20 great autumn breaks across France: a season of great tastes

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SOUTH

Street market, Biarritz, Basque Country

Bargain hunters will love the Braderie in Biarritz, a twice-yearly event that sees the town’s shops set out stalls on the street to sell off their summer stock, from clothes and shoes to homewares and linens – the cheery, striped Basque linen being a highlight. The autumn edition is taking place the weekend of 22-24 October, and also sees musicians playing in the streets, with locals filling the bars and restaurants to soak up the atmosphere. After a long day of shopping, visitors can experience the town’s thalassotherapy scene in one of the many spas – this seawater therapy is said to help circulation and various skin conditions – or take a surfing lesson and see if they can master the mighty Atlantic waves as they crash against the town’s main beach, La Grande Plage.
Stay The excellent Hotel de l’Océan, on a quiet square about 50 metres from the beach, has room-only doubles from €139.

Armagnac trail, Gers

Armagnac glass
Photograph: Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images

Autumn sees the start of the distillation process for the Armagnac distilleries across the Gascony region, with the Flamme d’Armagnac celebrations to mark the lighting of the stills. Many of the distilleries have been run by the same family for generations, and they welcome visitors for tastings, tours and candlelit dinners around the stills. There are festivals too; in Éauze, the capital of Armagnac country, where the three-month Flamme d’Armagnac celebrations kick off with firework displays and street theatre. The village of Labastide will celebrate Armagnac en Fête (29-31 October). Armagnac expert Amanda Garnham runs tours through her company Glamour and Gumboots (£400 a day for up to four people, food and accommodation extra). Visitors take in many of the best distilleries without having to drive.
Stay Les Bruhasses is a welcoming guesthouse in an elegant chateau with doubles from €94 B&B.

Cruise the Canal du Midi, Languedoc

France, Languedoc, Carcassonne: boat in tree lined canal
Boating on the canal near Carcassonne. Photograph: Travelpix/Getty Images

A trip down one of France’s peaceful waterways makes for a great escape from the daily grind: the gentle pace of pootling down the canal with tranquil nights moored under starry skies. On the Canal du Midi, there are several locations to choose from, but on each, visitors can steer gently down the plane tree-shaded waterway between locks, stopping to explore places such as Castelnaudary, famous for its cassoulet dish; the fortified citadel at Carcassonne; and the Roman Oppidum d’Ensérune, which overlooks the extraordinary Étang de Montady, where the drained lake is divided into sunray-shaped wedges. There are also medieval villages, vineyards and chateaux to explore, and bikes to hire to cycle along the towpath. Temperatures stay warm into October, making it pleasant enough to sit out on deck for an evening aperitif after a day’s boating and exploring.
Stay From £749 per boat for a seven-night self-catered stay for four on a Cirrus A boat on the Canal du Midi in October (leboat.co.uk).

New attractions in Arles, Provence

Luma Creative Campus in Arles
Luma Creative Campus by Frank Gehry. Photograph: Gérard Julien/Getty Images

June saw the opening of the long-awaited Luma “creative campus” in Arles, with its futuristic, shimmering tower as the main draw of architect Frank Gehry’s striking design. It features almost 11,000 stainless steel panels which gleam in the Provençal sun and is said to represent the painting Starry Night by Arles’s most famous resident, Vincent van Gogh. Tickets cover a trip up the tower and exhibitions in the multidisciplinary art and culture complex which spans 11 hectares (27 acres) on the site of former railway workshops. Elsewhere, the town – also known for its Roman amphitheatre – is home to the Fondation Vincent van Gogh, which is hosting a collection of works by US artist Laura Owens, that respond to Van Gogh’s paintings, after she spent most of 2020 living in the town. It runs until the end of October.
Stay Maison Huit Arles is a welcoming B&B in a 17th-century mansion whose owner, Julia de Bierre, is herself an avid art collector. Doubles from €95 B&B.

Train tour of Roman sites, Languedoc

Pont du Gard.
Pont du Gard. Photograph: Ivoha/Alamy

A week exploring the incredible Roman monuments in southern France by train begins with a ride down through France from London and then continues to Narbonne, Arles and Nîmes. Inntravel’s self-guided tour starts in the town of Narbonne, with a guided walking tour that takes in the archaeology museum as well as its gothic cathedral and indoor market. Then it’s on to Nîmes for its impressive Musée de la Romanité, set next to the town’s Roman amphitheatre, one of the best-preserved examples outside Italy. A day trip from Nîmes by bus or taxi could take in the awe-inspiring three-tier Roman aqueduct, the Pont du Gard. The visitor centre explains how it was built in 1AD as part of an incredible engineering scheme to transport water to the city. The tour then goes to Avignon with its impressive Palais des Papes and the coastal fortress of Aïgues-Mortes before finishing up in Arles, which has its own amphitheatre and Roman architecture.
Trip details The Provincia Nostra train tour (until 31 October), costs £630pp based on two sharing including rail travel between cities in France and six nights’ B&B.

