Our first introduction came in November 2006 as we headed south from Strasbourg along the eastern edge of the country via Lyon and Narbonne before crossing into Spain. On our way back through Europe in Spring 2007 we crossed into France on the western side taking in the pilgrim town of Saint Jean Pied de Port, then going north nearly as far as Bordeaux and turning east towards the Ardeche. We left by crossing the Alps into Italy.
We both speak French and had been to France several times before taking up bicycle touring so this was an easy country for us to tour in and one where we felt at ease. You could have some language difficulties as an English-only speaker but French is not so hard to learn and there are many free lessons online. Try and get at least the basics down before you go and consider carrying a letter in French (get a friend to help you translate it) to explain your journey to locals. They will be curious to know about you!
For a nice overview on what to expect from cycle touring in France, read ‘French Lessons Learned’ by Ray, a bike tourist who also runs the Bike Touring Tips website.
Our most memorable part of the journey was the whole area around Millau and the Tarn Gorges – absolutely beautiful and the main road running through the gorges is not as hard as you might expect! If you cycle towards Millau then it’s mostly downhill. In Millau, stop to see the famous viaduct (you can’t ride over it) and then climb a twisty road nearby to get a view of the bridge. Strasbourg is another favourite for its tarte flambée – Alsatian pizza – and great beers. Alsace has many picturesque villages to cycle through. The Ardeche region is also beautiful.
On the food side, French bakeries are a delight for the hungry cyclist and, in contrast to many shops, they are open on Sunday mornings and at odd hours so when all is lost you can usually find a chocolate croissant, known as a pain au chocolat, or baguette to save you! Of course wine is a highlight in France and there are endless opportunities to try the product of local vineyards. You’ll often come across weekend farmers markets and supermarkets are everywhere. If you’re cooking your own food, there are many good value prepared things to be found in supermarkets like tins of cassoulet – beans stewed with meat – and prepared soups.
France is a very bike-friendly country. We had no problem with the road condition. Like in any country, rural roads can be slightly bumpy but overall they were in good shape.
We found some fantastic cycle paths and French drivers tend to be very courteous towards cyclists. You can find detailed road atlases in any bookstore. Look for roads classified as ‘B’ or lower as they will be the quietest.
If we had one complaint, it was that internet access was nearly impossible to obtain and expensive when it did appear. In theory you may be able to get cheaper or free access at “points jeunes” or “mediatheques” but they have restricted hours. Only once, as we were leaving the country, did we find free access in a tourist bureau. Spain and Portugal were far better at letting visitors get online.
Things change quickly though and in 2010 we received this comment from a cyclist:
“We never really found an internet cafe during our tour in France (but then again we never looked for one) but found that if one had a laptop/wireless device, internet access was readily available at all the McDonald’s. We would just sit in their terraces and type for hours. Plus, unlike in many other neighbouring european countries, you don’t need an SMS code.” –Inhee
Shop hours can be frustrating too. Many shops are closed on Monday as well as Sunday and smaller supermarkets will shut for at least three hours from midday.
Watch out as well if you head into rural areas. They can be very rural indeed and we were caught out a couple times when we expected small shops in villages but found nothing to fill our panniers for kilometers on end! Public fountains are less common than in southern Europe so we sometimes had to work to find water. Cemeteries are a good place to look.
ACCOMMODATION AND BUDGET
French campgrounds are reasonably priced. We generally paid between €10-12 per night at privately run sites and there are a few municipally run campgrounds which, like their Portugese counterparts, are simple but good value. Wild camping is possible but we didn’t see so many obvious places to pitch our tent as we did in Portugal or Spain and we got the feeling that it was slightly more disapproved of by the general public. You may have to look longer than normal for a well hidden spot.
We set a budget of €25 per day in Europe and had to work to keep to that budget in France. In particular we felt food was more expensive than in Spain or Portugal. We certainly had no room for meals out and cut out morning coffees, which we had been enjoying regularly in southern Europe. If you are thinking of touring Europe on a budget, France might be the country to arranging some WWOOFing to allow you to really get to know an area while keeping costs down.
If you want to know more about cycling in France, the Freewheeling France website is definitely worth checking out.