Sightseeing by bike made easy in France
John Powell and his wife pedal past paludiers, cruise between castles and revel in royal romance on a cycling holiday in south-west France.
The shallow waters of the salt marsh shimmered in the late afternoon sun as a startled egret rose elegantly to the sky, leaving scarcely a ripple to mark its passage.
What the bird had been feeding on was a mystery as these lakes, criss-crossed by narrow strips of land, are the drying beds for the sea water which flows back and forth on each tide.
Small fish, clearly the attraction for the egrets, must be washed in as well, but as the water evaporates under the hot summer sun, the salinity levels rise, making life impossible for most creatures.
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In time the water dries up, leaving the sea salt crystals – the fleur de sel so prized in these parts.
This remarkable landscape, between the southern Brittany town of Guerande and the sea, has been "farmed" for its sea salt by generations of families – the remarkable paludiers, almost a race apart with their own culture and traditions.
We had stumbled across these salt marshes on a bike trek along the Velocean cycle route which, as its name suggests, follows the Brittany coast for more than 30 miles.
Guerande, our target for the first day, is as famous in France as it is little known elsewhere – a magnificent medieval walled town with its ramparts intact and a rich history visible in every street. Its four gates, six towers and 1,300 yards of ancient walls are the most complete in Brittany. In one of the ancient towers is a museum celebrating the paludiers and their history, with rare video footage of their fairs and feast days when traditional costume was worn. There are also examples of the paludiers' red furniture, known as "sang de boeuf" or ox blood, and produced by red lead paint which could withstand the salty atmosphere of the marshes.
The Velocean route runs from the pretty little seaside resort of Piriac-sur-Mer to Moutiers-en-Retz, another seaside town just across the Baie de Bourgneuf from Noirmoutier.
Short and beautiful, it's really just a staging post for two of France's most magnificent long-distance cycle routes. At Saint-Brevin-les-Pins, opposite Saint-Nazaire, it links up with the 240-mile Loire à Vélo trail, which follows the River Loire on its long journey through the heart of France.
Even more remarkably it takes the cyclist to the aptly named Vélodyssée, the French section of "Euro Vélo Route 1", which starts at Norway's North Cape and ends in Sagres, Portugal. In France the route runs from Roscoff to Hendaye in the Basque Country on the border with Spain. It follows the Nantes to Brest canal and minor roads north of the Loire with some sections around La Chapelle-sur-Erdre still under development. Heading south, which is just what we did, it joins the coastal cycle route in the Vendée before passing through the Charente-Maritime and Aquitaine regions.
We picked up Vélodyssée at Biarritz after a few days resting on the beaches there. The well-marked route took us through the outskirts of this famous resort before heading south to Guethary, where we enjoyed a lunch of grilled sardines sprinkled with salt at a beachside bar.
Winding through back roads ever closer to the sea, we skirted a host of small coves with sandy beaches before the panaroma opened up of the magnificent bay that almost encloses Saint Jean de Luz. The 3,000ft-high peak La Rhune, the most westerly of the Pyrenees, lurks behind the town and across the bay lies the port of Socoa and its castle.
So busy in the summer, with the main route through the town centre having only one way across the busy harbour and causing untold congestion for most of the day, a bicycle is probably the best way to get into Saint Jean.
Head for the market hall that's open every morning to savour the gleaming fresh fish – tuna's a speciality from the abundant waters of Biscay – and fresh produce and also take time to sit on a stool at the bar of the Buvette, the market's little eating place.
The Buvette was founded by the current owner's mother and he'll tell you he has worked there all his life as he cracks open six oysters and pours a glass of the dry Jurancon white wine – all for eight euros.
Need to keep in touch on the road? Saint Jean's municipal authorities provide free wi-fi everywhere in the town centre. Just log on and send those emails.
A cycling holiday can mean days out of the saddle as well and Saint Jean de Luz is just the place to spend some time. Its main claim to fame is that Louis XIV of France, the Sun King, married Maria Theresa, the Infanta of Spain, here in 1660. The church of St John the Baptist still exists, as does the doorway the royal couple walked through which the king ordered to be bricked up so that it could never be used again.
The lively town centre is full of cafes and bars and a number of smart shops. And the long, safe beach is always just a short stroll away. Ferries operate from the town's little port to Socoa and the more distant beaches and, in the summer months at least, there is a regular little bus service out on the road to the north past a host of coves and campsites that costs just one euro.
The summit of the mighty la Rhune, a mountain which is often "smoking" as it creates its own cloud on even the hottest, sunniest days, can be reached by a rack and pinion electric railway with the lower terminus at the Col de Saint-Ignace. It costs 17 euros return for adults in the high season when the queues can be long. A better idea is to catch the free shuttle bus from Saint Jean – entry costs the same and you are whisked to the front of the queue.
Having reached the Spanish border we packed our bikes on to the back of our motorhome which had been our constant companion for a month, and drove to Santander to catch Brittany Ferries' sparkling Pont Aven back home to Plymouth – a lot less effort than cycling back up through France.