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20th anniversary of Villages Étapes
A pause in the real France
It was only for one night, but I fell in love with Massiac.
What silence in the narrow streets of ancient, dark stone houses! What a wonderful setting, green Auvergne hills rising behind the rooftops. And how satisfyingly traditional the hotel’s restaurant, all white-clothed tables and chandeliers and the four-course menu for just €24 (£17). This indeed is what francophiles seek, and sometimes wonder if it still exists.
Above all, what a contrast between Massiac and the autoroute, A75, just four kilometers away, which had led me straight here with the simple exit sign, “Village Étape”.
Un étape means a stage along the way, as in doing something by stages. Villages Étapes are real, live villages that happen to be close to autoroutes or other major highways and have everything needed for a comfortable overnight stop. All Villages Étapes are certified by the French Ministry of Équipement as an approved highways resource.
The first villages to adopt the Village Étape title appeared in the Limousin region of central France exactly twenty years ago, in 1995. It was a local initiative to boost the economy in a rural region where what was then a brand new autoroute was rushing potential tourists and customers straight past without stopping.
No sooner were the signs up than motorists began exiting the highway for a lunch break or to spend the night at authentic country hotels with their own classic restaurants, rather than lodging at characterless motel chains tailor-made for quick stops.
The idea caught on in other regions suffering the same problem, and the villages got together to set up a France-wide umbrella organisation, La Fédération Nationale des Villages Étapes. Soon, villages throughout the country were applying to join the scheme. Today the total nationwide is 42, with several more under consideration.
An easy-to-use website (see below) shows all of them on a map – just click on a village to find details of its hotels, restaurants, a link to the tourist office and even details of WiFi in the area.
The Federation’s own strangely precise requirements are that every Village Étape has architectural merit, its population is under 5000, and it's less than 5km from an autoroute or 4-lane major highway. Most are along the A84 in Normandy, the A20 in the Centre and Limousin, and the A75 in the Auvergne - all good holiday routes.
Calais to the Med makes a drive of over 1000km, and even to the Dordogne is 800km, so north-south car journeys in France require at least one overnight stop. The villages provide a tremendous new resource for travellers in the know, offering a quick stopover that’s a real break.
Driving to the south-west, for example – Gascony, Bordeaux or the beaches of Biarritz – pretty little Vivonne is a Village Étape ideally placed on the N10, close to the A10, south of Poitiers. Buried in gorgeous countryside at the meeting point of three rivers, it’s a gem of old lanes and château ruins, yet has plenty of good facilities. Among them, the St Georges is a decent family-run two-star hotel with two excellent restaurants, offering excellent value for money.
Or heading south-east towards Provence, canny travellers who have chosen the less expensive route along the A77 and N7 are probably also clever enough to break for the night at riverside Lapalisse. This Village Étape has three comfortable, inexpensive hotel-restaurants, such as the Bourbonnais, with basic double rooms at €45 and a three-course dinner at just €16!
And a night at a village in Normandy’s idyllic bocage countryside of copses and little farms is like an extra little holiday whether at the beginning or end of a trip.
What’s the downside? Precisely that these are villages, not motorway amenities. True, they are unmissably well signposted and it’s not far, but to reach them you follow ordinary country roads with local traffic. The hotels are unpredictable, and it could be unwise just to turn up without first checking if there’s a room free. Expect village shops and services to be available from 8am to 7pm, with a long midday break. In summer, country restaurants serve lunch from noon to 2.30pm, dinner from 7pm to 9.30pm, with earlier closing times out of season. Hotel receptions may be closed after about 10pm.
Similar times apply though, in any provincial town in France or even at motels just off the autoroute.
After a last, delicious lunch on the Languedoc coast, time came to set off back towards home. We took the A75 north, soaring over the Millau viaduct and winding into the high landscapes of the Cantal. It was August, height of the holiday season, and there was plenty of traffic. I had never even heard of Massiac, and had nothing booked for the night.
The A75 is a spectacularly beautiful route, and toll free. Getting close to dinner time – a dangerous moment, for if you miss dinner, you’ll find not a scrap to eat until France wakes up the following morning – the exit for Massiac came into view, the words "village étape" beneath its name.
In its main street, the Grand Hôtel de la Poste, though several decades behind the times in some ways, had free WiFi, a swimming pool and simple double rooms starting at just €47 (£36). The dining room was convivial, its neatly uniformed young waitresses briskly carrying steaming plats du jour to a score of tables.
I ask for a local aperitif and am brought a small glass of birlou, which combines apple and walnut flavours. With the menu of traditional regional dishes, plus a small carafe of house wine, certainly this beats anything to be found on the autoroute.
In the morning, before setting off we take a stroll in the old village. In a beautiful, austere church there’s liturgical music playing, and rare religious artwork on display. A strange prayer attached to a pillar urges that you would never, ever forget your visit, and I certainly can't. Talk about a rest stop – I’m high on tranquillity.
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