12 May 2014 by Jessica Boston
Top 5 Regional Natural Parks in France – Get Back to Nature!
In France there are 45 PNRs or areas designated a ‘Parc Naturel Régional’. Covering 13% of all French territory, these special areas are home to more than 3 million people. The PNR status is awarded to protect the these parks with unique landscapes, and the heritage of these areas of outstanding natural beauty, whilst still allowing people to live and work sustainably within them.
With goals and guidelines set and agreed between the local authorities and the French national government, these nature parks also focus on ecological research and public education about the environment.
There are often visitor centres and signposts detailing flora, fauna and local features to look out for, making any Parc Naturel Régional a fascinating place to explore whether on foot, by bike, on horseback or even in a canoe or kayak.
Here are five of our favourite Parcs Naturels Régionals to visit in northern and western France:
France’s Best Regional National Parks
Parc Naturel Régional d’Armorique, Brittany
Stretching from the Atlantic Ocean inland through hilly countryside, Parc Naturel Régional d’Armorique contains a varied landscape of sandy beaches, rocky outcrops, rivers, hills and marshland. It even includes three off-shore islands; Ile de Sein, Molene and Ouessant which form a UNESCO biosphere reserve within the park due to their importance as a
wildlife habitat. Parc Naturel Régional d’Armorique is home to rare wildlife including otters and beavers, a plethora of seabirds and unusual plants like the carnivorous, insect-eating sundew. As well as breathtaking natural scenery and nature to explore, this park has a wealth of historical sites and legends to discover. Yeun Elez is a bog clearly visible from the highest hill in the region Mont Saint-Michel de Brasparts. Yeun Elez is shrouded in superstition and legends associating it with one of the ‘gates of hell’ – whilst beautiful, it can be shrouded in a mysterious fog, has stories of ‘spontaneous’ flames and purporting that those who stray too near will be pulled in and dragged underground never to be seen again!
Brière Parc Naturel Régional, Loire
A 40,000 hectare park consisting largely of wetlands known as the ‘Grande Brière’. The best way to explore le Brière Parc Naturel Régional, discovering birds and wildlife, cute thatched villages and tranquil scenery, is to take a guided barge trip. Local barges are available for hire, manned by a guide who uses a pole to steer and propel the craft. A trip like this offers an authentically old-fashioned, relaxing and interesting insight into the lives of the people and wildlife based in the Park.
Parc Naturel Regional du Perche
Home to the renowned Percheron horses, there is no better way to see the Parc Naturel Regional du Perche than in a horse drawn carriage! These work horses were used to farm the land, haul heavy goods, pull everything from delivery carts to the finest carriages and today they still have an important role in eco-tourism and the day-to-day lives of local people. The Perche Natural Park includes deep forests, rolling hills, grand chateaux in formal grounds, quaint villages, vineyards and apple orchards producing the cider, juice, calvados and apple dishes that are so revered here. Autumn is the best time to visit and to get involved in the excitement of the apple harvest.
The ancient forests are magical places studded with glades where you might stumble upon deer, bubbling spring waters or even a megalithic standing stone. The wildlife spotting opportunities are many, with roe deer, red squirrels, woodpeckers, wild boar and a carpet of forest flowers and wild mushrooms to discover. A true eco-tourism destination, you can attend workshops in local crafts and foraging, stay in converted windmills, yurts or tree houses, and really experience the magic of nature.
Parc Naturel Regional Perigord Limousin
Parc Naturel Regional Perigord Limousin is literally bursting with wildlife. Covering 1800km2 in the Dordogne and Haute Vienne departments of France, the area is home to 25 varieties of rare, precious orchid, over 40 different animals including pine martins, otters and dormice, 12 different bat species, 110 different types of birds (making this a spotter’s paradise), as well as various reptiles and water dwelling creatures. The water in the park is in the form of three drainage basins for the Dordogne, the Vienne and the Charente; these are responsible for the innumerable brooks, rivers and small lakes you’ll find here. The meadows, forests, moors and farmland with traditional bocage hedges provide an ever-changing landscape to explore. Look out for signs of historic ancient civilizations too; this area has been inhabited by man since the Lower Paleolithic times as evidenced by the cave dwellings, tools, and artifacts that have been found within the park boundaries.
Landes de Gascogne Parc Naturel Régional
Landes de Gascogne Parc Naturel Régional encompasses the pine forests, coastal wetlands and beaches of Aquitaine. Visit the bird sanctuary at Arcachon Bay to see the 300,000 migratory birds that make an annual pilgrimage to these wetlands. Discover the history of the region at the Ecomusee de la Grande Lande that charts the development and maintenance of the protected land here, and hosts events celebrating local Gascon history and culture. The park is well served with marked bridle paths, cycle paths and hiking trails that are an ideal way to explore the forest of Landes at leisure, or take a canoe or kayak down the river Leyre for a view of the park from the water.
Wherever you holiday in France, you’ll never be far from a Parc Naturel Régional. All the parks are well worth a visit; the status alone indicates their special qualities. Contact the local Tourist Office for maps and details on events, activities, museums and eco-centres to visit. Visit a Parc Naturel Régional and enjoy a real adventure exploring and soaking up the breathtaking scenery and discovering hidden treasures in the French countryside – and don’t forget your camera!