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A chance had arisen, an invite to go on an intrepid adventure to discover the delights of the Sarthe department in North West France.  To be frank, I was not sure why they had asked me, but there were 2 conditions, one, I needed to take my bike and, two, I would have to pen some words along the way.  The decision, as you can imagine, was rather difficult but after some hard deliberation, I begrudgingly succumbed and agreed to a brief trip across La Manche to sample the Voie Verte or Greenways in this historic area.  If like me, your immediate reaction is ‘Where’, then the next few pages will provide you, I hope, with an insightful and honest introduction to the Sarthe and what is on offer to the exponents of two wheeled transportation.

Interestingly, I had discovered that the Sarthe is the name of the river that flows generally South West from its source in the neighbouring Orne department.  It encounters some wonderful places on its 313 km journey, notably Alencon, Le Mans and Angers.  My base was the enigmatic, Le Mans.  It is described as a city of contrasts, with wistful echoes of a glorious past mixed seamlessly with the realities of modern life.  My hosts for the trip were the local tourist department who had arranged all my welfare needs and conveniently a hire bike.  All I had to do was turn up and pedal.  Merci Tourisme en Sarthe!

It had been arranged for me to travel with Rail Europe from London St Pancras to Lille and then onto Le Mans.  This was my first experience of the Eurostar and I can highly recommend it.  It was a more sedate alternative to flying or ferry, the terminal was clean and modern, and most importantly, there was a WH Smiths and a Café Nero.  The journey was enjoyable, simple and comfortable; it provided me with some quiet time to ponder what lay ahead and allowed me to pore through my nerdy array of maps and travel guides.  We have come a long way since the end of the 19th century (when the bicycle was discovered) enabling people to go where they wanted, when they wanted.   The simple bicycle began life as a rich man’s toy, a sum comparable to the cost of a motor car today, but nowadays access to a bike is easy and popularity has increased due in part to the exploits of British Cycling and the likes of Wiggins and Cavendish.  France has committed fully to promote an ethos of sustainable tourism through an ambitious project to create a network of cycle routes, not only to match the likes of Germany and Austria, but aiming to surpass them.  It’s hard to mention France and cycling without referring to Le Tour and my return trip on the Eurostar coincided with the start of the 100th edition of the classic race.  With the ever increasing worldwide popularity of Le Tour and the enthusiasm and commitment of the local departments and regions, the progress of cycling in terms of numbers of tourists has doubled over the past few years and will without doubt exceed all expectations.  It’s a great concept, a wonderful aid to immersing oneself in carbon free sightseeing brimming with stunning culture, great gastronomy, and welcoming people.  The Sarthe has accepted the importance of two wheeled exploration and has invested time and money in its cycle networks.  The department has also recognised that due to its location, it plays a strategic role both regionally and nationally linking two major axis of the European Cycling Plan.   I was here to experience the routes in and around Le Mans.  My visit coincided with the introduction of several new sections joining the major towns and cities in the region, Alencon and Le Mans on two routes, one in the North West and the other in the North East.  Cyclists using these routes can rejoin the main axis in Beaumont-sur-Sarthe.  Le Mans and La Fleche route provides access to the Loire a Velo route.

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Le Mans stands proudly on the banks of the River Sarthe at its confluence with the Huisine.  It’s the main town and capital of the Sarthe Department, sophisticated and welcoming in equal measure. The main railway station is central to most things, as you would expect.  My base was the lovely Hotel Chantecler, just a short walk from the station.  My contact was Elodie and our first meeting was over dinner.  She explained her role at the Sarthe Developpement and their plans for cyclotourism.  What was so infectious was her enthusiasm and adoration for the region.  After dinner, I headed out briefly to explore.  The large expanse of Place de La Republique is the epicentre, the heart of the bustling city.  Animated conversation was echoing from every corner, people drinking, children playing, just a simply great place to socialise.  I stopped for a coffee and as the shadows deepened, I decided it was time to retire.

