The beautiful corners of France that the French don't want you to know about

·16-min read
Scenes of France - Getty
Scenes of France - Getty

France attracts more international tourists than any other country: nearly 90 million visitors a year, putting Spain in second place and the US in third. Less well-known is that it also attracts more domestic tourism than any other place in Europe; of those French people who take holidays, some 80 per cent do so in their own country. This shouldn’t be a surprise – if the whole world reckons your home is attractive, why go elsewhere?

Mainland France does, after all, share borders with eight western European countries, giving it Flemish, Germanic, Spanish and Italian influences. And once you add in its world-class coasts, mountains, lakes and rivers, historic châteaux and art galleries,  famous wine regions, iconic cuisine, rugby and cycling, a visit is a no-brainer.

French holidays are also a serious matter. Ever since the Popular Front government granted paid holiday in 1936, the French have considered taking their holidays akin to exercising a political right – and a right which must be performed properly at that.

Given the variety and grandeur of their land, the French tend to favour simple pleasures. They have some cracking man-made attractions – historical theme park Le Puy du Fou, Disneyland Paris, the Louvre museum, the Eiffel Tower, DJ David Guetta – but depend on them less than some other nations might. Walks, hikes, bikes and waves provide stiff summer competition, as do food and drink. The evening aperitif is as immutable as sunset.

And the French bring to it all a sense of entitlement. They spend little time saying sorry or worrying they are doing the wrong thing  – on the contrary, they usually give the impression they are marking holiday activities out of 10. In fact, they approach the whole affair with a cool-headed conviction that, quite frankly, we Brits – picking our way apologetically and tentatively around the globe – could likely learn from. Here’s how.

Beaches

To hear the French talk, you would think they all spend their holidays exploring prehistoric sites, developing their knowledge of Romanesque architecture or trekking the Pyrenees. A few do, but there are plenty left over to fill beaches from the Riviera to the Atlantic coast and Brittany.

And, boy, do they do it systematically. See a Frenchman staggering on to the sands with his family, and you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s moving house. He will be festooned with a blow-up dolphin, a blow-up flamingo, two cool-boxes, goggles, countless nets, bottles, bats and racquets, two parasols, a bag overflowing with towels, unguents and the other contents of the rental bathroom, several copies of OK magazine, plus hats, balls and flippers for all. Minimalism is not part of the French beach experience.

Retro beach tents in Biarritz - Rafa Elias/Moment RF
Retro beach tents in Biarritz - Rafa Elias/Moment RF

Camping

France has long been Europe’s under-canvas HQ, with more than 8,000 camp sites. Argelès-sur-Mer, a Med resort near Perpignan, hosts 54 alone, so its claim to be Europe’s camping capital is likely true. The activity has been woven into the warp and weft of French life since paid holidays began, the campsite being France’s equivalent of affordable guest houses in Blackpool and Margate.

Though it remains convivial, France’s camping credentials have shot upmarket from the squalid days of mud-clad chaos and cesspits masquerading as “sanitary blocks”. There are now more chalets than tents, grounds like leafy suburbia, and water-park complexes inspired by Las Vegas. Camping is now fit for civilised people.

Culture

When Disneyland Paris opened 30 years ago, the usual cassandras predicted the end of French culture, but it has easily survived a cartoon mouse. While it is France’s number one attraction – with 15 million visitors in a normal year – the Louvre (eight million visitors) and Versailles (7.3 million) have gained, rather than lost, visitors, proving it has added to, not undermined, the cultural mix. Leonardo and Mickey are, in short, not mutually exclusive. You can do both.

Despite a few purists, most French people are good like that. They are good with culture in general. All those museums, galleries and châteaux constitute not an ideological obstacle course but part of Project France, which involves everyone in sustaining the national self-image. Holiday visits to Paris’s Musée d’Orsay, the Pont du Gard Roman aqueduct in Nimes, or gallery outpost Louvre-Lens push the project along and ensure that sites are kept in tip-top form for everyone.

The Louvre in Paris - STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP
The Louvre in Paris - STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP

Food and drink

A recent survey claimed gastronomy was vital to the holiday choice of some 50 per cent of French holidaymakers. This struck me as nonsense: the figure is clearly nearer 98 per cent. They are a demanding lot, food-wise, on holiday as at every other moment.

