Saddle up for a French adventure

Head for the hills and the beauty of Aquitaine’s landscape will soon reveal itself


Cycle touring


For the true cycling enthusiast, there’s nothing to match the Tour de France, and to mark the centenary of the race’s first Pyrenean stage, 10,000 amateur cyclists will be taking on the testing challenge of cycling from Pau to the Col du Tourmalet on 18 July, before the peloton proper takes on the tortuous 174km on 22 July. Then 24 July will see them pedalling furiously from Bordeaux to Pauillac through the undulating vineyards of the Médoc in the individual time trial, the penultimate stage of this year’s tour. And if there’s any doubt that cycling verges on a religion in France, proof is to be found a short pedal from the gorgeous medieval village of Labastide-d’Armagnac (80km north of Pau) at the chapel of Notre-Dame des Cyclistes in Géou; many of the greats of French cycling have left their winners’ jerseys here. (

notredamedescyclistes.net
)

Luckily, for those of us not blessed with massive lungs and whipcord leg muscles, Aquitaine is well off for flatter lands and gentler, waymarked trails, the best of which are classified as voies vertes. The longest and most spectacular, la voie verte du littoral, will take you 370km from the Pointe de Grave on the Gironde estuary to Hossegor, just north of Bayonne, passing mainly through shady pineforests and round lakes just behind the line of dunes. From 10-12 September on the northern section of this path, the Ouvre la Voix cyclo-musical festival will take place between Sauveterre-de-Guyenne and Latresne, with frequent stops to enjoy music, theatrical events, family-friendly competitions and, naturellement, wine-tasting ( rockschool-barbey.com ). Also in the Gironde area, Evazio, a company from Bordeaux, offers a six-day tour of forests, coast and vineyards for €649 per person based on two sharing for half-board in B&Bs and small hotels (00 33 5 56 79 25 05; evazio.com ).

Inland, in the department of the Dordogne, a pretty 20km ride can be enjoyed through the heart of the Dordogne valley from Sarlat to Cazoulès, while further south a poplar-shaded green route parallels the Canal de Garonne for 87km, between the villages of Meilhan-sur-Garonne and Saint-Jean-de-Thurac near Agen ( tourisme-lotetgaronne.com ).



For bike hire, it’s best to enquire at the local tourist office, though if you are holidaying in or near Biarritz, Bike Atlantic of Anglet will rent you a bike and deliver it free, within a radius of 20km. It costs €20 a day or €90 a week (00 33 5 47 64 18 91; bikeatlantic.com ). You could also take advantage of Bayonne’s environmentally-friendly initiative: free bikes and guides to 40km of cycle paths can be found at locations including the tourist office in the Place des Basques (00 33 820 42 64 64).

Mountain biking

Mountain bikers can choose from the region’s 2,500km of sign-posted mountain bike tracks. Among the most dramatic are in the forests of the Barétous valley, with 200km of steep trails. Information about trails and bike hire can be found on Arette-la-Pierre-St-Martin’s website (00 33 5 59 66 20 09; lapierrestmartin.com ).

Based in the village of Navarrenx, in the Pyrenean foothills, a mountain-biking weekend is being offered by the Béarn-des-Gaves tourist office. It costs from €115 per person (based on two sharing) for two nights B&B in a chambre d’hôte and includes maps and guides to the 300km of tracks. Bike hire is extra (00 33 5 59 38 32 82; tourisme-bearn-gaves.com ). To get a full list of region’s cycling centres and bases, you can download the brochure Cycle Tourism in Aquitaine from tourisme-aquitaine.fr.

Horse-riding

If you prefer four legs to two wheels, a number of equestrian centres offer accommodation and horse-riding. The prospect of galloping across miles of golden sand is enough to thrill even non-riders and it’s one of the packages available from Aquitaine Adventures. For good intermediate riders, the eight-day Atlantic Coast experience costs £907 per person in July and August. Starting and finishing in Mimizan-Plage, it includes three nights under canvas and four nights in a two-star hotel, based on two sharing and including most meals, but excluding travel to Bordeaux and transfers to Mimizan (0845 00 66 552; farandride.com)

In the gentle hills and valleys between Les Landes and Armagnac, you can arrange your own itinerary and ride unaccompanied from Les Ecuries de Bouau in the village of Parleboscq (00 33 5 58 44 30 83; horse-trek.com). The cost of six days of riding through the woods and meadows of the Ténarèze and accommodation for seven nights, including luggage transfer and hire of |horses, is €965, based on two sharing. Alternatively, guided trips comprising two days riding, three nights in a hotel and all meals is €320 per person. Further north, in the medieval village of Belvès in Dordogne, the Hotel Clément V has a four-day package (three nights full-board, two days’ riding) for €730 per person, based on two sharing (00 33 5 53 28 68 80; clement5.com ).

Hiking

The region has been closely connected with long-distance walking since the 12th century, with France’s four major pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela, as well as two subsidiary ones, all passing through Aquitaine. A number of improvements have been made to the routes for 2010, which is one of the Holy Years when the feast day of Santiago (St James) falls on a Sunday, so pilgrims who make the journey receive a plenary indulgence. The coastal route “la voie du littoral” has been waymarked with the famous scallop shell symbol between Soulac-sur-Mer and Hendaye, just before the border with Spain, while a detailed guide to “la voie du piémont” (the GR78), which runs through the foothills of the Pyrenees is now available online at rando64.fr . The latter route has some classic pilgrims’ stops and interesting medieval architecture at Oloron-Sainte-Marie, L’hôpital-Saint-Blaise and Ordiarp. Another fascinating stretch of the trail is the 22km stage of “la voie de Vézelay” (the GR65) between Aroue and Ostabat. It’s been granted Unesco world heritage status for the exceptional quality of its historical buildings.

Among other long-distance routes, the most interesting is the trans-Pyrenean GR10, which sets out on its journey to the Mediterranean through the relatively gentle hills of the Pays Basque. If you can walk just one stage, the one to choose is the Iparla ridge between the classic Basque villages of Bidarraye and St Etienne-de-Baigorry. It takes around eight hours and on a clear day there are inspiring views into two valleys and across to the high Pyrenean peaks.

In a very different landscape of forests and farmed hillsides, France Randonnées offers the Landes and Bastide d’Armagnac package, a seven-day walk that takes in Labastide d’Armagnac and St-Justin – splendid examples of the fortified towns known as bastides. The cost for luggage transport and half-board in small hotels is €407 per person, based on two sharing (00 33 2 99 67 42 21; france-randonnee.fr ).

Shorter and less demanding walks can be found throughout the region, with the pine forests of les Landes alone boasting 3,200km of waymarked walks. For more information, visit local tourist offices, which will have leaflets with descriptions of local balades.

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