The beauty of the Tour de France, taking place this year from July 4–26, is that it’s a race that takes its time. Spread over three weeks and spanning both northern and southern swaths of the country, the 21-stage journey isn't just the world's premiere cycling event. It also may just be the best road trip ever compiled. What’s more, each leg—ranging from nearly 140 miles at its longest to roughly 8.5 miles at its shortest—leaves ample time for onlookers to detour from the route for trips to charming French villages nearby.
Whether it’s a tasting at a must-visit winery in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, shopping for 18th-century antiques in Vallabrègues, or getting a dose of contemporary art in Avignon, we picked four stages for which brief detours to some of our favorite locales are quite possible—and highly recommended.
NORTHERN FRANCE: BASSE-NORMANDIE
STAGE 7: Starts in Livarot in Basse-Normany, Northern France
The village of Livarot sits roughly an hour from the northern coastline and the Celtic sea. The neighboring beach towns of Deauville and Trouville, about an hour's drive from Livarot, and Audrieu about an hour west, each boast their own attractions. See below for a few highlights, only a short ride away from the action.
There are plenty of chateaus to pick from in the Normandy area, but one of our favorites is Château d’Audrieu (pictured below), a 1700s-mansion-turned-Relais & Châteaux–property situated in a tiny village of the same name. Each of the 25 rooms and four suites are equal parts sumptuous and cozy, with original wood paneling, wainscoting, and authentic Louis XV and Louis XVI furniture. Rooms from $195; Audrieu; 33-2/31-80-21-52; one hour drive from Livarot; chateaudaudrieu.com.
For a home away from home, stay at Villa Josephine, whose ample charms overrule the lack of luxe amenities—and in some cases, ample space. Book any one of the nine individually decorated rooms—each with its own color scheme and personality—but we have a soft spot for the Imperial room, decked in chartreuse paint and boasting a balcony with views of the sea. Rooms from $270; 23 Rue des Villas, Deauville; 33-2/31-14- 18-00; 50 minutes from Livarot; villajosephine.fr.
Do as Deauville locals do and reserve a late reservation at Chez Miocque, where French TV stars and locals alike mingle over brasserie cuisine, like roast chicken, salad Niçoise, and French onion soup. 81 Rue Eugène Colas, Deauville; 33-2/31-88-09-52; 50 minutes from Livarot.
Less than 10 minutes away from Deauville lies the charming town of Trouville. Go for a stop at Les Vapeurs for their famous mussels à la Normande, steamed in cream. 160 Bd. Fernand-Moureaux, Trouville; 33-2/31-88-15-24; 45 minutes from Livarot; lesvapeurs.fr.
Don’t miss a trip to the Pillet-Saiter Fish Market, where fishmongers sell their daily catches as well as hot soups. Our favorite: the soupe de poisson à la façon de Jeannette for take-away in a plastic bottle. But make sure to stay for a taste of the fresh and sweet bulots (little local whelks) the fishwives put out every so often in a bowl for anyone to sample. Bd. Fernand-Moureaux, Trouville; 33-2/31-88-02-10.
SOUTH OF FRANCE: PROVENCE-ALPES-COTE D’AZUR & RHONE-ALPES
STAGE 15: Ends in Valence
The race heads south for Stage 10, passing just above some of our favorite towns just an hour or so south of Valence, the site of stage 15’s check point. Before following the Tour eastward, consider heading south for stops in Mondragon, Gigondas, Chateauneuf-Du-Pape, Avignon, Graveson, Vallabrègues, Graveson, or Salon-de-Provence, for epic wine, great shopping, and delicious regional cuisine.
Don’t let the bare decor of Restaurant de la Beaugravière deceive you—there is nothing plain about the food and wine at this spot. The restaurant’s owner, Guy Jullien, has a free hand with local black truffles (there is even a separate menu entirely dedicated to dishes using the ingredient) and his cellar stocked with top bottles, including Rayas, Clape, and Chave and other coveted names of the region. Rte. Nationale 7, Mondragon; 33-4/90-40-82-54; one hour from Valence; beaugraviere.com.
