Top

In August 2023 we took a long road trip from Revonnas to the Spanish Pyrenees, to the Costa Brava, to the southwestern beaches of France. Here’s what went right – and wrong – and how we’d adapt for an even better trip.

Live Map Version here.

Day 1

We made a quick jump to the Southwest by a fairly direct route, reaching the Aveyron within roughly four hours. After Clement-Ferrand, the road south is lovely, and in great condition.

*Repas à la Ferme de la Violette, just outside of Laguiole, was a rather uninspired choice for lunch. It’s clearly popular, but the service was quite indifferent and the food on the average side. My salad was bad, Galen’s Aligot and sausage decent.

In Laguiole itself, the **Forge de Laguiole is a must for knife lovers. It’s a bit overwhelming – for the crowds, the prices, the very modern building with horrible glare and lights.

About an hour from Conques, Estaing is on the banks of the River Lot, and dominated by its 11th-century castle. It’s not a bad place for an overnight (though I think we won’t be back; two visits were plenty), but for most it’s a 1 hr stop with a few photogenic spots. The village is on the Camino de Santiago, and its 16th-century bridge is Unesco-listed. My biggest complaint is that the town seems really tired of their tourism crowd, perhaps just worn out by the constant influx of hikers who pass through.

This is not an area with a lot of “fancy” options for dining and lodging. I think we made the best choice for dinner by choosing **La Brasserie du Chateau, which overlooks the river and has friendly, cheerful staff. It’s affordable and food comes out quickly. It was edible, cooked in advance and reheated.

Our hotel, *Hôtel Auberge Saint Fleuret, was borderline acceptable (clean, central), but the breakfast really was quite bad and the overall experience just very tired. There’s a pool, and staff that just seem completely disinterested in hosting people.

What I’d do differently: stay in Conques! It’s a lovely place, with history, and most don’t bother to stay the night.

Full Estaing and Aveyron notes here.

Day 2

Another driving day towards the Pyrenees; we drove about 4 hours with a lot of stops along the way. About 10 minutes from Estaing, Espalion was on our list of potential future overnights – after a brief visit, we removed it from the list. The **Pont-Vieux (Old Bridge) is part of the World Heritage Sites of the Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France, and is worth a short detour, as it’s rather pretty. There are also a few highly ranked restaurants, and a few churches made of lovely red sandstone (**Église Saint-Hilarian-Sainte-Foy de Perse, built around 1060, is the most notable). Aside from that, it’s a quick drive through town, and I wouldn’t make a major point to stop.

We made a very brief stop to see the impressive **Trou de Bozouls – a horseshoe shaped gorge, with a 10th century church in the distance. The town had a good feel, lots of foot traffic.

The next stop was Rodez, which did little for me – we wandered the old town, and made a stop at Cathédrale Notre-Dame de l’Assomption de Rodez, both of which felt fairly empty of personality. I wouldn’t make a point of returning, other than to see Musée Fenaille, which reportedly has the best collection of Menhirs in Europe.

**Brasserie De La Halle was a very decent lunch in an out-of-the-way spot (Gimont) – we had salads, which were fresh and well dressed. The town doesn’t seem to have much history, but it’s old enough to have a church from the 1300s, a huge market hall, and fortifications, which the sign said was to keep out “Les Anglais” – presumably from the 100 years war.

Our stop for the night, Eugénie-les-Bains, is best known for housing a spa resort and three restaurants, all belonging to chef Michel Guérard, inventor of cuisine minceur. It’s all fairly in the middle of nowhere, though a pretty nowhere, with sunflowers and rolling hills. The town itself is very classic “spa town,” with a small main street with cute shops, and a public garden with sculptures.

We had a decidedly mixed experience, and I’m not entirely sure I’d go back (Galen is willing to give it another shot). On the main property, there are a range of hotels and dining experiences at different price points, from “reasonable” to “frightening outer edges of the Michelin price scale.” We chose the affordable, but with the expectation (as their materials say) that we could use the spas and pools. That proved not to be the case – the spas required prior reservations, even for guests, and the nice pool was “too crowded to accommodate us” (despite being nearly empty). The hotel – *La Maison Rose – has lovely rooms, and oddly terrible service, with a lot of people hiding in the kitchen trying to avoid talking to you. On the positive side, **L’Auberge de la Ferme aux Grives was excellent – a real bargain for the price, with great service and delicious food.

Skip Espalion and Rodez entirely. Consider a stop in Auch for lunch – we haven’t been, but from the roadside it’s very impressive, with castles and churches dominating a hilltop.

