Take a mountain train into the other worldly wonders of the Alpes Maritimes and Alpes de Haute Provence, all part of the relatively unknown Mercantour National Park. A popular area for walking with donkeys to carry your bags, you follow in the steps of shepherds who still do the same, along waymarked ways through ancient forest, up rocky inclines, and along icy river valleys.
Finding the right vacation accommodation can be fraught with difficulties, except of course if you’re in France, a country with more historic stone cottages, Alpine gites and cosy off-road cabins than most. You can get as near to or as far from the action as you like with a guarantee that you will never be more than a serviette’s breadth from a food market packed with gorgeous local gastronomy.
The Champsaur Valley in the Southern Alps has a really rustic, old-fashioned French feel and sits right on the edge of the Ecrins National Park. Overlooked by looming mountains on one side only, the valley has a really open feel and is neighboured to the north by the Valgaudemar Valley, an austere and narrow Alpine valley with glaciers and 3,000m peaks
Described by illustrious poet, Victor Hugo, as a ‘colosseum of nature’, the Cirque de Gavarnie is an extraordinary bowl-shaped natural hollow in the Central Pyrenees that owes its existence to glacial erosion. The cradle of 16 summits of over 3,000m and the spectacular Grande Cascade, one of the highest waterfalls in Europe, it is one of nature’s most impressive feats.
The Alps’ edgier cousin, the Pyrenees has a rougher beauty than its loftier counterpart, but is still a snow-capped Shangri-La for walkers, bikers, skiers and those less adrenalin-charged amongst us who just appreciate a bloody good view. The terrain is great for snowshoeing and horse riding, and the age-old mountain thoroughfares reveal an intriguing mix of isolated valleys
The Provencal cliché: wafting lavender; stone villages; smiling people sipping wine. It exists, and it is wonderful, but the region is actually very diverse. Towards the Rhone, flamingos flock to salt marshes where further south white horses gallop the wilds of the Camargue. Avignon is a hub of art and architecture, and Mont Ventoux, the cyclist’s mecca, stands guard like a sentinel over the north.
To describe the French Alps invites every conceivable superlative: titanic peaks, ice-white glaciers and sparkling sapphire lakes, but to see them firsthand will leave you speechless. The Giffre Valley, an exciting almost eerie terrain of towering cracked limestone cliffs sits beside champagne Chamonix, the iconic backdrop to 007’s stunt-tastic ski chase; a wonderland of adventure.
A wide, smooth expanse littered with grandiose castles with sky-high turrets from its very noble past, the Loire Valley, a UNESCO listed site no less, is a place of architectural splendour with more than a touch of class. From Monty Python-medieval to sprawling country estates, Chateaus take centre-stage here as does wine, a cherished and plentiful gift from the region’s boundless vineyards.
Wow. Lourdes. A sprawling town of Vegas-esque neon tat mixed with tourist-driven Catholicism. Bet that’s a sentence you never thought you’d read. Utterly dispiriting, gaudy modern Lourdes screams anything but ‘spiritually important pilgrimage site’, but the infamous grotto still pulls in the crowds; six million people a year visit to fill their Madonna-shaped plastic bottles with holy water.
Unless your happy to remortgage your house for a vacation, or you’re a Russian Oligarch, a trip to Courchevel, the sixth most expensive destination in the world, is probably out of the question. There’s no denying it’s smart and very swish, but the French Alps is a big place with endless other opportunities for mountain adventure at a snip of the price.
Monaco: a tiny, very plush and stubbornly independent principality, and a name that it’s impossible to utter without its fellow ‘m’s: money and millionaires. A great place for a short trip to luxuriate in the glamour of it all you might think, but actually it isn’t the glitzy destination of yesteryear and is nowadays a constant construction site full of big, ugly tower blocks struggling for space.
With young French creatives moving in by the bucketload, Nice has become more of a buzzword than a city these days; founded way back in 350BC, it has a unique historical heritage and a significant artistic lineage too, but come summer the crowds swell, the prices triple, and strutting one’s stuff replaces petanque as a pastime.