TRAVEL Beyond the Mayle: into deepest France

There are some corners of foreign fields untouched by former advertisin g executives. Whether it is for an active family holiday or a romantic weekend break, Jill Crawshaw has plenty of original suggestions for Francophiles in the Lot to chateaux in the ...
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FROM GITES TO CHATEAUX

Life in a gite is every Briton's dream of rural France - and it was long before Peter Mayle's books. The fantasy includes buying crusty bread at the local boulangerie, fresh eggs from the farmer's wife, and playing boules with the old boys in the village square.

Our own first family gite holiday in search of such a simple life in the Dordogne was less than a success. We had chosen the most basic, one- pi grade (gites are graded from one to four "ears of corn") which turned out to be a dark and mouldy cottage miles from the baker, farm or village square. It was less "basic", more spartan: an absence of comfortable chairs, no bedside lights (the rest about 40 watts), one set of crockery and cutlery per person, and not a teaspoon more. The children were expected to sleep in put-you-ups in the living room.

Though forewarned, we had forgotten to pack sheets, towels, soap and loo paper as well as children's games. Arriving late on Saturday, we had to wait until Tuesday to stock up. We spent most of the holiday appeasing our children at a nearby campsite, using its playground, pool and restaurant, looking wistfully at the well-equipped tents and mobile homes. After that, we got better at the gite business.

There are nearly 60,000 of these privately owned cottages, restored rural buildings, houses and apartments to let throughout France. They are marketed with French government help, and inspected by the non-profit- making Fderation Nationale des Gites. You can book them independently, or through a number of organisations and companies, some of which select only two- or three- pi properties, to cater to the pampered British.

More of these firms now supply linen, though there may be quite steep extra charges for it: three years ago we were asked for £60 a week for a family of four. Heating is extra, and such Anglo-Saxon luxuries as teapots, kettles or egg cups often do not feature on the inventories.

Prices are reasonable. You can pay as little as £60-£100 a week for four in low season, £100-£150 in July and August in lesser known areas, with seaside and popular locations up to £600-£800 a week per property.

The largest gite operator in Britain is Gites de France (0171-493 3480), with more than 2,000 properties in its directory. For the first time this year, about 500 of these are classified as "gites plus", and provide a number of extras from bed linen to cleaning kit (perhaps not everybody's idea of a bonus, but necessary for longer stays). The gites may be booked separately, or as part of a package which includes ferry or Le Shuttle fares for cars and passengers. There is a £3 membership fee payable when you book the holiday.

The French Farm and Village Guide (FHG Publications £8.50, available in bookshops) lists 1,200 gites available to independent holidaymakers. Many of the properties in the guide are situated in country areas around Paris, in the south or west. A week in high season in Brittany, for example, costs £160 for four. Bookings are made with the owners direct, or with local reservation systems, and travel arrangements to the gite are made separately.

Brittany Ferries (Plymouth 01752 263 388; Portsmouth 01705 751 833) offers 1,250 gite packages all over France, in which ferry fares for car and passengers on its sailings to Caen, St Malo, Cherbourg and Roscoff are included in the price; a week in high season for two people would cost £167-£417, depending on the location and standard of accommodation.

For holidaymakers in search of a short break, Brittany Ferries offers "gites d'interlude" stays of two, three or four nights, in Brittany, Normandy and the Loire, largely in the off-season. (Efficient heating or logs for the fire are included in the prices.)

The first British firm to offer gite holidays 25 years ago was VFB Holidays (01242 240 340). It has 400 hand-picked and largely traditional properties on its books, always with gardens or terraces, and with draconian standards for owners bullied into providing proper cookers, extra crockery, kettles, irons, flush loos, mops and all that the British holidaymaker demands. The properties range from simple to stylish, and prices vary accordingly. A restored half-timbered traditional barn in Normandy, near the village of Cambremer on the French Tourist Board's Route du Cidre and its Route du Fromage, in the Pays d'Auge, costs £388 for a week for two people during June and September; a thatched house with its own pool near the village of Mesian in Brittany costs £1,061 a week for a family of four in peak season. (Short sea crossings and insurance are included in all prices.)

