Saturday, July 17, 1999

48 hours in Lille

48 hours in Lille

Just a channel-hop from Dover is a city rich with Flemish architecture, cobbled streets, old masters and mouthwatering 'moules-frites'.

Jeremy Atiyah

Published: 17 July 1999

Lille's weather is almost identical to that of south-eastern England in terms of cloud and rainfall. But in summertime, the pavements are overflowing with cafes and the vernacular facades on the old Flemish buildings of the Grand' Place are at their prettiest. It's not quite the Cote d'Azur but, then again, it's definitely not Kent either.
I travelled as a guest of Thomson Breakaway, whose three-night breaks B&B in the Hotel de la Paix in Lille cost £201 (£212 if departing or returning Fri/Sat/Sun). Prices include transport on Eurostar. For do-it-yourself breaks, staying in (for example) the hotels listed right, the simplest approach for most people will be by Eurostar (0990 186186) which is two hours from London Waterloo (or one hour and 20 minutes from Ashford in Kent). The best current price from London, if booked seven days in advance and staying a Saturday night, is £69 return. If driving your own car, reckon on half a day from anywhere in south-eastern England; less than a day from many other parts of the country.
I stayed at the Hotel de la Paix (00 33 3 20 54 63 93), at 46 bis rue de Paris, a comfy, central place with every room themed to a different artist. Double rooms with showers are FFr390 (£40). Of the cheap places across the road from the old Lille-Flandres Station (not to be confused with the Lille-Europe station used by Eurostar and TGV trains), the Hotel des Voyageurs (00 33 3 20 06 43 14) is one of the best value with double rooms from FFr155 to FFr260 (£16 - £27). For more refinement, try the Carlton (00 33 3 20 13 33 13) overlooking the opera house at 3 rue de Paris. Pavarotti stays here when he is in town, but doubles are still only FFr710 (£73).
The vast Musee des Beaux-Arts (00 33 3 20 06 78 00) at 18 rue de Valmy in the Place de la Republique is another monument to bourgeois Lille and one of the grandest European art galleries you'll find outside a capital city. In towering rooms, masters from Goya to Delacroix to Rubens are all represented. I also enjoyed the Musee d'Art Moderne in the Lille suburb of Villeneuve d'Ascq (1 allee du Musee; 00 33 3 20 19 68 68) where permanent exhibitions include works by Picasso and Modigliani. Get there on the new Metro line.
The Lilleois answer to fast food is moules-frites with beer. The traditional place to enjoy this speciality is Aux Moules at 34 rue de Bethune, where great steaming bowls of mussels and dishes of chips will not cost more than a tenner.
Not in church (Lille is very thin on ecclesiastical properties) but in the fabulous building of the 17th-century Bourse where the Flemish god of money is still very much in evidence. This jewel of the Grand' Place is decorated with Bacchic torsos, bunches of grapes, Spanish towers and busts of great old industrialists and presidents of the chamber of commerce.
If money is no object, I have to suggest L'Huitriere (tel 00 33 3 20 55 43 41) at 3-7 rue des Chats Bossus, which is one of the most elegant fish restaurants in France. The set-menu of about £50 features lobster and other crustacea, though you may need to book weeks or even months in advance. For those on lower budgets, the Brasserie Andre at 71 rue de Bethune is a traditional excellent French brasserie where dinner with plenty of wine will be about £25 per head.
For a fascinating glimpse into the industrial past of the Pas de Calais region, as depicted by Emile Zola in Germinal, visit the coal mines of Lewarde, about 40km away (best access is to take a 25-minute train ride to Douai, then catch a taxi). Tours are guided by ex-miners and include a convincing experience of descending 400m into the mine itself. The mine is open daily from 10am to 5pm and entrance is about £6. For more information call 00 33 3 27 95 82 82.
For the vast majority of visitors from the UK, stepping off a Eurostar train and emerging from the Lille-Europe station, your first sight will be of the strange ski-boot shaped building of Credit Lyonnais, perched on top of the Euralille shopping complex. But a few minutes walk from here, across the bridge with Euralille on your left, will bring you to the centre of town and most of the hotels.
If you have a car, get out to the Cote d'Opale (an hour from Lille) for a day; there are some great walks to be had along the coast, with cliffs and, further south, miles of uninterrupted beaches. From the prominent headlands of Cap Blanc-Nez and Cap Gris-Nez, watch the sea and sky merge into the white cliffs of Dover.
Try Les Trois Brasseurs at 22 place de la Gare (immediately to your left as you emerge from Lille-Flandres train station). The beers are home- brewed in the Flemish style; of the several varieties I liked the blonde which is light but still very organic in flavour. Other varieties include ambree, brune and blanche.
Le Meert at 27 rue Esquermoise, a delightful cobbled street in the old city, is a patisserie-confiserie to die for. Unchanged since 1839, its interior features baroque flourishes and painted wooden tableaux - as well as smells of some of the finest chocolates and cakes on the continent. Gaufres, exquisite sweet, filled waffles, were ordered from this shop by Charles de Gaulle throughout his life.

Sunday, July 11, 1999

Britain has the scones, but the sunshine's overseas.

