Natives retreat to secret France as tourists overrun south

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The Independent Online

France is full and getting fuller. Despite lingering oil pollution on the Atlantic coast and a wintry start to July, France is expecting a bumper year for tourists this year, especially visitors from Britain, the US and Japan cashing in on the weakness of the euro.

France is full and getting fuller. Despite lingering oil pollution on the Atlantic coast and a wintry start to July, France is expecting a bumper year for tourists this year, especially visitors from Britain, the US and Japan cashing in on the weakness of the euro.

The south and south-west of the country has been "overwhelmed" by visitors, says Michel Claude, director of the national federation of tourist offices. "The luxury market - châteaux, four-star hotels, more expensive resorts, large hire cars - has been taken by storm this year, by American and Japanese visitors especially."

This weekend is traditionally the time when the greatest number of Britons cross the Channel. Anyone heading to the far south of France who has not booked, even for the cheaper hotels and camp sites, may face a frustrating couple of weeks. Many people who would normally go to the Breton or north Biscay coasts, especially the pollution-sensitive Germans and Dutch, have shifted south this year to avoid the oil-contaminated beaches.

"Yet the Atlantic beaches are clean - all but one or two," Mr Claude said plaintively. "Please tell British visitors they can go to southern Brittany and the Vendée and Loire-Atlantique without any worries. There has been a fall-off of bookings there but the hotels are filling up rapidly and they are no more than 10 or 15 per cent down on a normal year."

Are the beaches really clean? The coast's rehabilitation has taken an extraordinarily long time. The Erika sank off Brittany in late December polluting the coast for 300 miles from Quimper to La Rochelle. Now, 95 per cent of the Atlantic beaches are scrubbed and safe and the exceptions are clearly labelled.

But Mr Claude's estimate of a 10 per cent shortfall in tourists misses the mark for some places. A number of resorts along the southern Breton coast say they are 30 to 40 per cent down on visitors. France is the most visited country in the world. Last year it broke its own records with an estimated 73 million visitors.

Mr Claude believes that, despite the Atlantic coast problems, that number will be reached again this year, if not exceeded. If so, it will put extraordinary pressure on the south and south-west. Not all of those visitors come at the same time, but something like 20 million arrive each August. Ninety per cent of the French also spend their holidays in their own country. The population, therefore, is about to explode from 60,000,000 to perhaps near 80,000,000.

In a normal summer, the Mediterranean beaches especially are packed, from the Spanish to the Italian borders, towel-to-towel; some over-lapping may be needed this year.

So where can you get away from the crowds? Where do the French go on their home-ground holidays?

Ironically, there has been a rising trend among the French to abandon the overcrowded south and go to Brittany. Belle-Ile, the beautiful island off the south Breton coast that was badly polluted by the Erika slick, has become a kind of 21st arrondissement of Paris in the summer months.

The other place to be seen for trendier, younger, wealthier French is the Alpilles, a kind of miniature Alpine range of sharp but low hills south of Avignon. Wealthy French people now regard the better known parts of Provence as irretrievably Peter Mayle-ised and full of Brits and other foreigners.

More and more French people - 30 per cent of all summer holidaymakers, according to one survey - are leaving the beaches altogether, and there is an increasing trend towards "green holidays", in the lovely, vacant - and green - centre of the country. If you want peace and quiet in France this summer you might follow suit. Unlike Britain, France is populated on the edges and empty in the middle.

The beauty of some of the inland parts of France, such as the Auvergne region and the Dordogne, is well known. But there are also large swaths of wonderful countryside in central France that remain relatively unvisited. In the southern part of the Creuse departement - which is north of the Dordogne and south of the Loire, and off the tourist track - you can drive for miles, even in August, along near empty roads, among rolling hills and farmland, unspoiled villages and old castles. Corrÿze and Cantal, either side of the River Dordogne, are more spectacular and more visited but also astonishingly quiet, even in the height of summer.

The nearest beach towel is 200 miles away.

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