On Dit “Bonjour!” – Biking the Canal de Nantes à Brest

May 4, 2017

Equipped with the Matrix-level information download from Maxime that Bronwyn described in our last post, we set out to clock some serious kilometers on the epic Vélodyssey and see what we could see on our way towards Pontivy through historical Bretagne. Have we mentioned that it feels VERY Beauty and the Beast around here?

Little town, it’s a quiet village. Every day like the one before…
Little town, full of little people. Waking up to say…

Bonjour sequence from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast"

Who wants more than this provincial life?

And it’s actually like that. I’m not too hot with my French history, but a lot of the areas we’ve been cycling through in Brittany look like they’ve been the same for the last 400 years or so. There are some really wonderful pockets along the way where you can guess the distance before your next stop based on how quickly the hilltop church or cathedral increases in size during your approach.

While we were in the planning stages for France – and before we heard back from the incomparable Maxime – we had our sights set on getting all the way to Cairhaix-Plouguer the first night. It was an additional 10km out from our stop in Locmaria-Berrien so it was one of the first areas we passed through in the morning. We continued along the hiking and cycling route that had brought us from Morlaix to Maxime’s home. Bronwyn mentioned this already, but the entire stretch is built on a now-defunct railway line. The grades and curves are never very steep or sharp. Given that we’re packed heavy with gear, we really appreciate the slow and gradual nature of these trails. Would-be cycle tourists reading this: go find yourself a sweet route along a reclaimed railway line. They make the best cycle paths.


We ended up a little bit turned around before finding Carhaix-Plouguer when the railway route ended, but there were some wonderful French people at the ready to come to the rescue.

French cyclist couple to the rescue!

They fulfilled every French-cyclist stereotype I could ever hope for, bike baguette and all.

Obviously, when in France, you need to have a baguette on your bicycle.

They pointed us in the right direction to the town and assured us that we had a beautiful ride ahead. Cairhaix-Plouguer contains a few hills and the Vélodyssey route through it takes a tricky turn or two, but with a keen eye you’ll catch the little green signs that confirm you’re on the right route.

Bike route signs in France

After a big downhill south of the village, we found ourselves at Écluse 197, the first of hundreds of canal locks we would see on our way along the great Canal de Nantes à Brest. The road was smooth and well-marked the entire way. The canal-side route is mostly closed to vehicular traffic and is easily some of the easiest and most beautiful cycling we have ever experienced.


After 70 km or so we passed Abbaye Notre-Dame de Bon-Repos, a spooky looking building on the side of the canal that has been around since the 10th century but was mostly destroyed in the French Revolution way back in 1789. From the looks of it, they use the facade and grounds now to stage reenactment performances.


We started looking out for camping spots when it looked like we weren’t going to make it all the way to Pontivy, so a sheltered field tucked away just west of Mûr-de-Bretagne and set up for our first wild camping in France. We spread out the tarp for some wild cooking.


More amazing riding the next day took us predictably along the canal for our longest-ever day of cycling – about 85 km – past the epic Josselin Castle that sits right on the edge of the River Oust.


We felt it might be a tad bold to camp right within the city limits and found ourselves pushing forward until we could find a sheltered picnic area of some kind. When we crossed the road near Saint-Gobrien we knew we had found the perfect spot. The day was waning and there was little traffic along the bike route, so we thought we’d set up for dinner first and then see if having our tent out would be appropriate for the night.


A man passed by a couple of times and asked us if we were too cold. He gestured towards the boat moored on the side of the canal and suggested that if we needed to, we were welcome to bunk up in his boat to stay warm. We thanked him and had dinner. We referred to him affectionately as Monsieur Bateau.

M. Bateau wasn’t finished being kind with that. The next time he passed us by, he offered us a gift: two matching caps.


He explained that it was his anniversaire and that he wanted to give us something. We were so touched. It occurred to us that this man was going to spend his birthday alone, sleeping on his boat without anyone around to celebrate with him. Given his generosity to us, we felt like we needed to do something.

Garnering our collective musical theatre knowledge and limited ukulele ability, we managed to write a three-verse bilingual happy birthday song (one, I might add, that even rhymed bateau, cadeaux and chapeaux in its final refrain) and sing it for the man on the deck of his little river boat. He was thrilled with the gift and insisted on serenading us back after emerging from the boat with his own guitar.


A glass of red wine later and we learned that Gerard – G.G. to his close friends – was a local of the area and was living on his boat while fixing it up. We learned about his time as a cruise ship head chef and his desire to one day visit Canada.

After a final performance of Blackbird for him, we said our bonne nuits and headed off to the tent. Before departing the next day, G.G. would visit our camping site one more time to give us a parting gift: two Josselin souvenir t-shirts to remember the time we shared with him on his fifty-eighth birthday. We regret that we didn’t get a photo with him – I just hope that G.G. might read this post someday and know that he helped to make France even more magical for us along the way.

Next: our time at L’atelier des Bons Plants, the first WWOOFing stop in France.

Author: Christian

Middle school teacher on hiatus/budding permaculturalist currently cycling the world. Sometimes he acts in plays and film. Mostly he travels and blogs about it. Christian is one of the founders of onlyamazingdays.com


  1. Comment by Patty

    Patty Reply May 4, 2017 at 2:11 pm

    Sounds beautiful.

    • Comment by Christian

      Christian Reply May 5, 2017 at 4:58 am

      It’s a wonderful country – we’re told it’s only going to get warmer and possibly prettier as we head south… but Brittany is going to be hard to beat!

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