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Summer Holiday Planning: Home (UK) or away (FRANCE)?

Shall we plan a caravan holiday in UK or shall we be a little more adventurous and cross The Channel?
 
There is little doubt that most of us will choose the first option at present in view of the obvious negative travelling impact that Coronavirus has produced. But eventually life as we used to know it will largely return and many of us will start to re-consider the merits of a Continental holiday, so with slightly more optimistic sounds coming from authorities about foreign travel, it might be a thought provoking and fun exercise to try to draw some regional comparisons between UK areas and vaguely similar geographical and cultural areas in France. I crave your indulgence in allowing a little poetic licence in drawing what may not, at first glance, be obvious similarities.
 
I have restricted my Continental musings to France for 2 reasons, first, it is the most popular touring ground for UK visitors, and secondly it makes the comparison proposition slightly easier than including wider European areas, even though Germany, Spain and Italy could provide some very worthy contenders.
 

Shall we go to Cornwall or Brittany?

 
This is perhaps the easiest comparison. There are obvious similarities of coastline and culture, extending, I understand, to language and dialect. From the scenic viewpoint, both areas enjoy magnificent coastal areas from rugged coastline with character full fishing harbours and windswept cliffs, to beautiful sandy beaches and inland areas of wild and windswept moorland.  Towns and villages such as Fowey, Falmouth and St. Ives in Cornwall, and St Malo, Vannes and Concarneau in Brittany, are all places full of history and tradition. Major similarities exist also in that 2 of the main income sources arise from tourism and fishing.
Food and drink are always important factors for us in any holiday and here the comparisons continue, seafood of all types are dominant in both cuisines, where better places to eat fresh fish and fantastic shellfish. Each community would champion their own cause in specific cases, there would be a monumental argument, for instance, whether the best oysters come from, the Helford River in Cornwall, or from Cancale, just round the corner from St Malo. There might just be a reasonable consensus however that Cornwall has the best pasties and Brittany produces the best crepes.
Fantastic features of both locations are the almost mirror images of St Michael’s Mount and le Mont -St-Michel. Both these iconic locations require the crossing of a tidal affected causeway. Mont-St-Michel is larger and is more commercially developed than St Michael’s Mount, but they should both be near the top of the list as places to visit.
It would probably have to be conceded that Brittany has slightly better weather, particularly on the southern shoreline of the peninsular. On more than one occasion we have arrived by Brittany Ferries in St Malo in grey mist, but a couple of hours drive across to the south coast has changed that to bright sunshine.
 
 
Mont St Michel
 
St Michaels Mount
 

Shall we go to The Cotswolds or Alsace?

 
This one takes a bit more imagination! There are obvious similarities in that both areas are landlocked so there will not be any conflict about the best beaches.
 
I am given to see this as a viable contrast based partly on the type of rural and undulating geography but mostly by the common characteristic of extremely attractive towns and villages, built in local style. The Cotswolds will be familiar to many UK travellers, but The Alsace perhaps rather less so. This is a shame because the Alsace and Lorraine (to give it it’s full name) department of France encompasses the best of both worlds of France and Germany in that it has the almost indefinable French chic which can be rather unkept looking at times but balanced by the spick and span influence of Germany – a winning combination. This is perhaps not surprising as Alsace is separated from Germany along it’s eastern border by the mighty River Rhine, The territory has changed hands many times in history and although in France, many of the locals speak the German language.
 
Conversely, The Cotswold could not be more quintessentially English, distinguished by the golden, mellow stone buildings and thatched rooves, there are countless small villages and towns that are almost impossibly chocolate-box pretty. The wealth that was historically generated by wool is evidenced by beautiful small towns such as Burford, Winchcombe and Stow-on the-Wold.
 
The Alsace towns and villages, on the other hand, are masterpieces of black and white half-timbered construction, often with steeply sloping roof lines and narrow winding streets. Amongst the most admired smaller places are Riquewihr and Ribeauville with many eating opportunities but more significantly, many small wine producers offering tastes of their produce, for Alsace is a hidden gem in the wine producing areas of France. Larger towns that are well worth visiting are Strasbourg in the north and Colmar further south. 
For anyone with an interest in Motor Cars, right on the southern edge of Alsace is Mulhouse (actually in Germany) and the quite magnificent Schlumpf Collection, a Motor Museum like no other, visit if you can, great for a rainy day.
 
