Wild Swimming France is full of warnings about health and safety, and how wild swimming must be treated with caution and care. However, what it did not warn me about was the extreme pain I was going to get when reading it, caused by an acute case of resentment that I wasn’t jumping off the white dolomite rocks of the Mercantour National Park into the turquoise pools beneath, or letting the River Dordogne carry me downstream on my back, as I float under fern adorned rock arches. Or, I admit it, that I wasn’t married to the guy who wrote it.
As I lay in bed leafing through every river, lake and gorge, in a Sunday morning lazy lie in sort of a way, groaning each time I looked at an even more seductive wild swimming location my (equally wonderful of course) husband became rightly curious about the fantasy land the book was taking me into, as he listened on from the kitchen making coffee. My greatest ‘When Harry met Sally’ moment had to be in The Var, however, where Daniel Start, the author, slides down slot canyons into concealed plunge pools using waterfalls as modes of transport from one pool to another. This is extreme wild swimming, however, and he rightly advises readers to only attempt this with canyoning experts. The majority of the swimming locations (and there are over four hundred of them) are more accessible, all inland, and mostly in the southern part of France.
The book is a brilliant guide to France too, especially if hiking is your thing, offering the perfect introduction to the French pastime of ‘aqua-randonnée’ , where you scramble your way along rocks and through water wearing good aqua shoes and a waterproof back pack. Divided into regions, with excellent maps, and more detailed latitude and longitude readings, as well as details on how difficult a walk it is to access the swim point, Wild Swimming France will make you want to explore parts of France you may never even know existed before. More groans.
Another handy breakdown in the index is the ‘themed’ swimming points, so if you love waterfalls you can check out all of Daniel’s G-ushing spots in one go. Or if freestyling past a chateau, such as the glorious Chenonceaux in Normandy which sits on the River Cher is your scene, then you can find several such bourgeois bathing points. There is also a great collection of locations suitable for families, as well as some with small camping facilities nearby, such as the riverside tipis at Les Cournoulises on the banks of the River Lot.
I love the fact that this book isn’t all health and safety obsessed either, although it does warn you about the dangers of wild swimming, of course. For example, there is a useful explanation of how many of France’s river levels are controlled by the EDF (Electricité de France) due their being an important source of hydropower. The book points out that there are EDF signs on many of the rivers to warn that water levels can suddenly increase due to dam release, and that care should be taken at these times.
However, Daniel does turn a blind eye to rules and regulations in the book sometimes, making the book even more readable, of course. For example, at the magnificent waterfall Sillans-la-Cascade in the Haut Var region, where the main pool is closed to swimmers due to a freak rockfall, Daniel tells us most local people ignore the signs, and there is a photo of someone, possibly the author himself, diving into its stunning waters. And although wild camping is illegal in France, he isn’t afraid to admit that he, like many others, do partake of it, albeit responsibly, and reminds us to ensure that wild campers should arrive late and leave early, should not light fires, and must absolutely leave no trace.
So, buy the book as a gift to yourself or any other water loving Francophile you know, or just to drool over on a Sunday morning, if that is your thing. Daniel has also written Wild Swimming (UK) and Wild Swimming Coast and there is also an app for these. He is one Smart guy. But not as smart as the woman who married him.
People find solace in different ways. Some escape to islands, others to mountains. But I have always had a thing about trees. High up in the branches of an ancient Chestnut tree was my favourite getaway as a young child at boarding school. Leaves or no leaves, it was always a place to hide or take stock of the world rushing around below me. But I have never gone as far as hugging one, never mind sleeping in one. Until I discovered a perch extraordinaire. Far from the Belfast branches of my distant past, this old Chestnut was hidden away in a Monet-esque meadow in the Orne region of Normandy.
Marching across the evening’s dewy grass, we had no idea what to expect. I was a bit nervous, as it was a fit of momentary madness which had jolted me out of my state of autumn cabin fever, to the middle of a French field in November. To a cabin.But the jaw-dropping moment was the one which we all hope for when we arrive in a new place. The red cedar of this vast treehouse, nestled in the most majestic of Chestnut trees, glowed in the last of the day’s sunshine. Suspended on four mammoth wooden stilts, and built organically around its magnificent natural infrastructure, this was not only my idea of getting closer to holiday heaven, but also immediately transported me back to my happiest childhood memories. I could almost have hugged it.
