Book review: France En Vélo, by John Walsh and Hannah Reynolds

June 2, 2014 at 10:45 am | Posted in books, cycling | Leave a comment
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Francophilia oozes from this book. Part travelogue, part tour guide, it takes you on an idiosyncratic, 1000-mile journey through the authors’ favourite bits of France, with plenty of historical, cultural and culinary detours along the way. Hannah and John know France very well, and their route is largely off the beaten track; I was tickled to see the stunning yet little-known Gorges de la Nesque included, for example.

You get the feeling it would be a giggle to go on holiday with these two. Their enthusiasm for good riding in gorgeous scenery is matched by a healthy interest in the local tipples and a penchant for serendipitous exploring (the list of Picnic Essentials includes swimming gear, and one of the Useful Phrases is Could you fill my bottle with red wine, please?).

france en veloThe book is beautifully laid out. All the pictures of spectacular vistas, inviting streets and architectural gems will induce hopeless nostalgia in anyone who’s visited France, and send readers who haven’t scurrying off to Tripadvisor. Ideal for dreaming over on wintry evenings, you can practically smell the lavender and taste the Sauternes, and the loving detail gives you a real sense of what you’ll experience when you’re there.

It’s a terrific read, then. But would it work as a holiday guide?

Hannah and John suggest ways of adapting the route to your preferences, including dividing it up into different stages depending on how far you want to travel in a day, or doing parts of the route as short breaks. There’s plenty of practical information about each town, including where to shop, stay and get your bike bits from, and I can see all the tidbits of historical and cultural information really enhancing a holiday.

However, the vivid detail that’s so enchanting in your living room might weigh a little heavy in your pannier. The book includes turn-by-turn route descriptions, which would work in a walking guide, but I’m unsure I’d be hauling it out at every junction to check I was going the right way. For me, a different format would have worked better – perhaps a narrower, slimmer volume with directions that would fit in a back pocket, and an accompanying text with the local colour, for route-planning over pizza in the evenings.

I was expecting fold-out maps, and was a bit surprised to find schematic route plans only. So you’ll need to get hold of a set of Michelin maps (not a bad thing, in itself), and spend some time beforehand translating routes from book to map.

The very specific local recommendations in the book may mean it’ll suffer from Lonely Planet syndrome, whereby you arrive in a town to find none of the places you were hoping to eat/ drink/ stay at exist any more. There’s an accompanying website, which isn’t very developed at present – this would be a great place to post up-to-date recommendations, e.g. from travellers using the book. Ideally, the book would have its own app, so you could check directions and local information while on the move.

All in all, though, this is an inspiring read for anyone dreaming of cycle touring in France. Maybe the best approach is to let it stimulate your imagination, and then do as Hannah and John would do – pack a few maps and your swimming gear, fill your bidons with vin rouge, and see where the Mistral blows you.

  • France En Velo, by John Walsh and Hannah Reynolds. Wild Things Publishing, 2014. Rrp: £16.99

I was kindly provided with a free copy of this book for review by Wild Things Publishing.

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