Finish Col de Peyresourde
Distance 217 miles
Enable 4-5 days
I got here throughout the Route Thermale on an previous, dog-eared map whereas looking for a coherent route throughout the Pyrenees. Scanning the winding mountain roads I observed, in tiny print, the phrases “Route Thermale” towards the D918. I used to be intrigued. I turned to my telephone and found that the route was financed by Napoleon III to hitch up the spa cities throughout the mountains – an ideal “gradual highway” journey. My map had it marked as being “scenic” for nearly its whole size, and it wasn’t exhausting to see why.
Beginning on the Atlantic coast at Saint-Jean-de-Luz, it takes within the highest passes within the Pyrenees, wooded valleys and picturesque villages, in addition to thermal baths, passing near among the Pyrenees’ best-loved websites: Cauterets, Gavarnie and Pont d’Espagne. The “Route des Cols” can also be a favorite for seasoned cyclists, well-known for being included within the 1910 Tour de France. My plan was to comply with it so far as the border between the Hautes-Pyrénées and the Haute-Garonne on the prime of Col de Peyresourde.
Leaving the Basque coast behind at Saint-Jean-de-Luz, the highway east winds by way of wooded hills, the Pyrenees quickly rising in entrance of you, and white-painted, red-tiled villages seem. After Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port issues get extra hilly – resulting in the primary of the cols and thermal spas, beginning with Col d’Osquich (392m).
With each mile the surroundings will get higher – forests, hills and valleys at each flip. Col d’Aubisque (1,700m) is subsequent up, with pine and birch forests, hairpin bends and spectacular views. We cease to aim to cycle the move (I surrender half manner up!).
Nerves of metal are wanted for the highway reduce into near-vertical cliffs round Col du Soulor (1,474m). It’s slim, with a few tunnels, so that you’ll must drive it within the afternoon in case your automobile is over three tonnes (east to west within the morning). The surroundings is elegant: the valley flooring appears miles under – with nothing however a couple of concrete blocks between you – whereas inconceivable peaks loom above. This stunning part of highway is one other favorite of diehard cyclists.
Cauterets, a pleasant spa city and ski resort, is a brief diversion off the D918, however price a go to (and even an in a single day keep). There’s a public spa and hammam, for enjoyable in thermal waters in indoor and outside swimming pools with views of the mountains, or loads of lodge spas for massages and coverings, such because the Cauterets Astérides.
A difficult highway winds out of Cauterets as much as Pont d’Espagne – a vacationer hotspot the place a stone bridge spans a deep gorge on the assembly of two raging torrents. Take the cable automotive after which ski raise to Lac de Gaube, a imaginative and prescient of perfection.
It’s now up, up and away to Col du Tourmalet (2,115m), one of many Tour de France’s most dreaded climbs, with a collection of hairpin bends (be careful for cyclists). It’s a bit of spartan on the prime, however there are wonderful views earlier than the descent and subsequent climb to Col d’Aspin (1,489m).
The route subsequent leads by way of Arreau, a reasonably village with partly cobbled streets, and on to Loudenvielle, an exquisite city in Vallée du Louron. You might comply with the route all the way in which to Argelès-sur-Mer on the Med. However for us the journey is full as soon as we attain the border between the Hautes-Pyrénées and the Haute-Garonne and the midway level throughout the Pyrenees on the Col de Peyresourde. It’s a 30-minute chug from Loudenvielle by way of stunning forest on one other winding mountain highway, the place the Tour de France graffiti urges us to “Allez Allez!”. On the prime, views to the east and west are unimaginable.
In case you have the legs it should be a incredible cycle, I feel, as we flip and head again all the way down to the village for our reward: a visit to Balnéa Spa (€20 per grownup for entry to the baths in excessive season). It’s an exquisite, watery play park with themed geothermal baths heated by sizzling springs. Swim from the Japanese sizzling pool to the Mexican cenote or e-book in for a therapy, however don’t overlook your Speedos (the regulation prohibits shorts in all French swimming pools).
The place to remain
Tenting du Valentin, Laruns: nice campsite with bar and pool on the foot of Col d’Aubisque (pitch, together with van, from €20 for 2 adults an evening).
