What do quaint seaside villages, great seafood, picture-perfect medieval towns, stone age monuments dotting the landscape, crepes, galettes and hundreds of kilometers of car-free cycling paths have in common? They are just a few of the special treats to be enjoyed on a cycling holiday in Brittany! Whether you go for a week or a weekend, whether you go alone, with friends or with your family, whether you bike a little or a lot, Brittany is a virtual playground for exploring France by bike.
With over 800 km of voie verte, totally car-free cycle routes, and several hundred km of low-traffic veloroutes criss-crossing the region, Brittany by bike is an adventure for those who want to experience the region, rather than merely visiting it. One of my favorite cycling routes in Brittany is the Canal d’Ille et Rance from Rennes to Saint-Malo. With almost a dozen major bike itineraries in Brittany to choose from, why should you choose the D’Ille et Rance Canal? Here are my top 5 reasons:
#1: An Easy, Safe, Attraction-Packed Bike Route Through the Unspoiled Heart of Brittany
Biking along this itinerary is effortless. The route is well-marked in both directions, and distances to towns and villages off the route are noted. With the exception of access in and out of the major towns of Dinan, Dinard and Saint-Malo, it is virtually impossible to get lost. Totally car-free for almost 100 km. you are free to relax and enjoy being surrounded by the gorgeous French countryside. Take deviations to canal-side villages for a late morning cappuccino, to the local supermarket for picnic supplies for lunch, or to the local cafe for an afternoon ice cream and beer. This route is made for slow travel and soaking up the Brittany landscape.
This flat gravel and packed-gravel cycle path follows the scenic River Rance and the Ille et Vilaine canal, started in the 1800’s by Napoleon. Ride along the towpaths where Napoleon’s soldiers oversaw construction of this engineering marvel with 48 locks. The route is dotted with picnic areas, lock keeper houses, pleasure boats cruising the river, fairy tale villages, chateaux off on the horizen and medieval churches. This itinerary is perfect for experiencing French history.
At just under 100 km, the itinerary is short enough to do on a long weekend, but there are many deviations, especially along the coast, if you have longer. This greenway offers a sampling of Brittany’s best: from the art and history-packed town of Rennes, to Dinan, the best preserved medieval town in Brittany, to the 2,000 year old citadel town of Saint-Malo, this bicycling itinerary is an opportunity to see the region in a way you would never experience in a car.
#2: The Locks
One of the most amazing parts of the trip along the D’Ille et Rance Canal is watching the locks in action. Watching pleasure boats approach a lock, prepare to enter the lock, get raised or lowered, and then leave the lock is an amazing and time consuming process. Any romantic ideas I may have previously had for pleasure cruising down a French canal were wiped away after watching the tedious, and oftentimes very physical process of navigating the locks. Nothing however, prepared me for the site of the locks near the village of Hede, the highest point along the canal.
It is here, at Bazouges-sous-Hede that you are treated to one of the most amazing sites on the entire route: a “staircase of water” where a series of 11 locks 200 meters apart take boats through a 27 meter change in water level. Figuring that the average time it takes for a pleasure boat to go through one lock is between 15-20 minutes, it would take between 3 1/2 to 4 hours to navigate through the 11 locks near Hede. Amazing! Even more amazing was that conversations with locals validated that the awesome sight of the lock progression at Hede never goes away.
The Maison du Canal is located next to the canal and is worth a short stop to learn more about the history of the canal and its importance to Brittany’s commerce in the 19th century.
#3: Dinan, Brittany’s Best Preserved Medieval Town:
If there’s one town that I would go out of my way to visit in Brittany, it’s Dinan. Even viewing it by bike from below, knowing that it is a steep 300 meter uphill ride, you can feel the magic of this medieval town. Surrounded by nearly two miles of walls and a gorgeous port, this town is literally oozing with history, culture and charm. Many tourists bypass Dinan, visiting instead the much larger and commercial city of Saint-Malo. Big mistake. Bypassing Dinan would mean missing a real Brittany gem.
