Great Escapes

06.09.14

Discovering The Charms Of La France Profonde

Need a break from the bustle and grime of city life? The French capital and its surrounding countryside still offer one of the most charming getaways on the planet.

As Britain and France commemorate the D-Day landings 70 years ago on the beaches of Normandy, there’s another, less momentous, anniversary between the two countries. It’s exactly 20 years since the Channel Tunnel was declared open by Queen Elizabeth II and the French President Francois Mitterrand. The British royals are said to have travelled by train from Waterloo to Calais at a sedate 80 mph, while the presidential party sped to the coast from Paris at 186 mph.

The tunnel linking the UK to France now carries around 20 million passengers a year—85 percent of them British. However, plans for a tunnel had been opposed for centuries, and the anti-tunnel-campaign continued throughout the construction, with one journalist reporting it as “the opening of an underwater passage joining together two nations who cannot stand the sight of each other.”

Travelling to France, it now seems ludicrous that anyone could have opposed such a convenient route. After a simple two-hour journey on the Eurostar, watching the fields of Kent give way to the French countryside, my boyfriend and I plunge out into the heart of Paris. Dragging our suitcases through the 15th arrondissement, we find ourselves caught up in the middle of a ‘degustation’. It’s a wine and cheese tasting which takes up the entire boulevard, so it would be rude not to join in—glasses of chilled white wine are thrust into our hands, along with tiny goat’s cheese tarts, plus some kind of vile-looking pork pate encased in sheep’s stomach (no, me neither).

We walk all over the capital, criss-crossing the Seine, rediscovering the Louvre, Notre-Dame, the Jardin du Luxembourg and the Sorbonne, exploring the parks and cemeteries of Père Lachaise and Montparnasse, sipping coffee in Les Deux Magots (in the footsteps of Hemingway, de Beauvoir and Picasso) and mouth-watering Tarte Tatins and millefeuilles in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

After a few days in Paris we board the TGV for Moulins, a region of central France where my parents’ oldest friends live in a glorious 18th-century chateau. The seclusion, the sunshine and silence of La France Profonde, broken only by birdsong, waking every morning in a four-poster bed, long walks in the countryside followed by evenings of good food, wine and conversation with real wood fires in the hearth… it’s deeply restorative after the stress of London life. (Best of all I have no laptop, Blackberry or phone, so I begin to feel truly disconnected.)

Next it’s on to Nevers, where we stumble upon one of the most beautiful chambre d’hôtes I’ve ever stayed in: a cavernous modernist loft apartment within a 16th-century historic building. Nevers is a revelation for us both, a wonderful town nestled on the Loire and bursting with cathedrals, chateaux and history.

After a few days in Paris we board the TGV for Moulins, a region of central France where my parents’ oldest friends live in a glorious 18th-century chateau.

Throughout our travels, what’s most surprising is how relaxed the French attitude is to, er, le boulot… For visitors from the UK or the United States, where the consumer is king and many shops are open 24-7, this is seriously baffling. Why would businesses close for several hours in the middle of the day, precisely when people need to shop? How can anyone go home for a three-course meal and a siesta in the midst of peak trading? Outside Paris, you’re hard pressed to find a supermarket or grocery store open between the hours of midday to 3 p.m. Presumably this is to protect the much-prized French 35-hour working week (35 hours!) and to support the café and restaurant culture. While I agree that all-day-all-night superstores are unnecessary, and Sunday opening has changed the traditional day of rest, still the virtual shutdown of French towns can be frustrating. We spent one Friday evening walking miles to find a single restaurant open for dinner, because it was a national ‘feast day’ for one saint or another (not for us).

Back in Paris at Roland Garros for the French Open tennis tournament. Too soon it’s our final morning: We leave our hotel at dawn and walk along the Left Bank in sparkling sunshine to the Eiffel Tower. No matter how many touristy images, keyrings and cheesy postcards you may have seen, the reality of the Tour Eiffel is breath-taking: 1,063 feet of iron lattice-work both intricate and majestic. No wonder it’s the most-visited paid monument in the world, with over 250 million visitors to date. Built in 1889, it was the tallest man-made structure in the world until the Chrysler Building in New York caught up in 1930.

Before we catch our train back to London, there’s one last place to visit. On the Pont des Arts we buy a padlock engraved with our initials, T and E. A few feet away from us, a newly married couple are smiling for photographs; nearby, two men kiss in the early-morning sunshine. (Interestingly, a campaign was last year launched by two American women living in Paris, to ban the spread of the padlocking craze.) Like many thousands of couples before us we attach our ‘love lock’ to the bridge, and throw the key in the Seine…