France will always have a little place in my heart. It’s hard to explain why – perhaps it’s the nostalgia talking, but I don’t think it’ll ever be different. It’s a common affliction that typically comes after too many baguettes bought in too many boulangeries with too many kisses of springtime wind across a million overly quaint sunflower fields. Probably. When I left for the first time I knew I’d fallen under the spell and wouldn’t be able to go five years without returning. That promise hasn’t been broken for nearly two decades.
Many Francophiles say there’s Paris and then there’s France. And while Paris is consummately lovely, it’s criminal not to explore the off the beaten path France when you go. I wanted to share some of my favorite towns of the French countryside and invite you to check them during your next visit. I can say that they will very likely not let you down. Stray from the traditional Paris-Nice highway and go to some of these truly treasured and very French destinations.
Cassis is a painting, wrapped in a poem, wrapped in a love song – a little Mediterranean seaside town nestled at the very western end of the famous Côte d’Azur. While, yes, it does have a sailboat marina and a sometimes crowded golden beach, the main draw of Cassis is not the beach or the marina but the rocks on the edge of town. The Calanques, a sort of Mediterranean fjord, are the prominent features of this coastline and the main reason you must see it. These artistic limestone cliff formations form a glorious backdrop for hiking, boating and generally living le bon vivant. They’ll remind you of an old painting you once saw, or a dream you once had or a lover you once cherished, and they’re anything but forgettable. Boat tours of the Calanques can be purchased from the main harbor in .75, 1.5 and 2.5 hour installments (€13 and up). Or else rent a kayak!
On the other side of town is Le Cap Canaille, a 1000-foot tall promontory that sticks out into the sea like a giant ship’s hull. It’s a precarious drive up to the top but may deliver the most rewarding sunset of you trip. Cassis’ beauty causes it to get crowded with French people during high season, but late spring and early fall are the clear visiting windows with far fewer crowds but still pleasant weather.
Located on the Normandy coast Saint-Malo is a near perfect medieval walled city and off the beaten path France. A day or two strolling the town’s cobbled streets will put reverence back into the weariest hearts. Squint your eyes, add some storm clouds and a copy of Madame Bovary and you have a complete feast for the senses. On top of all that, Saint Malo is also purported to have the world’s best butter. Take in a farmers market, relax at a B&B, or roam the surrounding seaside.
Just a half-hour drive westward is Cap Fréhel, a sea overlook notably covered by the medieval Fort La Latte, with its inlets and sandy beaches below, and a short jaunt from there, the Cap lighthouse. Saint Malo is also a mere 25 kms from another of Normandy’s most beloved attractions, Mont St Michel.
Vaux le Vicomte
If the thought of the tourist hoard at Versailles makes you want to never leave your table at La Rotonde, but you still want to see the best of France’s exquisite chateaux, Vaux le Vicomte is the one you should turn to. All of Versailles’ magnificence with none of the crowds, you’ll wish you brought your sack-back gown and parasol. A hundred acres of gardens and forest call for strolling, a pond with swan-shaped paddleboats and fine dining in a converted stable house all equals chateau heaven. It also has an alluring history filled with wealth, scandal and betrayal.
Thirty-five miles southeast of Paris makes Vaux a very feasible and fantastically romantic day trip if you don’t want to stray too far from the City of Lights. Get there by the RER (D line) then shuttle, or car.
Pancaked on top of a 300-foot tall rock upwelling in central Provence, Les Baux (pronounced lay bōw) has serious historical significance, with settlement evidence dating back to the 2nd century BC. While Les Baux may be a tourist sensation an amble through is totally worth it. The town, with its 77 full-time residents, replicates medieval living and there are stone built shops and restaurants, but the keep, perched on the cliff’s edge is always magnificent and makes for some spectacular views over the otherwise flat countryside of Provence.
The recommendation is to rent a car in nearby Aix and drive through some of the enchanting country villages to get to there, with the best time to visit being early June and after August. During the high season in Les Baux the tourist crowds can be crushing. The town is free to stroll but access to the keep will cost €8 (+€1 on weekends). You’ll be very glad you stopped, perhaps on your way to Arles or Avignon.
This small town at the eastern edge of the Normandy prefecture has one very important resident: the Bayeux Tapestry, which may be the most important historical artifact to come out of the Middle Ages. The item itself is a 225-foot long 18-inch tall piece of embroidery that tells the story of the Norman invasion of England by King William in 1066 and reads like an ancient comic book.
The Tapestry museum isn’t the only game in this town. Bayeaux was the first town to be liberated after D-Day and the rows of Norman houses remained surprisingly undamaged through it all. Stroll around this unbearably quaint town for pastries, beer and umbrella café time at its finest. Try the Teurgoule, rice pudding made from full-fat milk and cinnamon and baked in a bread oven. Camembert cheese is also said to have originated in the area and you’d be remiss not to have some here.
Important side note: most of these places are already very popular with the French nationals, so it goes a visit will be a totally different experience in August when Paris’ Grand Vacances rallies millions and millions to these overly lovely provincial places.
If you happen to BE in France in August, it’s the author’s recommendation to stay in Paris where, while tourist laden, the capitol becomes dreamily restful.