To many British families, a French holiday means seaside fun or southern sun, but for those who enjoy quiet countryside and outdoor pursuits – with easy access to history and heritage sites – a gîte holiday in Eastern France could be a delightful alternative.
1. Get back to nature
If you like your countryside green and your holidays surrounded by nature, try the four neighbouring regions of north-east France. Champagne-Ardenne, Lorraine, Alsace and Franche-Comté offer gentle wooded countryside that rises gradually into the Vosges and Jura mountains the further east you go. Rent a self-catering property here and you can enjoy walking and biking, country picnics and heritage visits in an area where tourist attractions blend seamlessly into the local way of life.
2. Follow the history trails
Eastern France has often been a battleground, and older children will be moved by the monuments, museums and cemeteries from two World Wars at sites such as Verdun in the Meuse and in Champagne-Ardennes. Boundaries have changed here across the centuries, a fact that really comes to life in Alsace, with its Germanic place names and architecture, but you’ll find history from every era. Sedan in the Ardennes is home to Europe’s largest castle, whilst Grand, a small town with a big name in the department of Vosges, boasts a sizeable Roman theatre and intricate mosaics. Stop off at Domrémy-la-Pucelle, birthplace of French national heroine Joan of Arc, and follow in the footsteps of painter Auguste Renoir at Essoyes in Champagne-Ardenne.
3. Champagne and wine
Most adults won’t be able to resist stocking up on champagne at prices significantly lower than in the UK, but younger visitors can also enjoy touring the cellars of the big champagne houses in Reims and Epernay, where racks of bottles stretch as far as the eye can see. Don’t leave Reims without visiting the magnificent cathedral where countless kings of France were once crowned. Follow the wine route through Alsace; discover the distinctive wines of the Jura; and discover the story behind absinthe in Pontarlier.
4. Rivers and caves
Take a guided river cruise along the Moselle, the Saône or the Doubs, or play admiral and hire a self-drive boat– no previous experience necessary. Franche-Comté is one of France’s least known departments, but one of its prettiest, with rolling countryside shaped by water, both above and below ground. See rivers tumbling out of the hillsides and tour underground caverns such as the fabulous Grotte d’Osselle, packed with amazing geological formations. There are canoes bases on many rivers and a wide variety of water sports and angling opportunities on both natural and man-made lakes Like birdwatching? Then head for the huge artificial lakes of Champagne-Ardennes.
5. Accessible mountains
The rounded peaks of the Vosges mountains in Lorraine and the Jura in Franche-Comté are a great location for family walks with plenty of well-marked trails. The picturesque Route des Crêtes above Gérardmer offers sweeping views over Alsace, whilst further south, the summits of the Jura look over Switzerland to the snow-capped Alps. Buy maps and guidebooks at any local tourist office, or book a few hours with a qualified mountain guide for a real insight into the flower, fauna and traditions of the area. They’ll be able to pitch the experience perfectly to suit your family’s interests.
6. History and heritage
The Ecomusée d’Alsace at Ungersheim near Colmar is huge fun for all ages, a ‘village’ of more than 72 houses on a 15-hectare site, making it in the largest open air museum in France. Watch demonstrations in authentic buildings that include a farm and a mill, a school house, pottery and cobbler’s shop. Across the regional border in Franche-Comté, car enthusiasts of all ages won’t want to miss the Peugeot Adventure near Montbéliard to see more than 100 vehicles, 50 motorcycles and a huge range of Peugeot-branded memorabilia. The vast hilltop citadel at nearby Besançon is home to the town’s Natural History Museum, split into six themed areas that include a small zoo, an insectarium, and noctarium.
Here’s more information to make the most of your visit to East France: