Keen club cyclist Graeme Huston got into the saddle for a memorable two-wheeled trip through stunning countryside in the home of the Tour de France.
I saw it out of the corner of my eye, incredibly quick and graceful, a multi-coloured lizard scampering along the church wall.
It snatched a crumb from the baguette I was eating and shot up the wall beside me so quickly that I lost sight of it instantly. As I looked up to follow its path, all I could see was the village’s soaring spire and cloudless blue sky.
Just one memory from a seven-day cycle tour through the glorious French countryside from Paris to the coast. In fact the animals encountered on the trip ranged from lizards to labradors and Percheron horses - but the real star of the show is the countryside itself.
The tour is the brainchild of the French tourist authorities who call it their Veloscenic, a 250-mile jaunt by bicycle - it is France after all, what else would you expect - from Paris via Chartres to the west coast and Le Mont Saint-Michel.
You can complete the route in easy stages which, by the time you read this, should be signposted from start to finish.
More details at Veloscenic
Day One: Paris - Rambouillet, 34 miles
Not one for the fainthearted! After a fabulous trip across the channel from St Pancras to Paris by Eurostar it was straight on the bikes and into the tremendously busy city centre.
Then it’s off into the suburbs en route to Ramboulliet. Paris is stunning, be prepared for a sore neck as you negotiate the traffic and take in the sights. While the route out of the city centre heading south west to Ramboulliet is sometimes not that scenic, the roads soon turn more pleasant as you roll through lovely countryside.
Don’t miss: Notre Dame cathedral, The Ile de France Museum at Sceaux and the Medieval village of Rochefort-en-Yvelines. Our stop for the night was a timber cottage at the Huttopia forest campsite. There’s an animal park nearby. You can eat at the campsite or take the 15 minute ride back into Ramboulliet for dinner.
Day Two: Ramboulliet - Chartres, 22 miles
After a tour of the historic Ramboulliet castle and its grounds, well worth the time, it was off to Chartres. A lovely route takes you on off-road tracks almost all the way to the cathedral city.
It’s a short ride and that’s a good thing, more time to take in Chartres. The 12th century cathedral, a world heritage site, is magnificent and a tourist magnet, but the city itself is also worth at least a couple of days exploring if you decide to linger.
Don’t miss: There are guided tours of the cathedral with English audio guides, plus a tourist road train tour that starts and finishes by the cathedral square. Try dinner at Le Bistrot de la Cathedrale and it was in Chartres that I stayed in the one of the nicest B&Bs you could wish for - Les Crepinieres at 25 Rue des Crepienieres. Cyclists are more than welcome, highly recommended.
Day Three: Chartres - Nogent-le-Rotrou, 48 miles
The first of the longer stages as the route heads west, lots of grand houses and little villages pepper the ride. The route is a mixture of roads and pathways across glorious open countryside and along the banks of rivers and canals.
Don’t miss: along the way highlights include Fraze Castle, the 12th century Abbey at Thiron Gardais and Nogent-le-Rotrou Castle. A good place to stay is the Hotel Lion D’Or, a friendly family-run hotel in the bustling market square.
Day Four: Nogent-le-Rotrou - Alencon, 48 miles
After weaving your way out of Nogent-le-Rotrou the Veloscenic takes to a ‘greenway’ which is a disused railway line cutting an almost straight line west. From Nogent to Alencon you barely touch a road. At around halfway you arrive in the town of Mortagne-au Perche with lots of great places to eat. Try the Cafe du Theatre for lunch, great beefburgers!
Don’t miss: Percheron horses are from this region and nature guide and farm owner Celine Maudet has around a dozen - a carriage ride pulled by two of her beautiful mares was a real treat. Try L’Hotel des Ducs, a very modern and comfortable place to recover and dinner at the Chez Fano, on Rue St Blaise, was top notch.
Day Five: Alencon - Bagnoles-de-l’Orne, 33 miles
This is the first day where you encounter anything like hilly terrain and the countryside begins to change from open to forested. The buildings too seem to be more Germanic in appearance with incredibly steeped pitched roofs and turrets.
Don’t miss: A supermarket shop is vital before you set off, the route is rural with very little chance to stop and buy lunch anywhere. Once stocked up you can have a picnic at Carrouges Castle. It has a moat stocked with carp so tame they would probably eat from your hand. The brand new four-star Bo Cottage hotel in Bagnoles is a treat - and it has a spa which offers sports massage, ideal for tired leg muscles.Try the O’Gayot restaurant for a delicious dinner.
Day Six: Bagnoles-de-l’Orne - Saint Hilaire du Harcouet, 42 miles
The penultimate day is a mainly off-road ride along tracks and pathways with larger roads towards Saint Hilaire. The town was almost demolished during the Second World War but has a magnificent church in the market square.
Don’t miss: The charming village of Domfront, and as apples and cider making are a key industry in this part of the world you should look into the Apple and Pear House at Barenton which details the history of cider production from the huge orchards. The waterfalls at Mortain are also worth a visit. Try L’Hotel du Cygne on Rue de Waldeck Rousseau, dinner there is also a real treat.
Day Seven: Saint Hilaire du Harcouet - Le Mont Saint Michel, 31 miles
The last day’s riding and a very easy route west and then south along the coastline to Le Mont Saint Michel.
Don’t miss: The stopover village of Ducey, a guided tour of the Abbey is available in English. It’s another world heritage site and looks simply stunning from a distance as you approach from the countryside. Try the very friendly Les Epinettes, a B&B on Route du Mont-Saint-Michel, and dinner at La Bisqu’in, just down the road will not disappoint.
Most of the locals were tucking into their mussels!
Top ten Do’s and Don’ts
1. Do not attempt the Veloscenic route without a GPS device loaded up with the map files from the Veloscenic website. You need a system that is mounted on the handlebars for easy and safe use while cycling. This is my top tip. I used my Iphone but without a handlebar mount it was tricky at times!
2. Do take your pick of the stages. Starting at Ramboulliet or Chartres for example, might be better for cyclists less at ease in the heavy traffic of Paris.
3. Don’t underestimate the extra energy it takes to cycle with panniers full of luggage - and the toll that the heat of a French summer can take!
4. Do make sure your equipment is up to the journey. Sections of the Veloscenic route are on farm and forest tracks. A standard road bike with normal road tyres and panniers is not an ideal set-up. I advise a hybrid machine, lightweight mountain bike, or a road touring bike that can be equipped with fat tyres, 28C or wider.
5. Don’t worry about hills. Stage Five from Alencon to Bagnoles de l’Orne is the hilliest day but not too severe and at 33 miles you can take your time. The rest of the stages are over easy terrain.
6. Do consider the luggage transfer option that is available at extra cost, if you are a less experienced cyclist or less fit than you might wish to be!
7. Don’t carry too much if you do decide to be self sufficient. I ditched clothes and other items on Day Two because I realised I didn’t need them and carrying the extra eight was pointless.
8. Do plan a little more time to explore Chartres. A jewel in the crown of the Veloscenic.
9. Don’t miss some of the fascinating places to visit en route. It’s an ideal break for those who love history and architecture as well as fans of excellent food, wine and coffee.
10. Do plan ahead to carry water and food with you at all times. The shops in the countryside are sometimes few and far between and they close for lunch!
Rail Europe (T: 0844 848 4070) or Rail Europe offers transport from London to Paris, returning from Pontorson to London from £99.50 per person, and from £70 per bike.