An expert guide to holidaying like the French
A few weeks' vacances in countryside, coast or mountains are regarded as a universal right in France, and the French are expert at it. Here are some tips on copying them
They're our closest neighbours, and experts at holidaying in their own country, but the French themselves can't always afford haute cuisine and luxury hotels so, with the pound-euro exchange rate taking a battering, why not adopt the French way of doing things and save money in the process? Picnics and meals out France may be the birthplace of the Michelin star, but it is possible to eat very well there without splashing the cash. The country's wonderful markets provide the perfect reason to have a pique-nique: stock up on fresh baguettes, sumptuous cheeses and tasty charcuterie, and a bottle of something local. Picnic tables are everywhere - parks, roadsides and tourist sights. While British attractions will funnel you into their cafes and forbid you from consuming your own food, the French always provide a picnic area (often under cover). For evening meals, many B&Bs (chambres d'hôtes) give the option of the table d'hôte (host's table), where the owner will cook a delicious evening meal for guests. Or, in rural areas, book at a ferme-auberge (bienvenue-a-la-ferme.com/restauration-ferme-auberge) - a farm offering home-cooked meals at low cost. In restaurants, eating a menu du jour at lunchtime often costs less than the same meal in the evening. For those with Michelin stars in their eyes, it's worth tracking down a locally revered chef (restaurant.michelin.fr) because often they will run a lower-price bistro alongside their haute-cuisine restaurant. Meanwhile, Michelin's Bib Gourmand sign offers excellent food without the hefty price tag. Accommodation France's tradition of les grandes vacances, when the whole nation goes on a holiday in July or August, means the country has thousands of résidences and holiday villages offering simple yet comfortable apartments, often with a shared pool and other facilities. They can be found on the coast, in cities and in the mountains. The sheer volume of accommodation in the Alps and Pyrenees makes them particularly good value in the summer: for example, a stay for four in a one-bedroom self-catering apartment in Summer France's Résidence Les Terrasses de Veret in Flaine costs £161 from 1 July. Pierre & Vacances and Lagrange have similar offerings. Booking a gîte direct with owners, or via tourist offices, keeps costs down: Gîtes de France has a network across the country. There are a huge number of chateaux to rent. Split between a few families, they can cost as little as €15pppn. Try loire-chateau.fr, oliverstravels.com, qualityvillas.com, sawdays.co.uk. Camping is the cheapest option and most campsites also offer mobile homes or chalets, through a variety of tour operators. Or save more euros by booking direct with the sites: find them through the tourist office or on sites such as les-castels.com or flowercampings.com. Getting around Avoiding motorway tolls will lead you down the smooth, fast routes nationales (such the N7 that runs from Paris to Nice) and the prettier, more winding routes departmentales, which allow you to discover sights, towns and villages en route (on Michelin maps, the most scenic roads are marked with green shading). The scenic roads are ideal for leisurely road trips, but can be too slow if you just need to get somewhere. There are dozens of toll-free motorways (there are no tolls in Brittany) around the country, so a route that mixes those with slower, scenic routes can be a savvy approach. Website mappy.com can help with planning. When you need to steam on through, avoiding queues, buy a toll tag (saneftolling.co.uk) - a windscreen transponder that sends you a bill later - to avoid foreign currency fees on toll booths that only accept cards. (If you travel to France with Le Shuttle and book through its website you won't have to pay the €10 application fee for the tag.) Filling the tank is cheapest at big supermarkets such as Carrefour or Intermarché. If you are not driving yourself but need a ride, car-pooling website Bla Bla Car is very popular in France. Destinations To embrace fully the idea of holidaying like the French, it's worth looking for areas that remain undiscovered by the British, such as lakeside beaches rather than the coast. The Morvan regional natural park in Burgundy offers a number of charming lakes, plus pretty forests and villages, including the enchanting pilgrimage site of Vézelay. A couple of hours east, near Langres, Lac de la Liez is an easy motorway dash from Calais and has a great campsite (campingliez.com). In Limousin, to the north of the ever-popular Dordogne, the 10 sq km Lac de Vassivière on the Millevaches plateau has tiny beaches and forests that are ideal for walking or cycling. In the Alps, the huge Lac de Serre-Ponçon, south of Grenoble, is on the southern edge of the largely undiscovered Écrins national park, with fantastic hiking trails and stunning views. And south, towards the Mediterranean coast, the Cévennes national park offers beautiful, rugged scenery and reliable summer weather. For a shorter drive from the Channel, the little-known area of Orne in Normandy is full of apple orchards and cider farms. On its southern edge is the Perche natural park, a hot spot for weekend flea markets and bric-a-brac shops. And the Baie de Somme, between Calais and Dieppe, is a favourite haunt for the French; stay in Saint-Valery-sur-Somme or over the river at Le Crotoy. Tips from the locals Most French cities offer very good hotel rates in July and August, because there are fewer business travellers. In Angers, there is a 25-40% discount on hotel rooms booked directly on the tourist office's central booking system (angersloiretourisme.com). Olivier Bouchereau, Angers, Pays de la Loire Meet a local "greeter" at the beginning of your stay: these are local volunteers, happy to show you around. It's great to have an insider's perspective and tips: which restaurants to go to (and avoid) and, best of all, the tour is free. In Pas-de-Calais, go through greeters62.com or greeters.online. Benoît Diéval, Wimille, Hauts-de-France Try to avoid the busiest weekends - 17 April, 1 May, 8 May, 25 May, 5 June 2017 - these are bank holidays in France. Véronique Beigenger, Dijon For lunch, go to a bakery for an excellent sandwich or, in Lorraine, a slice of quiche for €2 or €3. Salons de thé serve the same food as a bakery, but have seating to eat on site.
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