France

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

france-national-parks

France National Parks

The ten great parks of France reach as far as the Indian Ocean, but all share a natural beauty and abundance of plant and animal life.

You can fall in love with France for many reasons, but the country’s landscape is one of its biggest attractions. It’s not for nothing that we call it la belle France. From the rugged coastline of Normandy to the mountains of the Alps, from the lavender loveliness of Provence to the glitzy beaches of the Cote d’Azur, surely there is nowhere else that can offer such natural beauty and diversity in one thrilling package.

Of course, it is mainly thanks to Mother Nature’s whims that France is so blessed. But even she can do with a little help from time to time, which is where the Parcs Nationaux de France come in.

Signposted rambles

Chosen for their remarkable biodiversity and natural beauty, there are currently ten French national parks, though three are actually situated in the overseas departements of French Guiana, Guadeloupe and La Reunion. They cover vastly differing landscapes, but in total account for almost 9.5 per cent of France’s overall territory, which is the equivalent of 60,728 square kilometres.

Their raison d’etre? To allow the largest number of people to share this remarkable territorial heritage, specifically because “it is by being in contact with nature that we learn to respect nature”. The plan seems to be working, too.

The parks attract more than seven million visitors every year with an impressive number of options to help them enjoy the very best experience.

Guided visits, signposted rambles that teach you about the landscape, films and exhibitions, and workshops explaining local crafts are all on offer.

Individual national parks often provide distinctive experiences. For example, in the Cevennes, at Saint-Jean-du-Gard, you can head out at nightfall on a guided tour to hear the unforgettable sound of stags in the rutting season.

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The Cevennes National Park – at Saint-Jean-du-Gard, France

Recommended hotels and gites are always available, of course, but the parks can even provide shelter and accommodation in ‘refuges’ for those adventurous hikers and climbers who want to discover the parks’ more mountainous and demanding areas.

The original idea of creating a national park (and even the name itself) came from an American artist and author, George Catlin. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1796 and can lay claim to being the first white man to depict Plains Indians in their native territory.

As early as 1832, Catlin recognised the need to preserve Earth’s natural beauties “by some great protecting policy of government… in a magnificent park”. In the same year, the US Congress proclaimed the Hot Springs Reservation in Arkansas as America’s first Natural Reserve. In 1872, the year of Catlin’s death, Congress decreed that the Yellowstone area, cutting across the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, would be the world’s first national park.

France lagged behind in creating its own national parks, but at least the famous Touring Club de France was pushing the idea at the World Forestry Congress, which it organised in Paris in 1913. The club’s enthusiasm led to the founding of the Association des parcs nationaux de France and the development of the Parc de la Berarde in Rhone-Alpes.

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Touring Club de France

The outbreak of World War I delayed the project and it was not until 1923 that the park project finally grew wings, changing its name to Pelvoux and announcing itself as a pare national.

What actually constituted a national park was not enshrined in French law until 1960, when legislation was passed agreeing on its definition. The fruits of this new legal status were finally witnessed in 1963, when the first officially sanctioned French national park, the Parc National de la Vanoise, was created in Rhone-Alpes.

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Parc National de la Vanoise

So, what exactly constitutes a national park in France? The state classes an area as such when it has an exceptional patrimoine, a word that is difficult to translate into English. The best attempt is probably ‘heritage’. But patrimoine has a deeper, more emotional connotation for French people, covering not only the landscape of an area, but also its traditions, produce and artisans.

Once a proposal for the creation of a national park has been submitted for public scrutiny, the decision on whether to grant the status is taken by France’s Conseil d’Etat, the supreme court of appeal for administrative justice.

The court will decide on the park’s surface area and approve its charter.

Once approval has been granted, a public body will take on the planning, development and management of the park, with a board made up of regional and local authorities, and representatives of the state, local associations and inhabitants. The primary objective is to preserve the park’s biological, territorial and cultural diversity.

“What’s exciting about our national parks,” says Veronique Caraco, who is the project’s communications director, “is that they are a real partnership between the state and all the local communities. We like to think of our national parks as comprising three important elements; territory, people and project. And a park’s charter is a marker of an agreed and shared governance and vision.”

Each project has a conservationist strategy, designed to restore an ecological balance that will in turn re-establish biodiversity, particularly in areas where it has been harmed by human activity.

In the long term, the strategy will play a role in wider issues, such as combating the effects of climate change.

“It’s important that the conservationist policies don’t turn our ten sites into museums,” Veronique adds. “We’re trying to bring nature alive in an organic way. Making these exceptional and fragile areas accessible to everyone in the right way is at the heart of what we’re trying to do.”

Of course, if the national parks are to flourish and show that living, breathing, working landscapes can be sustainable, they need to be open for business to investors, future homeowners and tourists who share the same core values. To that end, in 2015 all of the parks were brought together under the collective banner of Esprit Parc National.

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Esprit Parc National

The Esprit Parc National is a sign of quality that is awarded exclusively to products and services created or practised within the boundaries of any of the French national parks. In order to qualify, businesses must respect numerous regulations and show that they have genuine passion for quality and authenticity, not to mention a real appreciation of nature.

Tourist accommodation and activities, free-range produce, traditional arts and crafts; all these diverse activities have the right to display the Esprit Parc National logo once they have fulfilled a number of criteria and passed an inspection of their practices.

Veronique said: “By bringing all of these like-minded people together under one sign, the French national parks can contribute to the sustainable development of these unique territories and give millions of people a fantastic experience at the same time.”

parcsnationaux.fr, espritparcnational.com

unexpected-paris

Unexpected Paris

We explore some of the areas and attractions that are changing the face of the capital

Spending a weekend in Paris is almost a cliche for the British – made so straightforward by an easy train connection and the huge choice of hotels and Airbnbs. Yet my anticipation is always tempered by frustration at being unable to see or do enough in such a short time.

Although I am a regular visitor to Paris, it still feels as if I am merely scratching the surface of the city, perhaps because I have followed the grooves of well-worn itineraries: promenading in the Tuileries gardens, picnicking in the Champ de Mars, having coffee in Saint-Germain-des-Pres. That all changed on a recent visit.

The city’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, has made no secret of her vision of a ‘Paris of the future’, rejuvenating neglected districts with an influx of new architecture and opportunities for businesses, residents and tourists. In her words, “a city like Paris should be able to reinvent itself at every moment in order to meet the many challenges facing it.”

It was Baron Haussmann who, in the second half of the 19th century, first ‘rebuilt’ Paris by demolishing crowded medieval neighbourhoods and replacing them with a logical layout of wide avenues, squares and elegant honeyed facades. But times are again moving on; Paris and its suburbs are now home to almost 13 million people and it has established itself as one of Europe’s financial and economic capitals. Developers have been building modern additions on the foundations of former transport links and beside historical landmarks – and these make a fascinating alternative focus for a weekend in the French capital.

One repurposed link is the Petite Ceinture (‘little belt’), a steam railway line built in the 19th century to connect the city’s train stations and to transport goods through the arrondissements. The development of the metro and the motor car led to its decline, and from the 1930s, stations were abandoned and the tracks became overgrown. Now, some parts have been rejuvenated, with stations being turned into bars and cafes, and cutting-edge modern architecture rubbing shoulders with the Haussmann buildings constructed at the same time as the railway.

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Petite Ceinture of Paris

I began my weekend in the leafy district of Passy in western Paris by strolling along a deserted section of the Petite Ceinture that is now a haven for wildlife. The old station of Passy-La-Muette, near the Bois de Boulogne, has been transformed into a chic restaurant and cafe. La Gare is one of the best places in the capital to step back in time while enjoying lunch or coffee; the striking vaulted space was designed by young architect Laura Gonzalez, who used plush navy furnishings, geometric patterns, brass mirrors and marble.