In addition to gites, there are a large number of other self-catering properties to let in France, from converted watermills and seaside apartments, to mountain chalets, farmhouses, luxury villas and bits of, or even a whole, chteaux.

The Swiss owned Interhome (0181-891 1294), with 7,500 properties in France, is offering worthwile discounts this year to celebrate its 30th anniversary. A typical modern apartment sleeping six, in the purpose-built resort of Le Corbire in the Alps (with riding, tennis, grass skiing, swimming and claypigeon shooting nearby), is priced at £226 in the brochure, and now costs £171. You can rent a farmhouse in Laurabuc in the Languedoc, also sleeping six, and with a shared pool, for £270-£432 a week, instead of £374-£605.

A converted watermill, the Moulin Chamoiserie in the Ile de France near Paris, is one of the many holiday homes offered by Hoseasons Holidays (01502 500 555), ideally situated for Disneyland Paris, or Fontainebleau, and costing from £30 to £50 for each of seven people sharing for a week, though travel is not included in the price.

Alternatively, visitors staying at the Ferme de Couvent, about 12 miles east of Melun, can try hot-air ballooning arranged by the owner, though the cost of FFr950 (£127) can be more than the week's rent for the cottage, where the prices are from £35-£65 per person, based on four people sharing.

There are some unusual houses in out-of-the-way places offered by La France des Villages (01449 737664); a rambling 15th- to 18th-century bastide, La Chapelle, perched on a Gascon hilltop, with a bell tower, chapel and shaded gardens, costs from £692-£2,048 a week for a party of nine including the ferry fares. The firm also offers travelling holiday homes: gypsy caravans in the Lot which cost from £840-£1,027 including ferry. They are for four or five people, fully equipped, even with food for the horse, and if you want to ride alongside, bikes and saddle horses can be included at extra cost.

Not surprisingly, prices can rise steeply as you approach Provence and the Cte d'Azur, though the most interesting of the villas are often some distance from the coast. A beautiful villa at Montauroux belonging to an artist, which has a heated indoor pool and overlooks Lac de Saint Cassien, would be a better bet for bathing in high summer than the crowded coast. It costs £265-£312 for each of nine, from Something Special (01992 552231). There's no risk of slumming in this company's villas, most of which come complete with dishwashers, microwaves, televisions, linen and barbecues. In Peter Mayle country, a villa for eight people in the heart of the Luberon National Park, surrounded by lavender fields and three miles from Apt, costs £165-£278 each. Prices include fares for one car per six paying passengers,

Living like a nobleman for a week or fortnight in your own chteau is a pretty common option these days. It is more likely to be in a flat or apartment which is part of the chteau, however, with other apartments occupied by other holidaymakers and even the owner.

If you want to lord it exclusively over your own domain, Meon Travel (01730 266561) has introduced seven small private chteaux with their own pools in the Dordogne, Lot and Tarn. They sleep from 8-12 people and cost from £1,300-£3,500 to rent for a week, per chteau. Some are unsuitable for children.

There are some very grand Loire chteaux to let with maid service, from International Chapters (0171-722 0722). The Chteau de Bois Giraud, for example, close to the vineyards of Anjou and Saumur can be shared by a group of 14 for £2,330- £2,895 a week. The ancestral home of the De Terves family, the original was burnt down by the Republicans in the War of the Vende. The twin-turretted version was rebuilt in the mid-19th century, and overlooks 10 acres of parkland, woods and orchards. Unlike many chteaux, which come grand but definitely dilapidated, this one includes an illuminated swimming pool, four-poster beds, en suite bathrooms and modern kitchen.

For holidaymakers booking for a fortnight before 30 April in any of its French properties, International Chapters is offering free return car and passenger travel on the Shuttle, or a week's car hire.

OTHER SELF-CATERING OPTIONS

Air France Holidays (0181-742 3377); Allez France (01903 742345); Bowhills (01489 877627); Chez Nous (01484 682503); Cresta Holidays (0161-926 9999); Crystal Holidays (0181-390 3335); Dominique's Villas (0171-738 8772); European Villas (01223 314220); France Travel Service (01494 434353); Just France (0181-780 0303); Le Shuttle Holidays (01303 271717); Stena Sealink Holidays (01233 647033); Vacances en Campagne (01798 869433); and Vintage France (01954 261431).

