On the beaten track - Europe - Travel - The Independent

On the beaten track

Mick Webb chooses five of the finest journeys through France's countryside


THE 'TWO CAPS' WALK, WEST OF CALAIS

THE 'TWO CAPS' WALK, WEST OF CALAIS

The vast majority of British travellers whizz through the Pas de Calais, even though this corner of France is endowed with the very qualities, such as sublime scenery and cuisine, that most of us seek. The walk between Cap Blanc Nez and Cap Gris Nez, for example, is filled with fresh air, great views, interesting flora and fauna - and it couldn't be easier to get to, as it starts just outside Calais. This is just one part of a European long-distance walking trail, the E9, which follows the coast from Ostend down to the Pas d'Authie, beyond Le Touquet.

For a good day's walk it's best to pick up the trail by Cap Blanc-Nez at the car-park just off the D940. The Cap is a chalk cliff, 130m high, which offers stunning views out across the Channel to the white(ish) cliffs of Dover. After a few minutes' counting tankers, container-ships and ferries, you can appreciate why this stretch of water is one of the busiest in the world. Closer at hand, depending on the season, there are nesting gulls to be seen, while the springy cliff-top turf is also home to orchids.

Halfway along the 10km walk to Cap Gris-Nez is the village of Wissant, which is heaven for practitioners of sand-yachting and wind-surfing. But the main attraction is the dunes, which have been expensively and extensively restored.

Cap Gris-Nez owes its greyness to the colour of its clay and is a prime vantage point for observing migrating birds; the offshore rocks, les Paulardes, are home to a colony of Eider ducks.

Return the same way or via one of the inland paths (PR1, GR128). The dunes around Wissant are well worth exploring, though it's easy to get lost amongst the weird vegetation. There's a "topoguide" (in French) to the whole coastal path published by the FFRP (The French Ramblers Association) - its reference number is 128.

THE PATH OF THE CATHARS

Le Sentier des Cathares is a long-distance footpath in the foothills of the Pyrenees. It has many of the attributes of its more mountainous siblings with the advantage that it can be walked during the months when snow makes paths like the GR10 - the long-distance route from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean - passable. The path also takes you through an intriguing historical period when the heretical followers of the Cathar faith challenged and were then persecuted by conventional Christianity, all of which is brought vividly to life by dramatic castles in improbably craggy settings.

The trail runs from the town of Foix (handsome county town of the Ariège department) to Port-la-Nouvelle on the Mediterranean, or vice versa. It takes a couple of weeks to walk the whole route, though there are many shorter chunks which make for an enjoyable three- or four-day ramble. One good stretch is from the fortress of Peyrepertuse to the Agly canyon and then across the arid plateaux of the Hautes Corbières (not a good idea in high summer); another goes from Quillan in the valley of the river Aude across the Sault plateau with its views of the high Pyrenees.

Best of all is probably the walk from Foix to the village of Roquefixade, still looking medieval and guarded by the ruins of its castle. It continues through forests to Montségur, towering even more impressively on its high crag, where in 1243 a tiny community of Cathars were besieged for a year by 10,000 troops before being burnt at the stake rather than renounce their beliefs.

The next stage involves a climb through the sunless gorges of La Frau before you emerge at the high, airy village of Comus where you can continue on the sentier, change to another path called "La route des Bonshommes" which was the way many Cathars fled into Spain or just take the road back to the 21st Century. The nearest airports of Carcassonne and Perpignan are both served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com).

THE CHAMPAGNE ROUTE

"It's not champagne unless it's from Champagne." That's what they say in the hilly region, about 100km east of Paris, where the world's best known bubbly wine is made.

The "Route Touristique de Champagne" is the name given to seven well-signed circuits that guide the car driver through the 31,000 hectares of vineyards where the three varieties of champagne grape are grown - while narrating the history of wine-making in the area.

A good part of the fun is in visiting the different "caves" - and, of course, tasting the distinctive types and styles of champagne. By way of a change, you could also try the very different but appropriately named red wines from Bouzy. Equally enjoyable, though, are the villages, museums and views you encounter along the Route Touristique.