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Old station Passy-La-Muette

Following the old railway tracks round to the opposite side of Paris, I discovered urban rejuvenation on a greater scale in the shape of Rive Gauche, a new neighbourhood just south of the River Seine in the 13th arrondissement. This 130-hectare area was once home to thriving industries including the Grands Moulins (flour mills), and is now a multi-faceted architects’ playground; pedestrian-friendly and accommodating the Universite Paris-Diderot in some wonderfully quirky buildings. One is enveloped in delicately latticed green concrete, while others are painted bright orange; sleek black cubes are dotted between playfully painted street posts; there are hanging gardens, and even Impressionist murals painted on the balconies of one apartment block.

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Bibliotheque Nationale de France

For me the architectural pinnacle is the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, a quadrangle of buildings designed to look like four propped-open books, with an enormous planted area in the centre. Nearby, ‘Les Frigos’ is now a trendy artists’ quarter showing off impressive graffiti and mural art, for which I’m a bit of a sucker too.

Cross the Seine from Rive Gauche, and you soon come to the capital’s ‘East Village’, another lesser-known section of the capital where new business is burgeoning. I have loved the buzzy Bastille and Oberkampf districts for some time, but slightly further east there is a different atmosphere; lunch at Restaurant Pozada just off Boulevard Voltaire is a quiet, laid-back affair, and the gradual infiltration of modern architecture amid Haussmann’s designs is evident.

The Petite Ceinture originally wound its way past Menilmontant in the 20th to Belleville and La Villette, and today, more of the line’s landmarks up here have been converted for modern use.

La Fleche d’Or is a concert hall located in the former Charonne station, while the tree-lined Coulee Verte is a walkable green ‘corridor’ planted along a section of the disused tracks. This self-proclaimed village district is cosmopolitan, awash with artists’ colonies and independent artisan shops, and fosters a true community lifestyle removed from the tourist haunts. Slowly, I was reframing my view of the French capital – with considerable pleasure.

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La Fleche d’Or

This feeling continued the following day at OLE Paris Seine, the city’s first floating hotel, which is installed beside one of its oldest stations, Gare d’Austerlitz.

This remarkable 58-room hotel – whose staff are called ‘crew members’ – resembles an oversized catamaran and is part of Paris’s riverside development scheme. Guests look over the Seine from the bedrooms or while lounging beside the plunge pool (complete with inflatable golden swan), and a swish cocktail and tapas bar is open to non-residents too. The Sunset suite by designers Maurizio Galante and Tai Lancman wraps guests in a vivid all-orange space, even extending to the washbasins and bathtub, but staying here doesn’t mean skimping on history: Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Sainte-Chapelle are just a 15-minute riverside stroll west.

I encountered another juxtaposition of old and new at the Google Cultural Institute’s Lab, which is busy developing some of the most advanced digital technology at its headquarters in a 19th-century hotel particulier in the 8th arrondissement. The contrast seems jarring – but when you understand the Lab’s mission to make cultural treasures available for online viewing and revolutionise the way society enjoys art, it makes perfect sense.

Their digitalisation of the artist Marc Chagall’s ceiling at the Palais Gamier opera house in Paris is astounding.

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Palais Gamier

When the team invited Chagall’s son to view the images, he revealed that his father had included his image as a baby in the painting, but that he had never been able to find out where. The Google team zoomed in on the images of the ceiling with perfect clarity and, after more than 50 years, the painted baby was finally revealed.

Allow time in your modern weekend to visit the Musee du Quai Branly- Jacques Chirac, the city’s most recent major museum and research centre.

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Musee du Quai Branly- Jacques Chirac

It features indigenous art from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, with an astounding 3,500 objects from its 450,000-strong collection on display at any given time.

After you have seen the displays, the rooftop restaurant, Les Ombres, will beckon with its awe-inspiring view of the Eiffel Tower. The interior feels luxurious, with scarlet carpets and colossal vases of orchids, and chef Jean-Francois Oyon’s cuisine is inspired by dishes from around the globe.

As we finished our chocolate mousse, the clock struck ten, and we looked through the glass roof as the Eiffel Tower began its glorious light show. Even amid Paris’s thoroughly modern renaissance, its most traditional of icons is never out of reach.

SATISFY AN APPETITE FOR THE UNUSUAL

Looking for other ways to experience an alternative Paris? Book a break on the first weekend of October, when the dusk-to-dawn cultural carnival known as Nuit Blanche (‘sleepless night’) fills the streets.

An ever-changing roster of artistic directors commandeers different parts of Paris every year (such as the Conciergerie) commissioning hundreds of works that seek new ways for people to interact with the urban space for free. From clouds of paper butterflies settling on neo-classical columns to church naves sprouting enormous bejewelled skulls, Nuit Blanche is a riotously popular way to engage with cutting-edge artistry.

If you prefer a February visit, don’t miss the three-day Paris Face Cachee (‘the hidden side of Paris’), when you can visit around 100 sites normally inaccessible to the public. Private properties open their doors, and there are organised adventures and shows in unusual places such as the belfry at the Gare de Lyon.

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Gare de Lyon – Paris

Bookings are online only, at parisfacecachee.fr, and locations are kept secret until tickets are received. Visitors are simply encouraged to choose from a list of mysteriously named ‘experiences’, without knowing the identity of the organisers. Tours last between one and three hours, and some are free.

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Take a stroll in Sainte-Enimie

In the depths of the Tarn Valley, surrounded by the stunning scenery of the gorges, this medieval village is something of a legend.

The enigmatic village of Sainte-Enimie ignited my imagination from the moment I first spied its dappled roof-tops, half-hidden in the folds of the Gorges du Tarn below and bathed in the hazy sunlight of a late winter’s afternoon. Approaching from up on the plateau (or causse as the locals say), I half-wondered if the village might disappear as the sun dropped behind the mountain, extinguishing the shadowy mirage along with its rays.

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Gorges du Tarn

Luckily, as I looped down, plunging deeper into the cavernous gorges, the mirage hardened into veritable bricks and mortar, and Sainte-Enimie revealed itself in the pale light of early dusk, sitting snug and pretty just above the river’s edge.

This Plus Beau Village (a title awarded for its outstanding beauty and heritage) grew up around the monastery founded by the Benedictine monks who came to the area at the behest of the bishop of Mende in the year 951. The monastery, today a secondary school, can be seen on the higher level of the village, quietly observing the bustle below.

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Plus Beau Village

I entered the lower reaches of the village on foot from the Route de Mende, the cobbled street immediately heralding a return to the Middle Ages, and came to the Roman church of Notre-Dame-du-Gourg which occupies much of Place de l’Eglise, with half-timbered houses closely surrounding it. Situated just outside the original rampart walls of the fortified vieux village, the church dates from the 14th century, with both the north and south chapels added around a century later. In the north chapel, I discovered the statue of Saint Anne, holding the Virgin Mary and Jesus, and listed as a historic monument in 1908.

Medieval markets

Leaving the church, I continued up Rue le Serre (meaning ‘ridge’), the main thoroughfare that leads to the top of the village, and the monastery. Sainte-Enimie grew in prosperity thanks to the presence of the monks and to its location along the ancestral cattle route known as the Aubrac Drovers’ Road, which attracted pilgrims and traders. Looking around me in the centre of the old village, it was easy to imagine the hubbub of the medieval markets, with street names such as Place au Beurre, Place aux Oules and the Halle au Ble indicating where they used to trade dairy products, clay cooking pots and cereal products respectively.

