Tour de France – Gear up and see France from the saddle

Become King of the Mountains in France

Believe it or not, it’s Tour de France season again! That means now’s the perfect time to think about bikes, France, and combining the two in the perfect holiday.

A quick look at how seriously the French take the Tour de France proves that cycling really is a national passion here. And why wouldn’t it be, what with varied scenery, a great climate, and charming towns and villages all conveniently linked by thousands of miles of quiet roads?

Better by bike

The brilliant thing about France is that there’s cycling here for everyone, whether you’re an avid racer tackling infamous Alpine climbs or a total novice hoping to coast along from café to café.  Better still, cycling isn’t just a good way to keep fit, it’s also a lovely way to meet the locals and see a country close up, and you’ll find yourself in out-of-the-way places many tourists never really see.  One thing is for sure: whatever your interests and level of fitness, France is a country made for experiencing on two wheels – the only problem is deciding which bit to explore!

Later on we’ll help you get to grips with some of the practicalities of cycling in France, but let’s start with a quick rundown of some of the country’s best regions for a two-wheeled adventure of your own.  Remember, with more than half a million miles of roads to choose from (and that’s excluding motorways!) there’s a huge network of cycle-friendly routes covering every corner of the country.  Look out for so-called ‘voies verte’ routes too, as these ‘greenway’ routes are a particularly good option for families because they’re generally flat and completely free from motor vehicles.  Some even follow scenic disused railways or canal towpaths.

Normandy, beach and rock formation in Etretat

Normandy, beach and rock formation in Etretat

The way to go…

There’s enjoyable cycling to be had all over France, and with thousands of holiday properties located throughout the country, it’s easy to find the perfect base from which to explore by bike.

The famous Loire Valley is ideal for beginners, with easy terrain, a user-friendly cycle trail and plenty of great sightseeing, including iconic châteaux.  Normandy and Brittany make good bases too, although Brittany’s intricate coastline makes cycling inland an easier option here.   If it’s big mountain scenery and a serious cycling challenge you’re after, head for the French Alps and enjoy (or endure!) some of the world’s legendary road and off-road routes.

France’s Atlantic coast offers the best coastal cycling in the country, and it includes islands you can reach from the mainland situated between the Gulf of Morbihan and the Gironde.  So long as you avoid some of the main roads – especially in peak season – the areas around rivers like the Dordogne, Lot and Aveyron also make ideal cycling country.  Watch out for some steep but rewarding climbs as you leave the valley bottoms.

Aquitaine, Languedoc and the Midi-Pyrénées offer good opportunities for cyclists too, and it’s worth checking out the huge area of pine forest at Landes as well as St Emilion and its surrounding area.  Burgundy has plenty of interest to offer cyclists, including scenic canals through undulating terrain.   In pretty Alsace, the foothills of the Vosges are home to beautiful traditional villages well worth a visit, or pedal to Comar for a day in this wonderfully preserved historic town, often considered the capital of Alsatian wine.

Getting to, from and around France

Whether you’re driving to France or flying and picking up a hire car, it’s possible to take your own bikes with you.  Choosing this option won’t just save you the time and expense of hiring bikes when you arrive at your destination, it means you’ll get to ride a bike you’re already familiar with.  If you decide to fly, check with your airline about the additional costs of taking your bike, and make sure you know how to pack it and whether or not it needs to be booked on the flight in advance.  Airline websites usually have all this information available under their ‘Baggage’ section.

Of course, if you’re a really keen cyclist you may even decide to ride to France!  A journey like this turns your holiday into an adventure, but be sure to plan and pack carefully.  Ferry companies will allow you to take your bike on board and, if you time it right, you might even be able to benefit from special offers aimed at cyclists.

Eurostar and the French rail network both allow bikes on trains, although you should check and book in advance by contacting either http://www.eurostar.co.uk or http://www.voyages-sncf.com.  It might be necessary to pay for transporting your bike, and not all high-speed TGV trains will carry bicycles.