OUTDOOR FRANCE

Some of the best days of our family holidays in France have been outdoors. There was the time we canoed gently downstream on the Dordogne, accompanied by huge dragonflies, and picnicked lazily in the shadow of a bastide secure in the knowledge that we wouldn't have to paddle back upstream as the boatyard would do it for us. Then there was the day we rambled through the hidden villages, grottoes and limestone gorges of the Vercors, knowing that there would be a small auberge serving, as their plat du jour, local crayfish with the vin du patron. And there was the never-to-be forgotten morning in the Camargue when we rode off on creamy mares as the mist of dawn was still fresh on the tamarisk trees, into parts of that haunting landscape of reeds, lagoons and dunes that other forms of transport cannot reach, returning sunburnt, salty, exhausted and totally exhilarated.

The vast network of outdoor sports and activities in France is generally well-organised and easy enough for visitors to plug into. Information on activities is available at local, regional and national level. Nearly every community, however small, has its own tennis courts, indoor and out, clubs and competitions. Our son has played all over the country by paying a temporary membership fee; in one case tracking down the secretary in his outfitters in a tiny nearby town.

If visiting specific areas, you can contact regional tourist offices, most of which have literature in English. Their addresses and details are listed in Active Nature in France 1995, free from France Information on 0891 244123.

In addition, each activity has its own national federation which will give information on guidebooks, maps, trails and holidays. APTE France, the Syndicat National du Tourism Equestre, for example, comprising 220 equestrian centres, has information in English, available from APTE France, 60 Grand Rue, 60510 La Neuville-en-Hez (0033 44 78 0150).

For walkers, the main role of the official organisation, the Fdration Franaise de la Randonne Pdestre - Centre d'Information Sentiers et Randonnes, 64, Rue de Gergovie, 75014 Paris (0033 1 45 45 31 02) - is to design, mark out and maintain hiking routes. It also publishes 120 guides with information on how to explore France by footpaths, marking routes, accommodation, length of hikes, cultural and touristic attractions and regions crossed. Also useful for the outdoor type, The Comptoir de la Randonne, 2 Rue Voltaire, 75011 Paris (0033 1 43 71 1309), offers more than 200 ideas for active holidays throughout the most picturesque parts of France.

Several British firms specialise in inclusive French activity holidays. Headwater Holidays (01606 48699) organises canoeing, walking, cycling and stay-put multi-activity holidays in nine regions - the Creuse, Loire, Lot et Dordogne, Provence, Auvergne, Burgundy, Jura, French Alps and the Pyrenees. On a typical canoeing week, holidaymakers paddle through wooded gorges, past watermills and sleepy villages and Cistercian abbeys along the placid Creuse between Ciron and Lesigny, staying in hotels overnight. Canoes are light (about 30kg), stable, and carry up to two adults and two children. Lighter kayaks (14kg) are also available. This self-drive holiday, including ferry fares, costs £398-£531 per person, half-board, depending on dates and numbers travelling.

Headwater's new activity holiday in the High Jura sounds rather more energetic. It is based at the Hotel Club Le Risoux at Bois d'Amont, ideal for walking into Switzerland if guests can tear themselves away from the programme of sports available, which includes three rounds of golf or riding lessons, windsurfing, aquagym and mountain biking (£369-£389 full board).

VFB's (01242 240310) France Active programme is centred in the Alpine resorts of Morzine, La Clusaz and, new for this year, Les Deux Alpes. The activities on offer include archery, riding, golf, trampolining and tennis, and Les Deux Alpes has some of the most extensive summer skiing in Europe, on the Mont-de-Lans glacier. To take part in these activities you need a pass, which costs £42-£59. The company also organises white- water rafting, canyoning and paragliding. Accommodation is in family- run hotels or chalets. A week's self-drive, self-catering holiday in Les Deux Alpes in early July costs £436 per family, inclusive of ferry travel. Children go free on holidays completed by 16 July.

