is a large country - the largest in Western Europe. It is
also the world's most popular tourist destination. But as in any
country, tourism in France tends to be mostly concentrated in a small
number of regions and areas. Six areas of France attract the lion's
share of tourists: Paris, the Alps, Provence and the Riviera,
Languedoc, the Loire valley, and Brittany. Yet even in these well
frequented areas, there are plenty of spots well away from the crowds.
Hidden France - well off the beaten track
As for the rest of France, get away
from the main towns and main
motorways, and France is a vast and fairly empty place, with many rural
areas where the population today is less than it was a hundred years
ago, and the small towns and villages still have a pace of life that is
far removed from the hectic frenzy of the cities, the beach resorts,
and other main stops on the tourist circuit.
But before going into the details, it's not a bad idea to
a few myths about rural France, myths propagated daily by the hyperbole
and exaggeration of much of the travel press, not to
mention travel agents and even local tourist offices. Rural France is
not some real-life Disneyland; the "old villages" are not
really "undiscovered", few of them are
"mediaeval", and throughout France, even in its remotest corners,
towns have supermarkets, people drive modern cars, farmers use modern
machinery, and the locals have highspeed Internet. Unless (as
could perhaps be argued) the Middle Ages lasted in rural France up
until the 19th century, the word "mediaeval" is probably the most
misused, abused and misleading word in the vocabulary of tourism, when
applied to France.
article is about places that are relatively
places in France that don't attract the kind
tourism that they would if they were more on the beaten track. And be
sure, although it is the world's most popular tourist destination,
France is still a country with plenty of places that really are off the
In every region of France,
there are areas that are passed by by the crowds. Deepest rural France
even stretches into the fringes of the Paris region,
notably the south
of the region. The Forêt de Fontainebleau is a large forested
well provided with hiking trails, and dotted with rocky outcrops; in
the heart of it lies the village of Barbizon, once the mecca of
landscape artists. And in the rural west and the east of the region,
dotted with small villages and farming communities, the relative
proximity of the Parisian metropolis can seem hard to imagine.
Far more rural, however, are the regions of France
lie in a large arc running from the Ardennes
in the northeast, to the
in the southwest. Known in France as the Diagonal of
emptiness, this band, covering about half of the territory
has always been relatively lightly populated, and remains to this day -
outside the regional centres - the heartland of rural France, and
largely undiscovered except by the people who live there.
Several departments in this area have a population density
than 40 inhabitants per sq. km, less than a third of the average
metropolitan France. They include most of the Massif
Central mountains, notably the Lozere department,
with just 15 people
per km² - which is virtually empty.
While all the regions of France have lots to offer in terms
landscape, heritage, and attractive accommodation, three deserve
particular attention: Franche
Comté in the east, Auvergne
in the centre
south, and Midi
Pyrenees in the southwest. For a more detailed look at
these areas, visit their pages on the Regions of France
section of About-France.com.
Franche Comté lies just to the north
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,
whole area has masses to offer. Auvergne is another mountain
region, and like Franche-Comté it has masses to offer in
natural heritage and scenery, and even more in terms of historic
monuments and cultural tourism. Lying off the main
routes to the south of France, it has not developed its huge potential
in terms of outdoor tourism. Midi Pyrenees, stretching from
Auvergne to the Spanish border, is the largest and one of the most
rural regions of France. Larger than Belgium, it is very diversified,
but full of history, magnificent landscapes and opportunities to enjoy
a break well away from the crowds.
Other regions that
can be recommended include Burgundy - rather touristy along the wine
trails, but otherwise quite off the beaten track - and Limousin, which
is a very rural area of hills and valleys to the west of the Auvergne
areas of France
France has a long coastline, and though none of the
French coastline is remotely undiscovered, there are parts that have
room for everyone.
In July and August, beaches are packed in all the popular resorts - but even at this
time of year there are plenty of places where holidaymakers can
stretch out on the sand in relative seclusion. With its
of kilometres of sandy beaches, the Atlantic coast of Aquitaine, once
you get away from the resorts, has
plenty of deserted beaches, .... some
of them best reached on a bicycle.
North of the Gironde there is still
of room on the beaches, except in the main resorts of which there are
not too many. Even in Brittany and Normandy, while solitude is not easy
to find, beaches with space on them are not rare - rocky sandy coves on
the north coast, broader sandy beaches on the south. As for
visitors looking for Mediterranean beaches off the beaten track, they
are not completely impossible to find. In Languedoc, the beaches are so
long that there is always plenty of space on them away from the tourist
hubs. The problem may just be finding an undiscovered car park.
