France

Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in France.

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Basque Villages

Taste the piquant peppers of Espelette, try a game of Basque pelota and spot pilgrims travelling along the Camino de Santiago

Neat rows of plump red peppers, threaded onto thin pieces of twine, hang from the matching red timber struts of an immaculately-kept house in the Basque village of Espelette. The shutters are painted the same shade, and pots of scarlet flowers add another pop of colour to an already arresting scene. The villages of France’s Pays Basque have their own unique visual identity, even using an angular font to spell out the names of houses and shop signs in what is one of the oldest languages still spoken in Europe.

Culturally the Basque region shares as much with neighbouring Northern Spain as it does with France. While traditionally French food features little spice, the Espelette pepper is a cornerstone of Basque cuisine. In the village that gives it its name, peppers adorn most houses, hanging to dry in the sunshine. Every Wednesday, at the indoor market, stallholders display produce in a kaleidoscope of fiery shades: jars filled with pepper salt, piperade (a stew made with onions, green and Espelette peppers and tomatoes), and powdered peppers, all neatly lined up for sale.

At Boutique Bipertegia, her shop on Espelette’s village square, Véronique Darthayette lays out various samples on the counter. “The Piment d’Espelette has a lot of virtues, and isn’t really a very spicy pepper,” she says. “On the Scoville scale, it is at 4/10 – compare that to a Caribbean red pepper, which is at 8 or 9/10.” The Espelette pepper is to Basque cuisine what black pepper is to French, she explains. “We use it in every dish – even some desserts. It’s a lot more digestable than black pepper, much less aggressive.” Peppers are so important to this village that church services are held to ensure a good crop, and the product is celebrated with an annual Espelette festival.

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House in Espelette, a Basque Village

The Basque climate is also different to that found in the rest of France: the region gets double the amount of rain, turning it a uniformly luscious shade of green. Above Espelette looms the jagged peak of La Rhune – locals say that when there’s a cloud over this mountain, it’s going to rain and when there isn’t, it’s going to rain too. Cutting through the landscape, with its abundance of ferns and fields filled with neatly geometrical rows of corn, is the twisting road to the neighbouring village of Sare. On the verges, sheep and little Basque horses – called pottoks – graze the grass.

Sare has the Basque trilogy of church, town hall and fronton: a single-walled court used for pelota, a game not unlike squash. Today, two amateurs have a go, wielding wooden palettes to whack the ball against the wall and, on the bounce, contorting their bodies to avoid a forbidden backhand. Eventually over-exerted, they slump under the shade of a plane tree.

A little further east, in a cafe window in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a poster advertises a professional pelota match on tonight at the town’s fronton. In this small, lively place spread across the banks of the Nive de Béhérobie river, talk at the pavement tables is of the match. Weary passing hikers pause to take a table, lowering their bags to the cobbled floor. Scallop shells hanging from their backpacks mark them out as pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago route. Most stay to tuck into galettes with piquant piperade – for now, their mission can wait.

Essentials:
On the village of Sare’s main square, stone-built hotel-restaurant Arraya dates back to the 16th century and remains traditional in appearance, with wooden shutters and cream walls. There are 16 rooms, the most luxurious of which have balconies opening onto the manicured garden below. Bedrooms are country in feel, with antique furniture and luxurious fabrics.
Buy Espelette pepper products at Bipertegia.

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Hotel Arraya – Sare Village, Basques Villages

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Biarritz – The Art Deco City

This Art Deco city has an abundance of beaches, offering world-class surf and ample space for sunny lounging.

In the sparkling water of la Côte des Basques, a surf lesson is taking place, newbies wobbling on their boards as the waves plunge them towards the beach. Though only half make it standing, the instructor applauds all their efforts, before gesturing them back to the water to try again.
In south Biarritz, this is one of the world’s best surf beaches. It gained notoriety in the ’50s, when screenwriter Peter Viertel shot his film The Sun Also Rises in the city. A keen surfer schooled in Hawaii, Viertel was so impressed by Biarritz’s waves he had his board sent over, effectively introducing the sport. The city ran with it, and now hosts world-class championship events.

emanuelle-vargas-surf-biarritzInstructor Emmanuelle Vargas is a second-generation surf pioneer. “My father surfed on this beach when he was little,” she says. “He made his own board from wood – he was very committed!” She waxes her own board while bobbing to the reggae music emanating from the school where she works, L’École de Surf Lagoondy, housed in a striped tent. “I inherited my father’s passion and have surfed all over the world, but nowhere compares to here – not just the waves, but the atmosphere and people, too.”

