Cycling France’s Brittany and Normandy coasts: Top 10 highlights

Along the V4 cycling route in Brittany, France

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.

Morlaix, Brittany

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.

Morlaix viaduct and Eglise St-Melaine

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. Read more about the Pink Granite Coast.

Along the GR34 walking path on Brittany’s Pink Granite Coast

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. Read more about the Cap’Erquy.

Plage de Lourtuais, Cap d’Erquy

Saint-Malo, Brittany

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. Read more about Saint-Malo.

Historic walled city of Saint-Malo

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. Read more about Cancale.

Oysters and wine on the Cancale pier

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. Read more about Mont-Saint-Michel.

The approach to Mont-Saint-Michel

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. Read more about the D-Day Beaches.

A memorial above the town of Arromanches-les-Bains and Gold Beach

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.

Medieval festival in Merville-Franceville

Honfleur, Normandy

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. Read more about Honfleur.

Honfleur’s vieux bassin

Étretat, Normandy

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. Read more about Étretat.

The white cliffs of Étretat, Normandy

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).

Categories: Biking, France | Tags: , , , , | 39 Comments

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39 thoughts on “Cycling France’s Brittany and Normandy coasts: Top 10 highlights

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  4. Pingback: Caroline Helbig – Cycling France’s Brittany and Normandy coasts: Top 10 highlights – FitandFunNow.com

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  6. Wow! What a scenic trip! I can’t get my eyes off the white cliffs of Étretat 🙂 The harbour of Honfleur looks interesting as well. It reminds me of Copenhagen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Len, the white cliffs of Étretat just blew me away (literally too). It was not originally on our itinerary but after seeing photos I had to visit. You should go.

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  7. Pingback: Cycling in Brittany: The V4 from Morlaix to Mont-Saint-Michel | Writes of Passage

  8. Oh my gosh, the Pink Granite Coast looks amazing. Looking forward to your future posts. It seems like it must have been an amazing trip.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve been spoiled with seeing stunning coastal areas in different parts of the world and this one is definitely up there in terms of beauty. More posts will be coming…life has got in the way of my blog.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Your pictures are magnificent and I am happy to enjoy them from the comfort of a hotel room desk rather than on a bicycle …at least to the extent that you both traveled. But I do seriously envy your approaching Mont-Saint-Michel by cycle. What a moment that must have been.

    I did have the good fortune to sail to Honfleur (and Cherbourg, Caen, Le Havre, and Guernsey) while in Yacht-Master School and it was one of the highlights of my sailing adventure. I was supposed to sail to Brittany as well, but my co-student and I got the day wrong and missed the boat’s departure by one day
    …I guess I will have to go back. You have certainly given me a number of reasons to return here,

    I need some landscape shooting lessons from you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • How cool that you were in these places for Yacht Master School! I can imagine that the topography, weather and busy ports must have been a good challenge and learning experience. Funny story about getting the day wrong…you will absolutely have to go back. I’m keen to explore more of the Brittany coast, especially around Crozon and the Gulf of Morbihan.
      I highly recommend doing the cycling approach to Mont-Saint-Michel…it was a dream and such a wonderfully peaceful contrast to the busy site itself.

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  10. We’ve been lucky enough to see that part of France, but not as fortunate as you to do it on two wheels! Like your German bike trip, this one entices me mightily. I waver on whether I will enjoy Jeff’s eventual retirement, but with options like this on the table once he is more free, I am leaning toward “like!”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, retirement can be a bit of an adjustment to say the least. I’ve worked from home for many years (part-time) and when Mike retired, I was not amused with constantly having him in “my space”. Luckily, we have both found our groove. He’s now out of the house more than ever with a bunch of activities that keep him happy. The flexibility of retirement has been great for our travels, and we really enjoy being able to get away during non-peak times and for longer periods.
      Our Normandy/Brittany bike trip was more work than our Germany trip from a logistics perspective, but we totally loved it. I think I’ve mentioned to you before that these bike trips suit us quite well. We both like travel with an exercise/active component, but Mike is not as keen on hiking as I am. It’s just an awesome way to immerse oneself in a new place (if slow travel is your thing).

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  11. That’s an impressive distance that you cycled. Sounds like a great way to explore along the coastline. Looks like you had lovely weather from your pictures.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The distance sounds impressive but we had lots of time, only cycled about 45km/day, and took days off from riding. It’s not a place you want to rush as there’s so much to see. We had really nice weather through most of September with only a bit of rain that happened to fall at night or coincide with our non-cycling days.. lucky!

