European Detour: France

By Gabriel Power | 09 Mar 2021 | Culture, Indulge, Travel

Five exclusive destinations for those looking to go against the grain and avoid the crowds

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With international travel now a very real possibility in 2021 after a lengthy delay, holidaymakers are already gearing up to take to the European mainland for the post-pandemic trip of a lifetime. But if the glitz and glam of the continent's iconic cities or the chaos of its tourist-thronged beaches is a somewhat off-putting prospect for you, why not explore some of the lesser-known corners of Europe away from the crowds? In our brand-new online-only series European Detour, Tempus explores the most spectacular regions, cities and sights in each of the continent's most popular countries for holidaymakers. In this instalment we take a road trip to the sample the provincial charm available in all corners of France...

Usually, when one thinks of French destinations, the mind is drawn to the cultural capital of Paris, the sun-kissed glamour of the French Riviera, or the wine regions of Bordeaux and Champagne. But the true glamour of France often lies in its less-explored regions, from the rustic charms of Normandy to hidden realms within Provence, to the unique gastronomic delights of Toulouse and the re-emerging Basque region. 

Here, we gather five of our favourite recommendations for escaping the tourist crowds or city rush to rediscover some of the diverse strands of France’s cultures and history. 

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French Basque country lies near the Spanish border, and constitutes the regions of Labourd, Lower Navarre and Soule. The region’s fascinating history has been influenced by the recurring French-Spanish conflicts of the 1500-1650s through to the French Revolution. The independent region was off limits to tourists through much of the 1970s-1990s due to protest and paramilitary action, but now this picturesque part of the world is enjoying a renaissance of luxury hotels, gastronomy and activities to delight travellers from the Bay of Biscay to the foothills of the Pyrénées.

La Réserve Saint-Jean-de-Luz is one such hotel, offering idyllic sea views and known for its creative cuisine using local produce, from fresh fish and meats to delicacies such as pintxos (Basque tapas), sheep’s cheese, ciders and txakoli (sparkling wine). The seaside town’s narrow streets and lively harbour are the quintessential Basque port town – and was a glitzy seaside resort for UK travellers in the 19th-century. Along the coast, surfing towns and fishing ports offer plenty of activities for visitors, while culture vultures can visit Bayonne in July for the region’s biggest cultural fair. 

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Further inland and east of the Basque Region is Toulouse, the unofficial capital of Occitan culture. The fourth largest city in France, Toulouse is the home of the European aerospace industry and the largest space centre on the continent (the CNES created the SuperCam for NASA’s Mars Perseverance Rover), as well as one of Europe’s oldest universities. Known as the Pink City for its unique terracotta architecture, the Roman city is one of the country’s most dynamic – yet rarely tops the tourism lists. 

As well as it’s ancient culture, Toulouse is emerging as an impressive gastronomic destination, with specialities including Saucisse de Toulouse, cassoulet Toulousain, and garbure, a cabbage soup with poultry. 2021 will also see the launch of a new music festival – Rose Festival – come to Toulouse in September, launched by French rappers Big Flo & Oli.

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Vaucluse combines the very best of the south-eastern region of France, close to Provence, the Côte d’Azur and Occitan regions alike. Its picturesque mountains, rivers, valleys, and fort towns make it a dreamy location for explorers and photographers – the village of Gordes is said to be the most beautiful village in France. 

To explore the region, the village of Crillon-Le-Brave is home to a five-star hideaway in the form of Hotel & Spa Crillon Le Brave. Located in the medieval village itself, the hotel is spread over 10 17th-18th-century houses surrounding an ancient olive tree. Secret passages and panoramic terraces of lavender fields and rolling hills abound in the hill-top village, while restaurants offer a blend of Provence market produce and Mediterranean-style cuisine. 

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While many wine enthusiasts will travel to France for the Bordeaux or Champagne regions, we recommend Cognac as your next port of call for an indulgent journey. Known for its fine wine and brandy, Cognac’s medieval old town, Vieux Cognac, is home to fascinating architecture – including historic sculptures of salamanders and gargoyles – and situated on one of the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela. The appellation region is also, of course, home to the best cognac houses and vineyards. 

Enjoy your stay in luxury at destinations like the 19th century Hôtel Chais Monnet & Spa – the only five star hotel in the region – surrounded by 400 cognac houses, including rapper Jay-Z’s own cognac maison. Explore the world of cognac from the hotel bar, Le 1838, which stocks an enormous selection of single batch and limited edition Cognacs. The hotel's fine dining restaurant, Les Foudres, has just been awarded a Michelin Star to complete the experience. 

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In the north of France, Normandy is perhaps best known for its prominence during the World Wars, as the location one of the most dramatic battles of British military history: the Second World War’s D-Day landings. But for modern visitors, the region is an atmospheric destination, from its misty mornings to the rustic charm of its villages. 

In the heart of the Normandy countryside, Les Manoirs de Tourgéville is a hotel in a world of its own, resting in seven hectares of verdant parkland but offering easy access to the famous boardwalk planches of Deauville and the romantic Honfleur harbour of the Côte Fleurie – the flowery coast. The Belle Epoque architecture and stunning flora and fauna are great attractions for families and couples seeking a relaxed trip where they can indulge in slow travel along the French coastline. 

Read our previous entries in the European Detour series on Italy and Spain.