Surf culture spreads beyond the beaches. Shops stocked with flip-flops and local clothing labels like BTZ and 64 (named after the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department number) line the main shopping street of Rue du Port Vieux, frequented by sunbleached shoppers. This board-toting crowd are a far cry from Biarritz’s early visitors. The city found favour when Napoleon III began holidaying here, cementing its status among high society sunseekers who left an impressive architectural legacy – particularly during the city’s Art Deco heyday. The Casino, still a functioning gambling hall, sits proudly on the long promenade behind the wide sweep of sand at the main beach, La Grande Plage, while Le Musée de la Mer has to be one of the world’s most striking aquariums.

The enduring lure has always been Biarritz’s beaches – and with six to choose from, they rarely feel crowded. In the small, calm cove in the Old Town, Plage Port Vieux, couples picnic on Basque goods bought at Les Halles market. Over at the rocky outcrop of Le Rocher du Basta, a solitary artist, painting an Atlantic Ocean panorama, surveys a broad stretch of coast stretching from the city lighthouse to Spain.

Essentials:

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Completed in 1907, Le Regina Biarritz was once popular with visiting aristocracy and has recently been restored to its former glory. The vast and impressive lobby has a beautiful skylight and is framed by birdcage-like balconies. The Belle Époque-inspired bedrooms are inviting and elegant, and there’s a swimming pool and spa to enjoy, too.
Take a surf lession at Ecole du Surf Biarritz Lagoondy.

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Bordeaux

Learn about the region’s wine-making traditions with an expert before testing your new-found knowledge on a tour of the city’s best bars

“There is a particular mosaic of soil here – the terroir – which makes our wine so special,” says Benoit-Manuel Trocard, winemaker and teacher at L’École du Vin in Bordeaux. The city is the epicentre of France’s largest wine-growing area. Around 450 million bottles a year are produced here, and, even to a connoisseur, the variety of blends and producers can feel intimidating.
Benoit-Manuel’s lessons demystify the Bordolaise way of making wine. “Wine should not be complex,” he says. “You don’t need to be an expert to appreciate it, you just need to follow your senses. There are no rules.” He explains the differences between regionally specific blends, and which châteaux specialise in different grape combinations. “Bordeaux’s winemakers are enthusiastic about innovation, and love to share their passion with visitors.”
Though it can be fun to drive out and explore those châteaux, a less sober alternative is a walking tour of the wine bars dotted along the city’s winding medieval streets and grand, straight boulevards. At the cellar-like Wine More Time, co-owner Alexandre Lahitte brings out a rare 1982 Château Soutard Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Classé he saves for special occasions. “Wine is meant to be enjoyed, and we do that well here,” he says, gesturing to a bar full of patrons of all ages, chatting and drinking.
At nearby Aux Quatre Coins du Vin, wines are available either as a taster or a full glass, allowing even those constrained by budget to sample expensive vintages.
One in three of the city’s inhabitants is under 25, and they love wine as much as their forebears. Young oenophiles favour Darwin, an artsy new district occupying old army barracks on the once-industrial right bank of the Garonne river. An emerging centre for gastronomy, the most popular restaurant here is Magasin Général. Its walls arc colourfully decorated with work by local graffiti artists, and families gather for brunch at wooden tables. Naturally the wine list is excellent, but one of the few people not drinking is Martine Macheras, whose bright yellow vintage Citroen 2CV is parked a few foot away. As a tour guide who seeks out the city’s secret comers, as well as the things Bordeaux does best, she is well-used to being everybody’s designated driver.

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Essentials:
Rooms at Mama Shelter are designed by Philippe Starck, and t he hotel has a stylish roof terrace.
Take a class at L’Ecolé du Vin and book a Bordeaux 2CVTour.
Download the Urban Wine Trail from the Bordeaux Tourist Office, and find wines at Wine More Time, Aux Quatre Coins du Vin and Magasin Général.

