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5 Incredible, Under-the-Radar Places to Visit in Southern France

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The author lives in a quiet rural community in lower Puna on the Big Island. He's an avid gardener, traveler, and photographer.

Top: The ethereal rock formations at Orgues d'Ille-sur-Tet.  Bottom left: Ceret boasts a labyrinth of lovely quiet streets. Bottom right: An altar inside the cave chapel Saint Antoine de Galamus.

Top: The ethereal rock formations at Orgues d'Ille-sur-Tet. Bottom left: Ceret boasts a labyrinth of lovely quiet streets. Bottom right: An altar inside the cave chapel Saint Antoine de Galamus.

5 Hidden Gems in Southern France

Southern France is one of Europe’s leading vacation destinations. As a result, the tourist crowds can sometimes get out of control, especially at well-known places such as Provence or the French Riviera.

To avoid the tour-bus mobs and experience something different for a change, here are five incredible, off-the-beaten-path places to visit. Located in the southernmost part of France, close to the border of Spain and the Mediterranean Sea, they include enchanted scenic sites and picturesque towns you've never heard of.

Amelie-les-Bains offers a modern twist to an ancient Roman tradition. The name "Bains" means baths in English.

Amelie-les-Bains offers a modern twist to an ancient Roman tradition. The name "Bains" means baths in English.

1. Amélie-les-Bains

This idyllic village nestles in the serene pine forests of the Pyrénées-Orientales valley. It’s a historic spa town (dating back to Roman times), home to numerous geothermal sulfur springs. For centuries, French people of all ages have been flocking here to soak in the thermal baths. The steaming hot, mineral-rich water is known to cure many chronic ailments including asthma and rheumatism. The town hosts two large public spa establishments; each offers a variety of treatment programs.

What to Do in Amélie-les-Bains

Book a half-day spa package at the Thermes Romains (built on the well-preserved ruins of a Roman bath). Enjoy being pampered in the state-of-the-art facilities, which include a giant thermal pool with powerful jets and waterfalls, and an equally impressive hot mud basin.

(Optional: Become a massage therapist and work at one of the spas so you can have free access to the blissful thermal bath.)

A bridge that magically appeared out of nowhere centuries ago.  Whether you believe it or not, it's definitely worth a trek across!

A bridge that magically appeared out of nowhere centuries ago. Whether you believe it or not, it's definitely worth a trek across!

2. Céret

Situated in the foothills of the Pyrénées mountains, this utterly charming medieval town is most notable for its Pont du Diable (devil’s bridge). Dating back to the 11th century, this single-arch stone bridge hovers 73 feet (22 meters) above the Tech River. The longest span measures 149 feet (45 meters) across.

Legend has it that the devil made the bridge appear overnight . . . to the astonishment of the villagers who were praying for a way to cross the river! Whether built by the devil or ingenuity of man, this bridge has also appeared in several famous paintings by Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso (who once lived in Céret).

What to Do in Céret

  • Walk across this pedestrian-only bridge and enjoy the stunning vista of the river below and mountains beyond.
  • Take a stroll around the tree-shaded town square lined with eclectic cafés, restaurants, and art galleries.
  • Do not miss the Musée d’Art Moderne, which houses a wonderful collection of ceramic arts, sketches, paintings by Picasso, Chagall, and Dali.

(Optional: Rent an apartment with the view of the bridge and spend a year in this artsy town writing your dream best-selling novel.)

The awe-inspiring geological wonders of Orgues d'Ille-sur-Tet park.

The awe-inspiring geological wonders of Orgues d'Ille-sur-Tet park.

3. Orgues d’Ille-sur-Têt

A hidden jewel in southern France, this park is known for the mesmerizing rock formations, which are 4 million years in the making. The tall sandstone rocks—called cheminées de fée (fairy’s chimneys)—are quite fragile due to constant erosion caused by the Mediterranean rain and wind. Some of the rocks stand by themselves; others huddle together as if seeking protection against time and elements. Trekking across this otherworldly, one-of-a-kind landscape is a priceless experience!

What to Do in Orgues d’Ille-sur-Têt

The entrance fee is 5€ per visitor. Use the guide map and follow the 1.5-mile trail that takes you through the park. Notice some of the rocks eerily resemble human figures, e.g., posing with a hat or embracing each other.

