Readers recommend: The hidden gems to explore in France this summer

Readers recommend: The hidden gems to explore in France this summer
The Vendée coastline is stunning. Photo: The Local
As the borders reopen many people will be planning a long-awaited trip to France, but with physical distancing still the rule what better time to explore some of the country's lesser known areas?

As the most visited country in the world in 2019, it's not exactly a secret that France has a lot to offer tourists with sites like the Eiffel Tower, Versailles Palace and Disneyland drawing in millions of visitors every year.

But this year with most people seeking to avoid crowds we've asked readers of The Local for suggestions on some of the best locations off the beaten track.

From beaches to mountains, vineyards to towns, there is something here for everyone.

Travel

First the boring practical details.

France has now reopened its borders to all travellers from within the EU, the UK and the Schengen zones, although there are voluntary quarantines in place for people travelling from the UK and Spain.

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See also on The Local:

For people outside Europe, France is joining the EU plan to gradually open borders from July 1st, although this is likely to be on a country-by-country basis with the health situation taken into account.

So now that's out of the way, let's take a trip around France

South west

Cordes-sur-Ciel is one of many hilltop towns and villages in the south west. Photo: The Local

This was the area with the highest number of suggestions from readers of The Local, hardly surprising as it combines the beautiful climate of the Côte d'Azur with lower prices and less crowded locations.

There are many popular tourist sites in the south west, including the UNESCO world heritage site of Carcassonne and the shrine of Lourdes, but also a lot of other areas to explore.

The terrain is variable, from rolling hills of sunflower fields to the Pyrenees mountains and a Mediterranean and Atlantic coastline. It has both tiny hamlets and fun cities including Toulouse, La Rochelle and Bordeaux and is also a wine-producing region.

Ged Hayward suggested: “The mediaeval fortified village of Puycelsi in the rural Gaillac wine region of Tarn. The Roc Cafe and Jardin de Lys, both perched on the walls, have spectacular panoramic views.”

A troubled and blood-soaked history of much of the south west has given rise to hundreds of fortified towns and villages, knows as bastides, probably the most famous of which is the truly spectacular Cordes-sur-Ciel.

In the duck-farming Périgord area, Simon Driver recommended the small town of Brantôme, saying: “Just wander around the town, eat well and maybe take a canoe along the river to Bourdeilles.”

Our recommendations include the beautiful small town of Castres and nearby Albi, which is more tourist friendly and also the home of the world's largest collection of paintings by local boy Toulouse-Lautrec, and Sète – home of the singular sport of water jousting. 

Eastern France and the Alps

Annecy is popular in summer and winter. Photo: AFP

The Alpine region of Savoie was another area that got a lot of recommendations from readers.

Best known of course as a ski resort, the area is also spectacular in summer and popular with hikers.

 

The town of Annecy, with its medieval centre and huge Alpine lake received a lot of nominations.

Janice Wyatte said: “Tarantaise valley in Savoie is equally good in summer as in winter ski season – many small, charming villages, extreme sports, outdoor activities, local cheeses.”

She also recommended the town of Conflans with its historic centre and Savoyard winemaker Philippe Grisard.

Further south the Côte d'Azur is always popular, and for good reason, but for those looking for something a little different the Gorges du Verdon received several nominations.

The largest canyon in Europe, the area is great for outdoor activity enthusiasts with hiking, climbing, canoeing, kayaking and rafting on offer.

Montpellier resident Lalitha Ashok also recommended the Cirque de Navacelles, saying: “There are lots of hiking trails around the area.”

Go off the beaten track in the Gorges du Verdon. Photo: AFP

Central France

If you really want to get away from the crowds this summer, then the sparsely populated central areas of France are the place to do it.

Départements like Cruese, Lozère and Cantal are the emptiest in France but that doesn't mean they're not beautiful, with great opportunities for hiking, cycling, camping and really getting away from it all. The mountainous and in fact volcanic scenery of Auvergne will take your breath away and the local farm-fresh produce – especially the meat and cheese – are really special.

None of our readers nominated this area (perhaps because few people live there) but the lack of people is also very conducive to wildlife including wolves, lynx, ibex, chamois and golden eagles.

Northern France

The pretty town of Honfleur has long been popular with artists. Photo: AFP

For many people Saint-Malo will just be where they get off the ferry, but actually it's a lovely little town in its own right.

Maria Cristina Regencia said: “Saint Malo is one of my favourite places to stay with when exploring the beautiful Brittany countryside. It's highly recommended and never to be missed to try their local foods and menu like mussels. It's some of the best seafood I've ever tasted and I've been craving for most of the time. One of the best places to unwind and get some fresh air.”

Further along the coast Honfleur was also recommended, as well as the popular seaside town of Deauville.

 

Slightly less well know, however, is the very pretty fishing port of Fécamp – home of Benedictine.

Moving inland, the London-based french political journalist Marie Le Conte strongly recommended her hometown of Nantes.

 

While a short distance from Nantes is La Roche-sur-Yon on the Vendée coast – home of the best oysters in France.

 

Thank you to everyone who sent suggestions, please feel free to contact us on [email protected] if we've missed your favourite place.


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