The Gorge du Verdone, France

    8 secret holiday spots in France and Spain

    2 June 2020

    The possibility of air-bridges coming into place as early as the end of June brings with it a tiny sliver of renewed hope for our international summer holidays. Two countries likely to be included are France and Spain so, should you be inclined to cross said bridge, here are eight off-the-beaten track locations, for some crowd-dodging holiday inspiration for taking a chance this summer, or planning your 2021 escape.

    Thuir, France

    Perpignan-place République – just an hour away from Perpignan is Thuir on the French/Spanish border

    Twenty minutes’ drive from Perpignan in South-West France, Thuir is a small rural commune not far from the Spanish border. Its medieval lanes are winding and labyrinthine, like a Provençal village with a slight Spanish flavour; red roof tiles and the Pyrenees looming in the distance.

    It is quiet and distinctly un-touristy, with village squares for café au lait al fresco and the usual proliferation of boulangeries for your morning baguette. It is largely famous for the production of Byrrh, the wine aperitif made from red wine, mistelle and quinine which was created in Thuir by two drapers in 1866 and is still produced there, now under the eminent ownership of Pernod-Ricard. The factory is adorned with the famous, vintage Byrrh posters and the Caves Byrrh are open for visitor tours.

    Yet Thuir is also within close proximity to a smattering of diverting destinations in the region. A short drive away is the small town of Ille sur Tet, famous for the Les Orgues – an unusual rock formation reminiscent of the Grand Canyon. You can also hop on the famous Train Jaune which snakes through the Pyrenees with impressive mountain views and which stops off at notable destinations, such as Villefranche de Conflent; a UNESCO World Heritage site famous for its medieval fortress.

    Plus, if you need some relaxing sea air after climbing mountains (admittedly, in a train) the coast is a roughly half an hour drive away- particularly the stunning sandy beaches at Argelès-sur-Mer.

    Segovia, Spain

    Aquaduct in Segovia, Spain

    Just over an hour’s drive from Madrid, and you hit the historical town of Segovia, nestled near the Northern slopes of the Sistema Central mountain range. Excellent food, drink and art is on offer here. The town is also brimming with fascinating sites, from the roman aqueduct, under which you can eat the famous Segovian suckling pig (cochinillo) while the ancient monument is gloriously lit up at night, to the grand and vast cathedral, in the shadow of which is a charming cobbled square hugged with restaurants and a sloping lane brimming with shops selling local crafts.

    The main draw is the imposing Alcazar of Segovia, built in 1122, which has formed an integral part in Spain’s history, and is one of the most impressive examples of Gothic architecture in the country. A small drive from Segovia is the Royal Palace of La Granja of San Ildefonso- an early eighteenth-century palace with impressive gardens and parkland, as is the famous El Escorial, a monastery and palace hybrid that remains one of Spain’s most impressive monuments.

    Rambouillet, France

    Medieval royal castle Fontainbleau

    Chateau Fontainbleau

    Paris may be a crowded, best avoided zone right now, but Rambouillet is a lesser-known highlight of its surrounding region. The town sits on the southern edge of the vast and stunning forest of Rambouillet – a beautiful, sprawling natural treasure of France, which also boasts a smattering of parks and upmarket campsites for holiday makers and avid cyclists. Whether you choose to base yourself there or in the small town itself, the region is an underrated gem.

    The town includes many historical points of interest, from the beautiful Hôtel de Ville to the Palais du Roi de Rome, the official residence of Napoleon’s son. There is the famous Château de Rambouillet nearby, a former palace of Louis XVI that was seized during the Revolution, and has since become the setting of many a political meeting and, though now a national monument, was a summer residence of the French Presidents until 2009.

    You are also ideally located between Chartres and Fontainebleau – both towns are 40 minutes to an hour away by car – and offer a further plethora of châteaux and historical sites to explore.

    Casares, Spain

    Casares is a beautiful and landmark village in Malaga province, Andalusia, Spain.

    Casares is a beautiful and landmark village in Malaga province, Andalusia, Spain.

    Casares is a hidden gem, like a Santorini of Spain, without the price or the crowds. It is a whitewashed, hillside village that is almost unbearably pretty and boasts a proximity to the Malaga coastline that is surprising considering its quiet, unassuming nature.

