Summer holidays means microadventures! After a few single day rides on the more local-to-me Lavelanet-Mirepoix voie verte, I set my sights on a slightly bigger adventure for our 2021 holiday. The two smalls, now 5 and 7, have become confident cyclists and I was convinced they could manage it. The original plan was to go with friends (another mum with two children, great friends of my children and of a similar age) but thanks to Covid that wasn’t possible, unfortunately. So it was with just three days of the holiday left to go – and plans already arranged for the last day – that I decided just to go for it. We would go on on our adventure after all!
The voie verte in question is advertised as the Foix-Saint Girons route, also called Veloroute 81. In fact it starts just outside Foix in the village of Vernajoul. The full length of the route is 44km.
With two small people in tow, as much as they’re confident riders, I couldn’t see a way to break up the route into three rides with two overnight stops: there isn’t much at all by way of campsites or family-friendly bivouac spots along this route and I struggled to find information that would help me plan my trip. Obviously this wouldn’t be an issue for a solo or adult-only trip, but as ride leader AND parent there was considerably more to consider and then organise.
The only campsite I found is at La Bastide-de-Serou, which is only 17km from the start. Without another campsite along the route to break up the remaining 27km, and as there wasn’t time for a solo reccie ride to investigate options, I decided against trying to do the full length in two days. Our plan then was an aller et retour – there and back – with the there being the campsite at La Bastide-de-Serou.
The campsite wasn’t quite in the village, making the total distance from start to finish 19km, which I figured was doable in a day if we did it in an unhurried way with plenty of snack/interest stops.
With micro-adventures in mind I purchased a Vango Soul 3000 earlier in the holiday. Having put it up just a few days earlier, confident that a) I could do it and b) all the pieces were there, I was happy that it would server it’s purpose: not the most “technical” pieces of kit but suitable for our (hopefully) fair-weather micro-adventure plans. We had everything we needed on the sleeping bag/mat front, so base camp, minus all the other stuff like torches, loo roll and cooking facilities (oops), we were all set.
On the transport side, I planned to take everything we needed in the trailer. I did consider hunting down my panniers and rack and setting all that up but with our trusty Burley D’Lite trailer gathering dust it seemed a shame not to use it: and taking it meant I could load up, without having to worry too much about weight/space issues as I could comfortably fit everything we needed in there.
Map-wise I was winging it: it was a voie verte so how hard could it be?! I’d watched a YouTube video made by a couple who road it a few years ago and it look straight forward enough. In case of emergency I had my phone with Google maps, and I could also use that to navigate to the campsite.
As this was a bit of a last minute affair we had to start our trip with a detour to Decathlon to pickup gas for the stove. Finding that they were out of stock of the one I needed threw a spanner in the works as it meant we’d either have to take food for the evening with us or eat out. So much for a short and inexpensive overnight camping trip!
In the end this was the route we took for Day 1.
Setting off from Vernajoul I was instantly in love as we passed over a wooded valley on an old, high, and very pretty bridge. A few snaps of the little ones later and we’d barely made it to the other side when DD started asking about the campsite. Could we stop for a rest? For lunch? I dutifully pulled over (my 3-hour estimate was starting to look like being loser to 4), grabbed the blanket and cool box from the trailer, and settled down for a rest. They guzzled far too much water and then there were more questions about the campsite. Is it far? How long will it take to get there? Are we nearly there? Oh dear.
We continued on but already it was clear that we were on an incline – and it looked to be continuing that way for a while. The path was shaded, which was welcome, and there were a few nice features along the way, such as some steep-sided railway cuttings and a few small bridges traversing the trail. There were also some old stations. Most interesting to my two were the many many flowers and butterflies. Obviously this meant lots of stopping but as long as it kept them interested I was happy! We also saw a dead mole (I do have a photo but I’ll spare you), a cave entrance that we all agreed we were too scared to investigate without a torch (and our friends), and a stag beetle (sadly also dead.)
There were plenty of cyclists passing us in both directions, many passing us going one way then, having turned and started their return, passing us on the way back too! After a reasonable slog up the hill (would it ever end!?) a couple passed us and DD took her chance to ask someone more knowledgeable than me about the possibility of there ever being a campsite and when (if) the route would start to go downhill at any point. Luckily the man said, yes, we were almost at the top and soon we’d descend to La Bastide. Hurrah! He also noted a junction with a busy road and mentioned we had to be careful when we crossed it. Thanks Mr. Man.
Luckily for DD the man was right. It really wasn’t long after we spoke to him that we found our legs easy off and pedaling starting to feel like a pleasure again. Phew. I was still a little concerned though because my GPS said we were still only on about 9km: all good for today but that would mean more of our journey ascent on the return tomorrow. Not so good.