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Place au Beurre

In the Halle au Ble, almost hidden in the corner of a stone wall of a restaurant’s covered terrace, two hollowed-out stones are the original measures for five litres of grain. Apparently, the quantities traded were never large, as most buyers had to carry home goods on their backs, or on that of their prized donkey, if they had one!

Across the square from the grain measures, I stopped for a moment to look out across the remains of the terraced fields on the eastern side of the village. Known as bancels, these stone-walled terraces made it possible to farm the steep slopes of the gorges, notably cultivating vines, almond trees (for their precious oil), and food plants.

The architecture of the buildings also reflects the village’s trading history. Many of the houses have an arcade at the front, known as an echoppe, which acted as a sort of in-built market stall with shutters that could open out on to the street. On other dwellings, part of the upper floors are built out over the street – acting as protection for people selling and trading their wares beneath. The overhang was equally a means to gain extra space inside.

I noticed also the sponge-like, pale ochre-coloured stones used to build some of the houses – I was later told that this porous clay stone is typical of the area and was a popular building material due to its lighter weight. In summer, a number of artisan boutiques open to tourists, thus continuing a rich merchandising history.

Reaching the top of the village, the quiet gave way to the raggle-taggle noise of pupils flocking out of school (the former monastery) and I imagined the ancient monks tutting with annoyance in their nearby graves. The youngsters took the ‘back route’ along the Chemin des Moines that flanks the west side of the old village, skipping down the well-worn steps carved into the rock leading to the road and river below. It was the favoured route of the Benedictine monks through the years, so I followed in their clearly marked footsteps, though rather more slowly than the light-stepped teenagers ahead.

Chemin des Moines fields

Chemin des Moines fields

SAINTE-ENIMIE AT A GLANCE

Stay the night at… the Auberge du Moulin in Rue de la Combe (doubles from €69, aubergedumoulin48.com), which combines the authenticity of a traditional stone building with modern comfort. The ten bedrooms have views over the River Tarn or the pretty garden and include two family suites. Owners Sophie and Didier are the third generation in the family to run the hotel and restaurant. Didier is the chef, cooking specialities of Lozere made from local produce and served either in the cosy dining room with fireplace, or on the shaded outside terrace, depending on the season.

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La Tendelle on Front du Tarn

Stop for lunch at… La Tendelle on Front du Tarn (menus from €15, restaurant-la- tendelle.fr), which has won the qualite Sud de France label for its commitment to serving a popular local menu and promoting regional produce. Organic wines feature strongly and have also been awarded the Sud de France label. Guests may eat in the beautiful vaulted dining room or on the terrace overlooking the River Tarn.

WHERE TO VISIT

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La Fontaine de la Burle

La Fontaine de la Burle: The magical waters of this spring cured the leprosy of Enimie, the beautiful daughter of a Merovingian king, who subsequently settled close to the waters, became a nun and established a convent in the 7th century. Whether the legend has any grounding in history (it was recounted in a medieval troubadour’s poem), it has been recounted through the ages to good effect, drawing pilgrims and early tourists to the healing waters. The turquoise-coloured spring, located at the entrance to the village via the Route de Mende, is 27 metres deep by 30 metres across and opens on to an underwater gallery that continues beneath the Causse de Sauveterre.

WHERE TO WALK

Hermitage and chapel: Built in to the cliff- face, directly opposite the village is the semi-troglodyte hermitage and chapel, where, according to the legend, Sainte Enimie retired to die. Leaving from the now-closed Hotel de Paris, opposite the bridge, take the street leading to the Route de Mende, cross over and take the road opposite, before turning left behind the large grey building and following the trail up the cliff. A round trip of around 45 minutes, with lovely views over Sainte- Enimie and the gorges.

GETTING THERE: Sainte-Enimie is an 8hr 30min drive from the northern ports, 30min from junction 40 of the A75 autoroute, which is the main route through the Lozere departement, Montpellier and Clermont- Ferrand airports are both on the A75, but at least a 2hr 15min drive away; The train from Paris to Clermont-Ferrand and onward coach service to Mende takes 6hr45min.

TOURIST INFORMATION: Cevennes Gorges du Tarn tourist board, tel: (Fr) 4 66 45 0114, cevennes-gorges- du-tarn.com; Sainte-Enimie tourist office, tel: (Fr) 4 66 45 53 44.

IN THE AREA

After a leisurely stroll through Sainte-Enimie, why not cross the bridge and try something more energetic with a five-kilometre walk to Saint-Chely-du-Tarn? A tiny village pinned tightly between the cliff-face and the river, it has pretty stone houses in a flurry of narrow streets, one of which leads to the small chapel of Baume de Cenaret, built into the overhanging rock. If you are still feeling fit and adventurous, continue for another nine kilometres to La Malene.

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An amazing view of La Malene

Twenty kilometres south-west of Sainte-Enimie along the River Tarn, you come to the village La Malene. Before the road through the gorge was built in 1905, boats were the principal means of transport between the villages gathered in its valleys.

For decades, La Malene has been the only place where the few remaining boatmen (bateliers) offer tourists the experience of travelling along the gorge in this time-honoured fashion. Using a flat-bottomed boat that holds from two to six people, the batelier steers you along eight kilometres of river to the Cirque des Baumes.

To mix things up with a few high-altitude thrills, pick up the D998 and head 25 kilometres north-west to the Via Ferrata climbing route, situated a dizzying 350 metres above the village of La Canourgue (lozere.fr/ ferrata-de-la-canourgue. html).

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Climbing at Via Ferrata

Choose the easy or difficult course depending on your ability and/or courage. Trails include a footbridge, two monkey bridges, a Nepalese bridge and an optional zip-wire at the finish.

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The village of Montbrun

Just a few kilometres to the east of Sainte-Enimie is the village of Montbrun, perched halfway up the slopes of the Causse Mejean, where the little stone houses are built in a sort of semi-circle to form what looks like one big look-out post. The village is quickly visited, but it’s worth popping in for the far-ranging views across the Tarn Valley.

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Drive time in Alsace

This is my favourite time to play,” said Jean, as the sun threw long shadows across the fairway at Kempferhof on the first afternoon of November. “Aren’t the colours fantastic?”

Le Kempf as he calls it, is my friend’s home course near Strasbourg, tucked away in a woodland park threaded by waterways distantly connected to the River Rhine.

I was looking for my ball at the time, swishing at a carpet of leaves with an increasingly angry wedge, so I didn’t feel quite so sympathetic towards golf in the autumn. But there was no denying that the carpet was a pretty colour.

I got to know Jean a quarter of a century ago in Val-d’Isere, the most alsacien of Alpine ski resorts, where he and his brother ran a ski school and served riesling in plastic cups to friends and clients every evening at apero time.

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Val-d’Isere

When Jean changed direction to run a hotel in his native Strasbourg on the border with Germany and work on his handicap at le Kempf, I followed him there and fell under the spell of a course which combines the charm of a secret garden with the challenge of an 18-piece puzzle bracelet. Every hole asks an awkward question, or several.

After ditching balls in the water for the last time, we shook hands and made for the bar. It was a moment for honesty. Playing at le Kempf is always a treat but this course, often rated in the top half dozen in France, deserves to be looked after, but, during my round, signs of neglect could not be ignored. Greens were patchy, tee boxes a little ragged and some bunkers churned up. Did golfers consider the rake unworthy of their attention?

