The Bogtrotter

Tag: France

Walk in the land of the menhirs

by on Sep.17, 2013, under French Walks, Walks

Any Asterix fan will tell you that a menhir is an ancient standing stone. Whilst they are spread all across France, there is a curious concentration of them in the northern Cevennes and this walk takes in many of them.

CombettesThe “Balade au pays des Menhirs” is a 3.5 mile circular walk in the Lozere department in southern France. It takes about two hours to complete the loop, but you will travel back in time through Millennia.

The walk starts from a signed car park on the road from Le Pont de Montvert to Mende. From here you cross a couple of fields, then turn left and follow a farm track with hedges on either side as you descent downhill into dense pine forests. Almost as soon as you enter the woods you start to see menhirs, standing upright in small clearings in the forest. Modern man has worked around these ancient landmarks, leaving them untouched over thousands of years.

The track continues to descent until you emerge into rolling farmland, with a wide vista of the resplendent Gorges du Tarn opening out before you. After 2 miles you reach the tiny hamlet of Combettes, which provides the pretty rustic idil that seems to typify rural France. As you enter the hamlet, a small building on your left (which is actually an old bread oven) houses a permanent exhibition on “Mont Lozere before history”. (continue reading…)

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Steaming through the Gardon valley by train

by on Oct.17, 2009, under France, French Experiences

Preserved railway lines are something I always think of as typically English. Who else would spend so much time and effort lovingly restoring an outmoded, dirty, slow form of transport?

So imagine my pleasant surprise at finding a steam train line running throuth the heart of the Cevennes mountains. The Train a Vapeur des Cevennes runs from Anduze to St Jean Du Gard is 13 km, taking a route first opened in 1909 by SNCF after 12 years of planning and construction.

Steaming along in the Cevennes

Steaming along in the Cevennes


The line was closed in 1971, but taken over by volunteers in the mid-1980s and re-opened as a tourist line.

Many of the services are steam-operated but some (particularly the later or off-peak services) are diesel-powered, so check before you arrive if steam is your thing. Several of the carriages are open-sided, giving you the best views over the amazing landscape. But be warned – it can get dirty as the steam and smoke from the engine get funnelled down the train as you go through the tunnels and under the bridges.
(continue reading…)

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La Bambouseraie – a bamboo jungle in the heart of France

by on Jun.06, 2009, under France, French Experiences

Bamboo always makes you think of the far east – of China and Panda Bears. But tucked away in the foothills of the Cevennes in Southern France is a 15 hectare bamboo forest that provides an oriental oasis from the Mediterranean heat.

Bamboo Forest

Bamboo Forest

The Bambousarie park is a horticultural delight. As you would expect, much of the park is covered with waves of bamboo. But it is not a continuous monoculture, there are numerous varieties of bamboo from the blue-tinted Giant Bamboos rising over 20 metres into the sky to carpets of knee-high bushes, with a range of colours, shapes and sizes in-between.

There is even a small Laosian village set up to demonstrate how people use bamboo to create houses and other buildings, with small traditional garden plots dotted between.

Looking Up

Looking Up

As well as bamboo there is an impressive tree collection. Notably a column of Gread Redwoods (Sequoia) planted in 1861 that now climb 40 metres into the air, towering above the tallest bamboos. There are some of the largest Magnolias in Europe, great Oaks, and a 140 year old Ginko tree that stands over the Dragon Valley.

The Dragon Valley is a relatively new addition to the park – a Feng Shui inspired garden created by Eric Borja in 2000 (the year of the Dragon). With its colourful Acer trees, rolling landscape and Red Phoenix pagoda you really do feel you have been transported to the other side of the world.

Dragon Valley

Dragon Valley

Tucked away and easy to overlook are the smaller garden spaces that are equally inspiring. The water garden with it’s lotus flowers, the bonsai collection set over a pond, and the Victorian greenhouses which now house temporary exhibitions all bring another dimension to the park.

The Bambouseraie is easily accessible by car, but you can combine it with a trip on a steam train by taking the Train a Vapeur des Cevennes from Anduze or St Jean Du Gard and stopping at the Bambouseraie’s own station. Get more details on the park by visiting the Bambousaraie web site.

And if you get inspired by what you have seen you can buy your own plants at the nursery, and start creating your own oasis back at home.

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Modern Day Jousting – with a watery twist

by on May.12, 2009, under France, French Experiences

If you thought jousting was a thing of the past – think again. Jousting conjures up images of medieval knights in heavy armour taking to their horses to battle it out for supremicy.

Joutes

Joutes

But in the fishing ports of Languedoc in southern France they have a less violent but equally entertaining version that takes place on in the harbours. Joutes on the water is a speciality of Sete, but is also found in other ports such as Le Grau du Roi. During the summer these contests are a regular event, attracting tourists and locals alike. (continue reading…)

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Visit a vineyard and taste the terroir

by on Apr.07, 2009, under France, French Experiences

Visiting a vineyard can be seen as little more than an excuse to drink a few glasses of wine. But lets be honest – who needs an excuse? The real reason for visiting a vineyard is to try to find out more about the wines and what makes every wine so distinctive.

