Paris, Nice, Cannes - the spotlight on the glamour crowd, romantic castles, wining and dining: that is France - according to the French tourist board. At least that is how it was - until quite recently France did not care two hoots about eco-tourism. The tourist board was simply satisfied to perpetuate France's image of culinary refinement and haut culture, a country steeped in ancient traditions, history and art, brimming with foie gras and bubbling with champagne. Indeed, France is a fine country for enjoying such pleasures, for visiting castles and touring vineyards, for admiring ancient abbeys and quaint old towns or for being awed by museums of world renown.
But anyone who knows France just beyond those well beaten paths, cherishes its more subtle riches. France is a fairly large country, by European standards, yet it is not overly populated. Its main cultural and administrative center is Paris; all other rivals come in many leagues behind. Yet, the very rural nature of everything that lies outside the capital's city limits creates a fascinating and varied mosaic of bio-regionalism. The real screts of the French cuisine are much better explored on the markets and farm shops of the rural countryside than in fancy 5 star Paris restaurants. And one of the best ways to experience France through your taste buds is by means of a 'vacance a la ferme' - a farmstay, or better still, a hiking tour that leads you from one farm to another. Deep in the French countryside, every village has its own specialty and staying on farms as you travel will introduce you to delicious bites you will never be able to purchase at a supermarket and only rarely find at a restaurant. Production is often far too small and thus, the myriad of goats cheeses or honeys or hams are only on offer either at the farm where they are produced or at local markets.
Farm-stays can be rustic and 'family-style', or quite sophisticated. Vineyard auberges tend to cater to a more upmarket crowd, as winery tourism is distinctly better established than farm holidays, which is a relatively new concept in France. But unless you are seriously into wines, they may not offer you the best value. Meals are usually set menus and as part of the program you'll have to taste your way through several different cuvees as part of the meal. The ulterior motive of course is to persuade you to take away a few bottles as a souvenir.
Over the last few years France has started to green its image. Thw tourist board suddenly remembered that France has some magnificent natural beauty spots that could be marketed in that category. After a few years of tentative beginnings, today green tourism is not quite such an alien concept anymore in France. Most regional tourism websites will have a section on farm stays, national parks and protected natural areas, the local fauna and flora and some information on low impact activities, such as hiking, biking and horseback riding and the like.
In fact, France may not be the environmentally most aware country in the western world, but it is a superb country for hikers - although you would never believe it if you only know it as a visitor to its cities. In areas that pedestrians must share with cars, pedestrians are vastly disadvantaged. In many places not even the slightest bit of walkway exists. This is most probably due to the fact that roads have never been updated to cope with modern traffic conditions. Who needs a walkway when cars are passing at a rate of one a week, or so? But times have changed, traffic has increased, while the provision of walkways has not...
However, the far-spun network of well-marked hiking trails that criss-cross the country makes up for this deficit. It is literally possible to cross the entire country on foot in whichever direction one chooses. There are long distance trails known as GR routes (Grande Randonner) as well as regional and local routes of different lengths. You can walk the whole length or do what most people do, walk these routes in sections. The GRs are too long to walk from start to finish (often traversing hundreds of kilometers), though the regional trails are more manageable.
Hiking is surprisingly well organized in France. There is a large hikers' organization with regional chapters that help maintain the paths and organize group outings. Little booklets and good maps are available to help you organize your 'randonner'. Along the route you will find so called 'Gites d'etape', hiker's huts where you can find a bed and food for the night. However, it is a good idea to book in advance, especially if you are travelling a popular route during peak tourist season.
The best times for a hiking vacation in France are spring and fall, unless you want to go into the high mountains. Here the hiking season starts in June and lasts to September as in October one may encounter snow already. Many of the huts and gites in the high mountains only operate during these summer months.
As for biking trips, it is true that France is in the process of creating more and more bike trails, especially for mountain bikers. For bike trekkers the situation is not quite so good. Drivers are often ruthless and many areas lack proper lanes intended just for bikes. Furthermore, France is a pretty hilly country - so if you are a seasoned bike-trekker you probably won't mind, but for the less practiced this can present quite a challenge. The tourist board is trying to popularize the idea of bike trekking and promotes certain routes in less mountainous terrain. Usually both hiking and biking trails are routed in such a way as to allow you to take in cultural and culinary delights as you go along. There are plans afoot to extend the network of bike routes throughout the country over the next few years. This could prove a popular mode of travel in the future.
Horseback riding is another popular pursuit, though usually these are not offered as treks that lasts several days. Rather, you would stay at a horse ranch or other type of hostel and book day tours with a stable nearby.
In Central Europe it is difficult to come across any more exciting wildlife than a fox or wildboar. However, far up in the mountains you may come across some wilder species, including eagles, chamoix (a wild mountain goat) and marmots. However, the best wildlife viewing comes in the form of bird watching. With so many different types of environments and habitats and a strategic location between northern Europe and Africa there is quite a lot of transit traffic of birds. The lagoons and wetlands behind the Mediterranean coastline make for an excellent feeding ground for many species - among them even Flamingos, while in Burgundy and Alsace the stork is almost emblematic.
Here is a great website resource for birders in France:
In France there is a general scepticism and antipathy towards a broad labelling scheme. Although France is the champion of regionalist certification with regards to local products (wine, cheese etc. known as AOC), there is a distrust of any label that originates outside its own think-tanks. The truth is, France has been very slow to adopt environmental policies recommended or imposed by the European Union.
(As mentioned in a previous article, the green labelling schemes in Europe are a mess, generally. A pan European label does exist, but nobody knows about it. Thus each country makes up its own, and not only that, often it is even further fractured into regional labels.)
There are hotels that have signed up to one or another labelling scheme, but on the whole the sentiment is: our rural tourism is green (because it supports local communities and local products are used and it is very small scale) - so why should we go through all these stipulations to conform with somebody else's idea of eco-tourism.
So, just because you don't see a sign such as 'green globe' or 'clef verte' etc. does not necessarily mean the establishment is not adhering to green values in their operations, or at least implement them as much as they can.
If you look for 'green' accommodations, farm stays and small, locally owned and run auberges are your best bet. However, they may be rather rustic. The idea of luxury eco-travel and accommodations, run by operators who are serious about the ethics behind 'green business' and not just paying lip service in order to get more clients, is very rare indeed.
All in all France is suiable for exploring in low impact modes, but don't expect it to be the same as what you would find in Central or South America. Europe still caters primarily to European tourists and a large part of that has always been nature orientated leisure pursuits such as hiking and biking, blended with good food and a bit of local culture. Most of this type of tourism is undertaken independently rather than through a tour operator. And that is why you don't hear much about it.
We have just teamed up with a friendly eco-conscious partner for hiking and biking holidays in France. The tours are 'self-guided', which means that there will be no guide accompanying you on the tour. With a map and route descriptions you follow the trail from one pre-booked hotel to the next, while your luggage will be taken there by car, thus leaving you free to roam and enjoy the countryside without being weighed down. We are still in the process of developing this section of the site, but the areas that will take the spotlight are the Pyrenees and Corsica. Watch this space, it is growing. Meanwhile, don't hesitate to contact us if you are interested in this type of travel in France.
For further information and booking inquiries please send us and e-mail.