4 ways to experience slow tourism in France

What about exploring France by taking it easy, taking your time, savouring encounters and landscapes, and simply soaking up the stillness and beauty? Whether you're on foot, on a bike, on the water or on horseback, France is a wonderful outdoor playground bursting with relaxed adventure itineraries. Here are our tips for living life in the slow lane.

Bike rides and early starts

With 22,800km of cycle routes and greenways, 5,500km of regional tourist routes and 3,000 road and mountain bike circuits, the Tour de France's home country has no shortage of great two-wheeled escapes. Choose from a range of bikes - classic road, mountain or electric - and hurtle down the Champagne hillsides, climb the Auvergne mountains or Alpine passes, pedal with your hair blowing in the wind on the Atlantic coast, or saunter from chateau to chateau in the Loire Valley.

Whether you opt for a one-day loop or a longer route in stages, every region has their own range of options, over and above the major routes that criss-cross the whole of France. The highly practical France Vélo Tourisme website lists them all. At the top of the list, with 900 sumptuous kilometres from Nevers to Saint-Brévin, the Loire à Vélo trail boasts the 'maillot jaune' in terms of annual rider numbers. But the Véloscénie from Paris to the Mont-Saint-Michel, the ViaRhôna connecting Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean through vineyards and lavender fields, and the Vélodyssée, undulating from Brittany to the Basque Country, are also popular choices. There's also the Vélomaritime, with its 1,500kms and almost uninterrupted sea views from Roscoff in Finistère to Dunkirk in Northern France.

So you can take your hands off the handlebars, so to speak, Accueil Vélo takes care of the logistics. There are 3,200 service providers throughout France offering services to cyclists: accommodation, catering, repairers, rental companies, tourist sites and tourist offices. All you have to do is ride and enjoy, knowing that the French Cycling Federation has also approved some 650 specific cycling tourism addresses. Time to get in the saddle!

France Cycle Tourism (External link)
'Cyclists Welcome' (External link)
Loire à Vélo (Loire by Bike) (External link)
ViaRhôna (External link)
Vélodyssée (External link)
Véloscénie (Véloscenic) (External link)
Vélomaritime (External link)

Hiking: the best way to walk

Itchy feet? Lace up your shoes, grab your poles and get out onto France's hiking trails, coastal paths, seaside dunes, country lanes and mountain passes. With 11 national parks, 54 regional natural parks and 180,000km of marked trails including 65,000 for long-distance hiking (GR), France is a walker's paradise. Take a simple day trip around the pretty hilltop villages of the Luberon or try a bivouac trek in the Alps around Mont Blanc, or around the Pyrenean craters.

Fancy an initiation? The Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage trails, and in particular the famous Via Podiensis which follows the GR65 from Puy-en-Velay in Auvergne, should inspire you. Enjoy wide open spaces, beautiful views and friendly tables in stopover gites.

Other renowned routes include the Via Alpina, the Chemin de Stevenson (to be tackled with or without a donkey), the extraordinary mountainous GR20 in Corsica or Brittany's coastal GR34, where you hardly ever see customs' officers despite its nickname. There are vast variations in landscape, duration and ability level in France - so to make your choice easier, the French Hiking Federation has produced several collections of precious topo-guides stuffed with info. The Federation is also responsible for maintaining the GR and smaller PR routes.

French Hiking Federation (External link) (French only)
My GR (External link) (French only)
French National Parks (External link)
French Regional Natural Parks (External link)

River tourism: take the plunge

Ready to cast off the moorings of everyday life? To unplug with the slow rhythm of a river cruise, surrounded by greenery with just the sound of lapping water? With its majestic rivers and canals, France is the ideal boating destination. It offers 8,500km of waterways, of which 6,700 are officially labelled as navigable ('Voies Navigables de France'), making it the proud owner of Europe's largest river network. Time to embark on a floating adventure through a landscape dotted with elegant chateaux, picturesque villages, lockkeepers' houses bedecked with flowers and beautiful port towns.

You can travel by barge along the canals of the Rhône, Burgundy and Midi at a relaxed speed of 7km/hour. These motorised houseboats (no licence required) make holidays with family or friends feel effortless - but to truly experience 'river tourism', you have to set foot on land, too. Combine gentle navigation with cycling along the ViaRhôna or the Loire à Vélo, or hiking or horseback riding on the towpaths. Combine all that with exploring the local food, heritage and traditions - and you'll understand what a holiday on the waterways is all about.

Navigable Waterways of France (External link) (French only)
Le Boat - River Cruising (External link) (French only)
Locaboat Holidays (External link)
Nicols - Boat Rentals (External link)

On horseback, without galloping

While it's best to have a bit of training before embarking on a long-distance ride, there's nothing to stop you going slowly on the beach at sunset in Brittany or Normandy, between flamingos and herdsmen's huts in Camargue, or along the Cézallier plateau in Auvergne.

Gaining height on horseback also provides new points of view to admire the châteaux of the Loire, the great vineyards of Burgundy and Bordeaux, or the Bay of the Mont-Saint-Michel. Trekking horses are ideal for beginners, accustomed to their environment and moving with a sure footing, so you can experience unspoilt corners without needing prior experience. Some 8,000 equestrian centres and specialist agencies will get you started - and the Geo Cheval website can suggest routes throughout France.

For wilder adventures, set off at full speed on the Route d'Artagnan, a European benchmark. Departing from Lupiac in Occitanie, where the proud Gascon musketeer of King Louis XIV hailed from, the route stretches all the way to the Netherlands via the beautiful Loire Valley. Head to Chambord and its enormous parkland for memorable cavalcades in the centuries-old forests.

Thinking of a more peaceful ride? Chugging along in total safety, donkeys also make affectionate guides and travel companions for family trips. Load your picnic, bags and kids and off you go, either on your own or accompanied by a country guide. From the Brittany coast to the thyme-scented paths of Provence, the National Donkey and Hiking Federation provides a comprehensive list of donkeys and suitable routes throughout France.

French Riding Federation (External link) (French only)
Route d'Artagnan (External link)
GeoCheval (External link) (French only)
National Donkey and Hiking Federation (External link) (French only)