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Off the beaten track

By Patricia Connell

Off the beaten track

Soon the summer holidays and still nowhere to go? Why not go to France? Did I hear you say been there, done that? Well think again. You may think that you have been to France and therefore you know it but there are parts of France that offers much more than meets the eye. Take Savoie for instance: you could stay near a waterfalls or a mountain lake?
You could also fly over the Ardèche in a hot air balloon? However, If you prefer the countryside and like hiking you could aim to travel to the Pays-Basque and discover its enclosed valleys in the heart of the mountain area.


What to find:
In Savoie and Haute-Savoie water is everywhere: in glaciers, torrents, rivers and even in your glass. Mineral waters such as Evian, Thonon or Aix-les-Bains are as sought after as the white Savoie wines themselves!

The numerous lakes are an invitation to strolling.
Dive in the beautiful turquoise lake of Annecy, go sailing on the small inner sea of the Bourget or fishing in the emerald green lake of Aiguebelette...
and contemplate the reflection of the Alpine peaks on the surface of those giant mirrors.

What to do:
With water everywhere in this area you can practise all kinds of water sports: sailing, water-skiing, rowing for the less adventurous...and...white water rafting and canoeing for those in search of strong adrenaline bursts.
Hiking fans can also find some of the most challenging hikes. A vast number of itineraries are available; from the banks of the Léman Lake to the Vallées du Chablais, from the treetops of the Chartreuse to the vineyards of the Combe de Savoie, from the high mountain pastures around Beaufort to the natural conservation area of the Tarentaise, these fabulous sites are there to be discovered.
In the valley of Abondance, a floral hiking path allows visitors to familiarise themselves with the various animal and vegetal mountain species. For those who like hiking off the beaten tracks, the via ferrate - special hiking paths - are the best way to go up and reach some the most breath-taking ridges using cables and ladders fixed to the rock.
What to eat:
In Savoie, all cheeses are called tommes although they all taste different and all look different.
Among the tommes which have received the AOC label (a guarantee of authenticity), you should try the Beaufort, the tomme of Abondance or the tome des Bauges- the only tome spelt with a single m! All the tomes and tommes can be enjoyed either melted or as is.

What to visit:
Why not go to the musée de l'ours des cavernes - the museum of cave bears - in Entremont-le-Vieux? This museum is in the Grotte de Balme, in Colomb, in these very caves several thousands of bears hibernated between 40000 and 21000 BC. This unique museum in Europe displays the living conditions of these wild animals.


What to find: The Ardèche is made up of forests, vineyards, mountains, caves and lakes. This small area situated near Provence, between Lyon and Avignon, is a typical example of some of France's most beautiful sites. Magnificently rugged scenery, fast flowing rivers, the Ardèche seduces because of its `wild' side.

What to do:
There are different ways to enjoy the wilderness of the Ardèche. By train : the Mastrou, this old 19th century steam engine takes you from Lamastre to Tournon-sur-Rhône. It takes you across the Vallée du Doux, right in the heart of a beautiful and remote land unreachable by car.
By foot or bicycle: : the roads are more than a thousand kilometres long. The hills around Annonay, Privas or the Vans are particularly suitable for family walks.
Horse riding: walking or trotting, go and discover the valley of Eyrieux and the Vivarais mountains. Approximately 28 horse-riding centres offer you a wide range of options.
Canoeing: speed down the gorges of the river Ardèche. There are rapids of 30 kms in length (about 20 miles). You will see how brave you are! Let yourself float all the way to the Pont d'Arc, a natural stone arch that crosses the river.
If you enjoy flying: get on board a hot-air balloon, also called montgolfières, and fly over Annonay, the town where the famous Montgolfier brothers were born.
Walking underground : go and explore the many caves lining the underground rivers. Among the 2000 caves that have been registered until now in this tiny part of France, there is one that is particularly worth-seeing: the Aven d'Orgnac, which is well known for being a really thrilling trip to the inside of the earth.
What to eat:
in the Ardèche, chestnuts are the key ingredients of the local cuisine. Either boiled, grilled or ground, they are also used for the making of bread and soup.
The Ardèche's favourite dessert is marrons glacés -pieces of chestnuts with sugar icing. In the summer time you can also enjoy la tarte aux myrtilles- a delicious hot blueberry tart served with whipped cream.

What to visit:
The museum of lavender, located in Saint-Remèze in the middle of the lavender fields is a must. The museum will make you discover everything you need to know about this plant, la lavande, whose popular etymology is: 'plant used for washing', as laver means to wash in French. You will also see how the oil is distilled in the traditional way and you'll be able to visit the gardens around the museum.


What to find:
crossed from East to West by the Pyrenees mountains, the Pays Basque is half in France, half in Spain.

