Northern France

A week-long bicycle trip that you can plan in half an hour (I know, because we did). Jesse and I took our road-bikes and the bare minimum of kit. Actually, Jesse probably took less than the bare minimum, travelling as he did with just a six litre capacity Camelbak Mule.

As for the riding, if beautiful countryside, empty roads and great cuisine and cheap Bordeaux aren’t enough, you can also take in the Tour de France, Mont St. Michael and the Normandy Beaches. I genuinely think that this is a trip that it would be impossible to get wrong; all you need is a bike, a map and, if you happen to live in the south of England, a ferry ticket.

This is the beauty of it, ferries from Portsmouth go to St Malo, Le Havre and Cherbourg and the crossings are overnight. You arrive in St. Malo at 6am, have a Pain au Chocolat or three and head out on the bike. The tiny white roads on the map were all delightful, we’d just pick one that was going in the right direction and invariably it would be quiet and picturesque with undulating scenery, fields, farms and small villages.

Le Tour

Our main motivation for the trip was to go and see the Tour de France. It happened to be passing within a day’s cycle of St. Malo in 2004 so we headed for a point on the route to watch. What we hadn’t realised was that it is possible to ride along the route a few hours before the race. It is marked out with flourescent arrows and is lined with spectators to cheer you on hours in advance.

A few hours before the race arrives, they close the road to cars, but turn a blind eye to cyclists – you get a traffic-free ride on the worlds most prestigious cycle racetrack. What a great way to ride 60km! We were stopped just 100m from the finish line, which I think seems reasonable enough.

It is impossible to imagine how big this race is in France without visiting whilst it is on. It is like the FA Cup Final or the Superbowl but it goes on for 3 weeks and passes in front of your door. If Le Tour is in town, you’ll hear of nothing else. There are street parties and TV sets everywhere, all of which makes the five seconds you get to watch the race live rather an anticlimax!

Le rest

A route that passed Mont St. Michael, the remarkable 13th Century abbey in the sea seemed the ideal next step in the direction of Le Havre. Yes, it is overtouristy, but the architecture, setting and the sheer size of the place (it is a small town) make it unmissable.

From here, it was more undulating roads across the Cherbourg peninsula to the Normandy beaches. Site for the D-Day landings and their aftermath, this was an area that we had both wanted to see for some time. 60 years before, the fate of the world had hung in the balance. Today, that history is everywhere; from the street names to the British and American flags that fly alongside the Tricolor.

The beaches themselves are just beaches, children play, horses gallop. Climb up onto the cliffs at Omaha though, find a gun installation and you realise just how deadly that sand must have been. The whole beach is laid out in your sights. Climb further to the American Cemetery and the image becomes even clearer. The thousands of crosses are chillingly beautiful as the sun sets.

We passed through Caens en route to Le Havre and visited Le Memorial. The UN’s museum to mark WWII, and indeed all wars. The scope and scale is breathtaking and if you’ve just been to the Normandy beaches, this is the perfect place to put it all in perspective. Probably the best museum I’ve ever visited.

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