Three ways to tour France

Our nearest continental neighbour is abuzz with Tour de France fever. And, with the franc at its weakest for years, never has there been a better time to hop over (or under) the channel. By Jeremy Atiyah and Andrew Eames
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The Independent Travel
THE Tour de France is in full flow again, holding the entire Gallic nation in its thrall. What greater inspiration could there be for a cycling holiday across the channel?

We were only amateurs and I was applying sunblock for the trek down the Kentish Town Road. But going away on a bike has advantages: it means you are instantaneously on holiday. And at the sight of pannier-loaded bikes in Waterloo Station, even grumpy train guards open carriage doors for you.

Basically, bicycles are better than cars. Not only did we discover a direct cycle lane from Portsmouth train station to the ferry terminal, but as for the vehicle queues in the harbour - which looked like Bangkok traffic jams - we jumped them. While other people were fiddling with wing mirrors and shouting at their children, we cycled into the boat like guests of honour.

In the bicycle-hold, we got our first glimpse of what other cyclists looked like. Mostly they were Miguel Induran-types in skin-tight shorts and effeminate shoes, who could lift bikes effortlessly with one arm while shouldering a tent with the other. These were the kind of people whose machines were made of titanium alloy and pumped with hydrogen. Our bikes had only cost pounds 120 each but were as heavy as lead.

Who cared. Getting off the boat the next morning was even better than getting on. While unshaven car-owners were still muscling nervously about the duty free shops, we had already ridden onto a sunny quay, bypassed customs and dawdled into the citadel of St Malo in search of breakfast. Parking? We bunged our bikes on the pavement and ordered cafe au lait.

The real task in hand - that of actually cycling across a bit of Brittany - started in earnest the next day. I had traced a route on my Michelin map, southward from St Malo, which was hilly enough to be scenic, but not too hilly for cycling. Could we reach, say, Rennes in the first day? "It'll take you a couple of hours," scoffed the woman in our hotel, unaware that these bikes were filled with lead.

Or that my stomach was filled with croissants. Within five minutes, still in a leafy suburb of St Malo, we hit our first upward slope. At the edge of town, we then found ourselves on a roaring dual carriageway strewn with gravel and shattered windscreens.

Only when we had finally turned off the main road and found ourselves alone amid golden wheatfields, with the gentle burr of tires on the road, did we begin to find our pace. The sun shone pleasantly on the back of my neck and we entered our first rustic Brittany village of green hedgerows and chunky stone houses. "This is the life!" I shouted to my partner, who promptly swerved into a ditch and crashed.

We had only been going an hour and one of us was sitting on the road with bleeding knees. Never mind - anxious villagers immediately burst out of all the neighbouring houses. "Who tipped over la petite?" asked an old lady. "What bastard knocked you off?" shouted a man.

After an hour of recuperation, being barked at by dogs in the confines of a hospitable farmer's cottage, we finally resumed our journey under a blisteringly hot sun. Old hands had warned us to do our cycling in the cool of morning, but now it was lunchtime and we had hardly started. The delightful Dinan - a line of sunny sailing boats moored up in a narrow river valley - did not come into view until 2pm.

"And which way is it to the town centre?" I asked a passing motorist. I was directed to a viaduct that stretched across the valley a few hundred metres above our heads. We dropped any plans of visiting Dinan's 14th- century citadel.

A quick snack of olives and tomatoes later, we cycled south out of Dinan along a fragrant canal tow-path, draped with shining green foliage, agitated only by the occasional moorhen.

On a bicycle however, especially after lunch, you pay for such perfect moments. Around the next bend the steepest, longest uphill slope this side of the Alps zoomed up out of the Brittany countryside, and the nature of our day changed for good. Cycling became a matter of increasingly grim determination. By 4pm, sweating in Le Bar du Sport in a remote, hot village called Becherel, my partner announced that enough was enough. We glanced at the scuffed billiard table, the flies and the mangy black dog. "Oh all right, a bit further then."

As we inched our way towards Rennes, a tiresome feature of those idyllic country roads which emerged was the large number of cyclists on lightning fast bikes, dark glasses glued to their faces. The next day we would discover that something called the Tour de France pour Cyclotourists, a 3,000 kilometre jaunt around France, had just begun in the area; we even met a group of protagonists at Redon who eyed our cast-iron, clanking bikes with horreur ("but you are very 'eavy no?").