Consider staying in Pau instead of Eugenie-les-Bains.

Day 3

We set off for Pau. It’s so lovely – a surprise of a town, with Pyrenees peaks in the distance and beautiful buildings. It’s famously the birthplace of King Henry IV, and has had several waves of interest on specific themes – it was very popular with soldiers returning from the Peninsular War with Spain in 1815; which turned it into an important winter resort town. Home of Frances’ first golf course. Home of the Wright Brothers’ first aviation school. There’s a racetrack in town, which still hosts a city circuit (most years, at least).

Our visit was quite brief – we’d like to return for the races and an overnight stay. The *Château de Pau was worth a stop, the guided tour took over an hour and was quite detailed.

From Pau, we went quite a bit out of our way to drive several passes in the Pyrenees – all very well signed at the moment because of the recent Tour de France. If you like driving passes, this was very worthwhile.

**Col du Tourmalet was short – only 10 km, more traffic than the other passes we took, good road surface. Tight and curvy. As a ski area, it looked fairly large, not very steep, and didn’t rank high on our list of future destinations.

**Col d’Aubisque was our favorite – pretty, no people (almost no cars), longer – 18 km. Good surface, tight curves, and more majestic views.

**Col du Pourtalet, the last pass of the day, crosses over into Spain. It was similar to Col d’Aubisque, though the road is great on the French side and horrible on the Spanish side. Also not very crowded.

As mentioned above, consider staying in Pau. Full Pau notes here.

We intended to visit nearby Lordes, and sacrificed it for more time on the passes, but I’d like to return to experience it.

A town we liked along the passes – Eaux Bonnes (which was camper central, but in an appealing way).

Days 4-5

Jaca is in the Pyrenees mountains of northeast Spain – a pretty spot with easy access to hiking, biking, and skiing. It’s known for the 16th-century Ciudadela de Jaca, a pentagonal fortress that houses the Museum of Military Miniatures. The city is a stop along the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route – you see signs for it everywhere, and large numbers of people in hiking gear.

We spent two nights just outside of town in Barós – our hotel, **Hotel Barosse, is an excellent choice. It’s quiet, the hosts are lovely, you have great views of the mountains, and the food was by far the best we ate in the area. 

The **Ciudadela de Jaca is more interesting in concept than reality (most impressive from overhead). The miniatures are fairly extensive, if you like that sort of thing.

Outside of town we did find the Monasterio San Juan de la Peña worthwhile. The big draw is the **Monasterio Viejo, built into the rock. It’s impressive, with some elements dating back to the 10th century. There’s a very good audio guide to explain the building and stages of evolution. Expect big crowds.

This is an area that requires a car and would be otherwise quite difficult to deal with. Jaca itself I wouldn’t make a major point to visit, unless you have a specific sporting activity in mind.

Full notes on the region here.

We made a point to head into the backcountry for (moderate) hiking and to check out the more popular towns around Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park. It’s very pretty and dramatic scenery, with waterfalls, a lot of greenery, and impressive rock formations. We took the relatively easy **Ruta por el Cañon de Añisclo, a 45-minute walk that included the historic Hermitage of San Úrbez, multiple bridges over the gorge, great views of people learning how to canyon, and a fair amount of shade (important on a 90 degree day). The water levels were quite low, but it was August and it’s likely more impressive at other times of the year.

Getting there was half the fun, via a narrow, not particularly smooth, mountain road. Continuing east, we had a great lunch at **Casa Lisa, in tiny Buerba.

Our final stop in the area was Aínsa – a hilltop town at the confluence of several (mostly-dry) rivers. Besides the surrounding mountain landscape, the 12th-century Iglesia parroquial de Santa María church and the 11th-century castle are the main sights of the town. It was a total skip in my book – the surrounding area is either quarried or under construction, the town exists entirely for tourists, and the food was fairly universally terrible. We stayed at *Hotel Los Siete Reyes, which at least had big rooms (uneven service, a bit tired). *Bar Tapas L’alfil had the best reviews, and good service – greasy, bland food. We did like the small bird sanctuary in the castle walls; otherwise there’s not much of the castle left.

Our brief impressions of the towns we drove through:

  • Towns around Panticosa, skip (for non-ski visits).
  • Biescas is relatively appealing, nicer architecture. Nearby Gavin looks nice as well, on a much smaller scale.
  • Torla-Ordesa is in a pretty spot, but we were put off by the crowds (it’s basically a staging area for hikers and adventure tourism; when we drove through there were thousands of people milling about and not a parking spot to be found, despite football-stadium sized parking areas). Just south of it, Broto looked much calmer.

