Everybody has heard of Saint-Tropez, but an hour inland from the fashionistas’ favourite resort is a very different kind of Provence. High in the hills behind the Côte d’Azur, the forested Massif des Maures is home to rustic villages that are hubs of activity, linked by forest trails with views to make the heart soar.
Down on the Riviera, development creeps on, but at the village of La Garde-Freinet, the views of steep wooded hills clad with oak and chestnut forests have changed little since David Hockney came to paint here in the 1970s – the result being Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures). The village has attracted a host of other artists, too (though not all were lucky enough, like Hockney, to be based at Vanessa Redgrave’s house Le Nid du Duc), which gives it a distinctly arty vibe. Along cobbled streets lined with crumbling ochre and peach houses, are antique and bric-a-brac shops, art galleries, cafes and restaurants. At the top of the village are the ruins of a medieval fort, with views down on its jumble of terracotta roofs.
From La Garde-Freinet, it’s a hair-raising journey into the heart of the Maures on a road that weaves like a high-ropes course, offering jaw-dropping views for the passengers, and heart-stopping bends for the driver. An hour away, deep in the forest, is Collobrières, a village famed for its chestnuts. Factory tours at the family-run Confiserie Azuréenne show how they make the candied variety, marrons glacés, which are best tried in their homemade ice-cream.
The rest of the village serves chestnuts every other way possible: in hearty daube stews studded with roast chestnuts, as flour in cakes and in the heady liqueur de chataigne. There are vineyards, too, and the cooperative winery just outside the village offers tastings of local wines.
Even without its gastronomic assets, Collobrières would be a beguiling village to explore: a narrow river, shaded by plane trees, runs through its heart and its sleepy streets are home to antique shops, galleries, a blacksmith-cum-knifemaker, and friendly cafes and restaurants. For a great view, climb to the 16th-century ruins of Saint-Pons church, damaged by fire in the early 20th century.
Back along the road to La Garde-Freinet, is a Carthusian monastery that rose from its own ashes. The Chartreuse de la Verne burned down three times in the 13th and 14th centuries, but the immaculate stone edifice was largely restored over the past couple of centuries. There’s a self-guided tour of the most historic parts, including the sparse quarters where the monks once lived. The current incumbents, the white-cloaked Sisters of Bethlehem, do an impressive line in exquisitely painted ceramics at extraordinarily reasonable prices (you wonder if they’ve accounted for inflation in the outside world). A walk in the peaceful woods that surround the monastery will bring you up close to the twisted trunks of the chestnut trees; you might also catch a glimpse of the many wild boar that roam the woods.
Way to go
Take a train to Nice or Marseille and hire a car for the 90-minute drive to La Garde-Freinet. Just outside the village is charming B&B Villa Fontane (doubles from €80 B&B) run by a Franco-Australian couple. There’s also a gîte sleeping six and a heated pool. More information at visitvar.fr.
Drôme and Isère, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes
South of Lyon lies an extraordinary landscape: to the east are the plateaux and gorges of the Vercors and, further west, vineyards border the Rhône. To the south, the mighty river snakes towards an area of gastronomic abundance – nougat in Montélimar, olives in Nyons.
The city of Valence makes a great base. A walking tour of its old town should include its Romanesque cathedral, the 16th-century Maison des Têtes with its ornate facade, walls and ceilings of carved faces. The market stalls in various town squares are a feast for the eyes and the stomach, with produce from land around the city. Valence is also famous for being the home town of chef Anne-Sophie Pic – but eschew the pomp at her three-Michelin-star restaurant for other Pic group spots, such as the lively bistro André next door or, in the centre, the Daily Pic cafe, where meals are served in glass parfait jars, with no plastic to be found.
It’s a 45-minute drive east to Pont-en-Royans, gateway to Vercors regional park. The village’s medieval houses perch precariously over the River Bourne; look at them from the river beach opposite before exploring the village’s water museum with exhibits on water conservation and hydroelectric power. The highlight, though, is its Bar à Eaux, a tasting room offering sips of mineral waters from all around the world. There are 1,600 varieties and the difference in flavours is extraordinary. From Pont-en-Royans, the Bourne gorge leads towards jaw-dropping scenery: the vast Cirque de Bournillon cliff face and the Moulin Marquis waterfall.
Elsewhere, the Combe Laval road is as spectacular as it is terrifying: merely a ledge chiselled out of the rock during the 19th century for moving timber. Only a small stone wall separates you from a 1,000-metre plummet and the spectacular mountain panorama beyond.