I resisted the temptation to climb up first, and let my children race up the wooden steps, ducking at the top to avoid one of the vast branches, which guarded the balcony and entrance like something from The Hobbit. The views of the surrounding area were superb and, blessed with blue skies, we were able to see the endless undulating pastures and forests all around
On our first night we had a superb dinner at the local creperie, Les Secrets de Jeanne, in St. Germain de la Coudre. It is in a restored barn with vast log fire and every wall covered with antique toys, books, and French bric a brac. Being apple season, and the centre of the apple-producing region, we sampled an array of local ciders with our savoury crepes, and finished off the meal with caramelised apples ones, lathered with ice cream and chocolate sauce.When in France, and all that.
Back at the treehouse, Claire, the English woman who dreamt up her arborial work of art with French husband Ivan, gave us a torch to lead us back across the field from her farmhouse. Not that we really needed it that night. I am not just being a romantic when I say the stars almost lit our way, because they really did. There are no big towns in this area, and consequently little artificial light. Which is why this region is extremely popular with star gazers and amateur astronomers. Tucked up in our beds, the rustling leaves sounded deceptively like rain, but luckily we were spared any downpours. There was no obvious creaking of branches as the wind picked up through the night either and we slept, of course, like logs.
Being winter, the birds weren’t quite as omnipresent, but the dawn chorus must be verging on philharmonic in the height of summer. The only noise to waken us was a gentle tapping on the door by Claire who, like a little wood nymph, had crept up our stairs to leave a basketful of breakfast goodies on the balcony. Flasks of hot chocolate, coffee, warm bread from the local organic farm, yoghurts, fresh seasonal fruit, and homemade jams like only the French seem to be able to do. We wrapped up in some of the blankets kindly provided, and sat out on the terrace, watching the mist lift off the hills of this, thankfully, protected landscape, also known as Le Perche Natural Park. We were literally perched over Le Perche and that was definitely worth raising our glasses of homemade apple juice to.
LePerche traditionally meant ‘Old tree’, according to our guide at the NaturalPark’s centre, Le Manoir de Courboyer, as this area has always been heavily forested and, luckily, still is. As well as having a fine 15th Century manor house as its centrepiece, Le Manoir is the place to learn about all the natural heritage of this area. It also has a restaurant brimming with fine local and seasonal foods, and a shop with all the ciders, juices, jams, and natural local produce that you could hope for. You won’t find one Made in China souvenir here. Tackiness is forbidden. This place lives and breathes pride in its region, and rightly so.
This passion for Le Perche stretches beyond the normal French pride in one’s region. There is an abundance of ‘natural’ producers here. L’Hermitiere is one of several traditional cider producers in the area and so, with the season that was in it, we couldn’t miss out on that one. The doors of the barn were open when we arrived, revealing the floor to ceiling stockpile of red apples, all waiting to be washed and pressed. There are no machines to shake apples off the trees here. They just do it as it should be done. Wait for them to fall, and they are ready. The proof was in the tasting session in their shop. Superb, and if you don’t like cider, you can always treat yourself to one of their fine bottles of Calvados.
It didn’t take a glass of Calvados to fire up our final host. Michel Frenard was the personification of
Percheron pride. He is a horesbreeder of the world famous Percheron, which is the region’s icon, and has played a major role in its history. It is a huge stout working horse which, until recently, was in danger of disappearing. But now several impassioned breeders, supported by the Park, have managed to put them back on the map again. With no agricultural funding to help them protect this fine example of equine elegance, these breeders are motivated by genuine passion to keep the breed alive and kicking. Monsieur Frenard taught us how to look for sadness or joy in a horse’s eyes. That’s what makes or breaks their chance of winning a medal at competitions, apparently. I was hardpushed to see sadness in any of his fine horse’s eyes, as this man’s passion for life, and protection of all the natural resources in his region, seemed to infect everyone around him. I asked him if he had ever travelled to Ireland, another land of horselovers. “I admit I have never travelled far beyond Le Perche. I have no need. I wake up every day and my local landscape brings me joy. As long as I can earn a living from it, I have no need for anything else in life. Le Perche brings me all the happiness I need”. I hope my translation does his passion justice, but we didn’t need to understand it all anyway. We could see it in his eyes. The tears in my sons’ eyes when it was time to leave our precious perch in Le Perche, pretty much said it all too.
