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Looking for French Gems I Should Consider

I am starting to plan a trip around France. We will be driving. I'm looking for any hidden gems I should see but don't know about. Rough itinerary as follows. It can all be changed as nothing is booked yet. Just dreaming. We will have 2 weeks.

Normandy - D-day beaches, 1066 history, and Mont St. Michele
Loire - Chinon, Villandry, Chenonceau, Chambord...
Dordogne - Caves, foi gras, and 100 years war like Castle Beynac
Carcassonne and Las Tours
Arles - arles Roman monuments, museum, Pont du Gard and museum, Nimes?
Paris one night and fly home

Posted by
5544 posts

Normandy, 1066 history-The Bayeux Tapestry. It is so amazing to see this work in such wonderful condition.
See Carcassonne as a day trip.
Only one night in Paris?

Posted by
5017 posts

The most obvious, high-level questions...

  1. When exactly are you planning this? Presumably you are taking into account the worldwide COVID disasters?

We will have 2 weeks...

  1. Your initial "dreams" list has a lot on it for such a short trip. Many first-time travelers start off with unrealistic expectations, and compound the problem by failing to define exactly how much usable time they will have on the ground in Europe. You can help avoid disappointments by starting off with an honest, sober decision of how much time you have. So, rather than speak in generalities like "we have 2 weeks" tell us more specifically how many full days you will have on the ground in Europe, not including the day your flight arrives nor the day your flight home departs. For many people who describe their trip as "2 weeks" they end up with around 10 usable days in Europe. That's a very short trip. So before your dream list gets too long, start with that. Pick actual dates (even if they are just proposed dates). Post specific dates for your flights. Only then can anyone give you good suggestions for how you can realistically spend that time.

But before that...COVID19....right?

Posted by
1791 posts

It appears you have a strong interest in history, if that is the case, when you are in the Loire Valley, I would strongly recommend a stop at Musée des Blindés in Saumur. This is one of the top 3 tank museums in the world. They have many different tanks from WWI to Modern and from many different countries too, not just from France. It was a real treat from me, as I am also interested in military history. They have some pretty rare stuff, like a functioning King Tiger Ausf. B and some captured Iraqi tanks from the Gulf War, among many other things. I think that it's one of the largest tank museums in the world, after the Tank Museum in Dorset.

While you are already at Saumur, you should also stop by Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud, which houses the tombs of King Richard the Lionheart and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, two very historically important people, as you may know :)

Posted by
16581 posts

Since you are proposing to drive (highly desirable in many of the areas you want to visit), you should use ViaMichelin.com to estimate the driving time for you tentative itinerary. I think you are (tentatively) planning to cover too much territory for the time you have--and I agree that it's essential to know exactly how much time you will have. How many nights can you spend in France--not counting the night on the plane?

Posted by
1106 posts

In a 2-week trip you should try foie gras approximately a dozen times, to get a sense of the range and variety both of origination and of presentation. You'll discover that fancy garnishes and plating often (but not always) means a middlebrow product while simple relatively plain presentation often (but not always) is for an inherently formidable piece. There's also a country/provincial/homemade style versus a refined consistent gem.

You'll never look at spam the same way again ;(==))

(When I say 'origination' I mean that if your server can't tell you what farm it comes from you should give them a raised eyebrow. Preferably the right eyebrow.)

Posted by
3940 posts

My view differs from the previous poster - you shouldn’t try foie gras at all if you have seen how it is produced- and I am not a vegetarian/vegan but a meat eater.

You are trying to cover too much ground in 2 weeks, particularly as you shouldn’t hire a car on arrival with jet lag. Normandy, the Loire and the Dordogne can more than fill 2 weeks.

Posted by
6686 posts

Château de Brézé in the Loire is a privately owned, Medieval underground fortification. This is the most interesting chateau I've ever visited. It does have a later chateau built above ground, but like most Renaissance residence chateau, it's not as interesting to me. And Brézé has a vineyard and tasting room.
https://www.chateaudebreze.com/castle-france-loire-saumur

You can visit the troglodyte farm houses near Doué-lla-Fontaine, renamed Doué-enAnjou, 90% of the population in the area lived underground until the beginning of the 20th century. Very interesting. https://www.anjou-tourisme.com/fr/diffusio/visites/maisons-troglodytes-de-forges-deneze-sous-doue_TFOPCUUZSMAISONSTROGLOFORGES

It’s so nice to think beyond the crisis at hand.

