About to embark on a road trip across the Channel, perhaps to start looking for your second home? Then spice up your journey by stopping at France’s ‘villages étapes’.
If you travelled down through France this summer, you won’t be surprised to hear that the country boasts the longest road network in Europe. The roads are generally emptier than the UK and well maintained, so it’s a pleasant place to discover from behind the wheel.
You’ll spot the words ‘village étape’ on a sign next to a place name
Being twice the size of the UK, however, you do often need to stop off on the way. This is why a nationwide scheme has been set up to highlight the most enjoyable and convenient places to stop, whether for lunch, a spot of exploring or a bed for the night. The scheme is called ‘village étape’.
You’ll spot the words ‘village étape’ on a sign next to a place name. This government-sponsored badge endorses somewhere for being an authentic, working village that combines a minimum level of amenities/services with local character. All this makes it an ideal and pleasant place to spend time. Bear in mind, your other options are likely to be a soulless motorway service station or grey suburb on the edge of a town. The word étape means ‘step’ because they form a series of stepping stones across France.
For a village to qualify as a ‘village étape’ it should be close to an A road or toll-free motorway and offer quality hotel and/or B&B accommodation, a campsite and space to park a camper van. The weary traveller should have a choice of restaurants with traditional cuisine, plus basic amenities including a chemist, grocer, garage, ATM, butcher and bakery. If you’re stopping off with children, there will be public toilets, a children’s play and picnic area. Got the dog in the car? No problem, there will be walking trails. All this in a village with fewer than 5,000 people. The village will also be able to demonstrate sustainable development and will maintain its local surroundings.
Of course, for some house-hunters in France, a village étape could also be just the type of community they are looking to buy and/or live in. Certainly, they can be a good guide to the character of an area.
There are currently 42 villages étape across France, with more under consideration. Two areas with an especially high density of them are between Caen in Normandy and Rennes in Brittany, and off the A20 motorway heading south from Châteauroux as it passes through Limoges and the Limousin.
“In recent years, I’ve visited three different villages étapes, all in the Limousin area, and each one has been a real gem,” said Richard Way, consultant editor of PropertyGuides.com. “Each has been full of historic architecture and in a pretty setting, typically on a river. The first was Bellac, where we stayed in a family-run hotel called Le Central. We strolled across a medieval bridge down to a bar with seating next to the river. In fact, the bar was run by a British expat. It’s a popular area with Brits, given its rustic character and affordable property prices – less than €150,000 for a detached home with land five minutes from the village.
“This year, we stopped for the night in Bessines-sur-Gartempe, an equally pretty village, close to a lake. A short stroll took us to a historic bridge. We stayed and ate in the family-run Logis Hôtel Bellevue.
“Our third village étape experience was lunch and a stroll at Uzerche, so picturesque it’s often dubbed the ‘Pearl of the Limousin’. As a hilltop citadel town in the bend of a river, Uzerche’s stunning architecture is especially rich in medieval arches and turrets.”
You can find out about all 42 villages étapes on the website www.village-etape.fr.