France holidays

Travel

Normandy conquest: all-action family fun in the French countryside

On a group family holiday at a Normandy chateau, a sceptical dad is pleasantly surprised by how much fun the entertainment and activities are – and that doing nothing is an option, too

Call it an exercise in contrasts. At the summit of Mont Saint-Michel, the bronze statue of the archangel is glinting in the midday sun, sword raised and wings outspread. At the foot of Mont Saint-Michel, a small jam-smeared boy is wriggling through a tiny window in the fortress wall and idly breaking into the courtyard of a gendarmerie. The archangel is the protector of the mount. The boy is my son.

Four of us – me, my wife, our four-year-old daughter Bethan and seven-year-old apprentice cat burglar, Joe – have come to western Normandy to join 15 other British families on an all-ages adventure break. This group day trip is a mere bit-player in the week’s itinerary. The holiday is primarily based 45 minutes inland, at an old countryside chateau near Les Chambres on the Manche coast, near Brittany. It’s a wholesome setting in which rabbits hop, peacocks preen and mobs of croissant-fuelled children tear around, brandishing makeshift lightsabers.

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Travel

10 of the best country campsites in France

The authors of the latest Cool Camping: France book pick the best family-friendly sites from Normandy to the Pyrenees

Since its commission – by none other than William the Conqueror – Château de Monfréville, 10km from the Normandy coast, has housed everyone from Walt Disney’s whole family to invading German soldiers. Today it is limited to just 25 tent pitches, with ample room for little ones to roam and Bert the donkey to graze. There’s a natural swimming pond, an honesty shop (stocked with organic veggies from the garden) and fresh pastries delivered each morning. It’s a 30-minute drive to the medieval town of Bayeux, home of the world’s most celebrated tapestry.
Tent and 2 people from €26.50 (tents only)

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Travel

Pop on the piste: Chamonix’s fun new ski hotel

Neither cute chalet nor bland concrete block, Chamonix’s Rocky Pop hotel claims to be a chilled new take on winter holidays – and makes a fine base for our beginner snowboarder

I spent the run-up to my first ever proper winter holiday – and by that I mean going somewhere where there’s snow everywhere – checking weather forecast after weather forecast, only to find them all declaring this one of the worst years for Alpine snowfall in decades. I anxiously scanned photos of muddy slopes that looked more like Alexandra Palace after the end of a school snow day than a deep-powder winter wonderland.

Fortunately, the day before I arrive, around a metre of snow is dumped on Chamonix. So there I am, high in the French Alps, bag packed with borrowed ski gear, ear warmers and assorted thick socks, ready to learn to snowboard – and there is more snow than I have ever seen in my life. It looks, and feels, like Christmas.

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Travel

City breaks with kids: Paris

The city of love – or lights – can also be a delight for children, with special sessions at many cultural attractions and parks with playgrounds, ponds and puppets

More in this series: Berlin | Amsterdam

Most kids quickly tire of walking, so make it more interesting with a stroll along Les Berges de Seine, a scenic stretch of river starting from the Musée D’Orsay. Climbing frames, painted floor mazes, hopscotch, board games and seasonal, pop-up play apparatus are just a few of the things that will keep children entertained.

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Travel

20 of the best family campsites in Europe

With great restaurants, beautiful locations and lots of activities and entertainment, these sites offer all the fun but none of the hassle of traditional camping

  • Scroll to the end for booking guidance

All prices are for seven nights, for two adults and two kids in a mobile home or chalet for the week 29 July-5 August. Prices correct at time of going to press

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Music

Top 10 Paris jazz clubs – chosen by musicians and experts

Paris has always had a strong affinity with jazz, and there’s a wealth of venues to hear trad, modern and avant garde music. Here, performers, producers and critics pick their favourite clubs

Paris has swung to the rhythms of jazz for nigh on a century. With legends Bud Powell, Chet Baker and Miles Davis woven deep in its history, and pioneers Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli providing the backdrop to its cafe society, jazz is as much a part of the capital’s cultural heritage as art, philosophy and literature.

Yet jazz in Paris is no sepia-tinted relic: it remains a flourishing art form that packs out bars, clubs and caverns. With a profusion of styles on offer (from trad, modern and avant garde to bossa nova, jazz-funk and Afro-jazz, not forgetting France’s singular contribution to the genre – gypsy jazz), its freedom-loving soul lives on. And the more experimental among the city’s contemporary players are lifting its appeal to new heights.

