Long days, mild weather and an army of jours fériés make May ideal for weekend trips into France’s far-flung corners. Between May Day, Ascension, V-E Day and associated “ponts,” this month was made for weekend forays. May is also a spectacular month to see France in bloom – fields of brilliant yellow rapeseed plants grace the countryside from Calais to Lyon.
Escape the Italian and German tourist occupation of Paris, and profit from May’s generous weekends to discover France’s hidden treasures. But be careful. Much of Europe benefits from the May holiday feast, making these weekends some of the most crowded times of the year in parts of France. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the line in front of the Louvre, then think twice before visiting popular places like the Riviera and Le Mont St. Michel. Think more in terms of getting to know lesser traveled areas of France. Here are a few ideas for May weekend trips that will land you in a pleasant place and not at the end of a long line.
Brantôme and Bourdeilles, twin gateways to the Dordogne
If a quiet, charming streamside village surrounded by lush rolling hills and thick forests is what your doctor ordered, aim toward the Périgord and the serene villages of Brantôme and Bourdeilles. Both straddle crystal-clear rivers and offer the perfect remedy for the Paris blues. They’re not on the way to anywhere, so you’ll find fewer travelers and autoroutes to whisk you there. Plan on a full day’s drive from Paris.
Cozy Brantôme seems made for relaxation. The lazy Dronne river circles it, creating an island out of this compact town. Old houses festooned with geraniums and character line the island banks of the Dronne. An ancient abbey and a stone bridge connecting a romantic mill (now a four-star hotel-restaurant) with a picture-perfect park complement the town across the river. The abbey tour is so-so, but don’t miss the climb up and through France’s oldest belfry. The interior construction is fascinating and the view breathtaking. Accommodations generally don’t pose a problem here and rooms are available in all price ranges. For a list of hotels, contact Brantôme’s tourist office, tel: 53.05.80.52.
Brantôme is a fine town, though I prefer to stay in Bourdeilles, 10 sublime minutes upriver. Fewer tourists make it here, and the Hôtel le Griffon puts the lodging question to bed. The Griffon is a three-star, wood-beamed country hotel with an outdoor terrace reaching out to a lapping stream inches away. A double room with everything runs 390F, and the excellent restaurant offers such southwestern specialties as foie gras, duck and truffles, with menus starting at 95F. Tel: 53.03.75.61.
Sleepy Bourdeilles climbs the lush hillside from stream to château. Cross the 14th-century bridge and continue past the boat-shaped mill up to the castle and superb view. The Château de Bourdeilles is actually two châteaux in one – a 13th-century castle and a 16th-century Renaissance château. The extravagantly furnished interior makes the tour in French worth taking. Wander into the surrounding hills to experience nature at its finest.
Brantôme and Bourdeilles are just inside the Périgord. If you have more time, you could continue on through Les Eyzies, and its famous Cro-Magnon caves, to the seductive city of Sarlat and into France’s most beautiful river valley, the Dordogne. Sarlat is the best base for touring the Dordogne valley. It’s likely to be busy with tour groups, so reserve a room in advance. Stay in the excellent Hôtel la Coulverine, place de la Bouquerie, tel: 188.8.131.52, and ask for the tower room if you’re three people or more (three people pay 380F; four, 420F).
When heading back to Paris, consider a detour to Oradour-sur-Glane, 25 kilometers north of Limoges. The “Martyr Ville,” as it is known, was machine-gunned and completely burned on June 10, 1944, by Nazi troops seeking revenge for the killing of one of their officers. All 642 townspeople were left dead in a blackened crust of a town under a silent blanket of ashes. This ghost town has been left untouched since, and is thus a very moving and powerful memorial to World War II.
Auxerre, Semur-en-Auxois and Châteauneuf
Here’s a nearby, and great, three-night getaway: take your first night in Auxerre, two easy autoroute hours southeast of Paris; continue to Vézelay the next day, admire its cathedral and beautiful setting, then head to Semur-en-Auxois that night; the next day enjoy the town of Semur, tour the nearby Cistercian abbey of Fontenay, then wander the Burgundy Canal to Châteauneuf en Auxois.
In a rush to the Alps, the Riviera or better known sights of Burgundy, most motorists take the autoroute around Auxerre, not giving it a second thought. But the town is a delight, filled with pedestrian streets, colorful markets, superb Gothic cathedrals and a riverfront setting that many barge companies use as a starting point for their cruises. This is the kind of city that at once makes you feel you could and should live here. It’s large enough to have a thriving city center, but small enough for easy walks into the countryside. Don’t miss the stunning clock tower or the amazing crypt under the Abbaye St Germain. Join the evening crowd and stroll down along the river (follow the cobblestone street that leads around the left of the Cathedrale St Etienne) to inspect the luxury hotel barges. Cross the river, and walk from bridge to bridge for the best view of Auxerre. Reasonable hotels are easy to come by here. The Hôtel Maxime offers a riverfront setting and faded elegance at three-star prices. I like the Hôtel Seignelay’s location and simple comfort, at 250F a double; 2, rue du Pont, tel: 86.52.03.48. Its restaurant is affordable, too, with menus starting at 75F.