Luckily we weren't competing. For the last 20 kilometres to Rennes I felt considerably worse on the flat than Miguel Induran does on the Alpe d'Huez: We did however have a prix fixe menu with wine to look forward to when we reached Rennes at 9pm that evening. No car-driver will ever enjoy such a meal.

JA

THE SOUTH of France may mean Brigitte Bardot and St Tropez to some and the red roofs and sunny landscapes of Provence to others. To Robert Louis Stevenson, in the 1870s, it meant a cold, bleak plateau covered in "moor, heathery marsh, tracts of rock and pines" and populated by the descendants of the camisards, an island of marooned Protestants who had fought desperately to preserve their identity in an ocean of French Catholicism. This was the Cevennes, most of which is now a national park.

I booked a five-day walking holiday, hoping to spot a wild boar. I was also, irrelevantly, attracted by the thought of flying into the cacophonous city of Montpellier. Approaching from the north, though, I got a glimpse of the landscape: uncultivateable, rocky and barren, the causses (limestone outcroppings) of the plateau looked utterly inhospitable.

Montpellier itself was bathed in Spanish heat. A cityscape of irregular tiled roof-tops and television aerials stood stark against a deep blue sky. Barely dressed, flushed young people floated through the station in the direction of the beach. Did I really want to end up in chilly mountains with a retractable walking stick and plastic map-wallet, when the Mediterranean was at hand?

I caught a bus into the heart of the Cevennes through an expansive, hilly landscape edged by vineyards. My walking holiday was set to begin from the village of Nant, which eventually showed up at dusk as a cluster of grey roofs at the bottom of a steep-sided valley. A limp tricolor, a 19th- century post office overlooking a golden wheat field, a restaurant serving cooked chevre under a trellis - Nant at least was reassuring in its Frenchness. The next day the serious walking began, under a sudden bank of cloud and fog.

That morning I set out through the valley with a baguette, amid the sound of streams and running water. It wasn't long before the instructions were telling me to leave the road and strike off along "the path leading up the hill on your right after the bridge". These dirt tracks turned out to be segments of various grands randonees, the nationwide walking routes that criss-cross France.

Robert Louis Stevenson had found the place to be reminiscent of Scotland. "On the whole, this is a Scottish landscape," he declared, "although not so noble as the best in Scotland. And by an odd coincidence, the population is, in its way, as Scottish as the country. They have abrupt, uncouth, Fifeshire manners..."

Uncouth? Or merely retiring? I crept into a dour little village called Sauclieres, all dark stone passageways and closed shutters, with tall silent houses huddled round the church. Not a soul stirred. And after lunch, under a shifting sky, I stepped out on to the causse itself. A ragged grey plain of scattered boulders lay before me, less like France, more like the steppe of central Anatolia.

Oddly enough, it was in the middle of such a landscape that Patricia and Jean-Paul had decided to build their gite, Les Magettes. Was this mid-summer? Stepping through the front door in late afternoon, I was immediately set before a crackling fire.

Crazy weather, crazy place. My host and hostess may have lived in the remotest part of France but were no country bumpkins "Et vous? Vous faites le walking?" roared Jean-Paul, tickled by the notion that anyone should walk through so forsaken a landscape. But the highlight of the holiday proved to be precisely this, sitting en famille in a genuine French household while a wintry gale whistled across the causse.

In theory, day two was to be a rest-day. The next morning Jean-Paul took us on a drive across the steppe to see his horses. "Look. A wild boar," he shouted, pointing to the left. "And that way. Two wild boar. And in front..." I saw nothing but million-year-old stones. Finding Jean- Paul's horses involved walking for half-an-hour across gorse-bound hillsides with a sack of old baguettes. In these parts the baguette is as much part of horse husbandry as stirrups - when the horses eventually picked up the alluring scent of bread they came over the hill faster than the wind.

Moving on from Les Magettes the next day, I felt threatened by death through exposure. Rain whipped across the plateau. Mountains lost in fog banks lay ahead. This whole day passed without my seeing a living soul.

