Set up camp on the Mayenne towpath
Enjoy a wonderful adventure by bike along the 85 km of towpath by the Mayenne river! During this two-day circuit, you'll spend the night in one of the bivouac tents perched on stilts and specially equipped for the purpose. Here's our logbook.
At the starting line...
Below the municipality of Daon, the starting point for our expedition, a little stone boundary marker pierces through the vegetation. Tucked by the water, it features some writing that includes the number 85, the number of kilometres between this exact point and the town of Mayenne. This is the distance we're going to travel, following the famous river. We'll use the country's longest towpath to do this, from which horses once pulled mariners' barges. You need two days to complete the route, which is actually part of the Vélo Francette, the long itinerary that links Ouistreham in La Manche to La Rochelle. During this resolutely wild trip, we'll be spending the night in a bivouac tent perched on wooden stilts. We're off!
The adventure begins on the towpath
We start pedalling from Daon, a village located on the edge of Maine-et-Loire and Mayenne, between Laval and Angers. Cyclists get a warm send-off from the little town as they head north, in the shade of alder, ash and pussy willow trees. There's not a sound to be heard except for the wind in the branches, the lapping of the few little barges that glide along the water and the panting of passing fellow cyclists. You don't need a lot of experience for this journey, as everyone can go at their own pace and stop off, if desired, at one of the many hotels, gîtes or guest houses along the way.
Château-Gontier, the jewel of the Mayenne
As we ride along, the route unveils majestic châteaux overlooking the river. We see them as we arrive in Ménil, a charming village with a bucolic open-air café and a romantic little island perfect for a picnic. Seven kilometres further and Château-Gontier, considered by many to be the finest town in Mayenne, comes into view. The majestic Hôpital Saint-Julien, whose outline stands out on the horizon, is truly impressive. You've just got to explore the town, even if just for the Couvent de Ursulines, an architectural gem with a remarkable cloister, or the little paved streets of the historic centre. It's soon time to get back on our bikes.
Along the locks
The next part of the journey reveals peaceful surroundings that alternate between pastures and hills. We come across myriad fishermen looking for carp, bream, zander and pike. A few kilometres further and the locks of La Roche-du-Maine and Neuville appear alongside old mills, while the lock at La Benâtre has been transformed into a restaurant aptly named L'Écluse (The Lock in French). On its terrace, sheltered by elegant shade sails, Patrice serves a dish of the day for a snip, made with fresh produce. His most popular items include roast pork ribs with homemade chips, remoulade with duck breast, egg mayonnaise with bacon chips and chicken and mushroom lasagne. But if a cyclist asks him for an omelette, the owner is all too happy to oblige!
Exploring the hidden treasures of Entrammes
We push on a little bit further and we arrive in Entrammes, where we'll be spending the night. Before that though, we have a little explore of our surroundings, with a tour of the abbey of Notre-Dame-du-Port-Salut. In 1815, this monastery was the first in France to reopen. Those interested can enter to explore the 13th century abbey or the chapel of the Immaculée Conception (Immaculate Conception). Incidentally, it was here that monks invented the famous Port Salut cheese to preserve the milk that they produced. If you've got a bit of energy left, head for the town centre of Entrammes, less than two kilometres away, to search for a real treasure of Antiquity: the Gallo-Roman thermal baths, which remain amazingly well-preserved!
A magical night in a bivouac
Night gradually falls, and it's time to settle into our bivouac, happy but a little exhausted by the forty-or-so kilometres we've cycled during the day. It's what we'd call a good kind of tired! Our shelter is a specially-equipped Canadian tent perched on stilts (€18 per night). Having climbed the ladder, we're glad of the comfortable double mattress and disposable bedlinen. Just below is a picnic table and two benches, as well as a special space for our bikes. To collect the keys for this little love nest, we head to the neighbouring restaurant, La Halte d'Entrammes. Note that booking is compulsory by contacting Jean-Pierre, the owner, in advance (+33 (0)2 43 58 06 66). A skilled cook, he can also rustle you up a little something for dinner, such as a Colombo cod curry or wild prawn skewers, which you can savour on the restaurant's wooden terrace. All that's left to do then is get under the covers.
Exploring the "capital"
A welcome break
It's back to the handlebars after this little urban break. We pedal along the path at a good speed as we admire the château de Changé, Pont de Pritz and its very futuristic silhouette, the remains of the old factory at Rochefort, and more. Further on, we catch our breath at the Halte Fluviale de Montgiroux. It has a playground, a little grocery shop, showers and even a little raised lawn where you can put up your tents. You can also have a drink, pick the tomatoes in the greenhouse for free and even sometimes watch a concert. At the end of this little stop-off, we continue up the river between flower-filled locks, inns and manors.
A triumphant arrival in Mayenne!
Arriving in Moulay, lovers of creature comforts will delight at the splendid hotel La Marjolaine near the water's edge, which happily welcomes cyclists who want to enjoy château life for a night. It has a gourmet restaurant, a pool and a spa too. Braver cyclists will ignore this charming stop and push on to Mayenne to finally complete the route. In the department's second-largest town, everything is built around the château that has stood here since the 10th century and is one of the few Carolingian residences still standing on the Old Continent. We choose to put our legs to the test a final time, exploring the steep streets of the old town behind the château. After this stroll, it's time for one last task, perhaps the most important one of the trip: celebrating our achievement! To do so, we head to the other side of the river, just beyond the Tourist Office. If you look carefully along the quayside, you'll find a little stone marker that bears the number 0. Ring any bells? It's customary to take your photo in front of it, looking triumphant. And that's it, you've made it!