The 12 best places in south-west France to enjoy the great outdoors

Need some space? Want to get away from the crowds? Roger Moss at Living Magazine gives us a rundown of perfect spots in south west France to enjoy the great outdoors.

The 12 best places in south-west France to enjoy the great outdoors
A view from the Lac de la Vassivière straddling the Creuse/Haute-Vienne border. Photo: Living Magazine / Roger Moss

We’re social creatures, but after a prolonged confinement, and with an open-ended need to avoid big social gatherings, the idea of heading off to enjoy the great outdoors is sounding more attractive than ever before. Fortunately, here in Nouvelle-Aquitaine we don’t need to venture too far to find perfect peace, so here are some of our favourite away-from-it-all spots.

Canoe or kayak on the Dordogne (24)

When visitors are jostling for parking spaces at Périgord’s attractions, both big and small, why not take to the water and see things differently at your own pace? You can hire a canoe or kayak from various locations on the Dordogne (and other rivers around the region). Choose from a short 90min taster or a longer trip lasting up to a full day, paddling gently downstream to a pick-up point for a bus-ride (included) back to where you originally set off. 

Canoeing on the Dordogne. Photo: Magazine Living / Roger Moss

Pointe de l’Aiguillon (85)

Located on the tip of a modest peninsula extending into the Baie de l’Aiguillon below La Tranche-sur-Mer, there’s a satisfying sense of away-from-it-all remoteness among the windswept sand dunes. The nearby reed-beds, tidal mudflats and wetlands at the mouth of the Sèvre Niortaise river make this a halt for countless migrating and nesting birds, so the spot is a protected nature reserve. There’s also a small beach, if you feel like a bracing stroll. 

Vibrac (16)

There are few more relaxing pastimes than gazing idly into the gently flowing currents of one of our rural waterways. They make great walking or cycling companions, and the antics of those messing about on the river can be high on entertainment value, particularly when negotiating locks. Vibrac, between Angoulême and Jarnac, offers just this kind of escape, as the River Charente divides briefly into three courses – and there’s a lock. 

Vibrac, between Angoulême and Jarnac, offers the perfect peaceful escape. Photo: Living Magazine / Roger Moss

Côte Sauvage (17)

This near endless succession of fine sandy beaches between Ronce-les-Bains and La Palmyre offers lots of opportunities for anyone in search of some plage-style open space (with more beaches almost to Royan). Along the way lie some interesting landscape features, including WWII defences and the incredible Phare de la Coubre lighthouse overlooking the Gironde Estuary. There are lots of cycling opportunities too, including a section of the 1,200km Vélodyssée long-distance route. 

Vallée du Thouet (79)

Here’s a little-known area whose leafy lanes take very little traffic, even in summer. Add the fact that there are few hills but some great unspoilt scenery and you have fantastic cycling country. It’s now part of the Vélo Francette, in fact, which links Caen Ouistreham (14) with La Rochelle (17). A good starting point is historic Parthenay, from which you can ride to Gourgé for a lunch stop, or continue to the chateau town of Thouars (37km). 

A view of the Vallée du Thouet. Photo: Living Magazine / Roger Moss

Lac de la Vassivière (23/87) 

A glance at the map reveals the vast scale of this outdoor playground straddling the Creuse/Haute-Vienne border. With a surface area of 1,000 hectares and shoreline paths extending to around 30km, there’s plenty of potential for walking, cycling, fishing or waterborne activities – or simply finding your own secluded space away from the rest of the world. Here and there you might almost believe you’re in Canada, and there’s lots more landscape to explore on the surrounding Plateau de Millevaches (see separate entry). 

The Plateau de Millevaches in Limousin. Photo: Wiki

Plateau de Millevaches (19, 23 & 87)

Limousin’s vast upland Parc Naturel Régional benefits from green tourism, yet remains sparsely populated – what isn’t forested is mostly pastures and rugged heathland grazed by hardy sheep and cattle. Here and there granite outcrops compete for attention with the outlines of the nearby Monts d’Auvergne, while the Vienne and other rivers spring into life here, adding to the biodiversity and making this a haven for walkers, kayakers and anglers. 

