Touring Normandie & Bretagne

After my own trip to Sweden, and a little break in Belgium, it was time to head for another tour with Edelweiss Bike Travel.

This time the destination was France, more specifically we’d be riding in Normandy and Bretagne, as well as some of the Loire area. Castles and World War 2 sights were on the agenda. The tour started in Versailles, right next to the famous chateau, so I headed there by TGV.

Since I arrived well on time, I went to explore the famous Chateau grounds by myself, while Pablo, my coworker for the tour and Paris resident even, took our customers on a guide city tour before the riding started. I have a soft spot for stately castles with landscaped gardens (believe it or not, I can appreciate something else than rusty, derelict places), so I had high hopes for what is arguably the most famous one in the whole world.

I have to admit I was a bit underwhelmed. It felt too big and impersonal, turned into some kind of strange Disneyland-esque themepark with classical music blaring from speakers on every corner, tourists trundling around in golf carts everywhere and no real charm left to the place due to all efforts to make it withstand the thousands of visitors it sees every day.

When the first day on the bike took off, I was guiding the group on the bike straight away. It became clear this tour, a “Classic” category one, has a bit of a different goal than my previous two in the UK. Here we were pretty much seeing at least a castle and cathedral every day, often more, and the riding took second stage to the sightseeing.

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Also of note is that the group size was extremely small. Normally Edelweiss would cancel a tour with less than 5-6 participants, but these customers were lucky and got almost a private tour. I’d quickly start noticing that while this makes certain things much easier, it does pose other, unexpected challenges as well.

We did stay in some very swanky hotels, definitely better than the UK. Everybody’s favorite from the trip was the magnificent Chateau de Briotieres, and I mostly agree with them if it weren’t for the poor attempt at vegetarian dinner, something that seems quite common in France.

A real star was also our tourguide motorcycle, a BMW R1200GS, a bike I had already come to appreciate during the training tour earlier this year. In a strange turn of events, a customer was forced to leave his BMW Navigator GPS unit attached to the bike, so me and Pablo had the luxury of riding with two GPS’s at the same time (3 even in Pablo’s case). I was completely amazed by the smooth, smart integration of the GPS unit with the bike’s handlebar controls; allowing one to control the unit without taking your hands off the bars!

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After a few days, I noticed that even though this tour was mostly easy going, the hardest part for me lay in the combination of very few customers, extremely long, French 5-course dinners and Pablo’s exuberant social ways. There were often hours upon hours of sitting at the dinner table waiting for the next miniature, decorative course while keeping conversation going. Don’t get me wrong, the customers were all nice people, but I just need a little alone time now and then to give my head some rest.

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I also felt at times that the planning of the tour just focused a bit too much on sightseeing; so many sights and such great distances in a day meant we often had to cut short (which is not typical for a Classic tour); skipping slower, nicer roads, for faster, less interesting ones. I had one or two occasions where I was on my own and could freestyle the route a bit (as opposed to the planned or shortened version of the route), and those occasions stuck with me as some of the better riding of that week.

I did feel the sights got a bit better as we moved towards Bretagne. Plenty of castles, abbeys and medieval towns to feast our eyes on, often not overrun with tourists.

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I also had to prepare my first “real” picnic, but since it was only for 5 people total it was a breeze, as opposed to what is usually a bit of a stressful day as van-driver and picnic-preparer. The hardest part for me was estimating not buying too much, to avoid wasting food!

On our “rest day” in the unimpressive Saint-Malo, we headed for the supposedly much more impressive Mont Saint Michel, a true icon of France that graces many travelguides alike. Due to a turn of events where two customers wanted to go to church first instead (where Pablo then offered to take them), I headed there with just one customer; Michael.

The mountain was actually quite worth seeing, us getting there early and skipping some of the crowds was a good move too. We spent about half the day there; once we’d seen the mainly empty abbey and church, we had lunch and moved on.

Michael had already shown himself quite keen on taking selfies with his beautiful Ducati Multistrada in front of historic churches and chateaus, so he asked if we could go see some more of those. Nothing else was planned that day, so I jumped at the opportunity to freestyle a route to some 3-4 castles in the neighbourhood. It was actually one of the most fun days for me, it almost felt like it was just 2 guys out hunting for castles. Michael was also extremely happy that evening with all the impressive Facebook- and Instagram-worthy visual material he’d amassed that day.

My last riding day we went for some of the sights that gave this tour its name (Paris to Omaha [beach]). It proved challenging again, as the massive distances combined with customers understandably taking more time at sights than is ideal for the schedule had me wishing we had two, or at least one-and-a-half days to explore this area instead!

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By all standards this tour was good; nothing went wrong, customers were all very happy and as far as they could tell everything went according to plan. On the other hand I just can’t quite finger it, but this tour didn’t feel all that memorable to me. Sure the sights, hotels and food were all great, but the riding was so-so and I felt a bit mentally drained, like I could use a bit of a break after this one. Little did I know what was coming up for the next tour…

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