The lockdown brought the chance to explore our local area like never before. Nick Inman has 10 tips to enable you to enjoy new hyperlocal travel discoveries.
A new found appreciation for freedom
One of the big lessons of the lockdown was how much we took our freedom of movement for granted. Before February, we regarded travel as a human right without restrictions. If you had the money, you went as far as you wanted to see the famous sights of the world.
We don’t know whether the right to roam will ever return in its full form but in the meantime we can turn necessity into an opportunity. The 100km restriction taught us to look around us more and, actually, it wouldn’t be a bad thing for us to change our tourism habits.
Sustainable tourism makes a difference
In my capacity as a travel guide writer, I teach a seminar on sustainable tourism at my local university. I don’t say stop travelling to faraway places altogether, just that we need to do less if we are going to heal the planet.
The best contribution you can make is to get to know your surroundings, within walking or cycling distance ideally, but at least within range of a morning or afternoon out by car. I call this “hyperlocal travel”. This country is rich in ordinary extraordinary things to see. From my years trekking around France, I know there is something worth visiting close to wherever you live. Knowing where they are depends largely on your attitude and the way you look.
I’m also involved in a local heritage association and we organise half a dozen excursions a year. At our planning meetings, there is always someone who says “there is nothing worth seeing around here” or “we’ve seen everything” or “we don’t want to go there because it is dull”. Such judgments always turn out to be wrong and we’ve discovered some wonderful places. Almost every week I hear of somewhere new to consider. Sometimes it is no more than a ruin but it could be an immaculate riverside garden that we’ve all been wanting to see.
To teach the technique of awakening hyperlocal tourism, I ask my university students to imagine they have to advise tourists what there is to see in their own city, Tarbes, capital of Hautes-Pyrénées department. In many ways, it is the least promising place for anyone to have to spend an afternoon. They start to get my point when I show them photographs of the decorative brickworks by the railway line that they hadn’t even noticed. It’s an important part of the city’s story worth exploring – that and the bowling alley, which used to be an armaments factory making tank turrets.
Don’t know where to go near you? Think you have thought of everything? Here are 10 ways to uncover hidden gems
1. Go official. The local tourist information office and mairie are obvious places to begin, but the former will only know about sights officially open to the public and the latter only about the immediate vicinity. Both will be good for ideas, at least. Ask any museums near you if they have anything interesting in their vaults, not normally seen by the public.
2. Ask around. You don’t need perfect French to express curiosity about what there might be to see. A little enthusiasm shown to neighbours or people in a cafe earns a lot of goodwill. Get together as a group of friends, or members of an association, and brainstorm: you will be surprised what suggestions come up. Teach yourself history and find out how it applies to your local area. What happened nearby during the Hundred Years’ War, the Wars of Religion, the Revolution, or the two World Wars?
3. Read. French guidebooks will be more detailed in their coverage of your area. Wikipedia France is good for ideas: look under lieux et monuments for each commune near yours. IGN’s large-scale 1:250,000 maps mark many intriguing sights. Books of local walks such as Topo-Guides will also take you to unfrequented places.
4. Go private. Most houses are not open to the public but some are architectural treasures and there are barns that are like folk museums, stocked with antique tools. Owners are often willing and keen to share their passion for their properties, not to mention the many beautiful gardens hidden behind walls, hedges and forbidding gates. An estate agent will know about exceptional houses in the area or you could consult the association Vieilles Maisons Françaises.
5. Don’t underestimate churches. France has an extraordinary number of interesting churches and chapels. Some of them are in unvisited villages or standing alone in the countryside – you just need to track down the key.
6. Don’t overlook the little stuff. There is a whole class of “minor” heritage in France that is almost ignored. It is called petit patrimoine and includes many extraordinary things – wells, weirs, washhouses, mills, mileposts. The delight is in the detail. Visit the website for ideas.
7. Find a local expert. It is not hard to locate someone knowledgeable about some specific facet of the past or of architecture who will show you around a building or a town in return for a small gift, such as a bottle of wine. The place will come alive if you are told stories about it.
8. Learn how people live. It is easy to forget that everyday life can be a tourist attraction. Find out about traditional farming practices. Wine and cheese-making can be fascinating and every local crop has its cultural trappings. Don’t forget where people work. Ask a local factory to show you around. Our heritage association spent a rainy Sunday morning going around a Danone yoghurt factory. It was certainly educational.
9. There is always nature. A corner of the French countryside may look unchanging and unexceptional but it is not. Nature varies enormously and you can make excursions at particular times of year – to see orchids blooming in early summer, or even at night to see the stars. A patch of weeds can tell you a lot about the local soil and land use. It’s fun to learn about edible plants, and the local chemist may well know someone who can take you on a fungi trail through the woods.
10. Keep an eye open. Events such as portes ouvertes (open days) offer new opportunities. There are two heritage days a year when monuments not usually visited are opened to the public – in June and September.