I’ve written about France for 20 years – here are my favourite places to visit

I’ve written about France for 20 years – here are my favourite places to visit

Landscapes

When you can gaze on the salt pans of Guérande, near Nantes, cycle through lavender fields in Drôme, in the south-east, and bask in the splendour of the Cirque de Gavarnie in the Pyrénees, you have to wonder how France got so lucky with its diverse landscapes. Most recently, the volcanic landscape of the Massif Central captured my heart. The chain of extinct volcanoes runs south from the highest, Le Puy de Dôme (there’s a rack railway to the top) near Clermont-Ferrand.

South of the rugged peaks in Cantal, the town of Chaudes-Aigues has two hot springs – Europe’s hottest at 65C and 82C – that spurt from spouts in the town square. Two hours east, the extraordinary town of Le Puy-en-Velay is the starting point for the medieval pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostela. Its Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe chapel sits atop a basalt needle, while its other peaks are topped by the cathedral and a Notre Dame de France statue.

Beaches

Port Rolland cove on Brittany’s Côte de Granit Rose. Photograph: olrat/Alamy

It isn’t just the landscapes that vary so much across the country – France’s coast has so many characteristics there is a name for every stretch. On the Côte d’Opale, on the north coast, I’ve sat and admired the belle époque villas; further west, on Brittany’s Côte de Granit Rose, I have swum in coves surrounded by pink-hued boulders carved into extraordinary shapes by wind and sea. In the south-west, I’ve basked in the sunshine and dug my toes into silky blond sand as the Atlantic rolled into shore at Capbreton on the Côte d’Argent; and I’ll never forget an impromptu paddle from a tiny beach hidden between oyster farmers’ huts at L’Herbe on Cap Ferret, on the other side of Arcachon Bay.

Islands

The dramatic seascape at Pointe de Pern on Ushant island. Photograph: Crystite RF/Alamy

France’s coast is dotted with islands, all with distinct identities. On the Atlantic coast, I fell in love with the Île d’Yeu, which was reminiscent of Greece, with its whitewashed houses and colourful shutters, while the Île de Porquerolles off the Côte d’Azur saw us cycling past pine-fringed beaches and vineyards.

The one that really sticks in the memory, though, is Brittany’s Ushant (Île d’Ouessant in French), in the Iroise Sea off the far west coast. On a warm summer’s day, we cycled over its moorland, past lighthouses and green-shuttered cottages. When we reached the Pointe de Pern, the most westerly point of metropolitan France, I couldn’t believe the roar as the Atlantic waves crashed against the tumble of brown rocks.

Activities

A cyclepath on the Île de Ré. Photograph: Duncan Phillips/Alamy

Those in search of natural highs aren’t short of opportunities in L’Hexagone. Now our children are a bit older, paddling on the beach won’t cut it, so we’ve hired sand yachts and darted across the broad beach at Barbâtre on the Île de Noirmoutier off the coast near Nantes. In many forests across France, we’ve swung and climbed through the trees on accrobranche treetop adventures.

Of course, the activity the French excel at is le cyclisme, and the Île de Ré off the west coast was made for it. We’ve pedalled along smooth cycle paths between whitewashed villages adorned with hollyhocks, our legs powered by salted butter caramels.

Galleries

Edgar Degas’ Washerwomen at the Musée d’art moderne André Malraux, Le Havre. Photograph: Album/Alamy

Paris is always the first stop in France for art lovers, and little can rival the experience of standing eye-to-eye with Van Gogh’s self-portrait at the Musée d’Orsay, reflecting that, as he made those distinct and colourful brush strokes as a penniless artist, he would never know his impact on the art world 135 years later.

Beyond Paris, I’ve loved getting immersed in lesser-known galleries, which also offer moments of wonder. Le Havre’s light-filled Musée d’art moderne André Malraux holds one of France’s largest collections of impressionist art, including works by Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Degas and Courbet. It’s a must-visit during this year’s Normandy impressionist festival.

