with tips for cycling & hiking
The section of the river we were going to cycle was effectively the navigable part from Mayenne to Angers.The river is joined by the Oudon south of Lion D’Angers before it forms a confluence with the Sarthe north of Angers and then takes the name of Maine, before it joins the Loire,shortly afterwards.
The river is naturally navigable up to Chateau Gontier. In the 17th an 18th centuries artificial navigation was extended to Laval and beyond to Mayenne though as a commercial waterway, this was abandoned after the Second World War. North of the Oudon the river flow is very irregular, witnessed by the low river levels in the locks, which in many places were effectively dry docks.
There was a plan to extend a canal to the Orne river at Caen but then the railways came. If this hadn’t been the case it would have been possible to cycle along flat waterways all the way from Caen to Angers, though the railway from Caen to Laval.has now gone as well. Nowadays the Mayenne forms a small part, but gloriously scenic cycling part, of the long distance cycleway, La Vélo Francette, which runs from the Channel at Ouistreham to La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast. Though a lot of the route follows rivers, it is not all plain sailing, the section through Suisse Normande is challenging. Our aim was to follow the easy section from Ambrières Les Vallées to Angers, for the vast majority of the route, following the scenic Mayenne river.
This section follows the canal from Sword Beach of D Day fame,passing the iconic Pegasus Bridge before entering William the Conqueror’s Caen architect of another invasion in the opposite direction in 1066.
The original bridge was replaced in 1994 and is now a star attraction at the Memorial Pegasus Museum at Ranville
I include this section here because I do not want people to make the same mistake that I had made. As a frequent visitor to Normandy I had avoided visiting Caen on the basis that it had been obliterated in World War Two and visions were conjured in my mind of another post war development epitomised by Coventry, which suffered the same fate in the war. How wrong could I have been. The city has been sympathetically rebuilt in stone and the main cathedrals, L’Abbaye aux Hommes and L’Abbaye aux Dames have been restored, though the RAF made attempts to avoid bombing these abbeys as they were used to house French civilians and served as a medical centre.
The Abbaye aux Hommes or Sainte Etienne abbey together with the Abbaye aux Dames or the Abbey of Sainte Trinité are outstanding examples of Norman romanesque architecture and apparently were built as a penance by William the Conqueror and his wife Matilda of Flanders as they had upset the pope, who had not approved their marriage. The church was big business in these days so to ensure compliance with papal doctrine and approval of the marriage, that was eventually given at the cost to both of them of two enormous cathedrals.
Caen is also the site of a magnificent castle again built by William the Conqueror and during WW2 was used as a barracks by the German army and suffered extensive damage but recently has undergone restoration of the ramparts.
You can really stay anywhere on the coast, there are numerous campsites. We stayed at the Camping Normandy Sea Oasis, Merville Franceville The big plus was that you could park your motorhome at the top, with superb sea views. There was nothing else but it suited us to the ground .
If you turn out of the site and go into Merville Franceville, you pick up a greenway which takes you to the Orne river. You then take the road to pick up the Orne Canal at Pegasus Bridge and then follow the canal into Caen. It is a very easy day cycle and a very civilised way of entering the city..It is about a 20 mile round trip.
We based ourselves at Camping Gué St Léonard, which is an excellent site right on the banks of the Mayenne,less than a mile from the town, with free wi fi, motorhome service point, perfectly acceptable if somewhat dated sanitary facilities, a riverside pitch for less than 13 euros and a brilliant reception.
An interesting feature of the campsite are the already erected tents/pods which have a space below for your bike and a table. These were to be found on other sites.
Mayenne is a short walk or bike ride from the site and the majestic Chateau, dating from the 10th century, rises from the Mayenne river and is well worth a visit. There is also an excellent market on Saturday.
The main reason we came here, however, was that it was the start of our cycling trip down the river to Angers. As well as the cycle route down the Mayenne, the Chemin de Halage, or towpath, there are numerous cycleways radiating from the river, which were once old railway lines, now converted to cycleways. The link below has a downloadable map.
This follows the river south and the ride starts from the left hand side of the river at Mayenne and as is the whole ride along the river, totally idyllic and primarily traffic free. In our minds we thought possibly that we might reach Laval but 40 miles in one day was enough and in any case we discovered a small aire in St Jean, which was ideal for a trip into Laval.
It was Sunday and what better way to celebrate the French way of life than to enjoy that French tradition of Sunday lunch. I have said before on this website, if a Frenchman has a choice between going shopping on a Sunday or going for lunch then there is no choice. We had a very pleasant lunch at the Relais de la Varenne on the patio overlooking the Varenne river.
Ambrières is like many a French town, pleasant enough but not really a lot to be seen. The most amusing part of the day was there was a fête in full swing and the highlight was a zip wire high above the river and that was really as good as it got.
To arrive at the town we had to take one of the old railway greenways by turning right out of the site before you take a right again to pick up the old railway track from Mayenne to Ambrières. You cross the Mayenne river before taking the branch up to Ambrières. If you turn right then you end up in Mayenne. Though you are still in the Mayenne valley, this is the only time you see the river before you cross it again at the Viaduc de La Rosserie just before entering Ambrières.
The ride is pleasant enough but it is like any other cycle ride that follows an old railway line and will not in any way compare with the scenic route along the Mayenne river. One of the highlights was the Vélo Rail just outside of St Loup du Gast, where you can take a handcranked wagon along a 2 mile section of rail track still in place. There is a small cafe and toilets here. There is also a small motorhome aire just off the railway path.
On the way back we took a trip round the back lanes to the confluence of the Varenne and Mayenne, before heading to the village of St Loup de Gast and onward to pick up the rail track again. It is basically a follow your nose route but google maps will help to reassure you.