From Auxerre, Vézelay is a beautiful hour’s drive south, where you can visit its Basilique de la Madeleine. Treat yourself to the local cheese at the sleepy town of Epoisses, then continue on to the medieval town of Semur-en-Auxois. Semur will greet you with massive, cracked towers and ramparts protecting an ancient, flowered city center. Enter this thoroughly enjoyable city through its medieval arches next to the tourist office. Find your way down to the Armançon river and out to the ramparts park. At night, cross the bridge below the towers for a floodlit view of Semur. The good but cheap (200F/double) one-star Hôtel des Gourmets lies within the old walls (closed for renovation for part of May; call ahead, tel: 80.97.09.41). The less than amiable owners of the Hôtel de la Côte d’Or, tel: 80.97.03.13, offer two-star comfort on the main drag. Le Carillon, 13, rue Buffon, offers the best cuisine in town at reasonable prices.
Semur is ideally located for visiting a wealth of sights in the area. Nearby are the exquisite Cistercian abbey of Fontenay, the historic battlefields of Alésia, where Caesar defeated Vércingetorix in 52 BC, the unknown but flashy Château du Bussy-Rabutin and the secluded little hill town of Flavigny, with its 7th-century abbey. Use Semur’s very helpful tourist office to help you decide what interests you most – it’s loaded with good information in English. Then follow the barges along the Burgundy Canal to Châteauneuf-en-Auxois and set up at the only hotel in town, the Hostellerie du Château. This cozy hotel is adjacent to the château, a classic medieval fortress. And for 290F you can have a cozy room with a view over the castle. Dinner at the hotel’s restaurant is a Burgundian feast for 120F. Tel: 80.49.22.00.
Châteauneuf is one of a rare species of well preserved French hill towns. This medieval figment of your imagination floats high above the Burgundy Canal and the Autoroute du Soleil. Get out of your car and admire Châteauneuf’s strategic perch before attempting the steep, winding approach. If it’s warm, take a lazy hour break at the town’s only café, on the small main square. No matter what the weather, find the extraordinary lookout, pull up a stone bench and sigh. Several hiking trails leave from here into the glorious countryside.
Armagnac, Auch and the Basque Pyrénées
If you can spare more than a few days, dive into this unspoiled and little-known region. The long drive or train ride is worth the time invested. Begin in Auch, a good base for touring the tasty towns of Armagnac and windmill-dotted countryside. Sample the local brandy and refreshingly untouristed villages of St Clar, Lectoure and Fleurance, and the enchanting fortress-towns of Larresingle and Fourcés. If you’ve never tasted Armagnac, you’re in for a treat – it’s as fine as, yet less expensive than, its better known big brother, Cognac.
Save time to explore the intriguing hilltop city of Auch. Its important sights are few, though the pleasant tangle of medieval streets invites endless exploration. See southern France’s most impressive cathedral (Ste. Marie) for a splendid example of regional Gothic architecture. The wood-carved choir and altar match the splendor of the exterior. Above all, try to plan your trip to be in Auch in early June during the Fête de Corrida, a celebration of the art of bullfighting. Parades, dancing and the French version of bullfighting fill the streets during this almost exclusively local festival.
Finding a hotel in the area rarely presents a problem. In Auch try the Relais de Gascogne (247F/double), 5, av Marne, tel: 62.05.26.81. If a small village hotel sounds more appealing, try Le Relais in Fleurance, tel: 62.06.05.08.
If time allows, extend your trip and head for the hills, the Pyrénées. Follow the extremely scenic route through the pleasant towns of Oloron Ste Marie, Armits and Taudets-Sorholus to the Basque bastion of St Jean Pied de Port. The mountain views are as distracting as the road is twisty.
St Jean Pied de Port is a streamside hilly mix of steep cobblestone walkways and cute houses. It’s beautifully situated along the Nive river at the base of the western Pyrénées. This is French Basque country, where the natives speak French with an even more pronounced accent than you or I, and blue berets seem a requirement for men over 60. Apart from the souvenir shops, it doesn’t seem that St Jean Pied de Port could have been much different in the days when it served as a stopover for the pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostella.
St Jean Pied de Port is as picturesque as villages get, and it can be popular with day trippers. Try the rustic one-star Hôtel Ramuntcho, tel: 59.37.03,91, next to the fortress wall or dodge the tourists in nearby Cambo les Bains. The terrace-café-equipped Hôtel Bellevue, tel: 184.108.40.206 (244F), overlooks a fine view.