Day 6

Driving to the coast, we passed through several towns on a very pretty road – coming from the flats to the east, the area around Olot is very green, lush – part of the Garrotxa Volcanic Zone Natural Park. Olot is known for its ‘volcanic cuisine’: purple potatoes, buckwheat, white corn, truffles, cornmeal porridge, piumoc sausage and sheep’s milk cheese, and has some historic architecture. It’s not a pretty town, we did not stop. Adjacent Castellfollit de la Roca unfortunately is the same – from a distance, very instagram-y, up close, quite run down.

Besalú is a tourist magnet – while I have no desire to stay there, it’s pretty and packed with restaurants, a good lunch break. The old medieval village, set next to a river, is accessible via an impressive 11th-century bridge and a castle-like entranceway. We had a good lunch at **Restaurant Cúria Reial, overlooking the river.

Days 7-8

Cadaqués, one of the larger towns in the Costa Brava, was Salvador Dalí’s long term residence, with white-washed buildings wrapped in bougainvilleas lining the hills. The climate is near perfect – in August, the days were mid-80s and humid, but with cooler nights, and the ocean is just cold enough to feel refreshing. It’s relatively small and very busy – packed with French and Spanish tourists, with a smattering of Dutch and British visitors – but has a nice holiday feel to it. Unlike many holiday destinations, the relatively remote location (hard to get to without a car, not particularly close to anything else) means that people stay, so it doesn’t clear out at night – if anything, it gets busier.

In general, the food was quite good. Highlights include:

  • **Chirashi Cadaqués is easy to miss, tucked in an alley just off the water. It’s good sushi, friendly staff.
  • ***Compartir was great, a 10 course tasting menu elegantly executed, in a pretty garden patio. Wine was excellent (including natural wine options), very good service. The restaurant is run by three chefs who previously worked at El Bulli.
  • **Restaurant La Sirena, a small restaurant with a few tables installed at the end of a typical Cadaqués dead end. Their paella was delicious, very good service, a nice find. Reserve well in advance and ask for an outdoor table; the interior is small and stuffy.
  • **Talla – “inventive and elaborate tapas prepared from fresh ingredients,” “often considered the best restaurant in Cadaqués.” While this is big talk, the food was really good, served right on the water.

Aside from the food, the highlight of the visit was the ***Salvador Dali house – we just loved it. Charming, intimate, beautifully preserved. Reserve well in advance. We were impressed enough by it to make a next stop at the **Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres, which houses the largest collection of the artist’s work in a space conceived and created by the artist himself. Empty of crowds, it would be an impressive, if deeply odd, experience, where you get a real sense for the breadth of his talent (themes, mediums, techniques). It was PACKED though, to an extremely unpleasant degree, despite careful ticketing in advance measures. 

We spent two days and three nights, which was just about right – plenty of time to see everything, experience all of the beaches, and figure out the rhythm of the town. It wasn’t our favorite beach destination of all time (doubt we’ll be back), but it certainly wasn’t bad, and if you’re near Barcelona, it’s a good option.

The best hotel options we saw for a future visit were Hotel Playa Sol (playasol.com), which is nicely maintained and well-situated next to the water, Hotel Villa Gala ( https://hotelvillagala.com/) on the hill, and as a distant third Hotel Llane Petit (www.llanepetit.com), which looks a little basic, but has a great waterside location.

Full Cadaqués notes here.

Day 9

Honorable mention to Fleury, near Narbonne – a small town a bit out of the way, surrounded by pretty wine country. While the town isn’t a destination, **La Tulipe Noire is delightful – great wines, food with an emphasis on local sourcing, wonderful service, in a pretty courtyard. 

Our destination, Arles, is wonderful – one of our favorite finds of recent years. It’s full of Roman artifacts, museums, restaurants, and cute independent shops. It’s clearly popular – we saw a walking tour from Viking river cruises, and lots and lots of Brits – but it doesn’t feel crowded, just lively. We want to spend more time here!

Walking around the town, somewhat aimlessly, is the best way to experience everything. There’s the amphitheater (now known as the arenas of Arles), the ancient theater, and surprising arches around many corners. 

Specifically, what did we love? The ***Museon Arlaten – my this is good. It’s an “ethnography” museum with a lot of history, wonderful artifacts, in a dramatic setting. I think it’s fabulous, a must see.