(Optional: Pretend you’re in a sci-fi movie—a lone astronaut left behind on a strange planet.)

Please, please refrain from climbing on the rocks to take selfies! In addition to potentially harming the rock formations, you might just do some serious damage to yourself!

Ermitage de Galamus perches on a vertical rock cliff.  "Ermitage" means hermitage which is related to hermit - someone who retreats from society to live in solitude, often for religious reasons.

Ermitage de Galamus perches on a vertical rock cliff. "Ermitage" means hermitage which is related to hermit - someone who retreats from society to live in solitude, often for religious reasons.

Left: The cave chapel still holds services on Easter and Christmas holidays.  Right: Sunlight streams through an opening on the cave's wall.

Left: The cave chapel still holds services on Easter and Christmas holidays. Right: Sunlight streams through an opening on the cave's wall.

4. Ermitage Saint Antoine de Galamus

A narrow, twisty mountain road takes you to this breathtaking religious site. Clinging to the cliff high above the Galamus Gorges, this ancient hermitage can be reached by a hiking trail. The original hermit's cave was found in the late 7th century. During the 14th century, the Franciscan monks took over the site and became its caretakers. The friars built a chapel dedicated to St. Anthony who saved the local villagers (many were hiding in the cave) from a devastating plague.

Today, pilgrims from all over France are still finding their way here to seek spiritual guidance and miracles. From the chapel's courtyard, the vertigo-inducing views of the deep canyon below are unforgettable!

What to Do in Ermitage Saint Antoine de Galamus

From the parking lot, follow the steep trail that leads you down into the canyon then up to the hermitage. The 30-minute hike is not for the faint of heart! Also, to exit the site, you must crawl through a dark tunnel carved into the rock, to the other side of the cliff. Just go toward the light!

(Optional: Find a quiet spot in the chapel to contemplate whether you could become a hermit to get away from it all.)

In the Middle Age, the Castillet served as a citadel protecting the town from invaders. Now, it's a fine museum in Perpignan.

In the Middle Age, the Castillet served as a citadel protecting the town from invaders. Now, it's a fine museum in Perpignan.

5. Perpignan

A marvelous French medieval town with strong Spanish influence. In the 13th century, it belonged to the Kingdom of Majorca of Spain and historically was the second-largest Catalonia city after Barcelona.

Perpignan embodies the best of French and Catalan cultures. Charming cobblestone streets lined with palm trees, beautiful parks, and stately palaces. The tranquil Bassée River winds its way through the town. A massive 14th-century fortress—the Castillet—stands guard over the old town quarter.

What to Do in Perpignan

  • Explore the pretty old town quarter, filled with rustic B&Bs, excellent restaurants (serving Catalan-inspired cuisine), and classic French bakeries.
  • Visit the Place de la Loge with its remarkable Spanish Gothic architecture and the Cathédral de Saint Jean Baptiste with its glorious stained-glass windows and wrought-iron bell tower.
  • Grab a seat at one of the cafés along the riverfront promenade, sit back, and enjoy people watching.

(Optional: Rent one of the small red boats, float up and down the river for a romantic sunset cruise before dinner.)

View of the Castillet from the banks of Bassee River.

View of the Castillet from the banks of Bassee River.

All photos were taken by the author with an Olympus Stylus TG-630 iHS digital camera and iPhone6.

© 2019 Viet Doan

Comments

Viet Doan (author) from Big Island, Hawaii on December 14, 2019:

Thanks Liz, Bill, Karen, KonaGirl for all your wonderful comments! If you plan to visit these places in the near future, I highly recommend staying in Perpignan. Treat it as your home base and make day trips to see other places. I stayed in Perpignan for 3 days and explored the surrounding area with a rental car. Happy travelling!

KonaGirl from New York on December 14, 2019:

Lovely article and beautiful photos. What prompted you to leave Puna and head to France? Vacation or part of your journey exploring the world?

Karen A Szklany from New England on December 14, 2019:

ooh,thank you for this article! Will keep these place in mind when my mother, daughter and I start planning our inter-generational trip to France.

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on December 14, 2019:

Very nice. Love these less traveled kind of places. Will add them to the list for when we visit this region of France.

Liz Westwood from UK on December 14, 2019:

This is a very interesting and well-illustrated article. I would like to visit this area of France. It looks very different in character to the other end of the French Mediterranean coast.