Day one

The next morning my immersion in all things quintessentially French began.  After a hearty breakfast, I headed in the direction of the athedral.  The roads were fairly quiet; the occasional tram was my only company.  The Cathedral looked intoxicating splashed with early morning sunshine.  The old quarter is a delight, overlooked by the Cathedral, sat proudly atop the high ground with its impressive Y-shaped two-tiered flying buttresses.  Like most human faces, the Cathedral of St Julien’s façade has some flaws, but ultimately it’s easy on the eyes.  It avoids monotony and embraces visitors with welcoming arms.  Overlooking the charming Place-St-Michel the south porch has a lovely 12 century doorway, flanked by some ornate religious iconography of St Peter and St Paul.  King Henry II was baptised here and Berengaria, the estranged wife of Richard the Lionheart, is buried here.  It is truly an awesome place, the countless stained glass windows are so vibrantly decorated, the sun breathing life into the images.  I sat for a while in the empty choir, the red light of the tabernacle indicates the presence of Jesus Christ and invites us to silent prayer.  Whatever your beliefs, if any, it’s hard to overlook the serene surroundings, a place for contemplation.  A soft melodic chanting began to echo throughout this holy place as I reluctantly departed.

The medieval Labyrinthine streets are a wonderful mix of intricate renaissance architecture and classical facades.  I noted a reassuring cacophony of noise emanating from the cluster of chic artisan street cafes, cut by stepped alleys.  It reminded me of Diagon Alley from the Harry Potter stories.  The highlight, for me was the 3rd & 4th century Gallo-Roman walls, supposedly the best preserved in Europe, having stood for 1,700 years.  The richly decorative brickwork was so simple and naturally beautiful.  The ramparts encircle the medieval Old Town, cocooning the array of lovely timber frames houses decorated in evocative blue, green and lavender hues.

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The city is dominated by its tram system, it’s absolutely everywhere.  I especially enjoyed the tracks dissecting luscious grassy areas, like a bizarre verdant carpet.  I followed the contours of the River Huisine towards Le Abbaye de l’Epau, east of the centre.  As I entered the Arche de la Nature the urban surroundings disappeared, replaced with a beautiful tree lined haven.  The entrance fee to the Abbaye was a mere 2 Euros 30, maybe us British could learn from the French approach to pricing.  The Abbaye of Piété Dieu in l’Epau was founded in 1229 by Queen Berengaria, widow of Richard Coeur de Lion, and countess of the Maine province.  It’s one of the best preserved examples of its kind in France.  It’s well presented and I especially enjoyed the haphazard pieces of art and images dotted throughout the grounds, it was so refreshing and complemented the already serene historical ambience.  I had earlier noted the roads were strangely devoid of cyclists but as I departed the Abbaye I was reassured by the sight of a convoy of school children sat atop bikes, adorning vibrant headgear, like me, here to immerse in the wonderful history.  From the Abbaye I pedalled through Change with its bustling market before heading north towards Yvre l’Eveque.  The landscape fluctuated between dense forest and open farmland.  I then headed back into the city and rested in the Place de La Republique.

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After a brief lunch, my next task was to make my way to Beaumont-sur-Sarthe, some 43 kilometres north and my base for the night.  My journey began outside the SNCF station.  I followed the v44 green route which was well signed, the only negative is the signs could benefit from the occasional reminder of which direction you are actually pedalling, not surprisingly with my defunct inner GPS, I nearly pedalled back towards Le Mans on at least one occasion.  Once I had navigated my way out of the city into more rural surroundings the ride was rather uneventful but in a glorious way, I encountered perfect villages, displaying vibrant shutters and window boxes bursting with colourful geraniums, but no vehicles, no people, just me and the bike.  The sun was now high in the sky, it was idyllic with just the faint hum of the busy D338 in the distance.

I made Beaumont by mid-afternoon, the town has definitely played to its strengths, it’s friendly and bustling with some lovely cafes and restaurants.  The main heart of the town is home to a covered market (Place Des Halles) and a simple rustic church linked to an intricate network of stone clad narrow streets and alleyways, it provides a wonderful confusion.  I ended the day at Hotel de la Barque, a lovely home from home experience.  My room was tastefully decorated in a mixture of beige and grey, (not as bland as it sounds), its location central to most things and providing free WIFI access.  That night I dined like a king, excellent food and comfortable surroundings.  What more could I ask!

