Taking the scenic route – Carolyn Boyd
Carolyn Boyd is an avid travel writer and French expert who loves to explore the country by road. Here, she reveals three of her favourite scenic routes that take in France’s A-Roads – discover everything from wild beaches to historic Châteaux and charming vineyards.
Sailing into Saint-Malo is always a joy, the walls of the old town stand proud above the emerald sea that gives its name to the Côte d’Émeraude, where the many headlands and wide beaches completely stole my heart a few years ago. After rolling sleepily off the overnight ferry, we usually make a beeline to one of Place Chateaubriand’s many cafes for hot coffee and croissants, before a quick stroll around the walls of the old town, to see the morning tide crash to shore. From there, I recommend a quick dash to the foodie shops on Rue de l’Orme for picnic provisions (bread, gourmet butter, cheese and ham) before making tracks towards Dinard, on the other side of the River Rance, and then on to the sunny town of Saint-Briac-sur-Mer where you can tuck into your picnic lunch in front of the beach huts on the soft sand of Plage du Bechet with views of a yacht-filled bay.
Continue on to Cap Fréhel 45 minutes away, to check into the Hotel le Manoir Saint Michel. The many loungers set out on its lawn are ideal for basking in the afternoon sun. For a pre-dinner walk, we headed out to the tip of the peninsula where the lighthouse overlooks the jagged cliffs, and grabbed the last of the late afternoon sun on the heather-strewn moorland. Also perched out on the end is Fort La Latte, a semi-ruined castle that clings to the cliffs, and an adrenalin-pumping climb to the top of its tower.
Head west, next, towards Quimper in Brittany’s south-west corner. The town is proud of its Breton heritage, so check out the costumes at the Musée Départemental Breton, gaze up at its cathedral’s twin spires before rewarding your hunger with a buttery galette at my favourite creperie, Au Vieux Quimper.
It’s not far out of town for an overnight stop at Château de Penfrat, a beautiful B&B that overlooks the River Odet set in 100 acres of parkland. Next morning, explore the walled city at Concarneau and the 7000-year-old megalith alignments at Carnac. Make a final overnight stop at the welcoming 14 Kerpunce, a homely B&B run by friendly couple Regis and Catherine. Breakfast like a king on their hens’ eggs and homemade galettes and then head out to explore the silky white beaches on the skinny Quiberon peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic. From there, it’s 2.5 hours back to Saint-Malo for dinner at Comptoir Breizh Café before boarding the ferry home.
While the big-hitter châteaux tend to grab the limelight in the Loire Valley, I’m always astonished at how much else there is to see. A trail starting in the elegant city of Orléans, following the river west, is ideal for a three– or four–day trip. Explore the city, including the majestic cathedral; its façade looks down the elegant Rue Jeanne d’Arc, with its polished architecture and giant billowing flags. Lunch at one of the many restaurants on Rue de Bourgogne (Le Petit Gavroche is good) before visiting the Maison Jeanne d’Arc to learn more about the medieval heroine. From there follow the road (D951) south of the expansive River Loire to Blois. It’s one of my favourite towns in the Loire and at its heart is the 16th chateau with its beautiful Renaissance staircase. Elsewhere, however, is the equally impressive staircase, L’Escalier Denis Papin: the 120 steps provide a canvas for giant works of art that can be seen from all the way down the street. In 2019, it hosted a giant Mona Lisa and 2021 will see it painted. If you can get to Chateau de la Rue by late afternoon, take a dip in their gorgeous pool or a drink on the terrace. Next morning, follow the river on towards Amboise, admiring the Chateau de Chaumont perched on the opposite bank. Amboise is known for its own chateau, as well as the elegant arches of Chateau de Chenonceau. Nearby, too, is the Pagode de Chanteloup, a 44-metre–high pagoda that once stood in the grounds of the Chateau de Chanteloup, which was entirely dismantled after the French revolution. It’s extraordinary to see that just the pagoda and the lake remains – as if the castle was just magicked away. Also worth a look in Amboise is the former home of Leonardo Da Vinci at Le Clos Lucé; we loved the scale replicas of is inventions scattered throughout the sweeping gardens. Grab lunch at Chez Bruno, just near the Chateau in Amboise, before heading for an overnight stop at the Chateau des Arpentis just outside town. If you can book the huge, beamed attic room, do; you’ll feel like a king or queen.
The next day, follow the river for superb views of châteaux at Langeais and Saumur along the way to Angers. To track down the city’s attractions, including art décor and medieval architecture, follow the blue line painted on the pavement, which also leads you to the city’s mighty-walled chateau. The castle is home to the extraordinary, 13th century Tapestry of the Apocalypse, which tells the story of the Bible’s Book of Revelations.
For a final overnight treat, head north of Angers to the Chateau des Briottières, one of my absolute favourite places to stay in France. Owners François and Hedwige de Valbray are the perfect hosts, and an aperitif on their terrace or in their antique-filled salon always seems the moment I completely relax. The sense of utter tranquillity remains as you swim in the the discreet swimming pool or wander the walled gardens and the expansive parkland. It’s somewhere that’s very hard to leave, but if/when you do, it’s 2.5 hours back to the ferry ports at Saint-Malo or Caen.
Beyond the Unesco-listed vineyards of the Côte d’Or between Dijon and Chalon-sur-Saône, Burgundy’s landscape varies between rolling golden fields and the steep forested valleys of the Morvan. There’s a warm welcome at the self-catering cottages at Le Petit Village, as well as a decent cup of tea, thanks to British owners Nick and Annabella. We found it made a great base for winding through the wooded hills towards the Musée Alésia, which tells in brilliant detail (costumed guides and replica forts) how the Gauls fought the Romans; Asterix has nothing on the brutality of these guys. From there, it’s a quick hop to the village of Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, famous for its aniseed imperials, the smell of which wafts through the air as you wander the cobbled streets. We had a hearty lunch at the rustic canteen restaurant La Grange in the centre, so I’d recommend doing that before heading to Epoisses. The village is the home of one of France’s stinkiest cheese, which you can taste (with a nice glass of wine to boot) at the village’s elegant chateau.
Prepare for more feasting at the next B&B, La Cimentelle, north of Avallon, which is run by two excellent cooks Stéphane and Nathalie Oudot; their knowledge and skills with the local Burgundy produce is astounding, I ate so well the night I stayed there.
The next day, visit Avallon itself for its medieval architecture and impressive 15th-century clock tower. The town teeters on a granite outcrop on the edge of the Morvan Natural Park, and it’s a thrilling drive into the steep gorge along the River Cousin before joining the road to the little village of Saint Père, complete with its own brewery, goat farm and clog-maker. On towards Vézelay, which has attracted pilgrims for centuries; little wonder when the views from its abbey, of the green hills and villages of the Morvan Regional Natural Park, are jaw-dropping. From there, wind your way through the wooded valleys and lakes of the park, via Saulieu and Arnay-le-Duc, to Beaune, and toast your journey with a glass of wine in the garden at the luxurious B&B Les Jardins de Loïs, in the shade of fruit trees. How better to wind down from the road trip, than a glass of Burgundy’s finest?
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