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France off the beaten path: 12 unexpected places you may not know

Are you always on the lookout for new places to explore? Shudder at long lines and tour buses? Dislike going where everyone has gone before?

Then you may be looking for France off the beaten path – 12 magnificent regions loved by the French but that aren't really on the tourist circuit. Yet.

Here are some of my hidden gems in France (however much I dislike that phrase!)

I'll bet there's at least one you don't know... Am I right? 

When you visit France for the first or second time, certain sights are must-sees: we love Paris and its attractions of course (the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and so on), and Provence, and we may be able to visit a few Loire chateaux and perhaps a quick trip to taste some wine in Burgundy or Champagne in Reims – but that's often 'it', since France is large and time, sadly, is not elastic.

But if you've seen the standard sights or want to explore France differently, let's go explore France off the beaten path!

the beaujolais region - it's not just wine!

Most of us are no strangers to Beaujolais – but you may know the wine, not the region. Yet Le Beaujolais is delightful and so close to Lyon it would be a shame to miss it.

You'll have plenty of choice: the vineyards, the wilder green spaces, the Pierres Dorées (golden stones) and the urban heartland.

Of course if you're an oenophile, you'll be doing what you can to sample its 10 vintages, like Brouilly or Chénas or Saint-Amour.

I like the arrière-pays, the backcountry, particularly the corner called Les Pierres Dorées and its villages of ochre-coloured stone. I have a particular weakness for the village of Oingt (pronounced like the WA in wagon, believe it or not), which also happens to be on the list of the most beautiful villages of France.

Oingt - Pierres Dorées in the Beaujolais regionThe beautiful village of Oingt, one of my favourites

Two fun things about Oingt that make a visit here well worth it: at Christmas, everyone decorates their windows with mangers, and each September, the village hosts the international barrel organ festival (or organ grinders, if you prefer). Both events are unique. 

A little later in autumn, it's time for the Beaujolais Nouveau, and the rest of the year, well, plain Beaujolais will have to do.

The nearest train station is in Villefranche-sur-Saône, with frequent trains from Lyon that take half an hour or so. (My favourite restaurant is Le Belooga, unexpectedly located in the Mercure Hotel.)

Top things to do in the Beaujolais

  • Drink all of the wine (and visit the wine-making châteaux) – my favourite is Montmelas and Delphine's guided tour
  • Hike around the vineyards
  • Have a Mâchon Beaujolais for breakfast (it involves cheese, charcuterie, and – wine!)
  • Visit the Pierres Dorées, its villages, and the medieval Château de Jarnioux

THE OCHRE HILLS OF ROUSSILLON

If you like the idea of ochre in the Pierres Dorées, you'll love the Ochre Trail in the village of Roussillon, in the Lubéron region of Provence.

The village has been home to a number of noted writers, which tells you something about its attraction, and lovely as it is, the village is not why we are here.

Near Roussillon are hills of the deepest ochre, an explosion of colour caused by iron oxide in the ground, which mixes with the local clay and sand. The area is sometimes known as the Colorado of Provence.

The ochre was mined commercially into the 20th century, with 20 plants in operation at its height. The trade died out with the advent of chemical dyes and today, a single plant produces ochre, mostly for use in fine arts. The scarring on the earth remains, however.

Ochre Trail - Roussillon in ProvenceYou'd think you were in another part of the world rather than in Provence, wouldn't you?

The ochre's when and why remain a bit mysterious, although there are, of course, some legends that surround it (as is the case in much of the Luberon). Here are two of the most common.

Way back when the gods ruled the earth, Titans tried to conquer Provence but were kept at bay by local populations. In retaliation, the Titans built a giant fire rocket in a cave. It spewed its fire upon Roussillon, leaving the ground a deep ochre. (You'll see the colour reflected on the walls of Roussillon as well.)

The other is a medieval legend that involves the Lady Sermonde, whose husband discovered she had a lover. He killed the lover, dismembered him, and cooked him up in a stew he served up to his wife. When she learned the truth, she threw herself from the cliffs of Roussillon. Since then, her blood has stained the hills.

Walking around these hills, I'd rather opt for the first legend...