Museums

Musée Cinema et Miniature in Lyon. Photograph: Media Drum World/Alamy

It never ceases to amaze how the French manage to make museums on such wide-ranging subjects, from the surprisingly fascinating Musée de la Fraise (strawberry) in Plougastel, Brittany to the exquisitely intricate models in the Musée Cinema et Miniature in Lyon. There are big-budget ones, such as the recently revamped Musée National de la Marine in Paris’s Trocadéro, which blends historical model ships and paintings with modern innovations such as a giant CGI wave to bring the history of seafaring alive.

But smaller museums can be as engaging. In a beautiful mansion in the north-eastern walled town of Langres, the House of Enlightenment tells the story of the town’s most famous son, Denis Diderot, the philosopher, art critic and writer who wrote most of the 1751 Encyclopédie.

Architecture

Stained glass in St Joseph’s church in Le Havre. Photograph: Alan Gillam/Alamy

France’s many chateaux and cathedrals get the most attention, but I’ve been enchanted by more modern architecture, too. On my visit to Le Corbusier’s concrete Saint-Pierre church in Firminy, in the Loire Valley, I caught a group of music students practising four-part harmony in the extraordinary acoustics of the sloped walls, while the sunlight was shining through dozens of tiny windows like a constellation of stars.

In Le Havre, towering above the Lego-like apartment blocks, is the similarly impressive St Joseph’s church. Inside, I sat beneath the kaleidoscopic octagonal tower in reverence as I stared up at its 12,000 panes of coloured glass.

Cities

The giant elephant puppet roaming an island in the Loire, in Nantes. Photograph: olrat/Alamy

I love Lyon for its gastronomy, Marseille for its myriad quartiers and characters, Bordeaux for its splendour and Nice for its light. But lesser-known cities also hold delights. Nantes is a creative powerhouse with its own magic, encapsulated by the Machines de Nantes, including the giant robotic elephant that roams around an island in the Loire, next to a three-storey Jules-Verne-inspired carousel (their creations can be found in Toulouse and Calais now, too). There are street art installations and, along the river towards Saint-Nazaire, a collection of kooky art installations.

Getting around

A train crosses a viaduct near Marseille. Photograph: Chris Hellier/Alamy

There’s a joy to making the journey part of the holiday, especially for those who choose not to have the stress of the airport and want to keep their carbon footprint low. I’ve always loved standing on deck as the ferry comes into Saint Malo: the view of its stately walled town is particularly good from the sea.

Driving in France is a joy (certainly compared with the much busier UK): those empty roads lined with plane trees are justly famous. The A49 from Grenoble is an awesome route as it skirts past the Vercors mountains and walnut groves, while the Millau viaduct on the A75 is always a thrill to cross.

And trains are fast, efficient and comfortable; I love the route along the Côte d’Azur from Marseille to Nice – TGV OuiGo trains depart from Marseille’s Saint-Charles station and arrive in Nice Ville in less than three hours, offering glimpses of the shimmering Mediterranean between the terracotta roofs and cypress pines.

Where to stay

La Chouette Cabane, near Laval. Photograph: Chouette Cabane

Whatever you have in mind for accommodation, France has it. A bedroom in a castle – Château de Saint Paterne is my favourite. A beautiful gîte – Le Mas and Le Mazet in the Dordogne eclipsed all others. A cute chambres d’hôtes, where the owners treat you like long-lost friends – I’ve never been disappointed by Sawday’s places. And the French are in a class of their own when it comes to more unusual places. There are fabulous tree houses – at La Chouette Cabane in the Mayenne our delicious dinner was winched up to the deck on a pulley and accompanied by a frog chorus as night fell.

In lesser-known Lorraine, the rustic cabin with its own sauna next to the Lake de Pierre-Percée felt wildly remote. And then there was the eco-lodge shaped like a cow: in deepest Burgundy, a region rightly proud of its beef and cheese, the Vache Ecolodge sleeps 12 and is decorated on a bovine theme throughout. Quite mad, but brilliant fun.

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