The French Countryside: A Discovery Guide

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Do you wonder what lies beyond Paris? Industrial estates? High-rise blocks? Commercial zones? The least that I say about the people of France is that they are quite lucky. For the French countryside offers an amazing playground for holidaymakers and city dwellers in search of serenity. In this article, I invite you to an armchair discovery of the stunning countryside of France. Together we’ll travel across the country, from the Paris region to Lorraine, the Dordogne and Provence.

 

 

What does the French countryside look like?

As a French native who had lived in the French countryside, I have a clear understanding of what really is rural France.

This did not stop me from doing a bit of research on the topic.

And to be frank with you, I was quite bemused to read from a few bloggers (mostly American, no offense!) on the subject.

I did read some interesting posts… many mentioned Colmar, Annecy, and Chamonix as top French countryside-destinations.

If Monsieur Tout-le-Monde (any ordinary Frenchman) was reading them, he would surely gasp a “HEIN?!” as his eyes would widen and eyebrows lift.

The fact is that they are middle-sized towns that are not associated with “la campagne“.

And cerise sur le gateau (icing on the cake!), some only depict the countryside of France through rose-coloured glasses… how many of us have seen these beautiful staged photos of girls in pretty dresses walking in a field of blooming lavender?

Lavender field in Provence @edric via Twenty20

Lavender field in Provence @edric via Twenty20

Although living in the French countryside could well be a great experience, it can also come with challenges (think about the funny Provençal stories of Peter Mayle!). It’s just about finding a balanced way when describing life in rural France.

And yes, we’re allowed to dream a little!

French countryside: Lavender Field in Provence © French Moments

Staging our little girl Aimée in lavender fields!! © French Moments

What is French countryside?

In fact it might well be that the perception of Anglo-saxon bloggers on the French countryside is really different from that of the French.

It is quite possible that the root of the problem is semantic!

I’m pretty sure they wanted to talk about what is there beyond Paris. And so, how do we call it?

The countryside of France?

Well, not exactly.

For you’ll find some very large cities there: Lyon, Marseille, Lille, Bordeaux, Toulouse… and it might cause offense to their inhabitants if you come and say that they’re people living in rural France.

In fact, these bloggers couldn’t find the word they wanted to describe it.

We do have a special word in the French language:

La Province!

(not to be confused with Provence…)

La campagne française

In French, countryside is la campagne. It is used in opposition to:

  • la ville (the city or the town),
  • la mer (the seaside),
  • and la montagne (the mountain).

Therefore Chamonix in the Alps or the seaside villages of the French Riviera are not in the countryside as French people understand it.

Think more about rolling hills covered with fields, pastures or forests.

French countryside in Burgundy © French Moments

Late afternoon light onto rural Burgundy (view from Mont de Sène) © French Moments

The bell tower of a church that indicates the presence of a village half-hidden in the lush green backdrop.

French countryside near Toul, Lorraine © French Moments

Village of Sanzey near Toul, Lorraine © French Moments

The rural land is dotted with ponds, lakes, canals, and rivers.

French countryside: the Dordogne River at Beynac © French Moments

The view of the Dordogne River from the castle of Beynac © French Moments

Lavender fields.

French countryside: lavender fields near Sault, Provence © French Moments

Lavender fields in the Pays de Sault, Provence © French Moments

Sunflower fields.

Sunflower field in France @Julien132a via Twenty20

Sunflower field in France @Julien132a via Twenty20

Poppy fields.

The countryside of France: poppy field in Burgundy © French Moments

Poppy field in Burgundy © French Moments

Tall trees lining the country roads.

French Countryside: D99 road leading to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence © French Moments

The D99 road leading to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence © French Moments

Now I’m sure I’ve made you dream! 🙂

No wonder that for decades holidaymakers have been irresistibly drawn to the peaceful atmosphere that reigns in the fields of France.

How to describe the French countryside?

You see, France has a thousand faces.

No other country of its size offers such a variety of landscapes as in France.

There is a multitude of diverse landscapes, which yet are “France”.

Here old customs and costumes linger to the delight of the curious explorer!

Saint-Rémy-de-Provence © French Moments

In the old town of Saint-Rémy-de-P. © French Moments

The plain of Beauce

South-west of Paris lies the great plain of Beauce. Parisians have given it the nickname of “Grenier de la France” (France’s granary). In summer a sea of golden wheat extends beyond the horizon, dominated by the towers of Chartres cathedral.

