France has many small roads that makes finding suitable bike routes relatively easy. But we have found the French to be less helpful than many nationalities when stashing our bikes for the night at a hotel or for a few hours while visiting a museum.
You can often put your bike on the regional trains without boxing if you need to cover bigger distances in a hurry. But putting bikes on trains in France is challenging and its hard to find out in advance how far you can take them at a time. You have to piece your trip together as you go on the regional trains.
Bikes can go on some of the trains in and out of Paris, which beats riding in the city. We found the Parisian drivers, especially the commercial drivers, to be vicious around bikes--our worst experience ever in traffic on bikes. We did find one blissful route into the city on a bike/pedestrian way. There are some bike lanes in the city but most were clogged with parked cars and piled garbage. One Parisian advised against using them and referred to them as "Death Lanes."
In 2007 Paris had a big push to promote biking for energy conservation and pollution control so perhaps the situation will improve for cyclists on the road.
If you are finding the lodging overbooked in France, head for the freeway junctions and look for motels as you would find in the US. There are several like Etap, Premier Classe and B&B that are national chains with handy little booklets describing their locations. They are tiny, budget priced, and always clean and usually have air conditioning. We were allowed to put our bikes in the rooms at many of them.
- Hotel Premier Classe www.premiereclasse.com.
- B&B Hotel chain at www.hotelbb.com is comparable price-wise to Etap's but a little nicer.
- Campanile's at www.campanile.com are similar to the higher-priced Ibis's though often have outdoor room entrances like US motels rather than indoor corridors like hotels. We usually could keep the bikes in the room at Campanile.
-l'auberge everHôtel is a new chain in 2008 with only 8 locations open, mostly in western France www.everhotel.com. The one we stayed in Orolon had a "Salle de Sport" room for the bikes. It was in the 55-60€ range for 2 with free internet in the room.
-www.balladins.com was new to us in 2009. Their hotels each go by a different name than the website. +33 (0) 1 55 85 93 62. The first one we stayed in was 59€ and felt like a 4-star compared to comparably priced places we had been staying. Our fresh and new room was large and had a bathtub. Unglamorously located at a freeway interchange but the interior ambiance was a delight. The next abode in the chain was about the same price and very ho-hum: dimly lit, a tiny window, and challenging plumbing. It did have a good bed however.
The very cheapest chains often don't have phones in the room, but the next level up like the B&B Hotels do. And the great thing for us about these chains with phones is that they almost always have new phone systems that allows us to both use PIN-type phone cards and to connect our laptop to the internet. We sometimes make a point to head to one of these hotels just for the opportunity to connect. Again, there generally isn't anything desirable about the freeway locations for us a bike tourists, but sometimes just finding a place to stay at night is all that matters and we enjoy the break from the unpredictable quality of the traditional lodging.
If you are headed to a big city in Europe, need a place to stay and don’t need for it to reflect the local charm, try the Ibis Hotels: www.accorhotels.com. You can also look at www.ibishotel.com but the Accor site gives you access to all 12 of their hotel brands with their price ranges. The room rates have ranged from $50-75 for two which is very good price for centrally located hotels in big cities. (You can pay that much for a shared bathroom down the hall in so-so accommodation in large cities.) The rooms are often $5-10 less on weekends and increase 20-50% during events in cities that host big conventions. We have passed on the $6-9 per person breakfasts and have our own cereal and juice in the room. The prices are posted on the wall so you know exactly what you are paying. The reception folks always speak English (well, except for in France), which allows us to phone for reservations with confidence. And we can count on being able to send or receive a fax or someone being available to accept a Fed Ex package. We like their firm beds and have found the rooms at most of their locations to be sound proof with light blocking curtains. They also have a money-back guarantee if you aren't satisfied with your experience. I would however avoid the Pau Ibis in the city center until they remodel--in the summer of 2008 our room was in poor condition.
The Accor chain's Etap hotel rooms are more efficient than the Ibis rooms and run around $30-40 for 2 people per night and their Formule1 are really efficient with a price tag of about $25 for 1-3 people with a sink in the room and shower and toilets down the hall. The Etap and Formule1 haven't had good locations for us and we've only tried one, which was divine but atypical as it was converted from their higher-end Novotel chain. In some cities (like Barcelona) the Ibis’s are also out of the central core but still accessible.
If you are headed for Menton on the coast near the border with Italy, check out www.hotel-chambord.com to determine when not to be there. In 2009 their tariff chart showed 5 intervals of 3 to 5 days in which their prices were at their high season maximum even though high season is July and August. There were 2 blocks in April, 1 in May, 1 at the end of October, and the final one was around the Christmas holiday time. We didn't stay at the hotel but it was my #2 pick to call.