Vineyard near St Christol

Vineyard near St Christol


Good old Oz Clarke (now theres a job I want – paid to drink wine all day and talk about it) always talks about the terroir – the relationship between the wine and the land on which it is grown. It is this mix of soil and micro-climate which makes each wine unique.

Whether it’s a famous chateau or a small vineyard most will happily open their doors to visitors to let you “discover” their wines. When I’m in France I love disappearing into the back of beyond and stumbling across a small vineyard to drop into. One of my favourites is the Chateau des Hospitaliers jsut outside St Christol in the Herault region. The Martin-Pierrat family that owns it are always welcoming, the wines are excellent and the free tasting lasts as long as you wish. Needless to say I have now discovered the Chateau several times! If you do visit yourself then don’t miss their “green wall” – the plants growing on a specially constructed frame up the walls of the inner courtyard.

If you like wine then you should consider it your moral duty to get out and visit a vineyard. So go on – you don’t need an excuse.

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Sentier des Douaniers – part two

by on Mar.28, 2009, under France, French Walks

In part one of the Sentiers des Douaniers walk we went from Maccinaggio around the coast to Barcaggio, where we spent the night. Now we complete the second half of the walk around to Centuri.

From Barcaggio the next stage is a simple walk along the coast to Tollare, the only other habitation on the route. This stretch give you the best views of the Ile de la Giaglia, a small island of the north coast.

View out to sea

View out to sea


Tollare is also the last place you can get water, so make sure you have enough before you set off. From here you start to climb up onto the grassy hills, then you see the Capo Grosso lighthouse down at the foot of the hills to your right. This part of the route is very exposed with no shade, so is best avoided in the middle of the day during the summer. But the views across the maquis scrub out to see are spectacular. The sense of isolation is great, with the trail cutting through the maquis is the only sign of human activity.

The route then starts to gently descend off the hills as you work your way down to the fishing village of Centuri, where the Sentier ends. The village peeks in and out of view as you slowly wind round the slopes towards it, but eventually you come to a few houses and then the village opens up in front of you.

Centuri

Centuri

Centuri is a typical picturesque mediterranean fishing harbour, with several small bar restaurants and a few shops. The ideal place to relax and have a drink before making your way back.

The final challenge is for us was to return to our starting point at Macinaggio. We walked up the only road into Centuri until we reached the main road, and then hitched back (which worked for us). All told, this was a fantastic coastal walk with a multitude of interesting things to see on the way.

Before you start the walk – visit the tourist office in Macinaggio which gives out a free map and route description of the trail (a poor quality copy is available on the web site).

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Le Sentier des Douaniers – a walk into the wilderness

by on Mar.21, 2009, under France, French Walks

The Sentier du Douaniers (which translates as the custom officers path) follows the coast around the tip of Cap Corse, the long peninsula that sticks out from the northern end on the island of Corsica. The first half of the walk is fairly flat, but the second half in more demanding with more hills.

The route is just under 20km and could be completed in one day (official guides say 7h45 minutes of walking), but we chose the more leisurely approach of doing it over two days with an overnight stop in a hotel.

View back to Macinaggio

View back to Macinaggio

The walk starts in the small village of Macinaggio, which has a tourist marina and a couple of shops where you can get your provisions. From Macinaggio the route heads north along the coast – just walk along to the end of the beach and follow the path. After walking around the first headland you drop to a beach where the only things that are normally found sunbathing are the local cows. As you walk along the path you cannot fail to smell the mixture of scents from the “maquis”, the herbs and shrubs that make up the vegetation that covers the landscape.

Tour De Santa Maria

Tour De Santa Maria

The next bay contains the ruin of the Tour de Santa Maria tower stands with it’s feet in the water. Dramatically sliced in half, the remains of this three storey tower sit just off the beach and you can walk across to it to have a look at what’s keft.

Continuing along this classic coastal walk you see the Tour d’Agnello tower standing proud on a small headland marking the north-eastern point of the island. Before you reach the tower the path cuts inland, away from the cliffs, before turning and following a track straight down to the tower.

You then drop down to the beach which gently curves round the bay. As you leave the far end of the beach you enter Barcaggio, the small village that is the half-way point on the walk. We then stayed the night in Barcaggio’s only hotel – the Hôtel La Giraglia (Open 01/04 to 30/09 – Tél 04-95-35-60-54). The hotel has no restaurant and no televisions. But who needs a tv when you can leave your bedroom window open and listen to the waves gently lapping against the shore. This has to be one of the most remote-feeling hotels I’ve ever stayed at – a real place to “get away from it all”.

