How I cycled around the largest estuary in Europe

Discover the encounters I made and the challenges I faced during my bike ride around the Gironde estuary, surrounded by gorgeous landscape.
Dirt road crossing fields near Mortagne-sur-Gironde, on a bike trip around the Gironde estuary.

Several-days bike rides have an adventure taste, give me a freedom feeling. Plus, they always come with unexpected situations. I find that there are few possibilities to make such expeditions departing from Bordeaux. One of them is a 250 km loop around the Gironde estuary.

As I enjoy riding my bike in the nature, this route immediately attracted me. The itinerary goes through the pine forest and the beaches of the ocean, in the Médoc, and then follows the right bank of the huge estuary. My goal was to complete the tour in 3 days.

Route of a 3-days bike ride around the Gironde estuary

Practical guide for a tour around the Gironde

  • Departure and arrival: Bordeaux.
  • Total distance without deviation: 252 km, distance until Margaux (taking the train to Bordeaux) : 222 km.
  • Duration: 3 to 5 days.
  • Which bike? The cycle path that crosses the Médoc, up to Lacanau and then along the ocean, is very qualitative. On the section between Royan and Blaye, the route sometimes uses dirt tracks and roads of average quality. A gravel bike, a mountain bike and a touring bike are suitable. A luggage rack is necessary.
  • What to bring in your luggage? A yellow vest to be seen, sunglasses, sun cream, a mobile charger, and lip stick. Depending on the season, you can take a hammock, or a tent and a sleeping bag.
  • Where to sleep? There are many campsites in the Médoc, surrounded by pine trees, near the coast. On the right bank, you can also sleep in a campsite or book a hotel room, but there are not that many offers.
  • Where to eat? In order not to leave overloaded, I advise to not take any food. There are many places to eat in Lacanau, Soulac, Royan, and Blaye. Bear in mind that at weekends and on public holidays it might be hard finding places that are open in areas outside the towns.

A warm-up in an enchanting environment

As I look at my bike before taking off, on Saturday at 8:30 am, I say to myself that my luggage, set on my luggage rack, at the back, is too full. It’s stretched under the pressure of the content, and it seems it’s going to explode at any moment. Inside, there is a tent, a sleeping bag, a floor mat and the minimum of clothes and equipment. No food, just water.

After a few boring kilometres through the Bordeaux agglomeration, I finally reach the bicycle path connecting Bordeaux to Lacanau, and the smells of the forest welcome me. I’m wondering where these delicious spicy scents come from. From the plants between the track and the trees? From the resin of the pines? From the ferns? They remind me of licorice and mint.

Suddenly, several road bikes pass me. Seeing them riding away from me in the straight line, I have the impression that their bikes are gliding on the asphalt without any effort on their part. That’s why I’m thinking about buying a lighter bike.

I’m glad to go back to this environment of densely planted pines, brown vegetation between the trees and pine needles spread on the sand beside the track. I know that these 3 days are a time of introspection and thinking. In the long straight lines, I say to myself that I’m luck to be healthy enough to make this journey. I also think that I could describe my adventure to my friends in Bordeaux. Plus, I’m going to meet friends in Hourtin today for lunch. I’m motivated by this upcoming break, during which I will be able to chat about my ride and many other topics.

The natural landscape passes under my eyes with, in front of me, the straight line whose end isn’t in sight.

A cyclist passes me without going fast. Even though I’m slower than during my previous bike rides, I tell myself that I can keep up with him. By sticking behind him, I could limit my efforts.

I force my legs to accelerate to be right behind the man.

I’m moving faster than before, with the same efforts, as if I was penetrating the air with the wind in the back.

After a few hundred meters, my breath gets shorter, my breathing becomes noisy and my thighs get hot. The cyclist is getting ahead of me, little by little.

I suddenly slow down to resume my normal pace and see my temporary partner move away.

All of a sudden, the colour of the setting changes.

Pines with blackened trunks surround the track over several hundreds of meters. On some plots, there is no tree standing. I notice carefully-cut trunks amassed on the floor.

Seeing the consequences of the forest fires from summer 2022 in Sainte-Hélène and Saumos always give feels weird. The lunar landscape has a certain kind of beauty but evokes the absence of life.

In the town of Lacanau, I hear music from a brass band. A passer-by tells me: “It’s the Lacanau market”. As a market lover, I say to myself that I have to see this. I notice the stalls installed under an outdoor hall.

When I arrive there, I feel a vacation atmosphere, even though it seems to me that the visitors are mainly local people.

A place catches my attention since it symbolises conviviality: a terrace where groups of friends and families are eating oysters with a glass of wine. I immediately think about the Capucins market.

I had never stopped in the town of Lacanau. For years, it had been for me just a stop on my way to the ocean or to the lake. However, I had been told that this municipality actually evolved in the past few years, and that it was worth discovering it. Visiting this market made me want to go back and stay there longer.

