Even if you haven’t had the pleasure of traveling to France, chances are you can still imagine the glittering lights of Paris, the enchanting Mont-Saint Michel, or the aqua-beauty of the French Riviera. The bustling centers of our favorite tourist destinations are no doubt exciting. However, they aren’t necessarily where you’ll find the most authentic experiences. If you’re looking to discover quaint towns full of historic charm or countryside serenity, then your best bet is to venture further afield. All across the country, there is so much more to explore when you travel off-the-beaten-path. On y va!
Perched on a peninsula in Lake Geneva, the lakeside town of Yvoire is home to charming alpine-style Medieval buildings, complete with stone archways, wooden shuttered windows, and painted flower boxes. Winning awards for its flower displays, you can expect Yvoire to be pretty as a picture, with plenty of visitors coming just to admire the blooms. In the main square, Place du Thay, you’ll find the Church of St. Pancrace. Dating back to the 11th century, the church is a classified historical monument and features a distinctive onion-shaped dome. Along with the church is Yvoire’s castle, a stunning lakeside chateau with a steep roof and small turrets.
Be sure to take a stroll through the Garden of Five Senses, the castle’s former vegetable patch which is now a beautifully manicured, walled garden. The picturesque village is perfect for aimless wandering, both through the town itself and down to the marina. Take a pleasant cruise around the lake, or sail across to the neighboring town of Exceneveux for its golden, sandy beach. Yvoire is easily accessible by car, bus, or boat. It is situated three and a half hours from Lyon, or makes for a perfect day-trip from Geneva.
Espelette, New Aquitaine
At the foothills of the Pyrenees in French Basque Country, the quaint town of Espelette has a provincial charm and is delightful during the quieter shoulder seasons. Espelette’s main streets are lined with traditional whitewashed Basque houses, which make the perfect backdrop for the town’s edible adornments: dried red peppers known as piment d’Espelette. Traditionally hung out at the end of summer, the drying chili peppers dangle proudly from balconies and facades along the streets. The deep red beauty of the chilies is more pronounced during the autumn months when they are hung in such large quantities that the houses themselves can be covered from view. An important export to the region and an integral ingredient in local cuisine, Espelette’s noble pepper is celebrated during the annual Pepper Festival, held during the last weekend of October. Not only can festival-goers sample and buy chili peppers, but there is also Basque dancing, traditional music concerts, sporting competitions, and parades to enjoy.
With a selection of boutique shops and cafes, visitors can spend half a day wandering through the town before making their way to the Church of Saint-Etienne on the edge of Espelette. The attractive interiors of the church are emblematic of Basque architecture, with three wooden galleries and a decorative 18th-century altarpiece. There are also myriad hiking and mountain biking trails to enjoy in the region, which cut across the scenic hills and run between the nearby towns of Sare and Ainhoa.
As one of the best-preserved and most beautiful towns in Brittany, Dinan is not one to be missed if you find yourself in the region. Seemingly straight out of a fairytale, Dinan’s steep and narrow cobbled lanes, its crooked, half-timbered houses, and lush, riverside paths all add to the allure of this enchanting village. Giving visitors a peek into France’s medieval past, Dinan is a great choice for the history buffs and boasts some of the finest architecture in Brittany. Start your explorations in the Centre Historique, where buildings that date back to the 13th century, the original wall and guard towers, and an array of historical monuments will have you enthralled for hours.
Admire the Basilique St. Sauveur for its Gothic architecture and beautiful stained glass windows, or, if shopping is more your thing, browse the many shops full of whimsical souvenirs, baked goods, and creperies. Dinan was awarded the designation as a Ville d’Art et d’Histoire (Town of Art and History) in 1986 and is still home to a large number of artists, sculptors, glass blowers, and bookbinders who showcase their works today. Explore the riverfront harbor, or take a walk on the ramparts―you won’t be disappointed.
An isolated village in the remote Gellone Valley, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert is renowned for its position on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela and for the unspoiled natural beauty of its surroundings. A smattering of pale, stone buildings sit tucked between a steep-sided gorge of limestone cliffs, enveloping the abbey at the heart of its township. Bearing the name of the founding patron saint, the village has held on to its Medieval identity and today is listed as one of the prestigious “Grand Sites of France” and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Apart from the village itself, which is filled with ancient housing and is peacefully quiet, the Gellone Abbey is the town’s main highlight: it’s a perfectly preserved Roman church that dates back to the 12th century. The abbey houses a small museum of local artifacts and an attractive garden at its center. Rising behind the village are hills that are excellent for walking and for taking in brilliant views of the town below. The Cave of Clamouse is situated nearby, known for its spectacular “cathedral room.” Just minutes away, you’ll also find Pont Du Diable, or the Devil’s Bridge, over the Hérault river, which makes for a great place to swim, kayak, or lounge on the pebbled shore.
In the heart of southern Burgundy, the castle of Brancion and its namesake village is considered to be a hidden gem by locals and travelers. Upon arriving at the town, tourists must leave their cars outside of the village walls and enter on foot via the castle. Only residents are allowed to drive within the village, which helps to lessen traffic and create a serene atmosphere. Records of settlement in Brancion date back as far as the sixth century, with some of the oldest sections of the castle going back to the tenth century. A fine example of Romanesque architecture is the Church of Saint-Pierre, located on a rocky ridge above the village. Peruse the magnificent frescoes within the church, and gaze out at some of the best views of the Grose Valley—a patchwork quilt of undulating pastures. If you’re looking for a sense of peace and calm in the middle of the French countryside, Brancion is a perfect choice.
Saint Emilion, Aquitaine
Saint Emilion is a haven for foodies and wine lovers. This pretty, fortified village is a little more popular with tourists than previously mentioned towns, but is still considered off-the-beaten-path, and is a truly magical place to visit. What’s more, it’s located just 45 minutes from Bordeaux.
Named after a Benedictine monk who lived here in a cave in the eighth century, Saint Emilion grew into a religious commune and soon became a popular stop on pilgrimage routes. Today, the village and its esteemed vineyards are UNESCO-listed. Start your explorations by heading to the 13th century King’s Keep for a taste of history with tours of the underground catacombs and sights from the top that offer spectacular views of the town and surrounding vineyards. Be sure to check out the striking Monolithic Church and Bell Tower, which was carved out of the limestone cliffs during the twelfth century, and is the largest of its kind in Europe.
Amble your way down steep, cobbled streets and marvel at the beautiful courtyard and gardens behind the partially-ruined Cordeliers Cloister. It is beneath this cloister that former quarries loop their way underground, where Bordeaux’s sparkling wine is aged. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, there are plenty of eateries serving delicious local fare, offering picturesque terraces and courtyards in which to enjoy your meal. Finally, sit back, relax, and enjoy an extensive selection of wine and cheese. This is a wine town, after all!
Where’s your favorite place to travel off-the-beaten-path? Let us know in the comments below!
Header photo by Alex Holyoake.