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DISCOVER FRANCE

11 ways to make the most of autumn in France

From festivals to tasting new wines, mushroom-foraging to learning a new skill - here are some of the ways to make the most of the fall in France.

11 ways to make the most of autumn in France
Autumn leaves at the Sainte-Bernadette church in Orvault, western France. Photo by LOIC VENANCE / AFP

Make a rentrée resolution – September in France marks la rentrée, when kids begin the new school years and adults return to work after the holidays.

But it’s also a bit of a cultural moment of restarting and re-setting, probably a bigger deal than New Year in France. And in the spirit of starting afresh plenty of people make resolutions to learn a new skill and get fit – which means there are lots of new classes starting at this time of year.

Help with la vendange – late summer and early autumn is when vineyards across France harvest their grapes and begin to make new wines. Most vineyards are huge, professional organisations which increasingly rely on migrant labour for the harvest period, but there are still plenty of small, family-operated vineyards that are looking for help with the grape-picking.

It’s pretty hard work though, so maybe read this before signing up. 

Enjoy the wine sales – if you would rather drink wine than get involved in making it, autumn is also a good time for you, as there are plenty of wine sales at this time of year. Most supermarkets, wine caves and wine-selling websites run an early autumn sale called the Foire aux vins – this is essentially a stock-clearing exercise so it’s a great opportunity to get a bargain on a few special bottles.

There’s also Beaujolais Nouveau Day, held in November, to celebrate the first primeurs (wines that only mature for a short time) of the season.

Go to Cordes-sur-Ciel – this beautiful medieval hilltop town in south west France is well worth a visit at any time of the year, but in autumn a particular phenomenon happens, which is how the town got its name.

The town is perched on top of a steep hill and on autumn mornings, when mist and fog covers the valley floor, it appears to be floating above the clouds – which is why it is named Cordes ‘on the sky’.

If you don’t see the fog, there’s also a chocolate museum where they are generous with free samples.

Go mushroom-foraging – if you’re in French woodland at this time of year you will see lots of families toting baskets and slightly furtive expressions. The baskets are for mushrooms and the furtive expressions are not because mushroom-picking is illegal – unless you are on private land – it’s because many families have a ‘secret’ spot where the best mushrooms grow, that they like to keep to themselves.

Be safe though, if you’re at all unsure about what type of mushrooms you have picked, French pharmacies offer a mushroom-checking service.

READ ALSO Everything you need to know for safe and enjoyable mushroom foraging in France

View the changing leaves – autumn leaves are a beautiful sight, and France has plenty of stunning locations in which to really appreciate them, from the volcanic landscape of the Auvergne to the Alps or the natural park of Morvan, in eastern France

Carve pumpkins – If you are looking to recreate an American-style Halloween by carving some pumpkins, you are in luck. Pumpkins (or citrouille in French) are grown across central France. For carving and cooking purposes, you should be able to find them at your local grocery store during the fall.

Though, if you are looking for a more authentic pumpkin-patch experience, you can search “cueillette citrouille” or “champ de citrouille” with your city to see what is nearby. For those living in Paris, “les fermes de gally” – which is about an hour outside the city on public transport – host a pumpkin picking event every year.

Go on a bike ride – hiking or cycling is the perfect way to appreciate the French landscape and now that the summer is over there is less risk of dehydration or sunburn.

France has a great variety of both on-road and off-road cycle routes, including the voie verte network which covers large parts of the country – find out more HERE.

Take a train ride – if you’re looking for a less strenuous way to appreciate the view, then why not enjoy it through the window of a train? Now that the peak season of summer is over, trains are a lot less crowded and make for a relaxing and scenic travel experience.

VIDEO 12 of the most beautiful train journeys in France

Eat hot melted cheese – as the temperatures fall out come the classic winter dishes – hearty soups, warming stews and hot desserts. But the best of these are those made with melted cheese – primarily fondue or raclette – which traditionally should only be eaten in the cooler months of the year

Festivals – France has a busy year-round calendar of festivals and autumn is no exception, with events celebrating music, film, chocolate, spicy peppers and staying up all night, to name but a few.

