LA BRENNE, France - For many tourists, France means sophisticated Paris or the Riviera, for others the superb wine regions. Some love to find unknown areas with something different or special. By chance, my 15-year-old granddaughter and I heard of such a place: La Brenne, an ecologically diverse area with 2,200 lakes. Of course, our interest was piqued.
At the time, we were staying in a bed and breakfast in Orval near Bourges, south of Paris. We simply changed our itinerary, as the area was just 90 kilometers away, just a couple of hours west, in the Centre-Val de Loire region.
Meanwhile, at dinner that evening, Madame Dussert, the owner of the B&B, served lapin (rabbit) and caille (quail, Ariel's favorite bird).
"You don't have to eat it," I whispered, thinking of Rosie, her tiny stuffed toy rabbit traveling with us. "It is Rosie's little French cousin," I teased.
"That's OK - munch munch - I like these," she said, helping herself to seconds of both. Madame Dussert's spacious farm property (15 cats, two horses and a dog) is ideal for kids to run around.
After two days in Orval, we drove to La Brenne in our reliable, rented Renault Modus. Arriving in Maison du Park in Le Bouchet, we lunched in the restaurant Espace Degustation de la Maison du Parc (loosely translated as the eating place in the house of the park), and picked up brochures. As we tucked into carp salads and desserts of chocolate crepes with frothy collars of Chantilly cream - whipped to melt like foam on the tongue - we took in what La Brenne had to offer.
The area, a mosaic habitat of water, woodland, heaths and meadows, is the least populated in France, with only eight inhabitants per square kilometer. For centuries, this land was uninhabitable due to marshes infested with mosquitoes spreading malaria. Since the mosquito has been totally eradicated, people have settled permanently.
One of La Brenne's greatest attractions for locals and visitors alike are 2,200 etangs, or lakes. Most are man-made and used to raise carp and perch. Fresh carp is exported to England, smoked there and imported back into France. In addition, the lakes form refuges for birds on their migratory trails from northern Europe to Africa. And so, of course, in spring, summer and fall, the area attracts naturalists to the Parc Naturel Regional de la Brenne (regional nature park), which covers a large swath of the area. This is one of nine natural parks in France.
Ariel and I were interested in bird-watching, hiking, touring quaint villages, visiting the animal reservation and a chateau, and so we planned our three-day itinerary.
"Bicycles for rent," Ariel said, sounding ecstatic. "Can we bike to every lake?
"There are more than 2,000 lakes, and most are small and private. There are several large ones in the park which we can cycle to and we'll see birds."
The following day we rented bikes, binoculars and took picnic lunches packed by Thierry Danyau, the owner of the B&B in the village of Rosnay. Ariel briskly cycled down a flat country road, which, to my great relief, had absolutely no traffic. Most of the area is flat with meadows, so cycling was a pleasure.
At a lake, we peered through our binoculars at birds on the other shore, but couldn't make out what they were. Farther along, we found a man-made "hide," with walls constructed of straw and reeds and a hole designed for humans to spy on bird life. Hiding behind the hide, we saw more birds we couldn't identify. Cycling on we came upon four Dutchmen outfitted with massive lenses on professional cameras and high-tech spying binoculars. Through these we got close-ups of black-necked grebes and purple herons. At another lake, we saw whiskered terns, crested grebes and gray herons.
"Awesome," Ariel said.
On tranquil, traffic-fee roads, we passed through pretty villages and settled on the grassy verge of a stream for our picnic lunch: fruit, fish sandwiches and tasty apple tarts. Back on the bikes and going in the direction of Rosnay, Ariel paused to pet a friendly horse at a fence; he was out of place, standing among dozing Charolais cattle (large creamy colored, typical of central France).
The next morning as prearranged, we met with Tony Williams, local naturalist and guide, who led us through a meadow and pointed out seven orchid species growing among the wild grass. He told us the number of species found in this area: 40 varieties of wild orchids and other rare plants, 63 dragonfly, more than 120 butterfly and the European Pond Tortoise.
In the afternoon, we drove through La Reserve de la Haute-Touche, a 1,250-acre, forested animal reserve, designed with roads for visitors to drive through so that animals are easily viewed from autos. Some 1,000 animals (many part of an international conservation program) roam in vast fenced-in areas. We saw kangaroos, giraffes, zebras and a variety of deer, but failed to glimpse lions and tigers (shown on the brochure).
"Wow, so sweet," Ariel said as we watched an ostrich sitting on her eggs.
She got up, gingerly pushed the eggs together with her beak, then carefully sat on them.
Another day, we cycled through Martizay and Bouchet, pretty villages with traditional red sandstone houses.
Although La Brenne attracts nature lovers, it also boasts a superb chateau, Azay-le-Ferron. The knowledgeable, enthusiastic guide took us through 18 of 60 rooms. Later, we strolled through some of the chateau's 42-acre park and admired the shaped trees in the topiary garden.
During our three-week trip in France, we'd appreciated several glorious chateaux and superb scenery. But here, France's light glowed with a specific character on lakes that rosily welcomed the sun's rise and set.
IF YOU GO
Parc naturel regional de la Brenne, www.parc-naturel-brenne.fr. La Brenne offers outdoor activities: nature walks, canoeing on two slow-moving rivers, horse riding, hiking trails, frescoes, camping, tennis, pedalos, playgrounds. Cultural: abbeys, churches, quaint villages.
B&B Domaine de la Crapaudine, B&B in Rosnay, e-mail email@example.com.
Renault Eurodrive offers an economical rental for 17 days or more, which includes a tax-free lease, unlimited mileage, insurance and choice of shift of automatic. Pick up in Paris airport or arrange for another city. Ask about special offers and the sleek, new Modus, www.renault-eurodrive.com.
Air Tahiti Nui flies from Los Angeles and New York to Paris. It offered excellent service and the best rates, www.airtahitinui.com.
For information and reservations on budget-priced family hotels and tours in France and Italy, contact Essential France at 866-285-8758, www.essentialfrance.com.
The French Government Tourist Office, www.franceguide.com.
© Copley News Service