SOUTH WEST FRANCE:
Though there is stiff competition from the likes of Normandy and the South/South East of France, South West France is undoubtedly one of the its best regions for agriturismo and for rural tourism in general, with its green, fertile rural interior getting more attention from visitors that its coast.
There are miles of beautiful coastline in South West France though, from the Charentes all the way south to the Pyrenees and the Spanish border. Though it also should be said that much of this coastline is overdeveloped, especially in the far south, though in some other pockets, especially to the north, you can also find almost deserted stretches of sand beach.
The South West home is also home to two of the country’s nicest major cities, Bordeaux and Toulouse, but inland lies most of its charm. In the far north, where Aquitaine meets Poitou-Charente for example, the beautifully rural Charente and Deux Sevres region is famed for its canals, some call it the green Venice, and is a great area for boating. The land is flat and sometimes marshy especially near the coast and village life here is peaceful and slow.
The Dordogne department, to the East of Bordeaux, has been a favorite area for British holiday makers and second home owners for decades now. Many of its beautiful, typically French villages have a substantial, full or part time British population, drawn here by the good food and wine, agreeable weather and the quaintness of the Dordogne villages.
All around the central town of Perigueux there is rich farmland that contains quite a few quality farm stays with that great regional food and wine to be enjoyed at source. The Aquitaine region near Bordeaux is famous as being one of the world’s premier wine growing regions, and is a beautifully refined rural area with many top restaurants, wineries and chateaux, and, just to the south of Bordeaux there is Les Landes, Western Europe’s largest forest area, which offers some great hiking and nature walks.
Farther inland, the Midi-Pyrenees centered around Toulouse is a lovely, mainly rural, area of rolling green hills and fertile plains. Once a part of the historic province of Gascony, it is drawing more and more tourists due to the many beautiful, very medieval, ‘Bastide’ towns in the area. In the north east it shares some of the Massif Central around the town of Rodez, as well as the beautiful green plains of the Aubrac Plateau.
To the north too, with historic towns, forests, and limestone gorges, the Quercy region is a beautifully rural, unspoilt area. And to the South the land rises to the Pyrenees with beautiful mountain landscapes and seasonal winter sports centers. All over this beautiful, diverse region there are good farm stays and gites to be found. And while the industry in France generally, isn’t as developed yet as in say, Italy, it does have a head start over other countries due to its long tradition of wine tourism and more general farm stays are popping up all the time, in the South West of France especially.
SOUTH OF FRANCE:
The South Of France, long one of the world’s most visited and most admired tourist regions has a rich rural heritage behind the glitz and glamour of its coast and though the industry is still quite underdeveloped compared to say Italy next door the numbers, and quality, of its agriturismo farm stays are gradually increasing.
The French Riviera, full of household names like St. Tropez, Cannes and Nice is very developed and very expensive and is what most people associate with The South Of France. But of course it’s a huge area and there is plenty to do and see for those who don’t want to be stuffed into pricey beach resorts.
Provence, is the obvious escape from the coast with deep valleys, rugged dry mountains, fields of flower meadows and some picture perfect little towns, the likes of Moustiers Sainte Marie, Roussillon, Gordes, and many many more. Its larger settlements too can be captivating; the elegant and cultured city of Aix-en-Provence being perhaps the best example, though the beautiful, and very historic Avignon is also a must visit, and just to the south of Avignon there are the ancient Roman cities of Nimes and Arles.
Arles, on the Rhône River, is particularly famous for being a temporary home for, and evidently a source of great inspiration for, Vincent Van Gogh. There is a Van Gogh museum in the city and you can visit the site of the famous Yellow House where he once resided. Arles is also known for its many Roman remains, including the amphitheatre; les Arènes d’Arles.
One of Provence’s undoubted rural highlights are the lavender fields of the Luberon, just north of Aix-en-Provence, which are in full bloom in June, July and August. Towards the Italian border and Briançon, one of the highest cities in Europe you have the less visited High Alps department, mountains as you would expect, dry and rocky and full of dramatic scenery.
West of the Rhone river the Languedoc-Roussillon region, with the lively student city of Montpellier as its capital, is also known for its sandy beaches which are popular with tourists, mainly local ones, but in most places are a lot more relaxed and comfortable than the Riviera.
Among the urban centres of the Languedoc, apart from Montpellier, the ancient Roman cities of Bezier and Narbonne, and the extremely picturesque fortress city of Carcassonne are also deservedly popular among visitors. Towards the Pyrenees the capital of the Pyrénées-Orientales is the lovely Perpignan, which has a quite distinct Catalan feel stemming from its history as part of the old Kingdom of Majorca, and to emphasis the point, it is still dominated by the huge Gothic-and-Romanesque Palace of the Kings of Majorca.
Inland Languedoc is full of beautiful, wild countryside, where the dry, scrub filled, rocky hills known as Garrigue mix with fertile vineyards giving the area a very Mediterranean feel. One that blends nicely into the Pyrénées-Orientales region and the foothills of the Pyrenees to the west and south, and to the forests and mountains of the vast Cevennes to the north.
