Escapade à vélo sur le canal d'Ille-et-Rance

The Ille-et-Rance canal by bike

Cycling getaway on the voie verte 2 Bretagne (Brittany Greenway 2)

In Brittany, departing from Rennes, the towpaths along the Ille-et-Rance canal provide the perfect backdrop for a cycling trip. Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful circuits to do in France, by the water, along a perfectly safe and flat route: the V2 Brittany is an ideal greenway for family outings. So what are you waiting for to get in the saddle and head straight for the Emerald Coast?

A gentle adventure from the city to the sea

“Swimming in Dinan Saint-Malo is not a piece of cake”, but riding a bike around Rennes-Saint-Malo is more like a health walk… The itinerary is very popular with excursionists, cyclists and bicycle tourists who appreciate a gentle adventure. Whether you come from afar, from the direction of Arzal on the Atlantic coast, or from Redon, via the Vilaine, it is an obligatory passage to reach the English Channel. “Manche-Océan” (Channel-Ocean) is precisely its name.  A quiet link, a unique greenway: the V2 Brittany. It is one of the most beautiful cycling circuits in Brittany. And it is no coincidence that the Guide du Routard (Routard’s Guide) has selected it in its new guide of the 10 most beautiful bike trips to do in France. The Ille-et-Rance canal is simply magical.

Heading gently towards the sea: the towpaths form an ideal route if you want to enjoy slow tourism.  Here there is no question of sporting performance, you take your time, like the barges of yesteryear, and watch the landscape go by like a long sequence shot.

There are a thousand and one ways to travel the Ille-et-Rance canal. You can explore it by day from Rennes, from the festive heart of the Mail François Mitterrand (François Mitterrand Strip). Where those who set off on the cycle paths and the party-goers who set off on the tracks pass each other.

Rennes-Chevaigné, a good idea for a day’s escapade

What’s the purpose of the trip? The journey itself. What’s the difficulty? Very limited, because there are no slopes. It’s all flat! Ideal for a family outing, even if the little ones have to be towed.

The ritual of Rennes-Saint-Malo by bike usually takes several days, two or three depending on your pace, with a welcome stop at Hédé and the magnificent site of the eleven locks. Then, head for the Rance, Dinard and a boat crossing: the icing on the cake.

But there are much simpler ways to taste the soul of the canal. A day trip from Rennes to Chevaigné. Barely 18 kilometres on the clock and you can come back on the Regional Express. The pleasure of the outward journey without the drudgery of the return, a comfortable getaway to pre-empt the tiredness, especially if you go as a family with young cyclists. The route remains suitable for the whole family and you can vary the pleasures by returning on the other bank. Here the towpath is well-developed on both sides.

Stage 1. From Rennes to Saint-Grégoire (5 kilometres)

On the Mail François Mitterrand (François Mitterrand Strip), a fresco pays homage to racers and cyclists. At the foot of the facade of the aptly-named bar “La piste” (The track). With the restaurant de l’Echappée (the Breakaway restaurant) close by, let the metaphor run until you’re thirsty. You’re finally ready to go and full. You won’t see many cars after passing the quais Saint-Cast (Saint-Cast quays) and the lock. A first stretch of cycle path along the Boulevard de Chezy (Chézy Boulevard) will put a smile on your face as you head towards the Prairies Saint-Martin park: a few bridges later, here you are at the Saint-Martin lock and the canal whose name recalls a distant Parisian cousin. Let’s set off on a journey along the Ille-et-Rance canal on the V2.

Slow tourism to recharge your batteries

Inaugurated in October 1832, this shipping route was originally used to transport goods (coal, stone for construction, wood) and men (especially cannon fodder). Quickly supplanted by the railway, which was much faster, the canals now have a second life that celebrates a slower pace. Walkers, horse riders and cyclists can make their way along here in complete safety. Between the two towpaths, river tourism and nautical activities have also found their place.

