Travelling with Back-Roads through France is a unique opportunity to experience the real French culture. Andy Steele has lived in France and has been guiding with Back-Roads Touring for several years and introduces you to life in France.
The La Belle France tour takes you from the Paris Basin, in which the great city of Paris sits astride the River Seine and the two great islands of St Louis and Cite, site of the original settlements occupied several thousand years before Christ was born, not occupied by the famous Notre Dame Cathedral. Paris has evolved and developed but the greatest change took place after the French Revolution during the reign of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. It was he that constructed the Champs Elysees so that his armies could march abreast through the centre of the city after returning in triumph. You take this route out of Paris hugging the Seine River Valley, the great artery to the north-west linking the city with the sea, leaving the vitality of Paris to enter Monet’s tranquil garden at Giverny, where he painted many of his masterpieces. Little has changed over the years, close your eyes, smell the flowers and listen to the birds and imagine you are in the 19th Century once again.
From Giverny we meander up to Chateau Gaillard at Andelys. This immense castle dominates the Seine River and was constructed in less than a year by Richard the Lionheart but taken by subterfuge in less than a day. Peer down onto the River Seine and look for the small island where the king actually lived.
We continue up to Rouen, another great medieval city astride the Seine where the great French heroin, Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake by the English in the centre of the main square in the town. We stay at Honfleur on the channel coast, the most beautiful of all the Norman ports where the houses, shops and restaurants hug the town’s port. The next morning we pass through Cabourg, Dives-sur-Mer and Deauville before entering Bayeux. The first French town to be liberated in 1944, it survived largely unscathed. Visit the wonderful cathedral and wander around the cobbled streets. This is at the centre of the Normandy bocage, famous for its rolling green pastures, dairy products, cider and, of course, Calvados.
We stand on the beach at Omaha and imagine what it was like to land there in the early hours of 6th June 1944, we view the remains of the Mulberry Harbour towed across the channel to provide an artificial harbour to bring in supplies to the 150,000 men that landed on that day and remain in awe of this great endeavour.
Leaving Normandy we drop down to the rugged Breton coast and visit Mont St Michel. The best view is several miles before you arrive, from the small road leading to the mount across the low flat farmland you see the enormous structure piercing the horizon. We continue down past the fortified port of St Malo to Dinan and medieval Angers.
We are now enter the Loire valley famous for its chateau, wine and beautifully golden tuffeau stone. We stay overnight at Chinon, a medieval town sitting at a crossing point on the river. This was where Joan of Arc met the Dauphin and where you can stroll down the main thoroughfare that has changed very little since the 16th century. Try and visit a vineyard to taste the wonderful Muscadet, Saumur or Chinon. The original chateaus, in the 14th and 15th centuries were fortified strongholds used by the English and French crowns to protect their land and hold the territory gained, by the 18th century these had changed to grand country residences, in huge estates maintained by thousands of peasants. We visit several of these before turning our sights to the magnificent cathedral at Chartres before returning to Paris.
Three unique experiences on tour:
(i) Markets. Generally the street markets in France move from town to village in a certain area in a rough circuit, so that the circuit finishes after seven days and the traders return to their original start point before beginning again. Because of the different start dates of each tour and the various regions you pass through you can never be sure when you might encounter the market. Back Roads flexibility enables the tour to visit any market that they come across – part of the French experience. The best one is in Chinon.
(ii) Whilst visiting the D-Day Beaches, being able to certain points not accessible to larger vehicles. This enables the guide to show the group photographs taken in June 1944 and allow them to compare the photographs with the place where they are actually standing.
(iii) Being able to visit small cafes en-route. These cafes are cheap, wonderful value and the hosts are delighted to have visitors from far afield. The wine is good, food excellent and the café owners don’t often speak English which makes it exciting and different. Large groups are too big to use this facility, Back Roads can.
Top Local Tips
(i) Chateau de Breze. Great little chateau en-route to Chinon. In the middle of the vineyards and sunflowers. Exciting visit to the underground chambers, kitchens and wineries. Wine tasting and the opportunity to buy some really good local wine and excellent prices.
(ii) Auberge at Port Mort. Auberge on the road between Giverny and Rouen, good lunch stop and very knowledgeable patron. Good 3 course meals.
(iii) Café at Giverny. Short walk up from the house. Tiny café shunned by larger groups, excellent snacks. Good terrace to see the world go by.
(iv) Montgomery’s HQ at Bruay. Un-signposted, a series of small fields where he parked his caravans, just outside Bayeux, and marshalled over a million men.
(v) The Australian and New Zealand graves at the CWG Cemetery at Bayuex.
(vi) Café Sexton. Just along from Gold Beach. Good food and wonderful hosts.
'This tour is truly magnificent because it transports the visitor through several thousand years of history, from the very early settlements, magnificent chateaus and cathedrals to events that changed world history in 1944. Passing through different types of landscape from the lush green fields of Normandy to the beautiful sunflowers in the Loire, a small group tour enables each person to take time over their visit, make the choices that they want to make, breath in the atmosphere and embrace the culture that they encounter on the way.' Andy Steele, Back-Roads guide April 2011
Join Back-Roads on La Belle France departing from Paris. Tours depart 27 Apr - 21 Sep 2011.