The sixty-kilometre cycle path that runs from Bordeaux to Lacanau provides a practical, if somewhat flat and linear, means of getting to the Atlantic coast by pedal power alone. And, like many cycle paths, it used to be a railway line.
The railway line was built in the 19th century, forming part of a network of routes run by Société Générale des Chemins de Fer Économiques. The network was primarily designed to easily ferry maritime pinewood from its native Médoc to other parts of the Bordeaux region, ahead of the focus shifting to passenger traffic. One line ran north to south from Lesparre-Médoc to Saint-Symphorien, a second covered a south-western diagonal from Hostens to Beautiran, and this third line connected Bordeaux to Lacanau.
The Bordeaux-Lacanau line began operating in 1885. Trains initially departed from the Gare du Médoc which, once rebuilt subsequent to a fire, became known as Saint-Louis station to the north of central Bordeaux. This station continued to operate until 1968 when town planning resulted in the railway line being shortened and the station being relocated 900 metres further north. The new station retained the name Bordeaux Saint-Louis, before being renamed Ravezies station, in keeping with its location on Place Ravezies. The station remained the departure point for trains bound for the Médoc, until its closure in September 2012. It is to be replaced in 2014 by a new tram-only station to be known as Cracovie. Meanwhile, what used to be Saint-Louis station is now a Leclerc superstore and shopping centre!
|A Leclerc superstore where Saint-Louis station used to be.|
|The main entrance to the shopping centre |
is more reminiscent of a railway station...
|Photo taken shortly before Ramezies station closed for good!|
Beyond Bordeaux, the trains’ main stops were Bruges, Eysines, Saint-Médard-en-Jalles, Issac, Salaunes, Sainte-Hélène and Saumos. The initial terminus was the inland town of Lacanau but, in the early years of the 20th century, it was decided to extend the line to the nascent seaside resort that was Lacanau-Océan. The additional 12-kilometre section was opened in 1905 and, come 1911, this is what the full line looked like (the vertical black line being the Lesparre-Médoc – Saint-Symphorien railway). Just underneath is the cycle path as it stands over 100 years later, a virtual carbon copy of the railway line!
The glory years of the railway line were between 1913 and 1934. At the time, it took the steam engines three hours to get from Bordeaux to Lacanau! As well as first-, second- and third-class carriages, the trains often included cattle cars, enabling the horses of wealthy passengers to make the trip as well! During the Second World War, the Germans regularly used the railway line to transport equipment to the coast. By that time, the switch to diesel railcars had halved the trains’ travel time. One later type of railcar was designed by the Bordeaux company Carde, and featured a single driver’s compartment. Whenever the train reached the end of the line, the coach would rise on its hydraulic levers and swivel around to face the other way!
Meanwhile, the road network had come on in leaps and bounds. The railway line was struggling to compete and passenger traffic ceased in 1954, although it continued to be fulfil its original purpose, being used to ferry maritime pinewood. However, the line was no longer financially viable and stopped operating in 1978, ahead of being fully decommissioned in October 1979. Today, the only signs of the cycle path’s railway roots are the occasional former station dotted along the route. Most are now private homes.
|Former Eysines station, |
where the scene used to look something like this.
|Former Issac station|
How does it rate as a cycle path though? Weeellll, I must say I'm not a massive fan of the route but I'm possibly biased in my analysis as the only time I've fallen off my bike in recent years has been here, attempting to overtake a cross-country cyclist who suddenly decided to veer left into the forest, sending me tumbling to the ground! Indeed, there are times and when it is a particularly busy succession of cyclists, rollerbladers and pedestrians all jostling for position, especially on Saturdays and Sundays predictably enough. In some parts (such as Saint-Médard-en-Jalles), it is also open to youngsters on mopeds and scooters when travelling to and from school, weekday early mornings and late afternoons.
But, to be fair, most of the time the track is a tranquil setting for a pleasant and undemanding cycle ride, especially once outside the greater Bordeaux suburbs... although the flat and linear nature mentioned above can sometimes veer into sheer monotony (remember therefore to pack some kind of music-listening device or a suitably chatty travelling companion).
One definite plus though is that the cycle path is registered as a “départementale”, which means that it is monitored, cleaned and maintained like any other road in the area, making for a pristine surface with none of the litter, twigs and fallen leaves you sometimes find on roadside cycle lanes.
Oh, and by the way, before you ask, the best places to get onto the cycle path are Bordeaux-Lac, central Eysines or the aforementioned former station in Saint-Médard-en-Jalles. Signposts to the cycle path can even be spotted in central Bordeaux on the Garonne riverside. Happy cycling then!
- Find the stations referred to in the article: Bordeaux Saint-Louis, Ramezies, Eysines, Saint-Médard-en-Jalles and Issac.
- The "Voies Ferrées de Gironde" website features a fine selection of archive photos of the railway line.
- Big thanks to Jérôme from the États Critiques film review blog, who sat through a screening of the 2006 thriller “Contre-Enquête” (Counter Investigation) to verify a claim that the story was in some way connected with the Bordeaux-Lacanau railway line. (Which it wasn't.)