle and Pierre Coehlo was originally a hunting lodge of the Duke of Normandy in the 16th century. The impressive fireplaces and beamed ceilings made it easy to go back in time.

Perched on the edge of the Petite Gauffern forest, the gite was ideally placed for a family cycling holiday.

We had taken our bikes with us and had been advised by the very helpful Orne Tourist Office that the region was perfect for cycling. They produce a special booklet with suitable cycle tracks and routes for varying abilities and lengths. There are even areas of converted train tracks, the Voie verte, which enable you to go for a walk, bike ride or on horse-back in a car-free environment These tracks make for an ideal family ride as they are nice and flat so as to avoid the moaning.

In the Suisse Normande area of the region a number of tracks have been converted into velorails. The old tracks are still there and you can pedal curious machines along the length of the track taking in to spectacular scenery, while working off a bit of the Camembert!

Also in this more rugged environment you will find the Orne’s version of “Go Ape”. A net work of adventure courses have been created amidst and atop the trees. Children as young as three can have a go at these high wire acts and for the thrill-seekers there are the harder blue, red and even black routes – which even the instructors said was impossible.

Close by is the magnificent La Roche d’Oetre, a spectacular cliff which looks out over a tree-studded valley. You can walk down to the valley bottom and to the river bed. The walk is steep, although there is an easier route which we took back up after my youngest had taken an impromptu dip in said river.

For our first cycling sortie we decided to stick to two wheels and we chose to explore the local forest which was a delight. Although privately owned, cyclists, walkers and of course mushroom pickers, are allowed access, but we were warned that fishing on the lake was not allowed. When we eventually stumbled across the beautiful lake in the middle of the forest it was clear to see why. The lake was teaming with wildlife and was so peaceful it was hard to get up the energy to cycle back to reality.

We stumbled across another amazing cycle route during a visit to the historic and picturesque Saint Cenerai le Gerei in the south west of the Orne. Ranked as one of the most beautiful villages in France it nestles in the loop of the River Sarthe. You can climb up to the Romanesque church which affords spectacular views and then walk down to the small chapel set back from the river bank. The village is much-loved by artists and we got chatting to one, who happened to be from Manchester which spoilt the romance somewhat. But he suggested if we wanted to find a good cycle route nearby we should talk to Alex.

Apparently Alex can always be found outside the Tabac on his laptop – presumably the only place he can get an internet connection. So we duly set off in search of Alex who was exactly where we were told he would be with his two children. He said it was too difficult to describe the best routes, but was more than happy to take us as he needed to do something with his two children during the school holidays.

So in the company of a complete stranger we set off cycling through fields and woods until we came to a spectacular promontory which made the sometimes challenging ride for my six-year-old worth it. It was so refreshing to meet someone prepared to give us their time to show us their area which would never have discovered by ourselves.

If you prefer to ride on something with four legs you are spoilt for choice particularly in the south- east of the region where stud farms and riding schools feel to be around every corner.

Famous for the Percheron horses, which are similar to a Shire horse, the region is filled with studs as first Louise XIV and now the French government are committed to the bloodline.

One of the most famous of the studs is the Haras National du Pin which lives up to its reputation as the Versailles for horses. Every Thursday and Monday in the high season they put on a spectacular horse show to music with the backdrop of the stud’s Chateau. You can also take a tour of the stud farm.

Although only an hour and a quarter from the port of Caen which we got to by a very comfortable six-hour ferry ride from Portsmouth, the Orne gives the feeling of being in the centre of France.

Hardly anyone in the local bucherie, boulangerie or bar spoke any English and the roads were virtually empty, making cycling far safer than the UK.

The Orne seems to have missed the tourism of its neighbours in Normandy and Brittany or the popular Dordogne further down the country. But people who just pass through heading south are missing a trick.

The beauty of the Orne is that there is so much to see and do in a relatively small region which is probably the size of North Yorkshire, far more than we could cram in to our week. Which means we will definitely have to go back soon.

Getting there

Visit Orne Tourism for a range of ideas for holidaying in the area.  Brittany Ferries (Tel 0871 244 1400 or offers return channel crossings from £75pp for a car and two passengers.