In the fall of 2009 we noticed that the availability of wifi had changed dramatically. It was like a law had been passed or a decree had come down as just about any place we stayed had free wifi. The Campanile Hotels had had free wifi for a couple of years but the Ibis Hotels had dropped their fees only as of September 2009. Even the "homey" Logis inns were installing free wifi and I spotted one Super-U supermarket with a free wifi corner. The Ibis Hotels systems don't allow voice, so we couldn't use Skype and some other connections weren't fast enough for Skype, but we could always retrieve our emails and do some surfing.
Grocery Store Finds
In some parts of France the grocery stores carry some especially nice prepackaged, prepared foods. Our favorites are the shredded carrots in a vinaigrette sauce, the cubed beets in a light sauce, and the lentils. They are all in the refrigerated section in sealed plastic tubs that are prefect for picnics. Occasionally the same stores will have small portions of roasted chicken breasts that are also well-sealed for carrying in your bag for hours before eating.
We've found 2 frozen-foods-only stores, Picard and Thiriet, that have beautiful products at good prices. Their product lines range from frozen food bars, through prepared soups, appetizers, and entrees as well as including unenhanced vegetables, fishes and meats. We've only bought the most basic items but wish we had kitchen facilities when staying near one of these stores so we could sample some of their enticing items.
Outdoor Gear and Camping Supplies
It's always a challenge finding replacement gear while away from home but we usually rely on big-city resources for our shopping. In France, ask for the "Au Vieux Campeur" (Old Camper) chain of stores. We've only shopped in their Paris stores, but they have others. In Paris their inventory is scattered in perhaps a half dozen small shops within walking distance of each other. One has mostly clothes, another mostly books and maps, another has tents and campsite equipment. They stock many brands that we know from home like MSR, ThermaRest, and Petzel. The Paris shops are in the Quartier Latin. Their marketing information also lists stores in Toulouse Labege, Lyon (Liberté), Sallanches (Haute Savoie) and Thonon (Haute Savoie), all of which are either in southeastern or southern France.
The Pyrenees (2008)
See our separate "Pyrenees" file under "Country Details" for a hiking and biking review of the Pyrenees from east to west.
Des Gorges du Tarn in Southern France (2008)
The Tarn River valley made a great route for an west-east traverse of southern France. We headed out from Albi north of Toulouse along the Tarn River valley and exited when we turned due north to Mende from Molines on D-31. (We were going to take RN 106 from Ispagnac but were advised that it was a truck route). Following the Tarn River was hardly a flat river ride as we were accumulating 1000'-2500' in elevation gain depending on the day but it was a pretty route with generally low traffic volumes. The traffic volume in the Gorges itself was high but it was primarily slow-going vacationers sightseeing like us. The road up the Gorge wall from Molines was reminiscent of being in the Pyrenees. We accumulated about 2,000' in elevation gain that day and began the stint with 10% grades. We were huffing and puffing much of the way up. Our next day from Mende was over 3,000' in the course of 41 miles though the grades were kinder--most of which was along or near the Lot River.
The 50 km long Gorges area is scenic and a worthy destination. We weren't impressed at the beginning, but it did eventually deliver on the ohh's and ahh's. This is hardly Grand Canyon class scenery, but has eye-catching water-carved limestone formations. It is a wildly popular tourist area, which makes it challenging to visit on a bike because of the competition for lodging. We laid over in Albi at the Ibis Hotel for an extra day for the sole purpose of reserving lodging for the 5 day segment which included 1 night actually in the Gorges. The 5€ for 24 hours of wifi at the Ibis was what Bill needed to both look for additional lodging options online and use the internet telephone via Skype to make the reservation calls. One could ride through the Gorges in a day whereas we spread it out to a day and a half, but we still needed to secure lodging before and after the Gorges to make the overall plan work.
We dread making reservations for a string of days as it eliminates any changes in our schedule and commits us to sometimes regrettable lodging and unpredictable weather--all of which became issues on our journey. But we were traveling in August, high season in France, and we couldn't risk being squeezed out of accommodations in a relatively isolated area. If you are camping or have a car to blast out of the confines of the gorge for lodging, you'll have flexibility that we didn't enjoy.
Were we to do it again, we'd linger in La Malène as on our ride through the area it looked like the best option for staging additional day trips. Three, maybe 4 nights at La Malène would allow for a day of hiking along or up the gorge faces; a day for an easy going canoe or kayak trip down the most interesting stretch of river; and a day to bike up the gorge wall, down into the adjacent Gorges de la Jonte, and then back to La Malène. There are rock climbing opportunities along the Tarn but the Gorges de la Jonte is the world-class destination in the area for climbing.
Our Lonely Planet recommends Sainte-Enimie as a staging area. It is larger and does have the lone tourist info office once you are in the Gorges and could be a better choice than La Malène from a services standpoint. Both Sainte-Enimie and La Malène have small 'get-you-by' food markets. Blajoux, which is at the eastern end of the Gorge, outside of the most scenic area, has a 'real' market right on the road. Otherwise provisions are scarce in the Gorges (except for ice cream cones and beer) and we were glad we stocked up on the essentials at Millau before entering the recreational area.