I head north towards the small town of Carcans, located not far away from the Carcans-Hourtin Lake. The wide bicycle path makes me think about a highway for bikes. On this section, I notice that I make less effort than at the beginning of my trip because my legs are now warm. Moreover, I must think less to make movements. I enjoy this state which is ideal for meditation, like the pines landscape.

I feel good when I look far ahead without distinguishing the end of the track and when I admire the top of the pines that form a green ocean. Between the pine rows, I notice a ground covered with pine needles and brown ferns. Many animals must live there in perfect harmony with nature, and I imagine deers, rabbits and hedgehogs in the forest. The bicycle path connecting Carcans to Hourtin is even more comfortable than the one from Bordeaux to Lacanau. I’m astonished by such excellent conditions.

Bicycle path between Hourtin and Carcans-Maubuisson, in Gironde, France.

4 hours after my departure from Bordeaux, I reach the city of Hourtin, a place surrounded by pines and by the lake, which evokes summer holidays to me. As I arrive at my friends’ place, I’m glad to notice that my legs don’t hurt. Maybe I know the bicycle path so well that it doesn’t tire me as much as before.

The couple has lived here for a few years. They are Médoc lovers. They are surrounded by the estuary, which local people call “the river” and the ocean. They go fishing in the ocean, early in the morning and late at night, to enjoy the sunrise and the sunset. I think that this setting is idyllic and find that they chose their living space well.

Médoc also has a special taste to me too because a few years ago, I went to work in a small wine property that belonged to a relative. On the way, the car was crossing kilometres of vineyards. When we arrived, I enjoyed the silence typical of rural areas, which was only interrupted by the chirping of birds, the engine of a wine machine between the rows of vines or the crowing of a rooster. And sometimes, by the shots of a hunter.

At around 4 pm, I take the bike path in the opposite direction as this morning to go to the camping in Carcans-Plage where I’ll spend the night. This section is deserted. I feel invigorated by the lunch but I have a hard time finding the pedalling rhythm I liked. It’s difficult to coordinate my movements.

As I look at the pines, I notice that they have different shapes and sizes. I like this diversity which reminds me of the diversity of human beings. I see one with a curved trunk. It looks like it’s doing a stretching exercise. Another, with a trunk that splits in two, seems like he’s doing the v of victory with his fingers.

When I reach the peaceful shores of the Carcans-Hourtin Lake, the dark color of the water reminds me of Lacanau Lake. I head towards the ocean with excitement because I can’t wait to see the sunset. The bike path passes through a dense forest whose pines are not lined up in rows, as is often the case in the region. Moreover, the large quantity of sand indicates that the beach is getting closer.

When I arrive at my campsite, less than 200 meters from the ocean, I am surprised to see it so little occupied. Only a dozen visitors are there. A friendly receptionist tells me to set up wherever I want.

I want to put up my tent without wasting time to not miss the sunset over the ocean. I have trouble opening my shelter. It’s been years since I’ve opened a tent. First, you have to lay the “floor” out with stakes in the ground, then put the arches in place and finally fix the tent to protect from the possible rain or wind. Once the assembly is finished, I put my stuff inside.

The sun is still visible but starts to set. I am welcomed on the beach by the heavy and uninterrupted noise of the waves. This sound relaxes me.

I took my bathing suit, but when I put my feet in the water, I find it too cold to dive in. My friends had warned me: it’s about 12° C. I walk along the water while listening to the sound of the waves and smelling the iodine. This setting is an ideal reward.

The orange sun gradually disappears on the horizon. I like to watch this show because the assembly of colours fascinates me. Around this point that captures the attention of the few people still present on the beach, the sky is both pink and blue. Darkness finally falls and it gets cooler.

As I lie down in my tent before sleeping, I hear the rolling of the waves. This sound, that I like, adds to the feeling of being immersed in the wild nature, without any human interferences.

Historical discoveries along the Médoc coast

I start my day by taking my tent down, which is easier than opening it. Then, I go to search for an open café or a restaurant, without success. Everything is closed as it’s Sunday. For my breakfast, I must settle for water and a piece of cake that my friends gave me.

The bicycle path heads north through the pine forest. I start to feel the fatigue from yesterday’s ride. On the edge of the road, I notice huge mounds of pine logs. As I pass them, I smell their scent, a mixture of wood and pine resin smells. I hear the birds singing, but I can’t see them. All my senses are awake.