Family specialist Sun Esprit (01252 616789) also has holidays in the Alps: in Morzine, where accommodation is in a simple one-star auberge, and Chamonix, in an 18th-century farmhouse. There are crches in both, run by qualified British nannies for children four months to four years, and children's clubs that organise Alpine picnics, treasure hunts and other fun for slightly older children. Prices are from £238 for b&b and three evening meals with wine, and three evenings' babysitting. Children under 18 are charged half adult rate, and the crches and clubs cost £48 per child per week.

InnTravel's (01653 628811) gentle walking and cycling adventures, where the luggage is conveniently transferred from hotel to hotel, have been a civilised feature of the holiday market for 10 years. The company's new riding venture, with or without guides, is perhaps more adventurous. Prices for a weekend in Normandy, based in the Cherbourg peninsula, start from £295, self-drive (three nights half-board). A week's half-board riding holiday through Provence costs £819 self-drive, £925 by air, in groups of up to six people riding from the plain near Aix-en-Provence, past the ancient villages and monasteries of the Luberon, along shepherd's tracks, Roman roads and lavender fields. The price includes picnic lunches and wine.

Holidaymakers don't ride, they walk alongside their beasts of burden on La France des Activits (01449 737 664) treks. In the south Cvennes the baggage is carried by llamas led by a Colombian minder; in Haut Languedoc, the porters are donkeys, which will also carry small children from time to time. The seven-day treks with meals, nights in guest houses and cross- channel travel for car and passengers cost £536-£560 and £376-£395 respectively.

OTHER ACTIVITY SPECIALISTS INCLUDE:

General Activities: Club Med, 0171-581 1161; Cresta Holidays, 0161-926 9999; PGL Adventure Holidays, 01989 764211 (for teenagers). Cycling: Belle France, 01892 890885; Bike Tours 01225 480130; Susi Madron's Cycling Holidays, 0161-248 8282. Golf: Air France Holidays, 0181-742 3377; Brittany Ferries, 01705 827701; Longshot Golf Holidays, 01730 268621; BDH Golf, 0181-644 1225.

Walking: Alternative Travel, 01865 513333; Exodus Travel, 0181-675 550; Explore Worldwide, 01252 319448; Ramblers Holidays, 01707 331133; Sherpa Expeditions 0181-577 2717; Waymark Holidays, 01753 516477.

LE WEEKEND

This is all the rage in France - it's often cheaper and easier than its British counterpart, as travel operators fall over themselves to offer ever more competitive rates across the Channel, and a host of ideas from wining and dining to golfing, ballooning and fungi hunting. I've met people on the ferries who "collect" Continental weekend outings, with one couple having bagged 47 of them over three years.

For the French holiday providers, guests for le weekend make economic sense, too. A recent survey revealed that holiday visitors spend as much on a quickie trip as on a family fortnight. Not surprising then, that the French Tourist Board's popular off-season "Bon Weekend en Villes" deal is being extended in two dozen towns this year until the end of October.

"Bon Weekend" offers a second night's hotel accommodation free to weekend visitors, who also benefit from other two-for-one offers, from museum and tour tickets to boat trips. (It's an idea that British cities short of tourist receipts might copy.) There are some attractive destinations, including medieval Rouen and gastronomic Lyons, Cognac and Clermont-Ferrand. Bookings have to be made eight days in advance. The Bon Weekend booklet is available from France Information (0891 244123).

There are two other publications worth browsing over from the same source. Ten Cities in France highlights the culture and art of a selection of lesser known cities across the country, Dijon for example, the mustard capital, or Nmes, with its fairs, museums and contemporary arts. And Festive France is a diary of special events from concerts and carnivals to international festivals. In addition this year hundreds of towns and cities are organising their own anniversary celebrations of the end of the Second World War in Europe.

In the Champagne capital Rheims, the anniversary is remembered on 7 May, for at 2.41 that morning in 1945 the German Army signed the surrender in General Eisenhower's quarters in the Salle de la Reddition, which is the focus of this year's celebrations. Special visits organised by the Rheims Tourist Office include tours and tasting at a Champagne cellar, and lunch, and a visit to the Salle. (Rheims Tourist Office 0033 26 77 45 03.) The tour costs FFr280 (about £36); two-day trips with hotel accommodation as well are FFr1,485 (£190).