A seven-night stay at La Renardiere treehouse, costs €120 pppn including treetop breakfast or from €775 for two persons for seven nights Weekend stays of minimum two nights cost €250 for two persons. (00 – 33 2 33 25 57 96 orwww.perchedansleperche.com).
Catherine and her family travelled to France overland from London with Eurostar and SNCF. For the greener way to travel, contact Irish Rail’s European Rail Reservations (01) 703 1885, or for those outside ROI, see RailEurope, www.raileurope.co.uk.
I always secretly wanted to be Julie Andrews. Leading children merrily across Alpine pastures, with songs to fix every dilemma, and Christopher Plummer hanging on my every note. So, walking in the Alps in late May, (albeit French, not Austrian), with my husband and two sons, the snow-capped peaks glistening in the distance, and Edelweiss- covered meadows underfoot, I was, at last, given the chance to become a veritable Von Trapp.
However, these hills were alive with the sound of a rather different sort of music that week. That of our faithful companion and protector – a donkey. His job was to carry our bags from ‘gite’ to ‘gite’, and ours was simply to follow a map, and walk. Before we left, my younger son, Hugo, aged six, was horrified at the very idea of it all. We are not regular ramblers. Camping, cycling and a walk in the country, yes, but hiking across the Alps for a week, no. This was new territory for us and, as I packed blister plasters over beach towels, and hiking socks over sexy sarongs, I did wonder if a week of nothing but walking and talking was going to make or break us.
The company which organises this hiking holiday is based in Villeplane, in the ‘Alpes Maritimes’ region of France. Our instructions were to find our way to Entrevaux, about 60kms North of Nice, which we did very easily by taking the quaintest of rural trains from Nice itself. We followed the River Var up through its valley of untouched mountain villages, giving us time to get off and take photos as the train driver had a fag break. On board there were peal people, not the botoxed babes we had just left behind on the Promenade des Anglais. Farmers going home after shopping in the city, students studying, and a few tourists thrown into the mix. As we gasped in awe at the Alpine landscape, poor Hugo looked down longingly at the turquoise Mediterranean disappearing into a mere puddle far below, where we had managed to grab a swim on arrival earlier that morning. Just to torture the poor child even more.
Christine Kieffer, who co-owns the hiking company, met us at Entrevaux, a stunning medieval town, with drawbridge over the Var, with a maze of tiny overlapping streets, leading either up to the ancient citadel, or down to the river, which was gushing past at a fair old speed. Christine explained that it was still snow-covered here just ten days previously, and so the river was carrying the full force of the thaw. As we sat sweltering in a café overlooking the river, it was hard to imagine the winter had just passed.
Villeplane was about forty minutes drive away, giving us plenty of time to take in the dramatic gorges of red rock and tumbling waterfalls. This was to become our home for the next few days, but first we had to meet our donkey. One of about fifty owned by Christine, her husband Gerard, and their sons who all work together as a family. Not only do they breed donkeys, but they are also expert mountain guides, conservationists, chefs, and most of all, hosts extraordinaire.
As we drove up the dusty path to her stone and wooden farmhouse, Christine pointed out our home for the first night – a splendid yurt in the middle of a shady field. Shade was already becoming an issue, as we had arrived just in time for a heatwave, with temperatures matching those of August. The yurt was genuine Mongolian, painted in bright traditional colours, and was the most divine way to start our week’s adventure. Responsible tourism is a high priority here too, with compost loo, outdoor showers, chemical-free products, and a huge respect for the natural heritage which towered around us on all sides.
