I have disembarked from the ferry at Ouistreham and driven straight through Normandy on the family’s annual pilgrimage to the sun, countless times. And each time we speed past road signs pointing the way to D – Day beaches, World War II museums, the Pegasus Bridge, the historic city of Caen (home to William the Conqueror) and admire the ever changing picturesque rural scenery, I make yet another promise to make the region famous for its cider and Calvados brandy the destination for a change.
I also grow very envious of the hordes of cyclists who join us on the crossing, enjoying their own pedal powered adventure. So, when I had the opportunity to join a three – day press trip using eBikes to discover some of the delights of the region, and to sample three cycleways, I jumped at the chance.
Fran, from Atout France, the French Tourism Development Agency, headed up our small gang of reporters, and had booked us on the overnight Brittany Ferry from Portsmouth to Ouistreham. Perfect to make the best use of our short visit. We arrived fresh from our overnight slumber, taken in the bijou but comfortable cabins at 06:45 hrs, and headed straight off to collect our bikes provided by Lou Vélo.
We would be exploring three of Normandy’s departments via three different designated cycle routes or greenways;
Hugo, from Petite Reine Normandie met us at the sea front Thalazur Hotel, a very short distance from the port and the official starting point of the Vélo Francette. After a hearty breakfast we were on our way cruising on cycle paths that wound their way past the port, through the fish market where stall holders were setting out the day’s catch, and onto the greenway that ran alongside the Caen canal.
We stopped momentarily to watch the age – old sight of fishermen repairing their nets, before heading out towards Caen and our first stop at the famous Pegasus Bridge just a few kilometres away.
Short history lesson No. 1
At 00:16 hrs on the 6th June 1944 part of the British 6th Airborne Division began the assault of the Bénouville Bridge, the first action of the D – Day landings. The taking of the bridge intact was vital to secure a route east for forces landing on Sword beach and to prevent German armoured divisions from attacking the landings on the Normandy beaches.
Failure would also have resulted in the 6th Airborne Division being cut – off from the Allied army.
Horsa gliders that had been towed across the channel by Halifax bomber aircraft brought the infantry soldiers from the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, commanded by Major John Howard. The glider pilots only used compasses and stopwatches to navigate, and incredibly, two landed just yards from the bridge, their landing sites now clearly marked by memorial stones.
After heavy fighting and just ten minutes after the first glider landed, the bridge was secured and the first French house liberated. Unfortunately, the action also resulted in one of the first casualties of D – Day; Lieutenant Den Brotheridge. The Lieutenant was killed as he made a grenade attack on the second machine gun position.
However, that was not the end of the mission as the bridge had to be defended until the airborne forces were relieved by commandos and infantry that advanced from the beaches.
Within hours of the bridge being secured, the Bénouville bridge was renamed ‘Pegasus’ in honour of the Parachute Regiment’s distinctive flying horse emblem. It has been known as Pegasus Bridge ever since and forever will be.
We were introduced to the chief curator Mark Worthington who gave us a guided tour of the Memorial Pegasus Museum. (Guided tours are available to all visitors).
Mark showed us the display case containing Major John Howard’s helmet and other artefacts. The Major’s helmet had been hit by a bullet but miraculously the bullet just skimmed his head. The items have been donated by the Major’s family and indeed all other exhibits have been donated by either family or members of the public. The museum in my opinion, has a unique atmosphere about it with so many donated genuine articles and passionate guides that retell stories told by veterans that regularly visited the museum.
Although, as far as I know, no one that works at the museum is related or connected to any veterans that liberated the bridge, there is a ‘family feel’ about the place.
The original bridge now stands in pride of place within the grounds of the museum after it was replaced in 1994.
Well worth a visit.
Although we all would have liked to have stayed longer, we had to hit the road or more precisely the Vélo Francette.
The cycle route or greenway opened in 2015 and stretches 630 km from Ouistreham to La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast. It is also known as route V43 and is mainly off road providing traffic free riding. Ideal for hybrid or touring bikes, and indeed for eBikes.
We had a selection of different manufacturers of eBikes. Mine was a Moustache with a Bosch motor and battery and ten speed internal hub gears. Moustache is a French manufacturer that only make eBikes powered by Bosch technology as compared to normal bike manufacturers that also make a small selection of eBikes. A nice touch is the use of a standard Bosch battery, therefore giving the user more options on long journeys. For example, batteries can be swapped from other Bosch powered bikes if necessary. The ‘e’ controls were very similar on all our bikes; eco – a gentle electric assisted help, feeling as if you had a tail wind behind you, sport and tour which gave more of punch, and best of all ‘turbo’!
