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10 incredible ways to explore the world's favourite country

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 10/07/2018 By Adam Ruck

a view of water and a mountain in the background: “A sturdy pedestrian can walk round Mont Blanc in four days,” wrote Edward Whymper in his guide to Chamonix in 1896 (Getty) © Provided by The Telegraph “A sturdy pedestrian can walk round Mont Blanc in four days,” wrote Edward Whymper in his guide to Chamonix in 1896 (Getty) One hundred and fifteen years have passed since a young journalist on a struggling sports journal, L’Auto, suggested a long-distance cycle race around France as a stunt to put one over the opposition, Le Vélo.  

The race succeeded beyond expectation, catching the mood of the new century three years after the Michelin brothers had published their first guide, a catalogue of garages and hotels inviting the French to discover their country. Sport’s ultimate endurance test is also a three-week tourist promotional bonanza – a showcase for France’s mountain ranges and river valleys, its vineyards and orchards, castles and cathedral cities. Le Tour’s director Christian Prudhomme writes about this year’s race “honouring the shores” of Lake Annecy before “heading in to the surrounding mountains that give the lake its special charm”, as if he were speaking into a microphone at the front of a tourist bus.   

a group of people on a beach: Mont Ventoux, a regular on the Tour de France (Getty) © Provided by The Telegraph Mont Ventoux, a regular on the Tour de France (Getty)

My own discovery of France started on a gap year of sorts in Paris where I made weekend trips to places such as Versailles and Fontainebleau, clutching my green Michelin guide, Environs de Paris (1968 edition). I learned to categorise French towns and villages as Intéressant, Mérite Un Détour or Vaut Le Voyage, and absorbed history in colourful snippets from the “un peu d’histoire” sections of the book. Royal mistresses made morganatic marriages and chefs fell on their sword when the fish arrived late for a banquet.  

When news came through that my mother would drive out to meet me for a 10-day road trip via Berne, I bought more green guides and researched our trip in the Musée des Monuments Français, near the Eiffel Tower. It introduced me to a world of churches decorated with carvings of exotic beasts and frescoes as lively and colourful as the pages of Asterix.  

We met at Compiègne, my mother having crawled down the N1 behind a slow-moving truck. When not called upon to direct overtaking manoeuvres, I made friends with the red Michelin and learned the rich language of its hieroglyphics. I may have been too young to drive abroad, but the importance of eating and drinking well on our French road trip was not lost on me.  

a close up of a hillside next to a mountain: A road trip is a wonderful way to explore France (Getty) © Provided by The Telegraph A road trip is a wonderful way to explore France (Getty) At first, I relied solely on the guide and combed the book for stopovers with a red R, for good food at a reasonable price; and a canary – the symbol others interpret as a rocking chair – indicating a quiet location. Restaurants with stars were beyond our budget, but we splashed out at the Hôtel de la Gare in Montbard, dining on Saupiquet and chablis.    

After a rich diet of tympanums and historiated capitals in Burgundy we headed for the Alps, took a vaut le voyage cable-car ride and found a hotel at the foot of a glacier. 

That holiday set the pattern for many more road trips and guide book writing based on the template of a motoring holiday with a little light sightseeing between meals. The Eighties were prime time for the gastro-nomadic holiday, with Arthur Eperon and Richard Binns ploughing a furrow behind the Michelin tractor.   

In a more health-conscious millennium, the eating and driving formula has lost its lustre. When a friend suggested cycling home from Switzerland, I sensed an opportunity to rediscover the fun of French gastro-touring and followed the example of many others in swapping L’Auto for Le Vélo

France has worked hard to surf the cycling wave, making and mapping pistes cyclables on towpaths and disused railway lines. It’s a worthy cause, but my two-man peloton prefers the old-fashioned way, rolling over the hills and along the river bank on back roads coloured yellow or white on the Michelin map, with a green stripe for pretty scenery; navigating with a paper map.   

a group of people on a mountain: Exploring the country by bike means greed without guilt (Getty) © Provided by The Telegraph Exploring the country by bike means greed without guilt (Getty) Our routes do not add up to a Tour de France. They are crossings, what our ancestors used to call chevauchées, without the rape and pillage. Why? For the simple pleasure of rolling slowly through a beautiful country, feeling its contours and enjoying its changes of colour, stone, cheese and wine. A good stopover hotel remains at the heart of the experience. After a day in the saddle, French food tastes even better . Cyclotourism is our carte blanche for greed without guilt. 