All the food is provided and, judging by the extraordinary meal laid on for us that night, we were not going to go hungry. Using locally-sourced ingredients, and showing off the regional cuisine is a priority for the Kieffers. Villeplane was setting a high standard, starting with an amazing aperitif fortified with some of their home-made marmalade which hadn’t set properly. “Nothing goes to waste in the mountains,” said Jeremie, one of Christine and Gerard’s charming sons, who had prepared a refreshing radish leaf soup, lasagne like I could only dream of making, four local cheeses, and a fruit salad with sprigs of mint (which he popped down to pick in the garden below). The boys wolfed it all, and we downed a delicious ‘digestif’, this time fortified with thyme.
After all that fortifying, and a fine sleep, we got to work early the next morning. Christine showed us maps and talked us through our walking routes, explaining that most of the time we were following the GR52 route, one of several GR walking paths which traverse Europe. Following it is easy, as there are red and white markers along every route, as well as corresponding numbered signposts. Along with our maps and detailed instructions of every twist and turn, we felt in safe hands. The GR’s wind their way mostly across France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium and The Netherlands, and in a wonderful pan-European way manage to work in most languages:Grande Randonnée (French), Grote Routepaden (Dutch), Grande Rota (Portuguese) and Gran Recorrido (Spanish). In France alone, the trails cover approximately 60,000 km. This suddenly made our little bit from village to village seem relatively easy.
Our allocated donkey was a Provencale breed, called Iznogoud, named after a famous French cartoon character, and pronounced as in English, Isnogood. He looked very good to us, however, as he calmly let us prepare him for the journey under Gerard’s careful instruction. We were shown how to brush him, wipe Juniper oil on all his tender parts (yes, all) to keep the flies off and, finally, put his blankets and beautiful handmade saddle on. Both Christine and Gerard were careful to include the children in all the instuctions, pointing out that if the donkey got even one little stone caught under his saddle, he would be in great pain, so keeping him smooth and clean was very important. The boys were hanging on their every word by the end, particularly Louis, our ten year old, who vowed to look after him until our return. “Get to know him”, Gerard said, “when you walk he mustn’t eat, he must work. But when you stop, give him all the cuddles he deserves.”
We had transferred our luggage into two military style bags the night before, which were then placed either side of the
donkey, having been weighed first to make sure he was never lopsided. Last but not least, Christine gave us our picnic, which we tied on top, and off we headed, the children taking turns to lead Isnogoud down the country lane to find our first marker of the day. “Vous etes une belle famille!”, Gerard shouted down to us, giving one final wave before we headed off-road into shady oak woodland, where we began to find our pace. We were only taking on 8 kms that day although, as Christine had rightly warned us, “We never talk in kilometres in the mountains, only ups and downs”. We tackled our first ‘down’ almost immediately, descending the woody slopes of the Cante Valley. These footpaths are extradorinary creations, using the natural formation of the landscape, with tree roots, rock, or compressed layers of oak leaves creating a new path every few hundred metres.
A couple of hours later the ‘belle famille’ hit its first major obstacle at the bottom, where we stopped by the voracious Var, following instructions to unload the donkey, give him water, and eat copious amounts of delicious picnic. The river was terrifyingly fast, so the children were under strict instructions to paddle in a tiny pool while we did the donkey work. One of them decided to put some of the water bottles in the river to cool them, only to watch them be swept away immediately into the torrents. The bottles, that is, not my sons. But the potential dangers made me see red, and a screaming match which must have echoed all the way back to Villeplane began. I knew then that this holiday was going to test us in ways that we hadn’t imagined.
However, French food, sunshine, and a good rest heals all, and there was plenty of that in supply. Hugging Iznogoud did the trick too, who went on to lead our reunited team of mountaineers up over the steepest climb of the trip, along stoney paths of wild thyme, gorse, and Alpine flowers galore. As the wooden signpost for Sauze, our bed for the night, came into sight two hours later, we all cheered and, in a tiny hamlet, we found the confidence to knock on a door and beg for more water. A lovely couple saved the day, and also soaked the boys’ t-shirts so that they had a cool last couple of kilometres up country roads to Sauze, where there was room at the inn.
