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Exploring the French Countryside

David Cross (DavidX) from England

Click to see Google Map

This is meant to answer the frequent items on various message boards which are more the less along these lines:

  • "I shall start at Paris for X days but ..." or
  • "I loved Y particularly" (where Y is a rural area) or
  • "Much as I like cities" or something else which, like these, leads to something like ...

"Where shall I go to see a really great countryside (rural) area?"

I am very sympathetic with the questioners as these are just the questions that I might ask about Sweden, Finland or Estonia, in each of which I have not been far from the capitals.

I do not know whether I have seen "the best" - whatever that might mean – nor am I very bothered. I am considerably more bothered that there are numerous areas which sound really good that I have not yet seen. However I think it may help many of the questioners to know of some areas which we found extremely enjoyable. Part of the appeal of taking time in a rural area is slowing up a bit and covering short distances walking, or perhaps taking scenic train trips. Hence it would totally destroy the object if you were to dash about like a headless chicken trying to cover several of the areas in one go. A couple of times we have been to two different areas in a holiday just under three weeks long, when they are reasonably close and the journey between them can be regarded as part of the holiday in its own right.

Google Map for the French Countryside: You will find more information on David's Google Map

Normandy

The position of Normandy is conducive to getting into the holiday mood before going somewhere else or winding down before getting the boat, if you have come from England, and I have certainly done both, but it is worth some time in its own right. I can only speak personally; the so-called Suisse Normande does nothing for me at all. However Rouen, Givernie, Les Andelys, Honfleur and the Seine bridges all justify a visit and the Cheese and Cider (+Calvados) Routes are not to be ignored.

www.normandy-tourism.org: Normandy Tourism

Brittany

Apart from a brief visit to Dinan (which is great) we have only been on the west side. We were particularly taken with Roscoff, Quimper, Huelgoat and Guilvinec. Taken as a whole I am not sure that Brittany is not a bit overrated and I prefer the coastal scenery in many other parts of Europe.

www.fodors.com/miniguides/: Fodors Miniguides - Brittany
www.brittanytourism.com: Brittany Tourism

Alsace

This is a very relaxing area of lovely villages, good cheap wine and fine rolling hills. Strasbourg and Colmar are wonderful places and each screams to be visited and explored. We did combine this with a visit to the Department of Doubs and I should find Alsace a bit claustrophobic after a week or so. However it is definitely an area worth seeing. The stork nesting season in spring is a good time to visit. In summer the geraniums in all the villages were pretty glorious.

www.strasbourg.info: Strasbourg Information, accommodations, restaurants, sights, museums, day trips
www.visit-alsace.com: Visit Alsace, accommodations, sights

Doubs

This is certainly not an overrated area in my mind; indeed I think it is underrated. The rivers Doubs, Loue, Lison, the Cascades d'Hérisson and the Cirques of Ladoye, Fer de Cheval and (particularly) Baume are terrific. The wines are cheap and many of the roads are relatively traffic-free. It is easy to get into the Swiss Jura for a day trip if you should want something extra but you don't need to wander too widely. I could go on and on but in brief - it's great. Go and see.

www.interfrance.com: InterFrance, Doubs travel information
www.justtourfrance.com: Just Tour France, Doubs travel information

Cantal

This is less dramatic scenery than the areas of the Massif Central lying further north and east but is very pleasant and pretty peaceful. We camped at Albpierre, a very small village near Murat, where the mayor came to greet us! The hill scenery is delightful and easy enough walking. On the way in or out try to see the beautiful old village of Salers. See if you like the local drink (Salers) made from gentian roots – I love it but many hate it! At least you are likely to like the local cheese (cantal).

www.cantal-walking.com: Walking in the Cantal
www.french-at-a-touch.com: French at a Touch, Auvergne

Chartreuse

This is to the north as you approach Grenoble and is a region of pleasing mountains, gorges and rushing streams. We camped at St Pierre d'Entremont and thoroughly enjoyed the whole area. It is possibly one of the easiest to walk of the mountain areas where I have been. Good for visits to Grenoble and the Vercors.

www.chartreuse-tourisme.com: Chartreuse Tourism, English version is a PDF file you can download