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Golf Académie Pierre Pasquier – Le Kempferhof

Jean told a familiar story of declining membership and financial pressure. On a positive note, the club has a new owner with deep pockets and a wife who plays golf. The fees have come down and golfers are coming back. “There is still a lot to do,” said Jean, “but le Kempf is on the right track.” We drank to that and I mentioned my plan to mix golf with a tasting tour on the Alsace wine route, the prettiest in France.

“You must go and see my friend Henry Fuchs,” said Jean. “He supplies some of the best restaurants in France.

He’s in the middle of Ribeauville, you can’t miss him.” A quick phone call, and I had a date.

Noisy conversation

One could stay in some style at the Kempferhof: golfing convenience, a good dinner and a quiet night guaranteed.

Jean’s hotel, Le Dragon, proposes a different formule: an inexpensive billet ideally located for exploring the sights and enjoying the nightlife of old Strasbourg, close enough to the cathedral, but not deafeningly so.

“Many golfers like to go out in the evening,” says Jean, and for those of us who do, he can recommend cosy winstubs and restaurants off the tourist trail, with bottle-bottom windows, low wooden ceilings, noisy conversation in guttural Alsatian dialect and waitresses bearing regional dishes at an honest price: tarte a I’oignon, foie gras and gewurztraminer jelly, choucroute garnie, tete de veau, baeckeoffe (a meaty hotpot).

“A glass of gewurz to go with your foie gras, M’sieur? Then you can move on to pinot blanc.” All the Alsace cepages are available by the glass, so there is no need to deal in half-bottles or select a compromise wine when food choices diverge.

After a stroll through Petite France, a pretty network of weirs and waterways overhung by timbered houses, I quit Strasbourg and headed for wine country. It isn’t far.

The Alsace wine route runs north/south for more than 170 kilometres at the foot of the Vosges, a green corduroy skirt between plain and mountains, picked o out with scores of pretty villages.

On a bright morning in the autumn it makes a ravishing scene. The first frosts have transformed the green skirt to a sheet of shining gold beneath the tawny forest that cloaks the mountain, and the villages have got their life back after the departure of the tourists. Most of Alsace’s beloved storks have flown the nest too, but a few ignore the call to migrate and stay for the winter. One looked down on me from its nest on the sous-prefecture roof at Ribeauville while I searched for Henry Fuchs. Eventually, he came out into the road and waved me down.

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Place de la Sinn – Ribeauvillé

“Sorry,” said my host. “We don’t have a sign, because we don’t need publicity.” For reference, he is one up from Fulweber’s garage on the road to Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines.

“It was our wine you used to drink in Val!” said Henry, posing with his son Paul in front of a barrel carved with the family fox. Both did time ski instructing in Val d’Isere before coming back to the family business. Father has now handed over to son, who makes organic wines of high quality, including a delicate pinot noir to confound any prejudice we may harbour about Alsace reds.

Generous harvest

For the winemaker, climate change is part of life. “We have to adapt to it,” said Paul. “North slopes are coming into their own and the harvest starts earlier, although 2016 was an exception to that, after a cold, wet spring.”

In contrast to the rest of France, 2016 gave Alsace a generous harvest. There was almost no disease, which is good for the yield although not for late-harvest dessert wines which depend on the famous noble rot. “We will try to make some this week,” said Paul, and with that he made off, back to his late-picking labours in the vineyard.

Mirror, mirror… Of all the painted villages on the wine route, with their cobbles and corbels, fountains and towers, nearby Riquewihr is the fairest of them all: the most perfectly preserved and neatly hemmed in by the wall-to- wall carpet of vines.

Its film-set prettiness makes Riquewihr a huge tourist attraction, but out of season, it reclaims its life as a working wine village. After pausing to cross themselves as they pass the crucifix that stands at the foot of every Alsatian vineyard, weary pickers bang the mud off their boots and unload the day’s harvest in the courtyard before hosing down the tractor.

Easily found at the village gate, the house of Dopff au Moulin welcomes visitors, and Philippe is my guide for what is more than a tasting tour. “This is a family business going back to 1574,” he explains in a reception room full of family portraits. Etienne Arnaud Dopff is the 13th generation.

Shell-motif decoration on the staircase is a reminder that the wine road is on the pilgrimage route to Spain. Not all passing travellers have been so welcome. “The mountains separate us from France, and the Rhine from Germany,” says Philippe. “Between the two it has not always been comfortable to live.” Countless armies and marauders have trampled this European corridor down the centuries, most recently in the winter of 1944/5 when the so-called Colmar Pocket saw intense fighting between German and American forces. In nearby Ostheim one wall is all that remains standing of the old village, with a stork’s nest on top and a memorial to the liberators. Set back in its fold of the foothills, Riquewihr kept its head down and escaped damage.

The Occupation years are a painful memory, not much talked about.

“All the men were sent away to fight, so our women had to tend the vines and make the wine,” the guide said.

“The Nazis stole everything, but we know production went on because we have some wine from 1944, bottled after the liberation.”

At last, a drink. Riesling is the elegant dry white, perfect with fish. Pinot gris, formerly known as tokay d’Alsace, is a more voluptuous mouthful, “not to be confused with your thin supermarket pinot grigio.” Muscat makes an excellent aperitif, and the perfumed gewurztraminer is the Alsace cepage that sells best in Britain – “because of your taste for spicy food.”

The best vineyard plots produce Grand Cm wines from these four grape varieties. “Now I’m in the forest with blackberries… and now in my garden with strawberries,” Philippe says dreamily, savouring the complex nose of his favourite gewurz.

Sparkling celebration

Of the lesser plants, pinot noir is Alsace’s only red grape, not always used to make red wine. Sylvaner is less widely grown these days, while pinot blanc is on the increase because of the popularity of sparkling cremant. “Champagne is finished here,” Philippe says crushingly. “Only snobs bother with it for weddings and parties.”

It was the revered Monsieur Julien Dopff who first applied methode champenoise to Alsace wine in 1900, selling it as ‘champagne d’Alsace’ until the producers in Reims put a stop to that. The Cremant d’Alsace appellation came into being in 1976, and Dopff celebrated the 40th anniversary by popping many corks of Cuvee Julien, a fizzy snip at €10 a bottle. “Appetising but not dominating,” says Philippe; “you can drink any red or white wine after it. Sante!”

After much sniffing and spitting, and a fair amount of swallowing, it was time to swing a club once more.

Alsace is either very flat or very steep, and Ammerschwihr belongs to the steep part: of no course could it be more truly said that golf is a game of ups and downs. The upward holes are a stiff test of technique and temper, but the views from the top of the course, over vineyards and village roofs towards the distant mountains of the Black Forest, repay the slog. Few tee shots are more inviting than Ammerschwihr’s 14th, a par five where even a modest hitter’s well-aimed drive will bound down the hill to within chipping distance of the green. Smash a long ball, and you might even dream of a double-albatross hole in one.

an-aerial-view-of-ammerschwihr

Aerial view of Ammerschwihr

Returning to the plain with time on my hands, I followed a road sign to the Alsace Golf Links, more out of curiosity than expectation. Links is an evocative golf word often taken in vain.

In the clubhouse, a rustic farmyard complex with a stream and an old watermill, a man of unmistakably British appearance jumped up from his computer and introduced me to his dog Bogey. David Abercrombie – “from Northern Ireland, as you can probably tell” – is a golf architect with a portfolio of European courses to his name. He was about to build a 36-hole resort in Hungary when this place came up: a widow with no one to take over the farm. David saw the potential, found a backer, fell for a French girl… “so I’m here for keeps.” The course opened in 2000 and he is still building it, moving and shaping as finance permits.