If you prefer to hire bikes when you arrive at your destination, check carefully to make sure the bikes fit properly and are in good working order.  If you’re hiring for a few days, it’s even worth thinking about taking basic tools along too, like a puncture repair kit and a pump.

Points to remember

Just like at home, to stay safe and avoid breaking the law you need to know the rules of the road if you’re cycling on French highways, even the quiet ones.  Make sure you check for the latest laws and regulations covering traffic, safety equipment and bicycle set-up.  As a general rule, you must obey all traffic signs just as you would in a car.

  • The law doesn’t require you to wear a helmet in France, but it’s definitely strongly advised. If you’re riding in the dark away from urban areas, you’ll need to wear a high-visibility jacket too.
  • In towns and cities you must cycle in the marked cycle lanes wherever they are provided.
  • Don’t forget to check the latest law on alcohol limits and driving, because the same limits apply to cyclists as well. Ignoring these laws could lead to a major fine and the confiscation of your bike, and you could even have your car licence withdrawn.
  • In France, to be ‘roadworthy’ bikes need to have a bell as well as brakes that work properly. If you ride after dark, you’ll need to make sure your bike is also fitted with reflectors together with lights front and rear.
  • While it’s fine during the daylight hours, don’t ride side by side at night, no matter how tempting it is.
  • Always make sure that your holiday insurance covers you for the type of riding you’ll be doing. If you’re mountain biking in the Alps or road racing in a competition, you might need specialist insurance to cover any medical costs arising from an accident.  Never be tempted to skimp on this – medical and repatriation bills can quickly run into tens of thousands of pounds, or even more!

Last but not least, it’s worth doing a bit of research before your trip.  We’ve tried to give you a few of the basics here, but there’s a wealth of more detailed information available online.  Look at the tourism websites for the particular area of France you’d like to visit, and start your adventure with a visit to the official site for cycle tourism in France at www.francevelotourisme.com

Take a look at holiday cottages in France to find your perfect for cycling holiday accommodation.

Cottage of the Week – Villa Franeli, Cote-d’Azur

A beautiful, contemporary retreat, Villa Franeli (ref. FCA342) has been stylishly designed and beautifully furnished. All rooms benefit from south-facing patio doors, with views over the pool area and overlooking the quaint Provençal village of Le Rouret. Sleeps 8. More info on our website.

Cottage of the Week – Mas Saurine, Languedoc-Roussillon

A 19th Century Catalan farmhouse situated in a tranquil location, yet close to endless miles of golden sandy beaches and the high mountain peaks of the Pyrénées, Mas Saurine (Ref. F66156) offers a lovely, scenic holiday location for up to 7 lucky guests.

It is situated in a tranquil location, yet close to endless miles of golden sandy beaches and the high mountain peaks of the Pyrénées. Nearby are the villages of Joch and Vinça with local shopping. More comprehensive facilities are provided by Prades and Ille-sur-Têt, both 15 minutes away.

Find more information, up to date availability and pricing and make your booking on our website.

 

Beat the Crowds – 6 Perfect Pre-Summer Breaks in France

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Fine wine and dining, a rich culture and history and so much more!

If your thoughts are already turning to this year’s summer holidays, planning ahead is a great way of staving off the winter blues! As our nearest continental neighbour, France has so much to offer – and it’s not surprising that more than 17 million Brits head there each year, according to Foreign Office statistics. It’s incredibly easy to get to by plane, train or boat from the UK and travel there is very cost-effective. Indeed, France’s transport links are the envy of the world.

We love it for the sheer variety of its beautiful countryside and natural landscapes, incorporating three different coastlines and a number of mountain ranges – not to mention the extinct volcanoes of the Auvergne. Then there’s the fine wine, dining and a rich culture and history – seen in its very well-preserved heritage sites. France is a country that looks after its past very well, from chateaux and castles to ancient villages, Roman sites and more. France also has its rivers, lakes, plains and estuaries – making it essentially one way of seeing all of Europe in a single country!

Pre-summer is the perfect time to soak up the rich culture and spectacular scenery of France: there are fewer crowds, the climate is beautifully inviting and most people are still at work, allowing you all the time and space you need to relax and explore.  There are plenty of festivals and other events to enjoy, with many attractions offering longer opening hours in June. Local markets are full of early summer produce, pavement bars and cafes are doing a roaring trade, and there are gorgeous flowers in full bloom wherever you go.

That just leaves one question – where should you go in France at this most glorious time of year?

Here are a few suggestions…

Loire Valley

Chambord Chateau: one of the Loire

Chambord: one of the Loire’s grandest chateaux

The Loire Valley is essentially a fairy-tale land of Renaissance and medieval chateaux dotted along the path of the sweeping, majestic Loire River, as well as the lesser known Maine, Vienne and Indre waterways. Expect villages and towns that time forgot, and visit places like Chambord and Chenonceau – there’s a bit of magic around every corner! The former is perhaps the Loire’s grandest chateau, with its mass of chimneys, set in thick, extensive woodland.

There are great roads and other travel links in this part of the world, with bus and trains to each of the three main provinces of this region – Orléans (in the east), Anjou (towards the west) and Touraine in the centre.

Aix-en-Provence

The Old Town of Aix-en-Provence

The Old Town of Aix-en-Provence

Aix could be described as France at its most civilised! But despite its elite opera festival and elegant golden stone mansions and grand squares, it’s less haughty and more youthful than you might expect, with a student population of around 40,000, not to mention a buzzing café society.

What’s more, a direct Eurostar now serves the city, making it more accessible than ever. Make time to visit the beautiful urban gardens while you are in town as well – and the Burning Bush triptych by Nicolas Froment from the fifteenth century. This is one of southern France’s finest works of art, and can be seen in the St Sauveur cathedral in Aix.

The Vosges

The heavenly mountains of The Vosges

If hiking is your thing, make for the heavenly mountains of The Vosges in June. Expect pretty villages, lush forests and glacial lakes. Wine buffs will also love the vineyards. You also don’t have to be a super-fit walker to enjoy the superb natural environment of France’s third most wooded département, or its world-renowned thermal springs, lakes, fir forests, rivers and unspoiled flora.

The Normandy Coast

 

Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches

Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches

In the rush to reach other parts of the country, Normandy is all too often overlooked, but it has stunning coastal scenery while, further inland, there’s a beautiful, patchwork rural land. Upper Normandy in particular, just a short hop away, makes a perfect short break destination from the UK. Of course, there are also many historic attractions, including the beaches that saw the D-Day landings and the Bayeux tapestry. Equally, for those who love their cheese and cider, or indeed any other kind of quality food and drink, Normandy is heaven!

With a climate quite similar to that of the south of England, June is a very comfortable month to visit.

The Volcans d’Auvergne

The mountains

A diverse range of landscapes and cultural heritage

Like Scotland? Then you’ll adore this part of France. The Volcans d’Auvergne, the heart of France, is the biggest Parc Naturel Régional in the country, and Europe’s largest regional park as well as being one of the oldest. Full of rare plants and butterflies in the warmer months, it offers the chance to visit volcanoes, experience some incredible regional cuisine, and soak up a very diverse range of landscapes and cultural heritage.

Metz

Metz at night

This is the capital city of France’s Lorraine region, in the north east of the country here the Seille and Moselle rivers meet. It’s a real delight, with its stunning architecture and buildings the colour of honey, and lots of beautiful parks to visit – nearly 600 acres of parkland in all – making it one of France’s greenest cities.

All year round, you’ll find an extensive range of shows, concerts, exhibitions and sporting events to enjoy. Top sights not to be missed include the Centre Pompidou-Metz, a superb communal space, and the Saint-Etienne cathedral, one of Europe’s tallest Gothic buildings, boasting 6500 square metres of stained glass windows.

With so many very different places to visit in this superb country, France in June has so much to offer. So what’s stopping you from experiencing the many delights of France in magical early summer? Take a look at our current holiday accommodation in June.

5 Fun New Year’s Resolutions – and how to keep them

New year 2015

Why are New Year’s resolutions so difficult to keep? Every year we start off with such good intentions, but somehow it doesn’t quite seem to work. The simple answer is that most people simply carry on their lives as normal. They either expect their resolutions to keep themselves, or they forget they made them in the first place.

