The Living France guide to… The Great Outdoors
An intrepid Kate McNally laces up and heads out to explore France’s extraordinarily diverse landscapes
Paris may be the principal attraction for the millions of tourists visiting France each year, and of course there is the sun, the wine, the culinary expertise. Yet arguably the country’s greatest asset in terms of luring visitors time and time again, like an irresistible magnetic force into its Gallic embrace, is the breathtaking beauty and diversity of its landscape. Mountains, valleys, waterfalls, sandy beaches, chalk cliffs, flat plains, lakes, swamps, forests, gorges, volcanoes… France has it all, providing the backdrop for almost every outdoor activity you can think of and a home for myriad animals, birds and plants. Sports enthusiasts, sun-worshippers and nature lovers are all spoilt for choice across the heartland and in the nooks and crannies of l’Hexagone.
Nature reserve parks
Well aware of the importance of preserving the rich diversity of its landscape, France has established a network of protected nature areas. With differing levels of restrictions and a mix of remits pertinent to their locality, the nature parks and reserves are created in areas of exceptional natural beauty and biodiversity. Often a significant element of protecting cultural heritage and economic sustainability comes into the equation as well.
It is worth noting however that these are not national parks as we might perceive them, with entrances and day visits. Many cover large areas, often straddling more than one département and including towns and villages where modern life goes on as normal. Much of the area in the parks is open to the public and not surprisingly they attract millions of visitors every year.
National parks – there are seven national parks in mainland France and a further three in French colonies (see left/right/below). The first – the Parc National de la Vanoise in Rhône Alpes – was created in 1963. National parks are areas of outstanding natural beauty and wildlife. They have two identified zones within the park: the zone de protection at the heart of the park where strict protection rules are implemented with certain areas off limits; and the zone péripherique, where local community partners are encouraged to take measures to protect the central park area while maintaining sustainable development in the wider zone. National park status is decreed by the government, hence they are subject to a higher level of legislative control than regional nature parks.
Regional nature parks – the regional parks statute was established in 1967 and France currently has 48 regional nature parks, following the addition last year of the Parc Régional des Préalpes d’Azur in the south of France. (Visit the Federation des Parcs Naturels Régionaux de France website – www.parcs-naturels-regionaux.tm.fr – for a full list.) A regional park is created by a local commune – the approximate equivalent of a ward in the UK – or more often a group of communes as a regional park usually covers a much larger area than a national park. The raison d’être is to protect the natural and cultural heritage of a large inhabited rural or maritime space. As opposed to a national park where the emphasis is all about protecting the natural environment, a regional park is more focused on preserving and promoting rural or maritime traditions and culture within a sustainable economic environment. Indeed, many of the parks have a well-developed eco-tourism programme.
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Coastline – France has one of the world’s most envied coastlines – from the impressive Falaises d’Etrétat in Seine Maritime to the Dune de Pyla at the entrance of the Bassin d’Arcachon in Aquitaine; from the roaring waves of Biarritz to the bright blue beauty of the Côte d’Azur. La littoral, as the French call it, offers up a variety of activities – gentle coastal walks, surfing, swimming, snorkelling, boating, wind-surfing, sun-bathing…
Low mountain and volcanic landscape – the Massif Central, located in the heart of France as the name suggests, has mountains high enough for skiing in the winter but also ideal for cross-country skiing, snow walking with raquettes or the thrill of huskie-drawn sledging. In the warmer months, the landscape is perfect for climbers, paragliders and horse-riders of varying abilities.
The volcanic area in Auvergne is a visual delight. The ancient volcanoes, known as ‘puys’, for centuries now covered with grass and vegetation, dot the horizon as far as the eye can see like sprouting green camel humps frozen in time. Perhaps most impressive is the Puy Mary in the Cantal département which attracts tourists all year round. This region is very popular with paragliders (there are several companies offering lessons) as well as with hikers, bikers and birdwatchers.
