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Full cycle - exploring the Thouet valley by bicycle

Full cycle - exploring the Thouet valley by bicycle

While trunk road improvements and a new high-speed rail line make their marks on the local landscapes a quieter, greener revolution in transport is also taking place, as Roger Moss discovered... 

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If you’ve ever had the feeling that the world around you sometimes moves just a little too fast to keep up with, maybe you should get out more – and at your own pace. Forget all the super-human stamina and aggression expended during the Tour de France, and think instead of la France profonde, and all the time in the world in which to explore it. If, like me, you think this sounds more like your idea of cycling, then you’ll be pleased to know that we’re in just the right place to get out and do just that, thanks to a wealth of sustainable tourism initiatives. Deux-Sèvres, for example, is currently launching the final sections of the Thouet Valley Route between St Martin-de-Sanzay (north of Thouars) and Beugnon (south west of Parthenay), as part of the longer Véloroute 43 linking Saumur with Niort and the Marais Poitevin. To find out for ourselves how the concept actually worked, we recently travelled to Parthenay, parked the car and transferred to two wheels to cycle a stage.  

The historic town offers a friendly and attractive access-point along the southern sections of the route, and we leave the friendly Office de Tourisme armed with a colourful selection of specially-produced guides detailing both the Route and the nearby Voie Verte (a former railway line now opened to cyclists bound for Bressuire). After much head-scratching, we decide to save the 18km stage south west to Secondigny for another day and instead head north west to Gourgé. The 22km stage is shown as being suitable for Intermediate level cyclists, which doesn’t sound overly daunting, so we set off confidently, following the first of what will soon become familiar stone Route-markers.

After a quick swoop down to a short tunnel beyond the town ramparts we emerge beside the river Thouet on a smooth, flat path through craggy, landscaped parkland. Striding assertively across the valley is a tall, stone-arched railway viaduct, which we reach to discover the path ahead rising steeply. After a brave attempt at a low-gear climb, we see the folly of our ways and decide to conserve our energy by dismounting and walking until the path flattens out beside the railway embankment. Now things ease, with a gentle descent to a busy road crossing and a brief glimpse of the world we’re about to leave behind. Minutes later, after a down-and-up section on a leafy path skirting a quiet housing development, the outskirts of town are behind us and we’re free to immerse ourselves in country lane peace and quiet.

It’s far from flat, however (a factor which obviously explains the Intermediate grading) but being brave on downhill sections minimises the effort needed for the inevitable climbs which follow. Eventually things begin to flatten, and we amble contentedly among pastel landscapes where the only sounds are birdsong and the occasional hum of midsummer hay-making. Clear sign-posting at every junction means there’s little chance of ever losing your way, adding to the carefree sense of liberation which you get when you travel like this.

In fact, there are few signs of human life, even when we reach La Peyratte, a cheerful-looking village with a Romanesque église and a large central square (the Place des Marronniers) with a tall croix hosanière (funeral monument) dating, like the church, from the 12th century.

After refuelling with a welcome al-fresco lunch on a tree-shaded bench, we forego a nearby signed detour to the Forge à Fer (a 17th century former ironworks and now a riverside restaurant) and press on along the route. By now the day is warming up, and as we make our way towards Lhoumois we’re thankful for the shade of the oak-tree avenues which line long sections of the lanes. The neatly-restored Eglise Saint-Jean-Baptiste announces our arrival in the village, through whose heart we coast  lazily towards a modest line of trees where we pause, this time for a cooling drink. Stops like this provide a chance to take in some of the finer details around you, in this case the distinctive timber farm gates beyond which sheep doze contentedly in the dappled shade.