Réserve du Pinail (86)

A real curiosity, some 142 hectares of the landscape below Châtellerault is peppered with thousands of indentations from centuries of granite extraction for circular millstones. Around half are water-filled, and the rich diversity of habitats, flora and fauna makes this a protected national nature reserve. Freely accessible all year, there’s a 2km discovery trail to help you get the most from your visit – or join a guided tour. 

Lacs de Haute-Charente (16)

For a relaxed waterside walk, and perhaps a family picnic, two large man-made lakes between Chabanais and Massignac are worth getting to know. Lac de Lavaud and Lac du Mas Chaban offer canoeing, sailing, windsurfing, angling, etc., but without compromising their natural appeal. That’s something which attracts many bird species, which can best be appreciated at the Observatoire Ornithologique de Foucherie on the shores of Lac de Lavaud. 

The Pointe de l'Aiguillon. Photo: Living Magazine / Roger Moss

Fôret de la Braconne (16)

Get back to nature with a host of flora and fauna for company in the ancient Forêt Domaniale de la Braconne, which covers around 4000 hectares of the Charente landscape between Angoulême and La Rochefoucauld. The kind of forest you always hoped you’d find, around half of the trees are noble, mature oaks, among which are way-marked trails, with interpretation panels giving information about wildlife you might encounter. There are also picnic tables plus a 4km discovery circuit, supported by a  ‘Défi Braconne’ smartphone app. (Find out more – see our dedicated feature in the Oct/Nov 2018 issue of Living.)

Trek with a horse or pony (86)

Robert Louis Stephenson famously travelled through the Cévennes with a donkey, and you can still do something similar nearby with a four-legged friend for company. You’ll find that it’s an enjoyable way to unwind for an afternoon, and if you want more you can do it in style by spending several happy days exploring lanes and tracks through villages, peaceful valleys, rivers, streams and much more in the rural landscapes of Poitou and Limousin. Everything is organised. You’ll be following a carefully pre-prepared itinerary, and can sleep soundly each night under canvas, in a caravan or if you prefer in chambres d’hôtes.

Île Madame at the mouth of the Charente river. Photo: Living Magazine / Roger Moss

Île Madame  (17)

Summertime is a busy period for popular sites on the coast, but come to this diminutive island in the early evening and you should have few people for company. You’ll find it at the mouth of the Charente river, just off Port des Barques, from which it’s accessed via a slender tidal causeway – la Passe aux Bœufs. Beyond it are some surprising features, including a 17th/18th century fort complex, a poignant monument to 254 martyred priests, an organic ‘ferme aquacole’ with a restaurant, an auberge and some contented Scottish black-face sheep, all set within a rocky shoreline dotted with traditional fisherman’s carrelets. 

© Living Magazine 2020

Living Magazine is the leading English-language magazine for the south west of France written by individuals who live here and are passionate about the region, it’s landscape and its culture. Every two months, we produce a 68-page magazine celebrating the area with stunning photos and in-depth features. Read the online copy or better still, subscribe and have the October edition delivered to your door anywhere in the world.

Subscribe to Living Magazine HERE.

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What changes in France in July 2022

Summer's here and the time is right for national celebrations, traffic jams, strikes, Paris beaches, and ... changing the rules for new boilers.

What changes in France in July 2022

Summer holidays

The holiday season in France officially begins on Thursday, July 7th, as this is the date when school’s out for the summer. The weekend immediately after the end of the school year is expected to be a busy one on the roads and the railways as families start heading off on vacation.

READ ALSO 8 things to know about driving in France this summer


But it wouldn’t really be summer in France without a few strikes – airport employees at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports will walk out on July 1st, while SNCF rail staff will strike on July 6th. Meanwhile Ryanair employees at Paris, Marseille and Toulouse airports will strike on yet-to-be-confirmed dates in July.

READ ALSO How strikes and staff shortages will affect summer in France

Parliamentary fireworks?

Prime minister Elisabeth Borne will present the government’s new programme in parliament on July 5th – this is expected to be a tricky day for the Macron government, not only does it not have the parliamentary majority that it needs to pass legislation like the new package of financial aid to help householders deal with the cost-of-living crisis, but opposition parties have indicated that they will table a motion of no confidence against Borne.