Lodging Near & in the Alps - 2008
Bourg d'Oisans: L'Oberland seemed like a good idea with it's very bike friendly orientation but the rooms were small, the soundproofing marginal, and the bed challengingly small and aged. It felt overpriced (58€) for what we got and there were scalper-rates on the breakfasts and internet. firstname.lastname@example.org. Tel: 04 76 80 2424. Fax: 04 76 80 1448.
La Grave: Castillan on the main road was a real mixed bag. Our assigned room was disturbingly antiquated and looked nothing like the remodeled rooms in the brochure at the desk. Bill inquired about another room and we looked at a total of 3, each quite different in size and ambiance--all for the same price. We had a to-die-for view of the mountain from the oversized balcony in our newly remodeled room. Free wifi in the lobby. http://perso.wanadoo.fr/castillan/, Tel: 04 76 79 9004.
Mont Prorel was an oasis for us in 2008 and 2009 after some very marginal accommodations in
France. Quiet, spacious, freshly remodeled, some rooms with a balcony....ah.
It's a competitively priced (65€ in July & August without
breakfast; 55€ outside of summer high season), misplaced
mountain chalet-styled building surrounded by high-rises in the lower level of
the old town area. The owner/managers speak English, German, and of course, French. 5 av.
René Froger - Briançon, Tel: 04 92 21 10 74. Follow signs
to the Casino or "Altres Parking Mont Prorel" to find the tucked-away hotel.
Braincon is a good city in which to resupply for your stay in the mountains. There are several bike shops within a 5 minute walk of the Prorel hotel. There is a large Geant Supermarket up the hill at the Centre Commercial Grand Boucle shopping center where there is also a well-stocked outdoors store Andaska. The Ibis Hotel is next door to the retail center and a big home and garden retailer is just down the road from the shopping center. Most retail is closed on Sunday and many places are also closed Monday morning and over lunch. Hiking is available from the Mont Propel chair lift in July and August that is across the parking lot from the hotel. There is also a nice sports complex with an aquatics center "Park 1326" about a 15 minute walk south of the hotel along the river www.vert-marine.com. It too closes for lunch. www.brainçon.com.
Sospel: Hotel des Etrangers, 7, bd de Verdun; Tel 04 93 04 00 09; www.sospel.net. Ask for a renovated room with a balcony. Small beds but otherwise very nice.
Menton, on the coastal border with Italy (www.menton.fr)
In 2009 we were in and out of Menton, France a couple of times; Menton is close to the Ventemiglia area of Italy. We stayed at the Etap Hotel just across the border in France. The Etaps are one of the 2 budget offerings in the Accor Hotel chain and the rooms are usually cramped like a cabin on a ship. This one in Menton was a bit better in than it had small balconies and bathtubs. It seemed a bit expensive for what it was, 63€, but we needed a place in a hurry. It's right on the main road near the port promenade and the smaller of Menton's 2 train stations, Garavan, is around back. There is a large Super U/Marche U supermarket within walking distance towards the city center on the sea side of the road. It does get a lot of road noise on the ocean side of the building. The free internet available in the lobby is for 30 minutes of continuous use on your own laptop and requires a European cell phone number to complete the registration. 57 Porte de France: Tel: +33 (0) 8 92 68 07 58 www.accorhotels.com or www.etaphotel.com (hotel code 2610).
Hotel Moderne, is in the heart of Menton's old town area and near the sea. It was 78€ for 2 towards the end of June 2009 just before the prices popped up to high season prices. Air conditioning, soundproofing, a little balcony, a bathtub but no free internet made it a reasonable choice for us. 1 cours Georges V; + 33 (0) 4 93 57 2002; www.hotel-moderne-menton.com. Bikes were kept in the locked lobby restroom.
Nearby Hotel Chambord was my #2 choice for an overnight stop in Menton. It was a little more expensive than the Moderne if booked with booking.com, a lot more expensive through the hotel itself. www.hotel-chambord.com
By law, service charges for hotels and restaurants in France are including the bill so tipping isn't expected or required.
In June of 2009 we pedaled our hearts out to get to the top of Col du Turini just before a big storm hit....and then a cusp of my tooth snapped-off with an inlay attached. We were launching into 3 weeks of riding in the mountains and didn't want the uncertainty of this situation hanging over our heads so we returned to Menton the next day in search of a dentist. I started knocking on doors on our way to tourist info to ask for a recommendation and found a dentist before we reached the info office. Dr. Anthony Kolev speaks little English though understands some. He had his English-speaking wife on his cell phone while I was in the chair and she successfully served as our go-between for the one extended dialogue we needed to have. His office was modern; he was very pleasant and sympathetic with my plight; he had a nice touch; and months later I was still pleased with his work. Office: 04 93 35 83 78. Cell: 0033 623 323 434. 1, rue Partouneaux (near the park/Casino/tourist info).