While away with French friends recently, I suggested sandwiches for lunch, in the interest of economy. I was told: “A sandwich is what I eat while deciding what I’m really going to have for lunch.” This turned out to be seafood platters one day and on another, a four-course beach picnic that might have defeated Gargantua.

Sport and activity

As mentioned, France is as much a nation of doers as viewers. They have the landscape for it, whether it be climbing, paragliding, windsurfing, cycling, riding, rafting, canyoning, surfing, shooting wild boar or hiking up and down Corsica’s GR20 trekking route. They bring to all this activity a Tiggerish enthusiasm and always, always the correct equipment: they will absolutely not make do with an old pair of jeans and a length of string. Please bear this in mind if you wish to be convincing while taking part in any activity.

Paragliding in France - Pierre Longnus/The Image Bank RF
Paragliding in France - Pierre Longnus/The Image Bank RF

History

It sometimes seems that France has more history than it can handle, from the Chauvet cave art painted in Ardèche 36,000 years ago to the cemeteries and sites of the 20th-century’s world wars. This is something else that the French take seriously. Occasionally too seriously: few walls more than 50 years old escape a preservation order; few guides will miss even one Renaissance corniche. Again, it’s part of an internalised Project France that its people bring on holiday.

French people are surprisingly well-informed on their past, as perhaps not all Britons are, so if you are going to be visiting historical sites, do bone up beforehand. Otherwise, you will be shuffling past meaningless stacks of stones. If possible, take in some First and Second World War sites, which will be the most moving moments of your holiday. Nowhere do our two nations get on better these days than at Verdun, on the Somme or the Normandy beaches.

Lack of cynicism

Only French people could be enjoying themselves when being poled on a boat through the Poitevin marshes, attending all-night readings of The Iliad or watching demonstrations of calligraphy. I have listened to friends enthuse about all three. They’re nuts, but they were genuinely having a good time when any other person would be crazy with boredom.

Simply put, the French are wide-eye innocents. Tell them it is culture and they will believe it is good. They lack the scepticism that kicks in during a fourteenth Romanesque church visit or contemporary dance routine evoking historic suffering in Haiti. Being so easily entertained is admirable. It simplifies much, holiday-wise.

Villages

Everywhere has villages. Britain has countless lovely ones. French villages, however, are distinguished by having a degree of autonomy. There are thousands of them – France has 35,000 communes – most somewhat complete unto themselves. Local affairs are handled not in some distant district council office but, initially at least, right in the village, by the mayor’s team.

Local commerce has held out against hugeness. Hypermarkets may be to hand, but numbers are regulated. A village will have farmers, a baker’s, a grocer’s a butcher’s, a bi-weekly market and a café with metal chairs scraping on the tiled floor and, on the walls, photos of the soccer team circa 1973 when moustaches were part of the kit. The church will be the village’s most impressive building, indicating that, for centuries, the afterlife was a peasant’s best bet.

All this means that French villages remain centres of life, with their own dynamic – maybe also their own wine appellations, cheeses, charcuterie and, these days, micro-brewery beers. As such, they are terribly attractive to visitors who feel they have arrived somewhere rooted, living and breathing. Be warned, though: outside of festival time, you will likely have to create your own nightlife. Talking of which…

French villages remain centres of life - Getty
French villages remain centres of life - Getty

Nightlife

France has many smart nightclubs, notably on the Riviera (or so I hear: I haven’t been near one since I ordered a beer in a Cannes club, was told the price, informed the waiter I wanted to buy one drink, not fund his pension plan, and left). But lots of French people assemble in such places, so they must be good. They might see a Bono or a Beckham.

I’m on firmer ground with evening life, at which the French are gifted. Bars and restaurants are many, various and welcoming to families. And claims that kids are disdained are nonsense: their presence is expected and eventide strolling is for everyone, from tots to grandparents.

Added to that, the French expect to be able to take apéritifs, eat, drink again, maybe dance to a little night music and walk back to base without encountering anyone throwing up in the gutter or lobbing cans at the local war memorial, and on the whole these expectations are met.

