1. Lyon to the Col du Galibier
This four-day 270-kilometre trip revealed three quite distinct sides to France – the sophisticated city of Lyon, the relaxed atmosphere of lakeside Aix-les-Bains, and the mountainous Alpine challenge (and cuisine) of the Col du Galibier.
We started in Lyon, the home of French gastronomy, a city whose beautiful 19th-century centre, between the rivers Rhône and Saône, calls to mind the very best of Paris. We stayed at the Hotel Royal, a terrific boutique hotel boasting a town-house intimacy and one of the best restaurants in the city – the hotel is home to the Paul Bocuse institute, where the best young chefs learn the secrets of the trade from the founding father of nouvelle cuisine.
Driving 100km east, we climbed the wooded Col du Chat and entered a different France. At the top, urban France is left far behind – before you, a glorious panorama taking in Lac du Bourget, France's largest lake and, to the south, the snow-capped peaks of the Alps. You could stop for a couple of days in Aix-les-Bains, enjoy the watersports (or cafés) on the lake or the numerous, sometimes bizarre, treatments on offer in this elegant old spa town, visited on many occasions by Queen Victoria.
The final 21-mile zig-zag climb up to the Galibier pass began south of Aix-les-Bains at the town of Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne and took in the Col du Télégraphe, itself a legendary Tour de France climb. Our base was the ski station of Valloire – a great place to get out and explore the mountains with local guides, whether on foot or mountain bike.
1 Brasserie Galibier
France's highest brewery, started five years ago by the charismatic former snowboard champion Brice Le Guennec in his home town of Valloire. Brice leads a tasting tour most afternoons and is an evangelist for craft brewing. He's just one of a roster of local brewers that would make this area a great weekend tour for craft-beer enthusiasts.
2 Mud baths at Aix-les-Bains
Spa treatments are available on the French National Health, and Aix-les-Bains is full of visiting health-seekers trying out the sometimes eccentric treatments. I had a mud bath: covered in 48-degree thermal mud, wrapped in foil and left to lie for 20 minutes before being showered clean by 15 jets of sulphuric water.
3 Guided hiking on the Galibier pass
Local guide Thierry Lebigot has 25 years of knowledge of the Galibier area in his bones – he led us up the mountain, a trip full of fascinating tales and spectacular views.
2. Madrid to Salamanca
The most direct route from Madrid to the golden walled city of Salamanca takes a little over two hours along the A50. But the longer, more southerly route, via the walled medieval towns of Avila and Plasencia allowed us to enjoy a four-day road trip with a sprinkling of delights along the way.
Driving north-west into the mountains out of Madrid, we stopped at the epic palace at San Lorenzo El Escorial – like Hampton Court but two or three times bigger – and drove even higher to stay at Parador de Gredos: formerly a remote royal hunting lodge. King Alfonso XIII turned it over to the nation 100 years ago, making it the first of the paradors– Spain's famous hotels converted from historic buildings.
The route is built around a trio of walled cities – Avila, Plasencia, Salamanca – that each offer the unique atmosphere of timeless, car-free town centres (despite the sometimes grimly functional new towns outside the walls.) Avila has the most complete medieval walls left in Spain and features a museum devoted to the life of St Teresa (and containing her mummified finger). Plasencia still has its Roman aqueduct and the road N-110, which joins Avila and Plasencia, is one of the most beautiful in Europe in spring, as it carves through cherry orchards, the roadside views draped in blossom.
Salamanca is the real jewel – buzzing with life, unchanged since the early 1800s yet without any feeling of being a museum: being 100 miles from the nearest airport and such a big college town, it has managed to avoid being overrun by tourism. Life goes on here. You can park up at the edges and walk into a magical world boasting, it is said, more than 3000 bars – more per head of the population than anywhere else in Europe.
1) San Lorenzo El Escorial. Huge palace/cathedral complex built in the 17th Century by Philip II: see the desk from which he launched the Spanish Armada or descend into the crypt where the tombs of all Spain's kings and queens are kept – there's even a space reserved for the current incumbent, King Juan Carlos.
2) Salamanca's Art Nouveau and Art Deco Museum is a magical, random collection of art and curiosities, set within an amazing little house whose walls and roof are seemingly composed almost entirely of stained glass. The building itself is the star but there is a surprise round every corner of the gallery.