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Marais Poitevin

Explore the canals of Green Venice in a traditional flat-bottomed boat, reliving the journeys made by monks who built the waterways in the Middle Ages

Water thwacks against the side of the wooden boat as it floats along a die-straight canal enclosed by weeping willows. Tour guide Antonin Vorain deftly punts the boat with a single oar, ducking his head under a low-hanging branch. He grew up in this region, and knows it intimately.
“Monks built the canals in the Middle Ages to transport cattle and grain,” he explains. These days they’re used more for leisure than industry, though occasionally a boat loaded with cream-coloured Charolais cows might putter past. Cattle graze on the acid-green grass that extends from the banks of the canals which – along with the profusion of vegetation and the ubiquitous green duckweed – give the Marais Poitevin its nickname of Green Venice. Sometimes glimpsed amid the treeline are pretty stone cottages, each with a boat moored at the water’s edge. “Once these villages were only accessible by water,” says Antonin. “It was customary for newly married couples to be given a boat by their families – it was like being given a car”. The tradition of boat ownership persists, despite the fact that the villages are now easily accessible by road.
Antonin steers along the Canal de la Garette à Coulon, towards the village of Coulon. It’s a popular place to hire boats and stop for lunch, sampling traditional dishes made with mogette – locally grown white beans – at the waterside restaurants. Nevertheless, in the early morning it’s deserted but for a few villagers, out to fish for little eels called pibales.
The network of canals is so vast, seclusion is never faraway. Conche des Ecoyaux is particularly well hidden, and a favourite spot for truanting schoolkids. This narrow stretch of water, like most here, is lined with poplar trees. “They were planted because their roots help hold the earth of the banks together,” says Antonin.
Originally boats from Marais Poitevin were crafted from oak, but these days most are made from fibreglass or aluminium. Many are motorised now, too, but Antonin prefers the quietude lent by an oar, his oars alert to the tap-tap of a woodpecker in the forest.
Above the still water, a grey heron flaps by and a flash of blue suggests a fleeting visit from a kingfisher. Around a corner, the landscape opens up to reveal fields of swaying corn, the rising sun illuminating its spiky tufts. A couple on bicycles pedal along the water’s edge – cycle paths can take visitors deeper into areas not navigable by boat, through swathes of forest where peach trees hang heavy with sweet fruit.
“This place has a unique history,” Antonin says, as the village of Magné’s Romanesque church spire looms into view. He moors the boat, tethering it with a rope. “Here our language, food and traditions are all tied to the water. We cannot imagine another life.”
Essentials:
In the heart of the village of Coulon, Le Central hotel is a traditional building with wooden beams and a lovely stone-walled courtyard. The bedrooms are decorated in muted colours, and are air-conditioned during the hot summer months. There’s also a top-end in-house restaurant serving local dishes, such as roast lamb with a red-pepper crust and thyme sauce.
Take a tour of the canals with L’Embarcadère Cardinaud, where Antonin works, or hire a boat to explore independently.

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Île de Ré

Enjoy the relaxed pace of life in ‘the Hamptons of France’, a stylish island renowned for its seafood and beaches

It’s not hard to see how Île de Ré became the bolthole of choice for summer holidaymakers fleeing the French capital. With its wide expanses of beach interspersed with pretty towns and villages, the island has a look of accidental perfectionism: a sort of Paris-on-Sea. Everywhere houses are uniformly cream, with terracotta roofs and shutters mostly emerald green hut occasionaly grey or blue, echoing the colours of the ocean.

In season, the island comes alive, its fashionable visitors pedalling the many excellent cycle paths on sit-up-and-beg bikes, pedigree lap dogs peering from their baskets. Others, returning from market, are carrying freshly caught oysters, dainty new potatoes, and some of the island’s prized fleur de sel: salt harvested from the sea by hand and exported all over the world.

