Apart from being one of the most gruelling endurance sports championships on the planet, the bicycle race Tour de France is also a visual delight for those who follow it. As hundreds of bicycle riders move along this year’s 3,663.5km route — starting from Leeds in the United Kingdom — towards the finish line in Paris, they pass through historic towns, countryside, monuments, mountain chains of the Pyrenees and the Alps. It is also a high point for the cities and towns along the bicycle race’s route in that particular year. Therefore, not only sports lovers, but people from all over the world plan their travelling itinerary in France around this 101-year-old bike tournament. As Tour de France 2014 enters its last leg, comprising six stages, we take a quick look at the tourist attractions around this route to Paris.
Stage 16 starts from the historical town of Carcassonne in southern France. It may have a population of just about 47,000, but it has a lot to offer to visitors. The famous walled city of Cité de Carcassonne is a Unesco World Heritage site. Restored by noted theorist and architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in 1853, the medieval fortress holds inside it a history of over 2,000 years.
Another favourite tourist destination is Pont Marengo, a 200-year-old bridge over the Canal du Midi. Once used as a channel to the Atlantic and the Mediterranean oceans, it is now a place for some leisurely boat rides. Many embark on the day-long ride through the canal that has 91 working locks along its 240km course.
A national monument of the country, the 6th century Basilica of St. Nazaire and St. Celse (St. Nazarius and St. Celsus) in Carcassonne is a major tourist draw.
Where to eat
Auberge de Dame Carcas: It is known for its traditional dishes and honey pork.
L’Ecurie: The sitting arrangement at their garden with 100-year-old trees is an attraction.
O’Vineyards Table d’Hôtes-Restaurant: Some of the best home-made French food with influences of Vietnamese-New Caledonian heritage along with great wines from the region.
La Bulle: If you want to dance the night away.
O’Sheridan’s Pub: A typical Irish pub, this one’s for those missing their Guinness.
After a grilling uphill 237.5km ride — the longest in the entire bicycle race — Tour De France will arrive at the little hamlet of Bagnères-de-Luchon in the Luchon valley. Set in the foothills of the central Pyrenees, this is the perfect spot for a scenic and luxurious break. And to wash off all your stress are the famous thermes — hot springs — all around the town. The 106-year-old Club de Golf Luchon is for those who wish for some tee time.
Where to eat
La Plete: One of the best places to dine in Bagnères-de-Luchon, as recommended by visitors.
L'Heptameron des Gourmets: For a seven course pre-set homemade dinner along with some great wine of your choice from the chef’s cellar.
The Tour de France bicycle race moves upwards from here in the hills of Saint-Gaudens, an ancient town whose civilisation can be dated beyond the Roman and Iron Age. The Collegiate Church of St. Peter and St. Gaudens are the two holiest places of worship in the town. The city’s old buildings are a reminder of its medieval past. But more than within the town, the beauty of this place is truly witnessed if you go hiking and camping. On the route will be the Genos-Loudenvielle Lake, at an altitude of 1,000 metres, in Loudenvielle.
Where to eatLe Cork Pub: It is great for the local dishes of southern France, like the fillet steak.
La Table d'Emilie: A place for wine and traditional food.
The little township in the Pyrenees is a skiing heaven and is one of the largest in France with nearly 100km of ski slope. The resort of Saint-Lary Pla d'Adet is barely half an hour’s drive from the Spanish bordder. The Le Néouvielle Nature Reserve and the Pyrenees National Park are other attractions.
Where to eat
La Galette D’or: The regulars flock here for its ambience and great cuisine.
La Tute: Head here for the ‘best’ traditional raclette and fondue au fromage (cheese fondue) in the area.
Along with Paris and Bordeaux, Pau has hosted the Tour de France bicycle race 65 times. If you were thinking why we haven’t spoken of French wines yet, now is the time. Dotted with vineyards and villas, Pau is the place for leisurely sipping of great wines from the valley. Visit the 14th century Château de Pau — also called the Henry IV Castle — for its medieval architecture. The view of the mountains from there is regarded by many as the ‘most beautiful in the world’. The Pau Urban Natural park by the banks of the river Gave is a favourite for tourists and locals alike. Take the Funiculaire de Pau (funicular railway), hop on to tourist buses or attend one the many festivals or concerts that keep on taking place here.
On the way to Pau, you will come across Beaudean where many go to visit the museum housed inside the home of Dominique Larrey, who was the chief surgeon of Napoleon’s army. You can also take a cable car from La Mongie and visit the observatory atop the Pic du Midi de Bigorre.
Where to eat
Au Fin gourmet: Located near the start of the Boulevard des Pyrénées, this place is known for its nice ambience and wine.
La Table d'Hote: Spanish-style fish and Gascony black pork stuffed with prunes are some of the items that draw the loyalists.