The best-known circuits, which take in Champagne's big names (Mercier, Taittinger, etc) are centred on Reims and Epernay, but the most interesting one starts just outside Troyes at the little town of Bar-sur-Aube. "Le circuit du pays Baralbin" is about 100km long. Some travellers, however, get no further than a tasting session at the "chalet de dégustation" that operates in summer on the edge of the town beside the N19 highway.

The circuit winds its way along a number of minor roads. It takes in about 15 villages, with their half-timbered houses and their churches, at Urville and Meurville for instance, that are well worth visiting. Along the route are half a dozen of the smaller, family run wineries that characterise the region.

It's not all wine. At Bayel you can visit the historic glass-works and, on the edge of the great forest of Clairvaux, the Cistercian abbey founded by St Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century. A slight detour brings you to Colombey-les-Deux Eglises and memories of another great Frenchman. General de Gaulle is buried in the little cemetery and commemorated by the huge Cross of Lorraine, which dominates the landscape in an appropriately larger-than-life fashion. For more information, contact the Bar-sur-Aube tourist office: 00 33 3 25 27 24 25.

BICYCLE ISLAND: L'ÎLE D'YEU

It's hardly the Tour de France, but a circuit of the tiny Atlantic island of Yeu makes for a memorable day in the saddle for all the family. L'Île d'Yeu lies just over an hour by ferry from France's Vendée coast.

When you disembark at Port-Joinville, there's an initial rush to the harbourside bike-hire businesses to rent your vélos, after which relaxation is the order of the day. The island, which is only 10km long and 4km wide, has been waymarked with three colour-coded routes. The longest of these, the 30km yellow circuit, takes you round the whole of the coastline, while the green one across the centre is the shortest at 12km.

The interior, with its gentle hills and narrow lanes bordered by hedges and small fields, looks much more like Brittany than the flat, over-developed coastal region of mainland Vendée. But the rocky bays and whitewashed cottages with their bright blue or yellow shutters lend a decidedly Mediterranean touch.

The main tourist attractions are the citadel, the church of St-Sauveur and the Vieux Château, a semi-ruined medieval castle on a rugged promontory. A little further along the southern coast is the tiny harbour of Port-de-la-Meule, which is conveniently placed for a lunchtime stop, either for a picnic or a dish of fresh shellfish and a chilled white wine at the local restaurant. Ferries to L'Île d'Yeu run frequently during the summer from Fromentine and Croix-de-Vie and les Sable d'Olonne on the mainland.

There's a tourist office at Port-Joinville: 00 33 2 51 58 32 58; www.ile-yeu.fr.

MOUNTAIN BIKING IN THE JURA

The French acronym for mountain bikes, VTT, means Vélo Tout Terrain - and the region of Franche-Comté has good claims to contain the widest variety of terrains. The jewel in its crown is the Grande Traversée du Jura, GTJ for short, which runs for 360km along the Jura mountain chain.

Beginning with the gorges of the river Doubs at the northern end, bikers are faced with a succession of contrasting landscapes as the climbs and descents alternate with plains, valleys and forested stretches before reaching the high ridges of the Jura and Grand Colombier mountains to the south.

The whole trip takes between seven and nine days, starting at Mandeure, near the town of Montbéliard at an altitude of 300m and climbing eventually to 1,300m in the cross-country ski-ing area around Pontarlier.

The hardest day, where the climbs are rewarded with views into Switzerland, is probably the second one, though there is an alternative route for softies. The final stage of the GTJ, between Le Poizat and Hauteville Lompnes, provides a great panorama of the Alps from the plateau of Retord.

Accommodation along the way comes in the form of hotels, communal gîtes d'étape or campsites and there are plenty of bike-shops, should their services be required.

Apart from the exercise and the views, doing the GTJ à VTT is a fine excuse for sampling the wines, hams and, above all, the cheeses from a part of France which is little-known in the UK.

Montbéliard is on the A36 motorway from Lyon. The nearest TGV-served railway station is at Besançon.

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