High mountains – where do we all flock to in the early months of the year if we can afford it? Mostly to the Alps, but also to the Pyrenees and the Jura, for the thrill of high-altitude skiing, icy clear air and fantastic scenery. In the snowy season, skiing, boarding, skating and sledging are de rigueur for much of the French population as well as for the hordes piling over the borders from neighbouring European countries. In the summer, the mountains become the muse of nature-lovers and those who like a challenging hike, as well as a playground for more adventurous paragliders.
Rural France – there is a swathe crossing the country from the Ardennes on the Belgian border through the Massif Central and down to the Pyrenees known as the diagonale vide in reference to the sparse population in the majority of this inner heartland. Local economies are small and often struggling, but this long rural band is a dream for nature-lovers looking to escape from it all. Comprehensive walking and cycle routes (see below/left/right) are well maintained, well sign-posted and graded, enabling ramblers and cyclists of all abilities to discover the landscape and rural traditions at their leisure and in the fresh air.
Flat plains and rolling hills – the northern part of France, particularly Picardy and Normandy, have predominantly flat land, much of which is farmed. Fields of wheat and barley are a common sight and have a gentle charm akin to views in agricultural areas of south-eastern England. The flat landscape is perfect for cyclists and ramblers seeking a softer gradient!
Valleys and gorges (river canyons) – France is awash with valleys and rivers running through them. The principal rivers – the Seine, Rhône and Loire – accommodate pleasure-boats and cruise boats, while the intricate network of smaller rivers are lined with fishing rods and filled with canoes and kayaks.
The country also has some magnificent gorges which draw tourists in their millions in the summer months, often simply to drive or wander along the top enjoying the view but also for canoeing, white-water rafting, canyoning and climbing. Arguably the most popular canyons in France are the Gorges du Verdon, situated between the Var and les Alpes de Haute-Provence, but the Gorges de l’Ardèche are also well worth a visit if only to see the gravity-defying Pont d’Arc, a thin rocky arch that looms high above the river linking the two sides of the gorge.
Grottes/ caves – not exactly the great ‘outdoors’, more like the great indoors, but included here because they are numerous in France, generally situated in chalky mountain or canyon areas, and as well as being fascinating natural underground wonders they also provide excellent sites for the sport of caving, or spéléologie as its known in French.
When you have a beautiful landscape, you want to give as many people as possible access to enjoy as much of it as possible, especially when tourism is a major part of the economy. Hence France has invested greatly in developing walking and cycling paths; more than 120,000km of them in fact. These sentiers balisés (marked trails) and voies vertes (wider paths closed to vehicles) criss-cross the country passing through all types of different terrain.
Long distance walks are labelled ‘sentiers de grande randonnée’ (GR) and indicated with a red rectangle over a white rectangle. Next are the ‘grandes randonnées du pays’ (GRP), longer usually circuitous routes that facilitate more in-depth discovery of a certain area. These are marked by a red over yellow rectangle. Shorter walks are known as ‘sentiers de promenade randonnée’ (PR) and are shown by a yellow over a white rectangle.
The routes are very well-marked including sign-posts at junctions indicating the name and distance of the next destination. And watch out for a cross in the two relevant colours as this indicates the wrong way!
The Topo Guides are the best known in France. They contain a map of a designated area (usually for hikers on one side of the map and for mountain bikers ‘VTT’ on the other) plus detailed step-by-step leaflets for routes within that area. These guides, as well as other walking map books, are for sale in tourist offices and bookshops.
Seven National Parks in France
Vanoise (1963) – In the Savoie department, Rhône-Alpes; implicating 29 communes
Port-Cros (1963) – Var; Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur; 11 communes
Pyrénées (1967) – Pyrénées-Atlantiques and Hautes-Pyrénées departments, Aquitaine and Midi-Pyrénées regions; 86 communes
Cévennes (1970) – Lozère, Gard and Ardèche departments; Languedoc-Roussillon and Rhône-Alpes regions; 152 communes
Ecrins (1973) – Hautes-Alpes and Isère departments; Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur and Rhône-Alpes regions; 61 communes
Mercantour (1979) – Alpes-Maritimes and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence departments; Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur; 28 communes
Les Calanques (2012) - Bouches-du Rhône; Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, 7 communes