5 Places off the beaten track in France
France is the world’s most visited tourist destination with 79.5 million international tourist arrivals in 2011. But tourism tends to be centered on a limited popular regions and landmarks. However, the real jewels are the understated areas full of beauty and mystery that keep to themselves like well-guarded secrets. Steer away from the bustle of the tourist circuit and create your own path through France’s less-known delights.
Forêt de Fontainebleau
Here’s a warm-up to getting fully off the beaten track. Not far from Paris, this roughly 25,000-hectare forest is a peaceful respite and a perfect weekend getaway. Ride horses, cycle, or merely walk along one of the several dozen trails. Several renowned landscape painters gathered to the Forêt de Fontainebleau to capture its splendor. The forest surrounds the eponymous town of Fontainebleau, where one can visit the humungous 1900-room Fontainebleau château (palace) or its well-manicured gardens. Head towards the forest during the autumnal peak, when the area is swathe with gold and the leaves crackle satisfyingly under the feet.
The capital of the eastern Franche-Comté region, this city is grossly underrated (and it likes it that way). A wide river slices through the city and the Jura Mountains lining the Swiss border are the backdrop. Come in the height of summer, when the city is alive with music festivals and jazz can be heard on the promenade. Visit the Citadel, an architectural wonder and the Musee des Beaux Arts, “Little Louvre,” which showcases an outstanding collection of French art. Eat at one of the restaurants on the Grand Rue and watch the world swirl by.
Le Puy-en-Velay is encircled with towering hills and conical volcano forms. Climb the many steps to the chapel of Saint-Michel D’aiguilhe, perched high above on a volcanic cone. Visit the stunning Notre-Dame de France, featuring a bronze statue of the Virgin Mary comprised of 213 Russian cannons taken in the Siege of Sevastopol. Back down on Earth, explore the ancient alleyways of this historical town. In the morning, pilgrims beginning their voyage to Santiago de Compostela congregate at the Le Puy-en-Velay Cathedral to be blessed. If staying in town, sip on the chartreuse-hued herbaceous Verveine liqueur, of which the area is famous for.
Peer at the chalky white cliffs of the aptly named La Côte d’Albâtre (Alabaster Coast). There are three notable rock formations, with the natural arch appearing like an elephant dipping his trunk into the sea. This breathtaking seascape was another source of inspiration for countless painters, such as Claude Monet. Above the cliffs, the plateau of the Pays de Caux creates a promontory that allows for panoramic views of the coast. Head below to the pebbled beaches where remnants of the town’s origins as a fishing village remain.
There’s nothing like watching dawn in the Cévennes, the mountains silhouetted and a thick mist hovering over the valley. The least accessible area of France keeps its pristine forests and sweeping moors well guarded. Sheep graze on the limestone plateau, chestnuts hang heavy on the trees, and stars burn bright above the deep river gorges. This is a place to lose oneself in the enchantments of nature. Head for a scenic drive through the wild daffodils and quintessentially French communities scattered in the Cévennes National Park. Hole up in one of many amazing French holiday homes nestled in the hillside so you can wake up and watch the sunrise again and again.