“l’m one lucky chap? I said to myself sat in departures at Gatwick Airport. My concentration distracted by the itinerary for the next eight days. France has this beguiling hold over me, it consumes my thoughts, the magnetic effect on my psyche is compelling and now completely obvious. For sometime I have had to accept I adore everything about our nearest continental neighbour. My journey would be as normal chaotic, the place names just seemed to have a surreal poetic presence, Nantes is dominated by La Loire, the river is magnificent. Considering the decline in the maritime industry, the city has proactively adopted a substantial programme of regeneration, especially in the old dockyards.
Machine d’ile and the famous elephant, as well as a selection of vibrant restaurants and bars make the area, once again a popular place to be everyone, especially families. The plan was to discover Nantes for two days before heading along the coast. My base was the welcoming (aptly named) Hotel l’hotel (6, rue Henri IV, Nantes; 00 33 2 40 29 30 31) the boutique establishment is conveniently situated at the heart of the history.
My first task was to meet Katia Foret from Nantes Tourism and venture across the water via shuttle boat to the sleepy Trentemoult. The former fisherman’s and sailors village sits evocatively on the left bank of river, the locals have created a sumptuous domain, dominated by vibrant colours, narrow alleyways and peace, a great place to escape the demands of city life. After a feast of local produce I was introduced to Anna Covuverture, a professional guide, we explored the village on foot, her passion and words gave me a great insight into life back when the village was an important commercial part of the city. Its traditional three-storey houses were built with the Loire’s rise in water level in mind, the ground floors, liable to flooding.
The evening was preoccupied by the tourist board and a collection of other journalist, we were treated to a sumptuous meal at Cigale (4, Place Graslin, Nantes; 00 33 2 51 84 94 94) which is acknowledged as one of the city’s most sought after restaurants, the interior is a beguiling protected heritage explosion, and unsurprisingly once the headquarters of the Surrealists. After gorging on a artistic plate of magret (sliced duck) and exploring the city by night, my early night was scuppered.
The next day I was introduced to my bike for the duration, simple and robust. Anna was my companion once again and our first task was to discover Ile de Nantes (the creation quarter). We pedalled through the city, the roads reasonably quiet, the only hazard afforded by the complex network of tram lines. We were following the trail of Voyage à Nantes, Ile de Nantes is one of the biggest urban developments in France and is symbolic of the City’s naval history. We had arrived at the imposing Machine de l’Ile, the extraordinary artistic project is sublimely unique, and was born from the imaginations of François Delaroziere and Pierre Orefice, and offers a blend of the words of Jules Verne, the mechanical universe of Leonardo da Vinci and the industrial history of the Nantes. It was a surreal experience, the highlight is undoubtedly the great elephant, standing at 40 feet it unsurprisingly dominates.
We cycled onwards, it was not difficult to find greenery as we pedalled to Vertou, set in the heart of the Nantes vineyards. The vineyards stretch from the banks of the Loire in the north down to the Vendee. The route follows the old towpath on the banks of the Sevre, the surface a mix of gravel and dirt tracks dissect a stunning mass of trees and nothing else, human interaction limited apart from the occasional cyclist or walker. The area is home to 11,500 hectares of Muscadet grapes, the largest in the Loire Valley. We stopped for lunch on the Chaussee des Moines which is a mesmeric causeway built by local monks. After some much needed sustenance we headed back into the city some 12 kilometres away.
Nantes – Saint-Brevin 61km
Whether you are looking for a challenge or just a leisurely ride, La Velodyssee offers so much to the cyclist. La Vélodyssée and La Loire à Vélo share the route to the Atlantic, and the highlight is undoubtedly the Loire estuary with its wondrous lakes, historic canals and conveyor belt of stunning art dotted haphazardly along the route.
As expected the pedalling was idyllic, no interruptions or interactions, just the sound of the water and the occasional shift of my gears. The route can be split into three distinctive stages, Nantes to Le Pellerin (26km), Le Pellerin to Paimboeuf (25.5km) and Paimboeuf to St-Brevin-les-Pins (21km). The first section follows the contours of the hypnotic Loire estuary on a shared stage of both the La Vélodyssée and La Loire à Vélo, the air overwhelmed by the aromatic scent of conifers and sand dunes.
