All over France there are green routes or voies vertes that let you explore the country on two wheels – without contending with traffic. The cycle roads are well signposted and often built over old rail routes. These pictures were taken along the route between Evreux and the abbey at Le Bec Hellouin, in Normandy.
This will be my last post about the Olympics, I promise. I’m sticking to my rule that I will only post if it has something to do with France. So I won’t tell you about the excellent Italian fencing final we got to see. Or what an thrill it is to be in London this week.
What I will tell you is that today we were lucky enough to score tickets to see France play Russia at women’s basketball. The French team are unbeaten so far in the tournament, and we expected a good match.
Everything about going to the Olympics is exciting. We arrived from West Ham station and walked along an elevated pathway that gradually reveals the panorama of stadiums in the park. There were jugglers and stilt-walkers and high-fiving volunteers. A carnival atmosphere, still celebrating Team GB’s record 6 gold medals won the previous day.
How different it looked from last time we saw it, just three months ago. One of the great surprises of the Olympic Park is just how attractive it is. Banks of wildflowers shimmered everywhere in the early morning light. Redolent of the golden colour you see sometimes in Normandy.
I’ve already written about seeing the Olympic road race and would have loved to attend a cycling event the velodrome. Second best was seeing the magnificent stadium from the outside.
Now onto the basketball.
Given the number of French nationals who live in London (between 300 and 400,000 according to the French embassy), French support felt muted, especially compared to the vigorous flag-waving by Poland supporters at the GB-Poland volleyball match we had attended the day before. However as French points rose, the tricolore started to appear around the stands.
The French women played a smart and controlled game. They deserved to win, and we’ll be watching as they go into the quarterfinals later this week.
Nothing new to say about Normandy this week as we have kept in London for the Olympics. France, of course, is a great Olympic country: not just as a competitor and five-time host, but, as I’ve noted before, because the modern Olympics exist in large part thanks to a Frenchman.
What a privilege to have world-class sport on our doorstep. A few weeks ago I lamented not being in Normandy when the Tour de France passed through. This weekend, we are lucky enough to have both the men’s and women’s road races pass minutes from our home, on their outbound and return journeys.
Cycling is one of France’s great sports, both for professional athletes and for the general population. You can barely step out of Les Iris on a sunny Sunday without a cycling club in their bright lycra speeding past along the Route des Chaumieres. Each one says hello.
Oddly, I never see groups of female road cyclists. France has three cyclists entered into the women’s road race today. And here they are, 12 minutes into today’s road race in their blue and white outfits, crossing Putney Bridge in west London. Bon chance!
On 4 July stage 4 of the 2012 Tour de France passes through our favourite parts of Normandy, taking the cyclists 214 km from Abbeville to Rouen. They will go through the charming seaside village of Varengeville-sur-Mer, home to a wonderful English-style house and garden, Les Bois des Moutiers. They will proceed along the Alabaster coast with its quaint villages and pebble beaches, turning inland just before they reach the cliffs made famous by Monet and other artists at Étretat. Then south to the banks of the Seine at Caudebec-en-Caux, and instead of crossing the magnificent Pont de Brotonne, they will head east along the north bank of the Seine through the Boucles de la Seine national park. They will pass the abbey town of St Wandrille and ride towards the famous ruins at Jumièges. They end the day in the medieval city of Rouen.
It’s a route I would love to cycle, but maybe not all in a day.
Here are some pictures of places along or near their route through Upper Normandy, starting with the cliffs at Etretat.
Vieux-Port, a village along the south bank of the Seine
We are lucky enough to live near three of Normandy’s important abbeys: the great ruins at Jumièges, and the Benedictine abbeys at St-Wandrille and Notre-Dame in Le Bec-Hellouin. This last is famous not only for its abbey and monastic community but for its situation in one of the most beautiful villages of France.
We set out to visit Le Bec-Hellouin on the kind of drizzly grey April day that tries to make everything look depressed but just can’t seem to manage to wipe away the green blossominess of a Normandy April.
As is so often the case in Normandy, the history of Bec starts out in France then gets knotted up with England. The abbey was founded in 1034 by a Norman knight, and quickly became an important intellectual centre for the Catholic church. A number of the monks from Bec went on to become Archbishops of Canterbury.
After the Norman Conquest, the abbey was enriched with properties in England. The then village of Tooting Bec belonged, at one point, to the abbey, and was named after it. If you stand in the global-suburban-London bustle outside the Tooting Bec tube station today it’s hard to imagine any kind of connection to this quiet valley in northern France.
The abbey suffered after the Revolution, and only the medieval belltower remains. After the Revolution the abbey was used as a cavalry barracks, and elegant buildings were added in the eighteenth century. In 1948 the abbey was reinstated, and today it hosts an active Benedictine community.
The monks sing vespers most Sunday evenings in the simple chapel. There is an excellent bookshop with Benedictine products including ceramics manufactured by the monks in residence. It’s peaceful yet quietly active place, busy with visitors taking walks through the parkland, groups on spiritual retreat, and the monks in white-hooded robes going about their daily life.
For the best views of the abbey, it’s worth turning left out of the gates and across a little bridge towards the old railway station. Look back to the abbey accross the fields. At the old railway station there’s a cycle path running along the former railway line towards Evreux which seems a wonderful way to visit this countryside.