The best 200 experiences in France

France Magazine’s favourite experiences list

Gavarnie Disc Pyr

After twelve years living in France I have definitely not done all of the 200 favourite experience listed in France Magazine’s latest (April-May 2015) issue… Or even all of the top twelve. But I have done a few. And there are at least six of the top twelve that can be managed while on a Pyrenean holiday. So I thought I’d write something about those. There is no doubt France has so much to offer that one holiday will never get you around it, and trying to do even half of these in one holiday would be a stretch, on the senses if nothing else.

Gaube ValleyThe top 12 things to do in France, according to France Magazine are:

1. Cycle on the Ile de Ré
2. Drive around the Gorges du Verdon
3. Walk to the Cirque du Gavarnie
4. Wander around one of the named ‘beautiful villages of France’
5. Cross the Pont du Gard
6. Eat dinner up the Eiffel Tower
7. Watch a stage of the Tour de France
8. Spend hours on a cafe terrace
9. Make perfume in Grasse
10. Walk part of the Santiago de Compostela
11. Buy dinner at the local market
12. Drive over the Millau Viaduct

I’ve never been to #1, Ile de Ré, off the Atlantic Coast, but have heard great things, although perhaps not for those on a budget. The Gorges du Verdon (#2)  also sound wonderful, but it is in the south-east rather than south-west. They share a defining feature with #3 which is that both are geological marvels carved from limestone, that porous and relatively soft rock that lends itself so well to sculpture by the elements, water in the case of Verdon and ice in Gavarnie. The other thing I love about limestone is that it is simply millions of shells from sea creatures past – so the magic of tectonic plate movements is right before your eyes – what was once at the bottom of an ancient sea has now been pushed 3000m high above sea level. Fossil finds are a definite possibility in these areas.

Gavarnie#3, Gavarnie is in our backyard and I’ve visited it from every angle, in every season with a huge variety of people. It never ceases to amaze. A bit of local knowledge and you can walk on the hidden paths (no more strenuous than the main ‘tourist track’) removing you from the crowds. Outside August though and even the main tourist track is pretty wonderful.

The Pyrenees has 10 of the most beautiful villages in France so #4, walking around one of these villages, is pretty easily achieved, multiple times, on a Pyrenean holiday. See the list here. One I particularly love is St Bertrand de Comminges, between Lourdes and Toulouse.  If you explore the south-west, where there are 36 of France’s most beautiful villages you are likely to run into them everywhere without even realising… St Savin in our valley doesn’t make the list, but it is lovely. As a bonus St Bertrandyou can walk from it up to the Poueyaspé chapel, which is where Saint Savin himself had a hermitage on top of the mountain in the 5th century. Walking up this path, where pilgrims have walked for the last 1500 years, is a pretty special (and also scenic) experience.

As with Verdon, #5, the Pont du Gard is in the south east and close to the starry French Riviera, a far cry from the more modest (income wise) south-west (this is perhaps most obvious by how the areas vote – the south east is right wing and the south west is left wing). As part of the 50 km long Nimes aqueduct it is a Roman era wonder and worth a look.

Eating dinner up the Eiffel Tower, #6, I’ve never even come close to doing, and doubt I’d care to splash my cash this way, but hey! Why not. Its a sort of revolving restaurant cliché (OK – it doesn’t revolve) that reminds me of my son, aged 6, wanting to eat dinner by the pool at the Borobudur Hotel in Jakarta where by brother and sister-in-law were staying. Clearly, when you are 6, there is nothing more exotic than eating dinner by the pool. I guess restaurants high up are the adult equivalent. Along with cocktail bars in the pool I suppose, which very closely resemble the six year old dream.

Roy & ThomasWatching a stage of the Tour de France (#7) is always an option in our village. Luz St Sauveur is at the bottom of the Col du Tourmalet, so we generally have a stage pass through the village three years out of four. 2015 sees Le Tour head to our neighbours Cauterets for a finish there – easy access from Luz on your bike.

Almost anywhere in France can deliver you the delights of #8, sitting for hours on a café terrace. Buying one drink gives you the right to sit for as long as you want, so don’t feel pressed to move on. What is less easily achieved is a decent English language newspaper to go with it. Don’t assume you’ll find one (I mean decent – the Daily Mail can be bought just about everywhere), especially out of big cities, so stop at every possible news stand along the way to check what they have. The International New York Times is my staple and usually easier to find that the Guardian – I just wish it was still called the International Herald Tribune (IHT) – so much better somehow, if only because INYT simply does not trip off the tongue. Beware the coffee however – coffee spoiled Australians may be disappointed. Americano or café allongé is a long black (you can ask for milk on the side), café creme most closely resembles a cappuccino (although no chocolate on top, and I don’t think I’ve ever had latte art). Only now are some places starting to serve Italian style cappuccino – you want to be very sure you are not ordering the old fashioned French Terrasse_Bordeauxversion which is black coffee with whipped cream on top. Deeply unsatisfying with your newspaper. If coffee is not your thing try a Perrier menthe (Perrier with mint syrup), a panaché (shandy) or even a chocolat chaud. Don’t order tea. That almost certainly guarantees disappointment.