The Ochre Trail is an easy and enchanting walk that takes you from the village through a former quarry and woods. Beware, though, there are plenty of steps so you must be able to climb them.

Remember, this is ochre, so try not to wear white – and don't try to take any ochre home with you. The authorities are strict! To avoid the crowds, skip summer but if you cannot, at least aim for sunset, when it's cooler and most people have gone home.

To reach Roussillon, the nearest train stations are in Apt or Cavaillon, and if you'd like to get a sense of what Roussillon was like before it became popular, read Village in the Vaucluse.

Top things to do in Roussillon

  • The Ochre Trail, of course, but also the Ochre Eco-Museum
  • Lavender fields right at the foot of the village
  • Drive to Gordes, one of the best-known hilltop villages, and visit the other spectacular villages of the Lubéron
  • The Roman Pont Julien nearby

medieval history in CATHAR COUNTRY

Evening view of Carcassonne in Cathar CountryCathar country: Carcassonne lit up at night

Cathar Country is not quite undiscovered France, but let's be hones, the bulk of visitors to southern France head for Provence or the Riviera. Still, the many novels set here are now making the region much more popular, so best visit sooner rather than later to get to know one of the country's most historically fascinating regions.

The Cathars were a purist Christian group active in the region around Carcassonne between the 12th-14th centuries. They were considered heretics by the Catholic Church and persecuted to the death by the Albigensian Crusade and the Inquisition, their faithful often burned at the stake.

To defend themselves, they built a series of fortresses, the ruins of which pepper the green hilltops of Cathar country, with winding rivers and rural scenery as a backdrop. The most prominent ruins include such well-known remnants as Lastours and Peyrepertuse, but the city of Carcassonne is the best-known Cathar stronghold.

Ruined fortress of Peyrepertuse, Cathar Country, FranceYou can imagine what Peyrepertuse looked like in its heyday

If you'd like to know more about the Cathars, here are some books, both historical and fiction. Or you can contact the local tourist office.

Top things to do in Cathar country

  • Explore the fortress city of Carcassonne and all the Cathar ruins nearby
  • Take a boat trip along the Canal du Midi
  • Visit the Archbishops' Palace in Narbonne
  • Stroll around the ancient and medieval village of Lagrasse
  • In winter, try some rib-sticking cassoulet stew

the camargue's pink flamingoes

Once you've seen the Camargue, you'll never forget it: wide stretches of empty sand, wildlife, the sound of flamenco guitars drifting through the gentle nights...

This area is much loved by the French but not that well known by foreign visitors. 

The Camargue is a massive wetland in the southwestern corner of Provence, around the mouth of the mighty Rhône River and dotted with ponds and lagoons. It is thick with wildlife, with wild horses and bulls living in freedom among the many bird species. If you ride horses, this is a wonderful place to let loose.

Pink flamingoes in the Camargue, FranceWildlife spotting in the Camargue - pink flamingoes are only the beginning

The highlight of wildlife spotting is without a doubt the overwintering pink flamingoes. Some of these flamingo "flamboyances" (yes, that's what you call a group of flamingoes) can number in the tens of thousands.

A wonderful place to spot wildlife is the Pont de Gau Ornithological Reserve, especially in the early evening, when the skies burst into oranges and pinks.

Or drive up and down the little roads of the Camargue around the town of Saintes Maries de la Mer. Each year, various groups of Roma converge here in May from all over Europe on a pilgrimage to venerate their Black Madonna, Sara.

The nearest city you can reach by train is Arles, from which you can catch a bus to Saintes Maries.

Top things to do in the Camargue

  • Gallop along the sand – you can rent horses from a 'manade', or local ranch
  • Stay in a Mas, a traditional farmhouse, and enjoy being serenaded by flamenco music in the evenings
  • Go wildlife spotting
  • Visit La Maison du Riz to find out about the wild rice of Camargue
  • See the Salin de Giraud salt flats
  • Go to the beach (some are 10km long!)
  • Explore the towns of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Aigues-Mortes, Arles

les gorges du tarn, wild and wonderful

The Tarn is Europe's longest and deepest gorge, located somewhere between Toulouse and Lyon and to the north of the Millau and its giant viaduct.

