Exploring the Morvan

The Morvan isn’t easily explained. A mountainous massif, and perhaps an abnormality, lying in the centre of the undulating Burgandy region, surrounded by vineyards, villages set back in time and full of rich medieval history. Lying in between four French regions, the Morvan is the smallest district in France and loves to give the impression of being a fortress. Seen as an impregnable mausoleum in the sky, with its resistance past and a political symbol of French cultural identity.

But, that’s not what draws us here. Travelling to the Morvan is like taking a step back in time, and for those who love cycling, it’s a rich treasure trove waiting to be discovered. Many cyclists are now rediscovering this isolated Regional Natural Park, which is relatively inaccessible, extremely rural and has temperamental weather, yet is easy to get to from Paris or Lyon. A little piece of no man’s land in the very centre of France.

Elise, Sophie and I already know that our rain jackets will play an essential role in this Halloween weekend. As is often the case, our adventure begins with the diesel-powered Regional train service, where the experience starts as soon as we leave the station. With its winding cobblestone streets and traditional stone and wooden buildings, Avallon is considered the urban centre of the Morvan and the northern gate from which to enter the massif.

From here, the Massif Central stretches down across the middle of Southern France, and this highland region, with its mountains and plateaus, covers about 15% of mainland France. In short, we are about to embark on a three-day labyrinth journey, made up of gravel tracks through thick pine forests, and twisting, deserted roads which are often covered with a strip of moss, autumn leaves and a nice layer of water to top it off. The downpour of rain on the hotel veranda at breakfast on the first day confirms our worst fears. We take an extra espresso for courage, and then we attack the first kilometre, which is often the hardest to conquer.

Lormes, Km 30. As crazy as it may seem, the Morvan is almost even more attractive in bad weather. Our first climbs are short but steep as the gradients top 20%. The isolation and solitude already feel delightful and will only increase as the weekend continues. It’s rare to see any villages, and the tiny roads appear to have been beautifully drawn with ulterior artistic motives.

We stop at a bistro, which is lively as everybody who lives here knows one another. Then, with full stomachs and high spirits, we hit the road again to attack our first sections of gravel, some of which have been flattened by previous rainfalls. As we approach the central part of the Morvan, we find ourselves riding past a network of large artificial lakes created in the 19th century by damming several tributaries of the Yonne and Cure rivers.

Back to the rain, which is by now less severe than we expected, and will soon disappear and leave the landscape covered in a beautiful mist. We find ourselves passing through the tiny hamlets of Porcmignon and La Chaume, with their evocative sounding names, before we reach the commune of Brassy for our daily snack, where we sit down in the only open restaurant and enjoy the breeze. We have three more climbs left, the most striking of which is the one that takes up to the central square in Ouroux-en-Morvan. If we had come to find the most beautiful vista, this is undoubtedly the most iconic of them all. We can barely see the facades of the buildings, and the few cars that dared pass deserve a part in any Hitchcock novel. Not so much as a metre of flat, and we soak up the magnificent, isolated roads that just seem to meander up the side of the mountain.

After a difficult night’s sleep in Château-Chinon, we are about to tackle the most significant chunk of the weekend, a large part of which will be on the tarmac. It takes us the best part of an hour to reach the Southern part of the Morvan via a winding route that takes us back to the North-East so we can ride on one of the most beautiful gravel sections of the whole trip, which crisscrosses at around 700 metres above sea-level. We have these stunning gravel tracks to ourselves as they take us past La Socrates Maquis, the main encampment of the Morvandelle Resistance during WWII. At Haut-Folin, we find ourselves at the highest point of the Morvan, at over 900 metres, back on gravel tracks again, and the mountainside offers up a maze of cross-country ski trails that just seem made for our bikes as we test them to their very limits many times over.

Happy but exhausted, the hardest part is still ahead of us - Mont Beuvray. This is a huge physical challenge, with its seemingly unpassable slopes, the magnificent panorama of Celtic ruins, and eerie looking undergrowth. The view is impressive, but the dark clouds coming in from the west are less so. But, we survive and reach the spa town of Saint-Honoré-Les-Bains, which is quietly tucked away in the Morvan and renowned for its healing qualities. The warm welcome reinforces the good first impressions we receive at what must be the only pizza flea market in France. There’s a Tim Burton horror film on TV, which couldn’t give us a better Halloween feel to our trip if we tried.

To portray an image of the Morvan being frozen in time would be false. We discuss this on the last day of the ride as we leave this special place, climbing up the winding foothills to reach the Nivernais, which takes us to the very edges of the Loire valley. As with every time we enter such a parallel universe, we are deeply touched by the desire to maintain a particular way of life, with its natural surroundings, an incredible sense of solidarity and warm welcomes. A bit of a cliché, maybe? Probably in part as we’re just passing through. The fact remains that times are changing, yet this region seems to succeed in the feat of staying true to itself and safely tucked away from all the problems in the world that we have right now. It also provided us with a limitless cycling playground.

Further Riding