France

How to plan family cycling holidays on La Flow Vélo in France

Last updated 6th July 2024

After several holidays cycling in France, Rudolf Abraham and his 13-year-old daughter agreed that La Flow Vélo in La Charente is up there with the best of them.

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La Fille des Remparts, Angoulême

Cycling in France doesn’t get much better than La Flow Vélo

The Charente sprawls lazily across the French département to which it gives its name, meandering through a kaleidoscope of landscapes and history on its journey to the sea.

On the way it slips between meadows and monasteries, woodlands and wetlands, and links a whole slew of beautifully preserved old towns and cultural sites. Following the river for much of its course is La Flow Vélo – a 290km cycle route from Thiviers to Fouras on the Atlantic coast, with a further section from Sarlat-la-Canéda added later.

It’s a perfect route for family cycling in France, mostly off-road, flat, with plenty of bike-friendly accommodation, along with comic strip art; dinosaur excavations; Roman ruins; one of the world’s last transporter bridges, and endless opportunities for riverside picnics, not to mention the occasional swim.

We joined the route in Angoulême, following it from there to the sea, then continued up the coast to spend a couple of days cycling around Île de Ré.

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Street art, Cognac

Comics, dinosaurs and refreshing swims on the road to Angeac

Angoulême is the undisputed French capital of bande dessinée (comic strip art), home to the third largest comics festival in the world. Street art by well-known comic strip artists adorns walls across the old town, its meandering streets offset by a beautiful Romanesque cathedral, and old riverside warehouses transformed into the outstanding Musée de la Bande Dessinée.

In the morning we pick up our ebikes and head off alongside the river, passing Châteauneuf-sur-Charente – the beach here is a good place to stop if you want to break up your ride with a swim – to reach the village of Angeac.

An Indiana Jones twist and fossilised crocodile poo

Just down the road, in a quarry, is one of the most important dinosaur excavations in Europe: the finds at Angeac include an enormous femur, from one of the largest dinosaur species ever discovered.

The site is only open in July, when they drain the quarry (the rest of the year it’s left flooded) and a bustling camp springs up among the yellow embankments, like something out of Indiana Jones. You can join tours of the site, which are fascinating and enormously fun for kids. And, yes, you get to talk about fossilised crocodile poo.

In Saint-Simon we join a boat tour, slipping smoothly along the Charente to the broad weir, then stop for the night at La Cascade de Saintonge, a lovely B&B in a 17th century farmstead, its broad lawn running down to the water’s edge. The following day takes us through Cognac, where we wander among the half timber houses and narrow, cobbled alleys of its historic centre.

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Phare des Baleines, Ile de Ré

No holiday cycling in France is complete without a mishap

Chaniers lies on the right (north) bank of the river; the route at this point runs along on the left bank. This obvious discrepancy isn’t a problem, because there’s a place to cross right opposite the campsite where we’ll be staying. Except – spectacular error on my part – that bridge-like crossing point on the map, isn’t actually a bridge, it’s a chain ferry. And we’d missed the last crossing, forcing us to turn around and retrace our route to the nearest bridge, then follow the road on the right bank from there.

Camping Belle Rivière might just have the coolest treehouse you’ll ever sleep in. It’s split over two levels, each with their own door, a shower and toilet in one and a gnarly branch rambling through the other; all set 9m up among the branches of a huge old plane tree, beside the river. Both feeling hungry, we unloaded the panniers, then walked a short way up the road to l’Annexe in the village. I’ll remember that restaurant for stupendously good vege-burgers enjoyed on a terrace, limbs comfortably numb after a long day’s cycling, amid the laughter and golden light of a warm summer evening.

Breakfast was a hamper delivered to our tree-doorstep, the contents of which we ate sitting on our balcony, surrounded by leaves rustling in the morning breeze. Then we packed, loaded the bikes and made a dash for the chain ferry, which took us back across to the left bank.

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Donkeys in PJs, Ile de Ré

One of the loveliest French gîtes we’ve ever seen

The Roman amphitheatre in Saintes is one of the largest in France, built in 40 AD when the city was the capital of Roman Aquitaine. It’s a hugely impressive place, cleverly incorporated into the slopes of a small valley, its terraced seats now mostly subsumed by grass.

From the amphitheatre we wheel our bikes over to the Romanesque St Eutropius Basilica, with its enormous crypt. Then, back beside the river we swing past the Arch of Germanicus, a particularly well preserved Roman arch – nearly demolished in 1840, but saved after Victor Hugo intervened. The Abbaye aux Dames is good to visit with kids for its concerts, youth orchestra, and interactive musical activities.

From Saintes we cruise along the left bank, beside arrow-straight channels which cut through a patchwork of meadows, then cross the river by way of the Pont de la Cepe, a former railway bridge.

Our B&B in Chabriot, Les Gîtes du Maréchat was unquestionably one of loveliest we’ve stayed at. All natural wood and stone – there’s also a glamping tipi – it’s surrounded by peaceful gardens. The general consensus being we might have to move here.

