Being married to a teacher means we are obliged to holiday during peak periods. Driving over to France is one way to avoid expensive flight and car hire charges. This summer we’ve booked an outbound ferry and inbound Eurotunnel for less than £100 (no extra charge for carrying bikes on the car). Inspired by the extensive network of Voies Vertes cycle trails, we’ve booked two self-catering gite apartments directly with the owners – the first on the Voie Verte des Hautes-Vosges; the second on the Voie Verte Trans-Ardennes. We’ll take our own bikes and explore the local area for free via the cycling and walking trails. In our experience, French self-catering properties are more competitively-priced than in the UK. The same goes for chambres d’hôtes – we’ve booked a couple of one-night stopovers (44 and 60 euros respectively, including breakfast). Alas, a guarantee of warm, sunny weather appears to be priceless!
Forget expensive hotels and gourmet restaurants. You can have a wonderful and inexpensive holiday with delicious meals in the region between the Charente and Vienne rivers, just north of Confolens, enjoying the outdoor opportunities.
First rent a gite, there are many to choose from. Go out of season for better prices, although you need to be between April and September for the best outdoor life. Examples we know of are www.giteswithpool.com/ and tranquillevienne.com/ both with pools, beautiful accommodation, excellent, friendly hosts and reasonable prices.
Of course you don't need a pool, you can swim for free in the many lakes and rivers - my favourite is at La Guerlie in Les Lacs de Haute Charente goo.gl/maps/0wPGj , where there are also lovely walking trails, bird watching, fishing and boating opportunities. The river near Condac goo.gl/maps/qREgU , near Ruffec is also fab and has simple safe play areas for children too.
Next, look for Marché des Producteurs (Producers Markets) usually held in the evening. Tables and benches are laid out for your use, music is provided and you wander around the stalls buying fresh local produce - sausages, meat, fish, cheeses, bread, wine, fruit (especially the melons) and then take your fish/meat etc. to the BBQ to be cooked for you. Maybe buy some frites (chips) and then sit at a table and enjoy. (You will need to take your picnic plates, cutlery and glasses with you.) You can chat to locals and polish up on your French, everyone is very relaxed and friendly. We've been to two recently, at Alloue goo.gl/maps/1FDq5 , and at Nanteuil-en-Vallée goo.gl/maps/oFNKW , and both were brilliant.
Early season and late season you might also find a Chasse (hunt dinner). You usually have to book for the meal, don't be shy, it is usually great value with everything being caught by the chasse and prepared by them and their wives. Some drinks are included too and prices around 20 euros each. Walking back to your gite afterwards is probably a good idea or definitely a 'designated driver' needed.
If you like walking you can often find a Randonneé (a walk/hike) which finishes with the possibility of a répas (meal). Last summer We went to one at Parzac goo.gl/maps/tX4EW , and there was a choice of 5Km or 13Km, cost was 2 euros and we were given a map, a guide (person to lead the group) and a drinks stop half way around. On our return, late afternoon, there was a mini producers market, stalls, répas, bar, old fashion games and singers to enjoy. We stayed long into the evening.
This spring we joined a Multi-Randonneé (walk, cycle, horseback) in Alloue (as above) with choices of 5Km, 11Km, 25Km or 40Km, cost 3 euros with map and snack at the midway point. Then there was a répas afterwards (4 course, aperatifs, wine, brandy and coffee all included) for 14 euros.
I hope you enjoy France as much as I do.
All this walking, I need a new pair of comfortable boots!
Camping de la Filature is a small, tranquil campsite set in an orchard beside the gentle River Sioule.This is outdoor life at it's most peaceful but with plenty of opportunities for activities such as walking, cycling, fishing and wild swimming. The Auvergne is a beautiful, yet relatively undiscovered region of France and campsite fees are much lower than more touristy destinations. Once you've pitched your tent or parked your caravan you can soak up the magical beauty of the place and relax.
Cycle from Cherbourg to Cap de la Hague. Take your bikes on the ferry and not your car. Leave the car in a safe residential area of Portsmouth cycle to the terminal. It will cost about £50 return. In Cherbourg turn right and there is a cycle path all the way from the town centre to Querqueville then quiet country lanes. Really beautiful countryside and great beaches. Stay at a cheap B&B in Auderville, if the weather is rubbish go to the very heavily subsidised leisure centre/pool in Beaumont. Great sea food at Goury the only downside is the nuclear re-processing plant but they do pay for the leisure centre!
Google map: bit.ly/17Llpjs
Follow a section of 'La Loire à Vélo' cycle route for a cheap, rewarding trip through the Unesco listed valley of the Loire. Take in the awe inspiring chateaux dotted along (and sometimes in) the river, and revel in the peace and pace of life on two wheels. The Loire valley is rich in heritage, nature and produce, but it is not an expensive region: refuelling on the finest Touraine goats cheeses accompanied by Angers plums and a bottle of Loire wine won't break the picnic budget; small family inns, campsites and restaurants cluster along the route for good value stopovers; cycle hire is reasonably priced and if you feel like skipping a section you can take your bike on the local trains for free. Rolling along between villages of dazzling white stone, among vineyards, orchards and endless riverscapes is ample entertainment at very little cost, and there's plenty to see and do in the area for saddle sore days too.
www.cycling-loire.com/ has all the info you need to plan your trip, including interactive route maps, downloadable brochures and accommodation listed by price.