La Vélodyssée has something for everyone. Get on your bike and experience the wild beauty of a cycle route covering more than 1,200 kilometres from Brittany down the Atlantic coast to the border with Spain. The sea is never very far away as you discover the best each region has to offer along France’s longest waymarked cycle trail. There is an extensive array of interactive maps and recommendations of the most suitable places for cyclists to stay, you can plan your very own La Vélodyssée in advance or just take off on the spur of the moment. You’ll find special offers, our pick of the best attractions to visit and reviews by those who’ve done the route. A voyage of discovery awaits you!
The Atlantic Ocean was on my mind as I pedalled at speed, my view dominated by the urban surroundings of Saint-Nazaire, Saint-Brevin is installed on the south shore of the estuary, a remnant of the ancient delta extending from the Vilaine to Machecoul. As I approached the town I noticed a collection of handsome villas fed by dramatic wooded paths.The ocean itself offers several points of interest, with adorable little fisheries on stilts and an enormous sea serpent, a work of art belonging to the Estuaire Nantes-Saint-Nazaire trail and unfortunately it’s the finish line of the Loire à Vélo.
My overnight was at Hotel Le Beryl (55, Boulevard de l’Ocean, 44250, Saint-Brevin-les-Pins; 02 28 53 20 00) which was bizarrely home to a casino and a spa. Before dinner I wandered down to the beach to watch Queen Mary 2 sail past enroute from Saint Nazaire to New York, the sun was fading as I wandered back to my hotel. My evening consisted of a humongous plate of Moules Mariniere and an early night.
St-Brevin-les-Pins – Pornic 26km
I awoke early, demolished the breakfast buffet whilst sat on the veranda surveying the energetic Atlantic. The short distance of today’s ride would (hopefully) allow me to explore the delights of Pornic. It was already warm as I pushed myself out of the town towards St-Michel-Chef-Chef, the scenery was a cavalcade of sea, dunes and pine trees and in no time I was pedalling into the heart of Pornic, after negotiating the lovely countryside of Pays de Retz.
Pornic owes its fame in particular to its proximity to Nantes which made it one of the favourite beaches of the city folk, located on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean and only twenty kilometres from Saint-Nazaire.
The rise of Pornic came in the 19th century with the development of seaside tourism and the arrival of the train in 1875 only increased the towns economic and tourist credentials. It was a bustling fishing port until the early 1970s, mostly due to the popularity in the sardine industry, however since then the activity has declined. It was also at this time it merged with the neighbouring towns of Sainte-Marie-sur-Mer and Le Clion-sur-Mer, thus expanding its territory and tourist offer.
Today, the municipality is as much appreciated for its idyllic geographical location as for its important architectural heritage which attracts many visitors each year. Lovers of great gastronomy will also find their happiness with products from Fraiseraie (ice cream, jams, fruit paste…), or the famous Curé Nantais, a cheese produced directly on the commune, which I found to my detriment at my lunch appointment. The Fraiseraie is probably one the towns most famous craft businesses, specialising in home-made ice creams, sorbets and crepes. My table was located by the wall in front of the restaurant, which has been renamed by the locals ‘mur de la leche’ which literally translates as the ‘licking wall’. Thankfully my tongue behaved! I opted for a curry infused gallette which I thought would be a safe (no cheese) option, say bonjour to Curé Nantais. I approached the meal like a methodical surgical procedure, limit the string of cheese and seek the curry jus to offset the texture!
After lunch I explored the castle which was built in the 12th century on the territory of Clion-sur-Mer, the Château des Brefs has been rebuilt. It became a pleasure castle in the Louis XIII style and was enlarged in the 18th century, before being restored in the Clissonnais style at the beginning of the 19th century. Today, the castle hosts a centre of art and culture, with the organisation of plays or exhibitions throughout the year.
It was time to pedal to my next appointment at the Thalassotherapy Centre, after a steady climb the horizon suddenly became dominated by the ocean. The spa is located in a lovely spot hiding a secluded beach. I am not normally a spa person, the idea usually fills me with dread so I entered the building with some trepidation. The tourist board had arranged for me to experience some treatments and before I knew it is was in swimmers and donning a bleach white bathrobe, shuffling nervously.
After 2 hours of algae rubs, exposure to a fancy Karcher power wash and a surprisingly relaxing massage I felt rejuvenated. My overnight stop was located further along the coast at La Fontaine aux Bretons (Chemin des Noelles, 44210, Pornic; 02 51 74 08 08) which is romantically described as ‘A haven of peace between sea and land’. The unique setting combines the charms of the countryside with a beautifully manicured garden and wonderfully views of the sea, it’s also ‘Accueil Velo’ labelled.
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