Chartres cathedral from the Beauce © Pauden28 - licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Chartres cathedral from the Beauce © Pauden28 – licence [CC BY-SA 3.0] from Wikimedia Commons

The countryside of Western France

The bocage is a common landscape feature in the west of France. The French words refers to the chessboard pattern of little fields separated by thick hedgerows, as opposed to “champs ouverts” (literally open fields).

French Countryside - Bocage normand from above © French Moments

The Bocage normand from above © French Moments

Cattle are reared in the lush meadows, corn is grown in the fields and fruits ripen in well-ordered orchards.

The countryside of Périgord

In south-west France the historic province of Périgord includes four distinctive areas: 

  • Green Périgord (colour of the lush pastures and woods)
  • White Périgord (colour of the limestone outcrops)
  • Purple Périgord (colour of the vine grapes that grow there)
  • Black Périgord (colour of the dense oak forests)
French countryside: Beynac Castle © French Moments

Castle of Beynac, Périgord © French Moments

Known to the English as “the Dordogne“, this is the land where you can find the most medieval castles in France along with Alsace. You’ll see many fortresses still towering over the land it surveys for miles around, particularly in Black Périgord.

The Provençal countryside

Provence belongs to a completely different world. One of brilliant sunshine, of scrubland and bare rock patches.

French countryside: Lourmarin, Provence © French Moments

Lourmarin, one of the most beautiful villages of the Luberon © French Moments

This is the land of corn and of wine, of fruit and olive trees… and of course, of lavender fields!

Our favourite thing in Provence is a sunset in the Luberon region. The Provençal countryside seems peaceful and serene, inspiring a feeling of awe.

Bonnieux Luberon Provence

Sunset in Bonnieux, Luberon © French Moments

The Burgundian countryside

Burgundy offers an infinite variety of landscapes: vineyard-covered hillsides, charming valleys, green pastures, and dense forests.

The countryside of Burgundy is criss-crossed by numerous waterways by the sides of which cycle paths have been created to enable cyclists to enjoy the beautiful scenery.

French countryside: Châteauneuf-en-Auxois, Burgundy © French Moments

Châteauneuf-en-Auxois, Burgundy © French Moments

The countryside of Lorraine

Lorraine is a land of “côtes“. Deep forests cover the sharp limestone ridges. The clay vales are used both for cultivation and for pasture.

Our favourite countryside drives in Lorraine are in the Toulois (region of Toul), the Saintois (Hill of Sion) and the eastern part of the Lorraine Natural Park.

French Countryside: Spring in Lorraine (Toulois) © French Moments

Spring in Lorraine (mirabelle orchard, Toulois) © French Moments

The Plain of Alsace

The plain of Alsace is like one great meadow. Along the Rhine stretches the Grand Ried (forest and even marshland on the river’s gravel beds).

However the plain is a very rich farming area. Cereals and hops alternate with orchards. At the foot of the Vosges are great vine-growing lands, characterised by charming flower-filled villages: Eguisheim, Kaysersberg, Riquewihr, Mittelbergheim…

The Alsace vineyards near Zellenberg © French Moments

The Alsace vineyards near Zellenberg © French Moments

A song evoking the countryside of France

You’ve probably heard the song before.

Its title is “I Wish You Love“.

It was sung by famous singers such as Chet Baker, Shirley Bassey, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Michael Bublé and many more.

Did you know that French artists Léo Chauliac and Charles Trenet composed the song in French in 1942 under the name: Que reste-t-il de nos amours?

The original version of the song tells about a nostalgic image of the French countryside (a local feature that Americans translators deliberately omitted!)

Que reste-t-il de nos amours
Que reste-t-il de ces beaux jours
Une photo, vieille photo
De ma jeunesse
[…]
Un petit village, un vieux clocher
Un paysage si bien caché
Et dans un nuage le cher visage
De mon passé

The literal translation of the song

What is left of our love?
What is left of these beautiful days?
A photo, an old photo
Of my youth
[…]
A small village, an old bell tower
A countryside so well hidden
And in a cloud the dear face
Of my past

Other examples of French songs celebrating the countryside are:

  • Douce France by Charles Trenet (1943),
  • Le Loir-et-Cher by Michel Delpech,
  • and more recently A Nos Souvenirs by Corrèze-based Trois Cafés Gourmands.

These songs – among others – often depict an idyllic vision of living in the French countryside.


