What these French destinations lack in visitors, they more than make up for in cultural and natural beauty.
France is the most visited country in the world, but it has plenty of unsung beauty spots that often get overlooked. For a more responsible holiday that forgoes the crowds, try taking a train to one of these less touristy areas of France. From fields of flamingos to volcanic vistas, UNESCO World Heritage sites to cultural festivals, it’s worth adventuring onto routes less taken when it comes to planning a holiday to France by train.
Arles and the Camargue
Just 20 mins from Nîmes by train, Arles’ sun-baked houses, shady squares and Roman ruins inspired many of Van Gogh’s greatest works of art when he lived there in 1888. Among the city’s highlights are the Roman Amphitheatre, Place de la République and Musée Réattu. Arles is also a gateway to the Camargue Natural Park, a sprawling area of rugged wetlands populated by flamingos and wild white horses. Do as the traditional gardians (cowboys) do and explore the rice paddies and salt pans on horseback, or take one of many walking trails that fan out across the marshes. For one of the best spots to see the Camargue’s famous flamingos, walk along the dyke between the Étangs du Fangassier and Galabert. The towns of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and Aigues-Mortes are also Camargue highlights.
Capital of the Auvergne region and one of France’s oldest cities, Clermont-Ferrand is known for its Gothic architecture, lively student population and superb collection of museums. Visit the Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption for its black lava stonework and Gothic twin spires, UNESCO-listed Basilique Notre-Dame-du-Port and bustling Place de Jaude. Clermont-Ferrand is also gateway to the Chaîne des Puys, a 40km range of dormant volcanoes with the Puy de Dôme its highest point at 1465m. Recently awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status, the Chaîne des Puys is just a few kilometres outside the city and easily reached by bus, bike, shuttle (bought locally) or by foot for keen hikers. Clermont Ferrand is just 2 hrs 27 mins from Lyon.
Grand Site des Deux Caps
The closest point to Britain on the French coast, the Grand Site des Deux Caps is a walking lover’s paradise and the perfect place to discover France off the beaten path. Made up of two capes, Cap Blanc-Nez and Cap Gris-Nez, this nature reserve is a blend of cliffs, dunes and verdant hillsides overlooking the North Sea. Walk along the beach or venture onto one of the many hiking trails that criss-cross along the coast and into the wider Caps et Marais d'Opale Regional Nature Park. For the best views, climb up to the top of Cap Blanc-Nez from where you can look out onto the sea and on clear days, spot the coast of England. You can reach The Deux Caps by bicycle from Calais, just 10km away. You can travel easily from London to Calais by Eurostar, which you can read more about in our Eurostar blog.
Nestled between the mountains and the Med, Menton is the last stop before reaching the Italian border along France’s Cote d'Azur. Not as glitzy or glam as its neighbouring Cannes, Monte Carlo and St Tropez, it has much calmer streets, fewer tourists and magnificent Belle Epoque architecture. The town is particularly known for its sweet lemons, so plan to visit Menton in February and March for the Fête du Citron, an annual celebration of its singular citrus.
With its narrow cobbled streets, half-timbered houses and Odet River cutting through it, Quimper, in the south-west of Brittany, is small enough to retain a village feel but large enough to be the maestro of Breton arts and culture. Just 2 hrs 19 mins from Nantes, visit Quimper in July for its annual Festival de Cornouaille, a celebration of Breton identity, or in August for its Semaines Musicales festival of classical music. No matter when you visit Quimper, you can explore its museums, cornucopia of creperies and medieval old town with a deliciously named central square, Place au Beurre (Butter Square). Quimper is also just 20 mins by train to Chateaulin, a gateway to the Armorique National Park, known for its hiking trails, marshes, moors, granite tors and some of Europe’s most sandy beaches. Off the beaten path travel at its best.
Just 15 mins from Montpellier by train, Sète is on the Etang du Thau saltwater lagoon in the south of France. Known as the Little Venice of the Languedoc, the city is laced with myriad canals, including the famous Canal du Midi and the Canal du Rhône. These canal routes make Sète the perfect place to cycle to as part of a larger cycling holiday in France, as well as sandy beaches, superb seafood restaurants and the Corniche walking trail. Don’t miss visiting Sète in August to see traditional water jousting during the annual six-day Festival de Saint-Louis.
You might also enjoy reading our blog on the top 10 cities in France to visit by train.
Image credits top to bottom: Côte d'Azure architecture iStock ©Olezzo, Flamingos in the Camargue Flickr Commons (cropped) ©Gina.D, Cap Blanc Nez Flickr Commons ©Maurice, Menton istock ©Milena Pigdanowicz-Fidera, Canal in Sète iStock ©nullplus
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