Don’t miss a stop in Gigondas to pick up a few bottles of juicy reds from the range of charming boutiques and wine caveaux. Two of our favorites, which happen to be with in walking distance of one another, include the Caveau du Gigondas (Pl. Gabrielle Andéol; 33-4/90-65-82-29; caveaudugigondas.com), which has a long list of appellation wines to choose from, and Château de Saint-Cosme, which has a relaxed farmhouse-style tasting room should sitting and sipping be more your speed (La Fouille et les Florets; 33-4/90-65-80-80; 30 minutes from Valence; saintcosme.com).
One of France's best-known wine appellations, a visit to Châteauneuf-du-Pape is an oenophile’s holy land. The 18th-century Château La Nerthe (pronounced Nairt) is one of the oldest properties in the area. Between the exceptional views—you can see all the way to the Papal Palace in Avignon—and the (slightly grimy) centuries-old cellar, it’s worth the trip for a tour or tasting; never mind that La Nerthe makes some of the best wine in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Look especially for the deep but ultra-refined Cuvée des Cadettes, the estate's top red wine. Rte. de Sorgues, Châteauneuf-du-Pape; 33-4/90-83-70-11; one hour from Valence; chateaulanerthe.fr.
With 19 rooms and two suites, all uniquely decorated in antiques, period tiles, and designer fabrics, the meticulously restored 18th-century-mansion-cum-hotel La Mirande is arguably Provence’s most spectacular place to stay. Just passing through? Try a cooking class or grab tea and homemade pastries in the garden. Rooms, $370-$1,070. At 4 Pl. de la Mirande, Avignon; 33-4/90-85-93-93; about 20 minutes from Valence; la-mirande.fr.
Take a break from all the quaint signifiers of centuries past with a visit to Collection Lambert, Avignon’s cutting-edge contemporary art gallery. The space’s collection and seasonal shows include works by artists like Nan Goldin, Christo, Joseph Beuys, Agnes Martin, and more—all which add a healthy dose of the present to your itinerary. 5 Rue Violette, Avignon; 33-4/90-16-56-20; about 20 minutes from Valence; collectionlambert.fr.
The tradition of crafting traditional rush-seated chairs in Vallabrègues dates back hundreds of years, with some of the oldest artisans dating back to the 19th-century. Fifth-generation company Monleau is one of the oldest surviving companies in town, and their large catalogue of chairs boasts 18th-century-style radassiers (wooden settees with armrests), broad Louis XV-style bergère armchairs, and stools, but they’re perhaps best known for their small, simple Chaise Camarguaise, also known as the "Van Gogh chair.” Every one of them is constructed the old-fashioned way, by hand, and made to order: choose the finish and the exact shade of straw you want for the seat. 44 Rue Nationale, Vallabrègues; 33-4/66-59-20-17; about 1.5 hour from Valence; monleau.com.
A proper dripless candle can feel as rare as a comet, but Ciergerie des Prémontrés in Graveson is the real deal. The local company has been crafting high-quality beeswax and paraffin candles for churches, hotels, and homes since the early 1900s, and whether you’re looking for three-foot-tall ecclesiastical tapers or votives in every color, they’ve got them. (While in town, make the detour doubly worth it with a a stop at the museum dedicated to the Provençal Expressionist Auguste Chabaud.) 2 Ave. du François Atger, Graveson; 33-4/90-95-71-14; about 1.5 hours from Valence; ciergerie.fr.
Take a piece of the south of France home with a block of traditional, handmade soap from Savonnerie Marius Fabre. The century-old company offers a range of rustic, natural products, including a liquid olive oil black soap, shea butter bath soaps, and organic beauty products made with ingredients like primrose and orange blossom. 148 Ave. Paul-Bourret, Salon-de-Provence; 33-4/90-53-24-77; about 1.5 hours from Valence.
STAGE 17: Starts in Digne-les-Bains
Take advantage of the Tour’s day of rest (even the finest athletes need a break) before setting up in Digne-les-Bains for Stage 17. The towns of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, Lourmarin, and Aix-en-Provence make for great detours, where the curious can discover famed local ceramics, Michelin-starred eats, and top-notch antiques.
