You have to hand it to the French: When it comes to making the best possible use of railways, they know what they’re doing.
It’s a country with the fastest passenger train in the world (the TGV). That, in itself, is one hell of an experience worth trying out. But what must be the slowest train in France (possibly depending on ones level of fitness) is even more fun.
The VéloRail system is one that was dreamed up as a unique way of making use of otherwise useless lengths of railway track and it has been very successful in France. Vélo is the word for bike in French and the idea essentially involves propelling a rudimentary steel carriage along a train track. I wasn’t sure how much fun that could be but it sounded so crazy, I had to have a go. And so did my family.
We arrived on a warm afternoon at the Pont-Erambourg railway station in Basse Normandie. It’s a small quiet town from initial appearances and its train station was closed down in the 1960s. Today, however, the little station is open again and buzzing with tourists including an Irish family of five (us!), eagerly awaiting their journey into the unknown.
After organising tickets, we went through to our awaiting transport on Platform 1. The gathered party of tourists listened to a crash-course in VéloRail operational procedures. We had a five-kilometre length of track before us, our instructor told us. We would all set off together ensuring to keep the requisite distance apart, get to the end, take a break, individually turn our pedal-trains around and then cycle back.
There were about ten VéloRails and we were in the middle. We organised ourselves in the comfy seating and stowed our knapsack in the space provided. There are two sort-of built-in bikes for the pedallers with seating in between for passengers. My wife and I decided to take the first leg.
We let the people in front get ahead a good 50 metres or so so that we could get a good run at the thing and also to try and get something of a feeling of being alone on a pedal-powered train in the middle of the Norman countryside. The machine has only one gear and it takes a decent effort to get your vehicle moving. Very soon, though, you get a head of steam going. The wind is in your hair, the hedges, cows and farmhouses are whizzing by and you start to feel like a human steam train. I was even tempted to shout “Toot! Toot! Here comes the steam train!” The truth is that I did, in fact.
The adults soon ran out of steam and we found that it was a distinct advantage having two teenage sons on board. While they burned out their considerable reserves of strength and boyish competitive spirit, we lay back and enjoyed the journey, the dappled sunlight flashing through overhanging branches and the rhythmic clic-clac of the train track. The countryside in the Basse Normandie is very similar to that of Ireland – lots of cows, undulating green fields and large serpentine hedgerows. From the VéloRails, you get only tantalising glimpses but you do get a lot of them.
We had one level crossing to go through. It was at another abandoned but well-maintained (from the outside at least) railway station on a sharp bend in the road. In any case, it didn’t pose any problems for the (largely British) posse of rail-tourists. As per the instructions given to us at the beginning, we went under the elasticated string barrier one by one, carefully ensuring that the thing didn’t snag on us as we went slowly through while making sure there wasn’t any lunatic driver coming along the road.
Soon we were off again and the mild excitement levels of negotiating the level crossing seemed to give everyone’s legs an extra bit of energy. When we reached the end of the line (literally), it was at another charming old disused railway station of the sort that would have been the centre of this still peaceful rural community 40 years ago. On this August day as the sun beat down on us, I wondered what it might be like for someone from the area who had time-travelled from, say, 1960; arriving to take the next train with a connection to Paris only to find a bunch of foreigners sitting in and standing beside a fleet of strange blue mini bike/trains, standing contemplating the picnic tables that are now laid out for their express convenience.
None of us, it seemed, had a notion to have a picnic. It was early afternoon and presumably all the other tourists had, like us,
already eaten. And so, taking the little metal-framework stand from the rear of the VéloRails like the instructor had shown us, we inserted it under the machine so that it could be swivelled in the opposite direction by two or more people. We spent a further few minutes taking photos and chatting to our fellow travellers. The people in front of us were a couple with grandmother and two children from somewhere in greater London area. All beamed broadly, enthusing about the unique afternoon out.
We left most of the cycling of the return journey to the three boys, who took it in turn to power us along, while Maman and Papa lay back, closed their eyes and nodded off into a state of serene semi-slumber, the clic-clacking beating out its rhythmic lullaby.
It’s never the most straightforward of tasks to keep teenage children amused, wherever you are. The VéloRails, I felt, did its job in that regard. The boys were pleased with the experience: it was something different that involved being outdoors and expending physical energy.
The one that we went on was a relatively short trip that keeps you going for just under two hours. There are, however, VéloRail routes all over France and some of them are longer, offering a bigger day out, into which you can incorporate picnic stops and a bit of sight-seeing on foot. Have a look at this website that covers the area we were in (Velorail Suisse Normande). Otherwise, have a search through Google to find the Velorail nearest to you.