Posted by
506 posts

Depending on how interested you are in D-Day, Dale Booth does 1 and 2 day American beaches, 1 day British and 1 day Canadian. So it's pretty easy to spend a week in Normandy when you add in the Bayeux Tapestry and Cathedral. Dale books up well in advance, so we planned our whole trip around his availability (before booking flights or anything else). We did the 2-day American and will come back another time for the rest, I hope.

The Rick Steves sample itinerary is crazy-rushed, if you've looked at that for ideas. You probably want close to four weeks for this wish list, five if you want to see Paris. Check the Trip Reports forum to see what others have managed in two weeks.

Hope this helps,
Marty

Posted by
1122 posts

I hope you'll have a car.

If you fly into Marseille and rent a car there, you can do this forced march, assuming two nights in each of your five main spots, with one extra in three or four others.

Maybe drive directly to Carcassonne from Marseille for one night (no one will advise a drive right after landing, though), on to Arles for two, up to the Dordogne for three?, then to the Loire for three?, and on again, soldier, to Bayeux for three.

That's 12 nights

One or two nights in the Paris area, perhaps drop off the car and stay in town?

Something like that.

Posted by
919 posts

In between the Loire and Dordogne I'd recommend a visit to Oradour-sur-Glane https://www.oradour.org/. In June 1944, the Nazi's murdered every citizen and burned the town down. The town has been left as it is as a memorial.

Beynac may be the prettiest town I've ever visited.

Stay in Carcassonne overnight, reviews that call it an overcrowded tourist trap are accurate but evenings and early mornings when you can have it to yourself make it worthwhile. The sunrise along the east walls is spectacular.

Loved the caves in the Dordogne regions. Lascaux was my favourite. https://www.lascaux.fr/en/prepare-your-visit/visit-lascaux/international-centre-for-cave-art

I loved the museum at Pont du Gard and recommend you set aside a couple of hours for it. While you're in the area, consider going to https://www.carrieres-lumieres.com/ near Les Baux. We also really enjoyed the http://www.palais-des-papes.com/en in Avignon.

Posted by
756 posts

Thanks all for your replies. I already have my nights laid out with flexibility at this point so we are good to go on areas we are seeing. Looking for specific abbeys, chateaux, restaurants, castles, places to stay that you would recommend that maybe aren't on the main tourist trail but are awesome! So thank-you for all those suggestions! Please keep them coming!

Posted by
756 posts

Carlos - we are planning on Fontevraud! And you are correct, history is our game! Bets - that chateaux looks awesome thank you so much!

Posted by
1791 posts

@jlkelman - excellent I am also a big history buff! Since you mention castles from the Hundred Years' War, maybe you could stop by Fougères Castle? It conveniently lies on the route between Normandie and the Loire. One of Europe's largest medieval fortresses still standing, Fougères Castle was involved in the later stages of the Hundred Years' War and for me represents the pinnacle of French medieval fortified architecture.

Posted by
6686 posts

Fougères, absolutely. Hidden gem, indeed, just like the Anjou troglodytes.
Another hidden gem is the Musée des Compagnonnage in Tours.

Posted by
430 posts

We enjoyed Arromanches les Bains in Normandy and Cancale near MSM. BTW, you appear to be doing a lot of driving for just 2 weeks.

Posted by
1379 posts

Your itinerary is quite feasible - if you get off by 9am every morning.
In the Loire valley I recommend Angers, Langeais, the gardens only of Villandry; CHENONCEAUX, and Loches
Nimes? Yes, preferable to Arles
Pont Valentré at Cahors, towpath at les Bouziès, St-Cirq-Lapopie, Albi
Not sure what you want to do with foie gras, but you will be offered foie gras and duck every evening in the Dordogne and the Lot.
Also in the South - the magnificent Viaduc de Millau, the caves of Rouquefort

Posted by
1122 posts

I think you've got things covered, but in order to find a real gem, you have to discover it yourself, perhaps with a local guide.

