For over nine years, Neil and Joan have been spending their summers cruising the canals and rivers of Western Europe aboard their now thirty-one-year-old Dutch motor-cruiser, the “Estate.” This year they are again sharing their experiences with you.
Shortly after purchasing our boat, Estate, in Holland in 2001, we also bought some old, Dutch, “clunker” bicycles. At least that’s how they look. Yes, they are old, but they also are good sound bikes with hub brakes and gears, and the chain guard totally encloses the chain. They have served us well for the past nine years.
We have used the bikes primarily for errands or to get to places within less than 5 km from the boat that we didn’t want to walk to and weren’t easily accessible by bus. This year, inspired by several bike trips made by my sister and brother-in-law, we have started to ride just for the pleasure of riding.
The canals are often a good place to bike. Canal barges originally did not have engines to power them, and were instead pulled by horses or people. As a result, most canals have the remains of a towpath, now used as access for locals or by bikers and hikers. Some are paved; some are just loose gravel over dirt. Virtually all the “hotel barges” that cruise the French canals carry bicycles for their guests to use, and some offer itineraries especially designed for bicyclists.
We have noticed a significant increase in bikers in France in the last couple of years. It seems the word is getting out! To help you plan your trip, maps and guides are often available from specific regions, e.g. check out Tour la Bourgogne a Velo to see what Burgundy has to offer. Another resource is the IGN (Institut Geographique National) for an incredible selection of maps with various scales. France started in 1997 with an itinerary from Givry to Cluny in Burgundy. A loop of 800 kilometers, comprised of five main routes has been developed throughout Burgundy. One can visit chateaux, historic villages, and vineyards along the way
Over the last few years, two types of itineraries – veloroutes (bicycle routes) and voies verte (green ways) – have been defined throughout Europe. A voie verte is a special route reserved for non-motorized traffic: pedestrians, bikers, roller bladers, dog walkers, etc. Many of the canal towpaths now carry this designation. A veloroute may be a quiet country road or a cycling corridor: safe, pleasant, and with gradients of 3% or less.
Boaters, such as us, have a place to go home to after a day’s ride. Non-boaters who are out for more than a day either camp or book hotel or bed and breakfast accommodations along the route they have chosen. Many towns now have shops where you can rent bicycles for a couple of hours or for a week. You can do the planning and arrangements yourself or get assistance from travel companies that specialize in doing this for you. Check the above mentioned IGN website for a listing of cycle firms. If combining cycling and a cruise on a hotel barge appeals, check out Euro Escapes. They can help with planning a hotel barge vacation. Most local trains offer a special car for bicycles. Check TER for more information.
While on the Canal de Bourgogne this year, we did some short rides on both veloroutes and voies verte. The voies verte have been easy riding, either smoothly paved or with hard pack clay and gravel. We used IGN maps to plot our route using country road veloroutes. The IGN maps can be purchased at many tabac/presse stores. There are wonderful IGN stores with a much more complete selection of maps in both Dijon and Paris – and probably other major cities of France.
Written by Joan Malling for www.EuropeUpClose.com