Travel Beyond consultant Ann Coleman is living and working in France for six weeks this fall as a part of an educational trip. Here’s her third blog post detailing her adventures in France. If you missed the first two, check out Ann’s first blog about Normandy and Brittany and her second post about The Valley of the Kings.
I wouldn’t suggest covering as many miles as I did in the amount of time I had, but a great way to see France is to jump in a car and go! France is roughly the size of Texas so in a half day to day’s time, you can cover a lot of ground! One of my favorite things about driving in France is the vast, beautiful countryside dotted with small hamlets and farms. The scenery never gets dull to me. Now try driving from the Alpilles (little Alps) in Provence west, then north, then west, then south, then east! Over 1200 kilometers in 4.5 days. Imagine the sights I saw!
It is my opinion that the greater southwest of France is extremely underrated. I set out on a mission to see as much as I could in the small amount of time I had. The Aquitaine region in France is one of the most diverse. Small rolling hills in the north covered with vineyards and farms is home to Bordeaux, St. Emilion and the Perigord region famous for wine, truffles, foie gras, and other regional delicacies. I made a quick stop in St. Emilion and wandered the village for a bit sampling the local wines. The village itself if quite quaint, but what really blew my mind were the miles and miles of vineyards, as far as the eye can see! I knew Bordeaux is famous for its wines, but I had no idea that this is what the landscape looked like. I mean, the air smelled like wine. I had to stop in the famous village of St. Emilion, and while touristy, it is a cute spot to stop for a glass of wine and a snack of fois gras while you contemplate your next move.
My next move was a stop in the city of Bordeaux. Bordeaux is quite large and very busy. There are plenty of sights to see and streets to wander, but I am far from a city girl, so I quickly headed on to paths less traveled. That path was to Europe’s largest sand dune! I know it sounds super cheesy, like going to the see the world’s largest ball of twine, but I was very surprised by just how cool this actually was. Close to the town of Arcachon, a darling little resort town that I would recommend, The Dune du Pilat is 2.7km long and 110m high. After a 10 min climb (I took my shoes and socks off, but someone did it in heels. The French are known for their fashion sense…) I was awarded with the most amazing views of the ocean on one side and the massive pine forests on the other. Even though I was up there in the wind and rain, I could have stayed forever. There were a few tourists, but it was easy to get lost in your own world soaking up the views. All in, it’s maybe a one hour commitment and totally worth it. A perfect pre-lunch hike! (Tip: have said lunch in Arcachon and spend some time strolling the streets enjoying the sea breeze.) After a busy day, I headed back to my small country hotel located in Sautearns, which is a small village about a 30mins south of Bordeaux surrounded by, what else? Vineyards. Miles and miles of vineyards.
Next up for me was the glam resort town of Biarritz! Situated on the ocean not far from the foothills of the Pyrenees, in the heart of Basque country, is a small relatively low key vacation spot. A favorite of Hemmingway, this town is a far cry from the see and be seen mentality of the Cote d’Azure, but offers much of the same appealing features: Great luxury hotels, amazing restaurants and shopping, spas and outdoor activities (surfing is huge here!) and overall is just a great spot to take a break.
Biarritz is located in the heart of Basque Country. (They Basque are an ethnic group that inhabit the southwest of France and across the border into Spain. They are not quite French and not quite Spanish. They have their own culture and customs that are unique and you can certainly see their influence in this area.) Great day trips can be had from here either deeper into the mountains for outdoor adventure, or something a little lower key such as a trip to the artsy town of St Jean de Luz or just across the Spanish boarder to the foodie haven of San Sebastian.
There is a major pilgrimage route that starts just across the border in Spain called the Camino de Santiago de Compostela or in France, the Chemin de St. Jacques, or in English, The Way of St. James. There are a bunch of feeder routes into this pilgrimage that run though the southwest corner of France. On my way to Biarritz, I stopped in a little town that acts as an overnight stop for the pilgrims as the chemin runs right through town. I put on my running shoes and followed the little red and white lines painted every so often on telephone poles indicating the GR 65 which is part of the pilgrimage route while I kept an eye out for the teeny signs adorned with the symbol of the Chemin de St. Jacques letting me know I was on the same path that so many have walked before me. Even though I was only on it for about 4 miles, it was still pretty darn neat to experience.
On we go! Almost back home (well my French home. I know, tough job I have.) to Avignon! Just over 2/3 of the way from Biarritz to Avignon sits the medieval city of Carcassonne. Now this is a sight! I saw it from the highway on my way west and couldn’t wait to check it out on my way back! The Romans fortified this hilltop in 100 BC and other parts were constructed in the 5th century. It is almost as if this place is right out of a fairytale. There are two sets of walls, a huge castle, a draw bridge and 53 towers. While within the walls is very touristy, I do suggest a night spent at one of the hotels within the walls. At night, most of the tourists go home and you get your very own medieval city to yourselves. It is a perfect one night stay and is a great spot to stop and take a break from the driving.
The Southwest is easily my favorite area of France and has been since the first time I visited in 2002. I love that is offers amazing landscapes from the sea to the hills, valleys and mountains. There is so much to do and explore. If you are active in the least there is so much to do from hiking, biking, rafting, skiing, surfing, etc. If you would rather take your vacation at a slower pace, there is a huge concentration of ancient caves in the area, plenty of museums, abbeys, bastides and villages to discover. I also appreciate the clash with the Basque and Spanish culture in this area. It lends a little “Je ne sais quoi” to the area and life down here seems to be very well lived. Perhaps you should give it a try!