The courage of a few joggers on the edge of the path strikes me. At the same time, it must feel great to run surrounded by this nature. I haven’t run in 3 years, even though I like running, because of a knee tendonitis. Shortly after that, I started to regularly ride my bike. I often say that biking has changed my lifestyle. In town, this means of transport allows me to work out and makes me benefit of a great flexibility in my travels. In Hamburg, an extended city, I used to ride more than 10 kilometres per day. The length of my drives has decreased since I live in Bordeaux, a “small city.” What I like most in bike tours is freedom. Unlike walking, riding allows to travel long distances and to admire diverse landscapes.

I reach Montalivet at the end of a wide path made with perfect asphalt. In the seaside resort, I go past campsites that seem luxurious.

I notice a monument in front of the beach, and come closer.

Operation Frankton: a little known episode of the Second World War

“Passer-by, when standing in front of this memorial, stop for a few moments, look out to sea, and cast your mind back in time…”

The first few words of the information board captivate my attention right away.

On December 7, 1942, a submarine drops off the coast of Montalivet a commando of 12 British soldiers from the Royal Marines. Two by two, in canoes, they paddle up to the Pointe de Grave. Only 4 soldiers manage to reach the Gironde estuary, the other ones being captured or lost. After paddling for several nights, they enter the Bordeaux harbour to accomplish their objective: placing mines on German ships. Their charges explode a few hours later.

Only 2 soldiers manage to reach Great-Britain again, as the 2 other members left of the commando got arrested and executed.

Even tough I have read books and watched movies about the war, this story fascinates me. It seems almost unreal as it has some many twists.

Memorial of the Frankton Operation in Vendays-Montalivet, France.

When I arrive at the ocean beach, in Soulac, the Cordouan lighthouse, the oldest inhabited lighthouse in France, is visible. It seems close to me because it’s clearly visible. Is it Cordouan? Yes, it must be.

In the streets of the small city, I gaze the villas that are typical for Soulac. On these large houses, often made of red and white bricks, wood beams are visible. The villas make me think of vacation and Belle Époque, but also opulence. I imagine that their construction took place at the beginning of the 20th century.

Villa typical for Soulac-sur-Mer in Gironde, France.

Suddenly, I hear music. I follow the sound and find myself on a square where a market is taking place. At the back, I notice a band playing on a stage, which reminds me of the Lacanau market. I sit down to drink a tea and enjoy the relaxed and festive atmosphere.

I’ve almost arrived at the end of the Médoc, the Pointe de Grave, where I’m going to take my bac, the local name for ferry, to cross the Gironde. I like the section of the path that leads to the jetty because it has a lot of turns. It’s a change from the straight lines from yesterday.

When I arrive at the jetty, I see the boat that’s going to take me to Royan, on the other side of the estuary. I notice pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists waiting for the opening of the gratings.

According to me, the trip on the bac is more enjoyable when one is seating on the deck. I’ve always enjoyed this crossing. The atmosphere onboard is relaxed. Plus, you have a great view on Royan and on the Gironde. I like being able to move without pedalling as I start to feel tired because of the efforts of the first 2 days. However, I only feel little pain in the legs.

20 minutes later, I arrive in Royan, where I’ll spend the night in a flat. I enjoy being in a bed but, tonight, I don’t hear the delightful noise of the ocean.

View on the right bank of the Gironde from the ferry between Le Verdon and Royan, in France.

An obstacle course on the right bank of the Gironde

I cross the beach of the Grande Conche in Royan and see on the other side the coast of the Médoc, where I was yesterday. I know the area at the beginning of the route that should lead me to Blaye.

Under a cloudy sky, I head south. The road is close to the “river.” I gaze carrelets, majestic fishing nets typical for the estuary and for the département Charente-Maritime. Strangely, I never saw anyone on the walkways leading to the nets, as if they were abandoned. I think that if I owned a net, I would have barbecues there at sunset.

Carrelets fish nets on the Gironde estuary, in France.

I reach Talmont-sur-Gironde, a village located on the right bank of the estuary and famous for its abbey on the cliff. From this point of view, I can see Royan, already far away. I like the place because it’s next to the water. Walking through the picturesque cobbled streets, I admire the small houses with coloured shutters typical of the Charente-Maritime. On this Easter weekend, I see many visitors.

The village of Mortagne-sur-Gironde, which I visited a long time ago, is not far away. As I think about the long road ahead, I accelerate to arrive at my place in Bordeaux before the end of the day.

On a billboard, I notice the inscription “Canal des 2 mers”. I ask myself which seas this route connects. By doing a quick search, I learn that it’s the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, linked by the canal du midi.

I arrive in Mortagne after a difficult part through hilly fields. The sea breeze I breathe in, in this small fishing and yachting port, rewards me. The wind hits my hair, face and body as I eat a sandwich in a café. Sitting in my chair, I look at the timetable of the next ferries crossing the estuary at Blaye to reach the Médoc. I aim for the one leaving at 5 pm. Off we go.