    Its main draw is its exceptionally pleasant atmosphere and appearance, making it an impossibly charming village to simply stroll around from bars to cafes to churches and its primary historic site, a ruined Moorish castle and fortress.

    Further North of Casares is the diverting Ronda- built in the mountains and straddling perilously the El Trajo gorge. Here you will find an abundance of fine eateries, bullfighting arenas and museums and historic palaces, just an hour’s drive from the idyllic calm of your whitewashed, sugar cube village base.

    Moustiers-Sainte Marie, France

    The Village of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, Provence, France

    The Village of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, Provence, France

    This Provençal village is nestled in the heart of the region at the western entrance of the Gorges-du-Verdon, on the side of a limestone cliff. It is a rambling, clustered climb of a village but one which is worth the leg stamina, as it is frequently referred to as one of most beautiful villages in France.

    Cobbled squares and pottery shops, charming cafes and boulangeries fill its winding streets as well as its impressive gourmet offerings including Alain Ducasse’s La Bastide du Moustiers. The church which dominates the village’s skyline, is an arduous climb, but an impressive offering with a fascinating history, including the ‘Legend of the Star’ which hangs above the village on a wire and is said to have been left there by a crusading knight.

    The village is also a beautiful gateway to the some of the region’s other highlights. The Gorges-du-Verdon, one of Europe’s most beautiful river canyons, is ideal for canoeing or kayaking down its turquoise waters down to the beautiful man-made Lac du Sainte Croix, hugged by white sandy beaches that will serve as the ideal replacement for the tourist-clogged Côte d’Azur.

    Avila, Spain

    Ramparts of Avila/walls of Avila, Ávila (Spain)

    Ramparts of Avila/walls of Avila, Ávila (Spain)

    Avila is often referred to as the ‘town of stone and saints’ and the name rightly conjures up a glorious image of historical Avila, a fascinating yet thankfully still under-the-radar Spanish destination. It is startlingly medieval and is completely walled with its original 16thcentury fortifications.

    Cluttered with churches, a magnificent cathedral, basilicas and convents, monasteries and ancient palaces, a stroll through Avila can feel like stepping through time. Relax in any number of the town’s restaurants and try the local delicacy; Chuletón de Avila, a T-bone steak best cooked rare.

    Surprisingly, it has largely avoided the tourist hoards and so is an ideal base for an off-the-beaten track trip that nonetheless delivers on diversions and atmosphere, just an hour’s drive from Madrid.

    Albi, France

    Southern France city "Albi" is part of Unesco World heritage program

    Southern French city “Albi” is part of Unesco World heritage program

    The hidden gem of the Languedoc region, Albi is practically equidistant from two other nearby titans- Toulouse and Marseilles, but is a quieter and no less diverting option. It’s huge and peculiar 13thcentury cathedral dominates the town square, from which curving streets wind away with a smattering of impressive restaurants and bars.

    A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is set on the river Tarn, boasting an impressive medieval bridge and Le Palais de Berbie (the bishop’s palace) also from the 13thcentury and considered one of the oldest and best-preserved palaces in France. It was also the childhood home of Toulouse-Lautrec and houses the Toulouse-Lautrec museum which contains more than a thousand of his works, as well as his famous posters.

    After some art and good food, Albi is a short drive from the famous fortified villages of the region, including one of the most picturesque Cordes-sur-Ciel; and the lush national parks of the Haut-Languedoc.

    Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

    The Cathedral in Jerez de la Frontera, Cadiz.

    The Cathedral in Jerez de la Frontera, Cadiz.

    Midway between Cadiz and the Atlantic Ocean, is Jerez de la Frontera; a fascinating yet somehow often overlooked town. It is largely famous for its wine production, particularly its sherry and one of its most famous; Bodega Garvey, is open for visitors and is well worth a tour- and a taste! Jerez is also renowned for its flamenco, much of which can be enjoyed at night (with a sherry, of course) at the bars and restaurants in Barrio de Santiago, in the shadow of Jerez’s impressive cathedral.

    Anyone keen to learn more about the artform can also pop into the Andalucían Flamenco Foundation, housed within the stunning 18thcentury mansion, the Palacio de Pemartín. In fact, the town is brimming with old palaces, basilicas and churches, botanical gardens and museums, as well as a burgeoning food and drink offering. Relatively small and thankfully relatively uncrowded, it is a true gem of the region, ripe for exploration.