Beginning in the 17th century when François I brought Leonardo da Vinci (and the Mona Lisa) to France, monarchs and later emperors embarked on a public works project of heroic scale to link the country’s natural waterways. Thousands of workers, men as well as women, labourers and sometimes prisoners, dug canals connecting the rivers of the hexagon, as the French refer to their six-sided country, to enable farmers to transport their produce, manufacturers to ship their goods and generals to feed their armies.
Workers painstakingly shoveled out the dirt, while stone masons reinforced the sidewalls and constructed hand-operated locks to permit barges to navigate different water elevations. Horses or donkeys walking along towpaths bordering the canals drew the barges up stream. By the mid-19th century, a flat-bottomed boat loaded with cargo, whether wheat, apples, clay roof tiles or wine, could travel from the Atlantic coast to Paris to the Mediterranean.
Trains and later highways reduced to almost nothing the value of these canals for transporting freight. They’ve languished as little more than irrigation sources for farmers, as the villages alongside the canals were by-passed by the national system of highways. But in 2007, a consortium of European cycling associations, the ECF, embarked on a programme to convert these canals for another purpose: the most beautiful bike roads imaginable.
Following years of planning and fund-raising, construction is now well underway. Thousands of miles of ancient towpaths along the rivers and canals have been opened to travelers by bike, à vélo. The tow roads have been paved, sign-posted, mapped and rated by degree of difficulty. These “vélo-routes” enable bikers to ride through forests, farmlands, valleys and gorges; and because they run alongside rivers and canals, a rider has the advantage of riding through, but not up, those fearsome hills glimpsed in Tour de France television coverage.
My wife Susan and I have been discovering different véloroutes over our last few vacations. We recently rode from Basel, Switzerland to Dole, France along the Véloroute 6. With a few detours, we covered about 200 miles at a leisurely pace of about 40 miles a day, through beautiful countryside. We’d ride for two hours in the morning, stop for lunch in a restaurant situated right on the bike path (and once in a barge on the canal), then continue for another few hours until we arrived at a village where we would find a hotel or a bed and breakfast for the night and a restaurant. Then, we would refuel with a three-course meal of freshly caught trout, followed by a few glasses of vin jaune, the yellow wine unique to this area, accompanied by walnuts and Comté cheese.
In recent years, we’ve pedaled véloroutes from Toulouse to Bordeaux and from Nantes to Brest. Susan plans these trips using the website www.francevelotourisme.com. There are guidebooks to each of the regions. Each section of the route is marked, updated and colour-coded to identify when bikers share the road with traffic and which are greenways (just hikers and bikers, no cars).
To qualify as a EuroVélo route, the cycling trail must be at least 1000 kms (621 miles) in length, wide enough for two cyclists, open all year and it must provide food and lodging stops at least every 50 kilometres. The route may cross several national boundaries. There are 14 such routes, seven of them in France, with over 45,000 km of sign-posted routes. EuroVélo 1, for example, connects Nordkap, Norway to Sagrès, Portugal, 8,186 km (5075 miles). EuroVélo 6, the one we recently took, extends from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea, 3,650 km (2268 miles) in all, one-third of it in France. The one we chose for this trip, EuroVélo 6, connects the Rhine, Rhone and Doubs rivers to the Loire.
As a foreigner, step one is arranging to get the bikes. We had considered renting bikes in Paris and bringing them on the train to Basel, as many people do, but in some areas rental stores will deliver bikes in one town and pick them up when you reach your destination, so we thought we’d give that a try. Susan found a bike shop online located in Baume les Dames, a tiny village along the Rhone. On the phone, Franck Brun, owner of J.M. Brun & Company, wasn’t sure he wanted to drive two hours to Basel to deliver bikes to us, so he quoted us a price that he later told us he hoped we would not take. To his dismay, we were thrilled with his price, so Franck agreed to meet us in Basel with two road bikes, saddlebags, spare tires, and pump and then rendezvous with us in Dole to retrieve them at the end of our trip six days later.
We packed everything we needed for this road trip in two saddlebags each. Like many travellers today, we were carrying far more electronics than clothes. We each had our laptops, cell phones, chargers, adapters, and one Wifi hotspot that enabled us to get email everywhere. These electronics replace a steamer trunk-worth of the physical travel gear one needed just a few years ago, such as guide books and maps, and in addition provided us fun apps like a compass, altimeter, weather and route-tracking, plus Instagram, of course.
From Basel we set off for Montbéliard. This route took us through the countryside of the department of the Franche-Comté. We cycled beneath rows of towering plane trees planted along the canal paths. We passed 19th century paper factories, roof tile factories (les tuileries) and textile mills that once operated along this route. The canals were essential to the Industrial Revolution. We passed farms with geese, horses, ducks and cows, all doing their part to produce the foie gras and cheese (Comté) for which the region is famous. This part of the route connects the Rhine to the Rhone River, bordering Germany and Switzerland, which as a region saw some of the fiercest fighting in both world wars, and every town has its memorial. The second of these wars was very much on our minds as we cycled our way to Besançon.