“Rather than me tell you what I’m trying to do, why don’t you play?” he said. “Start where you like. The course is quite empty.” In fact it was quite busy with golfers knocking the ball about at a fair clip, defending their space as they have every right to do. But I found a few gaps and got the picture: firm and fast-running ground, with lies as tight as they like it on the links of Antrim and Fife. The real thing.

Course furniture is kept to a minimum and the transition from fairway to fringe to green is almost imperceptible. “It’s links golf without the weather,” David says. His course is a revelation and great fun to play, especially in the autumn when the going on its parkland neighbours can be soft to soggy.

Water challenge

On my final morning, I fitted in a game at Soufflenheim with two German friends who live just across the Rhine, 15 minutes from the club – full title Golf Club Soufflenheim Baden Baden. Membership splits 50/50 between the two nations, and the style owes as much to German order as Gallic charm; more, arguably. All boxes are ticked: a restaurant, apartments, an academy, a short course and a long one, by the German golfer Bernhard Langer.

golf-club-soufflenheim-baden-baden

Golf Club Soufflenheim Baden Baden

His course presents a stern but fair challenge, as one might expect of the man. Water is the main threat, and Langer has placed it on one side or the other of the fairway, or frequently both. Play straight, and he will not ask you to hit a ball over any water until the short 16th. Accuracy before power is the watchword here.

Whatever one thinks of the low hedges that skirt many of Langer’s lakes – more of a hindrance than a help, I found – the course is impressively well kept. While Kempferhof works on its recovery plan this is Alsace’s golfing Grand Cru.

After our game, my friends proposed lunch at their favourite fish restaurant in the village of La Wantzenau, which also has a golf course made mostly of water. With regret, I had a train to catch.

la-wantzenau

La Wantzenau village

La Wantzenau’s golf, and fish lunch, will be something to look forward to next time.

haute-provence

Haute-Provence by the back door

Starting at a high pass on the Italian border, we make an epic journey by bike through the mountains and valleys dominating this remote area of France

On the Col de Larche, where Alpes-de-Haute-Provence meets Italy, prayer flags flutter around a small restaurant. Mountains rise on either side, clad in golden grass, patched with grey rock, soaring to razor ridges. Valleys sink between them, dropping to a silky ribbon of newborn river, the Ubayette. And, above it all, above this wild kingdom, is a sky as blue as an Alpine flower.

 col-de-larche

Col de Larche

I breathe it in. It has taken a year of planning to get here, to begin a journey across Provence’s lofty heartland. But it started earlier, in 2012, when my husband and I visited Digne-les-Bains to discover the outdoor art of British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy. Walking through the black marl landscape around the town, we saw waymarks for a new mountain bike route. France is famed for its long-distance hiking trails but to create a version for bikes is an even more ambitious project.

Yet, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence has achieved it. The departement is unique in hosting three grandes traversees VTT – Chemin du Soleil, TransVerdon and L’Alpes-Provence – and has become a mountain-bike mecca in the process.

biking-the-vtt-chemin-du-soleil

Biking the VTT – Chemin du Soleil

We have chosen the last route, 300 kilometres of off-road riding with nearly 10,000 metres of height gain over a leisurely fortnight. It is possible to complete the trip in a week, but the point, for us, was to travel slowly enough to feel the landscape’s heartbeat: to have time to stop, talk, admire, discover.

Our adventure is in two parts. From the Col de Larche in Haute-Ubaye, we will ride over mountains and through wooded valleys to Digne-les-Bains; the ‘Alps’ sector, with high-altitude forts and isolated hamlets. The next stage is ‘Provence’; where rolling hills shelter artisans and fortified villages, where olives and lavender rule the rocky land.

So, finally, our wheels turn. We slide off the col and climb slowly across a sun-bleached mountainside. A few trees struggle skyward, marmots whistle, the distant river rumbles. And then…

A bark, a growl, and a white, shaggy dog the size of a small bear charges toward us. Patou! These guardians of sheep in the Alpine meadows are zealous about their job, and demand a healthy respect. We scramble off the bikes and freeze, still as death. A torrent of sheep floods downhill, two patous at their heels. Alpine silence morphs to a barrage of barking and bleating. The sheep ebb and flow around us, the dogs now entirely concentrated on their flock.

And then, they are gone… We stand for a moment, happy to have shared a moment of mountain tradition.

landscape-from-haute-ubaye

Landscape from Haute Ubayne

Further along the trail, a young marmot dashes helter-skelter down the slope, almost under Duncan’s front wheel. But these mountains are not just about startling panoramas and wildlife. They host a series of stone fortresses and bunkers, some dating back centuries and others more recent: crucial components of the Alpine Line. Established as the south-eastern version of the Maginot Line built to defend north-eastern France, this Petite Ligne Maginot was repeatedly attacked, although never successfully.

We stop at a concrete bunker, le Point d’Appui. In June 1940, 20 French soldiers were installed here to defend the valley against 300 Italians. Inside, the bunker is cold and dark, a single curved chamber with side benches, low tunnels leading to lookout slots. We prowl in silence, then emerge into bright light to see choughs swirling across the brilliant sky; it is hard to reconcile the noise and violence of combat with this serenity.

point-d'appui

Point d’Appui

Later, sprawling on a meadow, we watch a pair of eagles soar. Following their flight, we see another fort on the skyline: the 19th-century stone block of Batterie de Viraysse, one of the highest military posts in France. It is in complete contrast to the next find: a low fort on the edge of the valley, with a deep trench at its back – plus a chimney, stone patio and picket fence. Somehow, a piece of history has become a holiday house.

We spend the night in Saint-Ours, one of the oldest Haute-Ubaye villages. Its water was thought to be miraculous; in 1835 more than 6,000 pilgrims were reported to have visited. In the 19th century, villagers mined red marble and coal, but the story ended badly in the wake of World War II with forced evacuation by the Germans. Today it is tranquil, with picnic benches on a grassy terrace and a gite-auberge enveloped in red geraniums.

In the morning, we ride through forest and around a hillside to face the most famous fort of all. Fort de Tournoux juts from a narrow ridge in a complex staircase of towers, barracks and firing points. Building started in 1843 to defend France against both the Duchy of Savoy and Italy, resulting in ‘the military Versailles of the 19th century’. It housed up to 900 men, with drinking water piped from a distant mountain, and electricity from 1908.

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Fort de Tournoux – Ubaye Valley

At this stage, L’Alpes-Provence follows the Trans Ubayenne, a 100-kilometre trail from the peaks to Lac de Serre-Poncon. Waymarking avoids the paved road in favour of interesting paths, traversing hamlets set into wooded clefts or on small plateaux. By the time we arrive in Barcelonnette we are full of admiration for the route’s creators.

The main town of Haute-Ubaye, Barcelonnette is full of colour and character. Busy plazas are linked by slim streets with influences from Italy – and Mexico. For a century from 1850, there was a wave of emigration to Central America where fortunes were made in retail and textiles. When Barcelonnettes returned, they used their wealth to build extravagant mansions referred to as Mexican villas, despite being the product of Parisian architects.

The town is a commercial hub and centre for outdoor activities – river sports, cycling and hiking in summer, skiing in winter. We spend a night on the outskirts in Gite l’Eterlou, originally a priory and farm. The dinner table is shared with a group of mountain bikers on a time-pressed itinerary. They are envious of our relaxed approach and offer email addresses so we can tell them ‘what Provence is really like’.

