The summer has wound down but there’s still time for a holiday. Wendy Gomersall looks at some top spots for mini-breaks in France and Spain
VIVE LA FRANCE
Like many busy capital cities, Paris is nicer out of the peak summer season. A few days here is enough to enjoy good food, see a show and go shopping, plus it's easy to get to: there are many UK regional flights to Paris, or, even easier, hop on the Eurostar. There's never any shortage of culture in Paris: The Chat Noir, Arts And Pleasures In Montmartre 1880-1910 at the Musée de Montmartre, from 13 September, celebrates the first avant-garde literary, musical and artistic cabaret in Paris, founded in 1881 by Rodolphe Salis. The exhibition showcases more than 200 works by artists including Toulouse-Lautrec. Do allow a couple of hours in the famous department stores, Printemps and Galeries Lafayette, before dinner – succulent shellfish perhaps at the city's oldest surviving brasserie, Bofinger, in rue de la Bastille, then catch the marvellous Cirque du Soleil show, Alegria, at the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy from 28 November to 2 December.
Base yourself in or near Poitiers in south-west France and the many gems of the Poitou-Charentes region are within easy driving distance. There's something for all tastes and ages, too. Futuroscope leisure park has around 25 high-tech, imaginative virtual reality rides such as The Future Is Wild, which features weird creatures living millions of years from now and 'Dances With Robots' – strapped into giant metal machines, you choose how scary you want the ride to be. Even meals are futuristic and at Le Cristal, food fizzes, smokes and foams. Children will also like the 200-plus crocodiles at Crocodile Planet in Civaux, 300 snakes at Snake Island, La Trimouille, eagles and falcons galore at Giants Of The Sky, Chauvigny, and 350 primates at Monkey Valley, Romagne.
For the grown-ups, Poitiers itself is a pretty town to potter around, with nice restaurants and shops, or drive south to Cognac, where you'll fi nd the newly renovated Château de Cognac in the centre of the city. The chateau is open to visitors who can discover the history of Baron Otard Cognac, explore the cellars and buy a little treat to take home, perhaps.
Argelès-Gazost in the Hautes-Pyrénées region of southwest France is my secret gem. In September, the town park is the venue for the unforgettable annual Fête des Chiens des Pyrénées – the Pyrenean Mountain Dog Festival – with hundreds of massive snow-white doggies and the smaller Pyrenean Sheepdog to pet and admire. Alongside the dog show there are handicraft stalls, music and dancing, too.
The town is surrounded by beautiful landscapes and shepherd and mountain guide Jean Pierre Pommiès offers five-to-six-hour Walk With A Shepherd experiences. This includes a picnic by a lake where you get the chance to taste Jean Pierre's farm products, as well as enjoy sheepdog demonstrations.
For young members of the family, there's the Pyrénées Animal Park where you can see some amazing creatures, including cute marmots as well as a fiercer selection of bears, lynxes and wolves. Everyone will enjoy the Jardin des Bains in Argelès- Gazost, a thermal cure and leisure spa with pools, massaging water jets, bubble beds, whirlpool baths, geysers, waterfalls, etc – great fun!
Barcelona, a great city for a mini-break, gets a lot of attention, but there's plenty to love about Madrid, too. There's culture, of course – Gauguin And The Voyage To The Exotic, at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and Caja Madrid Foundation, from 9 October to 13 January, looks at how artists' wanderings affected modern art. Alternatively, Cartier at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum from 23 October to 15 February, features more than 300 pieces from the luxury jeweller's historical collection, including some belonging to Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor and Coco Chanel.
For great food, head for the recently restored Mercado de San Miguel for an informal lunch of manchego cheese, Iberian ham, sausage and a glass or three of cava among the market stalls. Then head to Plaza Mayor to join the Friday-night tour, Cante Jondo: Madrid And Flamenco. From spectacular performances in the city's theatres to small song-and-dance recitals in its tablaos (flamenco bars), there's always a party going on somewhere. Corral de la Morería, Café de Chinitas and Villa Rosa are three popular haunts.
Meanwhile, San Sebastian, aka Donostia, in northern Spain has been called Spain's most beautiful city and curls around its own shell-shaped white sand beach, La Concha. Climb up to the fortress of Santa Cruz de la Mota for the finest views, wander round the baroque architecture, then reward yourself with a glass of sargadoz, a luscious local brandy.
Culture-wise, the San Sebastian Film Festival runs from 21 to 29 September and San Telmo Municipal Museum is home to history, archaeology and fine art exhibits, including works by El Greco, Alonso Cano and Rubens, as well as contemporary Basque artists. This is the culinary capital of the Basque region, so don't miss the pintxos, tapas dishes including Serrano ham, shrimps in mayonnaise and marinated seafood. The city is also only 20 minutes from the French border, too, so make it a two-country autumn break for the best of both worlds.
Daily tip from the lady archive
“A GRACEFUL walk is a great asset, for sometimes it can create an illusion of beauty where little exists.”The Lady. Pleasant Exercises for Grace. 2nd April 1931