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Travel

Yoga for beginners in the south of France

A trip outside the comfort zone can often feel a bit of a stretch. Our writer travels to an idyllic rural retreat near Toulouse with some concerns. As it happens, it proves to be a life-changing trip

The words “vegan yoga retreat” terrify me. I’m an internet, pulled-pork and sarcasm kind of guy. However, an increasing number of my friends have started raving about the life-changing effects of yoga, mindfulness and conscious-eating, and what I’m even more scared of is missing out. So, to find out what all the fuss is about, I’ve signed up for a week with Chaya Yoga Retreats to explore all three, figuring that even if it’s a living hell, the beds will hopefully be comfy.

Founded by wellbeing food coach Lucy Hill, Chaya has been running retreats for five years, offering yoga immersions in beautiful locations, from weekends in the UK to longer trips in Bali or India. We’re closer to home – a magnificent, remote château in the Toulouse countryside, with beautiful spacious rooms (mostly twin share, though some sleep four). It sits high above rolling fields, and the views stretch to the snow-capped Pyrenees. At night, the sky is hung with a million jewels, clouded only by the Milky Way. It may be the most peaceful place I’ve ever been.

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Travel

Ski holiday calendar: will there be snow when I go?

When splashing out on a ski trip, you need to know there’ll be plenty of white stuff. We recommend the best resorts at Christmas, half-term, Easter and more

In these troubled climatic times, skiers and snowboarders can no longer rely on adequate snow cover throughout the season. So planning is vital. In particular, anyone arranging an early or late holiday should choose somewhere at high altitude, then even if there’s insufficient natural stuff, the sub-zero temperatures – at least at night – should ensure that artificial snowmaking can take place.
Prices below are per person for one week, including half-board, flights and transfers, unless stated otherwise

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Music

Paris’s hip-hop cultural centre launches first season of events

The theme of Paris-New York is at the core of a series of hip-hop events and performances at La Place – part of the €1bn Canopée des Halles project – an innovative centre that showcases underground sounds

A government-funded hip-hop centre seems like a paradox – given the history of tensions between rappers and the establishment. Both the former president – the Republican Nicolas Sarkozy – and Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls have denounced French rap groups in the past. But now La Place, a new hip-hop cultural centre, has become the centrepiece of the controversial Canopée des Halles, a €1bn architectural space designed to breathe new life into the notoriously ugly and dangerous Les Halles station, and draw a line under Paris’s shame at the destruction of the beautiful 19th-century wrought-iron market that was bulldozed in 1971.

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Travel

10 of the best foodie retreats in rural France

These charming B&Bs, guesthouses and gîtes offer comfortable pitstops on a French adventure, but with their mouth-watering regional food and wine they may prove hard to leave

Strawberries, squash, lemon verbena and lettuce come from Françoise Maynier’s immaculately kept gardens just inland from Brittany’s Pink Granite Coast. She also keeps a couple of donkeys, three cats and six hens who overlook the sculptures and ancient rose bushes in the five gardens, separate cottage and ponds. The manor has four rooms and an apartment, all done out in Breton stripes and nautical chic. The table d’hôtes set dinner, which Françoise prepares herself, usually involves fish and seafood, such as thick slabs of cod, prawns and crab. As the local fishermen don’t go out on Sundays, a typical Monday evening meal might be melon and mint soup, then chicken in cider followed by roast peach with gingerbread. Françoise also does an exceptional far breton, a custard-based sponge cake with prunes.
Doubles €90, dinner €25, +33 2 96 22 89 68, troezel-vras.com

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Travel

10 of the best national and regional parks in France

France’s green spaces provide the chance to see magnificent wildlife, explore mountain villages or just have a great hike or bike ride

The first (1963) and largest of France’s mainland national parks, the Vanoise is in the French Alps, becoming the Gran Paradiso national park once it’s over the Italian border. Hundreds of trails crisscross the mountainsides where semi-tame marmots come up for a sniff of your picnic and where edelweiss pokes out among the bluey trumpets of gentiana acaulis on the slopes. Lynx, wolves, chamois and ibex descend once the ice has melted in the spring. Surrounded by prestigious ski-resorts, Courchevel and Val-d’Isère the park offers a grand spectacle of glaciers and mountain lakes, perfect for mountain biking and trekking in the summer and cross-country skiing in the winter.
Stay Le Roc de la Pêche, a chalet-style wood-and-stone building with a hammam and spa; €62pp, €28-a-bed in a dorm
vanoise-parcnational.fr

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Travel

Love Paris like a local: tour the city with an insider guide

Want to find the cradle of French cuisine, the former brothel of Edward VII or where Napoleon lost his virginity? A network of locals in Paris, and cities worldwide, is guiding tourists to secret spots

Georges, a retired French gendarmerie general, is waiting outside the metro station in the Parisian district of Le Sentier, eager to show off the finer – and less refined – points of an area he knows “like his pocket”, as the local expression goes.

