Take a detour and pay a visit to a hidden charmer

The stunning Roman arena in Nîmes

When travelling through France this year, turn off the autoroute and drop in one of its lesser-known towns. Samantha David makes her selection of hidden gems to discover

France is so big, it is tempting to think that driving at top speed along its motorways is the only way to get around. But that is missing the point; the hexagon is packed with smaller cities which will probably never be your destination but which are just begging for a detour and will reward you richly for having taken the path less trodden.

In fact, from unknown seaside resorts to spectacular museums, historic city centres, cathedrals and quirky shopping, the best way to explore France is to turn every motorway dash into a meandering road trip.

Instead of wondering how fast you can get there, plan your journey to take in as many sites and sights as you can. And if it lasts forever, what’s not to like? Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

 

Bayonne

If heading to Spain or Biarritz, stop off in Bayonne, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, famous for its chocolate-making and ham, amongst other things. The foire au jambon (April 13–16) is a particularly good date for ham fans, but actually outside those dates is better if you want to stroll round the fishing port, admire the dark red shutters and half timbering, wander the cobblestone streets of the old town, and find a ‘bodega’ where you can try ‘pintxos’ – delicious tapas.

From July 25-29 the Fêtes de Bayonne attract massive crowds who throng the narrow pedestrianised streets enjoying bands, ...

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