Travel: Veloscenic offers holiday cyclists a more relaxed, alternative tour de France
As a new English-language guidebook for one of France's top cycle trails is launched, Abi Jackson takes to the saddle for a chateau and cheese-filled tour on two wheels
FOR ultimate grandeur, the Chateau de Versailles is hard to beat, with its masterpiece ceilings, grand stairways and palatial ballroom (visit on a bright day and sunbeams foxtrot between the gilded window frames and shimmering chandeliers). But there's something sweetly magical about Chateau de Maintenon, which sits, as the crow flies, some 47km away from Versailles in a leafy patch of the Loire Valley.
Although smaller and less plush, gazing up at its fairytale turrets and wandering the rooms where, back in the 16 and 1700s, Madame de Maintenon defied social convention as the prison-born widow who found herself hired as governess to King Louis XIV's illegitimate children (he had more than 12; honestly, it all went on), only to steal his heart and become his 'secret' wife, I'm transfixed.
So transfixed, in fact, I totally forget that I'm plodding around this regal scene in padded Lycra, sporting some impressive helmet hair.
Not your usual palace-perusing get-up, no, but it can be explained. I'm exploring France's Veloscenic, or La Veloscenie, as it's originally known, a 453.5km cycling trail spanning four regions – from Paris to Mont St-Michel in Normandy – created in 2013. Now, an English version of the accompanying guidebook has launched, so along with four fellow cyclists, I've come to give it a whirl.
We're not quite doing the whole route. With four days to play with, we've trimmed off certain bits, opting to taxi those instead. This is the beauty of doing Veloscenic; you make the rules, from setting your pace to taking as many pit-stops as you like – well, this and the fact it takes you deep through the heart of the regions' countryside, weaving through forests, farmland, sleepy villages and rustic market towns, boasting four Unesco World Heritage Sites along the way.
After flying into Paris, we transfer to Domain of Sceaux, where we meet Hugo from Petite Reine Normandie, whose van will be lugging our cases (and us and our bikes, for those taxi'd sections) from hotel to hotel.
We've hired our bikes from Loc'Velo, opting for hybrids (while most of the terrain is pretty smooth, there are some gravelly and woodland bits) but they also stock e-bikes, so if your joints and fitness levels aren't what they used to be, you can still enjoy the experience.
We settle into our saddles with a quick tour around the Domaine of Sceaux's famous gardens, designed by Andre Le Notre, one of Louis XIV's favourites, before hitting the road to pedal the 28km to Versailles. Although, to be fair, roads only make up a proportion of Veloscenic; around 42 per cent of the route is traffic-free with plans to introduce more dedicated cycle paths soon, and the bits that are on roads have very low-volume traffic.
As well as detailing the route (which has its own branded signage), the Veloscenic guidebook aims to provide all the information you'd possibly need, from how you go about taking bikes on trains, to the bike-friendly accommodation options along the way.
In Versailles, we enjoy a night at the four-star Hotel Le Louis Versailles Chateau – MGallery by Sofitel, a stone's throw from the palace, which we stroll down to explore after stowing our cycles and showering.
The next day, Hugo carts us to the Rambouillet Forest, where we hop on our bikes for a 25km ride towards Chateau de Maintenon – two hours cruising along sun-dappled woodland trails, sound-tracked by birdsong and crunching twigs, and quiet country lanes punctuated by picture-postcard villages.
After the aforementioned meander around Madam de Maintenon's fairytale abode, we claim a grassy spot at the back of the gardens and tuck into cheese and baguettes, then nap in the sunshine to reboot for the afternoon's stint.
This is what Veloscenic is all about, really. While France, and her challenging Alps, smooth roads and bicycle-respecting drivers, has long been popular with road-bikers, this route's all about scenery and sightseeing, and being as leisurely as you like.
Our next stretch is a gentle 20km on to Chartres, a town that's not really on the tourist radar, but so worth a visit. After stowing our bikes and freshening up at Hotel Jehan de Beauce, tonight's accommodation, we take a stroll and reward our kilometres with a slap-up dinner at Le Cafe Bleu, a popular spot in the softly-buzzing square surrounding the Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Chartres, which serves up contemporary takes on traditional home-made French fare.
As darkness descends, we take the few short steps to the cathedral, where we've booked on to a candle-lit tour of the crypt, retracing the final fantastical steps of millions of pilgrims dating back to the 12th century. Chartres also hosts an impressive free light show, which runs on a loop from nightfall 'til 1am from April to October, turning the outside of the cathedral and its surrounding buildings into giant animated storybooks.
Day three is probably our most strenuous; a 35km morning ride crossing a series of rolling hills. Thankfully, blue skies and swathes of green valley and golden rapeseed fields keep my mind off my tiring knees, and by the time we reach Le Bistrot des Ecuries, our lunch stop in Boissy-Maugis, deep in the picturesque Perche nature park region, I'm grateful to have 'earned' another three-course meal, washed down with a refreshing rose (well, the French do it so well, it'd be rude not to).
We feast on bread and mussels, velvety steak and creamy pistachio ice-cream, before clambering into Hugo's van to taxi to Carrouges, and then back on our bikes to pedal our bloated bellies towards Bagnoles-de-l'Orne.
Although on the brink of a carb-coma, the final stretch of the day takes us through the dreamy Andaines Forest and I soon find myself hitting that nature-induced high; cruise-control kicks in and I melt into the moment.
We arrive at Bagnoles, a spa resort town, in time to hit the high street and hunt down its famous macarons. But the long day of cycling and sunshine means I'm ready to hit the hay after dinner; thankfully the restaurant at O Gayot Hotel, where we're staying, is one of the best in town, so it's only a short walk upstairs from table to bed.
Day four brings a quick visit to the ruins of Domfront Castle (where the Veloscenic and Velo Francette routes cross), 20km of gentle greenways, a gourmet lunch-stop at Auberge de la Selune in Ducey, and a final 14km back in the saddle – complete with a couple of puff-inducing hills.
But, the push is worth it. Because while there are no yellow jerseys or Champagne magnums to mark the end of our little Tour de France, our trophy is the magnificent Mont St-Michel, emerging from the horizon a mystical mirage, taking form as we pedal those final few kilometres towards the Normandy coast.
France's most-visited location outside Paris, this island monument sits proudly in the mouth of the Couesnon River like a spectacular stone cupcake, its abbey the frosting rising mighty atop a walled rim case. You don't get much more scenic than that.
:: For more information on the Veloscenic route from Paris to the Mont Saint-Michel, visit veloscenic.com
:: Loc'Velo hires hybrid bikes for €30 (£26) per day and e-bikes for €39 (£34) per day (locvelo.fr)
:: Transfer and bike support with Petite Reine costs from €460 (around £400) for a nine-seater van for a week (us.petitereinenormandie.fr)