To the south of Valence, Drôme is on the fringes of Provence; drive south first to sleepy Montélimar to tuck into its honeyed nougat, then head east – on winding roads that cut through vineyards, lavender fields and cherry orchards – to arrive at the village of Grignan. Its golden-stone houses are high on a hill, topped with a Renaissance chateau, and it is surrounded by lavender fields. Its narrow streets spiral upwards; as you wander, breathe in the scent of rosemary and jasmine wafting from the walled gardens, and gaze across the landscape from the chateau’s courtyards.
Continue to Nyons, known as Petit Nice for its yellow and terracotta houses. The hilly landscape around it channels the climate from the Med to create the conditions for growing olives and even before you reach the town you’ll see its groves of ancient trees.
Way to go
Eurostar via Lille to Lyon Part-Dieu, then TGV to Valence. In Valence, Hotel Victoria is a contemporary-design boutique hotel (doubles from €120 room only), while in Grignan, Le Clair de la Plume (doubles from €99 room only) is in a 17th- and 19th-century mansion. More information at ladrometourisme.com and tourisme.saintmarcellin-vercors-isere.fr
The most westerly reaches of the Breton coast bask in temperate climes thanks to the influence of the Gulf Stream. Not many Brits make it out this far, preferring to zip across Brittany to beaches on its south coast, or on towards the Vendée. Yet those who hang a right out of the port at Roscoff and drive just over an hour west to Le Conquet will enjoy soft blond beaches and a string of wild islands that are the last stop before North America.
Le Conquet is a charm: its streets are lined with dinky stone cottages with shutters and doors in pillar-box red or ocean blue; gardens brim with sugar-pink hydrangeas; and lobster pots are piled high. It’s a seasidey kind of place, with shops selling souvenirs and homewares, as well as crêperies in which to indulge in the local galettes, buckwheat pancakes – the best ones in town are at Louise de Bretagne (6 rue Poncelin), a smart, family-run restaurant with stone walls and wooden beams.
For days on the beach, there’s no need to travel far: Plage de Portez is great for rock-pooling as well as picnics. It’s tucked away behind the newly renovated Hotel Sainte-Barbe, a concrete marvel that lay derelict for years and is now a vibrant hub, thanks to its excellent restaurant and rooftop bar – it looks down on the harbour from its lofty heights towards the Kermovan peninsula, which is great for walks. Beyond it is the glorious Plage des Blancs Sablons which is an easy stroll via a bridge across the Ria estuary (or a 10-minute drive). The huge sweep of white sand is backed by grassy dunes and bracken, and ideal for lounging when the sun shines, or a bracing walk when it doesn’t. More sheltered is the Plage de Corsen, 20 minutes north, its golden sand tucked under cliffs looking on to gentle turquoise water.
Though Le Conquet is the most westerly town in mainland France, you can go further. Ferries ply the bumpy Iroise Sea, with its hundreds of islets and a tapestry of currents, taking an hour and a half to reach the 8km-long island of Ushant (Ouessant in French), which really is the last stop before the open Atlantic. On arriving at Port du Stiff, hire bikes on the quayside to cross its heather-clad moorland and freewheel downhill to the “capital” Lampaul. The island’s most westerly spot – the Pointe de Pern – is fierce even on a sunny day: the noise of the ocean crashing against the black rocks is deafening and makes an extraordinary sight. With so many ships succumbing to Ushant’s jagged edge, it’s little wonder there are six lighthouses on or around the coast, the tallest of which – the Phare du Créac’h – has one of the most powerful lights in the world.
The island of Molène, just half an hour from Le Conquet, is much smaller: you can walk its circumference in half an hour. It’s a haven for seabirds, which wheel overhead as you wander between the stony coves, and before the trip back, make sure to tuck into the local delicacy: saucisse de Molène is a sausage smoked over seaweed.
Way to go
Le Conquet is an hour and 20 minutes’ drive from Roscoff (ferry from Plymouth, from £288 return for a car and two adults, with en suite cabin on the outward sailing, with Brittany Ferries). Hotel Sainte-Barbe (doubles from €158 room-only) has 34 rooms, many perched over the water. It also has parking (rare in Le Conquet) and is minutes from the harbour.
The lesser-known Oise department of Picardy is a land of forests and chateaux steeped in history, be it the follies of imperial rule or heart-wrenching tales from the first world war. A good base is Compiègne, an elegant town where cobbled streets lead between timber-framed and brick houses, sophisticated boutiques and smart restaurants, such as Les Ferlempins, serving local and organic produce.
The crowning glory is its imperial palace, Château de Compiègne, loved by Napoleon in the same way that Louis XVI adored Versailles (though it is smaller). It makes for a peaceful experience: wander the creaking parquet floorboards of the state rooms and ogle the chandelier-filled ballroom. The chateau is home to the Musée Nationale de la Voiture, with a collection of ornate horse-drawn carriages dating from the 17th century. On a sunny day though, the parkland is the place to be, with its rose garden and woodland bisected by the wide, grassy Avenue des Beaux Monts.