Aire de Tenting-Automobile, Cauterets: helpful for the spa and telecabines to Pont d’Espagne (€11 per van and passengers for twenty-four hours with companies).
Aire de Tenting-Automobile, Loudenvielle: Completely positioned within the village and really helpful for the spa (€14 for one van and passengers for twenty-four hours with companies).
Bilbao in northern Spain is the closest ferry port to the beginning of the route (simply over an hour away). Brittany Ferries sails from Portsmouth (two nights). Or journey from Plymouth to Roscoff and drive (about 9 hours, 545 miles). The D918 begins at Saint-Jean-de-Luz, however on the way in which is usually assimilated into different roads, so it often modifications numbers when bypassing villages.
The presqu’îles of western France
Finish Les Portes-en-Ré
Distance 255 miles
Enable 1-2 weeks
Need solar however don’t need the effort (and price) of the Côte d’Azur? Head west and discover France’s “nearly islands” on an epic drive that can take you throughout tidal causeways, gigantic bridges and sand spits to a France that’s sizzling, charming and, if you’d like it, a bit of bit chi-chi. The islands are unfold out alongside the coast from Brittany to simply above the Gironde estuary and every is reachable by campervan (or automotive) by way of a causeway or bridge. All of them have their very own distinctive character, however are unmistakably littoral, formed by the Atlantic wind and waves. These are the locations to purchase sun-baked salt, style ocean-fresh oysters or scrape the mudflats on an enormous, low tide for a cockle feast of your personal.
We begin this journey at Quiberon, on the southern aspect of Brittany, crossing the sand spit to the Côte Sauvage, a wild, west-facing collection of coves and rugged cliffs. We swim within the sea whereas spear fishermen scour the rocks for lunch. A stroll round Quiberon, the sensible port and seaside resort on the finish of the island, leads us to swanky eating places with well-heeled clientele having fun with fruits de mer underneath parasols.
We head south, on the D781, stopping at Carnac to see hundreds of standing stones which can be completely aligned, like a neolithic touchdown strip. I’ve by no means seen something prefer it, and might’t fairly familiarize yourself with its scale and dimension, even after we drive away in the direction of Vannes and it’s nonetheless going. We skirt Vannes and the Golfe du Morbihan, heading for La Roche-Bernard, a stunning, arty city that sits excessive on a bend above the Vilaine. We wander the slim streets late at evening, recognizing ceramic gargoyles made by native potters.
Nonetheless heading south we head for Le Croisic, one other jolly, geranium-spattered presqu’île with harbourside eating places and funky streets of gaily painted and shuttered homes. We cease and watch crusing boats as they head off on Atlantic adventures. It’s an important distinction to the seven-mile-long cruise we take subsequent, alongside the esplanade at La Baule, the place trendy condo blocks crowd out the final remaining villas. That is the French en vacances en masse and it’s vigorous, showy and enjoyable.
We head south, hugging the coast, crossing the Loire on the massive arched bridge at Saint-Nazaire and passing by way of the coastal pine forest earlier than driving onto the coastal flats and salt pans round Beauvoir-sur-Mer. Right here we choose up the two.5-mile tidal causeway to the Île de Noirmoutier and rattle throughout the cobbles. Because it’s low tide, there are a whole bunch of cockle-pickers out on the mudflats with rakes and buckets, searching for dinner. The excellent, beachside Huttopia-run eco-campsite on the east coast has a sink that should solely be used for cleansing seafood. That’s how severely they take it.
The highway south from Noirmoutier (D38, over the brand new bridge and on to Sables d’Olonne) passes by way of the Marais Poitevin, an enormous wetland they name the Inexperienced Venice. It lies to the west of Niort and will be visited by kayak, boat or bike. We cycle down leafy dykes between the waterways and spot coypu within the ditches and canals of this essential and exquisite wetland space.
