Volcanic trails: Gourmet Auvergne
The French discover the infamous of their country vacuum diagnosis in geography lessons at school and for those looking for a quiet place to revel in the French joie de vivre, this stretch of land ridiculed at national level – but incredibly empty – crossing France from north-east to south- west has endless appeal. The gourmet Auvergne basks in splendid isolation in the middle of this long sparsely populated diagonal.
Far from the main tourist radar, in the low mountains of the Massif Central in central France, it is an inherently pastoral region where the herds of bright red Salers cows are the only crowds and the newlyweds faithfully consume their marriage as the tradition demands it during a shared wedding fiery night bowl cheese soup (Cantal cheese soup). Stopping at dairy farms and scalloped geranium farms to stock up on picnics of creamy Auvergne blue cheese, tart beef and the occasional fiery pinch of herbal liquor is the essence of any trip on the road here. Car, bike, e-bike or foot is the way to do it.
The natural centerpiece of Auvergne is a hypnotic sweep of pea-green conical hills and craters filled with lakes blown up by volcanoes 10,000 years ago. Hypnotic and surreal in equal parts, the Chaîne des Puys, 30 km long, is part of the Protected Regional Volcanoes of Auvergne Natural Park. Hiking, mountain biking and admiring the spectacular volcanic landscape afloat in a hot air balloon or hang glider is exhilarating. To avoid any tourist uproar, avoid the main cities of Clermont-Ferrand, Le Mont Dore and Le Puy-en-Velay, and settle in the tiny volcanic gray stone village of Orcival, or find a cabin in the trees.
Alpine crossings: from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean
For mountain purists looking for alpine adventure, it’s summer to give up Chamonix, Morzine and other lively ski resorts for a trip along the spectacular – but easily accessible – hiking trail from the Grand Traversée des Alpes (GR5) or the Grandes Alpes route.
Both routes start on the picturesque south shore of Lake Geneva in Haute-Savoie and cross the entire French Alps on their breathtaking journey south to Nice on the Côte d’Azur. It is truly Alpine splendor at its most ethereal. Flowery pastures, dizzying passes (mountain passes), snow-capped peaks, glaciers and breathtaking panoramas are a constant along both routes. The tantalizing white dome of the highest mountain in Europe, Mont Blanc, is rarely out of sight and in the south, the two paths wind through the protected national parks of Vanoise and Mercantour. While traveling distant paths or dangerously serpentine hairpins under the piercing eyes of a shaggy ibex or wheeled eagles, it is not difficult to imagine the warrior Hannibal walking with his men and 40 elephants through Alps to fight the Romans in 218 BC or, centuries later, mule trains lifting salt from the coast to remote mountain villages here. Then there is the occasional farm that you come across where a warm welcome of ice cream made from creamy goat milk and pearl white sheep cheese slices awaits you. It is the French paradise on earth.
The two long distance routes can be easily cut into bursts of one to several days, with rustic accommodation in huts (refuges) and village hotels. The practical starting and stopping points for hikers on the GR5 (approximately 420 miles, 32 days) are Thonon-les-Bains, Les Houches and Tignes. Motorists tackling the complete 425-mile route can expect to encounter the tallest and most beautiful mountain passes in Europe, including the Col d’Iseran (2,764 m) near Bourg Saint- Maurice and the Col de la Bonnette (2802 m) in Haute-Provence.
Green Venice: Marais Poitevin
If it is water that your summer soul sucks, spend a seaside break with the jet set of St-Tropez for a serene getaway in the wetlands with Mother Nature in the Marais Poitevin or Venise Verte (Venise Verte) . Allow about an hour’s drive from La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast or two hours from Bordeaux. The peaceful network of fairytale waterways, lined with emerald lenses, exudes a hypnotic immobility difficult to find elsewhere. The only real noise is the soothing ripple of kayak paddles and oars of wooden boats languidly cutting through the intertwined water with a catchy symphony of dragonflies, frogs and birds. Playful otters in the shoals and purple herons fishing for lunch provide entertainment during boating. Cycling along shaded riverside trails is another laid-back pleasure.
When the golden sand beckons you, head west to Aiguillon bay to learn more about local mussel farming at the small museum inside the Maison de la Baie du Marais Poitevin in Esnandes . Buy freshly shelled oysters in cabins by the sea and enjoy the magnificent views of Île de Ré on the water. Back inland, the picturesque riverside villages of Coulon and Arçais are ideal bases.
Pyrenean tradition: Ossau Valley
Sharing a similar population with the United Kingdom but twice the geographic size, it is not surprising that France feels resolutely spacious for us, the British. In addition, some 60% of the French hexagon is covered with forests and mountains – an invaluable luxury that gives a particularly powerful punch in the Pyrenees national park, in the southwest of France. The six valleys of the national park are truly wilderness areas, but the Ossau Valley is a favorite for its evocative name reminiscent of the native brown bears that once roamed here and the scattered mix of forgotten medieval hamlets. The only tourist attraction to speak of is a red and yellow mountain train that drags from lake to lake: Lake Fabrèges (1950m) to Lake Artouste (1997m) is one of the highest train journeys. Europe.
Picturesque hiking trails line the valley – the villages of Bielle, Béost and Laruns are all beautiful places to start the trails. Mountain biking, whitewater rafting and wilderness swimming in mirrored glacial lakes are high octane adventures without crowds. Those looking for more bucolic pastimes can observe rare griffon vultures nesting in limestone cliffs, watch cheese makers make Ossau-Iraty AOP tomme summer rounds in amber crust and, towards the end of the summer, accompany the shepherds and their flocks in their traditional transhumance from pastures high to low.
The local: the Cévennes
Parisians love to talk ‘in deep France’ (Deep France) and for many, there is nowhere else as deep or provincial and off-grid as the Cévennes cooked in the sun in the upper Languedoc, south-west of France. Vast expanses of dense forest, desolate limestone plateaus and walking trails marked out by Robert Louise Stevenson and his Modestine donkey in 1878 make it a natural choice for outdoor enthusiasts. But there is also something eminently enjoyable about bunkering in a gite and getting local. The hot brooding days are reserved by shopping for food at the morning markets in Anduze, Florac and other villages (chestnuts, syrupy figs and local goat cheese or Roquefort cheese alert) and lazy afternoons cooling off at – above swimming and waterfalls in the spectacular Tarn gorges or a tributary of the Gardon.