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Cycle touring in France

Caroline - one of Cicerone's designers headed off to explore central France by bike in the summer of 2007.

Find out what she thought of the trip:

For some years we’d planned a cycling trip to the Massif Central region of France but had never quite got round to it. Somewhere else always stole our attention. However in June 2007 we finally got organised and set off with Ryan Air from Liverpool to Limoges for 3 blissful weeks of exploration. We had a handful of maps, minimal kit and a vague idea of where we wanted to head to.

It’s always a gamble how to pack the bikes and what different airport check-ins will accept. Having generally used boxes (which involve removing wheels and lots of faff) we tried large plastic bags from the CTC (Cycle Touring Club) and simply padded the bikes’ tender bits, leaving the wheels on. It was much quicker but annoyingly the bikes were too big to fit through the security scanning machine at Liverpool so we had to unpack them for security swiping. Whilst grappling with bubblewrap and packing tape, two cyclists pedalled in, removed their panniers, adjusted their bikes for the plane and strolled through the gate. An infinitely simpler technique – so that’s what we did on the way home.

Limoges airport is great – small, relaxed and virtually rural. We were soon cycling off into the sunset to find our pre-booked B&B 8km west at Veyrac, on the road to Oradour-sur-Glane, which was delightful. We booked the last night of the trip with them too allowing a leisurely cycle back to the airport in time for our morning flight.

Avoiding Limoges the next morning involved a route north on leafy lanes climbing gently into the Monts de Blond, and then west past Lac de St Pardoux, and into the Monts D’Ambazac. From there our route continued east over the next day through quiet rolling farmland, across the river Vienne towards Lac de Vassiviere and the Millevache Plateau - a wild, windswept upland area (820m/approx. 2500ft), sparsely populated and very quiet.

Approaching the Parc des Volcans we had breathtaking views of its distinctive pointy mountains (volcanic plugs or Puys). This is the source of the River Dordogne, which rises on the slopes of the Puy de Sancy, at 1885m the highest point in the Massif Central, just above the little town of Le Mont-Dore. Inspired, we crossed the Col de Croix de St Robert (1450m) and had our first taste of a high mountain pass. Flowers, birds, fields of cows, warm breezes and tantalising views of the Puy de Sancy. Quiet roads, great cycling and a wonderful descent into Murol where the weather changed rapidly and we had to shelter from a furious thunderstorm. This was repeated in Besse-en-Chandesse, and later in the day at tiny Picherade where we fortunately found shelter in an old family run hotel where the food and hospitality was nearly overwhelming and the church tower was damaged by lightning!

Unsure what the weather would do and anxious to avoid being caught out in the storms, we modified our route and zigzagged west off the plateau to Bort les Orgues and then east back up towards the Cantal. Too much traffic and too many people! Soon regained height and cycled onward and upward in the evening searching for somewhere nice (and open!) to stay. Ended up in Allanches, at 1000m in the Monts de Cezallier, which are more like high rolling mountains. Beautifully quiet, friendly, interesting. A great base for mountain bikers as new routes are being developed.

On to our most favourite area – the Monts du Cantal and Puy Mary (1787m). Like a splayed hand with ridges, valleys and approach roads from all directions. Great playground for cyclists and walkers. Approached down the northern valley via Cheylade, Le Claux up the Col de Serre and finally the Pas de Peyrol. Stupendous views and choice over descent route. We headed swiftly down the ridge south west to Salers, a fascinating but very touristy town.

Had a day battling cols as we travelled against the grain of Puy Mary’s ridges across the Col St Georges, Col de Legal, lunch at Mandailles and up the steepest road in all of France to the Col de Portus and Vic sur Cere.

Headed south across the Gorges de la Truyere towards the small spa town of Chaudes Aigues and then the Monts d’Aubrac (1000m plus) which was another blissfully quiet, upland plateau with little to disturb it but the grazing cattle and the odd pilgrim heading for Santiago de Compostela.

Travelling further south, had to drop off this high plateau to the river at La Canourgue, and then climb again onto the Causses de Sauveterre (Parc Naturel de Grands Causses) to Point Sublime, a stupendous vantage point looking down into the deep Gorges du Tarn. Freewheeled down the steepest straight descent into the gorge at La Malene, and into a different world – that of the English tourist! It was instantaneous as was the temperature change. A shock to see people en masse again. Eric endured quiet couple of hours of downhill girly cycling before turning off at the Gorges de la Jonte, La Rozier, to head up the spectacular narrow hairpins of the Corniche du Causse Noir, and the Foret Dom du Causse Noir towards Millau.

We were impatient for views of the famous Viaduc de Millau and were rewarded with a great view of it before dropping down to the City. Gasps of amazement were soon tenfold when we realised we were looking at the wrong viaduct which was a tiny fraction of the true bridge. The real thing is truly incredible, especially when viewed from below the pillars, and articulated lorries look like minaitures. Designed by the civil engineer Michel Virlogeux, it is the tallest vehicular bridge in the world, with one mast's summit at 343m (1,125ft) — slightly taller than the Eiffel Tower and only 38m (125 ft) shorter than the Empire State Building. Awesome!

Hard route decision from here: do we head south or return north? Set our course for north to visit historic Conques, on the pilgrim route, and the Dordogne. Conques was very interesting although a honeypot tourist place. Well worth a visit for a step back in time.

Our final week took us through the Dordogne and Perigieux which were mildly disappointing, partly because of the terrain but mostly as a rather more busy and less interesting comparison to the visual excitement and peaceful unspoilt nature of the Auvergne. In retrospect we should have returned to the Parc des Volcans and explored some more. Live and learn! All very enjoyable and interesting nonetheless.

Accommodation was generally small hotels, auberges or camping and was a magical mystery tour of old fashioned French hospitality in quiet, unspoilt villages.

Regards, Caroline Draper

Related Cicerone guidebooks:

Cycle Touring in France
Cycling in the French Alps

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