I loved the turbo button. I’m sure if I was 12 years old again I would have flattened the battery within a couple of hours. I found if you put the bike in a high gear, selected turbo and put a little effort in turning the pedals, the bike took off like a rocket. Great fun. Sadly, to comply with eBike rules the electric motor cut out at 28 kph, apparently if it didn’t the bike would have been classed as an electric scooter.
We continued to follow the canal into Caen and to lunch at La Table des Matières, a charming cycle friendly restaurant located in the new impressive library built in the shape of a cross. Normally I would have been rather self conscious of walking into a restaurant after a bike journey, dripping with sweat and breathing rather heavily. But thanks to the eBike, I walked in as if I had just stepped out of a taxi for my lunch date. Notwithstanding the faux pas of wearing highly coloured figure hugging lycra!
Refuelled, we took part in a guided walk of Caen to discover what the historic city has to offer. We approached the city centre via the beautiful marina with the magnificent backdrop of the city’s skyline, and rather dramatically, approaching black clouds.
Short history lesson No. 2
William the Conqueror chose Caen to be his stronghold and governmental power base over his Duchy. A fortress, the Château de Caen, was built and is still standing today. Indeed, it is one of the best preserved medieval castles in existence. It houses two museums; a Fine Arts museum, and the museum of Normandy and also holds regular temporary exhibitions.
William married his 6th cousin Mathilda, much to the disapproval of the Catholic Church. In an effort of making atonement to the Church, William built an Abbey for men, Abbaye aux Hommes and Mathilda one for women, Abbaye aux Dames. Both buildings have survived and are the resting place for each of their founders. Additionally, the Abbaye aux Hommes serves as a wedding venue and the town hall is in the attached monastic building.
During modern times, Caen played a vital role during the Battle of Normandy. The original D – Day plan was to liberate the city on the same day as the landings. Unfortunately, the British Corps consisting of British and Canadian soldiers were unable to reach Caen until 9th July. Heavy bombing pursued and hundreds of the city’s population sought shelter in the Abbaye aux Homme. Even though the allies had been informed about the French civilians sheltering in the Abbaye, and attacks avoided the buildings, 2,000 inhabitants were killed in the raids and 70% of the city was also destroyed.
During the rebuilding of the city, the famous limestone from the region was used for some of the reconstruction. However, the juxtaposition of modern day concrete structures sitting next to medieval and ancient buildings can often be seen. The city’s architecture reminded me very much of that seen in Coventry, one of England’s medieval cities that suffered a similar fate.
Interestingly, once William became King of England in 1066, Caen stone was exported to build structures such as the Tower of London.
Another interesting fact we learnt on our walk – about, was that the very first university in France was built in Caen by the 1st Duke of Bedford, John Lancaster in 1432 when the city was under English control.
In a cruel twist of fate, the British also destroyed the university 500 years later in the bombing raids of July 1944.
We were able to visit the impressive gothic inspired Abbaye aux Homme, which also served as an escape for us from a heavy down pour. Standing at the foot of William’s tomb, it was incredible to think a character I had heard so much about during dry history lessons at school was just a few feet away from me. Or at least that was what I thought before being informed that during the French Revolution, the Conqueror’s bones were scattered and all that remains is his left femur. You can imagine my disappointment.
Back on our power assisted bikes we twisted our way through the rush hour traffic and out of the city to pick up the Vélo Francette and headed for the hills, literally.
Our overnight stop was the Logis Hôtel au Site Normand, located in the lovely small town of Clécy, in the area known as Suisse Normande. The name comes from the hilly terrain with its rugged rocky outcrops and gorges carved by the River Orne and its tributaries.
As soon as we turned off the magnificent smooth and flat velvet – like tarmac of route V43, we hit the hills and the eBikes came into their own. I hit the ‘Tour’ button and immediately felt the benefit of the Bosch motor kicking in. The short steep inclines were conquered with ease.
Another benefit of not struggling up the challenging gradients, was the ability to look around and take in the gorgeous scenery of the rolling countryside. The green and undulating landscape was a marked contrast to the flat riding we had enjoyed all day, but thanks to our battery powered bikes, what would have been a testing end to the day, was a sheer delight.
We checked into our overnight stop and as our bikes recharged, we enjoyed an absolutely gorgeous meal. Each course had ingredients from the area, complimented by freshly baked bread and fabulous wine. A lovely end to a lovely day.
Look out for Part II; Plat Principle: Department of Orne, via the La Véloscenic.
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