You’ll find your own remote, undiscovered places as you travel around, but here are my top-ten selections of the most underrated destinations in France to start you off.
If you're after underrated destinations, the whole of the Auvergne will qualify. It's a glorious mountainous area -- remote, wild and rural and with a remarkable geology. The Allier River runs through it, starting at its source near Mende, and gathering strength and power until it joins up with the Loire near Nevers.
From the market town of Langogne to sleepy Brioude, you can follow the Allier's serpentine flow from the scenic train ride. For the active, there's good white water rafting and kayaking -- your only companions the birds of prey soaring in the skies above. The historic-minded can explore the small rustic châteaux associated with the family of the hero of the American Revolution, the Marquis of Lafayette.
2. Le Puy-en-Velay
Approaching Le Puy across a high plateau, three extraordinary landmarks suddenly come into view: a towering red statue of the Madonna, a dark basalt cathedral and a chapel perched on a 270ft high lava pinnacle. In the heart of deepest France, medieval Le Puy was one of the starting points for the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and still attracts serious walkers. In September the city fills up with the sights and sounds of the strange 16th-century Renaissance Festival of the Bird King.
3. North French Coast
Get off the cross channel ferry in Calais and the dash to get onto the motorway south is like a Formula 1 race. But gently motor down the coastline on the small roads and you enter a countryside of 19th-century villas, delightful towns like Montreuil-sur-Mer perched high on the cliffs, genteel Le Touquet-Paris Plage and a series of long sandy beaches where children catch crabs and adults sit in painted beach huts.
Many people know walled, romantic, medieval Carcassone, but nearby Albi is strangely ignored. Dominating the town, the remarkable red cathedral is like a fortress, built after the local heretical Cathars had been stamped out with unbelievable cruelty. The Toulouse-Lautrec museum is full of exuberant paintings of decadent late 19th-century Parisians. Don’t miss the boat trip on the Tarn river for its magnificent view of the city.
Troyes is the less well-known capital of the Champagne region, lagging behind co-capital Reims which wins with its great cathedral. Troyes is a delightful warren of winding streets of half-timbered houses, a gothic cathedral glowing inside like a jewel from its stained-glass windows, and small museums, including one with a good collection of Fauves paintings. It’s also the biggest center for discount fashion stores in Europe with two Marques and one Mc Arthur Glen outlet malls just outside the heart of the town.
Voted one of the most underrated ski sites in France by the UK's Times and Daily Mail newspapers, the large area of Serre Chevalier offers 250 kms of runs for all levels of skiiers. It's easily accessible from Turin or Grenoble. Make for L'Alpe d'Huez, or the villages of Chantemerle and Briancon where the high altitude and tree-lined scenery makes for great skiing and snowboarding.
Lyon is France's second largest city, but it often loses out as a destination with visitors just using the airport as a gateway.
Lyon is a gracious historic city, once an important Roman settlement, on the banks of the Rhône and the Saône rivers with a gastronomic reputation second only to Paris (Paul Bocuse has four brasseries in the town). Museums range from the Musée Lumière (where you can watch the first film ever made) to the somber Museum of the Deportation; it has wonderful antique and antiquarian bookshops, and a historic quarter where you walk between the streets through secret 16th- to 18th-century passageways known as "traboules."
Yes, Dijon is known because of its mustard, but the city, once the capital of Burgundy, revels in its rather more aristocratic days under the powerful and notorious Dukes. The Ducal palace is made up of a whole collection of buildings -- all golds, painted ceilings, pomp and circumstance. The Banqueting Hall is strangely full of unusual ornate tombs.
Dijon is compact and its restaurants, bars and cafés, offering local classics like boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin, are clustered in the center. Shops opened in the late 18th century lure you in for the famous mustard, pain d'epice and beautifully packaged confectionery.
Colmar, the capital of Upper Alsace, is not just a charming town with old cobbled streets and half-timbered, colorfully painted buildings. Colmar also has a museum with the Issenheim altarpiece that is mind-boggling in its beauty and a symbolism that still has scholars scratching their heads with puzzlement.
Stretching out from the city runs the 105-mile Route des Vins which passes by rich vineyards, romantic ruined castles perched on sandstone cliffs, and of course, those famous stork's nests. It all makes for a region which has a fairytale quality to it.
Visitors to the western Pays de la Loire region mostly ignore Nantes. It's a shame as this once mighty port that grew rich on the slave trade is today a lively university town with a mass of attractions and a reputation for seafood restaurants.
Not to be missed are the castle of the Dukes of Brittany which graphically tells the story of the city, the cathedral with its beautiful 1502 tomb of François II, the botanical garden and lots on Jules Verne who was born here on Île Feydeau in 1828. All this works up an appetite for scallops and crabs fresh from the Atlantic or simple, sizzling, delicious crepes.