Where they like to go

St Jean-de-Luz

St Jean is the pick of the muscular Basque coast for the more discreet Parisian middle classes. The fishing port cedes just enough to sea-sidery to make it absolutely suitable for holiday requirements. A main bay curves headland to headland, fulfilling every sandy summer promise. Other beaches chuck surfers about satisfactorily. Behind, belle époque echoes of Biarritz just up the coast are backed by Basqueness.

Where to stay: Go for proper French glamour at the St Jean-de-Luz outpost of La Réserve. Rooms from around £125 per night.

St-Jean-de-Luz - horstgerlach/iStockphoto
St-Jean-de-Luz - horstgerlach/iStockphoto

Colmar

Britons overlook Alsace, perhaps because they think it is in Germany. The French don’t (and neither do Germans). The region, in France’s far east, attracts with a blend of German thoroughness and French flair. Colmar, its wine capital and poster child, has charm to spare: its high-hued half-timbered buildings oversee slim streets, waterways, cobbled squares and courtyards, the whole overcome with flowers and a sense of ancestral prosperity.

Where to stay: Just 30 minutes from Colmar, in picturesque Barr, is sleek boutique hotel 5 Terres Hotel & Spa. Rooms from around £130 per night.

Colmar - wilatlak villette/Moment RF
Colmar - wilatlak villette/Moment RF

Route Nationale 7

As Route 66 did for Americans, so RN7 symbolised insouciance to French holidaymakers. For decades, it was the route des vacances from Paris and the north to the south, sea and sun. Then, in the 1970s, it was overtaken by the autoroute. Now more discerning French motorists are rediscovering it, as a way of weaving through French life rather than blasting past it.

From Fontainebleau, the RN7 takes in villages such as Lapalisse, Le Crozet and Cliousclat which, were they in Provence, would be standing room only. It runs through the mid-sized towns of Moulins, Valence, Montélimar and Avignon (Valence in particular has gastronomy to pause for) and meanders up and down hills and past pastures, forests, roadhouses and fading wall ads for Cinzano – in short, it takes you through the France of the French.

Where to stay: The Atrium Hotel in Valence makes an affordable base from which to explore the fabulous countryside of Vercors, Drome and the Rhone valley. Rooms from around £80 per night.

Menton

While Cannes, Nice and Monaco buff up their Riviera gleam in the glow of international attention, so Menton sits alongside, a beacon of comparative restraint – louche restraint, perhaps, but restraint all the same. More mature French holidaymakers appreciate this and they have, in part, the British to thank. Our rich forebears wintered here, endowing the place with great gardens and good manners.

Where to stay: Hotel Napoléon makes for an arty, stylish seaside stay that doesn’t break the bank. Rooms from around £60 per night.

The Riviera's smartest town - Getty
The Riviera's smartest town - Getty

Clermont-Ferrand

Here, amid the Massif Central mountains, is where brighter French holidaymakers forget lockdown amid sleeping volcanoes, lakes, wildflowers and steep pastures peaceful with cows and sheep. It is a France of steadfastness, holding to rural certainties as the rest of the world goes haywire. In this context, Clermont-Ferrand itself is an oddity: a significant centre of industry, sport and religion in the middle of rustic nowhere. Great city, though. There is none less pretentious in France.

Where to stay: My favourite hotel here is the two-star Notre-Dame, which is ideal for families. Rooms from around £60; notre-dame.auvergnetophotels.com/en/.

The countryside that beckons beyond Clermont-Ferrand - Getty
The countryside that beckons beyond Clermont-Ferrand - Getty

Loir Valley

Sixteenth century French poet Pierre de Ronsard, born in the Loire valley, famously wrote: “Live now, believe me. Wait not until tomorrow. Gather the roses of life today.” This sound advice relates absolutely to his home region and thus can be indirectly translated as: “The moment you can, get to the Loir valley”.

That’s Loir without an “e” which, as the more astute French traveller knows, flows parallel to, and north of, the grander, châteaux-studded Loire. The smaller river provides a running commentary for fields, forest, meadows, vineyards and soft sunlit villages where ladies tote wicker-work baskets and traffic lights remain a talking point.