Hours later, staggering down from the mountains, I eventually arrived at my next stop, Le Mas Bresson, a rustic auberge high up above the rushing Dourbie River, which (in better weather), offers pure water, smooth stones and sand for swimming. To greet me, a crowd of sheep came bustling down a dry ditch beside the house, led by an ancient shepherd. My stay in Le Mas Bresson happened to coincide with a group of forestry students, who sat in the dining-room listening to bearded men talking about the agricultural environment. It was the story of the Cevennes, where the primitive and the sophisticated merge effortlessly. The young auberge owner who had regaled us over dinner with plans to convert cow-dung into electricity, called his goats in the morning like a Swiss yodeller.

The last day, rambling back to Nant, was the longest. I emerged from a forest of wild strawberries to discover myself at the top of a rocky promontory in the sky, the Roc Nantais. The roofs of Nant were far below. I had missed all the wild boars, but scrambling down into town an hour later I was able to round off a delightful trip with a large helping of wild boar sausage.

JA

"ARE we going as fast as a TGV?", said Thomas, as we swung lazily down the Charente. I had to admit that we weren't, by the small matter of some 190mph, but then Thomas had just experienced two of his favourite high-speed trains, and now he was being congratulated by his father on how fast he was paddling our canoe. So I suppose it wasn't such a daft question for a four-year-old.

It was to be an old-fashioned, Swallows and Amazons sort of holiday, just me and my boy, a Canadian canoe, a tent, and a placid French river brimming with fish. And I'm delighted to say that, despite the potential for disaster, that was how it turned out. Dappled mornings, tumbling weirs, and lashings of fresh air.

The Charente flows through south-west France, rising near Limoges and making its bow into the curtains of the Atlantic near La Rochelle. Along the way it goes nowhere in particular, which is why it is so delightfully under-used. Somewhere in the middle it meanders through Cognac country, which was where our particular dawdle took place.

Getting a four-year-old native of west London to participate in a three- day journey in an open canoe, sleeping under the stars and eating funny foreign food, is a piece of cake provided the canoe bit is attractively packaged within journeys on the Eurostar and the TGV. The concept of a voyage in an open boat didn't really begin to strike home until we'd been afloat for an hour, and then we decided it was about time we went back to Patou.

Patou is the barman at Les Gabariers, a riverside bar to the South-west of Angouleme owned by Englishman Simon Constant. Constant has been arranging canoe hire from here for some years, and there's an air of Wind in the Willows about the place: a variety of rivercraft in varying stages of decay, some dogs, ducks and swans, and a collection of venerable mopeds suggesting that denizens of the riverbank are within. In the bar, the amiable Ratty (Patou) presides over his myopic pastis-drinking Moleys, and he could send Thomas into fits of giggles just by grinning at him. My mid-river revelation that we were not going back to Patou for three days produced a torrent of "whys" from Thomas. It took a whole new made- up story about a frog that decided to go on holiday to distract him. That's one advantage of going downstream; you can slip paddles and do your story- telling, pirouetting slowly, with no fear that the scenery will begin to rewind.

The first of the locks came soon after. I knew they were going to be hard work. Locking through simply wasn't going to be possible. Leaving a four-year-old alone amid sheer concrete walls and huge forces of water was too perilous to contemplate, even for a minute. The alternative was what canoeists refer to as a portage; lugging the luggage, then hauling the canoe after it, a la Fitzcarraldo.

In Fitzcarraldo terms, this first one was a doddle: lots of grunting and swearing, but we all ended up back in the boat with our luggage in vaguely the right places. The second, at Chateauneuf, had high stone walls on either side, and a portage would have been well-nigh impossible. Our only real alternative was to wait for other river traffic and lock through together. That could mean waiting all day.

By this time the restaurant next to the lock had opened, so we popped in for an ice-cream. "Benson!" called a distant voice. A Yorkie came hurtling towards us, followed by a young man wearing a football shirt. "Pardon, je suis dans le jardin," he said, in an execrable accent. He had to be English, and I said so. He looked so crestfallen that straightaway wished I hadn't. Anyway, the upshot was that he helped me lock the canoe through while his parents fed Thomas ice-cream. By mid afternoon the sun was showing no mercy so we struck off the main stream up a narrow, fast-flowing cut, pushing hard into the current and frightening an otter (the first of three we saw). Eventually the cut broadened into a mill pool surrounded by decaying mill buildings in lichen-coated limestone. This was Vibrac, where I knew there was a bar called Coco's.

