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Swap Paris for Nancy: I’ve spent a year travelling around France, and you’re going to all the wrong places

After extensively exploring the country she now calls home, Anna Richards has curated the ultimate list of less-visited but worth-the-trip destinations that should be on your travel hit list on your next trip to our cross-Channel neighbour

Tuesday 19 December 2023 08:05 GMT
Cantal has a proliferation of age-old chateaux, but far fewer tourists than the Dordogne
Cantal has a proliferation of age-old chateaux, but far fewer tourists than the Dordogne (JL Rigaux/Auvergne Rhone Alpes Tourisme)

France was suffering from overtourism long before Instagram tourism was a thing. Although it has roughly the same population as the UK spread over an area almost twice the size, it’s the most popular country in the world among foreign visitors, and the French love a domestic trip too. Busloads of tourists descend on Mont Saint-Michel daily, the Eiffel Tower has a queue that could rival the Seine in length and in St Tropez there’s barely a true Tropezienne left – so is it still possible to find the quiet corners?

Since moving to France over two years ago, my work writing guidebooks and travel articles has seen me yo-yoing around the country, from paths well trodden to places the French would poetically refer to as le trou du cul du monde (the arse-end of nowhere). While I can’t deny the appeal of the popular sites that make up every “France top 10” list, I’d rather not fight for my sunlounger with half of South East England, thanks. Here’s where you should be going instead.

Read more on France travel:

Skip sightseeing in Paris for Nancy

Nancy is like Paris in miniature (Patrice Soudier)

Designed in the style of Versailles and Paris’s Place Vendome, Nancy is like the French capital in miniature, without the crowds. When Louis XIV married the daughter of the dethroned former king of Poland, Stanislas, and made her father Duke of Lorraine, Stanislas showed his gratitude by rebuilding the city ready to receive the king. He copied the most opulent buildings in Paris, and all of the facades around the city’s main square, Place Stanislas, have a healthy dusting of gold.

After all that effort, Louis XIV purportedly only visited a handful of times. It’s only 90 minutes by train from Paris, so if you’ve done the City of Light before, head here instead.

Skip lavender in Luberon for Rochefort-en-Valdaine

Luberon in June attracts so many selfie-stick-wielding wannabe influencers that you risk losing an eye. Just 100km further north,  it’s the humming of bees rather than the click of camera shutters that fills the air. At the lavender fields of Rochefort-en-Valdaine in the Drome, sleepy back roads wind through fragrant fields. Goat’s track footpaths up into the hills on the edge of Vercors Regional Natural Park give a panorama over the purple landscape.

Skip skiing in Chamonix for Oz-en-Oisans

Alpe d’Huez offers beautiful mountain vistas (JL Rigaux/Auvergne Rhone Alpes Tourisme)

Chamonix sees a whopping 2.5 million visitors a year, and going to a bar in town can feel like being back at your local in Peckham (even the staff are from London). Oz-en-Oisans, 250km south, has ice climbing, mountaineering, and the 250km skiable domaine of Alpe d’Huez. While Alpe d’Huez is firmly on-radar (in part thanks to hosting the winter Tomorrowland festival), it attracts lots of locals, too, meaning that you don’t feel as though you’ve gatecrashed a British boarding school’s ski holiday. Plus it’s more affordable than other large-scale French resorts, and the mountain views are exceptional.

Skip beaching in the Cote d’Azur for the Crozon Peninsula

Crozon offers wild and untouched landscapes on the French coast (Natacha/Pixabay)

Sure, the weather’s less reliable, but this corner of Brittany is one of the wildest and most unspoilt areas anywhere along the French coast. As tourists flock to Nice (the most visited city in France after Paris), Crozon stays quiet, even in peak season. It’s partly due to its relative inaccessibility (I don’t recommend visiting without a car).

Forget five-star hotels: you’re better off with a campsite with views over the bay towards Brest. Walk along the fern-fronded cliff path that runs all the way around the headland, and you’re sure to find a sliver of silver sand just for you, even on the sunniest day.

Skip chateaux in the Dordogne for Cantal

Cantal has bucolic countryside to rival Dordogne (P Jayet/Auvergne Rhone Alpes Tourisme)

Did you know that the Dordogne is one of the most popular areas of France among British retirees? For that matter, the west of France in general is a honeytrap for elderly Brits searching for la vie en rose. If you prefer to avoid fellow Brits when you travel, head to Cantal in central France instead. There’s a proliferation of age-old chateaux just like in the Dordogne (mysterious-looking hilltop Chateau d’Alleuze and lakeside Chateau de Val, built in the 12th and 13th centuries respectively, are particularly spectacular).

The bucolic countryside has hundreds of walking trails where you’ll hear cows mooing rather than the braying of your neighbours.

Skip history in Carcassonne for Viviers

Viviers’s crown jewel is its 12th-century cathedral (JL Rigaux/Auvergne Rhone Alpes Tourisme)

There’s no shortage of walled cities in France, but Carcassonne in southwest France is where the tourists flock, and up to 16,000 of them descend on the city each day. There’s bucketloads of history, and the first stones of the city were laid in 122BC, but the sheer volume of visitors means the narrow streets can turn into a scrum.

More compact, but no less charming, is Viviers in the Ardeche. On the banks of the River Rhone, cobbled streets wind uphill, duck-diving in and out of archways to the 12th-century cathedral, Viviers’ crowning glory, although the town has been around since Roman times. You can even stay in the old cathedral complex itself, but be aware that although the setting and views are spectacular, the rooms within look like they belong in an old-fashioned asylum.

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