France

A selection of some of the destinations that I’ve visited in France over recent years:

Boulogne

Burgundy

Les Deux Alpes

Paris

Sainte Foy

  • Sainte Foy is situated in the Tarentaise valley in the French Alps, en route to the more well-known resorts of Val D’Isere, Tignes, and Les Arcs.
  • Although looking at the piste map the skiing area appears relatively modest, the area is renowned for it’s off-piste and forest runs making it a great option for groups of mixed levels of skiing experience.
  • The development of Sainte Foy has been built surprisingly sympathetically to the environment and the traditions of the region — stone and timber buildings blend with the snowy landscape which makes a nice change from some of the more commercial resorts and their architectural eyesores.
  • Premiere Neige run most of the accommodation. On my last visit i stayed a their property known as The Peak – a fully catered, beautiful chalet. There’s also a range of self-catering options available.
  • How to get there: Fly to Geneva or Grenoble and then transfer; or train to Bourg-Saint-Maurice and then transfer.
  • Where to eat: On-mountain there are two options — Les Brevettes and Chez Leon. Les Brevettes is a bit more rock and roll (it’s where the pisteurs drink); Chez Leon is a bit more family oriented; Lunch at La Maison a Colonnes; Dinner at Chez Merie in nearby Le Miroir — a local favourite and a bit of a hidden gem.
  • Where to drink: La Coeur — main destination for an apres-ski drink; La Pitchouli — love the bar stools that are swings hung from the ceiling.
  • Things to do: Lessons can be booked through the iconic Ecole de Ski Francaise (ESF); For local guides and organizing some off-piste adventures Tarentaise Tours are the Sainte Foy experts.

Val D’Isere

  • Le Salon des Fous for a croque monsieur and a hot chocolate
  • Blue Note, and the Saloon for drinks
  • The Blizzard for cocktails
  • Folie Douce — for on piste partying
  • There will be a firelit descent by the instructors — spectacular
  • Normally there’s a big dance party for NYE — worth going to

Read more from Gareth Johnson

Three reasons to summer in Biarritz

If you looking for a destination for your summer holidays, why not consider Biarritz on the South West coast of France?

This was once a glamorous destination for the world’s heads of state and celebrities in years gone past. While it may no longer be one of the world’s hot spots, there are still lots of reasons to consider visiting this seaside resort town.

In this article we take a look at three things that might put Biarritz at the top of your holiday destination list.

Getting there is easy

You can fly there but short-haul flights in Europe can be a bit more trouble than they’re worth. My favourite way of getting to Biarritz is to take the TGV train direct from Paris. There’s no hassles with luggage, or juggling your liquids into small plastic bags, you jump on from the centre of Paris and within a couple of hours you are stepping off the train at Biarritz.

While you don’t need a car to get around the town itself, it is worth considering renting one to explore the surrounding region. Biarritz is part of the Basque region, and it is fascinating to drive up into the Pyrenees mountains to experience the cuisine and culture of the small Basque villages of the area. The Spanish border is just a short distance away and San Sebastian also makes an easy day trip that is well worth making the effort for.

Live like a local

There are a huge range of accommodation options in Biarritz, but the best way to really get under the skin of this place is to rent a private house. The french seem to be particularly good at organising short term private rentals — you can use a site such as Airbnb but there are a range of local web sites also offering this kind of service.

It is ideal if you have a small house or private apartment — with your own kitchen you will be popping out to the local bakery to grab some crusty bread for breakfast, or shopping at the local stores to put a few things together for lunch, or you might have a few friends over for dinner and cook up a huge feast!

Relax on the beach

On the Atlantic coast of France, Biarritz is known as one of the best surfing destinations in the country. There is an annual surf festival held here — one of the biggest long-boarding events in the world. There are a range of surf schools that you can sign up to if you want to improve your skills in the waves, or alternatively you can just relax on the beach, lying on the golden sand or playing in the waves.

Nothing quite beats a beach-side holiday, and Biarritz seems to seamlessly blend the grandeur of days gone past, the culture and history of its surrounding region together with an effortless, relaxed charm that makes this the perfect destination for summer.

Gay Travel Report — Lille

My first impressions of Lille were fairly horrific.

I stepped off the Eurostar and the wind was icy — blasts of freezing wintry misery making it difficult and unpleasant to walk.

Fortunately it was only a short distance to the hotel, but my heart sank. Some kind of student accommodation, it was one of those un-manned hotels where you had to phone someone to get the code, to collect your key. The entire place felt lifeless and miserable. Plus I couldn’t find the password required for the wifi. The polite woman on the the hotel helpline couldn’t help me either — she explained that she was in a different part of the country, that seemed to be the end of the conversation.

