Start an adventure among the whitewashed homes of the Île de Ré, before casting off on the waterways of the Marais Poitevin; sip your way through cellars of Bordeaux; choose between six perfect Atlantic beaches in the resort of Biarritz and see a whole new side to France in the Basque villages.
Île de Ré
Enjoy the relaxed pace of life in ‘the Hamptons of France’, a stylish island renowned for its seafood and beaches
It’s not hard to see how Île de Ré became the bolthole of choice for summer holidaymakers fleeing the French capital. With its wide expanses of beach interspersed with pretty towns and villages, the island has a look of accidental perfectionism: a sort of Paris-on-Sea. Everywhere houses are uniformly cream, with terracotta roofs and shutters mostly emerald green but occasionally grey or blue, echoing the colours of the ocean.
In season, the island comes alive, its fashionable visitors pedalling the many excellent cycle paths on sit-up-and-beg bikes, pedigree lap dogs peering from their baskets. Others, returning from market, are carrying freshly caught oysters, dainty new potatoes, and some of the island’s prized fleur de sel: salt harvested from the sea by hand and exported all over the world.
‘It’s expensive, but for cooking you need just one crystal,’ says Brice Collonnier, scooping a handful from a glistening pile at his salt farm in Loix, where square dams criss-cross a flat, windswept landscape. ‘It’s very strong: like an explosion in your mouth.’
He is one of a crop of young farmers – the average age is about 40 – who have moved to Île de Ré to revive the age-old art of evaporating seawater in open pans. ‘When we harvest, it’s ready – we don’t add a thing, it’s a completely natural product.’ And, he says, an ideal accompaniment to the island’s ample seafood.
The sea is the Île de Ré’s lifeblood, always visible alongside its other major industry: bringing holiday dreams to life. At Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré, the island’s longest and most popular beach, swimmers and sunbathers mingle with oystercatchers wading into the depths; below the star-shaped ramparts at St-Martin-de-Ré, a favoured picnic spot, fishermen rake the seabed for cockles. Elsewhere, this fortified town, a Unesco World Heritage site, is a maze of cobbled streets and historic houses. They lean into each other as if sharing gossip as juicy as that traded by the locals, sitting on their front steps in the sunshine.
Explore the canals of Green Venice in a traditional flat-bottomed boat, reliving the journeys made by monks who built the waterways in the Middle Ages
Water thwacks against the side of the wooden boat as it floats along a die-straight canal enclosed by weeping willows. Tour guide Antonin Vorain deftly punts the boat with a single oar, ducking his head under a low-hanging branch. He grew up in this region, and knows it intimately.
‘Monks built the canals in the Middle Ages to transport cattle and grain,’ he explains. These days they’re used more for leisure than industry, though occasionally a boat loaded with cream-coloured Charolais cows might putter past. Cattle graze on the acid-green grass that extends from the banks of the canals which – along with the profusion of vegetation and the ubiquitous green duckweed – give the Marais Poitevin its nickname of Green Venice. Sometimes glimpsed amid the treeline are pretty stone cottages, each with a boat moored at the water’s edge. ‘Once these villages were only accessible by water,’ says Antonin. ‘It was customary for newly married couples to be given a boat by their families – it was like being given a car.’ The tradition of boat ownership persists, despite the fact that the villages are now easily accessible by road.
Antonin steers along the Canal de la Garette à Coulon, towards the village of Coulon. It’s a popular place to hire boats and stop for lunch, sampling traditional dishes made with mogette – locally grown white beans – at the waterside restaurants. Nevertheless, in the early morning it’s deserted but for a few villagers, out to fish for little eels called pibales.
The network of canals is so vast, seclusion is never far away. Conche des Ecoyaux is particularly well hidden, and a favourite spot for truanting schoolkids. This narrow stretch of water, like most here, is lined with poplar trees. ‘They were planted because their roots help hold the earth of the banks together,’ says Antonin.