I don’t know anything about making perfume in Grasse, #9. We have friends who have moved there, so perhaps one day I’ll head over there to see what that is all about. In the Pyrenees I’d suggest heading high to smell the wildflowers. In April the daffodils are all around the lower villages and as the spring and summer move on the flowers go higher and higher. Irises are in full bloom in August above about 2000m, so even at the end of August you’ll still find some walking up to Troumouse, or, for the intrepid, along the ‘Faja de las Flores’ – Way of the Flowers high above the Ordesa Canyon. Failing that, buy some local honey and savour the scent.

Walking part of a pilgrimage trail on the Way of St James Pilgrim Newsletter(Chemins de St Jacques in French, or Camino de Santiago de Compostella, or simply camino in Spanish) is a strange inclusion I think. What part? Is a highlights tour of a pilgrimage trail possible? Surely the exhilaration, achievement and whole point of a pilgrimage is that it is long, hard, and removes you sufficiently from your comfort zone and your daily life to give you some perspective on the whole thing. Anyway – if you are not in for all that – then at least choose a spectacular part. Unfortunately I don’t think the traditional route contains many spectacular parts – it was originally chosen for safety and easy of passage rather than scenic value. But if you insist then I suspect the walk up and over the Pyrenees from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to Roncevalles in Spain would be a decent option if you wanted to stay on the travelled path. And I do admit that, like imagining the 300 million year old sea creatures in the limestone mountains at 3000m, there is something deeply satisfying about walking on paths you know have been walked for the last 1000 years or longer, by so many people, all far from home and familiar comforts, in search of something.

St Savin autumnIn fact, as many no doubt know, there is no one route to Santiago de Compostella, and medieval pilgrims went by a couple of different routes, returning by many more alternatives. We live in the highest parts of the Pyrenees and almost every church in the valley has some sign of being on the path to Santiago. Apparently young tradespeople who did the pilgrimage often went over the mountains one way (at a lower altitude at the start of summer when the high passes remained blocked with snow) and returned via a different route in autumn when the snow had melted. In this way they could see as many churches on their trip as possible, studying different techniques and gaining inspiration for their future profession. So it was a sort of gap year / study tour rolled into one. Others simply went there and back along the main paths, often travelling in groups for security. Starting from Lourdes there is now an ‘official’ pilgrimage route to Gavarnie and the French-Spanish border (map here) heading through our town of Luz St Sauveur.

Bagnere-de-Bigorre Saturday marketIf you are buying dinner in a local market, #11, the first thing to remember is that markets in France are generally all over by lunchtime. So you need to head out in the morning, not half an hour before dinner. And don’t decide what you want before you go. Just buy whatever catches your eye, is cheap and in season – you will figure out what to do with it later (websites that allow you to plug in ingredients and spit you out a recipe mean you have no excuse for not doing it this way). In our area the Tuesday market in Argeles-Gazost is legendary, and the Monday market in Luz is great in summer and minimalist in winter. Bagnere de Bigorre’s Saturday market beats everything – for the ambiance in the old part of town, and the fabulous organic section, set slightly apart as if not quite accepted by the oldies.

millau-viaduct-bridgeLast on the list of twelve, and definitely not least in my opinion, is the Millau viaduct. It is fab. Amazing. The museum is great and reveals the wonderful collaboration between the English architect and French engineer. I wished we’d stopped in at the Roquefort cheese caves – I love that it is all sheep’s milk and love it full stop. We did visit the village of Cordes-sur-Ciel which was worth the detour. I’d also suggest Albi if you are in the area – now world heritage listed and supposedly a wonderful small city to visit.

While perusing through other issues of France Magazine I found a special feature in the July 2014 edition on the Hautes-Pyrenees. Entitled Idle Pleasures, it starts on page 63, and details the lazy ways to discover the mountains. Of the five sites featured on page 65, four of them, Cauterets, Gavarnie, Pic du Midi and the Col du Tourmalet, feature in our Pyrenees Discovery holiday.

Gives you a taste of summer holidays to come… Vive la France as the world’s number one tourist destination!