Winning tip: Waterways any which way, Burgundy
In Auxerre, head for Le Batardeau (also called the Bike House) and choose your device – bike, pedalo, boat, paddle, kayak – for a day on the Yonne River and the Nivernais canal (once voted more beautiful than the famous Canal du Midi). There’s no need to book: they’re well equipped, and there’s also a bistrot with great homemade cakes, lunches anddrinks. The path along the water is so serene and beautiful. We did it twice: one day by bike, then by boat.
Ride the loop, Tournus, Burgundy
Following the banks of the mighty River Saône from Mâcon towards Chalon-sur Saône, the Voie Bleue cycle path is the perfect riverside ride and a birdwatcher’s paradise: south of the historic town of Tournus, we detoured to the nature reserve at La Truchère and watched marsh harriers gliding silently over the water and purple herons statue-still. We turned the ride into a loop by picking up the Voie Verte, giving us more than 150km of biking in beautiful Burgundy. If you ride the loop, allow time to enjoy the sights – and take binoculars! Accommodation is plentiful. francevelotourisme.com
In an area full of rivers, Louhans is a great spot. It’s an attractive Burgundian town that sits where the Solnan River joins the Seille, and you can walk or cycle for miles down the banks of the Seille and see no one but the occasional fisher or boat pottering by. What you will see is plenty of birdlife: black redstarts, green woodpeckers, kingfishers and shrikes included. On Mondays the best of Burgundy’s produce, including the famous poulet de Bresse, is on sale at a huge market in Louhans town centre. Stays at the Aire-Service campervan park on the Seille just west of Louhans cost €4 a night.
‘Amazonian’ jungle under the Pyrenees
The rolling hills and steep valleys of the Baronnies sit in the space where hills turn to the Pyrenees. The Arros River carves through this lush, green, forested landscape, and just beyond the village of Bulan it runs through the Gourgue d’Asque. Get here early to find a parking space at the end of the road and head off on the sentier de découverte on a 2½-hour walk through la petite amazonie des Pyrénées. Huge trees are clothed in moss, their branches bearded with lichens, and emerald ferns carpet the forest floor. And through this French jungle tumbles the Arros, fed by snowmelt and rain from the Pyrenees.
Forget Interrail and try inter-river
A few years ago, as an aquatic alternative to Interrail, I travelled around France using its extensive network of canals and rivers. My favourite bit was making my way from the Atlantic to the Med on the aptly named Canal des Deux Mers, starting at the Garonne River in Bordeaux and climaxing in Sète. It’s sort of France’s equivalent to the Panama canal. Hitching lifts on barges and working boats was a dream, and friendly owners frequently gave me a glass of red wine to reward my sense of adventure and attempts at French. The stretch around Agen, on the Garonne, was a delight, the canal passing through fields of plums and peaches as blooming yellow irises greeted boats as they sailed by.
Gorge-ous trip, Provence
Turquoise green water below, blue sky above and up to 700 metres of rocky crags either side of your canoe. For me, this is the best way to experience the 15-mile Verdon Gorge near Castellane in Provence and imprint memories that will last a lifetime. Afterwards you can swim in Lac de Sainte-Croix, drive back along the rim or even climb the canyon walls, before quieter days exploring the ancient city of Castellane, visiting a vineyard or purple fields of lavender. Just allow yourself to be carried away first.
Back in time in Cathar country
Drifting by canoe through the limestone gorges of the Aveyron in south-west France, you could be forgiven for imagining that you have somehow travelled back in time. The Cathar bastion of Najac and the chateau of Belcastel tower above you, and the medieval market towns of Villefrance and Saint-Antonin provide sustenance and history. For the energetic, the Aveyron offers plenty of opportunities for adventure in its shallow rapids, but for most of those making their way down the river, the only decision is where to stop for a lazy lunch and, perhaps, a swim.
Canal cycling in ‘Green Venice’, Vendée
The Marais Poitevin, also called La Venise Verte (Green Venice) in the southern Vendée is a great place for a family cycling holiday. From the medieval town of Fontenay-le-Comte, it is possible to cycle for days along deserted small roads or designated cycle tracks. The wildlife is great, with storks, spoonbills, kingfishers and marsh harriers. Our children loved the giant ragondin (coypu) that we saw daily in the smaller canals (you can buy ragondin pâte!). There are many restaurants along the canals, many offering cheap fish dishes and local mussels. Attractions such as the ruined Maillezais Abbey weren’t too busy, and we stayed in cheap and friendly bed and breakfasts, often with noisy frogs to soothe you asleep. Some of the towns in the marshes offer cycle hire, such as at Coulon from where you can cycle to Arçais, Maillé, Saint-Hilaire-La-Palud.
Rediscovering a lost river in Paris
This spring, when I was looking for non-touristy activities in Paris, my hotel owner suggested a walking tour of the Bièvre River. It’s the Seine’s only tributary and most of it is now underground, going from the Latin quarter to Park Kellermann. Famous in the time of Victor Hugo’s Paris, it once fed mills and factories but became so polluted that it was banished to the underworld by Seine prefect Georges-Eugène Haussman in the late 19th century. You can follow it by checking out a series of bronze and gold medallions on the pavements in the fifth and 13th arrondissements. Parts of the Bièvre have been reopened with footpaths to stroll along, baguette and coffee in hand.
My island in the Seine
Roche-Guyon sits in the splendid valley of the Seine, with a castle on the cliff and a Troglodyte church buried deep in the rock. And just beyond it is a tiny, picturesque hamlet, with the sublime name of Chantemesle. Its single street winds down to the bank of the Seine, where there’s a grassy picnic spot opposite a private wooded island. A ferry-raft runs to the island, operated by a sort of bicycle chain, and there’s a beautiful house beyond. And under the balmy sun, by the glistening water, with baguette and brie, we can only dream.