A Bike Trip in the Southwest of France: From Oyster Farms to Vineyards to Rolling Country
As if France doesn’t have enough going for it, the country has an extensive network of well-paved bike trails that seem to stay connected for miles and miles (a novelty at least to this American!). In April, a few of my friends from New York met me in Bordeaux for a six day bike trip in the southwest of the country, where I had been living for seven months.
We traversed two departments (kind of like states in France but also not really) Gironde and Dordogne, which between them include a part of the biggest man-made forest in Europe, an oceanfront famous for oyster farming, an enormous wine country spread out on two sides of the Garonne River, and a rolling countryside with structures that date from days of British control in the Middle Ages. And consider that France is the size of Texas and we were covering just a small slice of the country!
As this was my first multi-day bike trip, I was nervous. But we were in good hands with 02 Cycles, the company that designed our itinerary and rented us our bikes, and with my friends, who are more seasoned cyclists (and the reason I had the confidence to do this trip, because when I lived in NYC, I did several 35-85 mile bike rides with them in that area). In total the rental of really nice hybrid bicycles, route planning, panniers, bike locks, and the drop-off and pick up service were around $200 per person.
Arcachon & the Dune du Pilat
On the morning of Easter Sunday, we met one of the friendly guys from 02 Cycles near Bordeaux’s Gare Saint Jean Station, where they drop bikes off for free, (you pay for delivery to other parts of the Bordeaux region).
We set off on the TER, France’s regional train network, to Arcachon, a popular beach town on the southwest coast on a bay. The French train system has designated racks and other space for bikes, so it’s fairly easy to get around by train when you need to. (At legs of the trip that were not particular scenic or that would have had us on heavy traffic roads, like the route from Bordeaux to Arcachon, the guys at 02 Cycles recommended taking the train).
In Arcachon, we had a lunch of moules frites (mussels and fries) at Le Piment Noir and biked about 6 miles or 10 kilometers to the Dune du Pilat, the biggest sand dune in Europe — and yet one of those places that I hadn’t even heard about til I’d lived in France. The country just has a wealth of sites.
We biked back to Arcachon on a different route and took a ferry to Cap Ferret, a land mass that juts out from France and is surrounded on the east side by the Arcachon Basin and on the west by the Atlantic Ocean (and which reminded my friends of Martha’s Vineyard). Again, it was easy to travel with bikes because the ferry staff mounted them on the top of the boat.
On Cap Ferret, we did a four mile (six kilometer) ride around the island, passing by oyster farms, a beach, and a lighthouse. Easter Sunday is considered the opening of the tourist season, but it felt like it could have been the height of summer, as it was very busy on the cape, with families enjoying a walk, bike ride, or apéros on restaurant patios. We had a dinner of white wine, mussels, whitefish, oysters, and whelk or bulot—a chewy crustacean that you fish out with a toothpick and dip in mayonnaise—at Chez Hortense, a popular seafood spot where it’s smart to reserve at a little bit ahead.
The next morning, before setting off to Médoc, we got croissants or pain au chocolats (chocolatines, as they’re often known in this part of France) at a local boulangerie, our first of what would turn into an almost comical number of stops to load up on baked goods and patisseries. And then we were off, on the protected gem of a trail in Lége-Cap-Ferret, riding under a canopy of blossomed trees.
Lacanau, the Landes Forest, & Médoc
Our trip to Médoc, a sub-wine region of Bordeaux, continued on protected bike trail through the pine tree covered Landes Forest. We ate Croque Monsieurs or steak frites and beer in the town of Lacanau, where just one restaurant was open because it was Easter Monday (though it’s not uncommon in France for a lot of stores and restaurants in smaller towns to be closed on just a normal Monday).
The next part of the bike ride started off on a road with beautiful, fully bloomed hedges and then through a sweeping expanse of farmland with the occasional pack of cattle. Yet, at some point this ride turned into the closest thing to purgatory I’ve experienced next to the line at the Illinois state DMV. The straight road seemed endless, and every time the trees receded around us, the wind hit us, forcing us to bike against it. Our route then took us on dirt roads, a bit stressful as we had to take care to avoid the odd stone that could us flip over.