The French countryside near Paris

The urban area of Paris covers 23.7% of the Ile de France and is home to 88.6% of the region’s population.

This means that the countryside covers three quarters of the Ile de France.

In fact, you don’t have to drive far into la France profonde (deep France) to find some greenery. It’s surprising to see how the Paris region is rural despite the 10 million people living in the area.

Here are fields and green pastures, including some of France’s most beautiful forests:

French countryside near Saint-Germain-en-Laye © French Moments

Fields seen less than 20 km from Notre-Dame cathedral! (Le Mesnil-le-Roi) © French Moments

Actually you don’t even have to leave Paris to experience a village atmosphere of the French countryside… There are a number of spots that massive urbanisation haven’t (yet) touched. Look for:

Mouzaïa district Paris

The district of Mouzaïa, Paris © French Moments


Beautiful French countryside towns

Across France you’ll find a series of exquisitely preserved countryside towns. Most of them are market towns, with shops supplying the bare necessities of French life:

  • la boulangerie-pâtisserie (bakery),
  • la boucherie-charcuterie (butcher),
  • le salon de coiffure (hairdresser)…
  • la pharmacie (chemist),
  • and often a small supermarket that replaces the traditional épicerie.
French countryside: Meursault in Burgundy © French Moments

The main shopping precinct of Meursault © French Moments

Narrow streets are an invitation to lose oneself exploring the old town.

The most beautiful detours of France

In the late 1990s the mayor of Loches founded the association Les Plus Beaux Détours de France. The goal was to include little towns (pop. between 2,000 and 20,000) with a rich heritage that are situated off the busy main roads of France.

Today the association comprises 106 small towns in 71 départements, including Thann (Alsace), Pernes-les-Fontaines (Provence), Toul (Lorraine), Louhans (Bourgogne), Nyons (Drôme provençale), Honfleur (Normandy)…

Nyons, Drôme Provençale © French Moments

Nyons, Drôme Provençale © French Moments

For more info, check out the official website of Les Plus Beaux Détours de France.

Venture out into the French countryside

From these market towns there are many reasons for venturing out into the local countryside.

It could be for:

  • walking on top of a hill to admire the view,
  • seeking out specific highlights such as a medieval ruin or an old watermill.
  • exploring deep mysterious forests and lush pastures where cows outnumber humans.
  • cycling along a canal on the traffic-free towpath for miles.
  • taking part in outdoor activities such as canoeing, rock-climbing, paragliding…
  • eating at a restaurant in the heart of the countryside that serves regional specialities on menus. 
Châteauneuf-en-Auxois, Burgundy © French Moments

Châteauneuf-en-Auxois, Burgundy © French Moments


Beautiful French countryside villages

Just guest how many villages there are in France?

More than 30,000!

Of course, not all of them are worth your visit. Some are just a cluster of houses with no (touristic) interest.

But many will reveal a different aspect once seen from afar, in their rural backdrop.

French countryside: Blénod-lès-Toul, Lorraine© French Moments

Blénod-lès-Toul in Lorraine © French Moments

What is a village in France?

Statistically speaking, a village is a commune with a population of less than 2,000.

The traditional understanding is that it is a cluster of houses organised around l’église (the church and la mairie (the town-hall). 

Niedermorschwihr © French Moments

The town-hall of Niedermorschwihr, Alsace © French Moments

Many villages date back to ancient times and have their own history and individuality.

Some villages have since lost their status.

  • Because they grew too large in population.
  • Or they got included into a town or city.

This is the case of Montmartre in Paris. A village occupied the top of the hill until 1860 when it was included within the limits of Paris. However we still talk about the ‘village atmosphere‘ of Montmartre despite the fact that it is part of one of Europe’s largest cities!

Village of Montmartre, Paris © French Moments

In the streets of Montmartre, Paris © French Moments

The most beautiful villages of France

Out of the 30,000 villages in France, only a small number are of touristic interest.

An association created in 1982 listed almost 160 villages in the label: Les Plus Beaux Villages de France.

It includes some popular destinations such as Gordes (Provence), La Roque-Gageac (Périgord), Riquewihr (Alsace), Yvoire (Haute-Savoie)…

Other villages which are not part of the association are equally beautiful: Hattonchâtel (Lorraine), Montfort-L’Amaury (Ile de France), Eygalières (Provence)…

Eygalières and the Alpilles © French Moments

Eygalières and the Alpilles © French Moments

And then there are a large number of pretty and unpretentious villages that you’ll discover while driving across France. As for us we stumbled upon:

  • Flassan (Provence),
  • Saint-Romain (Burgundy),
  • Orsans (Franche-Comté),
  • Hirtzbach (Alsace)…
Hirtzbach Spring © French Moments

Spring in the Sundgau © French Moments

These survivors of urban development and the drift from the land are a timeless glimpse of the rural past of France.