Le Sentier is a curious mix of shabby and chic that stretches from the grand boulevards of Napoleon III’s architect Baron Haussmann to the aristocratic Palais Royal, via the colourful and notorious Saint Denis district, with its prostitutes and rag trade sweatshops.

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Travel

France fuel strike leads to tourist anxiety ahead of bank holiday weekend

Depot blockades and fuel shortages in France are set to cause chaos as the UK government and RAC issue warnings over potential petrol rationing

Steph Hoy has been following the news about the French fuel strike anxiously. On Thursday evening she is driving her 1960s Morris Minor to Portsmouth to catch the ferry to Cherbourg and begin a tour across France. Her car might have stood the test of time … but it still needs petrol. And right now, France is not coming across as the most inviting destination for a road trip.

“I’m pretty nervous,” she says. “If you look at the news, all you see is disgruntled workers burning piles of tyres and rioting.”

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Travel

French châteaux: 10 princely stays at affordable prices

A château holiday needn’t cost a king’s ransom. These 10 sumptuous castles-turned-hotels across France won’t break the bank

This spectacular 15th-century château has been owned and run by the same family since the last century. Travel past golden sunflower fields and it emerges through a forested hilltop. The interior pile oozes grandeur with original stone walls, wood panelling, a suit of armour in the hall, and huge fireplaces. Bedrooms are old-fashioned but impressive with antiques and numerous four-posters to choose from. Breakfast can be taken in the “tower room” or on the front lawn. There’s also a pool, children’s play area and a secret arbour within the 20 acres of grounds.
Doubles from €108 room-only, +33 5 53 03 70 11

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Travel

France waves goodbye to sleeper trains

SNCF blames the demise of night trains on high costs as it announces plans to end services from Paris

France is set to say au revoir to the couchette, as the country’s department of transport prepares to withdraw overnight train routes from Paris.

The French government, which owns the national rail operator SNCF, has said sleeper trains are too expensive to run; it has withdrawn financial support and invited bids to run the services. But unless a proposal is received by July 1 all but three of the dozen or so overnight services will be axed. The only remaining Intercités de Nuit will be from Paris to Briancon, Rodez and Latour de Carol, routes deemed socially necessary, according to rail website The Man in Seat Sixty-one.

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Travel

Pipe dreams: on the trail of Maigret’s Paris

Tom Downey goes in search of the French capital’s landmarks – as patrolled by Georges Simenon’s French detective

By rights Le Bar du Caveau, on the Ile de la Cité’s Place Dauphine, one of the most picturesque squares in the very centre of the tourist’s Paris, should have been crammed with foreigners. Instead, at lunch hour, the only time it was open, it was filled with lawyers from the adjoining Palais de Justice who clearly hadn’t got to talk enough in court because they were now screaming their heads off.

I asked, politely and in French, if a female lawyer sitting to my left wanted to switch places with me so she could more easily converse with the man sitting to my right. “No,” she said and then continued to shout in my ear to communicate with her colleague. The perfectly creamy, soft-scrambled eggs piled on to crisp brown bread were partial consolation.

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Travel

10 of the best small hotels in Paris

Alastair Sawday’s pick of boutique Parisian hotels offers a touch of chic for those who prefer to avoid big-name chains

This calm retreat in the heart of Montparnasse lets guests step out of the bustle and into a foyer full of natural light. A blend of old and new creates an individual, warm atmosphere: attractive flea market finds, antiques, characterful dark or honey-coloured wood furniture and headboards. Bedrooms have art, fresh flowers and splashes of colour from stylish fabrics; bathrooms are gleaming. Families and groups can choose communicating rooms. Have breakfast in your room or join the buffet in the dining room.
Doubles from €100, room only, +33 1 71 72 91 33, sawdays.co.uk/hoteldelapaix

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Travel

Right on target: skiing and shooting in the French Alps

A fear of steep slopes put Kate Carter off winter sports as a child. But skiing with a laser gun? That was another story…

I owe my existence to skiing. At least that’s what my grandparents believed. Just before the Second World War they fled Prague for England with other Czech Jews, and after travelling across the border by train, stopped at a hotel for the night. Everyone was understandably tired and most went to bed early. But my grandfather stayed at the bar and, over a few drinks, got talking to the owner.

As it turned out, they shared a love of skiing and of the emerging sport of biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing with shooting at targets. That night, there were knocks on the hotel room doors. Shouts from soldiers. The footsteps of people being led away.

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