Britain has the scones, but the sunshine's overseas. So where to holiday? Britain! says Peter Warren, familiarity is relaxing. Softie, says Jeremy Atiyah - nothing beats heat and dust

Peter Warren & Jeremy Atiyah 
Sunday, 11 July 1999
GOING ABROAD to me is about work. It's about running through an airport and being scared to death that I've forgotten something I'm desperately going to need on a job, which I invariably have. Why on earth should I do that for a holiday?
British holidays are just less stressful. If you have forgotten something, or if something goes wrong, it doesn't matter - you can go and buy another one or you can get the help you need. This year the car broke down and I just took it to a garage where they fixed it - imagine doing that with a 1966 Triumph Herald in the middle of Italy. Admittedly language would not be a problem as my girlfriend is Italian although even she would have trouble translating "excessively worn prop-shaft universal joint".
I put my back out as well this year, playing tennis, and I just drove to a local osteopath, who happened to know the man I see in London. It wasn't the big drama it would have been if it had happened abroad, and I didn't have to worry about having forgotten to get travel insurance. You can forget your passport as well. And the currency is the same. You can even use your supermarket reward cards. Honestly, the benefits are endless.
The British countryside is very underrated - it can be spectacularly beautiful. You'd have to travel to Patagonia to get that sense of "I'm at the ends of the earth" you get from the Scottish Highlands. As for Dartmoor, it's one of the most breathtaking places on earth. I go for a fortnight every summer.
The holiday starts when we load the car up and we get so excited, driving with out hats on, the top down whether it's sunny or raining. There's something very Enid Blyton about it all, I admit, but it's not about recapturing my childhood; in fact I think it's the opposite. We never had a car when I was young and our holidays were nothing like this. I think it's about creating the holidays I'd like to have had.
I find knowing a place intimately is profoundly relaxing. I don't feel the pressure to go out and see local sights that I would if I were abroad. I've done all that here - I know every castle and stately home - so if I want to spend a morning vegging out in front of daytime television I can without feeling guilty. The British weather contributes to that feeling. It moderates what you do and takes the stress away - there's not that pressure to sunbathe fiercely. If we do have a hot day we can explore outside, but if it rains we stay in and read that book we always planned to, or listen to Radio 4, or scoff a cream tea.
Perhaps most importantly, our friends can join in. We can have time on our own, as a couple, and then friends can come for the weekend or even for the day and we can entertain them properly, in a house, in the way we never can at home because we haven't got the space or the time. Some of them come every year now and they say that it's because they can't bear to spend two weeks without us, but I know they're lying. Personally I think they need the break to recover from the stress of their holidays abroad.
IF YOU want a holiday in the UK, I've got a suggestion for you. Stay at home. In fact, why don't you stay at work and earn some overtime while you are at it. It will save you all the trouble of having to travel anywhere.
I'm sorry, but this is not a joke. A holiday in the UK strikes me as a sad and horrible contradiction in terms. You go to all the trouble of packing your car, you drive for hours, you finally arrive at your rented cottage by the seaside just as the sun looks like it might be condescending to come out - but then you find a note on the kitchen table requesting that music, children, hot showers, nudity, wine, good food and fun be kept to a minimum. For the sake of the neighbours.
Where did you think you had got to? Capri? Cannes? Or was it Barcelona? You turn on the TV and there's Noel Edmonds pretending to make jokes and the audience pretending to laugh. You open a newspaper and discover that John Prescott has been condemning the rail companies again. Then you go shopping for groceries: to Sainsbury's perhaps, to buy a jar of sauce and some frozen chicken for the microwave. Finally, come the evening, you pop in at the local pub only to be punched in the face by a young man who needs several centuries of intensive therapy. You apologise to him for his displeasure whilst repressing your desire to ram a shopping trolley down his throat. Oh dear. And then you remember that the whole point of going on holiday was to get away from all this.
I'm not denying that there is beautiful countryside in the UK. It's just that the culture is so depressingly familiar. When you've gone to the trouble of getting on to a plane, do you really want to get off an hour later and find that everybody is still saying "d'you mind?" and talking about the latest episode of Trisha? I don't. I want to get off planes and smell sexy foreign coffee and hear the jabber of sexy foreign languages. I want to hang out with people who were born with sun-tans and cool sun- glasses. I want to see corrupt policemen and funny Italian cars reversing up one-way streets. I want to be really hot: so hot that I can sleep all afternoon under a fan and nothing and nobody is going to wake me.
Call it snobbery if you like, but I don't know many people who would stay in the UK for their holiday if they had any choice about it. A few xenophobic toffs will insist on going to their upcountry mansions where they will poke about their wet and stormy moors by themselves. But the poor sods who end up in Blackpool every summer are there only because they can't afford to go abroad. If they had the money would they really sit in teashops at Formica-topped tables eating dreary scones and disgusting clotted cream, looking out over beachfronts covered in dog muck and chip wrappings? Of course they wouldn't. They would sit on terraces in Tuscany quaffing Chianti and breathing in the scent of wild herbs, watching the sun set over cypress trees and golden hillsides. As any sensible person would.

Can too much travel be unhealthy?

Can too much travel be unhealthy? Not really, but there are some people who persist in taking things a bit too far

I've got a friend who loves travel so much that he's thinking of going into a clinic, or even having an operation.

His wanderlust is so bad that he finds it impossible to form stable relationships or to hold down a steady job. He says that he can't help it. Every time he has ever tried to get an office job of any description he has always disappeared around Thursday lunchtime of the first week, only to materialise a couple of days later on the phone to his therapist from Bali.