WEST

Garden festivals, Loire valley

Autumn Splendours (domaine-chaumont.fr) flower display at Château de Chaumont
An autumn garden display at Château de Chaumont. Photograph: Eric Sander/Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire

Chateaux in the Loire really embrace the autumn season. The Château de Chaumont is known for its international garden festival and art exhibitions, and from 23 October to 7 November, Autumn Splendours will see its talented gardeners create displays with flowers and fruits in the vast grounds. There’s also a design exhibition called Biomimicry in the Garden. The chateau itself is worth a visit for a look at the crazily decadent life of 19th-century resident and socialite Marie Say (and her pet elephant), a lifestyle that ultimately ruined her. Meanwhile, Château Rivau, near Chinon, has an autumn flower festival on 23-24 October, when the gardens will brim with chrysanthemums and activities for children including pumpkin-carving workshops. It also has a Halloween event on 30-31 October, with a treasure hunt.
Stay Les Bouchets is a friendly B&B near the town of Baugé-en-Anjou, run by former restaurant owners who offer doubles from €72 B&B.

Eat oysters in Cap Ferret, Gironde, Aquitaine

Eating oysters, France
Photograph: Malcolm McLeod/Alamy

With the Rs now back in the month, October-November is a good time to feast on oysters just hours after they’ve been landed by oyster farmers in Cap Ferret. This skinny peninsula that curls around the Bassin d’Arcachon is an enchanting combination of working oyster farms and chic holiday destination and usually rammed in summer, so without the crowds autumn visitors can wander the lanes between ramshackle cabins, enjoy languid lunches in the chic restaurants, cycle through the fragrant pine forests and take boat trips across the bay to a group of bird-watching cabins on stilts called Les Cabanes Tchanquées. On the other side of the bay, the more energetic can climb to the top of Europe’s highest sand dune, Le Dune du Pyla, while others simply admire the belle-époque villas in the seaside town of Arcachon.
Stay Hotel du Cap has doubles from €88 B&B.

Puy du Fou, Vendée

Puy Du Fou, France. Knights in a mock battle at a castle
Photograph: Thomas Faull/Alamy

This hugely popular theme park, featuring the talents of some 2,550 actors in 28,000 costumes, stays open until 7 November, making it possible for a half-term break. Rather than rides, Puy du Fou offers a variety of immersive themed shows featuring musketeers, Vikings and birds of prey, as well as villages styled in different periods, from medieval to 19th century. The pièce de resistance is the evening show: the dramatic Les Noces de Feu display involve fire and water as it takes spectators on a romanticised journey through the 19th century.
Stay On site, the atmospheric hotels keep up the historical theme: the latest addition, Le Grand Siècle, was inspired by the French chateau used by Louis XIV to entertain his friends. There are also medieval huts, a renaissance-style glamping site, and La Villa Gallo-Romaine where a two-night B&B stay starts at €596 for a family of four, including two days’ entry to the park.

Walnut trail, Dordogne

Walnuts and walnut cracker for sale at farmers market in France
Photograph: Jack Young/Alamy

The climate in the Dordogne valley remains warm well into October, making it an ideal time to follow a trail that weaves through walnut groves, vineyards and golden-stone villages to distilleries, mills and markets, just as the leaves are taking on their autumnal finery. Martel is a good place to start, especially for the Castagné family’s 1870-built oil mill. A visit can take in the mill with its huge stone that crushes the walnuts for their gourmet oil, a tour of the groves and lunch in the restaurant, accompanied by a glass of walnut wine. In Souillac, the market sells walnut tarts and local oil, and the Distillerie Louis Roque makes liqueurs from nuts and other delectable ingredients. To plan a trip, see noixduperigord.com or vallee-dordogne.com.
Stay The enchanting Le Pont de L’Ouysse near Rocamadour has doubles from €120 room-only.