The **Museum of Ancient Arles and Provence, while not huge, was another winner. Do it after you’ve wandered the town, to appreciate what they found in the local area. It’s not crowded, air-conditioned, and has a small and well curated collection.

**Chardon was a lovely dining experience – Every two to three months, a new team takes over the kitchens. Our server was the (British) sommelier, who had great taste and was fun to talk to. The food was just okay, but in the setting, it didn’t really matter. 

I booked a room at Le Cloître (Hôtel à Arles), which looked very nice – for the wrong month. We made a last minute reservation at the *Hôtel & Spa Jules César Arles – MGallery. It’s terrible, extremely tired, pretty dingy, poor food. There’s a very sad pool on the backside and the rooms smell like smoke. Skip!

Day 10

The Camargue is a marshy coastal region in southern France famous for its (formerly) wild horses, birds, and salt marshes. We had a decent time in Aigues-Mortes – it was a fine place to visit, but one trip was enough. There are flamingos, but we saw more further east, outside of the Camargue. Horses are everywhere; if that’s your thing there are many hotels waiting to cater to your horse-petting and riding desires.

Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is a surprisingly sprawling holiday destination (second only to Arles for population in the district) – miles and miles of condos that eventually reach a sandy, fairly calm beach. It’s popular with French families, and has a cheerful, downmarket party vibe. We visited to see the (fairly unexciting) church. It has an interesting historical background; aside from that I wouldn’t recommend it as a stop.

The medieval walled city of Aigues-Mortes was built by Louis IX as a port of departure for the Crusades after struggles (particularly taxation) using Italian ports or Marseille for transporting troops to the Crusades. It’s not exactly at the sea, rather a marshy area they built canals too. The smallish walled town built in the late 1200s is rather spectacular, in very good condition.

People come to this area to see the walls – a worthy short stop. I’d give it about 3-4 hours, unless you stay at ​​**Villa Mazarin, which was quite lovely. We worked hard to see everything we could, but paired with a truly lovely, elegant room and pool time in a fairly private courtyard, it made for a good overnight. Food was fine, not remarkable.

**Les Salins d’Aigues Mortes was very good. We didn’t book early enough (several days ahead) to take the petit train, but I didn’t regret it – walking at our own pace without a group, even on a hot day, was quite pleasant. It’s very scenic in an electrically colored way.

Taking a *boat tour of the canals is not worth it at all. We were getting bored of the town at this point and it didn’t really help, a very low key event.

If you look at the map, we probably did this leg of the trip in the wrong order – it would have been more efficient to start in Aigues-Morte, then Arles.

Full post on the area here.

Day 11

The Giens Peninsula juts out from Hyères. It’s a major tourist destination as a day trip (along the long sandy strip connecting to the populated part) – thousands of cars, thousands of people. There’s a second road that’s a surprise – the old salt evaporation ponds, today marshland known for its population of flamingos (there were many!).

Despite hiccups, to follow, we liked it and would consider returning. The south side inlets for ocean swimming are wonderful. (Don’t stay on the north side, totally different experience.) In mid-August 2023, it was fairly quiet, calm – not packed at all, quite relaxing. It has a low-key vibe – with a better lodging option, this would be a strong recommendation.

We stayed at *Le Provençal – the only hotel we saw, aside from camping and family-oriented options. Aside from the pool (which they said was part of the hotel, I’m not entirely sure if that’s true), it was pretty terrible. Really worn out, not particularly clean, awful and expensive breakfast. They also have a few restaurants, including the expensive and not-good *Le Bar Du Soleil. Apparently the next generation is working to tune it up (expect it to be a long process).

Just southeast of the peninsula is Île de Porquerolles – on our list for a visit.

Getting to Giens was a fairly long drive – it was perhaps not the best choice for our last day, but we wanted to see more of the south of France around Marseille and get a sense of what it would be like as a destination. I’d like to go back, after doing a lot of research on where to stay, as it’s HUGE. We also checked out fancy Cassis (interested, but book a fancy hotel with parking, otherwise it could be very overwhelming).

Thumbs down on La Ciotat, unfortunately. We had an okay lunch at **The Cotton Club in the marina. It’s not a super crowded area, even in August, but was lacking architectural charm, and didn’t feel like a place we’d want to spend much time. 

Do take the slightly longer route from Cassis, however, to drive the gorgeous ***Route des Crêtes, which overlooks the coastal cliffs.

Heading east we drove through Bandol (okay) and Saint-Cyr-Sur-Mer (also okay) – didn’t look like bad choices, just not particularly exciting. Better than La Ciotat. Toulon just felt very large and industrial.

post a comment