For a summer break, I had the pleasure of joining a friend on a three-week driving tour from northeast to east-central France. Along the way, we uncovered many an under-the-radar gem as we strayed far off the beaten track in true GlobalGrasshopper style.
I would like to share some of these discoveries with you folks in the hopes of reminding you about the breadth of beauty waiting to be explored. From food to art to history, I think France is just extraordinary, here is my journey discovering these beautiful gems…
My under-the-radar French adventure began at Basel Airport from where we hired a car and took the brief drive down into the beautiful region of Alsace, staying in the Hotel Cheval Blanc in the sleepy little town of Baldersheim on the edge of the wine route.
The region is characterised by fine mountain ranges standing shoulder-to-shoulder with perfectly manicured vineyards and quaint medieval villages more akin to Bavaria than the rest of France. Ancient beamed cottages reminiscent of the gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel grace the little town’s cobbled streets with tiny wooden doors and vivid window boxes!
My favourite was Bergheim whose charming streets were the home of Cafe Du Baili and undoubtedly the best Tarte Flambé I have ever tasted! Local beers such as Storky Pils…are named after the protected birds that nest on many of the town’s church towers and chimney breasts and last but not least are of course the wines, especially the rich fruity Pinot Noir and the crisp white Riesling.
Although the region does attract a bit of tourism it is not even close to being swamped like much of the south and consequently, visitors are treated with warmth, parking is free and the food is cheap and delicious, in my opinion, it’s well worth a visit!
Heading West our next stop was Hotel Du Golf in Chamouille located in beautiful Champagne. Situated fairly centrally, in my opinion it was a great base for exploring the region.
The town lies on the historic ridge between the rivers Aisne and Ailette known as Chemin Des Dames. Champagne is characterised by open landscapes and beautiful medieval towns including Rheims, whose amazing Gothic cathedral and surrounding palaces qualify it as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Also sporting a stunning cathedral is Laon, whose medieval old town perches high on the hill above the more contemporary new town offering an imposing site as you approach from the main road.
The Cathedral is a Gothic masterpiece that is rawer than Rheims and I preferred it somehow. I loved the rough stone walls and malevolent gargoyles and I loved the winding streets and panoramic aspects of the historical centre. We also enjoyed the most delicious meal there, in a fine dining restaurant called Le Petit Auberge.
The final stop in the region was Troyes, a big town and fairly modern with another splendid cathedral in its historical centre and lots of 13th-century townhouses, wooden beamed and leaning-like buildings from the Tudor era back in England.
Back in the day, it was a town of fashion and it’s still renowned for its designer outlets, which are a great escape when you start to get Gothiced out! Like Alsace Champagne is surprisingly tourist-free, with people tending to drive through it rather than stop. This makes it an easy region to explore with good roads, low traffic and easy parking, its rich and varied history means it contains many a hidden gem.
For fans of Architecture or Military enthusiasts, in my opinion, it’s a must-see but also for those of you who like peace and rural idylls and enjoy simply drinking in the atmosphere of a place (with a glass of the world-famous bubbly of course!)
From Troyes, we travelled south and spent a week at the beautiful Château Bernund in the wilds of Burgundy. The perfectly renovated medieval château is now run as a B&B with a cooperative feel. We stayed in the old groundsman’s lodge next to the Château and enjoyed many an evening sitting out on our porch watching the wildlife and listening to the gentle rushing of water in the mill pond below.
The place was so tranquil we found it hard to leave and explore the region, but we did of course! Our first trip was for a delicious meal at Ma Table En Ville in Macon where we enjoyed wonderful service.
We started our day trips with the nearby Cluny, a town famous for its stallions and Benedictine Abbey, in former times one of the most powerful seats in Christendom. Only a small section of the once enormous Abbey remains and there is a charge to enter which we declined to do. Instead, we wandered through the quaint little town with its peach and cream buildings and boutique shops and enjoyed the peaceful atmosphere.
On day 2 we took the lengthy journey to Beaune, a famous wine town in the vineyards’ heart that also boasts a 15th Century Hospital, originally a hospital for the poor, whose beautiful interior now houses an eclectic museum. Whilst it’s an attractive town I didn’t like Beaune, I thought it was a real tourist trap and this is reflected in the prices and the quality of the food and service we received there.
On day 3 at my request, we visited the delightful literary town of Cuisery, mentioned in “The Little Paris Bookshop” and spent a happy hour perusing the dusty volumes, collectable annuals and vintage paperbacks and chatting with friendly booksellers.
On our return journey, we stumbled upon possibly the highlight of our holiday, the stunning Abbaye St Philibert in Tournus. The abbey is a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture with an extensive interior to explore, including a perfectly preserved crypt dating back to the 10th Century. The magnificent Chancel, Nave and adjacent Cloisters and Refectory are not to be missed either. The jewel in the crown is the Roman Mosaic depicting the Signs of the Zodiac, discovered during renovations in 2002.
