My last four weeks were spent travelling across France, from Biarritz to Nice, by train, car and bicycle. During that time I’ve explored villages, cities and national parks, and crossed paths with an awful lot of locals. Here’s what I learnt.
1. Restaurants open when they feel like it
Forget those advertised opening hours – they are a very rough guide. Restaurants, bars and cafes roll up the shutters, it appears, only after exhausting all other options. Expect disappointment if you turn up hoping for sustenance on Sundays, Mondays, between the hours of 2pm and 7pm, on anything that resembles a public holiday, or simply when the owner is celebrating a friend’s birthday or nursing a hangover after too much Ricard.
Take my two-wheeled slog to a rain-lashed Col du Tourmalet, the most famous mountain pass in the Pyrenees. I battled the elements, and the devilishly steep final stretch, knowing sanctuary awaited at the top in the shape of a cafe serving chocolat chaud. Except it didn’t, because it was fermé (the owner had presumably decided to visit an aunt, go fishing and/or observe de Gaulle’s birthday, rather than earn a small fortune overcharging exhausted cyclists during the peak summer season). Cue a freezing descent and a lot of muttered insults.
2. And they don’t like vegetarians
For the first week of my one-month sojourn I rode from Biarritz to Perpignan in the capable hands of cycling tour operator Bike Basque. Our route took us through some of France’s most spectacular mountainscapes, over climbs made famous by the Tour de France, with stops at characterful hotels in charming towns like Barcus, Saint-Girons and Ax-les-Thermes. After a long day in the saddle, evenings are all about addressing a calorie deficit. For my sins, however, I’m a vegetarian – a lifestyle choice provincial France, even in 2019, does not appear to recognise. Menus offer a bewildering variety of slaughtered animals: duck, cow, pig, lamb, chicken, bream, lobster… but, as often as not, nary a single option for my ilk, barring a side salad. So I’d be forced to request something special… and inevitably be presented with an omelette. Heaven knows what vegans are offered. Two side salads?
3. But there is pizza
While the majority of restaurants consider vegetarians a nuisance, if at all, there is usually another option. Pizza. The French are obsessed with it. Almost every single town or village, large or small, rural or suburban, has a pizzeria. It’s a curious love affair that goes against the idea that the French embrace only their own cuisine – but sort of makes sense in a country whose greatest culinary achievements involve bread and cheese.
4. The French Basque country deserves more tourists
Biarritz gets a fair few, and last weekend it welcomed world leaders for the 45th annual G7 summit. The city is enchanting, with its Belle Époque villas, sandy beaches, surfers and cider. But head inland and you’ll find villages and landscapes yet to be discovered by mass tourism. On our meandering journey across the region we even found a contender for the world’s most picturesque border crossing: the Izpegi Pass, where horses roam and distant peaks reach for the heavens.
5. The Ariège is wonderfully backwards and very beautiful
Perhaps backwards isn’t quite the right word, but this rural department in the Pyrenean foothills certainly offers a little of ‘La France profonde’. The village square of Massat, with its creaking antiques shops, looks like something from the 19th century, particularly on market day, and atop the Col de Portet d’Aspet I met a friendly farmer with a pet crow.
Most cycling tourists eschew it in favour of the Hautes-Pyrénées, with its bigger and more famous peaks like the Tourmalet and the Aubisque, but it rewards those who reach it. The view from the top of the Col de Port is staggering, and the Route des Corniches, from Bompas to the Col de Marmare, is an utterly beguiling stretch of road.
6. Circuses are still a thing
Speaking of backwards... I can’t recall the last time I saw evidence of a traditional circus in Britain, and earlier this year the Government (belated) called time on the use of animals in the few that do still operate. But during my four weeks in France I encountered two by the side of the road, complete with grazing camels (presumably the big cats were locked up inside), and spotted flyers for dozens more. It’s utterly bizarre. Apparently this outdated form of entertainment is even more popular during the festive season. The French really aren’t sentimental about animals (bar the odd pampered crow).
7. There’s a little slice of Mexico
The town of Barcelonnette, nestled in the glorious Ubaye Valley in the southern French Alps, is your archetypal mountain town, all craggy backdrops and hiking shops – but with a curious twist. For a few weeks every August it celebrates its unlikely links with Mexico. Colourful bunting goes up, vendors flog tacos and sombreros, and mariachi musicians take to the stage in its handsome main square. It goes back to the 19th century, when the local textile manufacturers started trading with, and flocking to, the Central American country. It’s reckoned there are now up to 60,000 Ubaye descendants in Mexico. Fortunately my visit coincided with this vibrant and surprising festival. Next year’s dates will be announced in the coming months.