His ex-wife tried hiding his travel documents for a while, but that just encouraged him to make multiple passport applications. To judge by the bundle of passports he still carries with him at all times, he seems to have at least five grandparents, including Swiss, Irish, Canadian, Burmese and Colombian.

He joined Travellers Anonymous for a while but that only made things worse. Meetings always degenerated into opportunities for swapping guide- books and exchanging favourite travel anecdotes. After one disastrous session he ended up copping off with a beautiful Israeli Arab girl with whom he ended up eloping to West Africa before they split up in acrimony on the question of whether to travel up or down the Niger River.

It is not as though he hasn't tried to sort out his problems. Last year he actually managed to get a job (cleaning planes at Gatwick Airport) and he stuck at it valiantly for a few months. Then the inevitable happened: he was found hiding in the toilet of a British Airways 747 bound for Buenos Aires shortly after takeoff. When the case came to trial he made legal history by being acquitted on the grounds of diminished responsibility due to travel addiction.

People suggested that he try to find a job in the travel industry, to put his obsession to good use. Travel writer perhaps? He tried that for a while but was soon to be heard complaining that he had not been born to travel at the beck and call of other people.
There is a $1,000-a-day clinic in Palm Springs, California, which he thought he wanted to attend last year. Their regime to cure travel addiction is designed to bore participants out of travel, by exposing them a series of 12-hour rote-learning sessions in a local dialect of Quechua. They are then required to recite by heart the names of every village in China with a population of more than 500.

My friend could never raise the cash, though. His latest obsession is that he was born with a gene defect which means that he sees all human beings as equally important, hence his desire to spend equal amounts of time proportionately in every part of the world. He claims to know a doctor who can perform a small operation on his brain that will rid him of this defect once and for all. I asked him where this doctor worked and he told me that he wasn't sure but that he thought it might be somewhere in the upper reaches of the Yangtse River. He'll be looking into it, I believe.