NORTH

First world war remembrance trail, Compiègne and Arras

Compiègne’s imperial palace.
Compiègne’s imperial palace. Photograph: Jacek Sopotnicki/Alamy

Those for whom the centenary of the end of the first world war in November 2018 sparked a deeper interest in its history, can discover more on a trip to northern France about the Armistice, which was signed in a railway carriage hidden deep in the Compiègne forest. The small museum at the Glade of the Armistice houses a replica of the carriage and does an excellent job of explaining how the first world war ultimately led to the second. Autumn is also a great time to explore the cycle the trails of the Compiègne forest, or to stroll the peaceful halls of the imperial palace and Château de Pierrefonds nearby.
Stay Villa du Châtelet – home in the late 19th century to renowned composer Léo Delibes no less – is just 10 minutes from the Glade of the Armistice, with doubles from €140 B&B.

Herring festival, Dieppe, Normandy

Fair of Herring and scallop, Dieppe
Photograph: Kipgodi/Alamy

A quick hop over the Channel, Dieppe on Normandy’s Alabaster Coast has a colourful annual festival dedicated to its best products: herrings and scallops. The lively event runs from 13-14 November and sees visitors snapping up paper cones filled with hot smoked herrings and eating them as they browse stalls brimming with other local delicacies, such as freshly caught seafood, as well as crafts and souvenirs. Dieppe is something of a foodie hotspot with a host of excellent culinary shops and a market that was voted the best in France in 2020. The DFDS ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe (£46 return without car) makes it an easy trip on foot.
Stay Cool apartments offered by Les Petites Suites Dieppoises sleep two or three, from €89.

Get back to nature, Brittany

keravan La Belle Folie France
La Belle Folie France.

In the south of Brittany, near the Quiberon peninsula and Carnac with its megalithic stones, the accommodation on offer at La Belle Folie (hut for two from €60 a night B&B) is indeed “beautifully mad”. There’s a caravan set atop an artificial menhir that houses the shower and loo; a stylish glass-and-wood cabin with Nordic hot-tub; and several quirky tents and cabins.

Also on site is a restaurant in an airy atrium adorned with banana trees, which serves locavore (local food) and market-inspired dishes. Meanwhile those interested in learning new agroecology practices and permaculture techniques can sign up for the workshops on offer, or for a more laid-back experience, simply join in with tending the sustainable garden.

Flea market, Amiens

Flea market in Amiens
La Grande Réderie. Photograph: Clémence Millet

Keen treasure hunters should head to Amiens on 3 October for La Grande Réderie – France’s third-biggest flea market. Experienced buyers get there as early as 5am to start working their way through the 2,000 exhibitors selling furniture, picture frames, ornaments and glassware spread across 15km of streets.

Elsewhere, the city has much to explore, from its Unesco-listed cathedral to the Maison Jules Verne, which tells the life story of the writer, who died in Amiens in 1905. There are also boat trips around floating market gardens known as Les Hortillonnages.
Stay D’Une Ile à Une Autre offers delightful cabins set among the gardens, from €120 a night room-only.

La Gacilly photography festival, Morbihan, Brittany

La Gacilly Photo Festival, Morbihan, Brittany
La Gacilly photography festival. Photograph: Jean Michel Niron

Running until 31 October, La Gacilly’s photography festival consists of more than 20 open-air galleries in its streets and gardens, with some large-format images filling entire walls of buildings. They showcase contemporary photographers’ work on three themes: The World of Tomorrow; Creations; and Full North. The attractive town is in rolling countryside in southern Brittany and is also home to the Yves Rocher botanical garden (the cosmetics entrepreneur was born and lived there). Nearby, visitors can discover the legends and folklore of the Brocéliande forest, cycle along the Brest-Nantes canal at Malestroit and marvel at the medieval chateau at Josselin.
Stay Maison Tiegezh has doubles from €114 room-only. It is run by chef Baptiste Denieul – who in 2017 became the youngest chef from France to be awarded a first Michelin star – and his wife Marion. They have transformed this inn on the edge of Brocéliande forest, cooking produce from their garden and specialities such as lobster and buckwheat.

Cider festival, Normandy

Cider farm in Pays d’Auge
A cider farm in Pays d’Auge. Photograph: Alamy

The ideal place to celebrate the apple harvest is in the Pays d’Auge, Normandy’s cider country, where a 25-mile route links 20 cider farms. While the spring’s white blossoms were glorified by David Hockney’s latest collection, autumn sees the trees turn dazzling reds and yellows. The cider trail takes in Hockney’s village, the idyllic Beauvron-en-Auge, for its family-run distilleries. Nearby Pont L’Évêque is known for its cheese, and home to Père Magloire’s Calvados Experience, a multimedia, multisensory visitor centre that tells all about the famous apple brandy. The Fête de la Pomme, du Cidre et du Fromage at Conches-en-Ouches, to the south of the region, is a cheering festival held on 31 October-1 November that showcases dozens of the region’s producers and dishes, as well as traditional costumes and dancing.
Stay Le Petit Coq Aux Champs in Pont Audemer is a lovely thatched farmhouse with doubles from €134 B&B.