This was my local lake when I lived in Stockholm. There are numerous great swimming spots along it's borders, but my favourite is the one very near the northern end on the northern shore, just along from Edsberg. It's great because you can jump in off some rocks for the plunge experience, there's a selection of grass and rocks to sit on and there's an easy entry point for those that don't want to jump in. Wild swimming as it should be.
Found down the end of a very bumpy lane and past a small clutch of gorgeous waterfront houses, Roundwood Quay is a little visited spot on the edge of the Carrick Roads. It's perfectly tranquil and the perfect spot to watch boats pass up and down the river, whilst there’s a pebbly, muddy beach for swimming and birdwatching, as well as a formal pathway that trails around the edges of the water and forms part of the Trelissick/Roundwood loop walk.
* Sian is our Been there local for Cornwall. You can check out her page here: www.ivebeenthere.co.uk/articles/been-there-local-cornwall.jsp and her own blog about Cornish living: www.adventureswiththeblackdog.co.uk/
Just a short train ride from Lisbon’s Cais do Sodre station is Cascais where sun lovers can enjoy the beach but for those seeking something more energetic pick up one of the free bikes for hire at the BiCas scheme located close to the station. You will need to show ID card or passport before heading off on the dedicated 16k cycle path out of town and down the coast. Perhaps purchase a picnic first, store it in the handy bike basket and stop off at Guincho beach, beloved of surfers. On the way back make a short and worthwhile detour to Museum Casa Historias das Paula Rego, Avenida de Republica 300, where entry is free. Here you will dazzled by the largest collection of paintings, drawings and etchings from the vivid imagination of Paula Rego, Portugal’s finest living artist.
A day trip to Sintra is a must - don't forget to take a torch and visit the gardens at the Quinta de Regaleira.The first time I went I didn't take a torch and cut my nose on the wall of a cave much to my husband's amusement. It is a magical labyrinth of caves and tunnels that make you feel like you are in a fairytale grotto. If you have time you can climb the hill to the Pena Palace which is a fabulous, brightly coloured castle with extensive gardens to explore.
I've been with Sanjaya who drives for Yala safari Jeeps, four times now. He's a great driver who takes time to point out wildlife as you go rather than driving hell for leather through the park. He loves the park and the creatures and this shines through.
He'll pick you up from your hotel/ guesthouse, or meet you at prearranged place although he's based at Tissamaharama. We stayed at Richard's Cabanas while there.
Take a train or drive the hour or so west of Florence to the beautiful compact city of Lucca. It is virtually car free so perfect for wandering! Climb the Torre Guinigi which has oak trees growing at the top. Hire bikes from piazza Santa Maria del Borgo and join the popular afternoon Lucchesi 'passegiata' around the city's wide ramparts, enjoying views of the botanic gardens and plenty of private gardens too as you cycle around. Enjoy a rich hot chocolate in the Piazza dell' Anfiteatro. The cool narrow streets surrounding the central piazzas of Lucca have a wealth of individual shops selling fashion, food and ice cream, many of them seemingly unchanged over the centuries.
If the fancy takes you make a detour on the way back to the 'Parco di Pinocchio' in Collodi which is an eccentric but somehow endearing homage to the wooden puppet and its author, with garden sculptures of the key characters in the story.
Flee the tourist hurly-burly, coach party crush and cultural overload and head for the hills. Not the well-known wine rich Chianti Hills to the south, but to the altogether wilder, more rugged deeply forested Apennines to the east. The Parco Nazionale delle Foreste Casentinesi, Monte Falterona e Campigna straddling the Tuscany / Emilia-Romagna border is just 40km from central Florence and easily reached by bus although a car would provide more flexibility for a day trip.
These majestic ancient forests in one of Europe’s oldest continuously wooded areas create a place of great natural beauty and profound meditative stillness. Chestnut woods on the lower slopes where old and dead trees have been kept seem magical and enchanted. Statuesque stands of dark fir are carefully managed while the higher ground is clothed in cathedral-like beech, sometimes serried ranks leaning at improbable angles, pushed over by a winter avalanche sometime in their past. Timber from here was used in the construction of the magnificent dome of Florence’s Duomo and was especially prized for shipbuilding.
The main ridge is traversed by the Grande Excursione Appenninica (GEA), a 375 km hiking trail extending from the Umbria / Marche border near Sansepolcro to Montelungo in Liguria. Marked and unmarked paths are plentiful in the national park though a good map is essential if your day communing with nature isn’t to become something much more unsettling or potentially life-threatening. Out of peak season and avoiding weekends the chances are you and your companion(s) won’t see another soul.