It’s hard to follow the route that is as close as possible to the estuary. After reaching a village, I turn at a crossroad, following my map.

On a small road, I reach a couple of cyclists. What I also like about several-days bike trips is to meet other cyclists.

– “Do you come from the area?

– I come from Paris, but I often work remotely from here, says the man.

– Are you on a day trip?

– Yes! The roads are empty here. Sometimes, I ride for a whole day without seeing any car.”

Listening to him, I say that Charente-Maritime must be one of the French départements with the lowest population density.

The dark water from the estuary hasn’t been visible for a long time. As I watch Google Maps, I understand that I’m moving away from my objective, Blaye.

I lost time and didn’t pay enough attention to the road. I say goodbye to the cyclists and change direction, my eyes glued to my smartphone.

The suggested route to Blaye takes me along dirt roads that remind me of the Strade Bianche in Tuscany. One day, I’d love to ride my bike on these beautiful white roads lined with cypress trees.

I see in front of me a steep climb through the fields. In the middle of it, I can move further. I have to put my foot down. My shoulders, stomach and legs are feeling the strain. When I stop my efforts and get off the bike, I notice the fatigue.

Then, I get down the path on my bike at full speed, while feeling that it doesn’t like riding on these big rocks.

Without seeing it coming, I enter a marshland area. The place is wild: few cars, no villages. Around me, I see only flat fields covered with thick green grass. Narrow canals cut through the fields. Like the pine forests of the Médoc, with their different vegetation, this area puts me in a meditative state. My legs grow without me having to think.

I’m zigzagging.

Suddenly, I see a white wader fly by me. It must find some amazing food for him in the marshes.

I feel an obstacle appear: the wind. This force blows from the estuary towards the land. When the road runs along the estuary, the wind does not bother me much. However, when I pedal towards the “river”, I get exhausted. I have to make huge efforts to move forward, which irritates me. Riding into the wind for two hours is an unpleasant feeling for the body and mind.

I take a turn. The estuary, and therefore the wind, is now in my back. It feels like my bike was flying.

Field next to the Gironde estuary near Blaye, in France.

It’s 5 pm. The last ferry of the day leaving Blaye is at 6 pm. A time trial begins.

To keep the pace steady, I encourage myself by shouting at each pulse of my thighs, like a metronome. I have to give it my all to catch the boat.

I see the nuclear power plant near Blaye, towards which high-voltage lines supported by huge metal structures converge. Blaye can’t be far away, but I have the feeling that the distance separating me from the city is still huge.

9 kilometres to my goal. I have to do this run covered in sweat under my leggings and t-shirt.

A long straight line passes through a village. I force myself to concentrate on my pedalling and keep the pace instead of thinking about my goal.

An obstacle that Google Maps had not foreseen appears. Construction work. I have to stop in the middle of the dirt road. I notice a narrow passage between the gate blocking the access and the bushes. I manage to slip through it carrying my bike in my hand.

I see with relief the citadel of Blaye. In front of the fortifications, again, a gate stops me on the path along the estuary. I carry my bike and ride along the rocks on the shore.

I arrive at the quay at around 6 pm. No boat is visible, but there are people waiting: I managed to arrive on time! I then learn that today, as it’s Easter Monday, the departure is exceptionally at 6.30 pm and not at 6 pm. I have time left.

A young woman is standing next to a bicycle carrying luggage, which leads me to believe that she is on a multi-day trip. I decide to find out more.

– ”Are you on a long journey?

– Just for the weekend, I started in Bordeaux and I’m finishing today. What about you?

– I rode around the Gironde estuary. I went to Hourtin first and then followed the coast until La Pointe de Grave. This morning, I was in Royan.

– We followed each other! I made this journey too. I am exhausted! The afternoon in the wind was hard. I think I’ll end up on the train.”

I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one who had trouble pedalling. The discussion confirms that the conditions were difficult.

– “I’m also asking myself if I should take the train. On the other side of the Gironde, there are 40 kilometers left… That’s a lot! Did you sleep in a tent?

– No, I have a hammock. On Friday, I slept on the shore of the Hourtin Lake, and near Royan on Sunday.”

We get on the bac. During the fifteen minutes crossing, I decide that I will take the train in the Médoc to Bordeaux. I don’t see myself riding for two hours given that I’m tired.

I enjoyed the discussion with the cyclist. The encounters and exchanges that hiking and cycling offer make me want to do it more often. Perhaps I will meet her again on a cycle path around Bordeaux.

The vineyards of the famous châteaux of the Médoc greet me on the other side of the estuary. I reach the Margaux station as the rain begins to fall.

On the train back to Bordeaux, I think to myself that the route from Royan to Blaye was much more difficult than I had imagined. I preferred the first two days, but today I feel the satisfaction of having reached the ferry on time after a journey full of pitfalls.

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