The local markets

Rural France goes hand in hand with the amazing open-air markets.

If you’ve been to France before it was probably one of your holiday’s highlights. Personally we’ve been fascinated by the markets of Provence, Burgundy and Périgord. The display of local produce is indeed a treat, just look at the photos!


The French Countryside-style dinner table

If you follow France-related photos on Instagram or on other social media, you’d have probably come across some amazing photos of a beautiful staged table set in the countryside.

Tea in Provence - Stock Photos from CharMoment - Shutterstock

Fancy a café in Provence? Stock Photos from CharMoment – Shutterstock

I’m not sure that each French family living in the countryside follow that particular style… but I guess it is part of a particular image we have about France.

A romantic and atmospheric vision of what French life ought to be…

Even though the reality might be a little different.

Private chef experience, dineindulge dinner party © French Moments

A French-inspired dinner party! © French Moments

But again, we’re allowed to dream!

Anyway, when searching about the countryside of France on the interweb I came up with a beautiful French-inspired dinnerware set you might be interested in…

Particularly if you want to dress the table with a French countryside touch. Look no further than Mikasa.

Mikasa is an American brand name, a leader in tabletop fashion in dinnerware. The name of one of their collections intrigued me. Guess what the name was?

The Mikasa French Countryside Collection®

And I have to say it does look “French countryside-ish” to me with the gently scalloped edges and curves and rich cream colour.

Check out the whole collection range here.

The brand also offers the matching set of stainless steel cutlery with serving utensil:


The best way to

In fact if you want to explore the French countryside from the comfort of your sofa, there’s a great way to do so.

Follow the Tour de France bicycle race on TV!

During an epic race the cyclists cross the whole of France from towns to villages and from countryside hills to mountains passes.


In conclusion

Finally let’s end with a brief summary:

The countryside in France is NOT:

  • an urban area, even outside Paris (such as Annecy)
Little Venice of Annecy © French Moments

Palais de l’Île and the canals of Annecy old town © French Moments

  • a seaside village (such as Eze)
The perched village of Eze - Stock Photos from Mordechai Meiri - Shutterstock

The perched village of Eze – Stock Photos from Mordechai Meiri – Shutterstock

Chamonix-Mont-Blanc © French Moments

Mont-Blanc seen from the town-centre of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc © French Moments

The countryside in France IS:

  • a patchwork of rural landscapes made up of forests, meadows, orchards, vineyards and fields that extend beyond the horizon.
  • a hilly or flat landscape, dotted with a myriad of picturesque villages.
  • a land where the unevenly spread population still has a marked rural character.

Do you remember that first time you’ve been in rural France? Leave a comment below with the place where you’ve been, I’d love to hear from you! 


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French Countryside © French Moments


 

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About Author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. He has a background teaching French, Economics and Current Affairs, and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations, and a degree of Economics and Management.

6 Comments

  1. Hello Pierre, Belatedly, my delight in the virtual visit of Nancy. I had no idea about what I have missed. I hope that by next year I can have the pleasure of seeing Nancy with my own eyes!

    The countryside is known for its superb agriculture and is a good explanation of why French eat well but do not generally get obese. I reside in Bkk and eating is a big pastime here too but my tastebuds are keener on French cuisine than any other cuisine. Visiting the countryside via your introduction is a great pleasure especially during the Pandemic which has spoiled us from visiting France. Greetings and best wishes, Ernest

    • Thank you Ernest! I’m glad to hear you enjoy the virtual trips to Nancy and the French countryside! Let’s keep dreaming of better days when we’ll be able to travel again! 🙂

  2. Thank you for the continuing delightful reading each week and memories our trip to Normandie (y)
    based in Hon fleur. A good bit of what we saw was rural and this now currently touring France via the Tour de France. Some this year is quite rural but a at home travel through your beautiful country.
    Stuck in SW Florida this year.

    • Hello Kay! Thank you for your comment. Yes you’re so right: following the Tour de France is a great way to discover the French countryside. I’ve just added this idea to the article. Thanks!!

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