Though we both loved France and our time at our last French host farm, La Bergerie, we were excited to get back on the road for our bike and ferry trip to Ireland. We gave ourselves over 2 weeks for a ride that would take us over 800k and across varied landscapes and climates. Our trip was going to take us along several types of biking terrain: west through the Loire Valley from Tours to Nantes; northwest along the Nantes-Brest canal to Carhaix; north from Carhaix to the tip of the Finistère region of Brittany, the Port of Roscoff; and, finally, via the Roscoff>Cork ferry from Cork to Ballydehob, the location of our first Irish host farm. Read the nerdy stats on our ride page, if you are into that sort of thing.
We started our trip by biking the 25k from our host farm to the train station in Orange, where we caught a train to Tours. Tours lies in the Loire Valley and along La Loire à Vélo, the bicycle route we fell in love with during our first ride in France when we rode from Orléans to Chaumont-sur-Loire, just east of Tours.
A brief overnight in Tours with an early morning start gave us only the briefest introduction to this historic city, but it left a good impression. In particular, the bicycle and mass transit facilities were impressively designed: this main boulevard features wide sidewalks and a center lane devoted to trams and buses. The bike lanes share space with parked cars and parking access, while through traffic has yet another separated track. The raised berms between transit and bikes/cars support the transit stops as well as outdoor cafe seating.
On the outskirts of the city, the trams followed grassed medians inlaid with rail, similar to many Scandinavian cities. Vegetated tram lines flanked by bike lanes - when will major US cities follow suit?
Traveling along the Loire was, once again, a relaxing and stunningly picturesque ride. The route signage is easy to follow, and much of the ride is along dedicated bike paths or surprisingly low-traffic roads. We had rainy weather for much of the first few days, but the cloud cover resulted in stunning sunsets.
The Loire bike path includes several short side tours that bring you deeper into the countryside, and invariably these detours feature visit-worthy monuments or landscapes. Outside of Saumur, we took one such detour that took us past these intriguing cave buildings, or troglodytes. Some of these are still used as private homes, but many have been converted into restaurants, galleries, museums, hotels, and wine shops.
Just outside of Nantes, another portion of the trail was tucked into a steep, forested hillside between the Loire and an active railway line, and for many kilometers we bicycled past small, quiet fields set into the river's vast floodplain. We have enjoyed the Loire trail and it's many varied landscapes, and have now biked about half of it's length. It is part of a bicycle network that stretches from the Atlantic to the Black Sea - biking the remainder of this well-designed trail is high on our list for future trips!
Just before ending our time along the Loire trail, we reached a milestone of 1000 kilometers of fully loaded travel. So far, our Rivendell bikes are holding up well!
We ended our 270k tour of the Loire in Nantes, a lively city that, though it separated from Brittany in the 1700s, is still widely regarded as it's cultural capital.
The city has a youthful feel to it, and has well-designed tourism campaign that focuses on art and cultural exploration.
A series of neon green lines guide you through the city's most noteworthy sites and interesting quarters; the neon green color appears in other city signage, such as the plant markers in the public botanical garden. They have also taken creative liberties with signage, such as a standing tree stump shaped into a pedestal for a sign in the botanical garden.
Nantes lies just 30k from the Atlantic coast and along the wide mouth of the Loire. Just outside the city we came across this group playing kayak polo among the sail boats and crew teams.
After a restful couple of nights in Nantes, we loaded up our bikes again and joined the EuroVelo 1, an Atlantic coast route that stretches from Portugal to Norway. We would spend nearly 400k on this trail, the majority of it along the Nantes-Brest Canal. In all honesty, by this point in the trip we are both a little tired of biking canals (so straight! so flat!), but in many ways this canal became our favorite of those we have experienced thus far.
The winding form of the canal and the fact that much of the vegetation has been left in a more or less natural state gives the canal the feel of a broad, winding river and not a navigational channel.
The stone walls of the locks are architecturally stunning, and vertical drops are dealt with through closely spaced, short falls.
