Last September, Mike and I cycled in coastal Brittany and Normandy. Our 732 km (455 mile) independent journey took us to charming French towns, pink-granite seascapes, iconic monuments and World War II battlegrounds. We feasted on huîtres (oysters) and moules-frites (mussels and fries) washed down with wine and cider. Except for a few killer hills, and one day of route-finding mayhem, it was a marvellous 3 1/2 weeks of slow travel. In future posts, I’ll provide details on logistics, but for now let me entice you with my top 10 highlights.
The places mentioned below are in order of our journey from west to east—cycling from Morlaix in Brittany to Étretat in Normandy, mostly along the V4, part of the EuroVelo 4 long distance cycle route. You can see where places are located on the map at the end of the post.
I usually have some apprehension at the start of a new travel adventure, but when we arrived with our bikes in Morlaix (a 3-hour train ride from Paris) my stresses abated. While Morlaix’s giant viaduct and flamboyant Gothic church are epic sights, the town itself is small and has an easy-going vibe. We spent the afternoon roaming its old streets, catching the views from the viaduct’s pedestrian access level, and scoping out the cycling signage that would lead us out of town the next day. It’s a lovely place and the perfect start for our cycling trip.
La Côte de Granite Rose, Brittany
The Pink Granite Coast is one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline I’ve ever seen. The best way to explore it is on foot, along part of the GR34 long distance walking trail (also called the Sentier de Douaniers). The stretch from Perros-Guirec to Ploumanac’h is only 4.5km but we spent an entire afternoon ambling along the rocky path, taking photos of the pink boulders, aquamarine ocean and scenic lighthouse.
Cap d’Erquy, Brittany
Brittany and Normandy are blessed with beautiful beaches (if a bit chilly). My favourite was Plage de Lourtuais, tucked away on the Cap d’Erquy. The area has been left in its natural state with no development. A series of relatively easy hiking trails meander along stunning heather-covered headlands that separate huge swaths of golden, empty beaches. The 7.5 km hike called Les Plages Sauvages (The Wild Beaches), accessed from the town of Erquy is not to be missed.
Once the haven for pirates, the historic walled city of Saint-Malo is one of Brittany’s top attractions. The city was heavily bombed during WWII and painstakingly rebuilt to its former glory over 12 years. The ramparts, the uniform stone masonry, the mighty church spires and the almost tropical-looking ocean surrounding the old city on three sides create an alluring sight. I had high expectations for Saint-Malo, and it did not disappoint.
Oysters on the Cancale pier, Brittany
Just east of Saint-Malo is “the oyster capital of Brittany”. Cancale is a picturesque town that has been cultivating oysters for hundreds of years. There’s nothing much finer than pedalling to its pier on a warm, sunny day, buying fresh oysters from one of many vendors and slurping them back with a nice glass of wine purchased from an adjacent wine truck. Now that’s civilized.
The bike trail to Mont-Saint-Michel, Normandy
The Gothic abbey soars to the heavens from its tiny tidal island. Mont-Saint-Michel, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of France’s most iconic monuments. It’s also very busy. While I enjoyed our visit to the Mont Saint-Michel (and highly recommend it despite the crowds) my favourite memory is our cycling approach. We stayed in the town of Pontorson, about 9 km away. From there, we rode a straight, flat cycling path with almost constant views of the Mont. The anticipation builds with each kilometre, as the majestic site gets larger and larger.
Slow travel at D-Day Beaches, Normandy
On one of our “rest days” we took a van tour from Bayeux to some of the major D-Day Beach sites. It was very informative, but difficult to process everything as we raced from place to place (it’s a huge area). Things started to sink in over the next few days, back on our bikes, as we slowly pedalled the lengths of the enormous beaches, stopping at the memorials, museums, decaying bunkers, and artistic displays—sobering reminders of the grizzly battles fought here in WWII and so incongruous with the perfect weather and bustling towns filled with tourists.
Car Races and Medieval Fairs, Normandy
We happened to be in the right place on September 21. The pretty town of Ouistreham was hosting a vintage car/motorbike race on its wide beach (the eastern end of historic Sword Beach). Just a few kilometres away in Merville-Franceville, we stumbled upon an enormous Medieval fair, officially called Dragons and Cider Festival. In both places, the locals totally embraced the festivities with amazing costumes and plenty of period-appropriate food and beverages. I love these unexpected highlights.
This old port city is about as pretty as they come. The vieux bassin (old inner harbour) is lined with tall, skinny buildings, squished together in a most enchanting scene. Workhorse fishing boats sit next to luxury yachts. Restaurants and cafes encircle the harbour. Upscale art galleries and eclectic jewelry and culinary shops line the cobblestone streets. There are lots of visitors, even in September, but Honfleur’s charm shines through.
The small town of Étretat overflows with visitors in summer, but it wasn’t bad when we were there on a fickle weather weekday in late September. During brief periods of brilliant blue sky, interspersed with heavy downpours, we walked on the trails above the cliffs that extend in both directions from the town. I understand why the white cliffs of Étretat feature prominently in the paintings of Claude Monet. They are simply stunning.
Coming up next…
In future posts, I’ll provide details of our route, accommodations, and day to day cycling routine. I’ll also do separate posts on some of the highlights introduced here, as well as others (it was tough limiting myself to ten).
If you’re interested in independent cycle touring in Europe…
I have nine posts about cycling in Germany’s Rhine, Moselle, and Deutsche Weinstrasse and France’s Alsace region. There’s also one on how to plan a do-it-yourself cycle trip (much of which applies to our experience in Brittany and Normandy).