“It’s expensive, but for cooking you need just one crystal”, says Brice Collonnier, scooping a handful from a glistening pile at his salt farm in Loix, where square dams criss-cross a flat, windswept landscape. “It’s very strong: like an explosion in your mouth.” He is one of a crop of young farmers – the average age is about 40 – who have moved to Île de Ré to revive the age-old art of evaporating seawater in open pans. ‘When we harvest, it’s ready – we don’t add a thing, it’s a completely natural product.’ And, he says, an ideal accompaniment to the island’s ample seafood.

The sea is the Île de Ré’s lifeblood, always visible alongside its other major industry: bringing holiday dreams to life. At Le-Bois- Plage-en-Ré, the island’s longest and most popular beach, swimmers and sunbathers mingle with oystercatchers wading into the depths; below the star-shaped ramparts at St-Martin-de-Ré, a favoured picnic spot, fishermen rake the seabed for cockles.

Elsewhere, this fortified town, a Unesco World Heritage site, is a maze of cobbled streets and historic houses. They lean in to each other as if sharing gossip as juicy as that traded by the locals, sitting on their front steps in the sunshine.

Essentials:

With its dark-green shutters and white walls, small hotel Les Vignes de la Chapelle is very typical of Île de Ré. Right on the coast in the tiny village of Ste-Marie-de-Ré . it’s surrounded by vineyards. Rooms are are spacious, each with two floors, a lounge, dining garea and kitchenette, plus a terrace opening onto a landscaped garden and pool. Book a salt farm tour through the Ecomusée du Marais Salant or bike hire at Yootoo.

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Amazon Creek  – Peak and Tranquillity

Chamonix is not really a ski town so much as a winter-sports hub; an old school Alpeniste’s town of 10,000 people (double that in high season) replete with top-end gear shops, patisseries, bars and restaurants and a satellite of ski areas, hamlets and villages surrounding it.

Dealing with Chamonix’s sprawling and diverse downhill adventure options can be tiresome on a budget – lots of queuing for crowded buses, schlepping around with your boots slipping on ice to catch one of the free minibuses the locals call mulets (little mules) – so to maximise enjoyment of the vertiginous challenges set by Les Houches, Le Lavancher, Argentière, Le Buet, Le Tour, Les Bossons etc, you need to invest in some meticulously organised Alpine luxury.

First, you need somewhere to stay. Away from the rowdy ski bums in town, but well-connected to the ski lifts and téléphériques, preferably with a clear view of the surrounding Mont Blanc massif.

GQ chose Amazon Creek, eight minutes’ drive from Cham-central and billed as “the most luxurious chalet in the Mont Blanc valley”. It sleeps ten and has a private chef and a concierge service.

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One of the eight opulent bedrooms of Amazon Creek chalet – Chamonix, France

There’s a private swimming pool, cinema indoor Jacuzzi, an outdoor tub and a sauna. Decor is appropriately Heidi-marries-Swiss-banker luxe: sturdy wooden farmhouse construction, a vast and handsome reception room, an open fire, leather sofas that swallow you and your post-ski- day champagne flute whole and beds you won’t want to get out of – until the sun streams into your room, you clock the soaring Aiguille du Midi peak in the distance and hear the gentle rustle of the chef preparing your scrambled eggs, that is.

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The outdoor sauna of The Amazon Creek chalet – Chamonix, France

After a couple of flat whites, a morning dip and a fresh juice, you pull on your Patagonia, climb in Amazon Creek’s Mercedes bus and head off for the most sublimely thrilling adventure in the Alps – the Vallée Blanche.

This world-famous and truly spectacular 20km – long run with a vertical descent of 2,700m is, officially, an off-piste run, which means that even the voie normale (regular route) is an ungroomed, unpatrolled wilderness bereft of markers to steer you away from its chasm-deep crevasses. (Just the route’s start at the top of the Aiguille du Midi – a precarious ridge edge with a 50-degree pitch on both sides, tackled with skis slung on shoulders and gloved hands death-gripping a guide rope can be a bit of a test for the faint-hearted).

So, while the views are staggering and the ride utterly exhilarating, you are definitely going to need a guide. Good job then that Amazon Creek has Michel Fauquet of ENSA (L’École Nationale de Ski et d’Alpinisme) on its books. GQ’s advice is to stop halfway down the glacier for a baguette and beer lunch at the rocks they call La Salle à Manger (“the dining room”).

