The best of rural France.
Embrace the très belle outdoors.
Can you picture a more idyllic holiday than traversing the medieval, cobblestoned streets of centuries-old villages, sampling unique local cuisine and exploring the breathtaking vistas of one of the most beautiful countries on earth? Then here is a picturesque snapshot of some of France’s rural idylls that may just have you contemplating a tree-change for somewhat greener pastures.
TRAVEL NORTH TO FIND …
Forêt de Compiègne
Once the favoured hunting grounds of French royalty (and where Napoleon once made a not-so-understated castle his home), this 146 square kilometre string of lush forests north of Paris hides the fortified village of Jean-aux-Bois. Book a quaint room in a converted stable, before setting out to explore the expanse of scenic walking paths and bridleways.
The Normandy Coast
Beloved by the impressionists in years past, the upper swathe of Normandy is blessed with pretty rural patchworks, stretches of gorgeous coastal scenery and a fascinating local history. Check out the Bayeux tapestry for a bit of a culture hit, before sampling a creamy camembert (it was created here in 1791), washed down with a cold, crisp cider (they’re famous for it).
Located in the Upper Normandy region, this idyllic spot is most famous for being the birthplace of impressionism and the cherished country retreat of Claude Monet. If you’re an art fan, you’ll instantly recognise the walled water garden depicted in many of his paintings. Peruse a tapestry of weeping willows and water lilies in the museum, before enjoying a spot of lunch (and a lazy pinot gris) at one of the local restaurants.
TRAVEL NORTH-EAST TO FIND …
This kaleidoscopic town in the Alsace region, is also known as ‘Little Venice’, because of its picture-postcard storefronts, flower-lined canals and brightly coloured dwellings. After a leisurely canoe trip through its meandering waterways, watch the world go by at a waterside café with one of the town’s famous Alsatian Riesling in hand.
Another picturesque little village on the Alsatian Wine Route, one of Eguisheim’s noteworthy features is the unusual concentric-circle layout of its streets, which makes it even more delightful to explore. With an abundance of wine bars and cellars and its distinctive ‘fairy tale feel’, after a visit here you’ll be channelling your inner Cinderella.
Bordering Belgium, this region is (not surprisingly) the birthplace of bubbles and one of the most beautiful regions of France. Popular with wine trail tourists, it has endless expanses of medieval chateaus, fragrant vineyards and sprawling countryside. Culture buffs should visit Reims for its myriad of underground wine cellars and the region’s capital, Troyes, for impressive architecture.
TRAVEL NORTH-WEST TO FIND …
Etretat’s eclectic mix of markets and B&B’s is overshadowed somewhat by the town’s most famous attractions – Normandy’s dramatic natural arches, pointed ‘needle’ and the White Chalk Cliffs that tower high over the Atlantic Ocean. Rise early for a hike to the scenic Notre Dame de la Garde for stunning sunrise views over the cliffs.
Be transported back to the Middle Ages with a trip to this small Brittany township, famed for its unique steeples, heritage architecture and the masses of red geraniums lining every crook and cranny. Explore the French countryside, quaint squares and medieval mansions before a languid tour of its antiques stores and farmer’s markets.
Connected by a causeway to northwest France, this island is 100 hectares of rocky, peaked fortifications and has the prestigious title of the country’s second favourite landmark (after the Eiffel Tower). Visually breathtaking, this World Heritage site is topped by a gravity-defying gothic-style Benedictine abbey, perched protectively above a whimsical medieval village.
TRAVEL CENTRALLY TO FIND …
Frequently overlooked by tourists as a ‘second cousin’ to the neighbouring Dordogne Valley, Limousin is a fine choice for those wanting to escape the abundance of French on their annual ‘les grand vacances’. Visitors will relish its noticeably quieter feel and enjoy tramping down its country lanes to sample a variety of freshly-churned cheeses from the local vendors.
Affectionately known as the garden of France, the resplendently lush valley spans over 280 kilometres and has so much historically valuable architecture, it’s earned itself World Heritage status. This is a fairy-tale land of Renaissance châteaux, surrounded by a never-ending vista of orchards and vineyards (its wines are of the characteristically crisp variety) and has been referred to as ‘a bourgeois paradise’.
This vast region features swathes of untamed countryside bursting with butterflies in the warmer months and covered by a delicate veil of snow in winter. If you love Scotland, you’ll be traipsing these ‘moors’ like a bygone adventurer in no time. Beautifully converted barns offer comfy lodgings and oenophiles will be in heaven browsing expansive walk-in caves filled to the brim with award-winning wines.
TRAVEL EAST TO FIND …
Nestled between Burgundy and Switzerland, this area is known for its beach-fringed lakes and higher up, trails that cross deep valleys, alpine meadows and forested mountains. Coated in pasture and vineyards, wine buffs will enjoy seeking out a squat bottle of vin jaune, a flavoursome yellow wine made from the local Savagnin grape.
Together with the Palatine Forest to the north, the Vosges form a low mountain range of around 8,000 square kilometres, filled to the brim with glacial lakes and lush forests, that in winter provide excellent skiing and in summer, a hiker’s heaven on earth. Vineyards and winstubs (wine rooms) also do a fair job of attracting gourmands from all over the world.
TRAVEL SOUTH-EAST TO FIND …
The Drôme Region
A slightly less trodden section of France’s south-east, The Drôme’s interior valleys are dotted with rustic medieval villages and endlessly winding rivers and stretch down to the southern vineyards, known as the Côtes du Rhône appellation, which espouses fruity, middleweight red blends. Dotted with lavender fields, orchards and olive groves, black truffles are also renowned in this area.
A rural, chic paradise filled to the brim with lush olive groves, undulating vineyards and ancient hilltop villages dotted with shutter-board houses, Provence offers hazy holiday memories of alfresco lunches amid a backdrop of unforgettable landscapes. With its interior circled by the remnants of a 14th century wall, St Remy is also worth a look, even if it’s just to pay homage to its famous former residents, Van Gough and Nostradamus.
TRAVEL SOUTH-WEST TO FIND …
Formally known as Gascony, Gers is often referred to as the French Tuscany and is surrounded by undulating countryside and smatterings of hilltop villages edged with nodding sunflowers. Famous for its markets, it’s also the destination of choice for in-the-know epicureans on a quest for the perfect taste test of local foie gras (washed down with an authentic Armagnac of course).
An exceptionally beautiful locale, the region boasts spectacular gorges, a rich historical heritage and, in the Vézère valley, some of the oldest artworks known to man. Sample a myriad of chateau-produced wines, visit the sacred pilgrim’s monuments en route to Santiago de Compostela and explore the ancient fortified town of Beynac-et-Cazenac.
Still not convinced?
Heaps of A-list celebs call rural French countryside home. Stalk away!