3) Calle van Dyck. Salamanca’s best regarded street for tapas, just outside the dreamy time-travel bubble of the old town, is not pretty or quaint but it’s full of tapas bars and you can spend the evening piling from one to another, enjoying pinchos – mini-tapas – as you go. We enjoyed six dishes for six euros, the portions big enough for a lunch for three people for under £2 a head.
3. Vercors – France's secret mountains
Tucked away an hour's drive from Lyon airport, just to the south of Grenoble, lies the Vercors Massif, a region so inaccessible that it was the only part of France unconquered by the German invaders in 1940. The Vercors Massif is not tiny – it's about the size of the Isle of Wight – but it has always been a little cut off: it took daredevil feats of engineering to link its villages to the rest of France at all.
Starting in 1843, these roads – cutting through arches in the cliffs and twisting and turning above huge, sheer drops – took decades to build and involved some novel building techniques: one particularly daredevil scheme involved workmen starting to clear a way through the mountains by dangling from ropes and throwing dynamite into the rocks.
The spectacular roads take you on a circuit of the Vercors, with many stops on the way offering both majestic views and genuinely fascinating attractions. The villages and valleys are quiet enough for you to imagine the scenes 75 years ago, when Allied planes dropped supplies behind German lines to the hundreds of Resistance fighters hiding out in the remote woods.
There are two museums to the resistance on the route at the village of Vassieux, a modern one featuring films and a more traditional museum built round archives and objects. The village also features the ghostly remains of the Nazi gliders involved in the final, horrific smashing of the Resistance in the Vercors.
1) The Water Museum in the picturesque village of Pont-en-Royans which, with its pastel buildings and shuttered windows, has the look and feel of an Italian hill town. The improbably diverting and modern museum offers a tasting selection of 400 waters – and has a fine restaurant upstairs, with a terrace view over the little River Bourne below.
2) Grotte de Choranche, a network of underground caves that is one of the area's big attractions.
3) Dining at Ranch in Villard-de-Lens: cosy, with big portions of stick-to-your-bones mountain food, led by raclette: huge plates of charcuterie, potatoes and vegetables you dip in the local Vercors Blue cheese, melted in a mini-brazier.
4. Finistère – France's wild west
An invigorating drive around the wild north-west coast of France – interspersed with stops for fine food and a delightful tour of a cider orchard. We began at the port town of Roscoff, having travelled from the UK with Brittany Ferries, a Boundless Approved Partner.
Roscoff, a small town of honey-stone houses built round the old and new harbours, is actually the biggest place we will see for a couple of days. From remote coastal roads, we spy secluded coves with white sandy beaches and surfers braving wild waves along a beautiful rugged coastline dotted with pretty harbours, little fishing villages and lighthouses.
After 200 miles of timeless small stone towns and fishing villages, hidden beaches and wild stretches of coast, coming into the city of Brest is a bit of a surprise: in fact, its population is just 300,000 but, arriving from the sticks, it seems huge, with its industrial docks and military bases and suburbs climbing the hills on the other side of town. We arrive in the city centre by crossing the Pont de Recouvrance, with its magnificent view of Brest’s huge, sprawling castle at the waterside: it’s home to the national maritime museum now.
Next stop is Cameret-sur-Mer at the west end of the Crozon peninsula, where we enjoy moules mariniere in sight of the sea at the Hotel de France before exploring Cameret’s artists’ quarter. Then it's on to Lochronan, a town virtually, spookily unchanged since the 1800s and popular, naturally, with film location scouts. Even more so, since when Roman Polanski was filming his version of Tess of the D'Urbervilles here in the 1970s, he paid for the town's electric cables to be buried, permanently, underground. Even the tourists do not really impinge on the timeless atmosphere – and eateries like Ty Coz, the creperie on the town square, maintain an old world dark-wood-and-candlelight atmosphere.
Via Quimper, with its beautiful 14th Century old town, and a stop at a cidrerie, we came to journey's end. Concarneau's fortressed, medieval old town sticks out into the sea like a cross between giant pier and a castle: it is a remarkable place, though you do need arrive early in the day to avoid being flattened by tourists as you attempt to breath in the timeless magic.