Visiting Dinan is a trip back in time: a maze of cobblestone streets and old medieval timbered buildings surrounded by walls built by the Dukes of Brittany beginning in the 13th century. Walking the ramparts is the best way to appreciate the breadth of the fortifications, which include 12 towers, a keep and four monumental gateways and it takes a half a day to go completely around! Dinan is a town to be savored: walking the ramparts and back alley ways, climbing the 158 steps to the top of the Clock Tower, having a picnic lunch along the port, watching boats go by. Life is slow here, and it’s the perfect place to sit back and enjoy France.
#4: Fantastic Food for Any Budget
From the mouth-watering Breton carmel-coated butter cakes called Kouign Aman, to crepes and galettes, to moules prepared in any fashion, to any type of seafood and lamb prepared more ways than I could ever imagine, the food in this part of Brittany is spectacular. From a croissant for less than a half a Euro, to a three course chef’s special for as little as 10 Euro, food choices along this route are plentiful and extremely affordable. And although Brittany is not known for its wine, residents certainly love drinking it, so it is always possible to find excellent bottles for 5 Euro or less.
Obviously in larger towns like Rennes and Saint-Malo, there are more expensive options, but we always opted for small, local restaurants where a dinner rarely cost more than 20-25 Euros for two, including wine. We enjoyed a second cappuccino daily, along with the best looking pastry of the day, and never paid more than 5 Euros for 2 drinks and a pastry. Our favorite lunches were from local supermarkets along the route and our best choice was a container of home made beef bourgoguignon for 3 Euros. Our favorite dinner of the trip was at the creperie La Saint Georges on rue du Chapitre in Rennes. The Georgio Armani dinner crepe with potato, duck and flower salt is beyond description!
#5: Easy Access and Local Transport:
This itinerary is easily accessed from the UK and Ireland, as well as from Paris. Rennes, Saint-Malo and Dinan are the best starting points for this itinerary if you are traveling by train from Paris, and they also offer the best bicycle rental options if needed. All have both TGV and regional express connections, in case you are traveling with your own bike.
Rennes, Saint-Malo and Dinan are all easily accessible to each other via train, thus making it very easy to return to your origination point, should it be needed to return a bike rental. In the event that you are able to extend your trip adding on an excursion to Mont-Saint-Michel, Rennes, Saint-Malo and Dinan are all easily accessible to Dol-de-Bretagne in less than 30 minutes, or to Pontorson with a change in trains at Dol. From Rennes to Montreuil-sur-Ille there is local train service, thus making it easy to shorten the distance from Rennes to Dinan if you are short on time.
If you are interested in reading more about cycling the Ille et Rance Canal in Brittany, you can read several blog posts that I wrote after my trip at Experience France by Bike. You can also access trip planning resources in Part II of the series.
Here are some of the key lessons that I learned on my bicycling holiday in Brittany. Hopefully they will save you time and effort on an upcoming trip to France:
- If you are biking on dirt or packed dirt/gravel trails use an all-terrain bike or a mountain bike, regardless of what a rental agency says. And if you are thinking about bringing your road bike, don’t. In the spring and fall, the paths are full of flower seeds, nuts, and other kinds of debris which makes it very easy to lose control, especially on skinny tires. If it rains, the paths get muddy and it’s important to have tires that can hold their own.
- Traveling by bike on packed dirt/gravel paths is much slower than biking on concrete or asphalt roads. Don’t think that you will cover the same distance on dirt paths…..that could make for a very ugly day.
- Whether you bring your own bike or rent a bike, make sure that you have emergency tire supplies: extra tubes, bike pump, tire patches, etc. Biking on dirt/gravel trails is much harder on your tires, and you don’t want to get caught in the middle of nowhere without the supplies you need. Here are my suggestions for an emergency bike kit .
- Despite what everyone says, always double check ferry schedules to make sure that there have not been any last minute changes that may affect your bicycle travel. We planned to take the 10 minute ferry from Dinard to Saint-Malo, only to find out that the ferry stopped running the day we planned on taking it. Our only alternative was a 2 hour deviation involving a lot of hills on a very hot day!
About the Author:
Maggie LaCoste is the founder of Experience France by Bike, the Insider’s Guide to Biking in France. When she’s not exploring new bike routes in France, she’s busy writing about the best and newest itineraries. Maggie is also preparing to publish the first in a series of e-itineraries for weekend and week-long bike trips to France. To stay up to date on her latest project, follow her blog or follow her on Facebook.
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As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.