The French provinces stretch from the seashores of the Labourd to the mountains of the Soule, crossing the valleys of Basse-Navarre.
The Euskal Herria (Pays Basque in Basque language) will enchant you with its strange mix of bright colours. The red earth and the white houses contrast with the green hills while the blue ocean lies at the foot of the coasts of Ciboure and St-Jean-de-Luz.

What to do:
go hiking or ride a donkey to find and watch the tawny vultures. Canoeing in the gorges of Basse-Navarre is a very inviting option; visiting the caves of Sare, wander in the paths of the Haute-Soule. Also known as the land of a thousand greens, the Pays Basque is an ideal place for family leisure activities...
It is also a surfers' paradise. Biarritz is the historical French capital of surfing. Since the 1950s, thousands of surf lovers have come to Biarritz and enjoyed defying the laws of gravity by riding giant waves. Take the challenge and try this adrenaline driven sport. Surfer à Biarritz
Every year in July the Biarritz Surf Festival is the location of incredible competitions which surfing legends coming from all over the world.
What to eat there:
the peppers of the small village of Espelette, dried and ground into a powder are used to flavour hot dishes.
Piments d'Espelette These peppers are also used like black or grey pepper. It is now the only French condiment that has been given the AOC label.
As a key ingredient of Basque cuisine, once the peppers are dried and plaited, they are also used to decorate houses. You will see many of these vermilion ornaments on the façades of houses.

What to visit:
The Villa Arnaga in Cambo-les-Bains should be one of your stops. This house was built at the beginning of the century by Edmond Rostand - the author of Cyrano de Bergerac
The Villa is mostly famous for its double garden: the first garden is à la française; all the flower beds, ponds and box trees have been given geometrical shapes. The second garden is à l'anglaise and is the result of the pretty mixing of camellias and rhododendrons. Jardins de la Villa Arnaga à Cambo-les-Bains

Prepare the trip

Savoie Haute-Savoie

  • how to get there : Flights British Airways from London Heathrow to Lyon.
    Flights British Airways from London Heathrow, London Gatwick, London City Airport to Geneva.
  • To read : "Pays de Savoie. 14 itinéraires en Savoie et Haute-Savoie" de Yves aux éditions Ouest-France.
  • Maison de Savoie
    31, avenue de l'Opéra
    75 001 Paris
    Tél : 00 33.
    Ask for brochures "Savoie Haute-Savoie patrimoine", "La Savoie escalade, via ferrata, canyoning, 100 sites remarquables", "Haute-Savoie Activités Nature".
  • Savoie - Haute-Savoie
    Agence touristique de la Savoie
    24, boulevard de la Colonne
    73025 Chambéry Cedex
    Tél : 00 33. 479.85.12.45
  • Agence touristique de la Haute-Savoie
    56, rue Sommelier - BP 348
    74012 Annecy cedex
    Tél : 00 33. 450.51.32.31
  • Musée de l'ours des cavernes,
    73670 Entremont-le-Vieux
    Tél : 00 33. 479.26.29.87
  • Office du Tourisme Vallée d'Abondance
    74360 Abondance
    Tél : 00 33. 450.73.02.90
  • How to get there : Vols Ryanair from London Stansted to St-Etienne.
  • Comité départemental du Tourisme de l'Ardèche
    4, cours du Palais
    07000 Privas
    Tél : 00 33. 475.64.04.66
    ask for brochures : "Ardèche Loisirs Nature", "28 sites touristiques Ardèche Loisirs et Patrimoine"; "Guide découverte", "Guide courts séjours".
  • Le Musée de la Lavande
    07700 Saint-Remèze
    Tél : 00 33. 475.04.36.38
  • Other links :
    Le train Mastrou :
    Tours à montgolfières : "Ardèche Montgolfières" :
    "Les montgolfières d'Annonay" :
    "Annonay Concept" :
    Aven d'Orgnac :
Pays Basque
  • How to get there : Vols Ryanair from London Stansted to Biarritz.
  • To read: "Pays Basque magazine" for updates on the region and special articles with wonderful photos.
  • Comité départemental du Tourisme
    4 allée des Platanes
    64108 Bayonne cedex
    Tél : 00 33. 820. 054. 064
    Ask for document "Itinéraires en pays basque" and the brochure on activities and monuments.
  • Biarritz Tourisme
    1 Square Ixelles
    64200 Biarritz
    Tél : 00 33. 559.22.37.00
  • Office du tourisme d'Espelette 
    145 route Karrika Nagusia
    64250 Espelette
    Tél : 00 33. 559. 93 95 02
  • Office du tourisme de Soule
    10 rue J.B. Hengas
    64130 Mauléon
    Tél : 00 33. 559.28.02.37
    To visit the "gorges de Kakouetta" and its cascades, the "canyon d'Hozarte" and its bridge 140m above ground.
  • Villa Arnaga,
    Route de Bayonne
    64 250 Combo-les-Bains
    Tél : 00 33. 559.29.70.57

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