We wake to our last day in Haute-Ubaye under a dream-blue sky, one of its claimed 300 days of annual sunshine.

The route hugs the River Ubaye, an untamed waterway that tumbles for 80 kilometres from Col de Longet to Lac de Serre-Poncon, one of Europe’s largest artificial lakes. In part, it traces the railway that never was: a massive project intended to link Barcelonnette with Chorges, 35 kilometres as the vulture flies but many more by train. Work started in 1909 and was abandoned in 1941, overtaken by road links. Now it is a ghost of tunnels and balconies carved into cliffs, a treat for cyclists and walkers.

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An aerial view of Lac de Serre-Poncon

On the way, we pause in Meolans- Revel, where a family-owned distillery is making waves. Founded in 1996 by Nicole and Daniel Million Rousseau, Lachanenche (named after their village, on the mountain above the distillery) has gained a name for classic digestifs: genepi, fruit and plant liqueurs, eaux de vie. Now, with their eyes on retirement, they are handing the reins to sons Jerome and Benoit.

Jerome shows us around, his eyes sparkling at the challenge ahead. “We use original distilling equipment – these wooden barrels are from 1907 – and our production is almost entirely organic.

We pick wild flowers in the valley and cultivate the fruits, like raspberries,” he says. “In 2013 we began producing pastis, which has 14 flowers and two spices. We are so proud that it won the gold medal at the Concours General Agricole 2016. And now we are making gin.”

He pours a shot and offers it, neat. “We pick the juniper, add rose petal, elderflower, cardamom, distil it three times…” I am no longer listening, just absorbing the effect of pure gin that tastes of sharp air and sunshine.

Instantly, I buy a bottle, to collect when our expedition is over.

Hefty breakfast

Le Lauzet-Ubaye, the village marking our launchpad from river to mountains, has a pretty lake and exquisite arched bridge, the Pont Romain. It straddles a ravine with smooth, sheer walls, white water churning far below its central arch.

Just over three metres wide and 23 metres long, it is a testimony to medieval stone masonry.

We are about to embark on our biggest day: climbing from the river to the Dormillouse massif, above the ski resort of Montclar. A hefty breakfast is offered at the La Lauzetane hotel, our server nodding appreciatively when we ask for eggs. “Yes. You must have protein to ride a bike this far. But you are going to Montclar? Really, it would be so much easier in a car…”

In cool morning sunshine, we start to climb. Although we have eyed this section with respect, it feels easier than we expected – those eggs, perhaps – and we stop regularly to rest and absorb the view. It grows with every switchback, the peaks changing shape as we gain a bird’s-eye perspective. Butterflies and fuzzy caterpillars give way to Alpine gentians, low juniper bushes and, near the highest point, a wolf dropping stuffed with wool.

Our map shows lakes up here but they are so shallow that all but the largest have evaporated. We meet a shepherd with his dogs and a small flock near Col Bas, our crossing point, resting in a hollow that should have held water. His little A-frame hut sits above the dry lake; it looks an idyllic spot.

The pass is narrow, a window to a new world. On Vubach, the shady side, is Haute-Ubaye with dark rocks, blonde grass and few trees. On the other is I’adret, the sunny face of Provence with lower, rounded hills, wider valleys and a different scent entirely. We learn later that Col Bas was once called Col de Provence, marking its boundary with Savoie from the 14th to the 18th centuries.

 

The drop to Montclar combines old military pistes – Dormillouse is capped by an eponymous fort, built in 1865 as part of the Southern Alps’ line of defence against Italy – and single track. In 2013, Montclar created a mountain bike park and it is now a summer destination for riders of all levels. Our initial problem is avoiding marmot holes and cow splats, but once we are on the bike trails, it is downhill all the way.

Home for the night is paradise: Domaine de l’Adoux, a family-run hotel in parkland below the resort. Owners Odile and Alain proffer a warm welcome and cold beer, plenty of laughs and incredible food. While Odile heats the sauna for our sore muscles, we chat with walking guide Stephane about bikes, local wildlife and life in the mountains.

domaine-de-l’adoux

Domaine de l’Adoux

By the time we return from the sauna, he has been joined by some mates from Montclar: Laurent, who rents bikes in summer and skis in winter; Franck, a mountain biking baker; and Gaetan from the tourist office, also a keen rider. When the conversation moves to winter sports, our numbers are swelled by Raoul, a skier whom Gaetan has phoned “to join the fun”. It is a spontaneous, memorable evening, although Odile suppresses a smile at our tired faces at breakfast.

Still in the Alpine, but losing altitude, we ride past Lac de Saint-Leger and the remote chapel of Notre-Dame de la Salette, with its separate bell tower.

A long climb on gravel reveals the turreted Montclar chateau, and eventually leads to Seyne-les-Alpes. Draped along a promontory, the town is capped by an imposing medieval fort renovated by the engineer Vauban in the 17th century.

Over a river, up to a pass and down the other side, we roll to the hamlet of Verdaches. In the lower valley are shuttered houses, holiday homes reflecting the short distance to the Cote d’Azur. We stop at Gite de Flagustelle, a school until 1985 but now home to mountain biker Patrick, Alix and their three children. A village hall is being built between church and gite, and the water trough has been renovated; a woman is washing leeks in it. “Of course!” says Alix, when I ask if the village population is sufficient to justify the cost. “We are 60 people here!” The evening table is shared with the family, plus couples from Marseille and Grasse, here for a weekend.

We are only two days’ ride from Digne-les-Bains, and leave Verdaches with a sense of destination. A gentle climb leads to Boullard, its handful of houses stepping down steeply from a pink-painted chapel. In the tiny graveyard are just three headstones, the most recent marked with a cross of twigs from a nearby tree.

At the end of this valley is La Javie, surrounded by orchards and lush growth, watered by two rivers. The contrast with tough forestry and sterile marl is extreme, like dropping into a fruit bowl after traversing a desert. Its hotel is closed, so we follow the braided River Bleone to the remote village of Prads- Haute-Bleone.

prads- haute-bleone-village

Prads- Haute-Bleone village

Wedged between dramatic peaks, with rock ribs shading ravines, it feels other-worldly. At the entrance is a plaque explaining the discovery in 1996 of a rare ichthyosaurus, a 95-million- year-old dolphin-like creature with horrific teeth. There is also a tall pole with a banner showing the flags of 18 countries. It is a new memorial, to the Germanwings plane brought down in March 2015 on the mountains above Prads.

Francoise welcomes us to Gite de Belle Valette, opposite the memorial, and nods sadly. “It was a terrible thing, no one can possibly understand.” Originally from Marseille, she visited Prads for 35 years before buying the gite six years ago. “There is so much here – mountain bike paths, via ferrata, hiking. We have beautiful lakes too, although I warn you that Lac Eau Chaude is very cold…”

We leave Francoise, her beautiful smile and home-made jams, with reluctance. Her warmth stays with us on the chilly run back to La Javie; the sun won’t breach these ridges until after 10am.

Now, four years after seeing the mountain bike waymarks on the terres noires near Digne, we are about to follow them. Approaching La Javie we greet five women stretching into yoga poses by a river, and a group of hunters discussing tactics. Then we drop on to a trail of pale grey grit, which swoops above river-gouged slots, cuts across crumbling crests and slides down flutes scoured by rare rainfall.

L’Alpes-Provence arrows guide us through Draix and Archail, where churches are festooned with flowers and dogs howl at our approach. We push the bikes up small mountains of black marl, navigate rock steps, and plunge down and down. The terres noires are extraordinary, delicate and savage at the same time. It would be impossible to cross this terrain without the route markings, and by the time we land on the plain beside Digne-les-Bains we are physically and emotionally exhausted.