8. Provence is the world’s greatest region
Hands down. Better than Yorkshire, Tuscany and Andalusia combined. Many of you will know this already. Immortalised by artists, authors and expats like the late Peter Mayle, it has been favoured by Britons for decades. But the sheer wealth of epic landscapes, stunning villages, seductive cities and world-beating food and wine cannot be understated. There are colossal alpine peaks, fields of lavender, magnificent hilltop villages and flocks of pink flamingos. There are vineyards, abbeys, Roman ruins and dramatic calanques. There’s Avignon, Nimes, Arles and Marseilles. The Promenade des Anglais and the Cours Mirabeau. The Verdon Gorge will leave you speechless. Mont Ventoux will leave you breathless. Best of all, it’s closer than you think. Eurostar offers direct services to Avignon from May until mid-September, cutting journey times to the region to less than six hours (after mid-September a change of trains is required in Paris).
9. There’s more than one gorge
Verdon is unreal, but there are other canyons you’ve probably not heard of, such as the Gorges du Bachelard, to the south of Barcelonnette, and the rust-coloured Gorges de Daluis, just beyond it. The former can be admired by those who tackle the Ubaye Valley’s “Les 3 Cols”, a stupendously beautiful loop involving the Col de la Cayolle, the Col des Champs and Col d’Allos.
10. Nearly everyone smokes
Statistics suggest that the French puff their way through 1,090 cigarettes per capita per year, only slightly more than the 828 us Britons manage. Perhaps it’s because smoking is still permitted on France’s restaurant terraces, but when you’re on the ground it feels like far more partake of this unhealthy habit.
11. There’s somewhere even more crowded than Venice
Les Baux-de-Provence is a stunner: a knot of medieval stone, including the ruins of a castle, atop a hill affording fabulous views across Provence, all the way to the Med. But it’s a theme park. Around 1.5m tourists lay siege to it every year, turning the roads that lead to it into a giant three-pronged car park. All but 22 of the old town’s residents have now moved out, making the visitor-to-local ratio a remarkable 68,182:1. Even Venice and Dubrovnik can’t match that.
12. But no nation has finer villages
Some, like Les Baux-de-Provence, have been lost to tourism. But many have retained their authentic character. I stayed at a quirky Airbnb in Goult. The village sits in the heart of the Luberon but remains under the radar compared to the likes of Gordes and Roussillon. There are tourists, certainly (I spotted a certain Philip Hammond, MP for Runnymede and Weybridge, when I was there), but its clutch of restaurants, bustling cafe, boucherie, fromagerie and epicerie, exist to serve residents too. At its summit is a pretty windmill, usually deserted, beyond which you’ll find the remains of ancient agricultural terraces. It’s an absolute find, but don’t tell everyone.
13. Tourtour is a wonder
I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more at peace than during the two hours I whiled away reading a book at a cafe in Tourtour’s magnificent main square. Shaded by a row of plane trees, with a trickling fountain and filled with chirruping birds. One beer soon turned into three. The village in the Haut-Var is heaven on Earth.
14. The trains work
Well, all except for the hour I spent stuck outside Lille on my final hop back to Blighty (a fire near the track, apparently). Every other journey I took involved punctuality, a seat, and working air con and power sockets. I even managed to ride the rails to Nice (take note, Harry and Meghan).
15. Nice should be avoided in summer
While we’re on the subject of Nice – it’s hellish in high season. Hot, humid, crowded, clogged with cars. The beach was jam-packed with sweaty bathers. Head for the hills and you’ll escape a little of the heat and all of the sunseekers. The roads that tackle the peaks behind the Cote d’Azur contain more hairpins per square mile than anywhere else on the planet (probably). Catnip for cyclists.
16. Juan-les-Pins has gone downhill since Peter Sarstedt’s day
Don’t go expecting the sort of chic resort referenced in the crooner’s 1969 hit Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)? It’s become something of an eyesore in recent years. Try Antibes or Menton instead.
17. They love cyclists
I pedalled around 1,000 miles during my month in France, and recall just one close pass and none of the verbal abuse drivers subject cyclists to in the UK. What’s more, authorities sometimes close popular roads to motor vehicles entirely. The Col d’Allos, for example, is reserved for cyclists from 8am-11am every Friday in summer. Such is the respect the French have for the lycra-clad folk Britons love to hate.
What do you love and hate about France? Which is your favourite town or region? Tell us using the comment box below.