Want to do something different on your vacation to France? looking for alternatives to Paris? Been there done that? You should think about discovering rural France. You’ll be amazed at what the rest of the country has to offer.
The thing about France is, well, there’s a lot of it, and it might well turn into the most unsatisfying and potentially expensive mistake you make if you try to do too much in one trip.
Because there are so many regional and local identities and cultures, you can construct visits around simple themes and specific areas.
Long before you arrive, however, do have some idea of where you are going, what it is you want to see, and, most importantly of all, don’t try to cram too much into one day.
Build in a bit of slack, and save a little bit of time for that serendipitous opportunity that pops up around the next corner.
There is just no fun charging about like a headless chicken, and quite a lot to be said for parking your butt and ordering a glass of wine…or coffee…or…whatever.
Discovering rural France
Arguably, there are six main areas of France that pull in the tourists and are facinating alternatives to Paris.
You might want to follow suit; then again, if you’re happy enough to brave the unexpected, then you might want to avoid these: Paris, the Alps, Provence and the French Riviera, Languedoc-Roussillon, the Loire valley, and Brittany.
Now, I’m not saying you should never enjoy these fabulous destinations, on the contrary. But be open to the alternatives to Paris and the other well-trodden tourist routes…and there are many of those.
If you want to escape the urban life and seek out rural peace and quiet, almost any part of France will have something to offer, but there are areas that are more out-of-the-way, more rural, and less populated.
In particular, there is a large swathe of France, running from the Belgian border in the north-east, to the Pyrenees in the south-west that contains plenty of open spaces, and ample opportunity for walking, cycling, horse riding and other outdoor and adventure activities. Consider these:
In the northeast, there is the Ardennes, with its forests, and the open spaces of Champagne and Lorraine, rolling pastoral landscapes that have seen significant depopulation over the last hundred years. In the northern part of Burgundy, between Paris and Dijon, lie the Morvan hills, heavily wooded in parts, and popular area with weekend walkers.
The Massif Central
The Massif Central embraces some of the emptiest parts of France, including large parts of the Auvergne and Limousin, as well as the northern reaches of the Midi-Pyrénées, the northern parts of Languedoc, and the west of the Rhone-Alpes region.
Read our Midi-Pyrenees Tourist Guide
Many long-distance walking trails cross this area, passing through some pretty wild and desolate areas, such as the barren limestone Causses in the departments of Lozère and Aveyron.
Marvel at the granite-dominated Aubrac in the middle (Aveyron and Cantal), and the Chaîne des Puys (volcanic uplands running through the Puy-de-Dome, Cantal, Haute-Loire and Ardèche departments). This is a beautiful part of France, perfect for those who relish wide open spaces.
Gascony and the Pyrenees
Toulouse is a place not to be missed, but to the south of the city the rolling countryside of Gascony rises to meld into the foothills of the Pyrenees and the high Pyrenees beyond.
The Pyrenean foothills feature wooded, steep-sided valleys, and offer many opportunities for walking. The high Pyrenees, by contrast, soar to over 3,000 metres, offering high-mountain terrain, and plenty of trails (Grandes Randonées), including many suitable only for experienced mountaineers.
To the east of the Rhone valley lie the French Alps and their acolytes, the Vercors and Bugey. This is a place of outstanding mountain scenery, from the dry terrain of the Verdon area of Provence, to the snow-capped domes of Mont Blanc.
Many areas of the Alps have been heavily developed for winter sports, but away from the ski resorts, there are hundreds of square kilometres of untamed hill and mountain, well equipped with marked walking trails, linking valley to valley, or village to village.
The high Alps are home to two of France’s best-known national parks, le Mercantour and les Ecrins.
North of the Alps, running up the northern side of the border with Switzerland, the Jura mountains in the Franche Comté region offer another large mountainous area, characterised by spruce forests and meadows, as well as lakes and streams.
The Ardennes is a region of extensive forests, rolling hills and ridges primarily in Belgium, but stretching into France (lending its name to the département and the région).
In France, the word ‘Ardennes’ in the plural, together with the definite article, is commonly used to refer to the French department of that name.
