La Velo Francette is a 650 km cycle route from the Normandy coast to La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast of France. It’s a relatively recent addition to the growing number of French cycle tourism routes. La Velo is about 50% traffic-free, has beautiful river scenery, takes you past cider orchards, vineyards and passes through classic French villages and small towns. The real bonus of a route like this is that it takes you on the quiet back lanes through areas of France that you otherwise probably wouldn’t discover.
The route begins on the Normandy coast and there couldn’t be an easier start – the first signs for La Velo Francette start as you leave the ferry terminal at Ouistreham (the arrival port for the Portsmouth – Caen ferry). Once out of the port the route follows the canal to Caen – this is a wide commercial canal with good towpaths. The mediaeval city centre of Caen is skirted and you then follow a good rail trail along the Orne Valley as far as Clercy. The next section takes you through the so called Normandy Alps – very pleasant riding through undulating country and small towns but with cols of 200 m not 2000 m, the ‘alps’ bit is more of a marketing invention than reality!
At Domfront the Velo Francette crosses another of the velo tourisme routes – the Veloscenie, which links Paris to Mont Saint Michel and could provide a circular route if you want to head back to the Normandy coast
From Mayenne the route follows the Mayenne river for the next 180 km. This is one of the most enjoyable parts of the whole route, as the hard-packed gravel track follows the twists and turns of the river, which is canalised in part and has imposing mills on its banks, lock keepers cottages, the occasional riverside cafe, waterfront villages and small towns.
Although the riding is easy on this section it’s very varied, often cutting through hilly country, sometimes wooded, sometimes following narrow stretches of the river, at other times the river is wide with distant views of old chateaux.
All along the river there are little towns and villages with narrow streets and attractive waterfronts – and cafes in old lock keepers’ cottages.
At the impressive city of Angers the Mayenne river joins the Loire and the route now follows the Loire for about 60 km to Saumur. The Loire at this point is wide and gently flowing. There’s no continual riverside track as before so you’re following a mixture of lanes and occasional cycle paths.
After Saumur the route follows another river – the Thouet. Heading south from Saumur broadly following the Thouet valley the terrain becomes more undulating with some steeper climbs, as the route continues to follow the river passing through some attractive small towns on the way.
The final section of the route from Niort to La Rochelle is quite different from the preceding few hundred kilometres as it traverses the Marais Poitevin marshland. Canals and countryside are intertwined and the route for the most part follows the canal network before arriving in the historic port of La Rochelle.
Although it’s it end of one great ride, it’s also the junction with the La Velodyssee – another of the velo tourisme routes – which you can follow south to the Spanish border or head north to the Brittany coast – about another 600 km in either direction!
The Velo Francette website gives comprehensive information about the route, GPX downloads for each stage and details of accommodation. There’s a French language guidebook published by Chamina that seems to be sold in lots of tourist offices on the La Velo route. The route is fairly well signed but inevitably signs are lacking in some places.
The outward journey is easy – Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to Caen. Caen’s port is Ouistreham and the cycle route starts there.
Coming back by train from La Rochelle: it’s possible to get a train to Caen without going through Paris – it just needs a bit of searching on the SNCF website. Taking bikes on trains in France is fairly straightforward but you don’t seem to be able to book a bike space online, so you have to buy a ticket in person – see this SNCF information page for info on taking bikes on French trains . Intercity trains have 6 bike spaces per train – reserve a space when booking a ticket. Regional trains (called TER) don’t need a bike reservation and are fairly relaxed about the number of bikes carried.
Lots of campsites along the route – listed in the La Velo website and in the guidebook. As always in France there also are other campsites that are not always listed.