In contrast to Château de Compiègne, which was loved by its regal and imperial incumbents, Château de Pierrefonds, on the edge of Compiègne forest, is something of a folly. Its multiple circular, crenellated towers scream “medieval castle” so loudly it was chosen as the setting for the BBC series Merlin. In the mid-1800s, Napoleon III wanted the ruined 14th-century chateau rebuilt, and commissioned Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (who also renovated Mont-St-Michel and Carcassonne) to redesign it in medieval style. Yet, in an imperial version of Grand Designs, the money ran out, Viollet-le-Duc died and Napoleon III was deposed before much of the interior decor was done. Today, its stark rooms contain gargantuan statues (intended for the exterior) and a magnificent judicial hall with an ornate arched ceiling and a fireplace adorned with statues of Empress Eugénie and her ladies-in-waiting.
Elsewhere in the forest, the Glade of the Armistice recalls a more poignant chapter in history: at dawn on 11 November 1918, two trains – one from France, one from Germany – rolled into the discreet and remote railway sidings in order to sign the armistice that would put an end to four years of devastating warfare. The clearing and the small Musée de l’Armistice were renovated in 2018 to commemorate the centenary. Inside, there’s a replica of the railway carriage that hosted the summit and engaging exhibits telling the story of the end of the first world war. It also demonstrates how three wars (the Franco-Prussian war, and the first and second world wars) were so closely linked, and how, in an act of revenge, Hitler insisted France sign the 1940 armistice on this same spot, destroying the memorials that had been erected in the 1920s.
Way to go
Eurostar to Paris Gare du Nord, then a 40-minute train ride to Compiègne. The three-room Villa du Châtelet (doubles from €100 B&B) is in walking distance of the Musée de l’Armistice and was built for 19th-century composer Léo Delibes. Owner Alix de Lauzanne also runs a cookery school in the house, and her four-course table d’hôte dinners (€45pp with wine) are superb. More information on the area from oisetourism.co.uk.
French Basque country
Tucked away in the curve where France runs into Spain, the Basque country offers a different flavour of France, with its red or green timber-framed architecture, its own curious language and piquant cuisine. The foothills of the Pyrenees are great for walking and exploring cute villages, and its coast has golden swathes of sand beaten by Atlantic rollers or, in the case of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, a gentle bay perfect for paddling. This seaside town makes a good base, being equidistant from glamorous Biarritz in the north and the mountains to the south.
The plain exterior of St-Jean-Baptiste church in the old town hides an astounding baroque altarpiece decorated with dozens of golden saints; the other walls host four levels of dark-wood seating galleries that rise to the roof. In 1660, the French king Louis XIV and Maria Theresa of Spain got hitched here and, in so doing, ended centuries of conflict between the two countries.
The local sweetmeats continue the romantic vibe: mouchous are the small macarons named for the Basque word for “kiss”. Buy a box in the town centre at Maison Adam, founded in the year of those royal nuptials.
For something healthier, the daily market (Les Halles, 7am-1pm) sells charcuterie, glossy nectarines and succulent apricots, Pyrenean cheeses and crusty bread for a picnic on the nearby beach, a glorious crescent of fine yellow sand. Pointe de Sainte-Barbe, a short walk north, offers a spectacular view of the bay towards the neighbouring village of Ciboure, with the green silhouette of the Pyrenees as a backdrop.
Also on the opposite shore is the 15th-century fort at Socoa, with a walkable sea wall shielding the bay from the ferocious Atlantic. The cliffs along the coast to the south towards Spain are fascinating too – slanting grey strata make them look like layers of cardboard. For a better look, the Nivelle V (€10/€8) pleasure boat pootles from the quay in St Jean de Luz down to the Spanish border town of Hondarribia and back.
Ciboure is worth exploring: walk up past its pelota court (the Basque racquet game) and into winding streets lined with four-storey villas, with red and white timber frames and shuttered facades. Here, characterful restaurant Chez Mattin serves Basque specialities such as axoa stew flavoured with the local mild Espelette chillies. The village from which the pepper takes its name is an hour’s drive into the mountains, and its houses are strung with garlands – ristras – of the dried red peppers like bunting. Its bijou boutiques are rammed with local crafts, and there’s more Basque cuisine on the sunny terrace of bar-restaurant Aintzina (440 Karrika Nagusia).
Way to go
Eurostar to Paris Gare du Nord, then TGV Paris Montparnasse to St-Jean-de-Luz. La Réserve (doubles from €105 room-only) is a four-star hotel on the cliffs behind Pointe de Sainte-Barbe, with views along the coast to Biarritz. For more on the area, see tourisme64.com.
• Carolyn Boyd is editor of francetraveller.co.uk
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