If you do stay overnight you need to consider where you will eat. Barcaggio only has one restaurant – U Pescadore which specialises in seafood and is in an ugly prefab building on the quayside (Tel 04-95-35-61-64). It is only open from June to September and otherwise it is 7km to Chez Néné on the main road.

From Barcaggio the Sentier des Douaniers continues round to Centuri Port, which is covered in part two of the walk.

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Traditional Les Saintes Maries de la Mer

by on Mar.08, 2009, under France, French Experiences

Les Saintes Maries de la Mer is one of those places whose name alone conjures up images of legends from the past. Set in the heart of the Camargues region of southern France, this coastal town is steeped in history and folklore. The local Camargue culture is infused with gypsy traditions, and the highlight of the local calendar is the annual gypsy pilgrimage to the town in May.

View from the roof of the church

View from the roof of the church

The centre of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer is dominated by the church, which towers above the surrounding buildings. Built between the 9th and 12th centuries it seems more of a fortress than a place of worship, which is probably why it survives so well today. The main attraction inside is the statue of St. Sara, a significant figure in Gypsy cultural tradition, which is found in the crypt to the right of the altar. After visiting the inside of the church, make sure you climb up onto the roof for panoramic views across the Camargues and out into the Mediterranean.
Over Les Saintes Marie de la Mer

Looking out over Les Saintes Marie de la Mer

Surrounding the church are a labyrinth of narrow streets, offering shelter from the mediterranean heat. There are shops selling everything a tourist may wish for, and the atmosphere is typically friendly and festive throughout the year.

For more information visit the local tourist office web site.

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The tallest sand dune in Europe

by on Feb.27, 2009, under France, French Experiences

The big sand dune of Pilat is a bit bigger than your average sand dune. At over metres high (between 105 and 117 metres depending on who you ask) it stands tall above the French Atlantic coast, just south of the holiday resort of Arcachon.

Dune du Pilat near Arcachon

Dune du Pilat near Arcachon

Said to be the highest of its kind in Europe. Pilat is also over two and a half kilometres long and 500m wide.

Head for Pyla sur Mer (the nearest village) and the dune will rise from the horizon in front of you. Anyone can walk on the dune, so just find somewhere to park, take a deep breath and get walking. Walking on sand is not easy at the best of times, but when you are climbing up the steep sides of the dune it is positively strength-sapping. But it is worth it for the beautiful views – of the coast on one side and the pine forests on the other.

Trees in the Landes

Trees in the Landes

The area to the south of the dunes is the featureless expanse of the Landes. From the top of the dunes you can see this vast pine forest seems to go on forever.

Apparently there have been problems with drivers falling asleep at the wheel whilst driving along the arrow straight roads in the forest, so the have now deliberately put bends and junctions in some roads to break up the monotony.

Once you have tired yourself out on the dunes, head back towards Arcachon and sample some of the famous Arcachon oysters. Oysters grown by the 350 growers in the Arcachon bassin account for over half of all the oysters eaten in France. And if they’re good enough for the French…..

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Paris for the weekend

by on Feb.19, 2009, under France, French Experiences

Why on earth would you go to Paris for the weekend? I can’t think of any good reason, apart from the iconic monuments, immense and diverse museums, chic cafe culture, and excellent food.

Arc De Triomphe at Dusk

Arc De Triomphe at Dusk

For those who haven’t been to Paris before, it’s hard to know where to start.  I would begin with a trip on the river boats – my personal favourites being the Vedettes du Pont Neuf which go from (unsurprisingly) beside the Pont Neuf bridge. The hour long voyage gives you the opportunity to get your bearings – as many of the key landmarks are visible from the Seine. The Eiffel Tower, Assembly National parliament building, the museums of the Louvre and d’Orsay, and Notre Dame Cathedral are all pointed out and described by the multilingual guides.

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Paris several times, so I’ve visited all the must-do sites. However I still keep going back, as I just love the atmosphere of the place.

Paris is a city best explored on foot.  Make sure you wander the streets – you will be surprised what you find.  Every area of the city has hidden treasures, from churches to arches to covered markets.  When you get tired, rest over a drink in a cafe and spend time people watching.  This is a distinctly Parisian pass-time, and one every visitor should indulge in at some stage during their visit.

Parisian Cafe before opening time

Parisian Cafe before opening time

And when it comes to mealtime – be adventurous.  There are so many restaurants it’s hard to know where to start. In many cases it is the unasuming discreet places that turn up the best food.  Get some ideas from the guide books then just get out there and try something new.  My last visit included a meal at Petit Canard, which has a menu almost completely full of duck.  There was duck liver pate, duck leg, duck breast, duck cassoulet, duck sausage – if you don’t like duck then it’s not the place for you!

If you can’t find enough to do to fill a weekend in Paris, then you need to broaden your imagination.  Just don’t try to visit everything in your first visit.

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