This old city is built on the ruins of its Roman past. The meandering stone streets and outdoor plazas and cafes under shady trees attract artists and musicians. Besançon was the home of Auguste and Louis Lumière who made the world’s first motion picture in 1894. One year later the brothers made the world’s first motion picture comedy, L’Arroseur Arrosé, the “Sprinkler Sprinklered”. In the 49-second film, a gardener is perplexed when the water abruptly stops flowing out of his hose. He peers into the nozzle. At that moment, a young boy standing behind him lifts his foot from the hose and a burst of water smacks the gardener in the face.
A life-sized bronze sculpture in town reproduces this epochal moment in film history.
On a cliff overlooking the city sits the majestic Citadel Vauban, built by Louis XIV, who added the region of the Franche-Comté to his kingdom, and then needed a fortress to defend it. The Citadel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Here, in this attractive city the Nazis had converted a military barracks known as Caserne Vauban into an internment camp. It was one of many constructed across occupied territory, but this one was particularly notable for us because Susan’s mother and aunt were interned there in 1940. They were not Jewish, homosexual, gypsies, members of the Résistance, nor otherwise a threat to the German or Vichy governments. They were, however, British citizens. Though they grew up in Paris, their father had been born in Cyprus, then a British colony. And though their father had died when they were very young and they spoke no English, Susan’s mother and aunt were Brits by birth. Just as the United States infamously interned Japanese and German residents, the Germans interned thousands of people who held Allied citizenship. Susan’s teenaged mother and aunt were taken away from their French-born mother and interned for most of the war.
Caserne Vauban housed thousands of women and children seized by French policemen operating under Nazi rule. Many hundreds of people died in this Internment Camp from frostbite and disease. Although Susan’s mother never equated her experience to those sent to concentration camps, she recalled being mustered in the courtyard of the Caserne and watching while other people, some she knew to be Jews, were forcibly removed from the camp and transported elsewhere, never to return. She saw a mother throw her baby from one of the upper floors and then jump to her death. Susan’s mother and aunt may only have survived because midway through the war, the Red Cross managed to enter the camp and improve conditions in it.
The former camp was not hard to find. It’s an imposing 19th Century four-story brick structure, about the size of a city block, encircled by a stonewall and iron gate. Around it were a Darty supermarket, an auto repair and conventional post-war apartment houses. The gate is locked and the Caserne is now slated for demolition. There is no plaque or monument to recall its wartime service. Peering through the gate, we could see the courtyard Susan’s mother described.
Biking down from the Caserne, we picked up the véloroute and continued our journey towards Baume les Dames, where Franck, our bike supplier, had invited us to join his family for dinner.
We told Franck we had visited the Caserne Vauban. He knew nothing of its despicable past but he knew the building; he had been stationed there in the 1990s during his obligatory military service.
Franck’s whole life has revolved around biking. His father had been a talented French racer until an accident sent him to the hospital for a year. When he recovered, he could no longer race, so he opened J.M. Brun & Company. His son Franck, an accountant, also raced. When his father retired, Franck decided to put aside his spreadsheets and take over the family business. He presciently relocated his father’s shop to Baume les Dames, just a few years before the paving of the véloroute. Before then the unpaved, pock-mocked towpath was only suitable for all terrain bicycles and riders who didn’t mind scrambling their intestines.
As riders on the Véloroute 6 approach Baume les Dames, they see Franck’s signs for bicycle repairs and parts. Franck’s slogan is “Pédalez Bien, Pédalez Brun.” He located his store here, he said, because this stretch of the véloroute is the most beautiful in all of France. He loves biking it as much as any of his customers. When we departed for Dole the next morning, he couldn’t resist jumping on his own carbon-fiber bike and riding with us much of the way.
Here the canal follows the banks of the Doubs river. The towpath weaves between the vertical limestone cliffs of the Jura and an ancient sessile oak forest. Cypress and plane trees planted in rows stand like sentinels along its bank. The trees are reflected in the blue-green water. We biked all morning and only encountered a few other bikers and small herds of dairy cows.
We have found it easy to plan our own bike trips in France, but there are also companies that organise them. We have friends who love the trips they have taken all over the world with Backroads, one of these companies. When we described our do-it-ourselves touring to friends, they want to know, what do you do if you get a flat?
Franck assured us that if we had any problems with his bikes, we could call him and wherever we were, he would drive to our rescue.
In the years we’ve been visiting France, transportation is not the only change we’ve experienced. Franck insisted we join him and his family for dinner at his friend’s inn. Not too many years ago, an invitation like this could prove awkward for me since I’m a vegetarian. There once were stories about people like me being tossed out the door by the chef. No longer. At Franck’s friend’s country inn and at every restaurant we tried along the route, whether a veg option was on the menu or not, the chef graciously and sometimes dazzlingly prepared scrumptious meatless meals. In fact, if you want to be absolutely certain to have perfectly hand-scalloped potatoes, freshly stewed cherry tomatoes, crisp haricot verts and zesty ratatouille, let the chef know you do not eat meat, whether or not you do.
Next year, I think we will bike the véloroute along the Canal de Garonne and the Canal du Midi from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, just because we can.
Eric Rayman is a media lawyer residing in New York.
By Eric Rayman
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