Free at last from the uphill struggle (emotional as well as physical in parts) we all pedaled along gayley (as Enid Blyton would probably say.) There were a few wooded sections but more and more the view started to open out and we could see the mountains in the background. Had I been alone or with other grown ups and not secretly starting to worry about our return trip the next day, I would have quite enjoyed that bit!
One of the downsides of the uphill (apart from, well, it being uphill) was that my tribe had been quite thirsty. That combined with the frequent stops meant we were almost out of water. I had mentioned this potentially being a problem but thinking through (life threatening?) consequences was not high on the priority list of my small people, which is why I came to an abrupt stop at this sign.
Annoyingly the water was not immediately next to the sign: the helpful map showed that it was up by the school. With “up” being the operative word I decided we could just crack on and manage with what we had. Now we had some actual speed it seemed a shame to stop and head on uphill again – even if it was for much-needed water. So down we went. The trail opened up and the view down the valley was stunning and lack of shade wasn’t too big a deal now we were moving quickly. We passed through a short tunnel and then finally – and by that I mean a whole 10km later – we arrived somewhere resembling a village; there was a building that looked like flats (apartments). At last! DD (again, still not convinced by the plan) asked someone where we could find the campsite. “The one with the swimming pool?” she replied? Yes, that one, said DD. “I don’t think there is one,” she said, very unhelpfully. Luckily I had good mobile reception (we were once again in Civilisation) so I Googled. We passed through the village and started to head out again in the direction of the campsite. This was NOT a popular decision. There was a nice track connecting the village with the road we needed to take and then at the end… nothing to see, just more road. Again, not popular! We pressed on then, finally, at the bend, the campsite came into view. Huzzah!! Relief all round.
Where to eat?
The final challenge of the day was finding food. I had considered that there might not be much open as it was almost the end of the season so had checked online beforehand and had been relieved to see that the campsite served food. On failing to buy a gas canister at Decathlon I thought, “not a big deal” as we’d just eat the campsite. Imagine then my joy when I noticed a sign in the campsite bar area saying that food is served in the restaurant/terrace every day except Monday. Brilliant. The two smalls (DD in particular) as very put out at the idea of going back to the village. Their legs couldn’t take any more, they said. I attempted to persaude them that it really wasn’t far – only 2km, or less even, but they weren’t having any of it. Figuring they really couldn’t make it there and back (and it probably wouldn’t be safe to have them on the road later in the evening anyway) I struck a deal: we would go back to the village to eat BUT they could both go in the trailer. Yay – all happy again.
We came back into the village by a slightly different route which brought us out on the main D117, directly opposite one of the restaurants: Brasserie Le Cent Dix Sept. Having briefly read some info about that one and deciding it was a bit “posh” for our type of group, it didn’t matter too much that it was closed, but it did raise a flag for me: Monday! What if everywhere is closed!? We continued up the hill, me with considerable trepidation. When we arrived at the Cafe de la Mairie I pretty much ran up to the owner and asked if they were serving food. The owner had just sat down for her meal and came over to say no, they weren’t – sorry. My face fell, obviously and I explained there was nowhere else, that we’d cycled from Foix and were really hungry (look at my poor starving children!) and that the campsite was restaurant was also closed so… Then she said the magic words: “I can make you croque monsieur with salad, but no chips.” GREAT! PERFECT!! THANK YOU!!! So thanks to a very kind owner of the Cafe de la Mairie we were able to eat on Monday night. Which meant we were also in a pretty good place for Part 2 of our adventure, which was to be the return journey the following day.
On our adventure from Vernajoul to La Bastide-de-Serou I discovered a few new things and was reminded that:
- Not all voie vertes are created equal. This one was was half up and half down and, as such, as too big an ask for my smalls on their gearless bikes. If they had gears it would have been easier. If they’d been in the trailer or on a follow-me or a tag-a-long it would have been okay too. There was also zero signing on this one other than to highlight the start and end of the trail sections. Here there were no distance makers, like on the Lavelanet-Mirepoix route, and there was also zero signing to potentially useful destinations to the side of the trail, but maybe that’s because there aren’t any!
- It can be impossible to find a restaurant that is open in rural France. Knowing there are restaurants in the local area doesn’t mean you’ll be able to easily find food. This is still rural France and being closed is a way of life. We got lucky. Out of season there might have been nowhere open at all, in which case we’d have spent the next 24 hours eaching cornflakes.
- The Ariege is beautiful. I spent most of the ride arguing with small people about their ability to get our destination so had little time to appreciate this fully myself, but the second part of the ride, which takes you down into the village, is stunning.
- We have everything we need for future overnight bike adventures and the two smalls can do it. I just have to be a bit more careful with my choice of route and stopping points – and be capable of being self-sufficient until we find food!
You can read all about Part 2 – our return trip – here.