Day two of our little tour of Normandy started on the Vélo Francette just south of Flers from the small village of Lieu-dit-Fumeçon. Although we were still in the hilly area of Suisse Normande, the greenway followed old rail routes and hence the cycling was almost perfectly flat.
We whizzed past an old station building that had been converted into a beautiful dwelling, past sinister looking large concrete structures that I presumed were water tanks for the old railway, before coming across a billy goat and his off – spring casually walking across our path. I immediately shouted a warning to Fran as I have never trusted the horn equipped creatures. I presumed Fran would also drop a gear in preparation to sprint past the danger of being charged at by a protective father. I gave a sigh of relief for escaping the danger without incident. I turned around to see if Fran had made it past the threatening beast too, only to witness that Fran had stopped and was stroking and chatting merrily to the horned quadruped and his kids. Either Fran is some kind of Dr. Dolittle or I need to ‘man-up’ a bit!
There was further excitement a little while later when we had to cycle to one side of the track to let a lone jogger by. This was the first sighting of another human – being using the greenway and, apart from Hotel staff, the first human encounter all morning.
Twenty kilometres of easy cycling through woods came to an abrupt end as we left the Vélo Francette at the junction with the la Véloscénic. We turned sharp left and almost immediately started climbing towards the centre of the medieval town of Domfront.
Carole from L’Orne tourist office was waiting for us at the foot of the climb to guide us on our new cycle route. As the name suggests, la Véloscénic is one of the most scenic cycle routes in France. It crosses Normandy starting from the iconic Mont-Saint-Michel and on to its final destination of Paris, a total of 450 km. Travelling west the route passes Château de Carrouges, the town of Alençon famous for its needle lace, through glorious countryside onto Nogent-le-Rotrou with its charming Château, Chartes and its magnificent cathedral and through Versailles with the probably most famous of all the Châteaux, the Palace of Versailles.
We were all thankful we had charged the batteries of our e-bikes as we climbed some very steep gradients to the centre of the picturesque town of Domfront.
Our mission before lunch was to climb the tower of Domfront’s famous neo-byzantine style church of Saint-Julien.
It was certainly a surprise to find a church reminiscent of Eastern Orthodox churches in a traditional medieval French town. I had to find out why. Luckily, the church guide whose task was to lead us to the top of the tower (the spire reaching an impressive height of 51 metres), gave a short précis of the church’s history.
The original Saint-Julien chapel fell into disrepair and although efforts were made to restore it in 1922, they were abandoned after restoration became impossible from the damage caused after a storm in 1923.
Therefore, a new church had to be built. The architect Albert Guilbert was commissioned. Guilbert discovered that the traditional shape of the Latin cross would not have been practical in the restricted space the site provides, so he chose the square shape that is so characteristic of Byzantine churches
Guilbert also broke from tradition in the building material he chose; concrete.
Unfortunately, over the years the structure has suffered from ‘concrete cancer’. This is when the steel reinforcing rods begin to rust and thus expand, which in turn displaces concrete around them.
The church was closed for seven and a half years, as work was carried out to rectify the faults. It opened again on the 1st September 2013, allowing visitors to admire the dome and to ascend the tower once more.
As we ascended I soon lost count of the 200 or so steps that not only changed from concrete to wood as we climbed higher, but also became steeper and steeper.
We paused at the balcony overlooking the vast space below. It was noticeable that there weren’t any pillars obstructing the view to the impressive altar with its bronze moulding illustrating the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
On our way to the very top we squeezed past the bells, up yet more steps and made it to the top platform just in time to hear the bells ring out at midday. The sound was very distinctive, very different to the sound and peel of church bells heard in Britain.
Unfortunately, the mist that had hung around all morning still hadn’t totally cleared, so our view across the countryside was somewhat impeded. Nevertheless, we had a great view of the layout of the town with its small and narrow medieval streets, and our lunch destination, the Bistrot Saint-Julien.
Lunch was another feast of beautiful dishes created from simple ingredients sourced locally. All consumed in a wonderful friendly and unrushed atmosphere.
Indeed, the whole trip was the epitome of ‘Slow Tourism’; travelling at a slow pace in a sustainable way, discovering new places, spending time to learn about them, and tasting local produces and dishes.
With our bellies full of fish, cheese, and the most wonderful dessert of café gourmand that included all our favourites; crème brulée, apple crumble, chocolate soufflé and locally produced farm-made ice cream, we set off again.
Our destination was Bagnole-de-l’Orne, a spa town nestling in the Normandie-Maine Regional Natural Park. Our route took us on more traffic free tracks through woods and onto quiet roads leading to the town famous for its thermal spa treatments.
Before grabbing the chance to sample one of the treatments that had been chosen for me at the B’O Resort, we were afforded a guided walk around the town, and just like the day before in Caen, the heavens opened. Sheltering under various sized umbrellas we toured the town observing the fascinating different types of architecture from the interesting periods that formed Bagnoles’ unique character.
The styles varied from ‘Swedish cottage’ villas, examples of early 20th century French middle class buildings with bow windows and distinctive roofing, to art deco buildings constructed in the 1920s and 1930s.
One of the most well known buildings of the art deco period is the Casino du Lac, built in 1927 to meet the needs of the wealthy clientele that regularly visited the town for their spa treatments and vacations.
The town is still attracting visitors as it offers a wide range of activities together with peaceful settings, a spa resort, quality hotels and restaurants.
We had booked into Hôtel Le Normandie Bagnoles de l’Orne, but before we enjoyed their hospitality it was our turn to recharge our batteries.
At the B’O Resort I slipped into the provided beige dressing gown and white throw-away flip-flops, and made my way to the waiting area. Surrounded by other clientele similarly dressed as if it was bath time, I anxiously wondered what exactly ‘multi – sensoriel à la pomme treatment’ entailed. I hoped it wasn’t too specialised or came with specific instructions as my command of the French language is somewhat limited.
I need not have worried as the delightful masseur simply asked which muscle group needed treatment. I pointed to my legs and mumbled something in pigeon French and waited for the pain to start. I had expected the massage to be similar to the sports treatments I’m used to, but it turned out to be a gentle relaxing massage. I had difficulty in stopping myself from giggling when she massaged my feet and from nodding off when she massaged my legs. I’m still not sure where the ‘sensoriel à la pomme’ bit came into it!
Nonetheless, it was a treat to be pampered and I left the resort feeling stress-free and at peace with the world! The day was rounded off by yet another superb four course meal in elegant surroundings. It was incredible to think we had been in France less than 48 hours, as it seemed so much longer.
I retired to bed looking forward to our last day discovering some of the delights the department of Manche and the Tour de Manche cycleway has to offer.
Keith travelled to France with Brittany Ferries
Bike hire was provided by Loc-Velo
Bike transfer/support was provided by Petite Reine
Further Information can be found at: Normandy Tourism