Scotland on Sunday Travel Wishlist: France, off-the-beaten-track

Francophile Mark Atkinson revisits Reims, Nîmes, Haute-Garonne and Tarn, Île de Ré and Sedan

Les Arnes, Nmes' well-preserved Roman ampitheatre makes the city well worth a worth a visit
Les Arnes, Nmes' well-preserved Roman ampitheatre makes the city well worth a worth a visit

Most of us will have spent at least part of the past four months thinking about what we take for granted. Travel clearly falls into that category.

I’ve had the fortune of galavanting all over the world, be it on family holidays, adventures with my wife, weekends away with friends or visiting all corners of the globe for these pages.

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That luxury has been taken away by the coronavirus pandemic. Admittedly, it’s a first-world issue, but recently I chatted to a friend who was feeling pretty low because he wasn’t able to do his usual exploring of other countries. Depression stemming from cabin fever is real.

Carcassonne is famous for its Unesco walled citadel

Every year I visit France, most often with my wife. We both studied French and lived there. I have a slightly embarrassing passion for French football, which has taken me all over the country. I feel I know it better than any other place and long for the time when I can return there.

Of course, France is at least a month ahead of us in terms of easing lockdown and it’s not a bad destination right now. The flight times are short, or you could even drive, and cram as much wine and cheese into your car as you can.

So, if you are intending to cross the Channel, here are five of my “off-the-beaten-track” places to visit. I love Paris, Lyon, the Cote d’Azur and the Dordogne, but hopefully some of these will give you food for thought too.

Reims

Chteau de Sedan in the eastern Ardennes region is the largest fortress in Europe

This name will be familiar. Most champagne bottles are adorned with it. However, I’m often surprised at how few people have been to the city, which oozes class and culture.

Firstly, most Anglophones can’t pronounce its name. The correct way is a guttural “rhance”, rather than the erroneous “reems”. Slightly ugly on the tongue, but that’s the only downside.

As France’s champagne capital, you’ve got more caves and houses than you can shake a stick at. Pommery, Veuve Clicquot, Mumm, Taittinger… the list goes on. Visiting a champagne cave is one of life’s little glories. It’s enlightening, and then you get numerous glasses to drink. Don’t plan on being particularly sober in this city.

Right in the centre of Reims is one of the most impressive cathedrals in France. The fifth-century Notre-Dame de Reims was used as the location of kings’ coronations and is stunning. The stained glass windows are unrivalled, and personally, I think it trumps similar versions in Paris and Amiens.

Reims has one of the most impressive cathedrals in France, the fifth-century Notre-Dame de Reims
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High-end restaurants are not hard to find on the expansive, pedestrianised thoroughfare of Place Drouet d’Erlon – the Brasserie du Boulingrin is my personal favourite, famous for its moelleux du chocolat and pink rose biscuits. And in the winter, the town centre turns into a bustling Christmas market with all kinds of goodies. A nice alternative to the busier versions in Strasbourg, for example.

A direct TGV train goes from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris to Reims, taking just over an hour. So convenient, there’s really no excuse not to visit.

Nîmes

I feel a bit sorry for Nîmes, as it is surrounded by much more famous names. Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Montpellier are near neighbours, while Marseille is only an hour or so away.

As a result, it sits in shadows, often shunned for its more illustrious neighbours. But it has two trump cards, attractions that are well worth a visit.

If the coliseum in Rome didn’t exist, then Nîmes would be world-famous, for its Roman amphitheatre is quite a sight.

It is called Les Arènes and is a well-preserved version of the mothership in Italy. It takes several hours to go round and reeks of history and stories. In summer, it is used for concerts and bullfighting. If there is a better preserved Roman stadium, I have yet to see it.

And not far away from Les Arènes is the Maison Carrée, one of the more impressive surviving Roman temples. You can easily walk between the two and the pavements are decorated with circular medallions that have crocodiles on them – the emblem of the city.

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Those two attractions combined make Nîmes a worthy destination, but there are also good restaurants – brandade, a cod dish, is the local delicacy – and the city, small by French standards, has such a laid-back feel about it.

Haute-Garonne and Tarn regions

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the south-east of France, but I find it a little crowded and expensive. The south-west of France is still relatively untapped, and within that region is a little pocket of utopia just north of Carcassonne in the Haute-Garonne and Tarn regions.

If you like holidays in rustic farmhouses, this area ticks the boxes. More and more old dwellings are being converted into holiday homes and the dry, baking heat makes it an ideal place to relax and recover from life’s travails.

The pink city of Toulouse is worth a day-trip and Carcassonne is famous for its Unesco walled citadel, but I prefer to use them as points of entry to this area. The docile town of Revel has a glorious square and market and Castelnaudary, famous for its cassoulet dish of duck, sausage and haricot beans, is very quaint.

However, it’s the countryside that I really like. Rolling fields, endless sunflowers, cycling along numerous canals, stopping off for cheap, delicious lunches, before retiring back home to cool off in a pool. It’s an idyllic setting – and with plenty of affordable local wines on offer.

Île de Ré

The Atlantic coast of France has so much to offer, be it Brittany in the north, the bourgeoise city of Bordeaux, the sand dunes of Arcachon or the surfers’ paradise of Biarritz in the deep south.

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Midway down is La Rochelle, a charming and pretty place, and this is the gateway to one of France’s best tourist destinations – the Île de Ré.

Connected to the mainland by a fancy bridge, this island only has 20,000 people living on it, but that population goes up ten times in the summer as French families flock there,

I camped on the island with my family and had a ball. It has everything you can get in the more popular sites in Brittany, with a plethora of warm-water beaches, but fewer Brits. Seafood is plentiful and tasty, while the island is built for cyclists. Surfing, sailing and other watersports are commonplace. You will not get bored.

What I liked about Île de Ré is the vibe. It is one of the most chilled-out places in France. It’s why former prime minister Lionel Jospin would holiday here all the time while he was in office, and why celebrities such as Orlando Bloom like to visit. Oh, and the location for Fort Boyard, a wacky French game show, is just off the island.

Sedan

The eastern Ardennes region is not well publicised to the outside world, but I quite like it.

Really close to the border with Belgium and Luxembourg, it has the meandering river Meuse and loads of forests. It was one of France’s main cloth-producing regions until the 19th century and its natural beauty, seclusion and traditional life appeal to me. You don’t hear many English words.

The town I recommend here is Sedan. It’s tiny – just shy of 17,000 people – but it has a ginormous castle that is very out of kilter with its surroundings. The Château de Sedan is the largest fortress in Europe, covering nearly 40,000 square metres and comprising seven floors. It was lost by France in the Franco-Prussian War, the First World War and the Second World War, yet still remains intact. It needs to be seen to be believed.

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The local delicacy is sanglier – wild boar – and it is tremendous, be it in sausages, salamis or as a change to pork chop. You get a different cuisine here – hearty stews, venison and other game – and in the winter, waffles overflowing with Nutella and roasted chestnuts are the plat du jour.

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