Winning tip: Saint-Nectaire: picnic paradise, Puy-de-Dôme
I really loved the tranquility of Saint-Nectaire. The local cheese is enough to put it on any list, but there are also forest trails, grottos, a spa, and an 11th-century mountain church. It’s also a great base for exploring the Puys, but you can have a picnic (remember the cheese!) We stayed at the family-run Hotel Regina (double rooms from 65 € B&B), where our bathroom was in a tower.
Brouage – a magnificent citadel south of La Rochelle
Brouage is a fortified, star-shaped and former coastal village in the Charente-Maritime region. The old battlements and the eight meter high walls invite you to explore for hours and give a wide view of the surrounding salt marshes (the sea is around 3 km away today). The pretty village feels like a Roman camp; a network of streets lined with hollyhocks holds the picturesque church of St. Peter and St. Paul with a model boat hanging from the ceiling; The quirky Musée du Vélo is now a must for bike enthusiasts. A lazy lunch in the green garden of La Conserverie is recommended for a bit of shade, followed by a lot more games with “archers” in the watchtowers on the hill citadel Walls.
Medieval water magic, L’Isle sur la Sorgue, Provence
This is a very pretty little town about 30 km east of Avignon. Close to other, perhaps more famous, Luberon hotspots like Ménerbes, Cavaillon and Gordes, it has its own medieval charm as it was built on islands in the middle of five arms of the Sorgue River. Stroll through the compact center, stroll the Waterwheel Circuit (there are about 15 water wheels around the village), check out the impressive Baroque church, or just enjoy a morning coffee or pastis at lunchtime in a waterfront café. Sunday is flea market day and bartering is the norm.
Champagne and Chocolate, Troyes
Troyes, a little-known medieval gem of a town in the Grand-Est, is full of beautiful half-timbered houses, narrow cobbled streets and magnificent churches. Troyes, once the capital of Champagne, is a great base from which to visit the famous Champagne vineyards in the surrounding countryside. In town, Aux Crieurs de Vins is one of several great places to try some fizz. Cellier Saint Pierre by the cathedral is a good place to pick up a few bottles of regional Plonk. The well-respected master chocolatier Pascal Caffet sells his exquisite confections in the heart of the ancient city. Look out for excellent restaurants and cafes along the canal that runs through the city center, and discover sculptures, art galleries, and quirky museums. Particularly noteworthy is the Museum of Modern Art. It is only 90 minutes by train from Paris Gare de l’Est.
No gasoline, but delicious cheese, Bain-de-Bretagne, Bretagne
I discovered Bain-de-Bretagne by chance when I ran out of fuel on the drive south from Rennes to Nantes. A humble town in the lush Brittany countryside, there are bakeries with pain aux raisin that are so good that I diverted them on my way home. There is a lovely village square with geraniums and tables outside to eat and relax with friends and an old church. It’s sleepy, leafy, and lusciously bucolic. I discovered a cream with cheese wrapped in wild flowers and a vinotheque with a large selection and even better advice. There is a small night market if you want to cook at home. I often dreamed of this in the gloomy winter of 2020/21. I’m going back soon.
Take the Roman Road to Narbonne, Occitania
We arrived in Narbonne for an afternoon excursion from Béziers (only 12 minutes by train) and stayed for three days. Then there will be plenty of time to explore the Palais Vieux, Palais Neuf, and the 13th-century Saint-Just et Saint-Pasteur Cathedral. Don’t miss the section of the Roman Road that has been preserved in the center of the Place de l’Hotel de Ville. There are plenty of restaurants along the Canal de la Robine, but our highlight was bustling Les Halles, where we managed to squeeze into a side table at Les Tapas de la Clape for great seafood, wine, and coffee. For accommodation we stumbled across the Hotel La Résidence (double room from 80 € B&B), which unexpectedly offered us a breathtaking view of the cathedral. Don’t miss any of it.
High up on the city walls, Montreuil-sur-Mer, Pas-de-Calais
The Wallweg, which circles the town of Montreuil-sur-Mer, stands out for me not least because of the sometimes rather steep descents, but also because of the wide view over the landscape and the city itself. I also enjoyed strolling the cobbled streets with their charming buildings and exploring the citadel. About an hour’s drive from Calais was once a port town before the mouth of the Canche silted up and declared the “sur-mer”. Victor Hugo used the city as a backdrop in Les Misérables – every summer, Son et Lumière shows are staged in the citadel that celebrate this connection.
Culture swarm, Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, Burgundy
Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye in Burgundy, the birthplace of the writer Colette, is the village I often return to to recharge my batteries amid forests, lakes and castles. A colorful market town with various artists, galleries, funky bars, theaters, film evenings, music events, court exhibitions, a writer’s festival, even a British tea room. History buffs must see Guédelon, a 13th century castle. Visit La Poeterie, a sculpture garden with concerts and a herd of deer. I spend long summers swimming in Lac du Bourdon and eating Belgian-style fries while the sun goes down. Two hours from Paris, to quote the real estate agents, it’s the place.
I love Cahors, Occitania
Nestled in a meander of the Lot River, Cahors is protected by the limestone cliffs of the causes (bluffs). Medieval half-timbered buildings delight the eye, whether on foot or by tourist train; a secret garden path steeped in the folklore of the area starts with a vineyard at the medieval bridge Pont Valentré, seen from land or a boat trip, it is a worthy one Step further pilgrimage route to Santiago de Campostela. Dine at the Petite Auberge for hearty local cuisine and local Vin Rouge, and watch out for the exposed staircase next to it.
Hooray for Auray, Brittany
I found the town of Auray, about 100 km northwest of Nantes, a lovely place to stay and the perfect base from which to explore the stunning south coast of Brittany. Market day on Monday is really busy with stalls full of local products in the main square. It is also close to beautiful beaches as well as the Neolithic sites around Carnac. The port of the city of Saint-Goustan is picturesque by day and magical by night when the street lamps are reflected on the old bridge over the river. We really enjoyed the simple food in the quayside and cobblestone restaurants – Crêperie La Goustanaise was our favorite – which served delicious, inexpensive galettes (hearty stuffed crpes) and Breton cider.