The mood of contemplation and reflection is sustained by an overnight stay at the Foresteria attached to the Monastero di Camaldoli (advance booking is advised to guarantee a bed for the night). Delicious fresh food, comfortable uncluttered rooms and an atmosphere of quiet dedication to work and prayer deep in the forest nourish body and spirit, perhaps almost ready for the return to the fray in Florence.
AXS offers bicycle tours, rentals and sales in Marrakech and the Atlas Mountains. The tours range from easy to expert and offer both on and off road options. It's run by Americans and Moroccans and all the guides speak great English. The bicyces are top of the line Giant bikes and differ depending on what tour option you take. This was the highlight of my trip to Marrakech - definitely the best way to see the city and an easy day trip into the Atlas mountains, which are very beautiful.
The highest point in Athens. You can walk to the top using the footpaths but it is fun to catch the funicular railway (Telefrik). It is about a ten minute walk from Kolonaki square through some steep backstreets, but the funicular station is not well signposted. The little trains run every thirty minutes, and more frequently in busy times and costs six euros return. The views from the top are absolutely stunning.
10 minutes walk from Kolonaki square.
Google map: bit.ly/11w8a1O
A broad wooded valley north of Lucca, the Garfagnana is a ruggedly beautiful area of Tuscany hidden between the Apuan Alps and the Apennines, often overlooked in the stampede for the art-laden cities further south. If you are tired of galleries, museums and crowds or simply prefer nature to culture, a 24 hour escape to Barga, one of the 'Borghi piu Belli d'Italia' with its twisting lanes, artistic residents and incredible panoramic views will refresh your crowd-weary soul and renew your appetite for all that Florentine art. Among the elegant medieval merchant's houses are several flower filled stairways leading to the cathedral which surveys the town from above. The vista over the tiles and verdant valley towards the Apuan Alps is ample reward for the climb. There are plenty of trattorie for the obligatory sampling of delicious regional fare.
Barga can be reached from Florence by train but it is not a straightforward journey as you must leave the train on the valley floor. Simpler and quicker to drive - around two hours from Florence. Stay in the impressive and serene Villa Moorings in the town or in one of the many nearby agriturismi.
Villa Moorings: www.villamoorings.it
Via Roma 18, Barga (LU) 55051.
+39 0583 711538
Google map: bit.ly/Zg84hR
The 'Pedalata dei Castelli' is a non-competitive cycle ride that takes in medieval castles and picturesque villages that are largely undiscovered by non-Italians, against a backdrop of the stunning Apennines in Northern Tuscany.
There are two stops at castles along the way where you get to taste the best local delicacies and be entertained by reenactments of medieval sword fights. At the end there is a slap-up Slow Food or, as it is known locally, Zero Km lunch.
Full support is provided for cyclists and all types of bike are available for hire, including electric bikes, making it very accessible. Advice on accommodation is available.
Non-cycling partners and families need not miss out, as there is also a guided tour (in Italian, but it doesn't really matter if you can't understand Italian as you get to have a good look round) that includes the local food tastings, as well as the opportunity to join the cyclists for lunch.
It is a fabulous combination of the best local food, combined with sightseeing and cycling. Last year's event was great fun with nearly 300 cyclists participating despite poor weather.
I caught myself singing out loud as I was walking the coast path between Swanage and Corfe Castle on the first sunny day of spring. The walk is about 10 miles, taking in wild cliffs, rock pools, giant fossils, old quarries, stunning bays and finally the lush Dorset countryside, with rewarding views of the mysterious castle ruins at the end. Put up your feet at the Greyhound Inn, which does a good pint and meal. Returning to Swanage by steam train makes for a perfect end of the trip.
From Buttermere to the Kirkstile Inn return, around Crummock Water.
This will take you about five hours including an hour’s stop for lunch at the Inn.
Begin in the small village of Buttermere, following the path to Crummock Water. This skirts the lake on its western shore. The path is clear and hugs the water’s edge.
Spring is coming, heralded at last by the sound of water as the frozen waterfalls melt, there is the gold of gorse, birds nesting and the bleat of lambs.
We recite lines from Innesfree:
‘I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore’ and sing snatches of song as our spirits soar as we tramp along.
Mellbreak soon flanks us as we tramp the mile or so along the path to Dropping Crag’s sheer face, on to High park and then by road to the Kirkstile Inn.
I sampled delicious home made bread and soup and a wonderful plum and cinnamon crumble washed down with half of the local ale before setting off to Lanthwaite wood.
This takes us back towards the lake and her Eastern margins. A path again follows the water’s edge, light glittering on rock and water, milder air.
The last bit is along the road into Buttermere but can be avoided with some careful map reading.
The Sky Tea Rooms are still open for home made ice cream or cream tea to round off a perfect day out.
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