Originally boats from Marais Poitevin were crafted from oak, but these days most are made from fibreglass or aluminium. Many are motorised now, too, but Antonin prefers the quietude lent by an oar, his ears alert to the tap-tap of a woodpecker in the forest.
Above the still water, a grey heron flaps by and a flash of blue suggests a fleeting visit from a kingfisher. Around a corner, the landscape opens up to reveal fields of swaying corn, the rising sun illuminating its spiky tufts. A couple on bicycles pedal along the water’s edge – cycle paths can take visitors deeper into areas not navigable by boat, through swathes of forest where peach trees hang heavy with sweet fruit.
‘This place has a unique history,’ Antonin says, as the village of Magné’s Romanesque church spire looms into view. He moors the boat, tethering it with a rope. ‘Here our language, food and traditions are all tied to the water. We cannot imagine another life.’
Learn about the region’s wine-making traditions with an expert before testing your new-found knowledge on a tour of the city’s best bars
'There is a particular mosaic of soil here – the terroir – which makes our wine so special,’ says Benoît-Manuel Trocard, winemaker and teacher at L’École du Vin in Bordeaux. The city is the epicentre of France’s largest wine-growing area. Around 450 million bottles a year are produced here, and, even to a connoisseur, the variety of blends and producers can feel intimidating.
Benoît-Manuel’s lessons demystify the Bordelaise way of making wine. ‘Wine should not be complex,’ he says. ‘You don’t need to be an expert to appreciate it, you just need to follow your senses. There are no rules.’ He explains the differences between regionally specific blends, and which châteaux specialise in different grape combinations. ‘Bordeaux’s winemakers are enthusiastic about innovation, and love to share their passion with visitors.’
Though it can be fun to drive out and explore these châteaux, a less sober alternative is a walking tour of the wine bars dotted along the city’s winding medieval streets and grand, straight boulevards. At the cellar-like Wine More Time, co-owner Alexandre Lahitte brings out a rare 1982 Château Soutard Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Classé he saves for special occasions. ‘Wine is meant to be enjoyed, and we do that well here,’ he says, gesturing to a bar full of patrons of all ages, chatting and drinking.
At nearby Aux Quatre Coins du Vin, wines are available either as a taster or a full glass, allowing even those constrained by budget to sample expensive vintages.
One in three of the city’s inhabitants is under 25, and they love wine as much as their forebears. Young oenophiles favour Darwin, an artsy new district occupying old army barracks on the once-industrial right bank of the Garonne river. An emerging centre for gastronomy, the most popular restaurant here is Magasin Général. Its walls are colourfully decorated with work by local graffiti artists, and families gather for brunch at wooden tables. Naturally the wine list is excellent, but one of the few people not drinking is Martine Macheras, whose bright yellow vintage Citroën 2CV is parked a few feet away. As a tour guide who seeks out the city’s secret corners, as well as the things Bordeaux does best, she is well-used to being everybody’s designated driver.
This Art Deco city has an abundance of beaches, offering world-class surf and ample space for sunny lounging
In the sparkling water of La Côte des Basques, a surf lesson is taking place, newbies wobbling on their boards as the waves plunge them towards the beach. Though only half make it standing, the instructor applauds all their efforts, before gesturing them back to the water to try again.
In south Biarritz, this is one of the world’s best surf beaches. It gained notoriety in the ’50s, when screenwriter Peter Viertel shot his film The Sun Also Rises in the city. A keen surfer schooled in Hawaii, Viertel was so impressed by Biarritz’s waves he had his board sent over, effectively introducing the sport. The city ran with it, and now hosts world-class championship events.
Instructor Emmanuelle Vargas is a second-generation surf pioneer. ‘My father surfed on this beach when he was little,’ she says. ‘He made his own board from wood – he was very committed!’ She waxes her own board while bobbing to the reggae music emanating from the school where she works, L’École de Surf Lagoondy, housed in a striped tent. ‘I inherited my father’s passion and have surfed all over the world, but nowhere compares to here – not just the waves, but the atmosphere and people, too.’
