I cycled from Dieppe to Nice and saw a different France
The crunch of tyres on gravel rouses me from my doze. Damn it! I knew I shouldn’t have hit “snooze”. I unzip my tent and look out on to a dewy football field. A van has pulled into the car park – it’s the groundsman arriving for morning duties. I’d intended to be out of here before anyone found me, so wiggle out of the tent and pack it as quickly and quietly as I can. “Wild” camping is n’t always an Instagrammable glade in a forest – I’ll definitely be finding a campsite tonight. I slip away undetected and ride down the narrow, slumbering streets of Chaussy, a village 70km north-west of Paris. The crisp morning air soon blows away the sleep and, as I ride past sun-painted fields with their neat rows of crops, the mist dissipates.
This is day two of an eight-day ride from Dieppe to Nice, mainly following the river valleys of the Seine, Loire and Rhône. My bike is packed with everything I’ll need: clothes, tent and flapjacks. I’ve always felt riding a bicycle is the best way of exploring the world, but most of my touring so far has been within the UK, usually ending with a dip in the North Sea. But for this summer holiday, I would swap the North Sea for the Mediterranean. At the end of this I will lie on the beach in Nice, next to people who’ve probably been lying on the beach in Nice since I started cycling. But this way, I’ll have earned it.
By day three, I’ve hit a rhythm and the mileage is going well – 233km down, 865km to go. The traffic-free Avenue Verte had guided me from Dieppe to Paris, then south of the city I followed the Seine, into rolling and windy hills over endless farmland. The sense of simplicity and freedom that cycle touring brings is here in abundance, and I love the wide skies and the cool mornings that burn off to leave long, sultry afternoons.
Four hours south of the capital, I roll into Milly-la-Forêt. The central square heaves with fruit stalls. I buy some nectarines and eat beneath the market canopy, the taste transporting me back to family holidays. Someone exits the boulangerie clutching a French stick, and an old man rides by on a bike that looks as though it’s held together with string.
That evening I reach the Loire valley and find a campsite at Beaulieu-sur-Loire, but it’s been a long day and it’s dark by the time I pitch up. This site is really for motor vehicles, and there’s no chance of getting my pegs into such hard ground, but I manage some kind of configuration of guy ropes tied to the hedge and my bike. Perhaps camping is not quite my thing.
The EuroVelo network of cycle paths has 19 routes covering 70,000km across 42 countries. EuroVelo 6 goes from Nantes in France all the way to Romania, and I follow it for 180km along the Loire, where a mixture of riverside paths, canal towpaths and old railway lines mean it’s totally flat and almost all off-road. It’s easy cycling, and easy navigation. “J’aime le towpath!” I post on Twitter, though by 100km my amour has cooled. At points it’s nicer to just ride on the road – there’s not much traffic, and France’s high asphalt standards mean all the roads seem to have been newly resurfaced, lending rides smoothness and speed.
My fantasies of wild swimming, like those early dreams of wild camping, do not quite materialise – I’m too busy cycling. But at Bourbon-Lancy, the last town before I leave the Loire, I take a detour to the river bank. It’s sandy, and the water is wide and shallow with reeds bent by the fast flow; hardly deep enough for a proper swim but I strip and dip anyway, gasping at the freshness.
The Rhône valley, which I reach on day six, could not be more different from the Loire. For one, it’s much busier: EuroVelo 8, known on this stretch as La ViaRhôna, is a popular route for all kinds of cyclists, from couples to families to groups of friends heading out with a picnic and a bottle of wine. It’s understandable: it’s totally off-road, mostly next to the river, and often beneath tunnels of trees that provide much-needed shelter from the sun. The river is wide and very blue and endlessly draws the eye. Like the Loire, the route is flat, but instead of being in a wide river valley, it’s hemmed in by dramatic slopes crammed with the famous vineyards of the region.
There is a Roman fort in Vienne where I stop in a small square beside the river for lunch. The buildings surrounding it are pale orange with terracotta roof tiles – in contrast with the chalk-white bricks of the north – and the land is noticeably more arid. I would like to stay here, beneath this tree, watching the river roll past, but I must cover at least 80km more today. “Why don’t you take it easy? Your sea swim will wait,” someone says on Facebook. “Yes, but my train home won’t,” I reply, and keep pedalling. My knees hurt.
By the time I reach Camping Les Deux Rives, 20km south of Valence in the Rhône valley, it’s dark, again. I curse my ambition, yet I’m pretty proud of my progress. The shower is long and hot and there’s a game of pétanque going on outside the bar. The thunk of the boules filters through as I settle down with my pizza, sans fromage. If vegetarianism isn’t a thing in France, veganism certainly isn’t – cue lots of blank looks when I say I don’t eat cheese. Imagine! In France! So far I’ve been surviving on frites, salad and pizza, with fresh fruit from the markets, and lots of bread. Tonight’s pizza has been gradually growing colder and soggier in its box since I bought it back in Valence. But I’m ravenous. It’s the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten.
South of Montélimar it’s away from the river valley and into the plains of Provence, where the hulk of Mont Ventoux looms. The plan is to take a small detour and ride each of Ventoux’s three ascents in a single day – but that’s another story.
On the eighth day I roll into Nice. A week of smashing out 130-plus kilometres per day has definitely taken its toll, as have the early starts and l ate nights, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way – slow travel teaches you how things connect and allows you to see so much more. In our must-have-everything-now society we tend to forget the journey’s worth.
The cycle route goes right along the Nice seafront, past the famous Negresco Hotel, under the palm trees, and is soon crowded with the many people who flock to this part of the Côte d’Azur. After days of solitude it risks being overwhelming, but I don’t mind. It’s a small price to pay for that sea swim I worked so hard for.
The pebbled beach shelves sharply into the sea and in I go, rising and falling with the breakers, the water definitely cooler than I had anticipated. Kicking back under that intense sun I resolve to return to Nice one day. In the interests of muscle fatigue, please forgive me if it’s by train.
•Ferries for Dieppe leave from Newhaven, East Sussex, and cost from £30 one way (dfds.com), taking four hours