Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Dolce Via, my cycling heaven

French Village Diaries Train de l'Ardeche Dolce Via cycling France
Le Train d'Ardeche

Today I am going back in time; back to the days of steam, letting the train take the strain and do the hard work, on a tourist cycle route anyone, (who can ride a bike) can enjoy. Let me introduce you to the Dolce Via a voie verte (green route) in the Ardeche, that has to be the prettiest and most tranquil cycle path in France.

I was a little nervous about cycling in the Ardeche, as it is a pretty hilly region of France and very different to the flat lands where we live, but I needn’t have worried. There are plenty of challenging road bike routes that climb the cols (mountain passes) and then drop dramatically into the valleys, plus over 200km of mountain bike tracks, but there is also the Dolce Via, where I found my cycling heaven.

The Dolce Via is a new cycle route that uses an old steam railway line, that was abandoned following the removal of the rails in the 1970’s. Thanks to a remarkable bit of recycling that has restored it’s tunnels and viaducts, a new lease of life has been given to this secret route that runs along the River Eyrieux for 75km from Saint-Martin-de-Valamas to La Voulte-sur-Rhône, where it joins the River Rhône.

French Village Diaries Train de l'Ardeche Dolce Via cycling France
On the Train de l'Ardeche
We spent the night in Tournon-sur-Rhône at Les Amandiers and cycled the four kilometres to St Jean de Muzols where we waited excitedly on the platform for the Train de l’Ardeche, a tourist steam train, that would do the climbing and take us up the Doux River gorge to Lamastre. I'm a secret steam train fan and my levels of excitement were off the scale with the prospect of an hour and forty minutes, in an open carriage, surrounded by stunning scenery and the smell of steam.

For the first half of the journey, you steam up the craggy gorge, looking down on the River Doux tumbling over the rocks as it makes it’s way to the Rhône and it is breathtakingly beautiful. Our neighbour Pierrette gave us the top tip to sit on the right hand side, as you get a better view, and she was right. After a short water refill stop, the scenery becomes more meadows and forests and having had a few early morning starts we both felt rather sleepy with the gentle motion of the train. However the weather had other ideas, as the closer we got to Lamastre, the heavier the clouds looked and eventually the rain arrived. This was not much fun in an open sided railway carriage.

By the time we waited for our bikes to be unloaded from the goods van and left the station, it was pouring with rain and our plan of a lunch in a bar was out of the question as there was nowhere dry to park the bikes. Thankfully Lamastre has a good boulangerie that sold warm, savoury snacks as well as bread and patisseries. We found a sheltered alleyway and bought two hot cheesy baguettes to tuck into while waiting patiently for the rain to ease, which it did after about half an hour.

French Village Diaries Train de l'Ardeche Dolce Via cycling France
Our detour to St Julien Labrousse

Soon after setting off again the sky cleared and luckily the sun returned for the rest of the day. The Dolce Via will soon be open from Lamastre, but we had to take the roads so decided a detour to St Julien Labrousse was a good idea. This small mountain village, where we spent a week on holiday in 1998, didn’t seem to have changed at all and the only sign of life was the sound of Boney M being played loudly from an upstairs window. 

French Village Diaries Train de l'Ardeche Dolce Via cycling France
A tunnel on the Dolce Via

The route Adrian had planned involved a steep descent from Saint Julien Labrousse into Le Cheylard, on a ski slope rather than a road. It even had a sign saying do not use in snowy conditions – I’m guessing this is because skiers would be using it. I am no skier, so we retraced our steps to Nonnières where we found our first glimpse of the Dolce Via after a steep downhill path took us from the village to the old railway line below. This brand new section with long tunnels, gravelled pathways, wild flowers on each side and pretty much no pedalling for the 8km into Le Cheylard was perfect and so easy.

We stayed the night at the Hotel des Voyageurs, an accueil vélo hotel, who provided secure storage for the bikes, a cold plated meal (as we were in town on a Sunday when all the restaurants are closed) and a filling breakfast that included homemade cakes using the local chestnut puree.

French Village Diaries Train de l'Ardeche Dolce Via cycling France
River Eyrieux, Dolce Via
Almost immediately after leaving Le Cheylard and picking up the Dolce Via again, we found ourselves stopping to look at and photograph the scenery; the River Eyrieux, the steep sided gorge, the ironwork and the forests, it was all so beautiful and the blue sky and sunshine were the icing on the cake. To begin with we were treated to a tarmac path and as it is a gently descending route all the way to the Rhône (48km away), we could have cruised along at quite a pace, however we were as slow as snails. It was just too beautiful to rush and we wanted to it to last as long as possible.

French Village Diaries Train de l'Ardeche Dolce Via cycling France
Cycling the Dolce Via

Sometimes we meandered around the gentle curves of the river, other times we disappeared into rock cuttings that silenced the river and were home to collections of ferns. The sunnier, open stretches gave us wildflowers, cherry trees and the odd remote houses and gardens to look at. It was almost effortless and would have been if we weren't on road bikes, (it does state in the brochure that some of the surfaces are not suitable for road bikes). However, while we did have to be careful in places and it wasn’t always the most comfortable ride, we didn’t have any problems. The surface changes regularly from gravel to tarmac, as there are some sections shared with cars (limited to 30km/h) where access to houses is necessary, so we weren’t always on rough tracks.

French Village Diaries Train de l'Ardeche Dolce Via cycling France
River Eyrieux gorge

We have always been attracted to gorges on holidays in France, picking them out to include in our itineraries for our road trips in Gizmo our Mini Cooper. The steam train ride up the Doux gorges, with no traffic to get in the way, seemed to me the perfect way to see a gorge, until I found the Dolce Via. We had no traffic, no train passengers, in fact no interruptions at all. Every corner showed a new vista, that needed yet another photo. We cycled over restored viaducts, through dark, damp tunnels and at times felt we were the only two people on earth. We could see nothing but trees and the river, hear nothing but the birds and the river and we had no phone service, it was bliss.

When we reached the end I didn't want to leave and was tempted to turn around and go back up, which would have meant an uphill climb, but been totally worth the effort. However we had an itinerary to follow and that meant swapping the tranquil beauty of the River Eyrieux with the industrial flatlands of the Rhône and cycling part of the Via Rhôna. Our dream day on the bikes was about to turn into a nightmare. If we'd have known what was to come we would have turned around.

This post continues here and has been linked to All About France at Lou messugo. Click here to read more about France.

Lou Messugo

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