Often when we travel, one of my favourite things to do is explore villages. Usually I have a sense of what village I want to visit and the many amazing reasons for going there but there a been a few times I have gone off the beaten path to discover extraordinary villages.
The very first time I remember this happening was when we were visiting Salon De Provence and ready to drive up to Beaune in the heart of Burgundy. We could have taken the motorways but as @benton8tor pointed out, tolls could be expensive and you miss seeing the countryside. So I agreed to go off the beaten path.
Upon leaving Salon we stopped in Ales for a break and I was totally in. ‘what a great idea’ I thought, we get to see places that are somewhat inaccessible on the motorway. About 30 minutes later, I
was still in that mindset. I was certainly not hanging on to the door handle of our rental vehicle screaming slow down at Ben as we took yet anther hairpin turn in the mid Pyrenees. I was calm, cool and obviously a liar. Ben finally pulled over for a break and the scenery was in fact stunning. If I could stop freaking out enough to take in what I was seeing, I was in for a treat. Rejuvenated I jumped back in the car, sure I could handle what was next. I was very very very wrong. We descended into Mende a crazy beautiful village in the mid Pyrenees and by descended I mean like parachuted in. I have never experienced such a steep incline and I freaked out once again. Upon refection, It was amazing. Desperately in need of a drink, I insisted Ben pull over as soon as possible. As we found refuge in a tree lined street I headed for the nearest restaurant. And what a treat it was. I was still a little shaky so a glass of wine never looked or tasted so good. Served in a very unusual almost antique looking wine glass, the wine was indeed cheaper than water again and when my nerves calmed enough to eat, the jambon au beurre (ham baguette) was fabulous too. It turns out once you pry your knuckles off the door and take a look around, Mende is a very beautiful city. http://www.languedocfrance.com/mende/ This short cut took us 9 hours.
This past summer on what Ben describes as stunning or I correctly describe as a terrifying drive through the Pyrenees, we made another amazing discovery ( a discovery other than the lack of guardrails on high mountain roads.) The village of Bagnères-de-Luchon provided not only a welcome rest stop but my favourite breakfast I have ever had in France. Bagnères-de-Luchon located in the Pyrenees near the Spanish border has a charm and feel all its own unlike other French villages. It is not Alpine obviously but not like anywhere else in France either. It should be experienced for its own unique vibe.http://uk.luchon.com/ That said driving through the Pyrenees is not for the faint of heart. The roads are steep, few villages to be seen and abandoned ski chalets not in use in the summer are somewhat frightening. Scenery is beautiful if you have nerves of steel. I do not.
Finally the accidental discovery of La Cadière-d’Azur buried in the hills and vineyards of Bandol in the South of Provence was simply amazing. Though high in the hills, It was by far less frightening to find and easily one of the most beautiful spots in France. It is hard to believe high in those hills you are actually only 14 minutes away from Bandol proper and the Mediterranean sea. After a morning in Bandol taking in the beach and market we decided to do some wine tastings. We had bought fresh baguettes, cheese and tomatoes and were looking for a spot to stop and eat lunch. After driving aimlessly we stumbled upon the village of La Cadière-d’Azur. http://ot-lacadieredazur.fr/
High on a hillside, it overlooks valleys and vineyards that provide the amazing Bandol wines. We stopped at local wine store to buy some wine with our lunch. Pretty excited we bought both a Bandol red and a rose. We settled into our beautiful picnic spot ready to enjoy some wine and realized @benton8tor had forgot our bottle opener. It was lunch time so most stores were closed and the few that were open didn’t sell openers. One proprietor recommended putting the bottle into a shoe and banging it on concrete to get the cork out. I was skeptical but Ben was game to try. Bizarrely it worked although I still don’t know how.Our picnic spot was beautiful and a great jumping off point to visit wineries for tastings in the afternoon.
Regardless, my takeaway from the unexpected finds is that you never know what great discovery you’ll happen upon that will give you some of your most memorable experiences and a chance to really explore the less well known sites. It can really help you appreciate everything a country has to offer.