Once it is publicized, no more gemmy.

Posted by
1451 posts

Things about William the Conqueror besides the Bayeux Tapestry you can visit in Normandy (1066) are the fortresses of Caen and south of it his birthplace Falaise. If I’m not wrong you can find his tomb in Abbeye aux Hommes in Caen.

Fougères is as said before impressive and certainly worth a visit and well to combine with Vitré. Also a huge fortress is the one of Angers, has a lovely tapestry too.

With two weeks I would look just for two regions to start with, like combining Normandy with the Loire.

Posted by
5 posts

We have been to every one of the places on your list but it took a number of trips to France. None, however is ‘hidden’ as they are all major tourist honey pots and can be very crowded (over-crowded) during the holiday season. If you do manage to visit all the places on the list you I don’t think will have much time for hidden gems - or for eating or sleeping!

That said if you were to manage to visit the Dordogne then Beynac is a great castle. It has a number of other major castles within sight of it including Marqueyssac with it’s amazing cliff top garden, Castelnaud and Les Milandes home of Josephine Baker. It is also near Sarlat (medieval town), Domme (ditto with city walls on cliff top location). These are all mainstream but lesser known sites near Beynac include Limeuil and St Léon sur Vézère which are both very beautiful villages and Chateau de Commarque (romantic ruin). If you want to go a bit more off piste in the Dordogne then Brantôme (old town on an island with large abbey and restaurant in an old water mill) is worth a visit. Near to it are Bourdeilles (with renaissance/medieval castle), the caves and chateau at Villars (stunning stalagmites & a few cave paintings) and the pretty village of St Jean de Côle.
But with over a 1000 castles in the Dordogne department you could spend your entire holiday there and barely scratch the surface.
The are also a lot of caves in the department. The most famous being Lascaux. They have however been closed to the public for many years. In their place they have created a reconstruction of them at Montignac. Some people really like these others find them a disappointing plastic copy.

Where ever you decide to visit I hope you have a great time!

Posted by
119 posts

If you like quaint towns, I recommend getting a copy of the book The 100 Most Beautiful Villages of France, and try to visit some of them that match up with your proposed itinerary. Peter

Posted by
11683 posts

Depends on what you like. Two weeks isn't much. I'd highly suggest picking one area and sticking close to that for two weeks rather than trying to cover too much and not enjoying any of it.

Two weeks works for a taste of Burgundy, Alsace and Champagne. It's easy to do out of Paris - but seeing Paris too would require more time.

Another option is Provence and the Riviera. Two weeks would work well for that. Best to start out of Marseille or Nice - so you're already close to where you want to be.

Normandie and Brittany make a good two week loop, you can even throw in a few days in the Loire.

For my money, the Languedoc area is best. It's lightly touristed (mostly) but beautiful like Burgundy - rolling hills, thick forests and small medieval towns. Foix and Najac were gems for me.

Brittany is also lightly touristed. A community pardon would be a gem.

So much to see, so little time.

Posted by
5695 posts

I am cynical about the 'beautiful villages' as we have found them totally overrun with tourists and tour buses -- our worst experience of this was Collonges la Rouge.

Lots of great suggestions in this thread -- Oradour Sur Glan was not very heavily touristed when we were there maybe 15years ago and a very moving experience.

In the Dordogne -- if you are there in July or August try to take in at least one night market -- gatherings on the town square where you share tables with locals (bring your own plates, cups and silverware) and purchase food from vendors. Good conversation and dancing into the night in stunning places. You can see an example in my photo journal on the Commarque Chateau ruins (also a great undertouristed treasure)
https://janettravels.wordpress.com/2017/07/25/perfect-place-for-murder-commarque-chateau/
Cadouin and its ancient Abbey on the pilgrimage route that is largely in Spain is also worth a visit. We spent a week in a cottage there and loved it -- another spot with few tourists. We had similar experiences when we spent a week in Limeuil.

The Neolithic sites in Brittany are quite interesting. And the Machines d'Iles in Nantes were absolutely worth the trip as was the amazing Apocalypse Tapestry in Angers in the stunning old castle there. It is as impressive as the Bayeux Tapestry -- both 'must sees' IMHO.