Michelin weighs heavily in the pannier, but remains the inescapable reference. Its star ratings and the “Bib Gourmand”, which has replaced the red R, have lost none of their authority. Above all, it’s reliable.  

Last year I made the pilgrimage to the Aventure Michelin museum at Bibendum HQ in Auvergne. Eschewing false modesty, it awards itself two stars, and I agree: it’s well worth a detour, in homage to a marriage of visionary engineering and marketing genius that has shaped the way we understand and enjoy France.   

Perched on the shoulders of the pneumatic giant for so long, I have forgotten to explore France on a river cruise, a walking holiday or a guided trip of any kind. A combination of arrogance and meanness is the main reason for that, along with the pleasure I get from guiding myself.   

Beautiful orange light effect on this rural zone in Champagne-et-Fontaine ,in Périgord Vert © Getty Beautiful orange light effect on this rural zone in Champagne-et-Fontaine ,in Périgord Vert We can argue about the need for a tour operator on a self-guided holiday in France. But value added is a given on the guided tour, whether the guide is a Master of Wine, an ornithologist, an art history professor or a cycling mechanic. 

My ideal guided tour would have them all and I would be a much more expert francophile by the end of it.

Diligent in my devotions, I have watched a truffle dog at work in the Périgord, cycled the Canal du Midi and ridden the Western Front from Vimy Ridge to Vieil Armand. I have broken bread at the Colombe d’Or and paid my respects to the great wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Puligny-Montrachet, swallowing more than I ought.  

Below, I have tried to give a balance of the country’s regions and recommend favourite destinations I have had the good fortune to visit. 

Related video: Lavender Fields of Provence, France (Provider: Travel + Leisure)

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1. Alsatian ramble 

France’s prettiest route du vin potters along the foot of the Vosges for more than 100 miles (160km), a green corduroy skirt between plain and mountains, picked out with scores of painted villages decorated with towers, flowers, fountains and storks’ nests.  

Autumn frosts transform the green skirt to a sheet of shining gold beneath the tawny forest, and the villages get their life back after the departure of the tourist army. 

a castle on top of a lush green hillside: Kaysersberg (Getty) © Provided by The Telegraph Kaysersberg (Getty) From a base at Kaysersberg, this walking tour offers a selection of the wine road’s greatest hits – Ammerschwihr, Riquewihr and Ribeauvillé – plus visits to Kientzheim’s chateau and wine museum, a hilltop war memorial, Kaiser Bill’s repro fortress of Haut-Koenigsbourg, and Colmar, for a day of DIY sightseeing.

The walking is graded moderate: 12 miles (19km) on the longest day, with 1,700ft of ascent.       

A seven-day Wine Villages of the Alsace tour from Ramblers Walking Holidays (01707 818268; ramblersholidays.co.uk/home ) costs from £1,075 including half-board accommodation and return rail travel. Departs Sept 16 and Oct 7. 

2. Bike and barge in Provence  

A picturesque alley in the village of Tourrettes-sur-Loop, in Provence, France. © Getty A picturesque alley in the village of Tourrettes-sur-Loop, in Provence, France.

The riverboat trip through the waterways of the Rhône delta between Avignon and the walled crusader port of Aigues-Mortes is offered by many UK and international tour operators, and it’s not hard to see why.