Cevennes

This is an area of very high forested mountains where the griffon vulture can be seen flying overhead. The nearby Cirque de Navacelles is fabulous and you can get to the bottom in a car. One feature on the hills worthy of note is a weather exhibition which is excellent and free! This area is possibly best seen in combination with another nearby area.

cevennes-mont-lozere.com: The Cevennes - Mont - Lozere Region

Languedoc

This is quite a large area and includes the home of the wonderful Roquefort cheese. We stayed above the city of Saint Pons de Thommières near the Monts de Lacaune (try its cheese which we have never seen outside the area) and near the Monts d'Espinoux. There is easy access to Castres and the Sidobre area and also to the well known town of Albi with its extraordinary cathedral, a fine though inexpensive veggie restaurant and the terrific Toulouse-Lautrec museum. Carcassonne is within range. This was an excellent base.

www.the-languedoc-page.com: The Languedoc Page
www.french-at-a-touch.com: French at a Touch, Languedoc Roussillon

Eastern Pyrenees

I hope I shall get to see some other Pyrennean areas but this is in praise rather than in criticism of the eastern part. The first time we took the caravan and stayed at Orlu, to the left along a minor road from the main road from Ax les Thermes to Andorra. This is wonderful mountain scenery, perhaps more like elevated Scottish than Alpine scenery near at hand, but not that far from the mighty Pic Carlit, with chamois and ibex to be seen on its snowfields and a rocky scramble at the top. We found it useful to drive just across the Andorra boundary for cheap petrol and wine but we only went once to the capital and it is not an experience I wish to repeat (it is a traffic crawl through a world of duty free shops, like an airport shopping mall).

Nearer to base, in June the butterflies around Orlu were as prolific as anywhere I have been and some of the high meadows up the side roads were a real treat for their flowers and the only place to enjoy a bit of shade. Away from the highest Pyrenees are a number of Cathar castles in fine forests although some of the forest drives would not have prolonged the life of the car.

Our second visit in 2003 started with a flight to Toulouse and formed a circuit by bus and train through Carcassonne, Quillan, Perpignan, Vernet les Bains, Mont Louis, La Tour de Carol and back to Toulouse. Vernet les Bains is a great place to stop for a few nights, splendid for walks at all levels. It also enjoys the status of France's first village arboretum and has a quite wonderful geological museum. From there we had the delightful experience of travelling on the Petit Train Jaune through the Pyrenees to Mont Louis. Although the mountains are higher here, I actually love the wooded stuff further East around Vernet, with the Pic du Canigou rearing up above it.

www.ariege.com: Ariege Pyrenees
www.parc-pyrenees.com: Pyrenees National Park, official site
www.ot-vernet-les-bains.fr: Vernet les bains

Digne – Nice railway

This is a private railway running through the Alpes d'Haute Provence. There is a guide book to walks near the railway and many of them are excellent. We stayed at the little town of Annot with a picturesque, interesting old town and walks through the grées or huge boulders. In places the fallen chestnut leaves reach nearly up to the thighs and you keep coming upon cherry trees and old walls by past villages. Some of the gorges of the area are particularly spectacular.

www.provencebeyond.com: Provence Beyond, Train de Pignes
www.beyond.fr: Provence Beyond, Annot

Queyras

This is a quite delightful area which compensates for its relatively lowly height within the Alps by the charm of its villages and countryside. It is close to the Italian border and it is on the Eastern side, near to the border, that we saw more marmots than I have seen anywhere else. The area enjoys a splendid micro-climate of its own and is almost always sunny, although we managed to pick one of the days that rained. The Alpine pastures about Lac Miroir were a show of flowers at the end of June, the gentians being as good as I have seen anywhere.

The villages are noted for their sundials but it must have been better still when more roofs were made of wood and fewer of corrugated iron! Even so it is a top area.

www.beyond.fr: Provence Beyond, Ceillac
www.queyras.com: Quevras

Resources

ST Google Map for the French Countryside: You will find more information on David's Google Map


David Cross was born in Plymouth but is now a "happily naturalized" Yorkshireman. He has grand-children in Wales and Scotland. David is a moderator on the World Travel Experience forums - groups.yahoo.com/group/worldtravelexp/. See David's Slow Travel Member page.

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