Saturday, July 10, 1999



Saturday, 10 July 1999
France was the most popular short-break destination last year among Britons. And now that summer's here at last, Anglo-French relations are getting warmer by the minute. Simon O'Hagan has challenged the experts to share their secrets. Retreat to a gite, chill out in the Alps, dive into the blue
waters of Corsica, or throw your cares - and clothes - to the wind on a naturist trip. Allez-y, les amis!
This week's 50 Best was compiled with the help of: Jeremy Atiyah, travel editor of The Independent and Independent on Sunday; John Lichfield, Paris Correspondent of The Independent and Independent on Sunday; Kathryn McWhirter, wine writer; Amanda Kavalet, editor of Le Guide du Routard, France's leading travel guide; Sebastian Faulks, novelist and Francophile; and the invaluable Tony Woods. For more information on French breaks, contact the French Tourist Office at 178 Piccadilly, London W1 (0891 244123). Their Traveller in France is an invaluable guide to self-catering and tour operators in France.
Dedicated ski bums should make tracks to Tignes, 3,000 metres up in the Alps, which keeps up to 30 runs open throughout the summer. Get your ski legs on sweeping blue runs before tackling a range of reds and blacks. "Snowboarding in the morning, lounging in the sun in the afternoon - the scene here in mid-summer is like the easy-going lifestyle of the Caribbean," says Jeremy Atiyah.
Who's going: easyJet (0870 6000 000), around pounds 78 return to Geneva; for accommodation, contact Val Hotel (00 334 79061890), or self-catering chalet Balcon des Brevieres, in adjacent village Tignes-Les-Brevieres (0171-610 1929); day ski passes around FF140.
John Lichfield's favourite example of "empty" France is the Creuse region, in the West (main town Aubusson). "Mile after mile of rolling hills and fields," he says, "and little towns that haven't changed for decades. No real tourist attractions, which is an attraction in itself." Rent a gite in a village for immersion in a rural life that's all but disappeared in England. Listen out for barn owls, learn traditions from locals, send children off to the boulangerie for picnic essentials and rudimentary language lessons.
Who's going: Brittany Ferries gites brochure (0990 143537); weekly rentals from pounds 300 high season.
France celebrates opera with a wealth of houses and festivals around the country. Particularly feted is Aix-en-Provence's prestigious annual July offering, which attracts stars from around the world, and has strong associations with pioneering British composer and conductor John Eliot Gardner. This year's works include Offenbach's La Belle Helene and perennial Mozart favourites The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni.
Who's going: JMB Travel Consultants (01905 425628); opera weekends in Aix (trips, too, to Lyon, Monte Carlo & Nice) for pounds 519 incl flights, half- board & tickets.
For all the events of 1789, France has not lost its royal roots, and you'll find them in the numerous chateaux that dot the Loire valley and are full of the treasures of the pre-Revolutionary era. Kathryn McWhirter adores the bustling town of Angers, with its medieval tapestries, while John Lichfield recommends the "charming chateau" at Blois, an irresistible, quirky mix of Renaissance, Gothic, classical and medieval.
Who's going: Page & Moy (0116-2507000); do a five-night tour of chateaux for pounds 399 incl flights & accommodation.
Taking to the waters is big in France - even former French rugby star Serge Blanco has his own thalassotherapy centre, near Biarritz. We recommend Brittany, where Belle-Ile, the largest of the Breton islands, is one of the most attractive centres offering the cleanse-and-purify treatment. Wallow in mud and salt-water baths and discover the joys of seaweed (upmarket beauty-therapy company Thalgo harvests its seaweed here). Thalassotherapy is acquiring a younger image; it's become a very popular way to reinvigorate yourself.
Who's going: Hotel Castel Thalasso, Belle-Ile, Brittany (00332 97318015); approx pounds 490 a week, full board.
A dream holiday for the experienced rider whose love of the great outdoors extends to spending nights under canvas. Local horseman Roland Bec takes groups of about 10 along the rocky trails of the Languedoc, inland from the Mediterranean, rising to the Larzac plateau and then down through the pine-scented hills of the Monts d'Orb. Luggage and a mobile kitchen are brought on each day, with tents to sleep in during high summer, gites at other times of the year.
Who's going: Ride World Wide (0171-735 1144), pounds 455 for an eight-night tour, excl flights (Montpellier).
As a cost-saving way of immersing the family in the French way of life, house-swapping is popular, especially in cities. While a family might balk at the cost of a fortnight in a Paris hotel, the prospect of staying for free in someone else's home is appealing. Sebastian Faulks, who has lived in France, delights in the idea, but warns of dodgy French plumbing: "It's a ludicrous cliche, I know, but the fact is they just haven't cracked it."
Who's going: Intervac (01225 892208); an annual fee of pounds 80 gets you a list of thousands of properties and access to a viewing website.
Last year's World Cup educated many in the joys of watching football in France. Internationals are played at the fabulous new Stade de France in St Denis, just north of Paris. But best for atmosphere is Lens, only an hour's drive from Calais, currently boasting one of France's top teams. "There's a passion at Lens you don't find at other French grounds," says John Lichfield. Catch Le Shuttle at around 2pm and be back in London by 2am.
Who's going: Fan Fare Events (0161-437 0002) runs trips to the big clubs (eg Marseilles, around pounds 350 incl travel, tickets & lodging). The French Football League (00 331 53653800) has details of clubs & fixtures.
It may be extinct, but the mysterious, desolate volcanic region of the Auvergne still has awesome appeal; former French president Giscard d'Estaing is even planning a volcano theme park for his home town of Clermont-Ferrand. The Puy de Dome, at 1,416m the hightest peak in the area, is a must. Take the toll road or one of the trails to the top for extensive views. "It's a very strange place," says John Lichfield. "Dark mountains with flattened tops like you've never seen anywhere else."
Who's going: VFB (01242 240340) has gites in the Auvergne for pounds 253-pounds 500 per week incl travel.
Forget Le Crillon in Paris and the film stars' favourite Hotel Cap in Cap Ferrat. For luxury with a difference, we recommend the fabulous Hotel de la Cite in the walled, medieval city of Carcassonne, in the Western Midi. Built in 1909, its 50 rooms and 11 apartments overlook the river Aude and Pyrenean peaks, with antique, gothic furnishings and plenty of tapestries. It's the last word in discreet opulence, with prices to match.