In fact, the key to keeping your New Year’s resolutions is to get out and do something. Explore your world, enjoy the countryside, remind yourself of why you made those resolutions in the first place, and put yourself in the ideal environment to achieve your goals.

Here, we take five common New Year’s resolutions – travel more, get fit, learn a language, relax more and spend more time with the family – and find out where to go and what to do to make these aspirations a reality.

1. Travel more

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First off, forget expensive, faraway destinations and those stressful hours trapped in the departures lounge. There are plenty of unexplored gems right here in the UK, just waiting to be discovered.

In fact, for breathtaking mountain scenery, an intriguing local language and and even a dormant volcano, you need only go as far as north Wales and the beautiful Snowdonia National Park. If you want to avoid the crowds of Snowdon itself, explore the rich natural and cultural treats of the rest of the park, including the ancient castles and more recent Welsh folk history to be found around Dolgeallau.

2. Get fit

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The bad news is that spending money on a gym membership you’ll hardly ever use will not get you fit. Amazingly, millions of pounds are still wasted in this way every year in the UK. The good news, however, is that a sure-fire way of making exercise work is to make sure you enjoy it. Instead of a sweaty, crowded gym, get yourself fit out amongst some of the outstanding natural beauty that Britain has to offer.

The Forest of Dean, just north of the River Severn and close to the Welsh border, is the perfect location for a fitness break. There’s a simply incredible number of activities available in this spectacular location, including cycling, caving, climbing and canoeing. There’s even diving at one of the UK’s newest inland dive sites. Plus, of course, there’s the simple pleasure of walking and hiking around one of England’s surviving ancient woodlands. You’ll be so captivated by the amazing scenery, you won’t even realise how fit you’re getting!

3. Learn a language

Le Mont Saint Michel
They say the best way to learn a new language is not in the classroom, but to immerse yourself in the culture. With a self catering break in the gorgeous countryside of France or Italy, you can escape the stifling cocoon of hotels, cities and resorts, and mingle with the locals. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you can pick up the basics in a supermarket or cafe. Plus, by visiting a stunningly beautiful location, you’ll give yourself even more motivation to persevere with the language.

An ideal place to start your learning is the stunning Armorica Regional Natural Park in Brittany. From the mountains to the sea, you’ll discover some incredible wildlife and breathtaking views. Here, you can forget the old French stereotypes: the local Bretons are very friendly, and fortunately they’re rather used to helping Brits struggling with the language!

4. Relax more

Bamburgh Castle and seat

To truly achieve relaxation, you need to give your body the most peaceful stimuli: creature comforts, natural beauty, and calm, quiet surroundings. Likewise, there are a few things you need to avoid at all costs, such as long-haul flights, stressful airports and lost luggage.

How about a holiday let with a hot tub, surrounded by the rugged beauty of Northumberland? In this most northerly part of England, you can really get away from the crowds, with miles of stunning coastline and woodland to enjoy.

5. Spend more time with the family

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Spending more time with the family does not mean staying at home in front of the telly! Jobs, housework and the distractions of normal life mean that getting away is the best option for renewing those family bonds. Getting everyone from the kids to the grandparents in one place is a great idea, and there’s no easier way to do so than by renting a large holiday cottage.

There’s no better choice than the Peak District, Britain’s first national park. If you’ve got family members spread far and wide, its location right in the heart of Britain, nestled just between Manchester and Sheffield, will ensure it’s easy to get to for everyone. With so much to see and do throughout its 500 square miles, there’ll be something to keep the whole family entertained, before you all come together for some real family bonding.

We hope this has given you some inspiration for how you can keep your New Year’s resolutions this year, whilst at the same time exploring some of the wonderful countryside right on your doorstep.

Views of France

They may not be festive, but we’re seeing a lot of interest in French properties for 2015 at the moment and we thought these views of France were too good not to share. If you fancy reserving yours then take a look at our France page for a huge selection of fantastic gites, villas and more.