To add to my general delight it was free to go in…. yes FREE! The town itself is deceptively large and really beautiful, with winding medieval streets and stone houses adorned by brightly coloured window boxes. The people are friendly and the prices are fair, I would choose it over Beaune any day of the week!
6. Château Du Cormatin
Day 4 and we thought it was time for a bit of Château action, so we headed back towards Tournus for lunch and then visited the 17th Century Château Du Cormatin. The magnificent château has some of the best preserved 17th-century ‘apartments’ in the country with gilt panelling and stunning detail in the frescoes, fireplaces and furnishings.
My favourite room was the ‘Chamber of Curiosities’, a macabre collection of items from all around the world, designed to show off the wealth of the collector but also to stimulate symbolic reflection with an exotic melange of taxidermy, tortoiseshell, minerals and bronzes. As well as the perfectly restored 17th-century apartments there are rooms decorated by the eccentric Raoul Gunsbourg, director of the Monte Carlo Opera.
The gardens are an exquisitely landscaped collection of flowerbeds, a topiary and a grand labyrinth with an aviary at its centre. For lovers of history, architecture and glamour in my opinion this is unmissable!
Day 5 we travelled out to the town of Autun which was founded in AD 356 and still boasts some impressive ruins from that era. Around the ruins grew a beautiful town with relics from many historical periods.
The little winding streets are dotted with little boutique shops and cafes and the town has a wonderfully cultured yet alternative atmosphere. When we first arrived we found ourselves faced with an entire brass and woodwind band, evidently lost, running down the hill towards us. It was one of those memorable moments and I was glad to be reunited with the musicians later on as they busked some beautiful music next to the cafe where we enjoyed an afternoon Campari!
The 12th Century Cathedral was semi-closed for renovations yet still made a spectacular impression on the skyline. We arrived on market day and the main square by the grand ‘Hotel D’Ville’ was bustling with stores selling food, clothes, jewellery and crafts by local artisans. Despite its beauty, it was still an easy town to visit; not swamped with tourists, not impossible to park and not overpriced.
Although I would say don’t eat at the Trattoria at the top of the hill by the Rollins Museum unless you are fond of intolerably slow service and fairly mediocre grub, otherwise get ye to Autun! I don’t think you’ll regret it!
8. Château de Sully
Our final day in Burgundy was a little underwhelming… we visited Château de Sully, reputably one of the grandest Renaissance Châteaux in Southern Burgundy and currently home to The Duke of Magenta and thus in Royal hands. It is true that from the outside the Château is spectacular, rising gloriously from its moat and surrounded by an impressive estate.
However, it seems to be suffering at the hands of bad management and the handful of rooms that are open to the public are not worthy of a viewing. They are in desperate need of repair and were depressingly dusty and uncared for, the few noteworthy things were overshadowed by the general sense of decay. Renovations have been ongoing for years and it will be an epic undertaking to restore the château’s interior to even a fraction of its former glory. I wish them good luck but for now, I would not recommend it as a destination.
And so back to Baldersheim and one last Tarte Flambé before our magnificent voyage of discovery came to a close. Having visited many parts of France from Provence to Paris, The Riviera to The Dordogne, the exploration through the northeast corner was a real eye-opener.
Far away from the flocks of tourists, we were free to just soak up the landscape, culture and history of the regions we visited and if you’re the kind of person who appreciates a peaceful trip full of pleasant surprises I strongly recommend you give this pilgrimage, or even part of it, a go!
You will return feeling refreshed and reflective and an absolute authority on Gothic, Neo-Gothic, Romanesque and Renaissance Architecture! Bon Voyage m’ beauties!
Beth Pinches – writer and photographer
Beth was born under a wandering star, with drama in her veins and ink in her pen. After stints studying theatre in Dublin and Utrecht she used her creative streak to see as much of the world as she could on as little money. She toured Italian Schools with a children’s theatre troop, lived as an au pair in both Rome and Washington DC, explored the British countryside, worked her way through much of Europe, Salsa danced in Cuba and road-tripped down America’s west coast where she discovered her spiritual home; Portland, Oregon. Other places she loves include Croatia, Finland, Japan and India. In between adventures, travel writing and performing she resides peacefully with her family, cats and ukulele. Find Beth on Linkedin or Facebook.
Hotel Reviewing Experience – Asked by many tourist boards and many high-profile travel brands to formally review hotels including Visit Jersey, Visit Sweden, and Israel Tourist Board. Also travelled around the world scouting out and reviewing all the most unique hotels in the world, check out our Instagram page for photos. Listed as a top UK travel journalist.
Portland Reviewing Experience – Lived in Portland for 6 months and spent many months scouting out all the coolest spots.