Day Two

My mood was buoyant, even though the weather possessed a British character, grey gloom with a hint of rain.  I had noticed the previous evening a copy of the weather forecast pinned to the door of the local tourist office, which sums up the French outlook on life completely.  Today’s predictions foretold scary dark clouds and rain and the text ‘variable’, and bizarrely yesterdays showed glorious sunshine (which it was) also accompanied by the text ‘variable’.  I feel the ‘glass is always half full’ in a French household.  The plan was to ride to Mamers,  I had a choice of 2 routes north to Mamers, one via the Alpes Mancelles, described by Elodie as small mountains or direct to Mamers, with no small mountains.  Have a guess which route I chose.

 

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The ride was enjoyable; the route was predominately flat through Vivoin and its lovely priory before I stopped briefly in the small village of Rene, by the 16th century under cover market.   The drizzle was now prominent and followed me all the way into Le Mees.  Just on the outskirts of the village I encountered the start of the Voie Verte du Saosnois.  I feel a brief mention is needed about the religious icons set strategically as you enter the majority of villages, regardless of size. They all possess a simple meditative persona and reminded me of the fact that Christianity is still a major part of the local’s daily life.

Voie Verte is French for Greenways and they offer a wonderful signposted delve into rural France.  Motor vehicles are prohibited and the majority of the routes follow the contours of river or canal towpaths and disused railways.  Currently there are over 3,000 kilometres of Voie Verte across France with varying distances from 10km to 50km, offering something for both the committed or less frequent cyclist.  The simple ethos is to provide clean, green tourism whilst encouraging active leisure and exploration.  If you’re in a hurry, then forget it.  The environs take over, they possess your body and mind, immersion is inevitable.  The unhurried, relaxed approach is infectious.   One of the main advantages of the routes are their flexibility, you can plan your day, commit to an agreed distance with breaks and stop whenever to discover places of interest.  There is excellent access to road or rail networks and plenty of places to hire bikes,(if you don’t want to bring your own along), which make them a perfect choice for any type of break.

This section is 14km long and follows a disused railway line between Le Mees and Mamers.  The track is in good condition and I was alone all the way, my only company was a gang of rabbits and the constant chatter of the local birdlife, it was mesmerising, a jumble of open fields and elongated wooded areas, especially as I neared Mamers.  I deviated briefly into St Remy-du-Val.  As I approached the church, I glimpsed a partial stone structure sat atop a grassy mound.  It was eerily peaceful.  It was obviously the remains of some form of defences, either a castle or a fort but unfortunately there were no signs to explain its history.

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My expectations were sky high, luckily the whole experience delivered.  The simplicity and in part, Naivety is amazing.  Selfishly I was happy the concept is relatively unknown because the experience would have been less profound if full of other cyclists or walkers.  I acknowledge that as they become more popular then the numbers will increase but I truly hope they don’t over expose and spoil its main asset, the tranquillity.

I took coffee in Mamers before continuing along the v44 towards La Fresnaye-sur-Chedouet, my goal was the cycling museum I had read about.  The route created more of a challenge with gradual climbs and rapid descents.  I dissected the Foret Dominale de Perseigne and after a rather scary 3km descent I was set firmly in the village.  The museum is inconspicuous by its appearance, five euros gained me entry and what a delight!   Room after room dedicated to different era’s displaying bikes and iconography in theatrical surroundings, eventually ending with a hall of fame adorned with names and pictures of famous faces from the world of cycling.  A visit is highly recommended (www.museeduvelo.com) .  On the topic of museum’s I also enjoyed my trip to the Musee des 24h (Le Mans circuit).  There are plenty of exhibits and interesting facts about the race and its stars, present and past and the track is also home to a 24hr cycling race held in august each year www.24heuresvelo.fr .

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If you are stuck for somewhere to holiday on two wheels, whether that be for a couple of days, a long weekend or even longer, then I can’t think of anywhere better than the Sarthe.  It’s an extraordinary setting for exploring and discovering and my time spent in this magical area will remain in my psyche forever.  The people, the welcome and most importantly the cycling are a credit to the Sarthe, so why not come and discover for yourself because you definitely won’t be disappointed.  The Office de Tourisme are making a concerted effort to promote the area to the English especially London and the South West, and have coined the campaign ‘C’EST BIEN ICI!’, ‘It’s Beautiful Here’.  I couldn’t think of a more apt phrase to describe the area.  I will be back; the Sarthe has definitely captured my heart.

 

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Scot Whitlock is a well respected author of Simple Words from the Saddle and Simply More Words from the Saddle. Previously editor of two national cycling magazines. He writes for a selection of cycling and travel publications.

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