Nature: Outings in France all year round
One of France’s major assets is the extent and variety of its countryside. From north to south and from east to west, 80% of the mainland is rural. The wonderful contrasts are an inspiration to explore.
Summer invites an outing everywhere that nature reigns, but is particularly suited to exploration of the Channel coastline as well as rural sectors of the north and east, where green meadows and hedgerows are crossed by quiet paths. Country life hums with countless activities, from July on there are harvest celebrations to village fêtes which feature local dishes and products. France’s forests (the most extensive in Europe in terms of surface area) are also perfect for escapades ‘in the cool of the shade’. Most propitious, and richest in biodiversity, are the mature deciduous forests in the northern half of the country, as well as the deep pine woods of mountain zones. A summer heat-wave, which might be delightful on the coast, is less pleasant – indeed dangerous – in the inland pine forests and thick scrublands of southern France, and so outings there should be postponed until the cooler months. But the high-altitude world of mountain ranges is perfect for walking and trekking in all their forms, from lost valleys to famous summits. A multitude of lakes, both in the mountains and on the plain, provide a delightfully cool touch. In September, many regions of France take advantage the fine weather for their annual grape harvest.
‘Connoisseurs’ are not put off by the first cool days of autumn, for they know that October is the month when the changing colour of leaves turns the landscape into ‘an Impressionist painting’. In southern zones, meanwhile, coniferous vegetation retains its consistently green hue. The bellowing of stags in rut in the Loire Valley, or the combat of rutting chamois in the mountains, can be (discreetly) observed in the company of a forest ranger or park warden. Gathering mushrooms and picking wild berries (blueberries, blackberries, etc.) are additional charms of an autumn stroll. Subsequently, hikers make way for hunters. Meanwhile, the nearby islands, whether off the coast of Brittany, Provence, or Corsica, benefit from a micro-climate that prolongs the mild, colourful days of the late autumn.
Although France’s geographical location ensures temperate winters, its many mountain ranges acquire a pretty mantle of snow. The hills provide countless destinations not only for skiing and other winter games but also for invigorating excursions, notably on snowshoes, into the Alps, the Pyrenees, and the Vosges Mountains. Nature, although silent and frosty, is all the more appealing. Even the harshness of the winds – each mountain range and valley having its own special brand of wind with a local name! – can create a sense of adventure for fans of ‘wild nature’ in the Massif Central and Jura ranges, which are also open to a more epicurean excursion.
The first buds of spring obviously appear first on the Riviera with its profusion of mimosa and in central Provence where almond and cherry trees literally ‘explode’ into a riot of colour as early as the first days of March. Later, in June, the Mediterranean hills are painted in the serried stripes of lavender fields. France’s many marshlands, meanwhile, host flocks of migrating birds in April. All these precious ecosystems must be treated with respect during bird-watching trips. Elsewhere, the rivers inevitably draw fishermen and canals sprout leisure craft on sunny weekends in May. As the days lengthen, everyone begins thinking of a ‘well-packed basket’ of leisure and outdoor activities, to be consumed at their own pace. Everywhere, from wide-open preserve to private little nook, the French countryside offers unmatched variety in an ever-repeating cycle.