The Lessons One Nomadic Photographer Learned While Road Tripping Through France During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Person sitting on rock looking at mountains

While many travelers found themselves caught between countries during the pandemic-induced calamity of quickly-closing international borders, Emilie Blanc, a nomadic portrait photographer, was visiting her parents in France. In April, she had fully intended to return to Bali, where she was starting to build a client base, and even left a full suitcase of summer clothes behind. Despite spending the past seven years living abroad in places like Barcelona and Singapore, by March, she realized she would be living in France for the foreseeable future.

Although many people would trade their quarantine situations for the French countryside in a heartbeat, France always felt too familiar for Emilie, who much prefers to be trekking through jungles and chasing tropical waterfalls.

After an eight-week lockdown, restaurants reopened, trains were running again, and France's restrictions on domestic travel lifted by mid-June, just in time for the summer. Travelers like Emilie were free to move about again, so long as they followed mask-wearing rules and avoided large gatherings.

But with the many international borders still closed, Emilie decided to adapt her nomadic lifestyle and embark on her own personal tour de France, plotting an ambitious solo trip around her home country by car.

Woman look over the ocean along the French coastline

She’d revisit some of her favorite cities, but also explore new regions as she wound her way from the center of France to the mountains in the east, the sunny villages in the south, the beaches of the west, and the cliffs to the north. Along the way, she’d stay with not just locals, but fans. With over 26,000 YouTube subscribers on her travel channel, she put out a call to see if anyone would be willing to host her and found over 50 eager hosts all over France.

We sat down with Emilie to learn what surprised her about traveling through her home country, as well as discuss the hidden gems she discovered en route. As it turned out, the summer of 2020 would be an opportune time for a photographer in France, without the usual crowds of tourists cluttering the backdrop. According to Emilie, “some places felt like ghost towns, especially at the beginning of the summer, but at the end of summer, it became more normal with almost as many tourists as usual.”

Lakeside village in the mountains

With the luxury of time on her side, Emilie traveled as slowly as she could, beginning with cities she knew she already loved, like Annecy, a charming lake town up in the Alps, and Grenoble, a city at the foothills of the mountain range. With the freedom of a car, she also sought out natural wonders, like the enchanting Beaume Waterfall, located at the end of a 20-minute hike in the middle of a pine forest. As she further explored the south, she found ruins and striking views in small villages like Les Baux-de-Provence and Saint Paul de Vence, both home to artist communities just inland from the well-trafficked Cote d’Azure.

What surprised her most about France was how diverse the landscapes and cultures of each region were. “It’s super different from one city to another, one region to another — the variety of people’s mindsets, their accents, the food they eat, even the landscapes, you have a bit of everything,” she said. “We are such a small country, so it’s interesting to see how different it can be in just a two-hour drive.”

Woman in a field of golden flowers

Traveling westward, Emilie found her way to the heart of the French Basque Country and the surfing mecca of Biarritz, which she loved for its wide, sandy beaches and incredible sunsets. Then, she drove north to Bordeaux, a city that offers all the hipster appeal of Paris in terms of cafes and nightlife, but in a smaller package. An hour’s drive away, she sought to climb the Dune du Pilat, a surreal mountain of sand plopped between the forest and Atlantic Ocean. Emilie insists on going for sunrise, not sunset. Not only can you watch the sunrise over the horizon of the expanding countryside, but it’s also more likely that you’ll have the place all to yourself. 

Emilie’s trip was shaped by the hospitable people who welcomed her along the way, and she emphasizes the value of making local connections, even if you are traveling in your home country. “Sometimes, you think that you know a place, but the people that live there know the hidden gems,” she said.“I was seeing the city through the eyes of locals, so they were always bringing me to the best parts.”

The hosts during her trip were of all ages, and she found that it was much easier to connect with strangers on the road than she had anticipated. “Actually, when you share the same values and vision of life, you can get along with everyone. And even if you don't, everybody has something to teach you with their story, if you're willing to listen.”

Mountains and water

Just a few hours north from the dune, she continued up the coastline to Côte Sauvage, another wide and sandy beach just south of La Rochelle, an ancient harbor city that dates back to the pre-Roman era. Soon, she’d trade the sand of the south for the rugged coastline of Brittany, and visit the city of Vannes, which is surrounded by wild marshland. From Brittany, she turned east again, visiting Rennes and making her way toward the famous rock-topped village of Mont Saint-Michel and the town of Étretat, where chalky-white cliffs lurch into the English Channel.

After a summer on the road that began in June, Emilie’s trip ended at an apartment in Paris in September, but she wished it would have been longer. “Once you discover a place and you see all the potential of it, you want to see so much more.”

Ancient castle and church on a mountain top in France

While not many travelers are happy about the homebound predicament the pandemic has put us in, this situation has also presented an opportunity to consider what we don’t know about our own homelands as well as take the time to connect with locals in some way. “It was amazing to discover my own culture and my own country. It made me prouder to be French,” Emilie said.

And for those who have France at the top of their post-pandemic travel list, Emilie encourages you to go beyond the capital and take things more slowly: “Maybe go to Paris for two days and then go explore the rest of France, because Paris does not represent it at all. There’s so much more to see.”

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