Rennes & Back, 2009

Words & Images - John Coles

Steve and John are off again; this time for a 250 mile jaunt around the former capital of old Brittany.

Finding a real adventure these days can be daunting. By the time you’re packed and ready to go, the sheer headache of sorting everything out – deciding where to go, getting tickets, hiring the car, finding places to stay where they have the right equipment/support – can leave you more in need of a retreat than anything else.

And then there's the cost of it all. To raid the piggy bank and dip in too deeply can be a frightening experience, especially in these times of financial constraint.

Back in 2008, at the planning stage, we wondered where to go in ‘09. We wanted the unrivalled satisfaction of covering long distances and challenging hills & mountains but also to indulge in the important pastimes of eating, drinking and staying in great little hotels. We wanted somewhere with majestic scenery and decent roads. The Pyrenees was chosen by Steve as meeting all these challenges, our bags were almost packed at the thought of it and, like a pair of skinny lattes, we were ‘ready to go’.

 In an age when travelling is tedious, there is something oddly thrilling about hiring a car. It becomes everything you want it to be… not particularly swanky or luxurious with no on-board service, but like a giant cradle it lulls the passenger to sleep with a monotonous melody of sound and sway. Hopefully the driver can resist this heady mix and stay awake.

But this is an expensive pastime… Steve offered his own car in lieu of this potentially huge cost and that meant we needed to cut down the miles.

So this year we decided to forego the delights and tribulations of the Pyrenees and look elsewhere. To drive there, anyway, would have meant two full days travelling and fewer days there than perhaps we would have both wanted.

Head to that old favourite Brittany though, and the only thing you need concern yourself with is whether you have done enough training for both the projected excess alcohol intake and the undulating miles due to be undertaken, both in height and distance. Or whether one should simply put the emphasis of the day on some (well earned) rest and relaxation watching the world go by.

It's near enough to get there quickly and so a quick decision was made. Yes, Brittany it was, even though barely two weeks would have passed since we were due to return from the club outing to Paris to watch the Tour.

But this was going to be a different kind of holiday. We chose Rennes, a wonderful city, slap bang in the middle of the region to use as a base.

The design, the service and the infrastructure of Rennes are as modern as it gets, albeit in an ancient environment, but the landscape, the mood and the inspiration are unmistakable.

It's an intoxicating and sophisticated mix. The skyline never fails to amuse and defy, the stage is set and is there for every type of pursuit and sportsman. But the rolling hills taken at a pace challenge and defeat all but the fittest. In the summer it is the playground for the sporting cyclist and that is where Steve and I take up the story.

We'd been in the area before over the years so knew the D roads quite well. Many of the local villages and towns sounded familiar. We were on home ground. Based in the city we would drive out each day and cycle round a different area. Sampling the gastronomic delights of the local cuisine, however, proved to be a tad challenging. More of that later.

In what seemed like a flash, in mid August we left Steve's house at 5.30am. We had the 8.30 ferry at Portsmouth to catch and a long 6 hour crossing in front of us.

But while the boat slowly steamed out of the port we were able to relax and peer out of the misty windows at the odd mix of passing ships, most of which were safely moored by the quayside.

 Within 30 minutes we were at last out at sea. Breakfasting in the silver service restaurant proved a superb choice. An amazing buffet was laid out before us and we scoffed our cooked breakfasts a bit later like there was no tomorrow. Hunger, it seems, brings on the worst of characteristics.

The drive from Ouistreham to Rennes proved easy and uneventful. We pulled into the outskirts around 5pm. The satellite navigation system that John had brought along was programmed and we laboriously followed the young lady's voice as we were guided safely through the maze of complex road systems.

I recall many years ago when driving abroad being told whatever you do, don't go into Lyons… you'll never get out. Much the same for Milan as well, and no doubt many other large cities as political changes often result in some crazy and complex routing decisions.

And Rennes may well have also fallen into this category... but our satnav saved us as it guided us to our destination.

We'd chosen a hotel as our base close to the station. No particular reason… it just happened that way. But this one had been recently renovated and was a joy to sample. A good choice by Steve.

Now, I hear what you're thinking… the station area, eh! Usually a bit dodgy. But no. The whole area had been the subject of redevelopment. The newly built station stood proudly on its old footprint begging to be used. And so it was, with its steel, chrome and glass construction it was a proper and fitting tribute to modern architecture.

Nearby, old tenement like buildings had been flattened and amazingly large ultra modern structures put in their place, the size and design of which would have even challenged the quirky Pompidou Centre in Paris.

And the cycling… well after lazy breakfasts we headed out in the car to a predetermined spot for the day where we abandoned our charge, kitted up and headed off for our 50 mile jaunt. It was all at an easy pace. No head down stuff, no time trialling, no racing… we just set off pursuing the lure of the next village and all that the joining roads had to offer.

Meals at lunch time were challenging. We'd happened to have chosen the very period that the French, bless ‘em, had taken off. Yes, it was in the middle of their annual holiday season and their escape to the sun.

Closed signs were everywhere. What to do. Well lunch ended up being anything from a baguette, on one occasion made especially by a local feeling sorry for us… to an authentic Italian restaurant in the smallest of villages.

Ah, if only one could apply that dictum… size matters! Inevitably the largest of towns would be well and truly shut whilst the unthinkably smallest village would occasionally reveal the most delightful choice. To a couple of logically thinking ‘roast beefs’ it made no sense. Those Frenchies were the source of much amusement to us in our travels.

But Blighty beckoned and no sooner than we'd started, we had finished. Our 7 day extravaganza had ended. But it had been a good bash and had ticked all the right boxes. We'd covered around 250 miles in the 5 days of cycling available to us, in an undulating world of mixed road surfaces.

But we'd stuck to the minor roads pretty well most of the time and that had given us pure riding heaven.

We'd chatted intensely, put the world to rights, solved the recession and other world problems. We'd been puncture free, we'd been spared any mechanical problems. We'd dipped into the wonderful overindulgence of the local wines and cuisine. Indeed France had smiled upon us that mid August of 2009.

We may have left as a couple of skinny lattes, but we’d returned as a couple of happy cappuccinos!