The beautiful island of Corsica, is a mixture of chic coastal villages and towns, high mountains and deep forest. Major settlements include the elegant, refined capital city of Ajaccio, the old port of Bastia, and the lively marina towns of Porto Vecchio and Bonifacio. A full 40% of the island is comprised of the Corsica Natural Park which has some great and sometimes challenging hiking and rock climbing. Its beaches too are highly rated from the beautifully isolated Rondinara and Saleccia to the ever popular Pietracorbara.
Corsica has something of a different flavour to the rest of France, just as its larger neighbour Sardinia has to the rest of Italy, and while in Corsica the short ferry trip from Bonifacio to Santa Teresa Gallura in Sardinia can make at least a nice day trip.
All across the South of France food and wine is a major attraction and on any good farm stay there you can sample some of the world’s finest food and wine, locally sourced and created.
The centre of France, the heart of France is, many believe, to be found towards the iconic Loire Valley and as it’s so near to Paris, it is sometimes the only part of rural France that visitors ever get to see. That might sound like a bad thing but really it’s not. The castles, palaces and grand old chateaux of the Loire, far too numerous to list, point to a very rich, regal history, so much so that the entire region has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Perhaps the heart of the region, the heart of the heart of France if you like; Touraine/Tours, is known as the garden of France and has some of the country’s best white wines as well as some equally fine cheeses. And despite the fact that it is only an hour or so from Paris and indeed many of its residents commute to Paris to work, it still maintains a slow, relaxed pace of life.
Less glamorous perhaps, the North of the region, La Beauce, is known as the breadbasket of France and is an area of endless plains of wheat. The south of the Loire Valley too is deeply agricultural, though with mixed farming and the nearby area of La Brenne is one of France’s most important lakeland areas, it is sometimes referred to as ’The area of a thousand lakes’
Moving south the land rises into the Massif Central and the remote regions of Auvergne and to the West, Limousin. Auvergne was recently amalgamated with Rhône-Alpes to the east to make up the new region of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes. It is high up on the plateau with much of it wild and isolated, and with landscapes ranging from the ravines of the Cantal Mountains to deep dark forests that surround some of the many extinct volcanoes in the region.
The Parc Naturel Regional des Volcans d’Auvergne is a spectacular showcase, and though the entire area is relatively unpopulated (by humans) there are some lovely small towns and villages too.
To the west, where the Massif Central drops down towards Aquitaine and Poitou-Charente, is the region of Limousin. With the exception of the spectacular Plateau de Millevaches in the east, the country is one of gentle hills and woodland and some really nice villages that are becoming increasingly popular with second home owners, especially from Britain, though nothing like in the scale of neighbouring Dordogne.
The region’s name is both known to farmers and car enthusiasts worldwide. Limousin is also the name of its famous breed of cattle and the Limousine car came from the name of the traditional cloaks worn by shepherds in the region. Farming is strong here and the agritourism industry is quietly developing, with already some good choices around.
NORTH WESTERN FRANCE:
In the North West of France Brittany and Pays de la Loire/Western Loire are already well known in rural tourism while Poitou-Charentes to the South, with La Rochelle as its capital, can be equally nice and more of a well kept secret.
The world’s most famous brandy comes from the countryside around the beautiful Charente river in the South of Poitou-Charentes.
Two towns are the centre of what’s called the golden circle of Brandy production, the town of Cognac itself and the nearby town of Jarnac.
The region is also home to the Marais Poitevin, a series of medieval canals that run through swamp and marshland and served as roads in olden days.
Nowadays they host nature lovers and city escapees who sail slow barges and boats though the water lilies with peaceful green countryside all around. Even around the canals roads aren’t widespread, it’s left to nature, and the whole area has a lovely frontier type feel to it.
The ancient Celtic province of Brittany to the far North West, has always been a frontier. Though in recent times it has become very much assimilated into the rest of France, with its old Breton language and culture still to be had, it still feels different, and remains as a last connection to the Celtic people who once ruled much of pre-Roman France or what was once referred to as Gaul.
The coastline of Brittany is popular for its coastline and beaches, Cote d’Emeraude by St. Malo and the Cote de Granit Rose to the North are two of the best known and there are many more but to feel something different try the interior, the misty woodlands of the plateau known as the Argoat.
People are proud of their heritage in Brittany, especially in the West, and though the language is slowly dying (Today only about 5% of the total population speak it) you can find plenty of Breton Celtic music that, along with rugged, green landscapes that can strongly resemble its northern island neighbours, allows you to at least in a small way feel you are in a province more in tune with the Irish, Scots and Welsh than with the rest of France.
Between Brittany and Poitou-Charentes lies Pays de La Loire, the Western Loire, containing the cities of Nantes, Rennes, Anger and Le Mans. It is centred, naturally enough, around where the Loire, one of Europe’s finest rivers and the unofficial dividing point between the North and South of France, moves slowly towards the Atlantic. And it has, like the Loire Valley to the east, a wealth of fine old palaces and mansions around the river and its tributaries.
