Gillian Thornton shares six of her all-time French favourites
Now that borders have opened up again, I can’t wait to get back across the Channel and head for some of my favourite French holiday destinations. Still not decided where to go? Let me give you a few ideas:
The Pink Granite Coast of beautiful Brittany
Earlier this summer, I should have spent a relaxing week in a holiday villa at Perros-Guirec on the north coast of Brittany, our first three-generational family holiday by the sea. I have always loved Brittany – so like Cornwall in scenery and independent spirit – but so undeniably French in atmosphere and lifestyle with its traditional music, culture and language. An easy drive from the Brittany Ferries terminals at Saint-Malo or Roscoff, the pretty harbour town of Perros-Guirec is located on The Pink Granite coast, famous for its rock formations, sandy beaches, and for the Customs Path along the shoreline, just perfect for that sunset stroll or early morning amble. So I’ll definitely be booking again for next summer and looking forward to an authentic taste of the French seaside and some plates of fabulous Breton seafood. Maybe best to keep the toddler off the cider though!
Island life on the Ile de Ré
The hollyhocks blooming in my Home Counties garden are a happy reminder of trips to the Ile de Ré, just off the French Atlantic coast north of La Rochelle, and accessible by toll bridge. Some 30km in length but just 5km across at the widest point, this magical holiday island is nicknamed The White Island for the extensive salt marshes that fringe the north-west coast and for its gleaming whitewashed houses. Amongst its ten villages are two classified amongst The Most Beautiful Villages in France – Ars-en-Ré (yes, really!) and La Flotte. Largest community on the island is the small town of St-Martin-de-Ré. Here, on the ramparts designed by Vauban, Louis XIV’s military engineer, you might see Les Anes en Culottes, the famous Donkeys in Trousers. Today these local Poitou donkeys are just a picturesque tourist attraction, but their jolly striped pyjamas were highly functional, designed to protect their long chocolate-brown coats from salt and insects when working on the salt pans.
Soak up that Riviera buzz
Some of the most famous names in seaside chic stretch along the Mediterranean coastline from Cassis and Bandol in the west to Menton and Monaco in the east. If you like to watch people – or want people to watch you – this is the place to come, and not just in summer. The mild winters make the French Riviera – or Côte d’Azur, into a holiday destination for all seasons with a wealth of cultural attractions to choose from, as well as colourful street festivals. Nice Carnival takes place from 13 to 27 February 2021 with the theme King of the Animals, and Menton’s Lemon Festival, bursts into an explosion of scent and colour from 13 February to 2 March. Or how about the April garden festival at towns all along the coast. Need an art fix? Look out for reproductions of famous paintings by some of the world’s most popular artists, and stand at the spots where Monet, Boudin and their mates placed their easels. And don’t miss the museums dedicated to Matisse and Chagall in Nice, and to Picasso in Antibes.
House envy along the Loire – and the Loir!
Even if you’ve never been to the Loire Valley, you’ll be familiar with the flamboyant Renaissance chateaux that liberally dot the countryside around France’s longest river. Big hitters include the Royal Chateau at Blois, home to generations of French kings; François I’s hunting palace at Chambord with its vast park; and Villandry with its world-famous formal gardens that combine flowers, fruit and vegetables. And who can resist Chenonceau with its elegant arches spanning the river Cher. But take time to discover some of the less high profile but equally enchanting properties too. I’ve a real soft spot for Cheverny, inspiration for Captain Haddock’s family pile in Hergé’s adventures of Tintin, and for the turreted castle of Rivau with its fairytale-themed gardens. And don’t ignore the Loir Valley to the north – Le Loir as opposed to the La Loire – which never attracted Renaissance royalty but still boasts some hugely desirable and historic properties. You can visit or even stay over in more than140 of them. I can recommend the imposing Château du Lude, still lived in by the Count and Countess of Nicolay, and Château de Bazouges, medieval in origin and also lived in by the owners.
Auvergne – land of the volcanoes
Oh to be back in Auvergne where, last summer, I meandered along quiet roads, turning off periodically to right and left to visit some of France’s most enchanting villages and small towns, all against a background of volcanic peaks. The first natural site in mainland France to be granted UNESCO World Heritage status, the Chaîne des Puys runs for 45km from north to south, west of Clermont-Ferrand, a paradise for walkers, cyclists, and anyone who just loves dramatic scenery. And to the east of those distinctive conical peaks, I found medieval villages like Montpeyroux and Usson, classified amongst Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, and small towns like Issoire and Brioude, both listed amongst Michelin’s 100 Best Detours in France and boasting outstanding Romanesque churches. Saint-Austremoine at Issoire was built from multi-coloured stone and boasts a stunning interior. painted in geometric patterns in the 19th century, whilst Saint-Julien Basilica in Brioude combines vibrant medieval frescoes with mosaic floors created with smooth pebbles from the nearby river Allier. A region where geology can be enjoyed indoors as well as out!
I’ve fallen in love with many of the world’s islands over the years, but if I could only ever visit one of them, it would always be Corsica, known throughout France as the ‘Ile de Beauté’. And what beauty! Azure seas and golden beaches, dense green forests and bold red rocks. The colours are as overwhelming as the history. Many nations have invaded Corsica over the years and taken it as their own, but five centuries of Genoese rule have given this Mediterranean stunner a distinctly Italian air. The island was ceded to Louis XV of France in 1768 and Napoleon Bonaparte was born here in Ajaccio, narrowly missing out on Italian citizenship. Visit his birthplace and follow the trail round his Imperial city; discover the magic of rural prehistoric settlements; and explore lofty perched villages. Want to soak up the great outdoors? Then hike the coastal paths and mountain trails; take a boat trip into a UNESCO biosphere; or just chill on a quiet Corsican beach. Whatever you want in an island, Corsica has it and much, much more.