Who's going: Hotel de la Cite, Carcassonne (00 334 68719871), Jun-Sept around pounds 695 for three nights in a double room. Or try Elegant Resorts (01244 897777); approx pounds 1,190 per person per week in high season.
To say that Biarritz was the Newquay of France would be to undersell the charms of this classic turn-of-the-century resort to which beach boys and girls flock in search of the best surf in Europe. "The beaches here are fantastic," says Amanda Kavalet. Or head north to Lacanau, near Bordeaux, where the 20ft-plus waves make this a prime site for the world surfing championships.
Who's going: return flights to Bordeaux from pounds 170. Or try Lagoondy surf camp at Bidart, southwest of Biarritz (00 335, which costs pounds 400 a week incl food, accommodation & tuition.
"Camping holidays in France are like drugs," says Jeremy Atiyah. "A lot more people are secretly addicted to them than you would ever guess." Which is why companies like Eurocamp, which has about 100 sites and reckons to sell about two thirds of all camping holidays to France, have become such big business. The Var, on the Mediterranean, and the Vendee and Les Landes, inland from the Atlantic, are the country's most popular camping destinations, and the best-equipped sites make it possible to live quite luxuriously under canvas.
Who's going: Eurocamp (01606 787878); around pounds 889 a fortnight for two adults & a number of children for a fortnight at Royan, nr La Rochelle, on the coast (incl Dover-Calais crossing & tents).
"If you haven't been to Corsica, then you must," says John Lichfield. "You might expect a dry Mediterranean landscape, but, in fact, some of it is very lush. It reminded me of Scotland. Definitely one of the most beautiful parts of France I've ever been to." Follow winding trails up to the hill villages, many of which date back 1,000 years. In an effort to retain younger inhabitants, grants have been offered to artisans, with the result that, in some areas, musical and crafts societies are flourishing. Details of summer concerts in the Haute-Balagne area are available from the Calvi tourist office (00 334 95651667).
Who's going: Corsican Places (01424 460046), a choice of four or five houses to rent in the Corsican hills, from pounds 291 a week in high season.
Think of a classic French garden, and the lilies of Monet's Giverny may spring to mind. But very different, and no less fabulous gardens exist along the Riviera, many of them created by British people in the 19th century. Monte Carlo, Grasse, Antibes and Menton are all stops on a week-long Page & Moy gardens tour that would make even Charlie Dimmock's eyes stand out on stalks. A highlight is the Foundation Ephrussi de Rothschild at St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, home to the collections of Baroness Rothschild and some artefacts associated with Marie Antoinette.
Who's going: Page & Moy (0116-2507000); around pounds 845 per person for a week's tour, incl flights, half-board accommodation.
Slip into your leathers and head for roads that don't come much more open than those in France. "There are stretches of motorway with so few cars they are almost like test tracks," says biker Gerard Gilbert, who owns a home in Normandy. "From vast prairies to twisting mountain climbs, France has everything. It's also pretty devoid of hedgerow, so you can see what's coming for some distance ahead."
Who's going: MCi Tours (0161-941 2121) has a three-day tour departing 9 Sept, passing through Dijon & the Ardeche Gorge, returning via Sisteron & Grenoble, for pounds 345 per person, inc ferry crossing & B&B.
French is home to some of the most varied wildlife in Europe, providing many splendid opportunities for getting out the binoculars. Join one of the trekking parties that head for the Pyrenees to seek out the chamois (a cross between a goat and a deer) or the rarer ibex; and keep your eyes peeled for golden eagles and griffon vultures, ring ouzels and lammergeiers. "In some way the Pyrenees are more beautiful than the Alps," says John Lichfield. "Because it's further south there's much more vegetation."
Who's going: Wildlife Worldwide (0181-6679158); eight-day tours for around pounds 645 per person (pounds 95 single supplement) incl food & accommodation, or four-day weekends for pounds 525.
Away from the French mainland lies an entirely different world. The Ile d'Yeu, the Ile de Re and Ile d'Oleron, all on the west coast, are old-fashioned havens of calm, where the bicycle is king and mass tourism has been kept in check. The alluvial 28km-long Ile de Re, accessible by a 2km-long bridge from La Rochelle, is a popular destination for the Parisian bourgeoisie, while the smaller, granite Ile d'Yeu, 17km out to sea, attracts mainly fishermen. "Wonderful beaches and sailing," recalls Sebastian Faulks. The perfect family holiday.
Who's going: take a Brittany Ferry (0990 360360) to St Malo. The Hotel de la Maree, at Rivedoux Plage on the Ile de Re (bookable through VFB on 01242 240340), is recommended.
If fashion's your forte, grab your passport and pashmina and make a date with Paris Fashion Week. Next Saturday, design divas will witness the new couture collections, while pret-a-porter ranges will make their catwalk debut on 3 October. For light relief between shows, cruise ave Montaigne in the 8th for the luscious likes of Prada and Ines de la Fressange.
Who's going: Marie France Inc. do a packaged fashion tour of Paris visiting the shows, with hotels starting at pounds 75 a night. E-mail them at or visit their website, www.mariefranceinc.
Last year's 80th anniversary of the Armistice, plus Saving Private Ryan, boosted interest in the battlefields and war cemeteries of northern France. All the sites - from the Normandy landing beaches to the Belgian cemetries - are within an easy drive of the Channel ports, so most people travel independently, but there are organised tours. "Verdun is well worth a visit," says Sebastian Faulks. "You can go inside two French forts which have been preserved from the First World War. They are very spooky." For Second World War history, he recommends Vichy, the spa town from which Marshall Petain ruled. "Big hotels around a sandy central square, not many tourists, and very good food."
Who's going: specialists Holts Tours (01304 612248); four-day trips around pounds 400 incl half board & travel.
The stresses of modern life have been a boon to retreat holidays, and the Devon-based Ashburton Clinic, which organises retreats all over the world, has one at Villa Sausses Nord in the newly fashionable Gascony region. Set amid sunflower fields and rolling hills, it offers the perfect haven in which to try a range of disciplines from yoga to shiatsu, pottery to creative writing.