Arriving into Sauze we met our host, Bernadette, who runs the village ‘auberge’. She showed us the donkey’s field for the night, where to store all the bags, saddle and so on, and took our picnic basket from us, saying she would have it replenished for us in the morning. Then we were taken to our room, a simple, clean, family room in this village auberge, (a small hostel) showered, and came down for aperitifs and dinner by seven. This was to be our evening routine for the week. One of the most striking things about this holiday was one of the most unexpected. The food. Being villages, I naively assumed it would be bistro style ‘steak et frites’. I couldn’t have been more wrong, as we were presented with a huge plate of charcuterie, followed by baked rabbit, and homemade ravioli (stuffed with wild spinach), followed by a vat of crepes. The highlight was the vast array of homemade coulis and sauces, all Bernadette’s specialities based on traditional recipes: Dandelion flower syrup, elderberry jam, and even pumkin jam. Again the kids ate everything, too tired and hungry to be picky.
We continued at this pace for the next few days, following Christine’s carefully planned itinerary. Some days were tougher than others. From Sauze we walked across two valleys to Bouchanières, during which the terrain seemed to change every twenty minutes. For some stretches it felt as if we were in lush Irish meadows, and then suddenly the path changed direction into sprawling Larch-filled woodland. It sometimes felt as if our moods varied as much as the landscape. When it was dry, hot and dusty we tended to fall into a silent determination, concentrating on pushing ahead. Then we would be soothed by shady forest, with a soft pine-needle floor, which brought the spring back into our steps. When the children needed motivating, we did quizzes, sang songs, and gave ourselves little targets. “When we get to that rock at the top of the hill, we’ll have a sweet and feet break”. And there were lots of those. A giant bag of sweets is a must for this trip.
Every evening we collapsed into the arms of different families. Such as at the lovely elderly Jeanne-Marie and Andreas’ gite in Bouchanières, who made the best hot chocolate in the world according to Hugo. We, however, will never forget the fine local veal, the best pasta salad ever for our picnic the next day, and the warmest welcome you could ever imagine from a couple who genuinely love sharing their magnificent views and lifestyle with blow-in’s on a donkey.
Further on at the village of Péone, another mad maze of medieval architecture perching delicately on the side of a cliff, we stayed at the very laid-back, family-run gite, Col de Crous. The next day was a shorter walk so that we could spend the morning looking round the village. However, the nomadic influence must have been starting to take effect, because we all seemed keen to hit the hills again, and retreat back into our newfound peaceful wanderlust.
This holiday confounded all expectations for me. It was much tougher than we had expected, and yet we all rose to the occasion in our own ways, and pushed ourselves beyond limits we had never really set ourselves before. As Hugo approached one of the final numbered signposts on the last day, he said “This holiday was like a treasure hunt without the treasure”. “There’s our treasure”, I shouted, pointing out our beloved yurt peaking through the trees on the other side of the gorge. He smiled and shouted, “Allez, Iznogoud!”, while I basked in pride at what we had achieved as a family, and took in one last exhilarating view of the majestic mountains we had climbed together. We arrived back into Villeplane, hot, filthy, exhausted and totally exhilarated. We chose the Irish rugby anthem to announce our arrival, which echoed rather beautifully around the valley. The hills really were alive with the sound of music now and I, at last, had got my Von Trapp moment.
Where to stay
All accomodation, food, donkey and walking itinerary organised by Itinerance-Trekking (www.itinerance.net, 00-33-4 93 05 56 01. 7 days and nights, € 595 adults and €516 for Children (7-12), not including flights or rail fares.
Novotel Nice (www.novotel.com, 00-33-4-93133093) with rooftop pool, the perfect reward after a week’s walking. Family rooms with no room or breakfast charge for children. Rooms from €129 and late check out for families at 5pm.
Catherine and family travelled to France overland from London with Eurostar and SNCF. From Ireland, take an overnight ferry from Rosslare to Le Havre, www.ldlines.ie, 00-44-844-576-8836 and catch a high-speed train to Nice. For the greener way to travel, contact Irish Rail’s European Rail Reservations, www.irishrail.ie, 01- 703 1885, or for those outside ROI, see RailEurope, www.raileurope.co.uk.
From Nice take the mountain train to Entrevaux from the Chemins de Fer de Provence station, www.trainprovence.com. €18 adults, €9 children, one way.