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  12. Every time you post stories from your cycling trips, I immediately think of my parents and their penchant for going places by bicycle. Unfortunately, my father had a minor accident a few months ago and he had to take a break from cycling for a while. The good news is now he’s back on his beloved bicycle although he’s not quite ready yet for any long trips like he used to do. It would be nice to one day take them to this part of France, although arranging the logistics from Indonesia could probably be quite a challenge. Such a lovely post from a lovely corner of France, Caroline!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad your dad has recovered from his accident and is back on his bike. This is a wonderful little part of France and I’m sure you and your parents would love it. However, this trip definitely required more planning than our bike trip to Germany the year before. Also, most of the riding this time was on streets rather than dedicated bike paths (and it was hillier). We knew all this going into it, and really enjoyed most of the cycling. There are companies that provide the logistics support in Normandy/Brittany, but even with this I’d still recommend a German Rhine or Moselle trip as a first European cycling trip with your parents.

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  13. Incredible beauty. Great post! Nothing like being on a bike for this adventure! WOW!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Lovely to see your highlights of your bike trip, which you had mentioned to us while in Sri Lanka. Some of the places you highlight, we have had the pleasure of being in…. particularly love the slate tiles of Honfleur, always charming but never more than under a light drizzle when the tiles get shiny and reflect all the yellow lights.

    Ben’s family has been going to the Honfleur / Deauville region forever, or at least since 1945 when his grandparents made it their weekend retreat from their busy Parisian lives. Eventually his grandmother moved there full time and we both visited her when she was in her eighties. Did you get to Deauville?

    The wild beaches are magnificent… and your photos really do them justice. What we both particularly like about Brittany and Normandy, aside from the oysters, mussels and cider, is the high quality of the open air markets and the architecture of course of all the small villages that you no doubt cycled through. Look forward to seeing more of your trip. What a good travel year you had in 2019. Sri Lanka, Maldives and France ~ hard to beat in 2020 🙂

    Peta

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can totally see how Honfleur would have been a lovely place for Ben’s grandparents to get a break from busy Paris. Of course it remains well loved by Parisians.Unfortunately we didn’t make it to Deauville. Long story, but due to a busy stretch of coastal road and inability to find a place to stay, we opted to go inland before heading back up to Honfleur. Instead, we saw more lovely French countryside and pretty villages. Hopefully we will get back to this region as there is so much we’d still like to see…I think you’ve heard me say this about a lot of places!
      Yes, we loved stumbling upon the fabulous markets where we stocked up on cheese, meats, bread and fruit for our picnics.

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  15. How fabulous, Caroline! Something I won’t be doing so I’ll experience it vicariously through you.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. The coastline is absolutely stunning. Our old images of the Normandy invasion and WWII are in black and white and don’t capture the beauty of the French beaches, South Pacific islands, or European cities. It is surreal that places of such beauty were also the site of unimaginable violence.

    On a lighter note, I’m excited to read about the logistics of your trip. Not sure I’d be up for such a long bike ride, but exploring Europe by bike sounds wonderful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff, I had those same thoughts as we were cycling. Being on a bike provides lots of time for contemplation—a very useful thing in a place like Normandy. As I mentioned in my post, it was hard to reconcile the WWII horrors with the peaceful coastal landscape we experienced. I highly recommend seeing this area with your own eyes and on a bike. You can do shorter trips than ours, or just rent bikes for a day at different locations. Our Germany cycle route, the year before, had much flatter terrain and easier logistics…a good first trip. If you ever need more info, don’t hesitate to contact me.

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  17. Wow, what a beautiful trip! I especially love those white cliffs. I can’t to read more about the specifics of each destination!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. What a wonderful part of France. I love the red granite, the tall white cliffs and the gorgeous Plage de Lourtuais. Your long approach to Mont-Saint-Michel sounds wonderful and I love the perfect harbor town Honfleur. What a great trip!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was a wonderful trip. We’ve now done two independent cycling trips in Europe and love this way of slow travel. The combination of getting exercise, spectacular sights, and eating really good (rich) food has us hooked. This trip too had a nice mix of nature and culture.

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  19. This sounds like an idyllic journey. I’d love to see more of France!
    Alison

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  20. Wow, this sounds like a proper cycling adventure! It’s one of the best ways to explore the world because everything looks absolutely different when you are on the bike. We run out of time and never made it to Brittany’s Pink Granite Coast while exploring the region, I guess I can easily use it as an excuse to go back one day 😀 Can’t wait to read more about your cycling trip around France. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 😀 Aiva

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree Aiva, one does see the world differently from a bike. We’ve really getting hooked on this slow travel and longer immersion in a region. Germany and France (and I’m sure many other countries in Europe) are so well-set-up for cycling. If you get back to Brittany make sure you go to Cap d’Erquy as well (I liked it as much, maybe more than the Pink Granite Coast).

      Liked by 1 person

  21. How absolutely divine. I cannot think of a better way to see this splendid coastline.

    Liked by 1 person

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