As the leaves turn golden and the summer heat subsides, autumn comes to France. It’s arguably a magic season to be there; the harvests are in full swing so markets abound with delicious produce, the vineyards are abuzz with activity for les vendanges and autumn sunlight casts long shadows in the narrow streets of its charming towns and villages.
A quick channel hop to Normandy
I’ve always loved Normandy in the autumn and it’s so easy to reach, being just a channel-hop away from the ports of Cherbourg, Caen or Dieppe. From there, you can plan a long weekend or short break exploring the Pays d’Auges’ cider farms, where the harvest is in full swing and distilleries and cider farms welcome visitors for tastings. As you tour, the forests on the rolling landscape turn a riot of colour and are a feast for the eyes. Caen makes a good base, where the elegant chambre d’hotesChez Laurence du Tilly is in the heart of the town – having your own apartment (and fridge) is ideal when you’re shopping the markets, cider farms and fromageries. From there, venture inland to Beauvron-en-Auges, one of Normandy’s most idyllic villages, for a stroll around its timber-framed shops and farmhouses, and a coffee in the autumn sun at Café Forges. At the end of October, the town of Conches-en-Ouches hosts one of the autumn’s most charming festivals: the Fête de la Pomme, du Cidre et du Fromage showcases all kinds of cider from ice-cider to poiré (perry), as well as local cheeses such as Normandy’s four signature fromages – Neufchatel, Livradot, Camembert and Pont L’Évêque. There is also traditional folk dancing, farm animals to pet and demonstrations of local crafts. Not too far away is the Le Clos du Guiel, where hosts Marika and Pierre have created three beautiful little maisonettes in their mansion’s outbuildings, complete with kitchenettes to enjoy the bounty bought from the festival.
The French Riviera has long been a source of inspiration for artists, thanks to its quality of light and enchanting scenery and, when the holiday crowds have gone home, it’s an ideal time to tour the area whether you’re putting paint to canvas yourself, or simply admiring others’ creations. In Nice, you can’t miss the city’s many art museums; until 18 September Musée Matisse has a Hockney-Matisse exhibition, that is part of the city’s Biennale; while the Modern Art Museum has renewed its top floor exhibits with a superb collection of 1960s Pop Art. Art lovers needn’t look further than the Hotel Windsor for their overnight stays; each of its 57 rooms features work by local artists and impressive frescoes. Further west, the village of Saint-Paul-de-Vence is a warren of pretty lanes full of galleries, and it’s also home to the Maeght Foundation, with its astounding collection of art and sculpture by such artists as Joan Miró, Marc Chagall and Alberto Giacometti. I always find it such a calming place to spend an afternoon, too. Meanwhile, the view from the terrace at Le Mas du Chanoine is just as impressive, enjoy it from the pool and pétanque court. Finally, if you stray a little further than the Cote d’Azur, your foray will be rewarded at the Villa Noailles, a contemporary art centre set in a 1930s Modernist masterpiece, with a small cubist garden and impressive stained glass windows. Nearby, in the village of Ollioules, you can put your feet up at the beautiful holiday home Le Mas Saint Martin, where owners Ségolène et Charles-Henry have instilled their own creative flair with the beautiful décor.
The south-west of France is the place to go for market lovers. You can’t beat the huge one at Sarlat on Wednesdays and Fridays, where the cobbled streets of this golden-stone town are lined with enticing stalls offering duck confit, local wines and glossy fruits and vegetables. Meanwhile, the Sunday market in Issigeac has its stalls along the sinuous streets, overlooked by Medieval timber-framed houses. We were visiting in October, when the pumpkin festival La Foire Aux Potirons was on; the huge orange globes dwarfed our then-pre-school kids, who couldn’t believe their eyes. We took our haul back to Le Mas et Le Mazet, one of the area’s fantastic self-catering properties and cooked a decadent dinner, eaten by the open fire.
If you travel east, and follow the River Dordogne by road, you’ll pass some of its most beautiful villages and attractions; the cliff-top chateau at Beynac-et-Cazenac, the Chateau Milandes which tells the incredible life story if its former resident the dancer-turned-resistance heroine Josephine Baker, and the extraordinary topiaries gardens at the Jardins Suspendus de Marqueyssac. Follow the Dordogne Valley further and it takes you to walnut country, which is equally charming in the autumn months. Martel makes a great base, where host Debra at La Maison de Wakefield welcomes guests to her thoughtfully decorated self-catering house. Visit the walnut farm and mill Le Moulin Castagné to see the family’s ancient mill stone roll trundle around crushing the nuts for their delicious walnut oil.
This year’s European Green Capital is Grenoble, which is a superb destination for lovers of The Great Outdoors and, by September, the temperature is ideal for all the hiking and biking adventures, for which this area of Isère is known. The city is surrounded by the jagged peaks of the Belledonne and the plateaux of the Vercors and Chartreuse mountains, and so it is the gateway to some incredible walking routes. There is a cable car from the city centre that expedites you 500 metres up the mountain to the 19th-century Fort Bastille, with superb views of the city below.
For those who like to explore on two wheels, there are also 320km cycle routes in and around the city, some following the River Isère as it loops its way eastward toward the Alps, or south along the River Drac. You don’t even need a bike because the city’s bikeshare scheme has 7,000 on offer to borrow (though you’ll only need one!). The River Drac also leads you south to the Château de Pâquier, too. This welcoming B&B has spacious rooms and gourmet meals courtesy of its host Hélène and it makes a good base for venturing into the Vercors, where precipitous roads give the driver a thrill and the passengers heart palpitations. Take it from me, though, the panoramic view from the Combe Laval road is worth the white-knuckle ride. You can come back to earth over a dish of the local ravioli at Pont-en-Royans, also famous for its medieval houses that hang high over the river.