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La Salle à Manger (“the dining room”) from Amazon Creek chalet – Chamonix, France

As you munch your jambon et gruyère sandwich mixte, admire the amphitheatrical splendour of the surroundings, then point your skis downhill and follow your guide home. If you avoid the crevasses, there’ll be a cake, a pot of tea, a roaring fire and massage waiting for you back at your chalet.

 

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Bora Bora – French Polynesia, France, Pacific

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Bora Bora View From Ocean to Island

The Pinnacle of Luxury

Welcome to French Polynesia, and one of the Pacific’s most desirable destinations- or even, as the island’s website proclaims with typical Gallic understatement, ‘the most beautiful island in the world’. Even if that’s going a bit far, this is certainly a romantic faraway place that attracts lots of people, and to be sure everyone gets the point there’s plenty of the grass-skirt dancing that has become a Polynesian trademark.

Bora Bora is in the Leeward Islands, 230 km (140 mi) northwest of Tahiti, and now depends on visitors for its economic wellbeing.

The only other commercial activities are fishing and harvesting coconuts, so the advent of tourism has given the island a huge fillip. The locals speak French and Tahitian, but most have a good grasp of English.

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Georges Blanc – Vonnas, Rhone-Alpes, France

A Worthy Heir to a Famous Name

It was chef Georges Blanc’s grandmother who first put the tiny town of Vonnas on the gastronomic map. She was called the world’s greatest cook by Curnonsky, a revered French gourmet of the early 20th century.

Her equally celebrated daughter-in-law passed on her talent and passion to her son, Georges Blanc, and today the family restaurant on the banks of the River Veyle attracts diners from all parts of the world.

The fanfare is easy to understand once the food arrives: it is simply some of the most sublime imaginable. It is not by chance that the dessert cart brims with dozens of concoctions to top off an already unbeatable meal.

Blanc began his career as a pastry chef, and sweets still have a strong claim on his heart. The profusion of flowers and antiques spills over into attached hotel guest rooms, many of which have balconies and views of the river and blooming gardens.

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Pic – Valence, Rhone-Alpes, France

A Family Affair

It all started in 1891 with Sophie Pic and a simple country cafe. Founder of the fabled Pic culinary dynasty, Sophie was the first of four generations to raise the traditional regional cuisine to a gastronomic art form. More than 100 years later, Sophie’s great-grandchildren con­tinue one of France’s oldest and most respected family lines of chefs du cuisine.

Anne Pic—daughter of the renowned Jacques Pic, who died in 1992—is currently the cre­ative force in the kitchen. She runs one of the most provincial of France’s grand restaurants and perhaps one of the least known of the great gastronomic shrines. The homey atmos­phere and local clientele blend seamlessly with the superlative food and a sophisticated ambience that is elegant without being over­done.

Understand what all the fuss is about by ordering the Rabelais Menu on a summer evening on the outdoor patio. It includes, among other wonders, the Pic family’s classic, filet de loup au caviar, a delicate filet of bass with caviar.

The wine cellar, stocked with more than 20,000 bottles, includes more than 400 different Câtes-du-Rhones, the wine for which Pic has become the ambassador to the world. A small on-site hotel caters to traveling gourmands.

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Both Grand and Homey, One of France’s Most Revered Restaurants

La Maison Troisgros – Roanne, Rhone-Alpes, France

Years after they’ve dined here, people speak reverently of La Maison Troisgros, as if it were a religious experience. Dinner at Troisgros—from the simple house specialty of saumon â l’oseille (salmon with sorrel sauce) to the large rolling dessert cart—attracts diners who think nothing of driving down from Brussels to partake in the gastronomic celebration.

The menu dans la tradition, a seven-course extravaganza, is a tribute to the kaleidoscopic produce of the countryside as interpreted by the unrivaled talents of Pierre Troisgros. When his co-chef and brother, Jean, died in 1983, his son, Michel, stepped in to help his father create some of the finest food anywhere in France.

Yet despite its revered status, the dining room is surprisingly ordinary—somehow an appro­priate foil for food that is nothing less than extraordinary. The restaurant also operates a small hotel with lovely rooms.