Fall festivals: What’s on around France in autumn 2022

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DISCOVER FRANCE

Brittany v Vendée: Which is the best French coastline?

We can all agree that France has a lot of stunning coastline, and when heading to western France you really are spoiled for choice - here Emma Pearson and Genevieve Manfield go head-to-head on the respective merits of Brittany and La Vendée.

Brittany v Vendée: Which is the best French coastline?

Emma on La Vendée

Perhaps less well known to foreign tourists, although hugely popular with the French as a holiday spot, is the département of La Vendée on the west coast of France – it’s basically that bit of the coastline north of La Rochelle and just underneath where Brittany sticks out to the west.

I discovered this largely by accident a few years ago, looking for a beach spot after spending a few days in La Rochelle, and it’s now my favourite bit of France. Here’s why;

Beaches – France has a lot of very pretty coastlines, and not to take away from any of them but La Vendée’s is superb – long, soft, sandy beaches that are much less crowded than the Mediterranean while the Atlantic ocean provides breezes and surf that makes this coastline popular with enthusiasts of wind-surfing, surfing, kite-surfing and sand yachting. 

Perfect for sunbathing in summer, the beaches are also great for a bracing walk in the winter.

Although not as hot and sunny as the south coast, the climate is generally mild with temperatures falling to 3C-9C in December and January, and the area also largely escapes Brittany’s famous rain. In the summer you can expect temperatures up to around 30C, but that Atlantic breeze keeps it from getting too hot. 

Food and drink – the coast is particularly rich in seafood and you can also pick your own. At low tide you will see dozens of people heading into the rockpools and shallow waters to gather clams, mussels, crabs, prawns and of course the areas’s speciality – oysters.

Be aware that there are limits to foraging for shellfish – pêche à pied – and most beaches have a notice telling you how much you are allowed to take. The limits are generous for personal use, they’re really just to stop commercial foraging, and also be aware of the minimum size limits on what you are allowed to take – this is to ensure that you’re only taking mature creatures and not disrupting the food chains.

Boards on the beach specify limits for fishing. Photo: The Local

If you’d rather someone else did the work then the local markets and restaurants are a seafood fan’s dream, particularly for oysters which are the local speciality – you will see oyster beds all along the coastline and on the islands and pretty much all restaurants sell them. The classic accompaniment to seafood is white wine, and the area produces some excellent whites, especially the vineyards on the Île d’Oléron. 

Nature – La Vendée boasts both an extensive network of sand-dunes that house hundreds of species of birds and the Marais Poitevan, which is France’s second largest wetland area (after the Camargue). 

Marais Poitevan is very different to much of rural France – dead flat, quite hauntingly eerie in the winter and with a stunning array of wildlife. In certain parts of it you can boat through the wetlands or see the salt flats where the famous fleur de sel of the area is produced. 

Places to visit – if you get bored of the beaches, there are plenty of places to visit in La Vendée including the town of Les Sables d’Olonne which hosts both a famous annual yacht race and a very pretty quartier where the locals have made murals out of shells on the walls.

Islands off the coast include Île de Ré, sometimes known as the ‘French Hamptons’ because of the number of Parisians who have second homes there, Île d’Oléron and, further north, Noirmoutier.

Île de Ré and Île d’Oléron are both accessible by car via a bridge from the mainland.  Technically in neighbouring Charente-Maritime, but the cute coastal city of La Rochelle is well worth a visit and has a real buzz thanks to a busy calendar of festivals, a very successful rugby team and vibrant nightlife. 

Shell decorations in the Ile de Penotte area of Les Sables d’Olonne. Photo: The Local

Practicalities – thanks to all those Parisians and their second homes, there are regular direct trains from Paris to the small Vendée towns of La Roche sur Yon and Les Sables d’Olonne. If you’re flying, La Rochelle has an airport, although it has fewer flights in the winter. Once you’re in the area you can take public transport if you stick along the coast, but for longer travels inland you will probably need a car.  This is very much a holiday area (although it seems that most of the holidaymakers are French) so you’re spoiled for choice for hotels, campsites and Airbnbs. 