You can choose between enjoying the natural aspect of the gorges – the hiking, the mountain climbing, the canoeing or kayaking – or the culture and traditions of the area's picturesque villages, like Les Vignes (the vineyards) or Sainte-Enimie, listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France.

Wherever you turn in this stunning region, you'll be rewarded with spectacular views – and you'll be hard-pressed to run into a lot of other people. But this is rural and you will need a car.

Village Les Vignes, Gorges du Tarn, France
Road trip, Gorges du Tarn, FranceThe wild beauty of the Gorges du Tarn

Top things to do in the Gorges du Tarn

  • This is the place for outdoor activities: horseback riding, kayaking, hiking, mountain biking, canyoning, paragliding, climbing and the list goes on
  • Drive along the spectacular Gorges du Tarn route
  • Try some Roquefort in the town of the same name
  • Have a look at the Millau Viaduct, the tallest bridge in the world
  • Stop for lunch in Les Vignes or Ste Énimie

le pays basque, oh so different

You've probably heard and maybe even visited Spain's Basque country, but how well do you know France's? The entire Basque region has seven provinces, and three of those are in France.

The region has two environments. The first is coastal, with long sandy beaches and wild surf, which starts in the city of Bayonne and stretches all the way to the border with Spain.

Old Bayonne, Basque Country of FranceBeautiful old Basque houses of Bayonne

This is an area of sophisticated resorts and adorable fishing villages, all close enough to one another to visit them all. Saint-Jean-de-Luz is still an active fishing port but a historical important city − this is where Louis XIV married the Infanta Maria Teresa of Spain. In the city of Biarritz, you'll run into wealthy dowagers sharing park benches with barefoot surfers waiting for the next wave. This is the city made famous by Empress Eugénie, the wife of Napoleon III, who in the 19th century built a summer house there, attracting a large slice of European royalty.

The interior of the Basque country is utterly different, with its rolling green hills and its timbered Basque houses and unique culture.

Typical Basque house in Espelette, FranceTypical Basque house in the village of Espelette, with Espelette chillies hanging out to dry on the façades

This region's food is also special. You may have already run into Basque chefs in other parts of the world but they know their produce and their cooking and in a country known for its food, this region has some of the best. There is a special ham found nowhere else, Bayonne is known for its chocolates, the smoked Espelette chilli comes from the village of, well, Espelette, and I could go on about the food at the risk of having to pull out some cooking utensils and get to work.

Top things to do in the Basque country

  • Visit the villages of the interior (four of them carry the label Most Beautiful Villages of France)
  • Climb La Rhune mountain (and spot the wild pottok ponies), either on foot or by riding the little cog railway
  • Explore the delightful towns along the coast – Bayonne, Biarritz, St-Jean-de-Luz – or even walk between them
  • Go surfing (some of the best surfing in Europe)
  • Enjoy the region's wellness and spa facilities
  • Buy local handmade goods
  • Watch a game of pelote basque, Basque pelota, also known as jai alai

the forez: art and history and mountains

The Forez definitely qualifies as one of the non touristy places in France: it isn't near any highly frequented tourist spot and it is discreet, surprising and full of tradition.

The region is punctuated by plains (the Plaine du Forez)  that are bordered by mid-level mountains split wide open by deep gorges.

While nature here is striking, so is culture. The Forez is full of lovely villages and unusual museums that reflect old traditions fighting to survive, from hat making to cart building.

One of my favorite places in all of France is located here: the Bâtie d'Urfé, a 16th-century chateau in Saint-Étienne-le-Molard, which has a unique Renaissance grotto depicting gods made of sand and sea shells (the chateau itself is also quite a gem).

Grotto of the Batie d'Urfé, Forez region of FranceThe unique Renaissance grotto of the Bâtie d'Urfé

The Forez is in the Loire département, but not the same Loire as the one with the chateaux − this is département number 42. (France can be confusing − I can think of a dozen places called Loire!)

A good base is Montbrison, a small but attractive town that holds France's prettiest market.