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Skyview of Digne-les-Bains

Freewheeling into the town centre, we spy a bar for a celebratory beer. Careless of traffic, we turn toward it and nearly collide with a car. The driver hits the brakes, then laughs and waves: it is Patrick from Verdaches. It’s a funny old world, when you can ride halfway across one of the biggest and least populated departments in France, and see a familiar face at the end of it. We raise a glass to him, to Alpes-de-Haute Provence, and to the next stage of our journey.

biarritz

Road Trip – Surf the waves at Biarritz and explore Basque culture!

DAY ONE

MOLIETS TO BIARRITZ: 77 KILOMETRES

Life on the open road makes so much sense in France. Hopping from one outpost of the Atlantic coast on the Cote de Lumiere to the Cote d’Argent, and then on to the Cote des Basques, you experience a diverse series of landscapes in a relatively short space of time. Even the French autoroutes remain surprisingly free of heavy traffic if you do need to get somewhere in a hurry.

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A beautiful landscape of Cote des Basques

As you leave the resort of Moliets-et-Maa, heading south on the A63 towards Bayonne, the scenery is dominated by swathes of pine forest that bridge the borders of the Landes and Pyrenees-Atlantiques departements. Entering the Basque country, the views begin to open up to reveal gently rolling hillsides at the foot of the Pyrenees, with a hint of ocean on the horizon, given away by the lingering cloud.

Houses roll into view, painted in the Basque colours of white and red; some half-timbered in the oldest farmhouse tradition, others more modern variations on the same architectural theme.

The Basque people continue to thrive (Euskara is the oldest living European language), and to get a sense of their heritage and culture, visit the Musee Basque in Bayonne (museebasque.com).

the-games-room-musee-basque-in-bayonne

The Games’ Room – Musee Basque in Bayonne

Have lunch at Table de Pottoka (lunch menu €21, pottoka.fr), a restaurant by the river run by the highly-regarded chef Sebastien Grave, who specialises in Basque country cuisine with a modern twist.

From Bayonne, it is a 20-minute drive to the glamorous resort of Biarritz.

The great and the good of French society have been holidaying here since Napoleon III and his empress Eugenie fell in love with the town in the middle of the 19th century. Park on the northern outskirts and then stroll along the Grande Plage, admiring the belle-epoque and art-deco buildings that line the seafront, from the Hotel du Palais to the Casino. Carry on past the promontory of La Rocher de la Vierge, and round the corner for an aperitif and tapas at the Eden Rock Cafe at Le Port Vieux.

le-rocher-de-la-vierge-de-biarritz-france

Le rocher de la Vierge de Biarritz , France

Further along the coast, dine at Le Surfing (mains from €14, lesurfing.fr) on Boulevard de Prince de Galles. Take a beachside table and watch the world-class wave riders at work as the sun goes down on the Plage de la Cote des Basques.

Stay close to the beach at the basic Aire Municipale de Camping-Caron on Avenue de la Milady (€12 for two people, airecampingcar.com).

DAY TWO

BIARRITZ TO SAINT-JEAN-DE-LUZ: 19 KILOMETRES

If surfing Europe’s best waves is not your thing, then join the locals for a game of boules at Square Jean-Baptiste Lasalle on Avenue Beaurivage, or enjoy the sweet treats at the Planete Musee du Chocolat (planetemuseeduchocolat.com) before venturing on towards Saint-Jean-de-Luz on the D810.

planete-musee-du-chocolat

Planete Musee du Chocolat

This short but busy stretch of road ambles along hilly terrain, past the village of Bidart and on to the relaxed little town at Guethary. Here the narrow roads wind down a steep hillside, so it is best explored on foot from one of a cluster of campsites a little further on.

The Quartier Acotz on the edge of Saint-Jean-de-Luz caters for every kind of camper, from young surfing globetrotters to families with small children. A good all-round option is the four-star Camping Inter-plages (from €15 a pitch, campinginterplages.com), which has a swimming pool and private access to the beach below).

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Camping quartier Acotz – St Jean de Luz

Take the half-hour walk along the coastal path back to Guethary, where there is a choice of restaurants, from Le Bar Basque in the centre (tel: (Fr) 5 59 26 55 00) to the hipsters’ hangout at Heteroclito, Chemin de la Plage (tel: (Fr) 5 59 54 98 92). It is not advisable to walk back in the dark, so pre-order a taxi.

DAY THREE

SAINT-JEAN-DE-LUZ TO HENDAYE: 13 KILOMETRES

No visit to the Basque county is complete without a trip to the picturesque fishing port of Saint-Jean-de-Luz. Wander the streets, with its boutique shops selling linge basque and espadrilles, and peruse the amazing produce at the food market.

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Saint-Jean-de-Luz fishing port

Try the almond macarons from Maison Adam on Place Louis XIV (maisonadam.fr), before settling down at one of the restaurants surrounding the square for lunch and a spot of people watching. Le Majestic (tel: (Fr) 5 59 26 01 36) serves a reasonably priced menu du jour, and has outside seating overlooking the pretty music pavilion.

A campervan parking area beside the harbor (€8 for 24 hours) makes it easy to get in and out of town, and it is also conveniently close to the Grillerie du Port (tel: (Fr) 5 59 51 18 29) if you want a seafood meal.

Take the D912 Corniche Basque (coast road) to Hendaye and the Spanish border. This laid-back resort is ideal for surfing novices and family-friendly days out beside the sea, with a three- kilometre-long beach and easy parking bays all along the seafront.

D912-corniche-basque

D912 Corniche Basque (Coast Road)

Head back to the UK from the Spanish ferry ports. Alternatively, continue your road trip in the French Basque country by exploring the mountain villages of Itxassou and Espelette. The former is famed for its black cherries, while the latter takes its name from the Basque red chilli pepper, which has fired the imagination of its people for generations.

GETTING THERE: The nearest Channel port is Saint-Malo, a 7hr drive. Bilbao and Santander in northern Spain are 1hr 20min and 2hr 30min away respectively. The nearest airport is Biarritz. Trains from Paris Montparnasse to Bayonne take 5hr. A faster service starts in July which will cut the time by 1hr 10min.

saint-malo

Saint-Malo, a walled port city in Brittany – France

CAMPERVAN HIRE: If you are travelling by air or rail, you can hire a campervan at several locations in France including Bordeaux and Toulouse (trois-soleils.com).

TOURIST INFORMATION: Atout France, France.fr; Nouvelle Aquitaine tourist board, tourisme-aquitaine.fr.

calais

Quick guide to Calais

Isn’t Calais just a ferry port?

calais-ferry-port

Calais harbour

It’s true that more than 30 million people pass through the port every year, but Calais, which lies on the Cote D’Opale, is a tourist destination in its own right, with historical attractions and excellent seafood restaurants.

What is there to see?

cite-de-la-dentelle-et-de-la-mode

Cite de la Dentelle et de la Mode

Calais has been a centre for lace-making for more than 150 years and is home to the Cite de la Dentelle et de la Mode (cite-dentelle.fr). Set in an 1870s-factory building, the museum charts the history of the town’s lace industry and has a collection of around 1,500 man-made samples. It also explores the use of lace by fashion designers such as Hubert de Givenchy and Coco Chanel.