At some point, we arrived in the town of Cussac-Fort-Médoc, warmly welcomed at our Airbnb by the neighbor of our hosts, who gave us everything we needed to get settled (laundry detergent for our first load, confirmation that there was a pizza place open, extra toilet paper…).
We were not particularly close to any kind of city area (or centre-ville) and were way to tired to venture out on our bikes, so we spent a quiet night enjoying a 15 Euro bottle of wine that the hosts had left us and baked goods that my friend Noelle had stocked up on, too tired even to order pizza. We learned a valuable lesson that day from Noelle’s foresight: always stop at the boulangerie.
Pauillac & Château Mouton Rothschild
The next day, we set out for Château Mouton Rothschild. Despite the 60 euro price tag, it’s worth a visit, even if the Rothschild name doesn’t mean much to you and you’re not that interested in wine. From the winemaking facility designed like a theater to the custom of choosing a renowned artist to illustrate the label for each year’s vintage (past years have been designed by Salvador Dali, Marc Chagall, and Andy Warhol) to a veering on unhealthy obsession with rams heads to a final tasting of six-figure wine at the end, this place is an absolute trip.
After, we had mayonnaise-y sandwiches at a boulangerie in Pauillac, which was a perfect way to absorb the wine and took the train to Bordeaux.
Bordeaux to Saint-Émilion via the Roger Lapédie
After arriving at Gare Saint Jean, our journey would take us about 30 miles (50 kilometers) to Saint-Émilion. Though it started raining not long after we coasted off Bordeaux’s Pont Saint Jean, the ride on the tree covered Roger Lapédie bike path (piste cyclable), was one of my absolute favorites on the trip. Every so often we’d hit a new town, denoted by a building that may have once been a train station.
We stopped, naturally, at a boulangerie in a random small town and rode the last seven miles or so along the undulating roads of wine country, past chateau after chateau under a dramatic night sky.
Château Tertre Roteboeuf Vineyard in Saint-Émilion
The next day was the first where we were staying in the same place for more than a night, and I was excited to have the day to stretch out and relax. I joined my friend Amy for a tour of Château Tertre Roteboeuf a small vineyard and estate perched on a hill (that we had a hell of a time finding on Google Maps).
The tour was intimate. It was just us and two women from Italy, and the proprietor, who had taken over operations from her father, showed us the unique way they manage their vines and the cellar which was stocked with barrels of the 2017 and 2018 vintages. She even put a special tap-like object up to the barrels and gave us a taste so we could see how the wines were maturing. There was no charge for the tour, and it wasn’t even possible to buy a bottle at the château — you’d have to do so in town. I’ve found in France, you’re more likely than in the U.S. to be in situations where someone isn’t trying to sell you something.
After the vineyard experience, we joined up with Noelle and had a picnic lunch along the side of the road with charcuterie, cheese, radishes, butter, a carrot salad, a tomato salad, and baguette that she had brilliantly purchased that morning and a terrine that I had gotten from a little stand.
The next day was the one I was most nervous for. The topography from Gironde to Dordogne becomes much more hilly — our route app told us we’d be riding 2,500 feet. Plus, it was going to be our longest day at roughly 65 miles (105 kilometers).
But as far as the landscape goes, it was one of my favorite days — not surprising given this region’s renowned beauty. We rode through bright green fields flecked with yellow wildflowers, past pastures of cows and horses and remnants of old buildings. Not only is this area currently popular with the British, but for several hundred years in the Middle Ages, it went back and forth between England and France as the two powers competed for control of the territory.
I admit there were times during the ride when I wanted to find the nearest train station, thinking I wasn’t capable of such a strenuous day. But at some point I got used to and even took comfort in the predictability of my low-stakes internal drama. Usually I’d balk as we approached a hill. At the same time, I’d make sure to mindfully down shift gears ahead as my friend Ramesh had explained to me so I wasn’t putting too much pressure on my knees. I’d struggle up the hill cursing internally.I’d worry that I wouldn’t have the energy to make it to the Airbnb. Then I’d remind myself that I just had to think about the next few seconds, not the next few hours. Worst case scenario, I’d have to walk my bike. Finally, reaching the top of the hill, I’d feel great. Maybe it’s a good metaphor for how to approach life’s challenges—or maybe it’s just a good metaphor for biking up hills.
