discover rural france

where to go???

The thing about France is, well, there's a lot of it, and it might well turn into the most unsatisfying and potentially expensive mistake you make if you try to do too much in one trip. Because there are so many regional and local identities and cultures, you can construct visits around simple themes and specific areas.

Long before you arrive, however, do have some idea of where you are going, what it is you want to see, and, most importantly of all, don't try to cram too much into one in a bit of slack, and save a little bit of time for that serendipitous opportunity that pops up around the next corner. There is just no fun charging about like a headless chicken, and quite a lot to be said for parking your bum and ordering a glass of wine...or coffee...or...whatever.

Arguably, there are six main areas of France that pull in the tourists. You might want to follow suit; then again, if you're happy enough to brave the unexpected, then you might want to avoid these: Paris, the Alps, Provence and the French Riviera, Languedoc-Roussillon, the Loire valley, and Brittany. Now, I'm not saying you should never enjoy these fabulous destinations, on the contrary. But be open to the alternatives...and there are many of those. 

If you want to escape the urban life and seek out rural peace and quiet, almost any part of France will have something to offer, but there are areas that are more out-of-the-way, more rural, and less populated. In particular, there is a large swathe of France, running from the Belgian border in the north-east, to the Pyrenees in the south-west that contains plenty of open spaces, and ample opportunity for walking, cycling, horse riding and other outdoor and adventure activities. Consider these:

North-eastern France

In the northeast, there is the Ardennes, with its forests, and the open spaces of Champagne and Lorraine, rolling pastoral landscapes that have seen significant depopulation over the last hundred years. In the northern part of Burgundy, between Paris and Dijon, lie the Morvan hills, heavily wooded in parts, and popular area with weekend walkers.

The Massif Central

The Massif Central embraces some of the emptiest parts of France, including large parts of the Auvergne and Limousin, as well as the northern reaches of the Midi-Pyrénées, the northern parts of Languedoc, and the west of the Rhone-Alpes region. Many long-distance walking trails cross this area, passing through some pretty wild and desolate areas, such as the barren limestone Causses in the departments of Lozère and Aveyron, the granite-dominated Aubrac in the middle (Aveyron and Cantal), and the Chaîne des Puys (volcanic uplands running through the Puy-de-Dome, Cantal, Haute-Loire and Ardèche departments). This is a beautiful part of France, perfect for those who relish wide open spaces.

Gascony and the Pyrenees

Toulouse is a place not to be missed, but to the south of the city the rolling countryside of Gascony rises to meld into the foothills of the Pyrenees and the high Pyrenees beyond. The Pyrenean foothills feature wooded, steep-sided valleys, and offer many opportunities for walking. The high Pyrenees, by contrast, soar to over 3,000 metres, offering high-mountain terrain, and plenty of trails (Grandes Randonées), including many suitable only for experienced mountaineers.

The Alps

To the east of the Rhone valley lie the French Alps and their acolytes, the Vercors and Bugey. This is a place of outstanding mountain scenery, from the dry terrain of the Verdon area of Provence, to the snow-capped domes of Mont Blanc. Many areas of the Alps have been heavily developed for winter sports,  but away from the ski resorts, there are hundreds of square kilometres of untamed hill and mountain, well equipped with marked walking trails, linking valley to valley, or village to village. The high Alps are home to two of France's  best-known national parks, le Mercantour and les Ecrins.

North of the Alps, running up the northern side of the border with Switzerland, the Jura mountains in the Franche Comté region offer another large mountainous area, characterised by spruce forests and meadows, as well as lakes and streams.

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