Packaged weekends from British operators which include air, ferry, Shuttle or rail fares are also thriving. They are competitively priced, though the choice of accommodation is more limited. Tour operator Allez France (01903 742345) has launched a series of holidays, starting at £39 for one-night "Champagne Breaks" in Rheims in a two- or three-star hotel, ferry fares, breakfast and a tour of a Champagne cellar. These prices last until May, rising to £51 in peak season, and are based on four people travelling together in their car. For three per car add £5 each, or £19 each if there are two of you.

The company also runs one-night weekend breaks in traditional Picardy and Normandy inns, the 18th-century Hotel Bayeux, a Relais du Silence in Bayeux itself, from £61, La Chaine d'Or at Les Andelys near Monet's house at Giverny from £47, and the half-timbered Hotel Calvados in Clcy, in the rolling Suisse Normande, from £53.

Not surprisingly, the ferry companies and Le Shuttle have packaged holidays for their customers, from shopping and fitness weekends to golf and gourmet breaks, based largely on the Channel ports, or on coastal and inland destinations in Picardy, Normandy and Brittany.

Stena Sealink (01233 647033) offers a range of "Family Fun" breaks in theme parks. On its Disneyland/Paris break, a studio apartment sleeping two at Bussy St George, five miles from Disneyland, costs a total of £189- £209 per night. The price includes the ferry crossing and a one-day Disneyland pass (extra night £35; apartments for three or four cost £219-£239, with an extra night at £60), with discounts for children. If you would rather stay in a hotel the cost is £92 per person per night, with two sharing, again including the ferry crossing for car and passengers, and the free Disneyland pass for one day.

For those who prefer a more French-flavoured experience, short breaks based on Parc Asterix cost from £85-£103 per person for one night, b&b in a hotel (extra night £31), two adults sharing. The child price is £12 a night, with breakfast extra (additional night free for children 3-11), again with a one-day free pass.

Among the city break specialists, the 28-year-old Time Off (0171-235 8070) continues to offer the most varied and flexible selection of Parisian breaks. You may travel by air, rail, Channel Tunnel or ferry, stay one night or a week, leave at a moment's notice, and can choose from a range of hotels. There's a quiet one-star hotel near the Place de la Rpublique, the elegant four-star Art Deco Villa Maillot near the Arc de Triomphe, or the family-run two-star Monge in the Latin Quarter, ideally placed for the Sunday market at Rue Mouffetard. Prices start from £126 for one night in a one-star hotel travelling by Eurostar, rising to £186 in a four-star hotel. Free Metro passes are included, as is cancellation insurance, plus special offers of a free night in some hotels on certain dates in the summer. Time Off also offers weekends to Bordeaux, Nice and Cannes by air.

At the exclusive end of the market, 80 luxury weekends and short breaks for independent travellers in chteaux, hotels, and ancient watermills, mainly in rural France, are listed in the new free magazine from Relais and Chateaux (0171-287 0987). Many offer such extras such as spa treatments or thalassotherapy, helicopter flights, concerts, and lots of wine-tasting and oyster-sampling, as well as sporting activities included in the price.

At the turreted Chteau de Nieuil in a 100-acre park in south-west France, the former hunting palace of King Franois I, with its own antiquities gallery, the price of FFr4,000 for two nights b&b for two includes a cruise on the River Charente, a visit to Angoulme and a cognac distillery or a chocolatier.

In the aristocratic Pavilion Svign in Vichy, once home to the Marquise de Svign, a two-night half-board break costs between FFr2,230-FFr2,430 (£293-£320) per person, including six health and beauty treatments in the mud baths, sauna and gym. Budding cooks may go behind the scenes at the Michelin three-star Hotel-Restaurant Troisgros in Roanne in the Rhne Alps, going to market with the Troisgros brothers and learning their kitchen secrets (FFr2,600 for two, per night, half-board).

