Discover the hidden gems of the Tour de France

By • Jun 26th, 2012 • Category: Travel

Running from June 30 to July 22, the 99th Tour de France will shine the spotlight on the French countryside once more, as cyclists cover almost 3500km in their race to win.

Cycling holidays in France are always popular, thanks to its relatively temperate climate, beautiful scenery and proliferation of historic villages and towns, but late summer is bound to see even more cyclists visiting, inspired by the Tour. Only the most ambitious or foolhardy recreational cyclist would attempt to complete the whole Tour route, but many aspire to complete part of the route, which is eminently more achievable.

A bonus of the Tour is that it provides a guide to a hidden France, bringing to the fore places that would otherwise remain unknown to tourists. This year, there are nine new stage towns in the Tour. Here, we look at the pick of the bunch and the routes that lead to them. Bon voyage!

Flat: Samatan to Pau
The south-western town of Samatan is making its debut as a stage town this year. Although it only has 2400 residents, it’s packed with architectural, cultural and gastronomic delights. The town is nicknamed the capital of “pink gold”, thanks to the unusual pink bricks used in many of its buildings, while foodies have also dubbed it the Mecca of foie gras- quite the accolade in foie gras mad France.

The cycle itself is largely flat, so you can pootle along at a relaxing pace through the canton of Gers. The distance from Samatan to Pau is long, and contains some stunning countryside. The Gers is often referred to as amongst the least densely populated, or most rural, areas in all of Western Europe- Perfect if you want to get away from it all.

Flat: Abbeville to Rouen
Abbeville, in the Somme in northern France, is the new town of this leg of the journey. Located on the Somme River, it is at least 10 centuries old and although it was besieged in World War 2, retains remnants of its long past. Highlights include the Churches of Vulfran and Saint-Sepulchre, both dating from the 15th century, and the Boucher de Perthes Museum, which mixes works of art and artefacts, including a belfry from 1209, one of the oldest in France and on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

The cycle to Rouen is 214.5km and relatively flat, but slightly hillier than the Samatan to Pau option. The Somme region is synonymous with war, and although visiting the battlefields requires a deviation from the route, it’s worth it unless you’re a true Tour De France devotee. Some 40 miles of routes make up the Circuit of Remembrance, which tracks Battle of the Somme from Albert to Péronne. There are also information boards along the way which detail the Battle.

Medium: Belfort to Porrentruy
Cut through by the Allaine River and nestled at the foot of the Jura Mountains, Porrentruy is playing stage town for the Tour de France for the first time. The town has won prizes for its steadfast protection of its architectural heritage, and it looks like the Swiss Alpine town of your imagination. Despite having a population of less than 7000, Porrentruy has many historic buildings and sights, including Porrentruy Castle, St-Pierre Church and the Jura National Science Museum and Gardens all designated Swiss heritage sites of national significance.

The 157.5km route from Belfort to Porrentruy (or vice versa) is quite demanding, with 7 steep ascents in the Jura Mountains. If you follow the route to the letter, you’ll pass from the French department of Doubs into the Swiss canton of Jura.

Medium: Tomblaine to La Planche des Belles Filles
The small town of Tomblaine will host the Tour for the first time, but it is Nancy, less than 2km away, that is the main attraction. The city is known for its World Heritage sites, including Place de la Carrière, and Place d’Alliance and Place Stanislas, which has an impressive Arc de Triomphe by Héré. The Musée de l’École de Nancy, is dedicated to the School of Nancy, an Art Nouveau movement born in the city in the early 20th century.

The 199km cycle from Tomblaine is relatively tough going, sweeping in a southerly direction from Tomblaine, with a 6km ascent to La Planche des belles Filles, the endpoint and another new stage town. La Planche is a ski resort in the Vosges Mountains in east France, and part of the Ballons Comtois Nature Reserve. The Nature Reserve extends almost 2300 hectares and is densely forested, with its many marked trails making it a popular destination for hikers and amateurs on their cycling holidays.

Laura thinks Europe is the world’s best continent for cycling holidays.

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