Parliament usually breaks for the summer at the end of July, but a special extended session to allow legislation to be passed means that MPs won’t get to go on holiday until at least August 9th. 

Fête nationale

July 14th is a public holiday in France, commemorating the storming of the Bastille which was the symbolic start of the French Revolution. As usual, towns and cities will host parades and fireworks – with the biggest military parade taking place on the Champs-Elysées in Paris – and many stores will remain closed.

As the national holiday falls on a Thursday this year, many French workers will take the opportunity to faire le pont.

Festival season really kicks in

You know summer’s here when France gets festival fever, with events in towns and cities across the country. You can find our pick of the summer celebrations here.

Paris Plages

The capital’s popular urban beaches return on July 9th on the banks of the Seine and beside the Bassin de la Villette in northern Paris, bringing taste of the seaside to the capital with swimming spots, desk chairs, beach games and entertainment.  

Summer sales end 

Summer sales across most of the country end on July 19th – unless you live in Alpes-Maritimes, when they run from July 6th to August 2nd, or the island of Corsica (July 13th to August 9th).

Tour de France

The Tour de France cycle race sets off on July 1st from Copenhagen and finishes up on the Champs-Elysée in Paris on July 24th.

New boilers

From July 1st, 2022, new equipment installed for heating or hot water in residential or professional buildings, must comply with a greenhouse gas emissions ceiling of 300 gCO2eq/KWh PCI. 

That’s a technical way of saying oil or coal-fired boilers can no longer be installed. Nor can any other type of boiler that exceeds the ceiling.

As per a decree published in the Journal Officiel in January, existing appliances can continue to be used, maintained and repaired, but financial aid of up to €11,000 is planned to encourage their replacement. 

Bike helmets

New standards for motorbike helmets come into effect from July 1st. Riders do not need to change their current helmets, but the “ECE 22.05” standard can no longer be issued – and all helmets sold must adhere to a new, more stringent “ECE 22.06” standards from July 2024

New cars

From July 6th new car models must be equipped with a black box that record driving parameters such as speed, acceleration or braking phases, wearing (or not) of a seat belt, indicator use, the force of the collision or engine speed, in case of accidents.

New cars II

From July 1st, the ecological bonus for anyone who buys an electric vehicle drops by €1,000, while rechargeable hybrids will be excluded from the aid system, “which will be reserved for electric vehicles whose CO2 emission rate is less than or equal to 20g/km”.

What’s in a name?

Historically, the French have been quite restrictive on the use of family names – remember the concern over the use of birth names on Covid vaccine documents? – but it becomes easier for an adult to choose to bear the name of his mother, his father, or both by a simple declaration to the civil status. All you have to do is declare your choice by form at the town hall of your home or place of birth.

Eco loans

In concert with the new boiler rules, a zero-interest loan of up to €30,000 to finance energy-saving renovations can be combined with MaPrimeRénov’, a subsidy for financing the same work, under certain conditions, from July 1st.

Rent rules

Non-professional private landlords advertising properties for rent must, from July 1st, include specific information about the property on the ad, including the size of the property in square metres, the area of town in which the property is in, the monthly rent and any supplements, whether the property is in a rent-control area, and the security deposit required. Further information, including the full list of requirements for any ad, is available here.

Perfume ban

More perfumes are to be added to a banned list for products used by children, such as soap-making kits, cosmetic sets, shampoos, or sweet-making games, or toys that have an aroma.

Atranol, chloroatranol (extracts of oak moss containing tannins), and methyl carbonate heptin, which smells like violets, will be banned from July 5th, because of their possible allergenic effects.

Furthermore, 71 new allergenic fragrances – including camphor, menthol, vanilin, eucalyptus spp. leaf oil, rose flower oil, lavendula officinalis, turpentine – will be added to the list of ingredients that must be clearly indicated on a toy or on an attached label.

Ticket resto limits

The increased ticket resto limit ended on June 30th, so from July 1st employees who receive the restaurant vouchers will once again be limited to spending €19 per day in restaurants, cafés and bars. The limit was increased to €38 during the pandemic, when workers were working from home.