When we had relatively small children who had long summer holidays we took them on a couple of major expeditions through Europe, packing up the car with everything we imagined we might need – and as many phrase books as I could lay my hands on. In those days you could make certain plans, but it was impossible to book an itinerary in the same way that it is today, so we did our best and had some extremely memorable experiences!
Anyway, I was recently touched to hear that one child wants to do something similar with her own young family. So I had the wonderful souls at the Hotel Guru send over recommendations. They came back with quite a lot of great options, but I like the look of these five, and they’re all great value too.
Start from the rolling green pleasantness of Normandy, with those sweeping, sandy beaches, and you have Bayeux and its tapestry, the D-Day beaches and memorials and Camembert to look forward to first. Then there’s Chartres and its cathedral, Honfleur for the light-loved-by-artists, Monet’s Giverny and Rouen, also much loved by Monet.
Where to Stay?
Chateau La Cheneviere is a luxurious, 18th century chateau close to the coast, with traditionally elegant interiors and 29 enormous rooms and suites. As well as being beautiful and classically ‘French chateau’, there’s also an excellent restaurant, an inviting bar, a heated pool, tennis courts, a local golf course and some near-pristine beaches just minutes away. This is a great spot to do a lot or do a little, with rooms starting from €209 per night.
Practical Details: The closest centre is the wonderfully named Port-en-Bessin-Huppain, which is between Bayeux and Omaha Beach.
Brittany has more of those long, sandy beaches, though here there are more resorts in between them, some of them extremely charming – the stretch between St Malo and St Brieuc called the Cote d’Emeraude is particularly picturesque. You don’t need to stay in the resorts though, the fishing villages are charming too, with their oysterbeds and bobbing boats. Nantes is a cultural hub, if you need one, and Vannes is extremely pretty too with its medieval centre, and from there you can catch a ferry across to magical Belle Ile en Mer, a charming island in the Golfe de Morbihan. Brittany is also known for its many chapels, and you can see the infiltration of the preceding belief systems and mythology in their decoration, which is magical and charming.
Where to Stay?
Manoir Dalmore is a welcoming Breton hotel with lush gardens which lead right on to a small, sandy cove lined at one end with trailer sailers and rounded rocks at the other. There are just 10 rooms, with a choice of sea or garden view, and all are simply decorated, the best have enormous fireplaces. Rooms start from €115 per night.
Practical Details: The closest centre is Port Manec’h, which is a hamlet on the estuary of the L’Aven river out of Pont-Aven. Pont-Aven is certainly picturesque and charming, but most people know of it because Paul Gauguin loved to paint it. The Musée des Beaux-Arts contains a fine collection of artwork from Gauguin and his contemporaries Emile Bernard and Paul Serusier, who became known as the ‘Ecole de Pont-Aven’ – and all that because the light on this little fishing village is so wonderfully unique.
Getting into the Dordogne the landscape changes again, with more hilltops and rocky outcrops for châteaux to perch upon, and more picturesque rural villages with wonderful markets and local restaurants. And of course there are the woods and forests, canyons, the beautiful Dordogne river and the prehistoric cave art: Lascaux is the most famous but the whole Vezere Valley is rife with caves. Brantome is a good central hub and an historic market town, and the area around Sarlat is memorable for its truffles and mushrooms, foie gras, and ducks and geese more generally. And of course the châteaux! Too many to see them all, but the Château de Beynac is unmissable, as is the Château Marqueyssac.
Where to Stay?
La Roche d’Esteil is a beautifully converted, five bedroom farmhouse offering chic but rustic accommodation in simply styled rooms with exposed beams and beautiful stonework. There’s a large pool and a fabulous restaurant to make this hotel stand out, and a proper sense of countryside-related-tranquility. Plus great little outdoor chairs and tables dotted around to help you enjoy it. Rooms start from €95 B&B.
Practical Details: The closest town is Sainte-Nathalene, which is a short drive north from Sarlat-la-Caneda. This is a great, central spot from which to explore the castles of the Dordogne – you’re a short drive from Beynac castle, one of the most memorable in the region. You’re also quite close to the prehistoric caves at Lascaux.
Once you enter Burgundy the architecture becomes grander – many of the really notable buildings were built during the Renaissance, and here you can start to see the influence of hundreds of years of viticulture on the landscape and culture. There are also thousands of wild, protected acres in the Morvan National Park and a surfeit of towns and hamlets you’ll instantly want to move to. UNESCO World heritage listed Vézelay is a prime example, an architectural gem perched on a crown of rock topped by a medieval basilica, below it a wonderful patchwork of vineyards and fields of sunflowers.
The Côte d’Or is probably Burgundy’s most famous wine growing region, a picturesque spot between Dijon – which was one of Europe’s greatest cities in the 14th and 15th centuries and has a mustard market designed by Gustave Eiffel, no less, and Beaune including Meursault and the long, scenic corridor on the bank of the Saône river designated Beaujolais https://www.thehotelguru.com/best-hotels/france/beaujolais.
Where to Stay?
La Ferme de Marie-Eugenie is a timber-framed farmhouse built in the 18th century and carefully converted into a four room guesthouse. There’s a beautiful garden and a charming terrace, plus interiors bursting with period features amongst contemporary comfort. They serve a large breakfast and classic local dishes at table d’hote dinners, and there’s a welcoming lounge. Rooms start from €135 per night B&B.
Practical Details: The closest hamlet is Sainte-Croix, but the closest larger centre is Louhans, which is north of Mâcon. If you’re not familiar with it, Mâcon is a particularly picturesque little city, and a rather ancient one, with a charming medieval Old Town bursting with historic sites and sights. Plus there’s the wine…You’re also close to Berze-le-Chatel, a 13th century castle perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking a valley, and widely considered to be the most impressive fortress in the southern Burgundy.
Then you show up in Provence and everything changes again. If you time it right you’ll see the lavender growing in fat, neat rows and experience the long, drowsy lunches in picturesque medieval hilltop villages or picnics on family vineyards. It’s hard to pick out sights and centres from Provence’s rich list, but Avignon is hard to skip, as is Aix-en-Provence, which is so sophisticated, and Orange and Nimes have those Roman relics…
Then there’s Arles and St Remy de Provence, where Van Gogh, Gauguin and Matisse gathered to paint the colours under the near-mythological light. The Gorges du Verdon is an incredible place to explore, as is the flea market at Isle sur La Sorgue.
Where to Stay?
Les Florêts is a charming, family-run hotel set amongst vineyards, lush gardens and centuries old trees. There are 15 elegant rooms with plenty of light and a gorgeous terrace. The terrace comes alive at mealtimes, hosting the excellent restaurant serving local specialities beautifully paired with wines from the hotel’s vineyard. There’s also a pool with a view. Provençal perfection. And starting from just €135 per night.
Practical Details: Les Florêts is just outside Gigondas, which is a tiny hamlet really, with a population of under a thousand people, but which seems almost entirely devoted to winemaking – reds, of the Côtes-du-Rhône Villages. There’s a wonderfully dilapidated medieval castle on the hill and a beautiful church in town, along with some impressively ancient houses and buildings, and you’re at the foot of the majestic Dentelles de Montmirail. You’re also close to Orange, Avignon and Vaison-la-Romaine.