Surf culture spreads beyond the beaches. Shops stocked with flip-flops and local clothing labels like BTZ and 64 (named after the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department number) line the main shopping street of Rue du Port Vieux, frequented by sunbleached shoppers. This board-toting crowd are a far cry from Biarritz’s early visitors. The city found favour when Napoleon III began holidaying here, cementing its status among high society sunseekers who left an impressive architectural legacy – particularly during the city’s Art Deco heyday. The Casino, still a functioning gambling hall, sits proudly on the long promenade behind the wide sweep of sand at the main beach, La Grande Plage, while Le Musée de la Mer has to be one of the world’s most striking aquariums.
The enduring lure has always been Biarritz’s beaches – and with six to choose from, they rarely feel crowded. In the small, calm cove in the Old Town, Plage Port Vieux, couples picnic on Basque goods bought at Les Halles market. Over at the rocky outcrop of Le Rocher du Basta, a solitary artist, painting an Atlantic Ocean panorama, surveys a broad stretch of coast stretching from the city lighthouse to Spain.
Taste the piquant peppers of Espelette, try a game of Basque pelota and spot pilgrims travelling along the Camino de Santiago
Neat rows of plump red peppers, threaded onto thin pieces of twine, hang from the matching red timber struts of an immaculately-kept house in the Basque village of Espelette. The shutters are painted the same shade, and pots of scarlet flowers add another pop of colour to an already arresting scene. The villages of France’s Pays Basque have their own unique visual identity, even using an angular font to spell out the names of houses and shop signs in what is one of the oldest languages still spoken in Europe.
Culturally the Basque region shares as much with neighbouring Northern Spain as it does with France. While traditionally French food features little spice, the Espelette pepper is a cornerstone of Basque cuisine. In the village that gives it its name, peppers adorn most houses, hanging to dry in the sunshine. Every Wednesday, at the indoor market, stallholders display produce in a kaleidoscope of fiery shades: jars filled with pepper salt, piperade (a stew made with onions, green and Espelette peppers and tomatoes), and powdered peppers, all neatly lined up for sale.
At Boutique Bipertegia, her shop on Espelette’s village square, Véronique Darthayette lays out various samples on the counter. ‘The Piment d’Espelette has a lot of virtues, and isn’t really a very spicy pepper,’ she says. ‘On the Scoville scale, it is at 4/10 – compare that to a Caribbean red pepper, which is at 8 or 9/10.’ The Espelette pepper is to Basque cuisine what black pepper is to French, she explains. ‘We use it in every dish – even some desserts. It’s a lot more digestible than black pepper, much less aggressive.’ Peppers are so important to this village that church services are held to ensure a good crop, and the product is celebrated with an annual Espelette festival.
The Basque climate is also different to that found in the rest of France: the region gets double the amount of rain, turning it a uniformly luscious shade of green. Above Espelette looms the jagged peak of La Rhune – locals say that when there’s a cloud over this mountain, it’s going to rain and when there isn’t, it’s going to rain too. Cutting through the landscape, with its abundance of ferns and fields filled with neatly geometrical rows of corn, is the twisting road to the neighbouring village of Sare. On the verges, sheep and little Basque horses – called pottoks – graze the grass.
Sare has the Basque trilogy of church, town hall and fronton: a single-walled court used for pelota, a game not unlike squash. Today, two amateurs have a go, wielding wooden palettes to whack the ball against the wall and, on the bounce, contorting their bodies to avoid a forbidden backhand. Eventually over-exerted, they slump under the shade of a plane tree.
A little further east, in a café window in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a poster advertises a professional pelota match on tonight at the town’s fronton. In this small, lively place spread across the banks of the Nive de Béhérobie river, talk at the pavement tables is of the match.
Weary passing hikers pause to take a table, lowering their bags to the cobbled floor. Scallop shells hanging from their backpacks mark them out as pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago route. Most stay to tuck into galettes with piquant piperade – for now, their mission can wait.
This article appeared in the February 2016 edition of Lonely Planet Traveller magazine. Helene Dancer travelled to the French Atlantic region with support from Atout France (uk.france.fr). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.