Trail of the unexpected: Cycling in Brittany
A new bike tour takes in Breton backroads, chateaux and canals, says Andrew Eames.
I walked out of the restaurant half expecting to be called back. "Oi, you, m'sieur, qu'est que vous think you are doing? Where is ze rest of ze monnaie?" But no one came after me, so I unlocked my bike and pedalled slowly away. I'd just had a three-course lunch, with wine, in a French restaurant, for a mere €10. It didn't seem possible in this day and age, but I had been surrounded by builders and farm workers who'd also been tucking in as advertised.
The restaurant, La Florentine, was in the village of Langoëlan, which sounds as if it should be in Wales, but is in fact central Brittany, a Celtic region of France which looks a bit like Wales – but is a whole lot warmer, more fertile, and with much better food.
Good-value dining can be found all over rural France, but it's just one of the attractions that make this region an up-and-coming destination for tourists on two wheels. I was here to try out a self-guided cycle itinerary from the Holiday Fellowship titled "Breton Cider and Chateaux", and I was discovering why this was such a good place to get pedalling.
Traditionally, cycle touring has not been Brittany's headline attraction. The coast is what counts. But the lanes and villages of Brittany's inland areas are drenched in green; the damp Atlantic winds make sure of that. It's a kingdom of cottages and vegetable patches, whose swirly landscape is punctuated by tufts of forest and spidery villages of granite houses.
One of the advantages of using a cycle tour operator – the Holiday Fellowship works with local company Breton Bikes – is lunch recommendations such as La Florentine and places to stay such as the Hotel les Jardins de l'Abbaye. As a first taste of what was to come, I found the hotel completely bewitching. A tiny property in the outhouses of a ruined abbey, it had a selection of eccentrically decorated rooms, and was run by a gregarious, ebullient matriarch who divided her time between her customers and making sure that chef was well supplied with liquid refreshment.
The hotel's bucolic location, in the tiny hamlet of Bon Repos near my starting point at Gouarec, epitomised the days that lay ahead. Its half-defunct building was typical of a landscape which contained scraps of history wherever you looked; it was as if the last century had completely passed the region by.
In front stretched the Nantes-Brest canal, a huge endeavour from Napoleonic times that was now hardly used. There were megalithic tombs up the hill at Liscuis, and a restored 18th-century water-powered forge at Les Forges des Salles, a couple of kilometres inland.
The Bon Repos abbey itself was a ruin, but it had a son et lumière during the season which was a real community affair; I heard tell of one retired farmer who had insisted on keeping just one cow, so he could continue to have a walk-on part.
The morning I left there was a market along the canal's banks at Bon Repos, with farmers selling crêpes and cider galore. I talked to Christophe, the local taxi driver, whose half-dozen trees produced about 900 bottles of cider a year, he said – fairly typical for many Breton households.
The process was incredibly low-tech; they gathered the apples when they fell, pressed them, let the juice ferment by itself, and then put it in bottles. The only equipment required was the cider press, in many cases an antique machine that would be towed around from farm to farm, providing a mobile service that hadn't changed for a couple of hundred years. I might meet it on the backroads, Christophe said.
I didn't, but then I was barely on roads at all. Initially along a disused railway line in a nave of trees, much of the first full day was then along the canal towpath. The water brought me into the heart of Pontivy, a handsome town of half-timbered houses and with a proper castle from the Dukes of Rohan, who are still a force in these parts even today. Napoleon had selected Pontivy as an outpost of his power, so its southern end was full of overly grand civic buildings, esplanades and bridges hung with flowers.
But towns like Pontivy and nearby Josselin – the second chateau in my tour's title – have been adjusted for cars; the bicycle, meanwhile, gave me access to a more intimate Brittany. My subsequent days were partly along the mirror-calm canal, and partly along through more villages with Welsh-sounding names and chickens in the roads.
Each night I stayed in a new place. In Melrand, it was a little auberge, right across from a church which had the pissoir built on to the outside of the nave. The most eccentric was the chambre d'hôte at Boconnec, a lonely place in woodland at the top of a long hill, where the host's first words to me, when I admired his goats on arriving, were: "Ah yes, but now that those two are six months old, we have to tie them up, or else they'd attack their mother."
That night my hosts served me proper crêpes for dinner with proper home-made cider. Clearly, consuming them with relish was the proper thing to do.
Travel essentials: Brittany
* St-Malo, served daily from Portsmouth by Brittany Ferries (0871 224 0744; brittany-ferries.co.uk), is a good gateway – under two hours' drive from Gouarec.
* HF Holidays' (0845 470 7558; hfholidays.co.uk) week-long "Breton Cider and Chateaux" itinerary costs from £665 per person, based on two sharing. The price includes accommodation with breakfast, bike hire and luggage transfers between hotels. It departs every Saturday between 19 May and 21 July from Gouarec. Transport to Brittany is not included in the price.
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