Our closing cease is the Île de Ré, the swankiest of all of the islands. It’s low-rise, with tiny, cramped villages sitting in between the pines and the salt flats. Camped among the many bushes, we wake to the scent of pine warmed by the solar. We discover by bike, following cycle routes by way of the forest to marinas, swimming spots and eating places. A late and leisurely lunch of moules frites in Saint Martin-de-Ré provides us time to look at the yachties dwell it up on their cruisers within the harbour. We’re right here simply in time: as evening falls, individuals collect for the 14 July celebrations. The son et lumière firework present lights up the sky in a loud, festivity of liberty, equality and fraternity.
The place to remain
Tenting le Moulin des Oies, Brittany: near Morbihan, it is a actual gem, with a seawater pool and a pizza restaurant (from €14 for a pitch for 2, together with van).
Tenting Huttopia Noirmoutier, Vendée: it’s common, however e-book forward and seize a pitch adjoining to the well-known cockle-picking seaside (from €60 a pitch, two-night minimal).
Brittany Ferries runs from Portsmouth to Saint Malo (11 hours in a single day). It’s a drive of lower than three hours to Quiberon (138 miles).
Distance 155 miles
Enable 4 or 5 days
We start our journey in Besançon with a couple of lengths of the Olympic-sized pool subsequent to Tenting de Besançon, a 4.5-mile cycle from the medieval metropolis alongside the river. Driving away, heading roughly south on the N57, we flip in the direction of Ornans and move meadows and tiny villages, earlier than getting into the deep and mesmerising gorges de Nouailles and past to seek out the supply of the River Loue, a raging torrent that gushes from a limestone cove. The D41 leads us by way of extra gorgeous mountain surroundings to the supply of the River Lison, the place water floods out of a limestone cliff from inside a cave, flowing over a waterfall right into a deep plunge pool. The water is icy cool and makes my pores and skin sing. I don’t keep in for lengthy.
We proceed south by way of the salt-making city of Salins-les-Bains after which the “gateway to the Jura”, Champagnole, earlier than overnighting at Lac de Narlay, a preferred lakeside campsite. Within the morning we rise early and thin dip, the lake gently steaming to greet us within the morning solar.
A brief drive brings us to the Cascades du Hérisson, a shocking 2.5-mile stretch of river in a deep, forested gorge with falls alongside its size. We discover a deep, undercut pool and swim, rising behind the falls to clamber onto a ledge and peer out by way of a curtain of shimmering water.
Our route takes us on to Clairvaux-les-Lacs and one other gorgeous campsite on the water, surrounded by mountains. From right here we head in the direction of Saint-Lupicin on the D118, an ideal winding mountain highway, by way of forests of hazel, oak, beech, viburnums and larch, previous meadows crammed with wild sage, delphinium, betony, scabious, meadowsweet, campanula, harebells and yellow rattle. My associate Lizzy, a botanist and gardener, insists we cease to take photos each few metres (it appears). I don’t thoughts – the Jura is stunning me continuously.
We drive onto Saint Lupicin, Saint-Claude and in the direction of Belleydoux over the Col de Croix de la Serra (1,050m), a highway that’s partly forested, with a dotting of homes and farms, stunning meadows with clanging cow bells and meadowsweet lining the verges.
From Belleydoux we comply with a forested river gorge to Saint-Germain-de-Joux, then on to the D1084, the primary highway between Nantua and Bellegarde-sur-Valserine, on the ultimate stretch earlier than we meet the younger Rhône. One other gradual highway journey is full.
The place to remain
Tenting de Besançon: a incredible campsite simply outdoors Besançon, alongside the river. A superb cycle into the medieval metropolis. Good open-air pool subsequent door (€18.50 per evening for 2, contains entry to pool).
Tenting du Lac de Narlay: direct entry to Lac de Narlay. Electrical pitches are terraced, the remainder is a free-for-all (€18 per evening with electrical).
Tenting le Grand Lac, Clairvaux-les-Lacs: simply moments from the lake seaside (€31 per evening for 2).
Martin Dorey’s Take the Gradual Highway: France – Inspirational Journeys Spherical France by Camper Van and Motorhome is printed by Bloomsbury (£20). The Take the Gradual Highway collection additionally contains the Eire, England and Wales, and Scotland.