The highlights of Roman and van Gogh’s Provence are in pedalling range of a 21-berth Dutch barge: Arles, Les Baux, St-Rémy, the Pont du Gard, and Avignon itself, where the 14th-century Popes lived in magnificent style. To all these treasures, the boat and bike formula adds 15 to 35 miles (24-56km) a day of cycling through the changing landscapes of the Alpilles and the Camargue, with its wild horses and pink clouds of flamingos. 

An eight-day Provence Bike and Barge holiday from Saddle Skedaddle (0191 265 1110; skedaddle.co.uk ) costs from £1,165 including full-board accommodation. Excludes flights and bike hire. Weekly departures in September and October. 

3. Cycling the Dordogne 

France, Dordogne, aerial view of the western part of Bourdeilles © Getty France, Dordogne, aerial view of the western part of Bourdeilles Most cycling holidays in France are self-guided. This week-long, 185-mile (300km) escorted tour is an exception, starting and finishing at Les Eyzies, the capital of Périgord prehistory. As well as visiting a selection of decorated caves, the tour includes an underground boat trip (Padirac), the pilgrimage village of Rocamadour and stretches of riverbank cycling along the Dordogne with pauses to enjoy castles, villages and the market town of Sarlat. Up to 30 miles (48km) a day is not too much to pedal, and the hills will sharpen the appetite for an evening feast of foie gras, duck and other treats of the Périgord larder.       

An eight-day Dordogne tour from Chain Gang (01392 662262; thechaingang.co.uk ) costs from £1,655 including half-board accommodation, rail travel from London and transfers. Excludes bike hire. Departs Aug 4 and Sep 8. Self-guided option available. 

4. Classic Canal du Midi 

Old abandoned French mansion across Canal Du Midi on the way to Agde in France © Getty Old abandoned French mansion across Canal Du Midi on the way to Agde in France

Apart from the roseate city of Toulouse and filmset Carcassonne, the canal that links the Atlantic and Mediterranean doesn’t pass many premier league sights. That may be a relief if your idea is to relax and enjoy life on a well-appointed floating hotel, while France drifts slowly by. 

The barge used for this trip has only four guest cabins and took Rick Stein on his TV travels. The stage is set for much wine tasting, guided excursions if you feel like it, and a succession of convivial lunch and dinner parties.            

A seven-day Classic Canal Du Midi cruise from European Waterways (01753 598555; europeanwaterways.com ) costs from £3,150 including full-board accommodation and offshore tours. Flights not included. Weekly departures until Oct 28.  

5. Art on the Cote d’Azur 

Using a four-star hotel in Nice as a base, this guided holiday ticks the key cultural boxes of the Riviera: Chagall and Matisse in Nice and Vence, Picasso at Antibes and Bonnard at Le Cannet, plus lunch at the Hotel Colombe d’Or in St-Paul-de-Vence, which used to accept artworks in lieu of payment, but no longer does. 

A five-day tour from Kirker Holidays (020 7593 1899; kirkerholidays.com ) starts from £1,749 including accommodation, some meals, visits, lectures and flights. Departs Sept 18 and April 2.

a stone castle next to a brick building: The Musée Picasso in Antibes (Getty) © Provided by The Telegraph The Musée Picasso in Antibes (Getty) 6. Western Front end to end 

Unlike most UK-based battlefield tours, which focus on Ypres and the Somme, this trip follows the Western Front from the sand dunes at Nieuwpoort (Belgium) to “Km 0” at Pfetterhouse on the Swiss border, via the Chemin des Dames, Reims, the Marne, the Argonne and the Vosges, where the battle line was drawn along the spine of the mountain range; and returns via Verdun.

A nine-day Western Front tour from Leger (01709 787463; leger.co.uk ) costs from £959 including B&B accommodation, coach travel and guided battlefield visits. Departs July 21 and Oct 20.   

a body of water: A Somme battlefield (Getty) © Provided by The Telegraph A Somme battlefield (Getty) 7. Le Tour du Mont Blanc 

“A sturdy pedestrian can walk round Mont Blanc in four days,” wrote Edward Whymper in his guide to Chamonix in 1896. The route of this spectacular Alpine circuit through France, Switzerland and Italy hasn’t changed in the intervening century and a quarter, but our sturdiness may not be quite what it was. This holiday spreads the 100-mile (160km) trek over eight days on the hoof, with a rest day and bus rides to cut out less interesting bits. Good boots and poles essential. 