Riquewihr
 
Chipping Campden
 

Shall we go to either the English or French Riviera?

 
This is an obvious one, lead by name rather than other characteristics, both areas provide appealing seaside destinations such as Torquay and Nice. Rather bravely it is Torquay that threw down the gauntlet when it claimed to represent the English Riviera. Actually, quite a small area including Paignton and perhaps Brixham although a fairer fight might be to extend this from Lyme Regis and Sidmouth in the east to the southern Cornish Coast in the west. Certainly, the area around Torbay provides a great example of classical UK seaside resorts, drawing strongly still on it’s Victorian and Edwardian past.
 
However, with the greatest respect for Torbay, I cannot help but think that the English Riviera is fighting a losing battle, for they have invited comparison with a legendary stretch of coastline stretching from St-Tropez in the west to Monte Carlo in the east. Between these two giants are many other beautiful and established places such as St Maxime, Cannes, Antibes and Nice to name but a few. Often, but not always lovely beaches, colourful and atmospheric old towns, and not forgetting the must mention je ne sais quoi!
The climate is also clearly more reliable on the Cote D’Azure, although for many, myself included, July and August would certainly be too warm, give me a nice 21 degrees in Torquay any day!
 
But, the South of France is a long way away. If you live in Chesterfield as I do, we can be in Torbay in a decent day of travelling. On the other hand, it will take the best part of a day to just get to Dover for the ferry, then perhaps 3 more days (you are supposed to be on a relaxing holiday!) to cover the nearly 850 miles from Calais to Nice.
 
Torbay
 
Cannes
 

Shall we go to The Highlands of Scotland or The French Alpine Region?

 
Let’s define these two areas, I mean The Highlands and Islands of Scotland and the area in eastern France stretching from Cannes and Nice in the south to The Haute Savoie in the north, so two quite big areas. What draws me to group them together is that they both have mountains and they both have spectacular coastal scenery and lakes or lochs.
 
On two counts it’s a question of scale and by comparison we arrive at an honourable draw. Scotland has a great advantage in relation to length of coastline and what a coastline it is, especially on the west side. From Thurso in the far north and along the shore heading west, there are unbelievably picturesque cliffs and wide expanses of glistening golden sands, on a fine day it looks more like The Caribbean than Northern Scotland. Then turning south. past Gairloch and Ullapool to Fort William the delights continue with views across to the islands of Lewis (on a clear day), Skye and Mull before a natural journeys end at Oban. The French coastline is much shorter, from St- Tropez to Monte Carlo is only about 80 miles but it is quality if not quantity. Much less rugged than Scotland but much more sophisticated and developed, for all that it’s a Scottish win for me.
Undeniably both areas have mountains, but it’s all a question of scale. Ben Nevis is the highest peak in Scotland (and UK) at 4008 ft. above sea level whereas Mont Blanc in the Haute Savoie measures up at 15407 ft. above sea level. No question then, the French Alps are just plain higher and more spectacular, whilst winter sports exist in Scotland with something of a struggle most years, the extra hight of the Alpine Range in France makes for a long season for winter sports enthusiasts. Perhaps then a win for France but almost purely on scale.
 
There is an opportunity to declare an honourable draw on one more category, usually where there are mountains there are lakes. Scotland has many but the largest and deepest in The Highlands is the infamous Loch Ness. The French contender is Lake Annecy to the north of the area. The town of Annecy stands at the northern edge of this beautiful lake and is itself a joy to visit.
 
 To finish on a culinary note, in the Haute Savoie and in Annecy itself, they have a wonderfully tasty dish call Tartiflette, this is a dish from Savoy in the French Alps and is made with potatoes, reblochon cheese, lardons and onions………… and surely you would not visit Scotland without sampling Haggis!
 
Annecy
 
Fort Augustus on Loch Ness
 
 
I hope that there are some ideas here, if not for this year, then next – Happy and safe travelling!!
 
 

Michael Varley
Published on 2021-03-24