There were four mopeds outside Coco's, and four pastis-drinking Moleys inside. "Cola!" repeated the lady who came to the bar, her eyes widening as if we'd asked for Ecstasy. They had none, never had, and I suspect never will. Thomas settled for an Orangina, and I examined the dog-eared black and white photos of Vibrac as it used to be. Absolutely nothing had changed. What was wrong with these people? Hadn't they heard of downshifting, teleworking or global villaging?

Next morning I woke to a sound which I had hoped not to hear: the patter of rain. For some while we lay cosily in our sleeping bags and watched it fall from the open mouth of the tent. But it showed no sign of relenting, so it was time for a temporary return to civilisation. A kind lady in the St Simon post office, opposite the church, allowed us to shelter until the taxi came, and half-an-hour later we were in a trendy bar in Jarnac, watching rock videos.

We went back to St Simon and luckily the next day's weather was kinder. We had a lovely passage on the river that day, licking off the romanesque churches and family-owned distilleries as they drifted astern. At midday we completed what became known as the two ice-cream walk: I wanted to see the 13th-century Benedictine abbey at Bassac but incentives were required to get Thomas the mile uphill from the river. "The sisters of Ursula welcome visitors," said a notice outside the abbey church. I wasn't sure the sisters of Ursula would welcome a four-year-old in wellies, singlet and Kermit the Frog ice-cream especially as there were holy noises emanating from behind the abbey church door.

By the early afternoon we were nearing Jarnac. I was listening to the cricket on the radio while consuming red wine and Hula Hoops. It was a Sunday, and the banks kept unfolding little tableaux of fishermen sitting down with their families to modest riverside feasts. My back, now very weary from several portages, had a stroke of good fortune at the lock above the town. A boat full of jolly Germans was coming up, and they did all the hard work with the gates. At Jarnac itself there was a lock-keeper on duty and we sat alone in the middle of the huge, emptying bath, dwindling downwards as the prison walls grew higher, watched by groups of curious, pointing tourists.

We didn't stop at Jarnac, having seen it all before. Suddenly the river seemed almost crowded. Cries of "cochon" went up from the riverbank at every hint of motorboat wash. That evening we came ashore for the last time at Bourg Charente, made the required phone call, and lay down on the grassy banks below chateau Grand Marnier to wait for Simon to come with his trailer to take father, son, and canoe back to Les Gabariers.

All in all, I count the expedition a success, a lesson in how old-fashioned recreation can appeal to the Sonic the Hedgehog generation. And the most alarming incident, the moment when I'd been most nervous of Thomas falling in, hadn't been on the river at all. It was on the squatter toilet in Jarnac railway station.

AE

FACT FILE

Cycling

British rail companies generally allow passengers to carry bicycles at no extra cost, though you are advised not to use rush-hour trains. Brittany ferries (0990 360360), which run from Portsmouth and Poole to St Malo, Caen and Cherbourg, also carry accompanied bicycles for no extra cost. Eurostar does not permit bicycles unless yours is of the type that can be taken apart and put inside a bicycle bag, which can then be carried as hand luggage. Bicycle bags cost about pounds 90.

Le Shuttle carries passengers with bicycles on a twice-daily bus from near the tunnel entrance for pounds 15 (call 01303 273300, ext 8700, for details). Inside France, you can carry bicycles free on local train lines only. To transport your bicycle long-distance from one train station to another, you need to send your bicycle as luggage for a fee of around FFr150. Although it is possible to travel in the same train as your bicycle, and to collect it as soon as you disembark, the system is designed for people collecting their bikes two or three days later.

Walking

The price for Headwater's `Walk in the Cevennes' starts at pounds 228 per person based on four or five adults travelling together on a self-drive basis. That includes ferry crossings, half-board, full route notes and maps. Bags are transported between hotels. If flying, the price is pounds 398 per person. The holiday can start every two days until 24 September. 01606 48699.

Boating

Gabariers Canoeing have all the equipment, including maps and mountain bikes, and offer a daily pickup service from selected points on the river. A canoe for three days costs Fr200, a tent Fr180, with a Fr500 deposit. Contact Simon Constant in France on 00335 45662311 or in England on 01295 758282.

The journey combining Eurostar and the TGV takes roughly eight hours. A return costs pounds 99 or pounds 109 provided you stay a Saturday night away. Either Simon or Patou will meet trains at Angouleme. Rail Europe's Rail Shop is on 0990 300003.

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