Who's going: Ashburton Clinic (01364 652784) one-week courses throughout Jul & Aug at pounds 345 per person, excl travel. Charter flights from Heathrow to Toulouse from pounds 168.50 return.
The fashion for rambling means there is no excuse for not strapping on your boots and exploring some of Europe's most beautiful landscapes, ranging from volcanic undulations of the Auvergne to rhododhendron trails in the Pyrenees. Try the Jura, the little-known mountain range northeast of Geneva, the gentle hills and green valleys of the Lot, or the Cevennes. "The Cevennes are as wild as Scotland, but with a couple of advantages," says Jeremy Atiyah. "The food and the wine."
Who's going: HF Holidays (0181-905 9558) has seven nights (incl flights) from around pounds 475. Ramblers' Holidays (01707 331133) are a leading specialist who offer two-week walking holidays to the Cevennes for pounds 630 incl half board & travel.
Who will be with us as we munch our Coco Pops this morning? Dumbo? Tigger? Disneyland Paris, opened in 1992, has 12 million visitors a year, and the "character breakfast" is one of the most popular experiences on offer. A "multi-sensory misadventure" is a recent addition to the 50 or so rides, shows and attractions that appeal to the five-year-old in all of us (or not, as the case might be). Everything's on site, including six hotels and its own railway station, Marne La Vallee, served directly by Eurostar from Waterloo.
Who's going: Disneyland Paris (0990 030303); two nights for two adults & two children staying at the Newport Bay Club is pounds 816, incl breakfast, park passes & Eurostar travel.
Amateur painters will feel at home in France; nowhere more so than at the holiday centre in Roquebrune-sur-Argens near St Raphael, inland from the Mediterranean. Draw inspiration from the glorious location on the edge of the Esturel national park, a striking red-stone landscape, and the Plaine du Var, on a week-long painting course. Other educational delights are also on offer: improve your French language, or take a course in "cultural discovery".
Who's going: week-long painting courses through specialists LSG (01509 231713) cost from pounds 535, incl full board & tuition.
France has some of the oldest examples of human civilisation in Europe, with cave paintings dating back 25,000 years. While many sites are too precious to allow visitors access, some of those in the Dordogne, numbering among the most richly decorated in Europe, may be visited through upmarket travel operator Andante. In the company of a lecturer, you'll discover the red and black outlines of ibex and extinct megaceros, plus paintings of mammoth and dappled horses. Cromagnifique!
Who's going: Andante Travels (01980 610555) offers one-week cave-painting tours for around pounds 1,050 per person incl accom, transport & meals.
You don't need to know your jib from your mainsail; just worry about looking the part as you stretch out on deck and your 80-foot ketch glides along the Cote d'Azur. That's one of the holidays offered by Peter Deilmann River and Ocean Tours. "This would be my dream holiday," says Amanda Kavalet. A crew of 25 cater for the whims of up to 50 passengers, ensuring plain sailing for a deluxe clientele.
Who's going: Peter Deilmann River and Ocean Tours (0171-436 2931); from pounds 1,508 per person for a week (two sharing a cabin), incl flight to Nice, transfers & insurance.
Robust food, unlimited wine and a glorious tan... If this sounds like the perfect break, head for Bordeaux in September, where willing workers will find hard but rewarding graft among the vineyards, wielding secateurs and carrying baskets. Check if food and lodging is deducted from your wages, in which case consider bringing your own tent. "It was the toughest work I've ever done," recalls a one-time grape-picker, "but I enjoyed it for the camaraderie, the wonderful peasant food and the feeling of being physically exhausted. I left very fit and healthy, and fluent in colloquial French."
Who's going: contact the Agence Nationale pour l'Emploi (ANPE;, or French Tourist Information (0891 244123), or look in Summer Jobs Abroad 99 (Vacation Work Publications, pounds 7.19).
The Cote Granit Rose is one of the prettiest stretches of the northern Brittany coast. There, on a headland above the little resort of Trebeurden, is a hotel of immense charm. The Ti Al Lannac is a country-house hotel that is old-fashioned but not stuffy, with a dining room that looks straight out across the sea and serves memorable food. A great place for children, with its own beach at the bottom of the cliff.
Who's going: Ti Al Lannac (00 332 96150101); Brittany Ferries (0990 360360) to St Malo, then a two-hour drive. Apartments for two adults & two children cost from pounds 230 a night half-board (no weekly rates).
It's all here - from old favourites like the awesome Louvre (forget the Mona Lisa and discover the Egyptian section) and intimate Rodin museum, plus the Impressionists paradise Musee d'Orsay and the quirky, excellent Picasso museum. As the recent sell-out Rothko show at the Musee de l'Art Moderne illustrated, Paris still gets many big exhibitions of visiting art that London misses out on: equip youself with a museum pass and some comfortable shoes, and prepare for sensual overload.
Who's going: Eurostar weekend return pounds 89 (0990 186186); Eurostar Holidays Direct (0870 167 6767) will also arrange a hotel (two sharing from pounds 143 for two nights). Visit the tourist info office at 127 av des Champs Elysees for a Carte Musees et Monuments, valid for around 65 museums.
In the far southwest of France, Lourdes is still one of the most important Christian pilgrimage centres in Europe. Founded on the spot in which the Virgin Mary appeared to peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous in 1858, it's now a haven for canny stallholders selling everything from flashing madonnas to hologram Christs. But Lourdes is still a strangely moving place: invalids seeking miracles join in nightly torchlit processions, while the underground basilica, which can hold 20,000 people, is simply awesome.
Who's going: St Peter's Pilgrims (0181-244 8844) have eight-day tours incl flights & full board from pounds 409.
Casinos abound all the way along the coast from Nice to St Tropez. You don't have to be mega-rich to go in (though it helps), but you do need to look the part. In some places, jacket and tie are more or less obligatory, but far from being restricting, dressing up is part of the fun. The casino in Monte Carlo is one of France's most stunning buildings, a palatial extravaganza of fine antiques and decor which you can visit without going anywhere near a roulette wheel.