In the discreet alpine resort of Argeles-Gazost, Stage 18 will come to its end. That should mean you are out exploring the Pyrenees Animal Park. Tucked away in the valleys, the forest is pristine here and you can observe a wide variety of flora and fauna. Visit the castle of Donjon-des-Aigles (Keep of the Eagles) for a panoramic view of the mountains and then rest at the idyllic village of Saint Savin. While adventure-seekers can head for skiing, others can relax at the Le Jardin des Bains spa.
Where to eat
Grand Hôtel Moderne, Alexandra, Le Viscos are some of the top-rated restaurants here.
Maubourguet Pays du Val d’Adour
The next, Stage 19, sets off from what is also known as the ‘Bad Village’. But do not be alarmed by its name — it was coined by villagers in order to instil fear in the hearts of possible attackers. It is a beautiful place with vineyards and chateaus. The Castle of Montaner is a must-see for every visitor and so is Saint-Sever-de-Rustan Abbey, a 10th century Cistercian Abbey. Other places of interest are the Tower of Termes-d’Armagnac and the Archaeological Museum.
On this route will be the township of Condom (aka Condom-de-Armagnac), which is an important halt for pilgrims headed for the Way of St. James. Condom itself is a pretty place that has preserved cathedrals and castles.
Where to eat
There are quite a few dining options available here. Hotel de France restaurant is highly recommended. For traditional French cuisine, head to Les 3B and Réverbère. Though most of the bistros have outdoor seating, smoking is not permitted. And if you have a craving for something American, the ‘best burgers’ in town are at the California Kitchen.
The Tour de France bicycle race comes down from the hills to Bergerac, the city of festivals — the most popular one, Flamenco Festival, is held on the first weekend of August. Visit the interesting Museum of Tobacco Anthropology, which houses a great collection of quirky smoking objects.
Bergerac is also famous for its wines as nearly 570,000 hectolitres of wine come out of the region every year. While you are here, do make it a point to include local strawberries and goat cheese in your meal.
Where to eat
La Table Du Marché: It is known for its experimental ‘bistronomy’ cuisine.
Le Repaire De Savinien: Located near the Notre Dame church, it has fresh traditional dishes written on the blackboard.
L'Imparfait: Housed inside a medieval building, this one is a value-for-money place.
This is where Alejandro Valverde Belmonte pushes to topple Vincenzo Nibali. The second last stage, which is the Individual time trial, is short burst of 54km that takes you to Périgueux. This route has much to offer. Dordogne, by the banks of the river Dordogne, is literally ‘chateau country’, with more than 1,500 of them! Though almost all are of historic importance to France, one of the more famous ones is the Château de Beynac. The 12th century castle, among other things, has a Renaissance sculptured fireplace and can be seen in the Oscar-nominated Johnny Depp-Juliette Binoche-starrer Chocolat.
Though the famous pre-historic complex of caves, Lascaux, has been closed to the public, the replica Lascaux II still draws a large number of visitors for the Paleolithic cave paintings. One of the best Paleolithic sanctuaries in the world, the Font-de-Gaume Cave — the only one with polychrome paintings — is open for viewing. The 400-metre long cave has over 200 painted and engraved figures of bison, horse and mammoth, as well as stylised human figures.
Where to eat
Le Clos Saint Front and Un Parfum de Gourmandise are the top-rated restaurants. Nicolas L is a budget travellers’ delight.
Tour de France 2014 makes its last stage start from the bustling suburb of Évry before making the final 137.5km journey to Paris. It may be a modern town now, but the Grand Bourg, Bataille and Beauvoir bear testimonies of how this village evolved from the 13th century. This is also an important place for research on genetic diseases.
Amidst all the Middle Ages castles, an important tourist attraction is the modern 20th century Cathedral of Resurrection. Inside the cathedral is the Paul Delouvier Museum, displaying collections dedicated to Africa, the Indian Ocean, Ethiopia and contemporary arts.
On this route, near Fontenay-Les-Briis, lies the town of Curson where the famous Flower Show is held twice a year. A few kilometres from there, is the famous 18th century Château du Marais, known for its beautiful gardens and museum.
The last notable town the Tour de France 2014 bicycle race passes through is Massy. Caught between its century-old houses and the modern ones from the late ’70s, it offers a contrasting sight and perhaps readies the bike riders in their transition from the sleepy hill countryside to the ever-busy Paris.
With a lead of overfour minutes, it is likely that the Italian Vincenzo Nibali will lead to the finish line of this year’s Tour de France at the end of the historic 1.91km-long Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris. Wait for the champagne to be uncorked and head straight for the selfie at the Arc de Triomphe. You are in Paris now!
Where to eat
Évry has much to offer in both fine dining and traditional budget French cuisine. But if you are looking for some Himalayan flavour in the Alps country, head for Le Chemin d’Himalaya and be surprised with a menu that has names like Lamb samossa, Achari murg tikka and even a Bollywood Kebab!