1 The Onion Johnnies museum. The cliché of the French onion seller is based on fact: by the 1920s, there were 1500 Breton farmers riding round the UK selling onions, many wearing berets and Breton shirts – the only Frenchmen most Brits would over see. At Roscoff, there's a museum to their intriguing story, a phenomenon that began in the 1820s when Breton farmers, realising that the UK was as near to them as Paris, first travelled over with their cargoes of onions.
2 L'Armen restaurant, Brest. A friendly welcome and terrific food in one of the region's best restaurants, with Michelin-starred chef Yvon Morvan at the helm. The evening we were there we ate langoustines baked in breadcrumbs, abalones (a shellfish with texture like a meatier oyster) from the north coast and a main course of pigeon in pastry, stuffed with bacon and foie gras. A magical French dining experience.
3 Manoir de Kinkiz cidrerie Apple orchards and cider/brandy-making operation just outside Quimper. Our 11am tour with the urbane cider-maker Hervé Seznec felt a little early – but he assured us that the palate responds best to cider and spirits, mid-morning.
5. The Black Forest, top to bottom
The Black Forest has been a retreat for the well-to-do since the 19th Century, when the great and good – Queen Victoria, Mark Twain, the Kaiser – headed to the trendy new spa resorts, led by Baden-Baden. It still feels unspoilt and remote and makes for great driving country, with dense forest giving way to beautiful valley views and weather that varied, on our springtime trip, between snow in the high areas to balmy sunshine in Freiburg, one of Germany’s warmest towns.
En route from Baden-Baden to Freiburg, we met bears and glass-blowers; paragliders and cuckoo-clock-makers; saw Germany’s largest waterfall, rode on Germany’s longest funicular railway – and had the chance to sample the wares of (some of) the area’s 14,000 (yes: 14,000!) licensed schnapps distillers.
The A500 road from Baden-Baden climbs and winds, threading its way through the tall evergreens. The 500 is a big road, with smooth curves; there’s no twisty-turny corkscrewing here, and we are protected from any sheer drops by hundreds of trees. As we climb, we reach occasional clearings and hotels. Ski resorts. But it is the roads off the 500 down into the valley that lead to the chocolate-box villages that define the area as much as the dark forest itself.
Around the town Sasbachwalden, local farms/distilleries have self-serve schnapps stations at their gates: it's beautiful hiking country and the added attraction of regular stops for novelty strong drinks makes this a unique experience.
Halfway down the Black Forest, we stop at the Langenwaldsee hotel, a couple of miles out of Freudenstadt. Beautifully set on a Lake, the hotel looks a lot like a steamboat. Next day, we stop at Triberg, a town full of cuckoo clock shops and steep-roofed wooden houses, set on a steep and winding main street. It looks like a film set of an Alpine village and is the site of the longest waterfall in Germany and the brilliant Black Forest Museum.
Journey's end is Freiburg, the largest market town in the Black Forest, which was one of the first cities in the world to ban cars from its town centre, way back in 1973: the sounds of a car-free city – students on bikes, trams, friends chatting – have a kind of magic to them and there is a back-to-the-future vibe in this town of cobbled streets, with its little independent shops by the canal; micro-breweries; and the daily farmers market in front of the Cathedral.
1. The Alternative Wolf and Bear Park at Bad Peterstal-Griesbach
There's been no wild bears in the Black Forest for 150 years but this 10-hectare sanctuary offers a home to bears rescued from circuses and zoos. blackforest-tourism.com/
2. Making our own vase at Dorotheenhutte, Wolfach
Maybe you've been on a tour of a glass-blowers before? We had: but we've never had the chance to step up and make our own vase before, as you can do here, in the Black Forest's last traditional glass-blowers. With a little help, it came out apparently perfectly, leaving us with a strange euphoric feeling of having done something at once magical and slightly ridiculous. dorotheenhuette.info
3. The Black Forest Museum, Triberg
A defiantly old-school museum that proves a delight thanks to its diverse, occasionally crackers collection: it includes hundreds of cuckoo-clocks (of course), hundreds of bejewelled hats (of course), the world’s largest collection of barrel organs and much more unpredictable fare besides. schwarzwaldmuseum.de/en/