We stopped in Issigeac, a gem of a town with charming timber buildings, and a lovely central square where we got a beer on a patio of a cute bar and enjoyed an absurd amount of pastries my friends Anna and Ramesh had loaded up on.
We stayed the night at a the weirdest of our Airbnbs — kind of the French version of an American dream house with a pool, bar, pool table, maybe the biggest refrigerator I’d seen in a French home, and a bathroom that had as its themed inspiration Sea World — with photos of the family with marine life and a floor tiled with small beach stones. It kind of reminded me of the episode of “Friends” where they stay in a beach house that is filled with sand.
The next day, we biked a pretty reasonable 10 miles or so to the town of Cadouin, which has an abbey founded in the 1110s and a popular traditional restaurant called Restaurant de L’Abbaye. Lunch was a choice from three different prix fixe menus (in addition to a la carte), with everyone getting a garlic soup, and then a choice for the entrées of foie gras — a regional specialty as Dordogne is big-time duck country — salad, and tartare. For our main dishes, we had among us different cuts of beef and a duck confit, which was definitely my favorite, the skin an absolutely perfect crispiness.
We rode back to Bordeaux with a stop at the train station of Périgueux, dropped off our bikes outside of Gare Saint Jean and thanked our friend at 02 Cycles for a great itinerary. We toasted our successful trip with grocery store champagne (all wine stores were closed as it was after 8 p.m.) on the balcony of our Airbnb, which looked out over the city and then dashed back inside, as it was (unseasonably) cold. The next day my friends head back to England and America, with ideas of one day doing another ride — maybe along the Danube or the Adriatic.
Recommendations for Your Bike Trip
Be aware that the longer your route is, the less time you have at your destination that evening or for stops along the way. Usually by the time we arrived at our destinations, it was after 7 p.m., and most stores are closed.
Related to the first point, be prepared with food, especially in Europe, where the hours can be different than what we’re used to in the U.S. In France, grocery stores and bakeries in smaller towns close by 7 or 7:30 p.m., and holidays and Sundays often mean that most things are closed. We started to always buy food during our ride rather than at the end of the day, since we’d often arrive in the evening.
A day with a large incline is significantly longer and more challenging from a flat day, even if the distance is the same.
Make time for stopping along the way to marvel at the surroundings and take photos. You have such a unique vantage point of the countryside from a bike—one that you couldn’t get from a train or even a car.
Pack light. My friends and I all agreed that we only really needed one outfit for being in a city or town, and that for most of our packing made sense to revolve around biking. I’d recommend for a week long trip a pair or two of padded bike shorts, leggings, two bike shirts, two sports bras, underwear for every day (or extra if you don’t expect laundry machines), and, for the hanging out around town parts of the trip, a pair of pants a blouse, a t-shirt, a sweater, and a skirt or dress.
Try to stay in Airbnbs with laundry machines, and bring a small amount of laundry detergent. You’ll likely want to wash bike shorts and shirts, underwear, sports bras and socks at least once or twice during a week-long trip.
Bring waterproof clothes if you’re riding somewhere that has variable weather. Bordeaux in the spring for instance is pretty unpredictable — we had temperatures that were colder than it had been in February and in any given day, we got clear skies, clouds, and rain.
Have a large and consistent supply of water. I prefer a camelback-type apparatus to stay hydrated, because you don’t have to stop to drink from a water bottle.
Invest in an itinerary designed by route experts, as we did through 02 Cycles. It will save you a lot of time and grief, and at least in our case, it wasn’t expensive.
Most importantly, have fun! The great thing about a bike trip is it can be almost as cheap as you want it, and you don’t feel guilty about eating all of the fatty, sweet foods you want!