Who's going: British Airways return to Nice from pounds 146 (0990 444000 or 0345 664477 for special offers); easyJet (0870 600 0000) around pounds 108.
French rivers can be magical places, around which life revolves in timeless fashion, and canoeing is one of the best ways to discover them. The river Creuse (see "France Profonde", No 2) takes you past chateaux and through wooded gorges, while the wilder Ardeche is wonderful canoeing country for those who like a challenge. Beginners should try the Dordogne, where Headwater have an eight-day round trip starting from St Julien, passing lots of caverns and gorges on the way.
Who's going: Headwater (01606 813333) eight-night trip on river Creuse, incl travel & half board, for pounds 439.
Boundless energy and constant demands can make children a drain on a summer break. With this in mind, Esprit Holidays have designed a summer holiday in the French Alps (Morzine or Chamonix) to suit all family members. For three days, kids are spirited away, fully supervised, to try everything from mountain biking to rock climbing, leaving parents free to chill out. There's a nursery for toddlers, and nature trails to occupy four- to six- year-olds. How you organise the rest of your week is up to you. Accommodation is in chalets, and the air and scenery are fantastic.
Who's going: Esprit Holidays (01252 616789), adults from pounds 328 incl Channel crossing & accommodation; two- to 17-year-olds go half-price.
An institution, the Tour de France may have been tainted by a drugs scandal last year, but it remains a key event in the French cultural calendar. Averaging 25mph, cyclists cover more than 2,000 miles in three weeks, passing through towns and villages in a celebration of national identity. An estimated 17 million fans witness the race from the roadside: the most dramatic vantage points are at the top of the most celebrated climbs - at Alpe d'Huez in the Alps and the Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrenees. The Tour is entering its second week today, with the Alpine and Pyrenees stages still to come.
Who's going: for up-to-date info on the Tour, visit the website
Fontevraud, about 10 miles southeast of Saumur, in the Loire, is the site of a 12th-century monastic complex that's one of France's most renowned national monuments. Here lie the regal remains of Richard the Lionheart, and writer Jean Genet was one famous inmate during the abbey's incarnation as a prison. Within the complex, the Hostellerie du Prieure St Lazare offers 52 rooms - the decor is described as sober - and as contemplative an atmosphere as you could wish for, with a small orchard and a herb garden.
Who's going: Hostellerie du Prieure St Lazare (00 332 41517316); dinner, B&B for two sharing is FF750. VFB (01242 240340) offer packages incl Channel crossings, eg pounds 814 for a couple for seven nights.
For the extravagant man and woman's thalassotherapy, the ultimate health farm is probably at the five-star Domaine du Royal Club Evian, located in the town where the water comes from. Can something this luxurious really be good for you? A vast range of cures is on offer, including saunas, plunge pools and mud and seaweed treatments. A one-week Tonic course includes a daily massage, full accommodation and breakfast and dinner.
Who's going: Elegant Resorts (01244 897777) pounds 1,326 per person includes flights to & from Geneva and transfers to the health farm.
France is a golfer's dream destination. Course-building has been a boom industry in recent years, so there are hundreds to choose from, and relatively few people wanting to get on them. Sebastian Faulks has a theory about why the courses are so underused. "I think the French were drawn to golf by what they saw as `le style anglais'. Then they discovered that it's harder than it looks." Courses, he says, are much more "designed" than those in, say, Scotland or Ireland, accommodating moderate players without boring the plus fours off the experts.
Who's going: Golf in France (01737 211818) do a range of golfing holidays, from around pounds 234 incl two nights B&B & ferry crossing for two people in one car.
When this, the original all-inclusive holiday, got going 49 years ago, you stayed in army tents and enjoyed, if that is the word, the simple life. It's rather more luxurious now, as you can discover at any of the 15 Club Med centres in France, where the food and wine (included in the price) are notably good. Try La Lavandou on the Mediterranean coast, where the communal spirit is still intact, and everything's on site, including a children's club and a wide range of activities, among them tennis, golf, water sports and even dance tuition.
Who's going: a week at La Lavandou Club Med (0171-581 1161 for bookings, 01455 852202 for brochures) costs about pounds 1,500 for a family of four excl flights.
There's still nowhere better in the world for seeing how wine is made, and for "degustation". From Burgundy and the Loire to Bordeaux and the Rhone, wine is the route to all France. Of many wine-tour specialists, we like Arblaster & Clarke. "They are very good people who really know their stuff, and have the best wine tours going," says Kathryn McWhirter. She does point out that visitors to caves are expected to buy at least a case of wine; purchase of the odd bottle or two will not be too highly regarded.
Who's going: Arblaster & Clarke (01730 893344), a week's Sancerre & Chablis tour for pounds 999 per person incl travel, most food & acommodation; or go it alone with Michael Busselle's Discovering the Country Vineyards of France (Pavilion Books).
Anyone with princely pretentions will appreciate the delights of chateau accommodation. The publication Bienvenue au Chateau lists 114 chateaux and grand private homes, many with splendid grounds, offering dinner cooked with produce from the kitchen gardens. One has the comtesse herself doubling as a historian and local tour guide. Another assures you that the ghost of a knight will appear in the tower "on Tuesdays".
Who's going: Bienvenue au Chateau is available from the French Tourist Board; places from 350FF to 1,000FF a night for a double room incl breakfast.
One of the best ways to view rural France is from the comfort of a TGV. It's a holiday in itself. SNCF has attractive deals offering unlimited travel over a set period. Trains are clean, air-conditioned and fast, with buffet bars to make BR regulars weep, though dining cars are rare. Jeremy Atiyah says: "Few Brits who have sat in trains speeding soundlessly aross France at 300kmph can avoid a sense of shame about the state of their own rail network."