There are a few abandoned mill houses along the canal, including this impressive complex. Looks like a fun restoration project...
While we saw very few vessels on the water, the banks of the canal were busy with fishermen and groups of people socializing outside the lock houses.
This view of the village of Josselin is one of the more dramatic along the route, with the medieval Castle of Josselin rising directly adjacent to the water.
Another aspect we enjoyed about the Nantes-Brest Canal trail was the opportunity it allowed for detours off the canal. We took a short detour through Rochefort-en-Terre, a small village that is known as one of the most beautiful in France. It is also known as a Village Fleuri, or Village of Flowers, and the stone walls and buildings seem covered with moss, lichen, and wildflowers.
The American painter Alfred Klotz bought a château here in 1907. The building was in ruins and only it's facade remained: Klotz kept the ruin as the gateway to the estate, and built a new home on the property.
Today the estate is open as a museum, and the grounds include an old stone chapel and views over the rooftops of the village.
As we traveled further into northwest France, the vegetation and the landscape began to change perceptibly. The air was cooler and we saw much of the vegetation we see in our own US Pacific Northwest - ferns, deciduous trees, and wildflowers such as lupine. Diary cattle grazed on the hillsides, replacing the view of beef cattle we had while traveling through the Loire.
Just outside the town of Caurel, we camped along the Lac de Guerlédan, the largest lake in Brittany. The little lake resort features architecture with clean lines reminiscent of something you might see in Scandinavia or the US Pacific Northwest.
Another notable feature of Brittany, besides the wheat fields and diary pastures, is the presence of the Breton flag. Brittany is culturally unique within France - somewhat geographically isolated from the rest of France, it has Celtic roots and is one of the 6 recognized Celtic Nations, alongside Ireland, Scotland, and Whales. While French is the official and formally spoken language of Brittany, the Celtic-rooted Breton is still spoken by a few hundred thousand inhabitants, and all road signs in the region are bilingual.
As we neared Roscoff, our destination for this final French leg of our bike trip, the landscape gave way to the ocean. We were impressed that the intense level of cultivation we had seen throughout France was present here on this windswept coastline; perhaps even more so. We passed endless fields of artichokes and onions, crops that seem well suited to this maritime climate. We also passed an artichoke museum and a tourist information office decorated with garlands of red onions.
It was exciting to reach Roscoff, and we spent an evening and day exploring this rather touristy little port town before catching our overnight ferry to Cork. We rested our legs and took stock of our milage thus far: we rode 1,584 kilometers on our tour of France, or just under 1,000 miles. The hills of Ireland are waiting...
As we cued up for our ferry at the port terminal we met only a few other bicyclists headed to the Emerald Isle. Most of our company in the "bike lane" included touring motorcycles. Biking through passport inspection we got more than a few questions about our handlebar bags from the customs agents.
The 13-hour overnight ferry was a relaxing way to travel with our bikes, and we enjoyed picnicking on deck and taking in the sunset and sunrise.
Our first views of Ireland were the rolling green hillsides outside of Cork, and the busy port villages of Whitegate and Monkstown. We spent a short night in Cork before biking west for our final destination on this trip, our first host farm Glensallagh Gardens.
Ireland met us with it's famously rainy weather. All rain gear was brought out, but it was difficult to stay dry in the windy weather. The weather was a bit of a challenge, but as Pacific Northwesterners we feel we can handle it! But we also realized quickly that biking in Ireland can be challenging for a host of other reasons. There are almost no dedicated bike trails, so it is necessary to share the busy roads with motorists. Even established and marked bicycle routes sometimes traverse roads with posted speedlimits of 100 kph. We found that small roads, while less travelled, are often very rutted and steeply graded. Hm.
Nevertheless, the landscape is stunning and we are looking forward to seeing what Ireland holds in store for us.
Along our short trip we also found that there is always an opportunity for a pint and a bit of live music in most every small town. Very welcome after a wet day in the saddle!
At our host farm we were welcomed warmly by our hosts, Jules and Richard, and shown to the cozy cottage that will be our home for the next three weeks. Hello, Ireland!