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Off-road cycling in France, La Flow Vélo

The last transporter bridge in France makes for an historic cycle

In the morning we cycle the last few kilometres into Rochefort – then, making the most of a free afternoon, we unload panniers at the excellent Hotel Roca Fortis, and pedal off towards the Pont Transbordeur.

Built in 1900, it’s the last of its kind in France, and one of only eight transporter bridges left in the world. After four years of renovation it’s now fully operational, taking cyclists and pedestrians across the river between April and November.

Transporter bridges are an architectural oddity. Designed to transport people, goods and later vehicles across a river without impeding shipping, they have a moving gondola suspended from a fixed iron frame, built high enough that it allows river traffic to continue uninterrupted. Aside from the obvious historical value, it’s a lot of fun, trundling across the broad river as yachts cruise past. On the opposite shore we stop in at the Maison du Transbordeur which explains the history and context of the bridge’s construction.

Returning to the city centre, we head for Rochefort’s famous Naval Dockyard. Built in the 1660s by order of Louis XIV, this huge ‘Versailles of the Sea’ saw the construction of over 500 warships before its final closure in 1927. At its heart is the huge Corderie Royale, which produced the ropes used by the French navy for 200 years.

The rope-making demonstrations generally require the assistance of someone in the audience, so kids should get ready to volunteer. Down at the dry dock there’s an adventure park with climbing ropes, courses on three levels, and a zipline on board a replica sailing ship.

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Fishermens’ huts near Rochefort

The final stage is some of the most beautiful cycling in France

The final stage of La Flow Vélo is some of the most beautiful cycling in France, following the broad sweep of the river as it approaches the sea, beside reed beds, wet meadows and mud flats. After passing alongside fields ablaze with purple flowers, we arrive at the sea just south of Fouras; park our bikes and walk down onto the beach, where seagulls shriek and old fisherman’s huts on wonky wooden stilts protrude out into the ocean.

There’s an edge of the world feeling about La Fumée: the long, spindly finger of land running out to sea from Fouras, the rocky spit of its headland extending out into the blue. Or maybe the ride out there in the sun had just gone to my head. In any case, it’s a wonderful spot, and a suitably impressive endpoint to La Flow Vélo. So take a picnic and enjoy the view. Ferries run to the diminutive sliver of land that is Île d’Aix: the last place Napoleon lived before his exile to St Helena.

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Tour de la Lanterne, La Rochelle

Now we had our sights set on pretty Île de Ré

Île de Ré was where our cycling in France adventure was headed next, so we hopped on a local train to La Rochelle, just outside which a 3km bridge links the island to the mainland. There’s a two-lane cycleway on the side of the bridge, separated from traffic by a concrete barrier, and the long ride over offers fabulous views.

Once off the bridge we continue along a succession or roads and cycle paths heading towards our goal at the far, western end of the island, Ars-en-Ré.

The following day we cycle over to the west coast, stopping to follow a path down across huge dunes, onto the great sweep of pale sand that is Plage Campiotel. A grey heron hunts among rock pools, cormorants spread their wings to dry, and my daughter skims stones across the braided, shallow channels. Then we ride up the coast before turning inland to the island’s 57m high lighthouse, Phare des Baleines where the view, after climbing the 257 steps to the top, is immense: worth a trip halfway across France in itself.

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Fouras, La Flow Vélo

Making cycling in France memories amid sprawling salt pans

The real highlight of Île de Ré however, is the extraordinary Réserve naturelle de Lilleau des Niges, set among the sprawling mosaic of salt pans which were worked here from the 16th to the 19th century. The birdlife is incredible – migratory and wintering birds arrive here in their tens of thousands – and cycling along the extensive network of tracks and paths, we see egrets, shelduck, Arctic terns, avocets and huge numbers of black-winged stilts.

On our last evening on the island, we walk out to the edge of town where there’s a fantastic little Asian fusion restaurant, Matahari Boui-Boui, with a beach bar vibe and delicious vegetarian dishes.

Sitting on the small terrace, the setting sun raking long shadows across the fields, we talk about our favourite places and memories from family cycling in France over the years. La Flow Vélo is up there with the best of them.

How to plan La Flow Vélo

How to get there

Eurostar London to Paris from 2 hours, 16 minutes

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TGV Paris to Angoulème from 2 hours, 26 minutes

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Where to stay

Cit’Hôtel Européen, Angoulême

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La Cascade de Saintonge, Saint-Même les Carrières

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Camping Belle Rivière, Cognac

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Les Gîtes du Maréchat, Cabariot

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Hôtel Roca Fortis, Rochefort

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Le Havre du Capitaine, Île de Ré

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Good to know

Bike hire – Location Vélo Charente

More on La Flow Vélo 

Charente travel information

Angoulême travel information

Cognac travel information

Île de Ré travel information

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