An 11-day Tour du Mont Blanc from Explore (01252 883959; explore.co.uk ) starts from £1,999 including accommodation, most meals and flights. Departs July 25 and Sept 5.  

8. Cathars and crusaders 

Few episodes of medieval history grip the imagination like the Albigensian Crusade, which saw greedy northerners use heresy as an excuse to grab land, smash Languedoc’s tolerant and cultured society, and enjoy butchery on a scale impressive even by the standards of the 13th century.

The group starts at the airy hilltop bastide of Cordes. From Albi’s massive red fortress cathedral, it heads south to Toulouse, Béziers, Carcassonne and remote corners of the eastern Pyrenees where the Cathar “parfaits” found their last refuge, before walking into the bonfire rather than renounce their faith. 

a stone castle next to a brick building: Carcassonne (Getty) © Provided by The Telegraph Carcassonne (Getty) An eight-day tour from Andante (01722 569431; andantetravels.co.uk ) costs from £2,495 including accommodation, meals with wine, coach travel and flights. Departs Sept 10 and 17 2018 and May 13 and Sept 23 2019. 

9. Walking the Burgundy vineyards 

Can your palate tell an opulent richebourg from the silky finesse of romanée-conti? Arblaster and Clarke’s “immersive walking tour” at harvest time promises “a rich and rustic understanding of what makes Burgundy truly great”, thanks to the expertise of Matthew Boucher. He conducts vineyard tours and tastings along the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune, selecting domains and “boutique producers” not open to the public. The trip includes an overnight stop and half a day to explore Beaune, where the Hôtel-Dieu, a medieval hospice, tops the sightseeing agenda. With al fresco lunches and five to 10 miles (eight-16km) of walking on four days, the pace is not frenetic. 

a large green field with trees in the background: The Rock of Solutré in Burgundy (Getty) © Provided by The Telegraph The Rock of Solutré in Burgundy (Getty) A six-day tour from Arblaster & Clarke (01730 263111; arblasterandclarke.com ) costs from £1,995 including accommodation, most meals, flights, visits and tastings. Departs Sept 16. 

10. Truffle hunting in the Périgord  

Duck and Truffle are expats on the inside track in one of the loveliest places on the Dordogne – Trémolat, known to francophiles as the setting for Chabrol’s murder film, Le Boucher.

They organise gourmet weekends split between the truffle and the grape: one day with Sebastien and his dog Falco to sniff out the Périgord black truffle, after a visit to the truffle market and auction at Sainte-Alvère (December to February); the other day for guided vineyard visits around Bergerac and a Michelin-starred lunch. Accommodation is at Le Vieux Logis, a Relais & Châteaux hotel.

a castle on top of Dordogne surrounded by a body of water: Beynac-et-Cazenac (Getty) © Provided by The Telegraph Beynac-et-Cazenac (Getty) A three-night Gourmet Weekend from Duck & Truffle (0033 5 53 23 90 54; duckandtruffle.com ) costs from €595 (£527) for a three-night B&B plus transfers. Excludes flights. Available on winter weekends excluding Christmas and New Year. 

Adam Ruck is the author of France on Two Wheels (Short Books; £8.99).

Related: Beautiful summer travel destinations (GES)

Famous for its black, red, white or gray sand and crystal clear blue waters of the Aegean, the Santorini island is a popular tourist spot. Most of the beaches are reasonably well connected from Fira, Firostefani, Imerovigli, or Oia -the major towns- though hiring a car to navigate through the island is the best bet. Also, the volcanic soil gets really hot in the day, so don’t forget to carry tour beach sandals. Beautiful summer travel destinations



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