The aire, which resembles a small campsite, was our base for a trip into Laval and for scenic beauty, far surpasses the car park motorhome aire just outside of Laval, even though it cost 10 euros but for that you had EHU, toilets and showers and if you wanted to forsake the electric hook up, you good get a river view. Your fees were collected in the evening.
Before arriving we made a detour to Jublains and Sainte Suzanne.
The attraction here are the Roman remains, not the Colosseum but nevertheless still worth a visit. THe main attractions are the theatre, the fortress and the baths. Attached to the fortress there is a museum and this is the only attraction that you have to pay for. The baths are situated in the church. Parking is easy outside the fortress.
Sainte Suzanne rightly deserves its accolade as one of the most beautiful villages in France, complete with its medieval walls, chateau and narrow streets it is a delight to wander around and has plenty of restaurants for a menu de jour.
Just outside of the village is the Beugy Camp,which were earthen ramparts and a base for a siege of Sainte Suzanne by William the Conqueror, who failed to take the fortress though it finally fell to the English in the Hundred Years War in 1425. By then it was cannons that led to its downfall.
Parking is easy, at the bottom of the hill there is a large free car park with plenty of room for motorhomes.
After arriving at the aire at St Jean, it was an easy cycle ride into Laval and time to explore the town.
The town is considered to be the capital of the province of Mayenne, is dominated by its chateau and cathedral and the quay areas on the river are very pleasant.
We stayed at the Camping du Parc, another super riverside campsite and in September we were able to pick up a great pitch overlooking the Mayenne, all for the princely sum of 12 euros, including a pass to the municipal swimming pool. This was an amazing building. When we first passed this my first thoughts was what a superb open air riverside location. When I passed again, I had to make a double take,there was no longer an open pool. The answer was simplicity itself, there was a glass building which rolled into place to cover the pool area in inclement and as it got cooler in the evening. This was very impressive for what was essentially a municipal pool.
Chateau Gontier was a very attractive town and it was good fun wandering around the upper town and the quayside areas. Motorhomes do stay on the quayside downriver.
You can get to the river at the bottom of the campsite and then you take a grasspath, past the swimming pool and then onwards to the bridge at Château Gontier. After crossing the bridge you turn right and head towards Laval. On the route,just under half way, is the superb restaurant Le Beyel which is a great stop for lunch. The restaurant is in the village of Originé but decamps to the lock at Bénâtre for the summer. If you can not do lunch just stop off anyway, you will get a warm welcome and they speak excellent English.
Picnic lunch was the order of the day and as you get to the bridge in the town,take a left and after a few metres, there is an excellent bakers. You cross the bridge and turn left and on the quay opposite is a motorhome aire. The Square de Forme on our side of the river is a very pleasant garden area which acts as a footdrop to the city walls.
We cycled down to Ménil and there is a campsite here right on the river, Camping Municipal du Bac de Ménil, which also has a nice little cafe for morning coffee.
You continue down the river towards Daon, on the opposite side of the river. There is a campsite here as well.
Onwards to Chambellay, passing Chenillé-Changé on the opposite bank, there are short road sections but there is no traffic. There is a nice little picnic area overlooking the river at the bridge.
We stayed at another excellent municipal, even closer to the river and an excellent base for exploring Angers and to complete the section to Le Lion d’Angers and the final section to Chambellay via Montreuil sur Maine.
The section to Lion d’Angers was interesting. You cross a bridge at the confluence of the Oudon and the Mayenne and follow a track through the woods and then take a steep descent before following the river to the town. This route was very much follow your judgement and it worked fine but in places the route was not as good a surface as found on the Chemin de Halage on the Mayenne. The name of Lion d’Angers is more interesting than the village, which suffered heavy destruction in World War Two but the church is worth a visit, it has some interesting 16th century murals.
Rather than taking the road to Montreuil sur Maine, we retraced our steps to the confluence of the Oudon and Mayenne.
In 2018 the official map showed a diversion away from the river but I just had a gut feeling that the path had been completed, well it was sort of. We ignored the route barrée signs, passed the dumptrucks and diggers and though in places it was a little tricky, it was perfectly cyclable and was very satisfying as we had followed the river all the way from Mayenne. We had witnesssed the construction of the final gap in the Chemin de Halage. Only the last section to Angers to complete
At Montreuil sur Maine we met a young motorhomer, who had tucked himself into a brilliant spot below the church and just off the river, now this is what I would call wild camping.
On the way you pass the ferry to the island of Saint Aubin, an area of marshland surrounded by the Mayenne and Sarthe rivers. On the other side of the river was the restaurant Le Port de L’ille, which looked quite interesting but we had bigger fish to fry.
You continue on until you reach the confluence of the Mayenne and Sarthe, where the river changes its name to the Maine, which then continues to the Loire and opens up all the possibilities of the Loire au Velo. For us the destination was Angers and though you will eventually have to cross the river, there is no hurry, just enjoy the imposing edifice of the Château as you get nearer and nearer.
Though we had had a fleeting visit to Angers before, we had not visited the Chateau before and this had to be remedied, given the shared history of the Counts of Anjou and the Plantagenet Kings Of England. What was even better was that when we arrived it was European Patrimonie Day, so all the main sights were free to visit. So after an extensive visit to the Château, this was followed by the cathedral and the Musées de Beaux Arts. The latter is situated in some imposing buildings, the oldest of which dated to the 15th century,with a nice garden courtyard with some excellent artwork and history of Angers.
The Mayenne cycle route is an easy incredibly scenic ride along a beautiful river with numerous points of interest on the way, staying at some idyllic very economic campsites, coupled with friendly receptions and finally concluding with a visit to the ancient city of Angers.