Top things to do in the Forez

  • The market of Montbrison (and try the Fourme, its specialty blue cheese)
  • Visit the Gorges of the Loire by boat
  • The Bâtie d'Urfé, both the château and its grotto
  • The two medieval fortresses of Saint-Just Saint-Rambert 
  • The Château de la Roche in Saint Priest la Roche
  • Some very cool villages – Sainte Croix en Jarez, Ambierle, St Haon le Châtel, Charlieu
  • Drink the naturally bubbly Badoit water in Saint Galmier (it flows from a fountain and you can fill a bottle a day)

puy de dôme: for volcano lovers

Do you like volcanoes?

If you do, the Puy de Dôme awaits. It's not very far from the Forez and it, too, is definitely Frace off the beaten track.

If you look across the perfectly aligned chain of dormant volcanoes that make up the Chaîne des Puys, you'll wonder if you're even in France – but then, diversity is the one constant in this country, isn't it?

This is ideal hiking territory, whether from the bottom of the volcano to the top or, for the less athletic, from the final stop of the little train you can ride from Orcines – you still have to hike but only for 15 minutes as opposed to 1.5 hours. Choose one of two paths to walk all the way up, the Chemin des Muletiers (Mule Trail) or the Chemin des Chèvres (Goat Trail).

Puy de Dôme volcanoes, FranceNear-lunar landscapes in the Puy de Dôme

Once at the top, you'll spot the Temple of Mercury, one of France's many Gallo-Roman ruins, which sits incongruously next to a modern microwave relay station. A highly criticized restoration project partially conceals the ruins behind a modern wall, adding to the science-fiction like aura of the site.

To fully satisfy your volcano fetish, drop by Vulcania, a theme park entirely dedicated to volcanoes.

You can reach Clermont-Ferrand by train, and in summer there's a shuttle to the volcano, but again, you'll be better off with your own vehicle. For transportation options, get in touch the tourist office.

Top things to do in Puy de Dôme

  • Hike up to the top
  • Explore its extensive religious heritage – Notre-Dame-du-Port Basilica  and Notre-Dame de l'Assomption in Clermont-Frerrand, the Basilica in Orcival, Saint-Austremoine Abbey in Issoire...
  • Château de Tournoël in Volvic (home of the famous water)
  • Saint-Nectaire (church and cheese!)
  • Take the waters at Chatel-Guyon

the jura mountains

View from Pays de Gex, Jura Mountains, FranceLooking outward from the Jura, we can see Lake Geneva below and the Mont Blanc in the distance

If you're a downhill skier and visit France in winter, there's every chance you'll head straight for the Alps. But if you're a cross-country enthusiast, or a snowshoer, then the Jura Mountains are for you – lower, flatter, with wide open spaces and far fewer people.

The Jura goes well beyond skiing, with several beautiful villages, unusual museums (toys, eyeglasses, pipes and the Laughing Cow, to name just a few). The region is also home to wonderful cheeses, including my all-time favourite, Comté, quite mild when it's young but powerful when it's aged. It also produces the famous Vin Jaune, or yellow wine.

The scenery is nordic, or Canadian, as you wish, as you make your way through the trees and along mountain lakes, the perfect outdoor experience in a beautiful, quiet setting. The easiest way to get here is through Switzerland, from Geneva. But... you'll need a car!

Top things to do in the Jura

  • Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in winter, hiking in summer
  • Taste the cheese: Comté (my favourite) but also Morbier and Bleu de Gex
  • Try the Vin d'Arbois (my friend Wink Lorch wrote this great book on Jura Wine)
  • Relax and hike around some great waterfalls (Tufs, Hérisson), wonderful villages (Baume-les-Messieurs and Château-Chalon) and historical towns (Dôle, Orgelet)

hidden france: beaches of the cotentin

Biville Beach, Cotentin, FranceThe beaches of the Cotentin are huge and often empty

If you visit the Cotentin, you'll definitely be going off the beaten path. Travel to the Cotentin peninsula in Normandy means being surrounded by magnificent beaches, some of the most beautiful in France and far less crowded than most, with wide expanses of fine sand and striking natural scenery. While everyone you know rushes south to the Riviera, you can laze around on stretches of near-empty sands...

Here are just a few of the best Cotentin beaches:

  • Biville, with its huge sand dunes
  • Sciotot, an unending length of yellow sand
  • Surtainville, even longer
  • Portbail, one of the loveliest villages
  • Jonville, the prettiest beach you'll find on the east coast (the ones above are all on the western side)

Of course this being Normandy, you can also look forward to wonderful dairy products, seafood and plenty of history. 

