Biking the Nantes-Brest Canal

The Nantes-Brest Canal at Blain

I admit that I am a lazy biker.  My idea of biking involves flat stretches of nice gravel paths and little (or no) uphill battles.  I was not made for the Tour de France’s Alpen adventures or off-road trails.  That said, I love my bike and I use it practically every day.  In France more and more bicycle lanes and “voie verte”  (bike and hike trails, literally “green ways”) are being opened.  While bicycle lanes tend to be synonymous with biking in the city and cars flying by you, a trip down a voie verte is a relaxed traffic-free affair perfect for the entire family.  If you’re visiting southern Brittany, the Nantes-Brest Canal’s 360 km of waterways (and paths along the side) is ready-made for walkers and bikers.

Biking along the Nantes-Brest Canal

Construction started on the Nantes-Brest Canal during the Napoleonic wars, however, the idea of an inland water route connecting the rivers of Brittany was first raised in the 16th century.  Necessity led to the canal’s 19th century creation–Napoleon needed a way to circumvent the British blockade of Brest and allow goods to move freely in Brittany.  Work started in 1811 and the completed canal was inaugurated by Napoleon III a few governments and revolutions later–we are in France–in 1858!  The canal reached its heyday in the years leading up to WWI.  The advent of cars, trucks and better roads ended the commercial era of the canal and today it caters to boaters, bikers and those out for a stroll.

While serious bikers (or the highly motivated) could probably make a vacation out of biking the trail, the canal can easily be broken down into smaller day or afternoon trips.  We have friends who biked the entire trail in 8 days last year stopping at bed-and-breakfasts along the way.  We’ve only personally explored the trail near its terminus at Nantes.  Our bikes have child seats.  Laura is still learning to ride her bike and is still too small to truly explore on a bike.  It depends on our mood/goals whether we let her bike with us or put her on one of our bikes when we go out.  Elise is still trying to master her tricycle!  The canal bike path is a great place to let your child bike no matter how old or experienced they are; you don’t have to worry about traffic and the trail users tend to be very relaxed!

Le château de La Groulais, Blain

I like to have a destination in mind when I go hiking or biking for the day–a place where I can picnic, stop at a café or admire something.  Goals get me places!  If you start at l’Ecluse de Quiheix (Nort-sur-Erdre) outside of Nantes it is an easy 28 km bike ride to Blain.  The canal goes by marshes and small towns and is great for bird-watching.  While not a must-see vacation destination, Blain makes for a nice canal goal.  It has a 12th century château open to visitors, a lovely port full of restaurants and cafés, and “picture postcard” photography opportunities.  It is also possible to start father along at St Nicolas de Redon and bike back towards Blain counting the locks as you go.  (Locks seem to fascinate kids–they were clearly the highlight of the ride for Laura!)  Redon is also a nice option if you don’t have your own bicycle–the tourist office rents them to visitors during the summer.  It’s a slightly longer trip (45 km) but as the trail is flat, it’s not overly tiring and there are plenty of places to stop and admire the countryside.  As the girls continue to grow, I hope to make it even further along the canal path.  Until then, we’ll keep practicing along France’s “green roads” and admiring the views as we go!

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