This week we’re heading into the deep valleys of southwest France. Though we’re only 350km or so north of Bilbao, the first in this series on lesser-known cycling destinations, you’re in for a very different experience. With fine wine, wonderful food and more than a little history, a week or so lost among the vineyards and valleys here provides a French-coated treat for the senses, not to mention some rather agreeable cycling.
The gateway to this region is the grand old city of Bordeaux. Positively overflowing with history and art, its 362 monuments historique, some dating back to Roman times, put it second only to Paris as the country’s architectural and cultural treasure. The airport sits just west of the city and as you’ll be passing through, towards the Lot and Garonne valleys, it’s well worth heading into the centre for a day or so before you jump on your bikes.
Bordeaux’s dining scene is rightly famous. Being a port city it offers multiple delicacies, whether that’s locally grown Asperges du Blayais (asparagus from Blaye region), boeuf Bazadais (beef raised near Bazas) or the stupendously moreish Noisettines du Médoc – roasted hazelnuts rolled in sugar. Of course there are also specialities such as Foie Gras and Confit de Canard, but keep in mind you’re going to ride your bike over the next few days before you tuck in to too many platefuls.
The river Garonne begins its almost 600km journey from high up in the Spanish Pyrenees, passing Toulouse and Agen as it meanders northwest. By the time it meets up with the Lot southeast of Bordeaux it’s a wide and lazy beast. Consequently, this stretch of the Garonne valley is wide and offers gentle cycling over rolling fields through some of the finest wine country in the world. Head from Bordeaux towards the small town of Marmande and toast the day with a glass of wine from the nearby Entre-Deux-Mers region, the largest in the area.
From Marmande head east along the stunning river Lot. Surrounded by steep-sided valley walls and picturesque villages perched high up among the rocks, the Lot winds its way through some spectacular scenery. Offering plenty for the camera crews each year in the Tour de France, these are the views we’re treated to while the pros zoom through the region. Fortunately,we’re on a slower schedule, so take in a rest stop at Cahors and try some of the deep red wine and daube de boeuf (beef stew) for which the area is renowned.
This region has been inhabited for a long, long time. The paintings and footprints discovered deep in the Pech Merle caves date from up to 25,000 years ago, and as you ride along past the medieval villages of Puy l’Eveque and Saint-Cirq-Lapopie you’ll feel like you’ve travelled back in time.
By now you’re deep within the Causses du Quercy Regional Natural Park. Criss-crossed with quiet lanes and even quieter villages, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more idyllic place to ride your bike. Just remember to stock up each morning, there’s precious little around here. You can ride between the larger towns of Cajarc, Sauliac-sur-Célé, Saint-Sulpice as far north as the spectacular cliff top village of Rocamadour without seeing another soul, or open shop, for hours on end.
Rocamadour itself is a must-see. As you sweep around the final bend in the densely forested ride north, you’ll be presented with a view of a village seemingly hewn from the rock itself. It’s a popular tourist destination, but fortunately the cars and buses are all parked away from the centre, where only pedestrians and cyclists are permitted along its narrow lanes. Well, to be more precise, its narrow lane – there’s really only one.
Stay here for the evening, enjoy some cassoulet in one of the numerous restaurants and congratulate yourself on finding a little slice of heaven.
North of Rocamadour you’ll find the mighty Dordogne cutting westwards to the Gironde estuary, north of Bordeaux. Winding your lazy way along it, stopping as often as you like for a glass or two at famous châteaux as you go, is one mighty fine way to travel.
They’ve been perfecting wine in these parts since the Romans arrived, so they certainly know how to make a good drop. Saint-Émilion is well worth a stopover, offering the chance to taste the famed local vintage among the Romanesque churches and ruins of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Ride as far as Blaye (home to the famous asparagus mentioned above) from where you can take a 30-minute ferry ride across to Lamarque in the Médoc. This offers you a much nicer route back to Bordeaux, along quiet country lanes on the flat peninsula. Soon enough you’ll join up with the network of signed cycle paths that will deliver you back to the city waterfront before you know it.
How to get there
Bordeaux-Mérignac airport provides plenty of options for the traveller from all parts of the UK – EasyJet and Ryanair along with BA and Air France offer direct flights. There is no train link to the city, but the 30’Direct shuttle bus runs throughout the day from outside Hall B of the airport, and they’re more than happy to put your bike box in the luggage compartment.
It takes 30 minutes (or over an hour if you arrive in the evening rush hour) to get to the central Saint Jean train station in Bordeaux. There are plenty of low-cost hotels (and some very expensive ones) close by here, so our advice is to book one of these for a night or two, stash your bike bags for the week and return there after your trip.
From Saint Jean into the centre of town is around a 30-minute walk, or a 5-minute ride on the excellent tram system.
One final word of advice. If you decide to take the train east out of town to avoid the suburban sprawl, check that the train accepts bikes. Not all do, and even then sometimes only in a bag or a case. Really though, the route out of town is no trouble and within an hour or so you’ll find yourself in quiet countryside.
Where to stay
This part of France is used to visitors, being one of its most popular tourist destinations. Bordeaux has hotels to suit all budgets, and whatever accommodation you’re looking for, from the bigger towns to the tiny one-horse hamlets through which you’re likely to ride, the Logis website has plenty of options. Almost everywhere you stop is likely to offer half-board accommodation, so all you need to do is plan your overnight stops, ride between them and try not to eat too much when you arrive.
You’ll rightly be getting the impression that, while the cycling in these parts is wonderful, the food and drink is probably even better – you’ll certainly not go hungry. It’s one of the few cycling trips where it’s possible to return heavier that when you arrived if you allow yourself to overindulge.