There may be no finer place in the South of France to find faience—those iconic, tin-glazed earthenware ceramics decorated in polychrome floral designs—than Atelier Soleil, located in the village of Moustiers, renowned for its potters since the 17th century. Run by Franck Scherer, son of decorator Tonia Peyrot, the former owner of the renowned Atelier de Ségriès, Scherer continues the tradition and quality of Ségriès, and the heritage of the village itself, by producing beautiful tableware in a wide range of designs. While traditional styles abound, Scherer also offers a contemporary take on the custom—including tableware with a border of pin-dot holes and layered with gold or platinum glaze. Chemin Marcel Provence and Chemin Quinson, Moustiers-Ste.-Marie; 33-4/92-74-63-05; about one hour from Dignes-Les-Bains; soleil-deux.fr.
A meal at the on the sun-dappled terrace of Michelin-starred Bastide de Moustiers by chef Alain Ducasse alone may be worth the drive to this out-of-the-way village (pictured above). Housed inside a charming country inn tucked away in a ten-acre park, the restaurant is part of the chef’s fastidiously restored 17th-century farmhouse hotel. Extend your stay in town and book one of the 12 exceedingly fresh, individually decorated rooms before getting back on the road. Rooms, $200-$325; Chemin de Quinson, Moustiers-Ste.-Marie; 33-4/92-70-47-47; bastide-moustiers.com.
At Auberge La Fenière, traditional Provençal cuisine gets a Tunisian touch, courtesy of chef Reine Sammut. Originally founded in 1975 in a spot nearby by the Sammut’s in-laws, the restaurant has since expanded into a small hotel. The food, however, is as delicious and fresh as ever thanks to impeccably sourced ingredients—each of whose suppliers receive applause on the back of the menu. Consider dishes like tempura-style sole stuffed with pine nuts and an oyster, or her spin on the traditional cold Tunisian salad, salade frite, made with fried eggplant, fried tomatoes and marinated fresh anchovies. Rte. de Cadenet, Lourmarin; 33-4/90-68-11-79; about one hour and 15 minutes from Dignes-Les-Bains.
The small, self-titled shop Robert Reyre carries a curated selection of mostly 18th-century paintings, and objets from Provence and other regions nearby. Expect to fine refined (rather than rustic) accents from the era, like a 19th-century carved wooden putti—a cupid with a bronze-like patina—an 18th-century folding screen painted with a pastoral panorama, or a extravagantly carved 19th-century walnut copy of a Louis XV commode. At 7 Rue Granet, Aix-en-Provence; 33-4/42-23-31-44; about one hour and 15 minutes from Dignes-Les-Bains.
Follow the narrow, manicured path flanked by plane trees and discover La Pauline, a luxurious bed and breakfast launched by Ita and Régis Macquet. Originally built for Napoleon's sister, Pauline Borghese, the serene Directoire mansion now offers four comfortable double rooms and a two-bedroom suite, all with terraces, set into a new guesthouse and a small pavilion in the gardens above the main house. Rooms, $150-$330; Les Pinchinats, Chemin de la Fontaine des Tuiles, Aix-en-Provence, 33-4/42-17-02-60; la-pauline.com.
A tour through the South of France wouldn’t be complete without a trip to wine shop La Cave du Félibrige from well-reputed seller François Barré—rumor has it that Barré has personal tasting notes on 16,000 wines. Set aside time to peruse the bottles on display in the small, dusty shop—or the much wider offerings in the "reserve book" on the counter. 8 Rue des Cordeliers, Aix-en-Provence; 33-4/42-96-90-62; aix-en-provence.com.
FINISH LINE: Paris
After catching the race’s culmination at the Champs Élysée, there’s plenty of other sites to keep you busy once you’ve landed in the City of Light. For where to eat (not-to-miss desserts, top-rated restaurants, and the coolest new chef), sleep (our favorite Philippe Starck–designed suite at Le Royal Monceau), and the most interesting things to do (the best movie theaters, the reopened Picasso museum, etc.), consult our Paris Travel Guide.
Photo Credits: Chateau d'Audrieu, courtesy of Relais & Châteaux; Bastide de Moustiers, © Pierre Monetta and David Bordes.