The recently inaugurated Vélo Francette (VF) cycle route runs from Ouistreham (that’s the port at Caen to most travellers) to La Rochelle – a distance of over 600km. Our ambition on this ride was somewhat more modest.
There’s a stretch of the VF that runs south from Flers to our local town of Domfront, which is where we started. It’s all voie verte (greenway) along an old railway track that follows, and frequently crosses, the meandering Varenne river.
The start point at Domfront is inauspicious – in an underpass beneath a busy road. But almost immediately we crossed the Varenne (above) and were then into thick woodland (below).
Most of the route was on a track the width of the one you can see in the picture above. The surface is extremely well-maintained and smooth – except that, at this time of year, it’s liberally covered with acorns. These make for lively popping and cracking sounds, sometimes not dissimilar to that of a tyre bursting. Also, after some recent storms, there were rather a lot of twigs, and the occasional fair-size branch, so we had to pick our way carefully.
Cézanne, our 20 month-old sprollie, ran free. Whenever we met other cyclists and pedestrians – and one teenage girl on horseback – we’d stop and hold on to him. But because of his love for everything and everyone, this was probably unnecessary.
Zola, our old boy, mostly rode in his carriage. This time, Trish got to pull it – after all, she’s on the e-bike and I just have the rusty old Peugeot.
Time after time we’d hear the sound of rushing water and would quickly find ourselves on a bridge. The drop to the water grew larger, confirming our impression that we were on an upward gradient – which is great when it’s on the outward leg.
There were frequent barriers, indicating a route crossing. In most cases, though, these were nothing more than farm tracks.
Occasionally the view opened out across farmland and meadows.
Often, though, we cycled under foliage, through natural tunnels.
After about 5-6km we came to a point where a real road crossed our path. This turned out to be a road that we’ve been meaning to take for years.
Just before we got to the road, we’d glimpsed a château-like building through the trees to our right. Once at the junction, we found a placard that told us it was la Forge de Varenne. Normandy is known for its old iron works. This one was in business from the 16th Century to 1866. The château belonged to the works’ owner, but the works themselves were right on the doorstep.
Right near the driveway is a massive furnace – looking more like a castle keep – that dates to 1767.
The grounds are open to the public and there are guided tours (tel: 02 33 37 76 88). The property is now owned by the charity Vivre en Famille which provides residential care for handicapped people, adoption services for handicapped or other disadvantaged children, and a number of other projects, particularly in African countries.
We’d often seen the sign to La Forge on the route we’ve frequently travelled to Flers, but never quite got around to turning down that road. Now we’re determined to go back for a closer look.
It’s in a beautiful spot, nestled in a valley. At this point, the voie verte travels parallel with the old railway line for about 100m, rejoining at a point where there was once a level crossing. The metal barrier is still there, rusted now.
At this point there’s also a shallow but loud waterfall.
We pushed on about another kilometre, turned back and rode to La Forge again where we stopped to have some snacks and a drink, resting on a bench.
The picture to the right gives a pretty good impression of the amount of traffic on the greenway. I’ve tried to count up how many people we saw. It was a weekday, and not August, so that’s always going to reduce numbers. But it was also Wednesday afternoon, when kids are off school. And it was a glorious day – sunny and not too hot, so perfect for cycling or walking.
At a rough guess, I’d say that during the couple of hours we were on the voie verte we probably met half-a-dozen cyclists and maybe a dozen walkers. Give or take. It’s starting to feel that we’ve discovered Normandy’s best-kept secret. Maybe I shouldn’t be telling you this…
Being on the down gradient, the trip back was even easier than the outbound leg. The sun was already starting to get low.
Cézanne wasn’t quite the rabbit-chasing, stick-fetching maniac he’d been at the start, but he kept up a graceful, fluid trot as our pathfinder.
The side-lighting gave the greenway an even more tunnel-like appearance at times.
It’s strange how you notice things on the way back that you didn’t see on the outward leg. I had spotted a path at one point with a sign that mentioned Bagnoles de l’Orne, the spa town about a 30-minute drive from Domfront. On the return trip, though, I could see that this led down to a wide point in the river, which was now catching the sunlight.
The path was too rough for the bike, so I explored it on foot while Trish watched over Zola – Cézanne, of course, came with me. We found a footbridge, partly built of huge granite blocks. There was something very hobbity about it (and yes, that’s a word).
On the other side, the path became narrow and muddy. But I later found this is the GR.22, a grande randonnée footpath that runs from the Ile de France, near Paris, to Mont St Michel.
Soon after, we were back at our starting point, eager to come again and discover more of this wonderful resource – one that’s right on our doorstep.