Another highlight is the imposing hotel de ville and adjacent belfry. Built in the 1920s in a Flemish style and adorned with stained- glass windows, the town hall dominates the main square, Place du Soldat Inconnu. Look up to see gilded statues glistening in the sunshine on the 78-metre-high belfry, and then take the lift to the top for panoramic views over Calais.

l'hotel-de-ville-de-calais-world-heritage

l’Hôtel de Ville de Calais is part of World Heritage (UNESCO)

The town’s piece de resistance is Auguste Rodin’s bronze statue of The Burghers of Calais, which stands in front of the town hall. The work is dedicated to six citizens who in 1347, during the Hundred Years War, volunteered to become captives of the English king Edward III to save their town.

Where are the best places to eat?

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A table at Histoire Ancienne Restaurant – Calais, France

For bistro-style dishes in a 1930s Paris setting, try Histoire Ancienne (mains from €18, histoire- ancienne.com). Popular dishes include peppered steak flambed with brandy, and grilled pigs’ trotters. For cuisine with a modern twist, head to Le Grand Bleu (mains from €19, legrandbleu-calais.com). The newly renovated restaurant specialises in cuisine elaboree such as cod coated in chorizo breadcrumbs, topped off with a cocoa sauce and parsley butter. For seafood, stop at Au Cote d’Argent (menus from €21, cotedargent.com). Recommendations include Calais-style fish soup, roasted cod with charlotte potatoes and thyme, and lobster.

Where can I stay?

hotel-meurice

Hotel Meurice – Calais

Book into the retro Hotel Meurice (doubles from €70, hotel-meurice.fr), half a kilometre from the railway station. The elegant main staircase leads to 39 rooms, which feature period furniture.

How do I get there?

DFDS-seaways

DFDS-Princess – Seaways

P&O and DFDS Seaways run regular sailings to and from Dover. A shuttle bus runs to the town centre. Some Eurostar trains stop at Calais-Frethun station, which is ten minutes by local train to Calais-Ville. The Eurotunnnel Le Shuttle exit is 20 minutes’ drive from the town centre.

For more information, go to calais-cotedopale.com

3-attractions-in-paris

3 of the Best Free Attractions – Paris

Enjoy the good life in Paris with our guide to places that won’t cost you a cent, from wide open spaces to a cozy corner

RIVER SEINE, 5th-7th

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Île de la Cité – An island on River Seine

The City of Light has no shortage of enchanting places to walk through, but the banks of the River Seine are among the most appealing.

The long, paved quayside along the Left Bank extends for several kilometres from the lie de la Cite – where Notre- Dame Cathedral stands – all the way to the Pont de l’Alma, gateway to the Eiffel Tower.

You can rest your feet at one of the barge cafes, which are open all year and are a perfect place to contemplate the beauty of the Seine.

parisinfo.com

PARC DES BUTTES- CHAUMONT, 19th

parc-des-buttes-france

Created by Baron Haussmann and his engineer Jean-Charles Alphand in time for the 1867 Exposition Universelle, this park is an oasis of calm away from the hustle and bustle of central Paris.

One of the largest green spaces in the city, the 25-hectare park has plenty to attract visitors: giant cedars, palm trees, a waterfall, an island topped with a temple to Sybil, and a couple of grottoes, complete with (artificial) stalactites.

The vast, rolling lawns are ideal for a spot of sunbathing or a picnic en famille, and the steep slopes allow visitors to enjoy stunning views over Montmartre and the rest of Paris.

parisinfo.com

MUSEE DE LA VIE ROMANTIQUE, 9th

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Interior Musée de la Vie Romantique

Soak up some love and affection at this small but delightful museum dedicated to two artists from the Romantic era: writer George Sand and painter Ary Scheffer.

The green-shuttered villa lies at the end of a tree-shaded alley in the Nouvelle-Athenes quarter and houses objects from the mid-19th century when notable figures such as the artist Delacroix and the composers Chopin and Liszt attended salons here.

End your visit in the charming garden and enjoy tea and cake in the cafe while soaking up the romantic ambience.

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All Eyes on Le Havre

The Channel port has lined up a range of events on land and sea to celebrate its 500th anniversary

The port of Le Havre in Normandy is marking its 500th anniversary this year with a six-month celebration of its artistic and maritime heritage.

The city was founded by Francois I in 1517 and is considered the birthplace of Impressionism. After being badly damaged by bombing near the end of World War II, Le Havre was transformed by the visionary architect Auguste Perret. He was a pioneer in the use of concrete and filled the old centre with striking uniform architecture, which gained Unesco World Heritage status in 2005.

The anniversary celebrations last from 27 May to 5 November and feature art exhibitions, parades, theatrical performances and boat races.

Highlights of the entertainment include the giant mechanical puppets created by the Nantes based Royal de Luxe street theater company, which is staging free shows across the city from 6-9 July.

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Nantes based Royal de Luxe giant puppets theater

The big event for art enthusiasts is the return of Claude Monet’s masterpiece Impression, Sunrise, to the city where it was painted in 1872. The painting will go on display at the Musee d’Art Moderne Andre Malraux from 9 September to 8 October alongside works by Eugene Boudin, Camille Pissarro and J.M.W. Turner.

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Impression, sunrise, 1873 – Claude Monet

On the maritime front, Le Havre will host the climax of the Rendezvous 2017 Tall Ships Regata from 21 August and the start of Jacques Vabre double-handed transatlantic race on 5 November.

lehavretourisme.com

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Tall Ship Kruzenshtern in Le Havre

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Northern Charms – Hauts-De-France

Just a short hop across the Channel, the newly formed region of Hauts-de-France has plenty to keep you entertained. Here is our pick of events for this spring and summer.

Les Recontres Internationales de Cerfs-Volants

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The strong winds that often blow along the Cote d’Opale mean that kite flying is a popular pursuit in this corner of France. For the past 25 years, the seaside town of Berck-sur-Mer has organized a festival that brings together almost 700000 kite-flyers and spectators from around the world. The event, from 1-9 April, is open to everyone, with kite-making classes for children and kite-flying lessons for grown-ups.

Participants let their imagination run riot as kites of every description, from flying fish to imaginary monsters, take to the skies.

Cerf-volant-berck.com

Festival de l’oiseau et de la nature

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Spring is a wonderful time to get back to nature and where better than at this festival in the Baie de la Somme. From 8-17 April, wildlife enthusiasts can learn all about the natural environment; guided visits take place on horseback, in a carriage, kayak or boat, providing visitors with the opportunity to spot an eclectic range of birds and possibly even seals across the bay. The event also features screenings of nature documentaries, educational workshops and photography exhibitions.

www.festival-oiseau-nature.com

Les Fetes du Bouffon

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Jokes run wild in the town of Saint-Quentin, during this festival on 2-4 June. The Celebrations are inspired by the different artistic representations of jesters found on the façade and interior of the town hall, and include music, dancing, themed meals and parades. The opening day is dedicated to youngsters, with a parade of up to 1000 children in fancy dress. On the second day, an international spectacular featuring between 250 and 300 musicians takes place on Place de l’Hotel de Ville. Other highlights include a procession and night-time carnival, the serving of a traditional jesters’s vegetable soup and a firework display.

fetesdubouffon.fr

La Fete des Roses

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The Plus Beau Village of Gerberoy in the Oise department is an enchanting mix of half-timbered houses and colorful gardens, and has two claims to fame: it was the home of Post-Impressionist painter Henri le Sidaner, and it has staged an annual rose festival since 1928. The event, being held on 4 June, sees the sleepy village covered from head-to-toe in the fragrant flower, with stalls spilling into the streets, and garden visits being led by residents. Folk dancing, singing and a climactic firework display all add to the entertainment.

gerberoy.info

 

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