Medieval Provence village Mouans-Sartoux
For me, summer holidays in France meant endless hours in the back of a stiflingly hot car and ferry crossings that were such an ordeal my sister and I virtually invented the term “staycation” in order to avoid holidays abroad.
Now, though, we have many more options to choose from when it comes to getting to our continental neighbour and a variety of destinations are within easy reach. So I skipped the obvious quick hop to Paris to venture elsewhere, with pleasant surprises along the way.
Provence by trainI’ve travelled by Eurostar before, but now you can jump on a train at King’s Cross and arrive in the South of France a few hours later, stopping at Lille, Lyon and Avignon before going to Marseille. As my husband and I live close to King’s Cross, this was the easiest way of getting to France.
You still have to factor in security and passport control, of course, so you can’t just turn up 10 minutes before departure time. Plus, it was a bunfight stowing cases in the limited space.
We travelled economy, while wishing we had invested a bit more for the chance of more leg room as our journey was jam-packed. Although the Eurostar used to feel quite luxurious, this time it felt decidedly tired. Since our trip, though, newer rolling stock has been introduced with better Wi-Fi and onboard entertainment.
As always, it felt as though we had barely set off before we were crossing beneath the Channel and arriving at our first stop, Lille. Then we cut swiftly through great swathes of countryside before arriving at Avignon, just over five and a half hours after leaving London.
As it’s a high-speed service, the Eurostar operates on the TGV line, so the station is outside central Avignon and perfect for picking up a hire car before heading off into the countryside.
Le Couvent des Minimes
We’d decided to visit Provence and the Luberon area, firstly staying at the gorgeous Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
Van Gogh painted several of his most famous works here during his “stay” at the nearby sanitorium and, like so many towns and villages in Provence, there’s a weekly market day, delicious patisseries, boulangeries and street cafés. Saint-Rémy is a wonderful place to unwind with a chilled glass of rosé (the region’s favourite tipple) before a visit to Avignon to see the famous partially collapsed bridge and the impressive Palais des Papes.
We then went on to the Luberon area, where we stayed at the incredible Couvent des Minimes in Mane, the official L’Occitane spa. This former convent was founded in 1613 and transformed into a luxury hotel and spa in 2008.
Everything is sublime, from its 46 stylish, luxurious rooms and eight suites (we loved the chest of drawers built like a stack of suitcases) to the statement artwork in the cavernous lobby. Gourmet food and the spa with its L’Occitane products all added up to a taste of heaven.
From the super-chilled to the super-busy, we enjoyed an overnight stay in Aix-en-Provence before catching our train from Marseille.
The only slight niggle to what had been a lovely holiday was that passengers have to leave the train – with their luggage – at Lille to go through passport control. It’s a bit of a pain, but a minor hassle in the grand scheme of things. So a big thumbs up to travelling to France by train.
Eurostar fares to Avignon start at £49.50 one way. To book, call 03432 186186 or visit eurostar.com. For rates at Le Couvent des Minimes Hôtel & Spa and to book, call +33 492 747777 or visit couventdesminimes-hotelspa.com.
Le Havre by ferry
With less than fond memories of ferry travel, I was hoping the passing years had transformed this traditional way of getting to the continent.
For this trip, we decided to visit Normandy and opted for the overnight Portsmouth to Le Havre ferry operated by Brittany Ferries. This is very much a no-frills economy service with very basic, uncarpeted cabins. The great thing is that you can just go to bed in your cabin and, smooth crossing permitted, wake up in France.
Le Havre is one of those places where you may have been to but never properly visited. It is so easy to drive off the ferry and head to the D-Day landing beaches, Bayeux or Honfleur, but Le Havre is definitely worth a visit – even more so in 2017, the town’s 500th anniversary, which they’ll be celebrating with a programme of events throughout the year.
Having been razed to the ground by the Allies during the Second World War, Belgian architect Auguste Perret redesigned the city. It’s planned around a grid of boulevards with concrete modular housing, a grand Hotel de Ville and the striking geometric Saint Joseph Church in the heart of the city. It is not to everyone’s taste, but fans of Brutalist architecture will love it.
Our favourite spot was the Appartement Témoin Perret, a meticulous reconstruction of one of the 1950s show flats created to tempt the dispossessed citizens of Le Havre to move back to their city.
With original post-war furniture, kitchen equipment and vintage clothing in the wardrobe, it’s a fascinating slice of social history and not what we would normally find ourselves doing on a city break, but so worth visiting.
We stayed at the charming hotel Vent d’Ouest, right in the centre of the city, which was small, friendly and beautifully comfortable. Breakfast there was a real treat – as was all of the food we had during our stay, which often featured local calvados and the most delicious fish soup.
Le Havre gained UNESCO status as a World Heritage Site in 2005 and there’s plenty to fill a weekend here, for example, a visit to Oscar Niemeyer’s cultural centre Le Volcan (volcano) and the clean, airy Museum of Modern Art with its excellent collection of Impressionist artwork.
If you can, drive out to the stunning alabaster-white cliffs at nearby Étratat, but just getting a blast of sea air is a tonic if you visit the pop-up restaurants on Le Havre beachfront.
If you are on a budget, a trip here is a cheap and convenient way of getting to explore this often overlooked area.
Fares from Portsmouth to Le Havre with Brittany Ferries start at £89 one way for a car and two passengers. Call 0330 159 7000 or visit brittanyferries.com. Rooms at Hôtel & Spa Vent d’Ouest (ventdouest.fr) start at £104. For more information on Normandy, visit en.normandie-tourisme.fr.
Toulouse by air
It’s a flight time of just one hour and 45 minutes to Toulouse, so that was a big tick instantly.
Friends told us the city was both beautiful and foodie, but we were still totally bowled over. Why had we left it so long before visiting France’s fourth biggest city?
We stayed in the centre of Toulouse at the Grand Hôtel de l’Opéra, a very imposing, old-world hotel with deep, opulent furnishings and traditional service. The creaky former monastery dates to the 17th century and couldn’t be better placed for exploring la ville rose, named after the distinctive pink stone used to construct many of its buildings.
However, it could equally have been called the violet city as the tiny purple flower is another emblem of Toulouse. La Maison de la Violette, a fantastically quirky barge on the beautiful Canal du Midi, explains why the fragile flower is synonymous with the city.
A quick transfer by metro takes you to foodie heaven – the Victor Hugo market where stall owners were happy for us to sample delicious charcuterie and ice cream. As cheese lovers, we could have started house hunting there when we walked into Xavier, considered one of the world’s best cheese shops.
We worked off our Restaurant Emile cassoulet on a walking tour of the beautiful city with a guide from the tourist board, visiting some of Toulouse’s most fascinating landmarks, namely The Capitole (city hall) with its beautiful marbles and paintings, the Saint-Sernin basilica and the Jacobin convent.
It is worth planning a tour like this with an official guide as there is a story at every turn. For a complete contrast, though, visit Cité de l’espace, the space travel theme park a 15-minute drive from the city centre.
There is so much to see, do, taste and experience in Toulouse that make it perfect for a mini-break – don’t forget to take your appetite.