Genevieve on Brittany

Home to a rugged coastline, with stunning beaches, turquoise waters, and delicious crêpes and seafood, Brittany is a part of France that everyone should visit at least once.  

Beaches (and islands) – Beaches in Brittany have it all – you can stick to calmer waters on the Gulf of Morbihan or brave larger waves in places like Cap Fréhel.

Fans of surfing might consider heading toward Brest, to beaches like Le Minou. To enjoy the region’s dramatic cliffs, you can go to the Falaises de Plouha, where the tallest ones in Brittany are located. The Emerald Coast is also home to several gorgeous beaches, such as Erquy and Val-André. 

Nature lovers do not have to stick to the beaches or islands. There are natural reserves, particularly in the Gulf of Morbihan, which is one of the top birdwatching locations in France. Additionally, hikers can enjoy the GR34, a footpath that takes you along the whole of the Breton coastline.  

As for islands, there are 42 in the Morbihan alone, and many more across the region. Île d’Arz is my favourite – it is small, walkable, and only a short ferry ride from Vannes (a city worth seeing in itself). 

Food and drink – You cannot go to Brittany without eating crêpes (pancakes) and drinking cidre.

Go for sugar-y crêpes or savoury ones (les galettes). A classic recipe is “la galette complète” which has eggs, ham, and cheese. As for a delicious, traditional sweet option, you can go for a “crêpe beurre sucre” (a butter, sugar, no-nonsense crêpe). 

If you want to test some traditional Breton dishes, you ought to try Kouign Amann – a sweet, butter-y Breton multilayered cake. 

Finally, you should not leave Brittany until you have eaten fresh oysters (huitres). According to the official Brittany tourism site, an ideal seafood platter “contains cooked and raw shellfish: spider crab, brown crab, prawns, langoustines, oysters, periwinkles, whelks, cockles, various types of clams and more.” Be sure to combine with salted butter, a regional delicacy.

Culture – First and foremost – Bretagne is home to a unique Celtic culture and language that is set apart from the rest of France.

In fact, students in Brittany have the option of learning the language at school, and the regional language is still spoken by at least 500,000 speakers. On road signs in Brittany, you will even notice a Breton translation below the French words. Brittany is also home to several historic sites like Carnac, known for its prehistoric standing stones, which date back to the same period as Stonehenge in the United Kingdom. History-lovers can also visit the mythical Brocéliande forest, which was cited in several medieval texts, like the legends of King Arthur. 

Places to visit – As mentioned above, beaches and islands are plentiful. Some of my favourite Breton islands are Île d’Arz, Groix, and Bréhat. You can enjoy historic sites in Brittany like Carnac and Brocéliande. You can also visit quaint towns, of which there are several.

Stop by port towns like Camaret-sur-Mer and Port d’Audierne, or head inland to see the medieval, walled town of Dinan. If you’re a fan of castles and fortresses, there are also many to see. You could go to the Domaine de Suscinio or the 15th century fortified Château de la Roche-Jagulocated along the Emerald Coast

Practicalities – Brittany is well-connected by train and car. Some direct options by train (in just two to three hours) from the Paris region are Concarneau, Rennes, Quimper, Brest, or Vannes. Once you are within Brittany, the majority of the coastline is connected by regional TER trains. You can see the map HERE.

By car, the journey from the Paris region is quite smooth, though you should count about four to five hours of travel-time. By ferry (if you are coming from the UK) you can get to Brittany from Plymouth, Poole, and Portsmouth. These are great options too, as you can bring your own vehicle aboard.

So what’s your verdict – Brittany or La Vendée? Leave your thoughts in the comments below. If you’re not a fan of the west coast, you can also vote HERE for your favourite French beach. 

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