From our little car-park near the rugby pitches in Belley, we continued northwards to explore further cycling options, and possible dégustation stops, in the region of Bugey. We quickly arrived in the small town of Vongnes after only ten miles, where we visited Le Caveau Bugiste, a winery offering motorhome overnight stops and free dégustations, and decided to stop. Their gardens were very quiet, arranged as a small picnic area and filled with curiosities and sculptures, giving the place a homely, rustic feel. We introduced ourselves and agreed to return for a wine tasting around 5pm, leaving us the morning and afternoon to explore.
We first cycled to the nearby village of Ceyzérieu, turning right downhill past the cemetery to visit the Maison du Marais, which was unfortunately closed, before continuing on to the Réserve Naturelle Marais de Lavours. This wetland area had a designated nature reserve walk, on neat timber boardwalks set above the watery swamps and bog lands.
We really enjoyed the 2km long tree-lined pathway, complete with entertainment by noisy birds, and we had it entirely to ourselves on this damp morning. We looked out from timber hides that framed the view across the bird-heavy waters. Another Tour de France mountain climb staple, the 1531m tall Grand Columbier, dominated the backdrop of our views from the hides across the dark water and yellow rushes.
We returned up to the main road, passing through Béon and Culoz before turning south to follow a long straight road down into the village of Lavours. The route was not the prettiest we had cycled, but once back into the tiny, sleepy roads of the local villages, we were rewarded with some beautiful old buildings and quaint, quiet streets. We had to pay for all the downhill we had enjoyed for most of the ride, with a hard slog back up to the hilly centre of Vongnes.
On our return we repacked our bikes, made some tea and carried it in insulated travel cups up a signed path, to enjoy a view of the town and valley before sunset. We passed through a light forest, where all the trees were coated in thick moss, like they were wearing bushy lime-coloured velvet jackets. When caught by the bright, low angle sunlight the moss seemed almost luminescent, making the trees glow like a radioactive Ready-Brek man. We quickly reached the viewpoint and the table d’orientation, a ten minute climb that offered wonderful views across the rooftops of the village. We enjoyed our tea and biscuits overlooking the stillness of the entire valley, spotting where we’d cycled and walked.
We attended for our dégustation and met our current hosts, trying five or six different reds. We purchased a three litre box and a separate bottle of very nice red. We visited their museums, stuffed full with old farming tools and wood carving implements. The existing warehousing buildings on site looked in the old photos to be a cooper’s workshop, building barrels for the local wineries. We found several yellow-painted bicycles, abandoned in a covered hay store, that had formed part of a recent display for the nearby passing of the 2016 Tour de France.
We returned in the morning to purchase a few additional items, set in lovely decorative timber boxes that were of more interest to us than the wine they contained. It was a shame to leave such a quaint and comfortable spot so quickly, but there are always new places to see. The weather had changed for the worse; grey and patchy clouds and the threat of rain hung in the air, so we designated this purely a servicing and transition day, making good distance on to our next destination.
We had a long and futile search for water, stopping at six different aires on the way north only to find the taps removed, a frost protection issue, in all of them. We finally asked in the Mairie in one village and they helpfully called a local maintenance guy who arrived, asked us to follow him only a minute away to a warehouse and pointed out a tap we could use. Such a helpful gesture and we gratefully filled up everything to the brim, as water was becoming a scarce commodity.
We overnighted in Orgelet, a convenient stopover aire that, despite not being very level, was located in a comfortable, quiet location but still close to the town. It was quiet and we slept well, except for being woken by a municipal worker the following morning collecting the 80p we owed for staying over. It can’t possibly have been worth their while to send someone out of their way to collect this. After a lazy breakfast and a walk around the town, we drove on northwards, with our first stop the spectacular setting of the mountain village Baume-les-Messieurs. The village was set in a huge cauldron of sheer white rock cliffs blanketed with tall trees, the impressively grand meeting point of three large valleys. It was the home of a large Imperial Abbey, the exact founding date of which is uncertain but is thought to have been in late 6th century CE. From here we passed through Poligny and Arbois, both interesting centres, before arriving in the riverside city of Dôle, the once capital of the region of Franche-Comté.
We arrived in town and parked on a very large and spacious shared parking area that could easily accommodate hundreds of cars, set directly across the river from the impressive central church buildings of Dôle. We had arrived late, and it was dark by the time we walked into the town to have a quick explore. Although it was mostly closed down for the night we enjoyed the stone buildings, the low-key night lighting, the gurgling water of the pretty weir at the base of the cathedral and the general quiet ambiance as we walked.
The following morning the weather was back to being bright and clear, with a blue sky threatening to arrive, so we readied our bikes and cycled up a long steep hill out of town, along smooth and empty country roads, in the direction of the historic site of Arc-et-Senans. The landscape suddenly became very flat and treeless, a rural landscape much like Norfolk, with plains of recently planted crops lined with ditches. With nothing to break up the horizon the sky looked huge as we rolled along through village after village. We reached Arc-et-Senans, where the lady in tourist office kindly refilled our water bottles and chatted about the routes we’d taken to arrive there.
We followed the Voie de Salines, a recently completed off-road cycle route running parallel to a main road, back to the local canal, before eating lunch on its banks in the town of Orchamps. We completed our circular loop of 64km by returning to Dôle along the tow path, flanked on both sides by tall reeds and spindly trees. We had another wandering explore of the surprisingly striking town centre, this time in daylight, before retiring to Benny for the night to eat, drink and plan our next steps.