Much of the region is covered in dense forests, with mountains averaging around 350–500m (1,148-1,640ft) in height. The region is typified by steep-sided valleys carved by swift-flowing rivers, the most prominent of which is the Meuse.
Its most populous cities are Verviers in Belgium and Charleville-Mézières in France, both exceeding 50,000 inhabitants. The region is otherwise relatively sparsely populated, with few of the cities exceeding 10,000 inhabitants with a few exceptions like Eupen or Bastogne.
Things to do in the Ardennes
The extensive forests have an abundant population of wild game. The scenic beauty of the region and its wide variety of outdoor activities, including hunting, cycling, walking and canoeing, make it a popular tourist destination.
The rugged terrain of the region limits the scope for agriculture. As a result, arable and dairy farming in cleared areas form the mainstay of the agricultural economy. The region is rich in timber and minerals, and Liège and Namur are both major industrial centres.
The region took its name from the ancient “Arduenna Silva”, a vast forest in Roman times; the modern region covers a much smaller area.
WW2 and the Ardennes
The strategic position of the region has made it a battleground for European powers for centuries. The region repeatedly changed hands during the early modern period.
In the 20th century, it was widely thought unsuitable for large-scale military operations, due to its difficult terrain and narrow lines of communications. But, in both World War I and World War II, Germany successfully gambled on making a rapid passage through the region to attack a relatively lightly defended part of France.
The area became the site of three major battles during the world wars – the Battle of the Ardennes in World War I, and the Battle of France and Battle of the Bulge in World War II. Many of the towns of the region were badly damaged during the two world wars.
Today, the many sites mark the key historical periods, such as the Waroux Windmill and the Villy-la-Ferté Fort, the House of the Last Cartridge for 1870 and, of course, the Castle of Sedan in a town full of art and history. Fortified churches are found in the region of the Thiérache Ardennaise.
Okay, let’s be honest; there isn’t any ‘undiscovered France’, those good people of the Institut National de l’Information Géographique et Forestière have contrived to find it all. And, to dispel another myth, much of what is described as ‘medieval’, is anything but.
For the record, in European history, the Medieval period (also known as the Middle Ages), lasted from the 5th to the 15th century. It began with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and merged into the Renaissance (14th-17th centuries) and the Age of Discovery (early 15th-17th century).
The Middle Ages is the middle period of three traditional divisions of Western history: Antiquity, Medieval and Modern. There is very little in France remaining from this era.
But, there are parts of France that, compared to Provence, the Alps, Ile de France, Brittany, the French Riviera and Languedoc, are relatively undiscovered. Yet, surprise, surprise, even here you’ll find supermarkets, people driving modern cars, farmers using modern machinery, high-speed Internet and 4G.
In every part of France, there are places ignored by the masses; places that don’t figure on ‘Tick Lists’, and are all the better for it. Here are a few examples; places you won’t regret visiting.
The Forêt de Fontainebleau is a large forested area dotted with rocky outcrops, and well provided with walking and cycling trails.
Franche Comté lies just to the north of Switzerland, and comprises most of the French Jura mountains. It is a beautiful rural area, famed for its cheeses and its clocks: the regional capital Besançon is a UNESCO world heritage site.
Read our Visitors Guide to Besancon
The Auvergne is another mountainous region, with much to offer in terms of natural heritage and scenery, and even more in terms of historic monuments and cultural tourism. Lying away from the traditional routes to the south of France, the Auvergne has yet to develop its potential in terms of outdoor tourism.
Midi-Pyrénées, stretching from the Auvergne to the border with Spain, is the largest and one of the most rural regions of France, very diversified, and full of history, magnificent landscapes and opportunities to enjoy a break away from the crowds.
Other ‘undiscovered’ regions include Burgundy – touristy along the wine trails, but otherwise quite unexplored, and Limousin, a rural area of hills and valleys to the west of the Auvergne. Aude, too, part of greater Languedoc-Roussillon, is a place of many nooks and crannies, not least the idyllic Minerve, which is worth a day of anyone’s time.