A hot-air balloon trip over the chteaux of the Loire is, weather permitting, a bonus if you stay at the 16th-century Chteau de Noisay in the Vouvray vineyards (FFr1,996, around £262, each per night, half-board), or you can spot them from a Cessna 172, courtesy of the Grand Hotel d'Or in Romorantin Lantheray in the enchanting Sologne region. One night at half-board costs FFr3,650 (£490) for two people.

OTHER WEEKEND OPERATORS INCLUDE:

Abercrombie & Kent (also wine tours) 0171-730 9600; Air France Holidays 0181-742 3377; Arblaster & Clarke Wine Tours 01730 893344; Brittany Direct 0181-641 6060; Cresta Holidays 0161-926 9999; Crystal Holidays 0181-399 5144; French Expressions 0171-794 1480; Inn Travel 01653 628811; Le Shuttle Holidays 01303 271 1717; Paris Travel Service 01992 45 6000; Sally Holidays 0181-395 3030; Thomson City Breaks 0171-707 9000; Travelscene 0181-427 4445; Unicorn Holidays 01582 83 4400.

EN ROUTE

Le Fast Food hit France in the 1970s and early 1980s and is still the subject of passionate controversy. Le Fast Bed and Le Stopover came a decade later, and now the budget chains, usually on or near autoroutes, along trunk roads and outside big cities, are proliferating. Their names incense the francophile: Formula 1, Novotel, Mister Bed, One Star, Primevere and Ibis. But for the traveller in a hurry, wanting just quick, clean overnights, these instant hotels make getting there quick and easy.

Often with showers and WCs down the corridor (hot-air drying instead of towels), cold croissants and hot coffee from machines, credit-card terminals instead of le patron, alarm clocks that need a radio engineer's degree to set, plus traffic thundering past, the Formula 1 hotels and other budget-range overnighters offer a double (or larger) room for under £25. For the two- and three-star chains, such as Novotel and Campaniles, with private facilities in the rooms, expect to pay about £20 more.

For those touring instead of hurtling from north to south, the quality of overnight accommodation becomes important; the Logis de France guide lists more than 4,000 independently owned small or medium-sized hotels throughout France, mainly in rural areas. The guide costs £8.75 from bookshops or at the French Tourist Office, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL, or £9.75 by post. The Logis are classified by one, two or three "fireplaces" and cost an average of FFr210-FFr310 (£20-£41) per room, FFr80-FFr195 (£11- £26) per meal, most priding themselves on their regional specialties.

There are also a number of pensions, guest- houses and small family establishments that offer a warm welcome and inexpensive accommodation. They are admirably signposted. Chambres d'htes provide accommodation in private homes or farms. Rooms may cost as little as £15 for a double (with breakfast), £10 for a single - and often evening meals, or even feasts, can be provided by prior arrangement.

The Caf Couette chain has b&bs throughout France, including Paris; there are more than 450 of them, each given a "coffee-pot rating", from £25 to £47 a night. Some may be booked direct, others through the Caf Couette Paris office, at 8 Rue d'Isly (0033 1 42 94 92 00) which charges a booking fee.

Even simpler are the gites d'tapes, simple hostels providing basic overnight accommodation suitable for walkers and cyclists, many with dormitories and some with use of a kitchen.

At the other extreme, many French chteau owners have now opened their portals to small numbers of guests as a relatively painless way to keep their aristocratic roofs over their heads. Stays are organised as rather discreet houseparties, and your companions could include a German tycoon, an Italian professor, or newlyweds - this is a popular choice for honeymoons.

Useful organisations: Bienvenue au Chteau, Chteau Accueil and Chambres d'htes de Prestige. Information on these and other types of accommodation can be found in the French Tourist Office's reference guide.

The crme d la crme of hotels are in the 160 or so Relais and Chteaux group. These are privately owned manor houses, elegant country homes and chteaux where the common denominators are character, cuisine, service and cost. The guide is available from Relais et Chteaux (0171-287 0987).

For the useful annual guide For the Traveller in France, write to: French Tourist Office, 178 Piccadilly, London, W1V 0AL, enclosing £1 in postage stamps. Or ring the "France Information" brochure line on 0891 244123 for a copy (49p per minute peak , 29p other times). !

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