Where to stay: You will be perfectly placed at the riverside Moulin-de-la-Plaine chambres-d’hôtes in Trôo. B&B doubles from around £80; moulindelaplaine.com

North Finistère

The far west of Brittany is where the French go to experience a tough, shaggy coast offset by stone villages overgrown with hydrangeas and hollyhocks. It is also the source of the British caricature of Frenchmen as bike-borne fellows in hooped jerseys and berets, festooned with onions: from the mid-19th century to mid-20th, Breton farmers sailed from Roscoff, a commune in Finistère, to Britain where they cycled around the country selling their wares and were nicknamed Onion Johnnies.

Where to stay: The Hotel Résidence des Artistes in Roscoff boasts retro-memorabilia including travel trunks and 1970s LP covers. Doubles from around £70; hotelroscoff-laresidence.fr.

The lighthouse of the Virgin Island, Finistère - guy-ozenne/iStockphoto
The lighthouse of the Virgin Island, Finistère - guy-ozenne/iStockphoto

Le Grau-du-Roi

Le Grau is a fishing port first, seaside resort second: boats chug up the canal bisecting the town, giving rise to a quayside scrum of tackle, nets, ropes and tanned blokes with roll-ups unloading turbot. Like the rest of the Languedoc coast, it embraced summer holidays only 60 years ago, as France tempted ordinary French families back from the Spanish costas. Here, les vacances come at full tilt. It’s a hubbub of noise, ice-creams, bouncy castles, volleyball, boules and pastis. Forget quaint; think jolly and brazen, with no airs and graces.

Where to stay: The Odalys Domaine Elysée is a family campsite with chalets right down to the Lac de Salonique and as much activity as your youngsters can stand. Mobile homes for four or five start at around £300 per week; odalys-vacation-rental.com

Barcelonnette

The Ubaye Valley has everything you would expect of an Alpine area: rearing mountains, crags, pastures, a riotous river, winter skiing and summer hiking. So why the mariachis? The enchiladas? The Mexicana? Simple. Ubaye folk had long been commercial adventurers across Europe. By the late 19th-century, they had roamed to Mexico, and, on retirement, many returned to Barcelonnette, the valley’s main town, to establish some pretty posh villas and shops selling more sarapes and ceramic cacti than you’d find in Oaxaca. This, in short, is where French people go if they haven’t the time for the real Mexico.

Where to stay: The Hotel Azteca offers a glorious jumble of Mexicana including straw pictures of peon women, papier-mâché cats, wood-and-leather settees and tequila aperitifs. Summer doubles from around £110; azteca-hotel.fr.

Barcelonnette (French Alps) - clodio/iStockphoto
Barcelonnette (French Alps) - clodio/iStockphoto

Corsica

French people go more misty-eyed about Corsica than any other slice of their country. This is partly because the big island (it’s almost Cyprus) encapsulates “otherness” and partly because grandeur is endemic. Up in the mountains there are villages so remote, they have not yet had news of Waterloo. On single-track mountain roads with no barriers, the bus coming head on is not going to give way. “Assassinations rarely involve tourists,” I was told. I found this less reassuring than the speaker had supposed.

Where to stay: The smart and contemporary five-star Casadelmar sits beside the Gulf of Porto-Vecchio and is home to Corsica’s only two-Michelin-star restaurant. Rooms from around £435 per night. For more ideas, see our guide to the best hotels in France.

But it’s not all perfect...

They hog the roads

Over the first weekend of July, and first and last weekends of August, the whole of France is on the move either to or from their hols. It will take you a week to get round Lyon. Staggering their departures seems beyond them

They are judgmental

As their own phrase has it, the French don’t “eat” in restaurants or “stay” in hotels: they “test” them. And poor standards are not merely disappointing but offences against some unwritten but very real code of values

They are tight-fisted

According to a Normandy hotelier acquaintance, Brits are more convivial and much freer spending than the French. It isn’t that French people are mean – they really aren’t – it’s just that many lack the gene that kicks in with Britons, often around mid-evening, crying: “B---er it, let’s go big!”

They are over-reverential

If something is described as cultural, the French will form a queue, regardless of the fact that the thing is as boring as hell. Such over-reverence also applies to history, heritage, local organic foodstuffs and the established way of doing things. Good luck if, say, you wish to have a meal at 3.30pm.