Beyond the village the landscape once again opens up dramatically, this time with sweeping views across the fields and hedgerows to the stately, privately-owned 15/17th century Château de la Roche Faton. Rather less visible from here are Les Jardins du Gué, whose signs we pass among the roadside displays of wildflowers. The 3-hectare gardens border the River Thouet flowing through a valley currently tucked away somewhere to our left, but by now we’re understandably reluctant to drop down to anywhere which will involve a return climb. The road ahead, though, eventually does just that, taking us down to an idyllic spot where we’re delighted to discover that we now have the pleasure of the river for company – at first little more than a tantalisingly inaccessible vision shimmering enticingly beyond a natural barrier of brambles and nettles. A little further on, however, things open up to reveal a lone fisherman casting his line from midstream, where a broad, rocky weir extends from beside a romantic, long-silent watermill. We make a mental note of the shady, grassy riverbank as the perfect spot from which to contemplate the scene, and perhaps catch the turquoise streak of a kingfisher.

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Meanwhile, directly ahead of us lies a road junction, and a choice of river crossings, the nearest of which is the road bridge taken by traffic heading for nearby Gourgé, our journey’s end for today. In addition to offering fine views upstream, the modern bridge offers a great vantage point from which to admire its venerable predecessor, a miraculously preserved 11th century cobbled, pack-horse style structure now taken only by walkers and well-sprung cyclists.

By now just a few hundred metres’ gentle climb brings us into Gourgé, looking particularly welcoming on the run-up to a village fête. When we reach the focal-point of the 12/13th century Eglise de Saint-Hilaire (whose decorated interior is worth seeing) another reward presents itself, in the form of one of the Route’s dedicated rest areas. After dismounting and parking the bikes we relax contentedly beneath one of the stylish parasols shading the tables outside La P’Tite Marmite, a traditional bar/restaurant with a tempting-looking chalkboard menu. Despite which, two well-chilled beers are all we ask, and we eventually ride off rested, refreshed and freewheeling blissfully downhill, ready to do it all again. Things always look different when travelling in the opposite direction, and it’s surprising what we find we’d missed along the route first time around.

We reach Parthenay with a sense of achievement, and amazed at having seen so few cars, even on a summer Saturday. The Route and its rest areas along the way turned out to be well planned, and the exercise (in every sense) proved to us that you don’t have to be Lance Armstrong to dip with confidence into a single stage of your choice. Or more, if you prefer. Best of all, bike-friendly routes like this really do get you out and about, among places you would probably never otherwise have discovered – and all in perfect peace. Talking of which, we’re now sorely tempted to explore the Parthenay-Bressuire Voie Verte...  

BOUCLES-LOCALES, VELOROUTES AND VOIES VERTES...

You’ll probably already be familiar with the recent proliferation of neatly-signed local cycle paths, including circular tours (boucles-locales) which have been cunningly conceived to overlap with sections of neighbouring circuits. Less obvious is the fact that they’re part of a co-ordinated network, so you can pick-and-mix to your heart’s content, covering as much or as little as time and fitness-levels permit. Approaches vary according to individual départements, but Charente alone offers 500km of véloroutes (low-traffic shared roads) in addition to even calmer dedicated green lanes (voies vertes). It’s a similar story in both Charente Maritime and Vienne, but Deux-Sèvres has focused its recent attentions on the longer-distance Vallée du Thouet route, broken down into numbered, bite-sized sections like the one we sampled.

 

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VÉLODYSSÉE: EXPLORE THE ATLANTIC COAST, BY BIKE...

Believe it or not, you can now ride from Roscoff in Brittany all the way to Biarritz and across the Spanish border, (hugging the Atlantic Coast below the Loire) on the newly-opened 1200+km Vélodyssée cycle touring route. This epic project’s great website site (currently French only) will inspire you and help you plan your own journey on two wheels.
www.lavelodyssee.com

 

 

USEFUL WEBSITES...

www.valleeduthouet.fr/cote-velo/la-carte The full route, including the stage we cycled, is described in detail, including bike-hire points, rest areas and places of interest along the way.

www.ffct.org

www.af3v.org This informative site (currently French only) dedicated to Les Véloroutes et Voies Vertes de France includes an interactive map of the network, plus all the long-distance itineraries. There’s plenty of practical information, too, including travelling on public transport with your bike.

 

First published in Living Magazine August 2012.