The train will get you as far as Cherbourg but after that, you'll need a car.

Portbail Village, Cotentin, FrancePortbail, in the Cotentin

Top things to do in the Cotentin

  • Go to the beach, of course!
  • Visit Cherbourg and enjoy its maritime history
  • Utah Beach and other D-Day landing areas (and military cemeteries)
  • Eat plenty of seafood and dairy
  • See Barfleur (some say it is France's prettiest village)
  • Take a day trip to the Channel Islands

le bassin d'arcachon: SEA and oysters

At the other tip of western France, the Atlantic beaches continue with the Bassin d'Arcachon. Parts of this region may not exactly qualify as 'off the beaten path', especially the Dune du Pilat, Europe's highest.

But you might not be familiar with the tiny villages that dot the edges of Arcachon Bay, some of them fishing in the same way they have for centuries.

There's plenty to see here.

Cap Ferret, Bassin d'Arcachon, France
Oyster platter from the Bay of Arcachon, FranceOysters of the Bassin d'Arcachon, both in their crates, and on the platter!

You've got Cap Ferret, with its lighthouse (and breathtaking view if you can haul yourself the 258 steps to the top).

And I love l'Herbe, a picturesque village filled with oyster farmers – and plenty of opportunities to sample the local produce. Try La Baraque à Huitres, Émile et Une Huitres, or Ô Canelon.

While you're around Cap Ferret, you can take in an uncommon but delightful sight: the Algerian chapel, the last thing you'd expect to find here. Read more about it on Instagram by clicking on the photo below.

It may have been a private chapel, but townspeople were allowed to attend services here because the nearest 'real' church was a dangerous boat ride away...

The chapel may make you feel you've left the country, but the oysters will bring you right back.

You can get here by bus from Bordeaux but it takes forever – plus you'll need a car to get around from village to village. 

Top things to do in the Bassin d'Arcachon

  • Eat oysters
  • Climb the Dune du Pilat (some people spell it Pyla – that is wrong; the dune happens to be in the town of Pyla sur Mer but does not take its spelling)
  • Go to the beach
  • Take a boat trip around the lake and see the famous houses on stilts, the maisons tchanquées
  • Stroll around Cap Ferret, Canon and l'Herbe
  • Eat more oysters

corsica: one of the most offbeat places in France?

Trips to Corsica are hugely popular among the French, especially to visit the coastal capitals of Ajaccio and Bastia. But what of the Corsican interior?

This wild land of rugged mountains and perched villages is French, with an Italianate twist that makes it uniquely Corsican. 

This is a trip for road lovers, for whom twisty mountain driving is more pleasure than pain – it's really the only way to explore the island's interior.

Monte Cinto, CorsicaMonte Cinto in the distance

Once here, you can climb Mount Cinto, the 'roof of Corsica' – only for the hardy, with its 12km trail and 2700m altitude, which will take you two days there and back or, more accessibly, Lake Nino, one of Corsica's most beautiful (keep your eye out for some wild horses).

The interior is home to lovely, traditional villages – Sartène, Moncale, Calacuccia, Corte... and many more, too many to list. This wild scenery is unlike what you'll see on the mainland, and you can roam around much of the interior without bumping into busloads of tourists.

Village of Corte, Corsica, FranceThe perched village of Corte in Corsica

Top things to do in Corsica's interior

  • Drive, and stop. Take a deep breath. Rinse and repeat.
  • Head for the mountains and their picturesque villages
  • Be surprised by the beauty of Scandola Nature Reserve
  • Visit the prehistoric ruins of Filitosa
  • Try some Corsican culinary specialties: brocciu cheese, prisuttu ham, anything with chestnuts, and Corsican wine

i'd love to have your comments!

Traveling off the beaten path in France is rewarding and eye-opening, and if you can point me towards places that aren't overcrowded and that I should explore, please do! Or simply tell me what you think of the ones above.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

  • Some of these areas can be reached by train or bus, which you can reserve here.
  • Most areas are rural, however, so you may need to rent a car. Click here to compare car rental prices.

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