I walked into town — which looked sizeable and a bit of a shopping destination. Being a Sunday, everything was closed.

Thankfully the Palais des Beaux Arts de Lille was open to so called in there to escape the cold and quickly down a glass of red wine.

Once my grumpiness had subsided, I was a bit overwhelmed by the Palais des Beaux Arts — a beautiful old building with an interesting collection. I am a total sucker for a sculpture garden, there’s something so powerful and emotive in these huge chunks of marble or bronze transformed into beautiful frozen moments of time. It always reminds me of images of the people of Pompeii — preserved by the ash for eternity.

Highlights of this collection were ‘Grande Ombre’ by Rodin — one of a group of three representations of the biblical Adam he created for the Musee d’Orsay between 1880–1902; and the masculine and imposing duo of ‘Spartacus’ (1847) and ‘Cincinnatus’ (1834) two impressive works by Denis Foyatier — legends of Rome guarding the entry to the room where the sculpture garden is displayed.

Good humor restored, I grabbed a quick meal at L’Empire brasserie — simple, friendly and efficient — and headed back to the hotel for an early night.

With my room overlooking Lille’s main railway station, I was woken early the next morning by the gentle chiming that precedes announcements of the SNCF railway. The city was covered in a light blanket of snow and was alive and industrious. I walked into town and grabbed some breakfast at Le President — a small cafe on the main square.

Lille has some beautiful and impressive buildings — the opera house, the theatre, the chamber of commerce — a general air of solidity and a strong sense of its place in the world.

It’s a city with an interesting history — a Flemish city, throughout the centuries it has been ruled by the Spanish, the Dutch, it was besieged by the Austrians, but has pretty much been part of France since it was annexed by Louis XIV in 1668. Lille’s textile industry has driven much of its prosperity, with Napoleon’s blockade against the United Kingdom in the early 19th Century giving it an added boost, as did the industrial revolution. Lille sustained significant damage and hardship during both WW1 and WW2 but it’s managed to retain much of it’s old-world character and charm — narrow, cobbled streets and solid stone buildings exudes a very European sensibility.

I didn’t have a lot of time to explore unfortunately as I had to bunker down and get some work done. One of the things I love about France is the food — not just the fancy restaurant stuff, but also simple treats such as cheese, bread, and red wine. For €15 I bought a bottle of Pauillac, a Saint Marcellin cheese, and a crusty baguette — I was set for the day.

I kick-started my evening with a drink at Le Django bar rue de Gand — it was pretty quiet but the name appealed to me.

Then it was on to the main reason for my visit to Lille — dinner at L’Huîtrière. This is serious seafood — a bright airy fishmonger fronts rue des Chats Bossus (where you can stop for a glass of wine and some oysters), and then hidden out the back is their Michelin-starred restaurant.

It’s formal, subdued, and a little dated. Waiters in black suits who coped with my lack of French with benign tolerance and a straight face. I started with a glass of Pommery champagne and ordered some prawns followed by a dish of scallops. This is good food — tasty prawns served in a soupy cream sauce; scallops cooked to perfection and served in a delicate aniseed-infused broth. To be objective, this isn’t necessarily cutting edge cooking or a destination restaurant that you would design a romantic mini-break around, but if you happened to be in Lille and you like your seafood, then it’s a nice spot for a quiet dinner.

The next day I boarded the Eurostar and whizzed back under the water home to London.

I was scolded by my Parisian friend Marc:
‘So you got off to a bad start because 1) winter happens in February; and 2) France respects workers and the principle of everyone being able to have a life not reduced to consumption of retail goods? Go back to Lille in the first weekend of September for the Braderie — it’s great!’

As always, he makes a very good point.

Where to stay:

I stayed at Sejours and Affaires Lille Europe on the Avenue Willy Brandt. Try and avoid this place at all costs.

Where to eat:

L’Empire Brasserie — a safe bet for simple food and they have free wifi.
Le President — a simple cafe on the main square with reasonable coffee.
L’Huîtrière — a Lille institution, serious seafood.

Where to drink:

Le Django — a relaxed local bar in the heart of the old town.

How to book:

I booked this trip through Eurostar and this was my second attempt at a train+hotel package. I love traveling on Eurostar but don’t think I’ll use their hotel booking again — this is the second time I’ve tried it, it’s a classic example of ‘you get what you pay for’. The deals are good but the hotels are inevitably discounted for a reason.

Read more from Gareth Johnson

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