Who's going: Rail Europe (0990 848848) has Eurodomino tickets permitting unlimited second-class travel on any three days in a month for pounds 119 for over-26s, pounds 99 for under-26s; any eight days in a month, pounds 239 or pounds 189 (small supplement for TGVs).
Famous for its semi-wild horses, the Camargue is also one of the most important areas for birdlife in Europe, home to the rosy-hued greater flamingo and thousands of waders. Early September is the best time to visit this 85,000-hectare national park at the heart of the vast Rhone delta, when indigenous flocks are swelled by migratory birds. Even if you are less than passionate about ornithology, the Camargue is still one of the most magical regions of France - with a wonderful beach at Les Stes-Maries de la Mer.
Who's going: Limosa Holidays (01263 578143), an eight-day bird-watching tour to the Camargue & Pyrenees in Sept, incl flights, meals & accommodation, for around pounds 1,195.
There are few better ways of seeing France than at the sedate pace of a barge as it chugs along the Canal du Midi from Carcassonne to Beziers, in the midst of the Herault wine-growing region. "This is the nearest thing to experiencing the world of impressionist painting," says Amanda Kavalet. "The perfect holiday for those who like to be on the water but don't want the hustle and bustle of coastal resorts." Eurowaterways has a fleet of converted Dutch trading hulls accommodating up to 12 passengers and crew, and if a few days afloat have you craving dry land, use the bicycles on board for brief excursions along the 60-mile route.
Who's going: Eurowaterways (01784 482439) have week-long barge trips for approx pounds 1,400 per person (excl flights).
Putting on an apron was never so exciting as on day one of learning to cook - or refining culinary skills - in the kitchen of a beautiful old farmhouse in the small Burgundy town of Grancey-le-Chateau. Tuition is by English chef Penny Easton and her French counterpart, Michel Robolin, with the emphasis on learning the art of "classic, but not heavy" Fench cooking. A day out to the market at Dijon is a highlight. There are also visits to Beaune and local caves. You stay in the farmhouse and eat the food you've cooked yourself.
Who's going: a week's course, incl food, accommodation & travel, is pounds 795 (01304 841136).
For those living in southeast England, northern France is almost as convenient a place as Cornwall in which to witness this historic moment - the solar eclipse on 11 August. The "totality" line crosses the Channel into France on the Normandy coast between Le Havre and Dieppe and continues in a south-easterly direction towards Beauvais and on to Alsace. John Lichfield says: "There has been a lot of interest here and a Normandy hotels are being booked up. My advice would be to try to stay nearby and then drive into the area of total eclipse."
Who's going: book now for Le Shuttle (0990 353535), as demand is already heavy on 10 & 11 Aug; pounds 159 return for car & passengers.
For that flawless all-over tan, there's only one way to go. Get your kit off in the naturist resort of Cap d'Agde for a holiday that caters for everyone. This purpose-built resort on the Mediterranean has restaurants and cafes, bars and a disco, the history of Cathar-stronghold Carcassonne nearby, and every sport you could ever want. It's not all naked pleasure, however; most guests, according to operator Sunlovers Emsdale, slip into something a little more demure for dinner.
Who's going: Sunlovers Emsdale (01708 472715) do one or two week holidays from pounds 380 per person, incl transport, self-catering accommodation & use of the pool & club house facilities.
One good excuse for visiting Corsica is the opportunity it offers for sub-aqua diving. Explore the crystalline Mediterranean waters that team with sealife, then relax in sandy bays infused with the scent of pine trees. The centre for sub-aqua is Bonifacio, on the southern tip of the island. John Lichfield recommends it as a fascinating and beautiful old port with steep, narrow streets.
Who's going: Corsican Places (01424 460046) offers extensive diving in the waters off Bonifacio, incl tuition, travel, accomodation & equipment, for pounds 555
Cycling is so much part of the fabric of French life that climbing on to the saddle is one of the best ways to acquire a sense of belonging. Brittany is great cycling territory for all the family - neither too hilly nor too flat and boring. "The fabulous thing about cycling holidays in France is breezing past queues of frustrated car drivers waiting to board or disembark from cross-channel ferries," says Jeremy Atiyah.
Who's going: European Bike Express (01642 251440) transport cyclists & bikes between dozens of pick-up points. For organised tours, try Cycling for Softies (0161-248 8282); their easiest holiday is seven nights in Mayenne, south of Normandy, for pounds 616 high season, incl half board, bikes & guide.
Much more than a theme park, Futuroscope: le Parc Europeen de l'Image, just north of Poitiers, is a scientific research and educational centre that also offers visitors such dazzling attractions as 360-degree movies, a cinema screen the size of a seven-storey building, laser displays, and journeys into virtual reality. You can stay for days.
Who's going: Futuroscope (0033 5 49493080); one-day entry is 195FF, three days 390FF. The nearby Novotel (00 335 49499191) has a package comprising one night plus two-day entry to the park for 975FF.
A Nadfas (National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies) tour of Aquitaine and Gascony provides the chance to see an extraordinary range of art - from Roman sculptures in Toulouse to works by Toulouse- Lautrec in the artist's birthplace, Albi. The tour, for a week in October, also takes in Carcassonne, Foix, Flaran, Moissac, Auch and Cahors, and comes complete with lecturer. Sebastian Faulks confesses he is no expert in French ecclesiastical architecture, but has visited Moissac and says he would be "happy to recommend" the cloisters in the Romanesque abbey there.
Who's going: Cox & Kings (0171-873 5027) handle Nadfas tours. The one to Aquitane & Gascony costs pounds 775 incl travel & accommodation.
A great way to see the Pont du Gard at Avignon - built by the Romans in 19 BC and one of the wonders of antiquity - is from the deck of a luxury cruiser as it makes its stately progress down the Rhone. Peter Deilmann River and Ocean Cruises offers a week-long round-trip from Lyon that takes in both the Rhone and the Saone, stopping at, among other places, Macon, Arles and Vienne, with the option of various excursions along the way.
Who's going: depending on the location of your cabin & whether you share or not, high-season seven-night cruises with Peter Deilmann (0171-436 2931) cost between pounds 1,170 & pounds 1,574, excl flights.