EAST

Le Fascinant Weekend, Alsace, and at vineyards nationwide

Wine village Riquewihr and the Vosges mountains.
Wine village Riquewihr and the Vosges mountains. Photograph: Jurgen Feuerer/Alamy

France’s vineyards open their doors to visitors the weekend of 14-17 October with a host of activities and events, plus the chance to soak up the autumn sun, as well as a few glasses of wine. The occasion is called Le Fascinant Weekend and takes place across France’s wine regions, including Alsace, where extra activities on offer include Segway or bike tours of the vineyards, a gourmet tour of Colmar, and chocolate and wine tastings.
Stay B&B Les Arts Verts in the Vosges mountains village of Kruth makes a good base for hiking, biking and visiting villages nearby. It has doubles from €82 B&B.

Celebrate beaujolais nouveau, Beaujeu, Rhône

A party at the Beaujolais Nouveau wine festival, Beaujeu.
A party at the Beaujolais Nouveau wine festival, Beaujeu. Photograph: Kasia Nowak/Alamy

The third Thursday in November sees France celebrate the new vintage from the Beaujolais vineyards, but the heart of the action is at Les Sarmentelles festival in Beaujeu. The festivities kick off on Wednesday 17 November, with the day’s activities culminating in a candlelit procession and then the opening of the first barrel at midnight. From there the revelling goes on into the night, followed by four more days of tasting trails, markets, dinners and concerts. The final day is dedicated to entertaining children when, presumably, parents are in dire need of a snooze.
Stay The chic Domaine de Romarand has doubles from €85 B&B.

Champagne trail, Champagne

The Pressoria visitor centre.
The Pressoria visitor centre. Photograph: Boegly+Grazia

Pressoria is a new visitor centre dedicated to understanding the production process, history and culture of champagne. It opened in June in a former Pommery grape press in Aÿ near Epernay and includes a host of multi-sensory exhibits as well as a tasting bar that looks out over the Unesco-listed vineyards. This is a good place to start a champagne trail before heading south towards the Côte des Bar in the Aube department, where smaller, family-run wineries welcome visitors for tastings, and sell their excellent vintages for much less than the big-name champagne houses.
Stay Bubble 8 has apartments in Epernay for €109 self-catering; and Hotel Le Marius in Les Riceys has doubles from €65 room-only.

Foodie fun in the Pays de Gex, Jura mountains

Château Voltaire
Château Voltaire. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/Getty Images

The little-known corner of the Jura, tucked behind Lake Geneva, is something of a gourmet hotspot and the annual food festival, Saveurs et Traditions (11-17 October), gives visitors the chance to tuck into the best of Gessian gastronomy, from cheese to chocolate, wine and beer, thanks to local producers and restaurateurs. The event kicks off at Château Voltaire in Ferney Voltaire, built by the literary hero in 1758, which has recently undergone a huge renovation. Activities over the week include beer-making workshops at the Bière Yourself brewery (from €90), and cheese tastings at the Michelin dairy, which produces 300 types of fromage. Gourmet visitors can also tuck into chocolate, wine, honey, liqueurs and a host of other treats from local producers.
Stay The newly renovated M-3 Hotel Ferney, with a pool, has doubles from €141 B&B.

Half-marathon with wine, Beaune, Côte d’Or

Beaune half marathon
Semi-Marathon du Beaune. Photograph: Michael Joly/Office de Tourisme Beaune & Pays Beaunois

Runners with a penchant for fine wines will want to sign up for the Semi-Marathon du Beaune, which combines an impressive running route through some of Burgundy’s most prestigious vineyards with tastings along the way. About 3,000 runners start the trail at Beaune’s main attraction, the medieval hospital Les Hospices de Beaune, and then run on through villages such as Pommard, Meursault and Volnay, where wines are on offer at the roadside with entertainment and music to gee them along. As well as the half-marathon, there are other shorter routes to run or ramble, a nocturnal race and another for children and teens. The active weekend precedes the annual Hospices de Beaune wine auction on 21 November, which is one of the wine world’s most auspicious occasions.
Stay Les Cabottes offers a number of cosy cabins overlooking the vineyards from €105 B&B for two.