This is the hallmark of the towpath: you can let your mind wander. The only worthy competition is with butterflies and dragonflies. No need to go fast, no hill on the horizon… the curves invite you to take a break. To the rhythm of the locks, the landscape tells the story of river navigation. And it is almost without realising that you are already disembarking at Robinson Island with its charming lock and its pretty mill. A pastoral scene, perfect for a few photos and a short break (public toilets are available next to the lock on the right hand-side).

Stage 2. From Saint-Grégoire to Betton (8 kilometres)

Destination Rennes – Franck Hamon

From this little paradise that is Robinson Island, make your way back on either side of the canal, whichever you prefer; the towpath and counter towpath are both well maintained and developed. This is the other advantage of this greenway: there is no risk of getting lost. The paths do not present any technical difficulties and are mostly shaded. These are ideal conditions to admire the reflections on the water, kayakers, water lilies, ducks and shoreline plants. On the traffic side, just beware of water hens crossing without looking.

A journey to the rhythm of the lock houses

The route is punctuated by charming stone lock houses which are part of the local heritage. One of them – the écluse des Brosses (Brushes lock) – has been transformed into an artist’s residence by the town hall of Betton. It is a perfect place to find inspiration. You will find your cruising rhythm on this slightly longer section. The canal forms a few meanders, at times other canals reveal even quieter little corners, such as on the side of the écluse de la Charbonnière (Charbonnière lock).

Take a break at the Betton market

Interpretive panels are there along the route to explain to walkers and visitors local stories and anecdotes about heritage and the management of river and natural heritage. There are also maps to help you find your way around and see how far you still have to go. You will then arrive in Betton through the splendid Ille valley dominated by the church of Saint-Martin perched on a promontory 90 metres above the canal.

Betton is the perfect place to make a stopover. You will arrive just off the Place de la Cale (Cale Square), which hosts one of the liveliest markets in the Ille-et-Vilaine department every Sunday morning from 8.30am to 1pm. With more than a hundred merchants and nearly 6,000 people every week, it is a very popular meeting place. Its location next to the canal and the barges is unique. If you pass through Betton on a day other than market day, many shops, bars and restaurants will welcome you. The closest to the greenway is the bistronomic restaurant Dupont & Dupont, which has a terrace with a breathtaking view of the canal.

Stage 3. From Betton to Chevaigné (4 kilometres or so)

It is now time to leave Betton and head for Chevaigné (a little further north). From there on, the trees are much more abundant and imposing. Vegetation becomes denser and in some places you pass through corridors of greenery and small forests, which are very pleasant in hot weather. For a few hundred metres the canal is actually obscured by the vegetation. Here, the Breton countryside shows its most beautiful finery. All along the canal, picnic areas invite you to sit and enjoy the birdsong and the gentle breeze. Although there are fewer walkers, there are a lot of joggers and cyclists who find an inexhaustible playground on the banks of the canal.

In Chevaigné, beautiful stained glass windows draws the eye to the church

Soon enough, you are near Chevaigné. The market town is not immediately visible from the edge of the canal. Signs indicate the nearby train station and shops. You can make a U-turn near the covered market hall. This former sawmill used to make the oak gates of the locks of the Ille-et-Rance canal. Today, it is a boules court that has kept a certain style. A small diversion is also necessary in the church of Saint-Pierre de Chevaigné, some of whose stained-glass windows are among the oldest preserved in the department (they date from the middle of the 16th century).

For the return journey: train or bike?

From there you have the choice: either go back by train (be careful, the places reserved for bikes in the TER BreizhGo regional rail network are limited and never guaranteed, so it is better to avoid rush hour), or work the pedals to return in the other direction and come back to Rennes.

Taking the other side of the towpath on the way back will make it feel like a different journey. You will no doubt want to go a little further in the direction of Saint-Germain-sur-Ille (6 kilometres after Chevaigné) beyond the borders of the Rennes Metropolis. The sea is still not very close, so it requires a little training and planning to get there.

In total, in Ille-et-Vilaine, track 2 stretches for about sixty kilometres. But to reach the Emerald Coast in Dinard, the route is 100 kilometres in total. The section between Rennes and Chevaigné is 18 kilometres each way, a 36-kilometre round trip, which is already quite something and much better suited to a day trip. Enjoy your trip on the towpaths!

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