North West France is a huge wine growing region and on a farm stay or otherwise you can find some of the worlds best wines here. The area surrounding the towns of Saumur and Anjou is particularly famous for the rich variety and quality of its wines, which include sparkling wine and Rose, and is very much respected for its Chenin blanc and Cabernet Franc.
In a lot of France the agriturismo/agritourism industry is still developing but in the Western Loire the popularity of its vineyards have made it a slight step ahead. Most agritourism here is conducted by vineyards, which have some of the world’s best wine straight from source, and of course some of the world’s best food; that goes without saying.
The North of France has a reputation as being grey, gloomy, and grimly industrial, so much so that, with the exception of farm stay favourite Normandy, it is very much France’s least touristic region.
Normandy though, the site of so much slaughter during the Second World War, is these days profoundly peaceful and rural, with its rolling green countryside, small farms and orchards.
It is fertile farm land and has a reputation for hearty food. It hasn’t turned its back on the past though and along the coast especially, there are numerous poignant reminders of the horrors of the last century.
Lower Normandy, around the city of Caen, is beautifully rural and picturesque, in particular the rich farmland around Pays d’Auge, while Upper Normandy, north of where the river Seine meets the English Channel at the town of Honfleur, is a land of forests and castles, beaches and white cliffs reminiscent of its northern island neighbour. Honfleur and Deauville are two of the most pleasant coastal towns in Normandy, both of similar size, Honfleur is something of an artistic haven while Deauville has a long reputation as an upscale, old style chic, resort town.
Nord-Pas-De-Calais and Picardie have never really created enthusiasm in the tourism field but they have much history. In deepest Picardie for example you can find the impressive medieval castle of Coucy-le-Chateau, and sites of famous medieval battles like Crecy and Agincourt. While up in Pas de Calais memories of the First World War are conjured up in names like Dunkirk and Flanders.
Despite the industrial feel of much the region, especially around Flanders and Artois, there are areas of very nice countryside too. By the rivers of Pas de Calais or the huge open fields of Picardy you can find some nice farm stays and gites in traditional, deeply rural, areas that feel a world away from the industrial hustle of Dunkirk or Calais.
In the melting pot of cultures that is all of Europe really, the regions of Alsace and Lorraine stand out as good symbol of that mix. Despite their association with two world wars, they have been on trading routes between cultures for centuries and despite now being part of France, national boundaries have never pushed them into becoming either fully German or fully French. They have always lived somewhere in between and they embrace each identities with relative ease.
The medieval looking timber framed houses that are typical of the area feel quite Germanic but the wine is certainly French. Colmar, in Haut Rhin, Alsace for example is a world renowned centre of the wine industry.
Burgundy or Bourgogne is of course famous for wine, with communes like Chablis and Nuits-St-Georges being known the world over, but it’s also equally famous for mustard; Dijon mustard was named after the region capital and it can be an interesting diversion from the vineyards to see how some of this mustard is made.
Burgundy is a beautiful, fertile region and its rolling hills are a joy to explore. There are enormous stretches of vineyard everywhere which contain some of the world’s most valuable grapes and it has some nice, interesting farm stays and vineyard hotels for those of you into top quality wines, where you’ll find the care and commitment to the craft always impressive.
The lesser known region of Franche Comte bordered by the Vosges Mountains to the north, and Switzerland to the east, is both green and fertile in parts and Alpine type mountains in others, with a mixture of agricultural and forest land.
It has a number of good regional wines, but it is also famous for some of its other foods, cheeses like Comte, and Morteau and montbeliard smoked sausages which have a touch of central Europe about them. The small capital too, Besançon sitting on the Doubs river is historic and pretty and never feels too modern or urban.
You won’t be surprised to learn that Champagne, between Burgundy and the Belgian border is where Champagne comes from. And you probably won’t be surprised either to learn that it is by far the region’s biggest industry. Almost anywhere outside the capital Reims you will find enormous, vast plains of grape fields, even more so around the town of Epernay, the heart of the industry and home to the likes of the Moet & Chandon and Perrier Jouet companies. Even if you’re not on a vineyard hotel stay, a visit to some of the regions vineyards and cellars is a must.
The region of Rhône-Alpes is now amalgated with Auvergne to the west to create Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, and has France’s second city, and famous gastronomic center, Lyon, as its capital. The Rhone river gave the region its name and though many parts of the region along the Rhone have, from centuries of trade and industry, become quite built up, there is still much beautiful open countryside with more vineyards and fruit farms. Following the river south the area takes on a more Mediterranean feel, with the historic city of Valence, capital of the Drôme department, often being called “La Porte du Midi de la France” (The gateway to the south of France).
The French Alps to the East need no introduction, places like Grenoble, Chambery and Chamonix are known the world over. Annecy too, where Lake Annecy meets the Thiou River is known for being the medieval capital of the Counts of Geneva, and for its lovely old town, the Vieille Ville; a patchwork of pastel coloured houses, winding cobbled streets and canals. And all around the area there are multiple opportunities for winter sports, and climbing, hiking and biking in the summer, among some of Europe’s most spectacular landscapes.
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