More information on the coasts
of France .
off the beaten track in France
If time is no object, France offers a first-class network of
minor roads. Roads whose numbers are marked as D9** (e.g.
are generally former "national" routes, now downgraded because they are
essentially regional routes; linking local small towns, these roads are
often very well maintained by local authorities, and offer safe easy
driving. Visitors coming from urban areas will be surprised how little
traffic there often is on the byroads of France. Stopping for photos,
or to admire the view, is easy - unlike on main roads ; and unlike
major routes, the byroads of France actually go through towns and
villages, rather than round them, so that visitors actually get to see
more of France than the verge of a motorway and an unending series of
roadsigns and hoardings .
The choice for driving down
through France on byroads is enormous: but for those in search of
suggestions, here are two sample routes, almost all on small roads, and
taking in plenty of interesting towns and countryside. Particularly
interesting towns are underlined.
routes through France,
based on byways and minor roads
1. From Cherbourg or Caen
follow a route via Flers, Mayenne, Laval, La
Chateauroux, Guéret, Ussel, Aurillac, Rodez, Albi,
Castres and Carcassonne.
► 2. From Calais: take the A26
motorway as far as Laon then
follow either of these two non-motorway routes:
Vitry-le-François, Saint Dizier, Chaumont, Langres,
and Lons-le Saunier, and then by various routes in function
your intended destination (Switzerland, the
, the South),
Guegnon, Lapalisse, Vichy,
Thiers, Ambert, Le
Puy en Velay, Langogne, Aubenas, Alès, Nimes.
Going further? visit undiscovered
of the towns underlined on the itineraries above are "hidden gems",
others less hidden. Here is a random selection of other small
towns in France that are definitely worth making a detour
in Brittany, Bayeux
in Normandy, Ornans
in Poitou Charentes, Cahors
in Midi-Pyrenees, Orthez
in the Centre region, Le
Puy in Auvergne (photo right), or Arles
small towns are by no means unknown - they all cater for tourists; but
they are the kind of place, very common in France, that are more
visited by French than by foreign tourists. They are the not-too-hidden
gems of provincial France.
As for the really hidden gems, there
hundreds or thousands of these, just waiting to be discovered, and
right off the beaten track . But of
course, the distinguishing point about hidden gems is that they are not
on the normal tourist circuits, but places waiting to be discovered on
the off chance by people passing through. To list them would therefore
be not only impossible, but also a contradiction in terms. Hidden gems
are places discovered through a process of exploration and chance
encounters, and by each traveller according to his own choices and
priorities. For a good starting point, check out the Regions of France
section and the Favourite smaller cities list on About-France.com.
"most beautiful villages in France".
Much is made in tourist literature and brochures about the "most
beautiful villages in France" Les
plus beaux villages de France.
And to be honest, most of these are beautiful villages. But it should
be noted that the title "One of the Most beautiful villages in
France" is a quality label for which villages pay a subscription which
they hope will be more than offset by increased tourism revenue
is usually the case. As a result, a good number of "most beautiful
villages in France" now swarm with tourists in the holiday season and
even beyond. Former village shops and houses have been tranformed into
restaurants, arts and crafts shops, cafés and tearooms and
shops – which is all very well for the local economy but
changes the nature of the villages. Some examples of two most beautiful
villages that have become very touristy are Salers in the Cantal,
Sainte Enimie in the Gorges du Tarn, and
Saint-Cirq Lapopie in the Lot; which are very pretty, but certainly not
of place to visit in the holiday period if you are looking for places
off the beaten path.
most beautiful villages in France
draw in the crowds...
Over and above the officially
listed "most beautiful villages in France", there are thousands more
very pretty villages in France that have never applied for the label
inherently just as pretty as many of the officially labelled villages.
It's just a matter of setting out on the byroads of
France, on your own voyage of discovery, and finding them. Or
click for an alternate selection of beautiful
villages in France
The small towns of rural France mostly have accommodation in the form
of small hotels, generally independent establishments that may have
been in the same family for generations. There are also modern hotels -
when the town is big enough to justify the need, but even these are
often independent or local chains, set up by people with good local
knowledge. The big national hotel chains are wary of setting up in this
territory, except along main roads and in local capitals. In rural
areas, most accommodation is in the form of occasional wayside hotels,
or else gites (country cottages) or bed and breakfast. And of course
there are plenty of campsites throughout rural France, though not too
many of them stay open all year - or at least, not officially.
useful sources of accommodation information:
rural gites by region
and all photos on this page copyright