Rural retreats in Europe
Updated: Jan 25, 2019
If you love your city-breaks but sometimes crave a few days of down-time mid-trip, well look no further. I’ve found a couple of gems on my travels which offer some much needed relaxation in beautiful surroundings: havens of peace and tranquility but located within reasonable distance of major cities and towns. In recent years we have tried to punctuate our weeks away with a few days in the country thrown in for good measure. We’ve had some blissful experiences which I’d like to share with you.
Luberon region, Provence, France
The first was an unusual one: four nights in a tree-house in Provence. Dreamed of sleeping in a tree-house ever since you were a child? I did too. So when we realised that this was a real-life option for a few days in Provence, we jumped at the chance and booked it immediately. We were on a two week trip around Languedoc and Provence and coming from the city of Montpellier were looking for somewhere peaceful and rural to chill out in for a few days. And where better than a treehouse in the middle of nowhere in the mountainous Luberon area? We booked four nights in La Bastide du Bois Breant in the tiny village of Maubec.
The tree-house is one of seven within the grounds of this lovely estate, which has its own private swimming pool. There is also an option of staying in the main house but who wants to do that when you can sleep in a tree, right? We were pretty excited when we were shown to ours which is right in the middle of the woods. We actually couldn’t see it at all as we were approaching as the trees are so close to each other. We followed a little winding path and looked up – there it was. The seven of them are spread at quite a distance from each other throughout the woods for privacy. And it worked – we rarely saw the other tree-dwellers, nor did we hear much noise over the four days. It was incredibly peaceful. Each tree-house has a little verandah at the front with a table and chairs. It was pretty blissful to sit out there at night with a glass of wine and listen to the sounds of the French countryside at night.
I loved waking up in the morning, throwing open the shutters and seeing nothing but trees and hearing nothing but birdsong. Sleeping in a tree definitely fulfilled a childhood fantasy. One thing I will say is: it gets bloody hot sleeping in a wooden structure in a very warm climate. On night one we slept with the windows and shutters open to let some cool air in. Rookie mistake. I woke up covered in mosquito bites. But this was minor in the overall scheme of things. We had lovely breakfast in the courtyard of the main house every morning and spent much of the afternoons reading or in the pool. There isn’t a whole lot to do here as it’s very rural but this suited us just fine. I wanted four days of complete down-time. You will need a car to explore the region as it would be quite difficult to get around on public transport as the options are few and far between.
Also you need to bear in mind that Maubec is pretty much a ghost-town with very little going on. The evening we arrived we walked to the village which is about a kilometre from the tree-house. We didn’t see a soul. But it’s ridiculously picturesque and so very French. We were very much charmed.
We were also starving and had read about a great pizzeria here. We basically followed the sound of the only voices we’d heard in about half an hour and there it was: a glorious little pizza place called La Bergene with outdoor seating and fairy lights. I think everyone in the town must’ve been there at that particular moment – might’ve explained the mass exodus from the streets. We managed to get a lovely table outside, ordered an aperitif, and were instantly happy in our extremely pretty surroundings. The pizzas were a little too cheesy and stodgy for our liking but we were so hungry it didn’t matter. Also, it didn’t look like there were many other options here for eating. In fact, I think there was only one other option which we visited on another evening – O Delices Mets, a traditional family-run place which doesn’t look much from the street with its plastic tables but as it turns out, the food was really good and made with love, and the local wine by the carafe was ridiculously cheap. It was fun to spend a Saturday evening here listening to the banter of the locals.
But if you’re looking for a higher-end culinary experience, then head for the picturesque hill-top town of Gordes which is only 12 kms away and well worth a visit. We ate one of the best meals of our lives there in a little place called l’Artegal. You can read more about it in my blog Meals to make you weep with gratitude.
Médoc region, France
My next suggestion is the Médoc region in France, which is less than 40 kms from the city of Bordeaux. It’s a wine-growing region and the landscape is simply stunning: lush and green, dominated by vineyards and populated with the most spectacular chateaux.
We stayed in Listrac-Médoc in a beautiful guesthouse on the site of a wine-producing estate: Les Cinq Sens du Chateau Mayne Laland. If you’re looking for peace and tranquility, then this is the place for you. It is located about 4kms from the nearest town so a car is a necessity. We were in heaven upon arrival. There was not a sound to be heard with the exception of bird song and a cacophony of crickets. The guesthouse itself is set on stunning grounds: each room opens out onto the garden and has a table and chairs for you to sit and while away the hours reading, writing, contemplating... Whatever floats your boat.
