Winning tip: Saint-Nectaire: picnic paradise, Puy-de-Dôme
I really liked the calm of Saint-Nectaire. Local cheese is enough to put it on any list, but it also has forest trails, caves, a spa, and an 11th-century hilltop church. It’s also a great base for exploring Les Puys, but you can’t beat a picnic (remember the cheese!) We stayed at the family-run Hotel Regina (double from € 65 B&B) where our bathroom was in a turret.
Brouage – a sumptuous citadel south of La Rochelle
Brouage is a fortified, star-shaped, once coastal village in the Charente-Maritime region. The old ramparts and eight-meter-high walls allow hours of exploration and offer breathtaking views of the surrounding salt marshes (the sea is about 3 km away these days). The pretty village looks a bit like a Roman encampment; a grid of streets lined with hollyhocks shelters the picturesque church of Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul with a model of a boat suspended from the ceiling; Meanwhile, the eccentric Musée du Vélo is a must-see for cycling enthusiasts. A lazy lunch in the leafy garden of La Conserverie is recommended for some shade, followed by many more ‘archers’ games in the watchtowers at the top of the hill. citadel walls.
Medieval aquatic charm, L’Isle sur la Sorgue, Provence
It is a very pretty little town, about 30 km east of Avignon. Close to other perhaps more famous Luberon hot spots such as Ménerbes, Cavaillon and Gordes, it has its own distinct medieval aquatic charm as it was built on islands in the middle of five arms of the Sorgue. Stroll through the compact center, stroll along the waterwheel circuit (there are around 15 waterwheels around the village), admire the magnificent Baroque church or just sip a morning coffee or pastis à l ‘ lunch time in a cafe by the water. Sunday is flea market day, and bartering is the norm.
Champagne and chocolate, Troyes
Little-known medieval jewel of a city in the Grand-Est, Troyes is full of beautiful half-timbered houses, narrow cobbled streets and glorious churches. Once the capital of Champagne, Troyes is a great place to rest while visiting the famous Champagne vineyards in the surrounding countryside. In town, one of the many places to enjoy sparkling wine is Aux Crieurs de Vins. Le Cellier Saint Pierre near the cathedral is a good place to buy a few bottles of regional plonk. The famous master chocolatier Pascal Caffet sells his exquisite confections in the heart of the ancient city. Look for excellent restaurants and cafes along the canal that runs through the city center, and discover quirky sculptures, art galleries, and museums. The museum of modern art is particularly excellent. It’s only 90 minutes by train from Paris Gare de l’Est.
No gasoline but nice cheese, Bain-de-Bretagne, Brittany
I discovered Bain-de-Bretagne by accident when I ran out of gas while driving south from Rennes to Nantes. A modest town in lush Breton countryside, it has bakeries with raisin breads so good that I turned away for them on my way home. There is an enchanting village square with geraniums and tables outside for eating and relaxing with friends and an old church. It is sleepy, leafy and deliciously bucolic. I discovered a dairy with cheeses wrapped in wild flowers and a wine merchant with good choices and even better advice. There is a small night market if you want to cook at home. I have often dreamed of it in the dreary winter of 2020/21. I will be going back soon.
Take the Roman road to Narbonne, Occitanie
We arrived in Narbonne for an afternoon trip from Beziers (only 12 minutes by train) and stayed for three days. Lots of time to explore the Palais Vieux, the Palais Neuf and the 13th century Saint-Just et Saint-Pasteur cathedral. Do not miss the section of Roman road preserved in the center of the Town Hall square. Lots of places to eat along the Canal de la Robine, but our highlight was the bustling Halles where we managed to squeeze into a side table at Tapas de la Clape for excellent seafood, wine and coffee. For a place to stay we stumbled upon Hotel La Residence (double from € 80 B&B) which unexpectedly gave us stunning views of the cathedral. Don’t miss (any) of this.
High on the ramparts, Montreuil-sur-Mer, Pas-de-Calais
The ramparts promenade that circles the town of Montreuil-sur-Mer strikes me, not only because the path is quite close to the drops in places, but also for the expansive views over the countryside and the town itself. I also enjoyed strolling through the cobbled streets with their charming buildings and exploring the citadel. About an hour’s drive from Calais, there used to be a seaport before the Canche estuary silted up, explaining the “sur-Mer”. Victor Hugo used the city as a backdrop in Les Misérables – every summer, Sound and Light shows are presented at the citadel, celebrating this link.
Beehive of culture, Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, Burgundy
Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye in Burgundy, birthplace of the writer Colette, is the village where I often return, to recharge my batteries in the middle of forests, lakes and castles. A colorful market town with diverse artists, galleries, trendy bars, theater, movie nights, music events, courtyard exhibits, a writers’ festival and even a British tea room. History buffs must see Guédelon, a 13th century castle construction. Visit La Poeterie, a sculpture garden with concerts and a herd of deer. I spend long summers swimming in Bourdon Lake, eating Belgian fries at sunset. Two hours from Paris, to quote real estate agencies, this is the place to be.
I love Cahors, Occitanie
Nestled in a bend in the Lot, Cahors is protected by the limestone cliffs of the causse (bluffing). The medieval half-timbered buildings delight the eyes, whether on foot or on the little tourist train. A secret garden path steeped in the folklore of the region begins with a vineyard at the medieval bridge Pont Valentré Seen from the ground or from a boat ride, it is a worthy stopover on the pilgrimage route to Saint-Jacques-de -Campostelle. Eat at the Petite Auberge for hearty local cuisine and local red wine, and watch out for the exposed staircase next to it.
Hourra for Auray, Brittany
I found the town of Auray, about 100 km northwest of Nantes, a lovely place to stay and the perfect base for exploring the beautiful south coast of Brittany. It is really bustling on Monday market day, with stalls full of local produce crowding the main square. It is also close to beautiful beaches as well as the Neolithic sites around Carnac. The port of the town of Saint-Goustan is picturesque by day and magical at night, when the lampposts are reflected on the river near the old bridge. We really enjoyed the simple meals at the restaurants lining the quayside and cobbled streets – La Goustanaise crêperie was our favorite – serving delicious inexpensive galettes (savory filled pancakes) and Breton cider.