As you can see from the photos, the guesthouse is so charming and typically French with its pale stone walls and shuttered doors and windows. There is also an outdoor swimming pool with loungers for guests to enjoy, and horses in the nearby field. The warm and hospitable owner gave us a bottle of wine from his vineyard to enjoy. The weather was warm and we had nowhere to be and nothing to do but sip our wine and feel very content with our lot. Simple pleasures and all that.
Over the coming days we hired bikes and cycled around the vineyards in the area: Margaux is a short cycle from Listrac-Médoc and a bike is the perfect way to explore this lovely countryside. Also means you can sample a glass or two of the local produce as you make your way around. The roads are practically devoid of cars, even in July which was surprising.
But fear not: there are some fantastic places to eat in the vicinity of the guesthouse. Our favourite was La Boule d’Or in Moulis-en-Médoc. We noticed it on our travels one day and found it difficult to get a table, even midweek, despite the fact the town is tiny and pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It was filled with locals, always a good sign, so they managed to squeeze us in on one of the evenings. We loved it. We had a table outside on the terrace, and their three-course menu was to die for. I’d highly recommend the scallops and the chocolate fondant. And of course the local Médoc wines are divine. The staff were welcoming and friendly and the atmosphere was buzzing with conversation. We spent a blissful evening here and would highly recommend to anyone staying in the area. Booking is a must.
It’s a very sleepy part of France which may not be everyone’s cup of tea but we loved it. Bear in mind the three-hour siestas during the day and the early closing of most establishments in the evening which can be a little frustrating, but once you get into the rhythm of life in this part of France, you’ll enjoy all it has to offer.
Muxixa, Basque Spain
My third suggestion for getting away from it all is in Basque Spain, about a 40 minute drive from Bilbao and 10 minute drive from Gernika. The village is Muxika and the guesthouse is Aldori Landetxea. What a surprise this place was: the town itself is pretty nondescript but the landscape is stunning and the guesthouse modern and slickly designed with all mod-cons. It’s located outside the village and down a laneway. Not that easy to find. But worth it when you do.
We loved everything about this place. It has beautiful modern boutique-style bedrooms: ours had one of the biggest beds I’ve ever slept in, luxurious linen and towels, fabulous bathroom with a spa bath, and a large private terrace with views of the lovely countryside. It was so nice to lie in bed in the morning with the doors open to the terrace, a warm breeze blowing in, and listening to the sounds of the birds. And the best part: a hammock on the terrace to relax in the evening. Total bliss. All of the rooms are uniquely decorated with quirky memorabilia: ours had brass light fixtures and a vintage bike. I know it sounds weird but it actually looked really cool. Such a great place to stay.
One of my favourite memories of this place was waking in the middle of the night and curling up in the hammock with a blanket looking at the stars. The night was so clear, the stars were the brightest I’ve ever seen and there wasn’t a sound to be heard except the usual countryside nocturnal rustlings. It was so peaceful – was feeling particularly zen at that moment. The terrace was also great for some early morning yoga, if that’s your thang.
If all that relaxation and countryside is getting to you, the gorgeous town of Gernika is but a ten minute drive away. It hadn’t been a major draw for us as we’d read in our travel book that it didn’t have much to offer. Well they were wrong. It’s a great town and well worth a visit. It’s also really pretty with flowers everywhere, and has a nice park with amazing sculptures by Eduardo Chillida and Henry Moore.
Gernika is also home to the wonderful Museo de la Paz (Museum of Peace) which documents the history of the town. The museum has a particular focus on the Spanish Civil War and the bombing raid which took place in April 1937, effectively razing this small town to the ground and killing over 1000 people, a painful chapter in its history. The permanent exhibition is really worth a view: the audiovisual room is an eerie experience but profoundly affecting. You may be familiar with Picasso’s iconic painting of the subject, Guernica, now in the Reina Sofia in Madrid. They have replicated the painting on a mural close to the museum as a reminder to all of the horror inflicted on this town.
If you’re still not convinced, what if I tell you that we had one of the best meals of our life in this tiny town? So good that I’ve included a short review of it in my blog Meals to make you weep with gratitude. The place is called Zallo Barri and the food was exceptional. It’s a very pretty part of Spain and definitely worth staying a night or two, if you happen to be in the Bilbao region.