As the world’s most popular tourist destination, France manages to be all things to all people. For city slickers, Paris is one of the world’s truly great cities, with a myriad of attractions and diverse eating and drinking experiences. The large cities of Lyon and Marseille are not far behind Paris with their own copious charms, both offering alternatives and complements to the Parisian experience. Outside of the big three, there are many more cities worth exploring and every town and village seems to have something to offer, with even the smallest town usually boasting a couple of worthwhile churches and a civic museum, as well as the bountiful culinary traditions that the country is rightly famed for. Beyond urban France, there is a diverse range of scenery, with everything from towering Alpine peaks in the southeast and rugged sea cliffs on the Atlantic coast, through to sweeping beaches in the west and south and some of Europe’s wildest areas, like the wild Camargue in the south. Any list of French attractions is, by virtue of the country’s rich and eclectic nature, bound to be incomplete.
Note: The enclave of Monaco has its own section in the World Travel Guide, as do the French Overseas Departments and many of the other French Overseas Possessions; see the relevant sections for details.
Paris & Ile-de-France
Paris is one of the world’s great cities: with a practically endless amount of things to do, it rewards repeated and extended visits. Despite the massive size of the city, Paris is also an easily navigable destination as the city center itself is relatively compact and all areas of Paris are connected by a highly efficient public transport system, with the famous Paris Metro, an attraction in itself. Paris boasts more than 80 museums and around 200 art galleries. La Carte is a pass providing free admission to about 60 national and municipal museums in the Paris area. The périphérique and boulevard circulaire ring roads roughly follow the line of the 19th-century city walls and within them are most of the well-known sights, shops and entertainments. Beyond the ring roads is an industrial and commercial belt, then a broad ring of suburbs, mostly of recent construction. Central Paris contains fine architecture from every period in a long and rich history, together with every amenity known to science and every entertainment yet devised. The oldest neighborhood is the Île-de-la-Cité, an island on a bend in the Seine where the Parisii, a Celtic tribe, settled in about the third century BC. The river was an effective defensive moat and the Parisii dominated the area for several centuries before being displaced by the Romans in about 52 BC. The island is today dominated by the newly renovated cathedral of Notre-Dame. Beneath it is the Crypte Archéologique, housing well-mounted displays of Paris’ early history. Having sacked the Celtic city, the Gallo-Romans abandoned the island and settled on the heights along the Rive Gauche (Left Bank), in the area now known as the Latin Quarter (Boulevards St Michel and St Germain). The naming of this district owes nothing to the Roman city: when the university was moved from the Cité to the left bank in the 13th century, Latin was the common language among the 10,000 students who gathered there from all over the known world. The Latin Quarter remains the focus of most student acivity (the Sorbonne is here) and there are many fine bookshops and commercial art galleries. The Cluny Museum houses some of the finest medieval European tapestries to be found anywhere, including ‘The Field of the Cloth of Gold’. At the western end of the Boulevard St Germain is the Orsay Museum, a superb collection of 19th- and early-20th-century art located in a beautifully restored railway station. Other Left Bank attractions include the Panthéon, the Basilica of St Séverin, the Palais and Jardin du Luxembourg, the Hôtel des Invalides (containing Napoleon’s tomb), the Musée Rodin and St-Germain-des-Prés. Continuing westwards from the Quai d’Orsay past the Eiffel Tower and across the Seine onto the Right Bank, the visitor encounters collection of museums and galleries known as the Trocadéro, a popular meeting place for young Parisians. A short walk to the north is the Place Charles de Gaulle, known to Parisians as the Étoile, and to tourists as the site of the Arc de Triomphe. It is also at the western end of that most elegant of avenues, the Champs-Élysées (Elysian Fields), which is once again famous for its cafes, commercial art galleries and sumptuous shops, rather than the dowdy airline offices and fast-food joints that took it over for much of the 1980s and early 1990s. At the other end of the avenue, the powerful axis is continued by the Place de la Concorde, the Jardin des Tuileries and, finally, the Louvre.
The Palais du Louvre has been extensively reorganized and reconstructed, the most controversial addition to the old palace being a pyramid with 673 panes of glass, which juxtaposes the ultra-modern with the classical facade of the palace. The best time to see the pyramid is after dark, when it is illuminated. The Richelieu Wing of the palace was inaugurated in 1993, marking the completion of the second stage of the redevelopment program. In 1996, a labyrinth of subterranean galleries, providing display areas, a conference and exhibition center, design shops and restaurants was opened.
North of the Louvre are the Palais Royal, the Madeleine and l’Opéra. To the east is Les Halles, a shopping and commercial complex built on the site of the old food market. It is at the intersection of several métro lines and is a good starting point for a tour of the city. There are scores of restaurants in the maze of small streets around Les Halles; every culinary style is available at prices to suit every pocket. Further east, beyond the Boulevard Sébastopol, is the postmodern Georges Pompidou Center of Modern Art (also known as the ‘Beaubourg’). It provides a steady stream of surprises in its temporary exhibition spaces (which, informally, include the pavement outside where lively and often bizarre street-performers gather) and houses a permanent collection of 20th-century art. East again, in the Marais district, are the Carnavalet and Picasso Museums, housed in magnificent town houses dating from the 16th and 18th centuries, respectively. Still further east, the magnificent Bibliothèque François Mitterrand, one of the world’s most spectacular libraries, can be reached via a new métro connection (ligne 14) whose beautiful high-tech trains alone (they are constructed mainly of glass) are worth the trip. One of the best-known districts in Paris, Montmartre, became almost unbearably popular and crowded after the success in 2001 of the Hollywood blockbuster, Moulin Rouge. A funicular railway operates on the steepest part of the Montmartre hill, taking people to the outlandish Sacré-Coeur: a love-it or hate-it chocolate box architectural creation. Local entrepreneurs have long capitalized on Montmartre’s romantic reputation as an artist’s colony and if visitors today are disappointed to find it a well-run tourist attraction, they should bear in mind that it has been exactly that since it first climbed out of poverty in the 1890s. The legend of Montmartre as a dissolute cradle of talent was carefully stage-managed by Toulouse-Lautrec and others to fill their pockets and it rapidly transformed a notorious slum into an equally notorious circus. An earlier Montmartre legend concerns St Denis. After his martyrdom, he is said to have walked headless down the hill. The world’s first Gothic cathedral, St Denis, was constructed on the spot where he collapsed. Just north of Belleville (a working-class district that produced Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier) at La Villette, is one of Paris’ newer attractions, the City of Science and Technology. The most modern presentation techniques are used to illustrate both the history and the possible future of man’s inventiveness; season tickets are available. One of the great pleasures of Paris is the great number of sidewalk cafes, now glass-enclosed in wintertime, which extends people-watching to a year-round sport in any part of the city. There are as many Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants as there are French cafes. North African eating places also abound, and dozens of American Tex-Mex eateries are scattered throughout the city. Bric-a-brac or brocante is found in a number of flea markets (marché aux puces) on the outskirts of town, notably at the Porte de Clignancourt. There are several antique centers (Louvre des Antiquaires, Village Suisse, etc) where genuine antique furniture and other objects are on sale. Amongst the larger department stores are the Printemps and the Galeries Lafayette near the Opéra, the Bazar Hôtel de Ville (BHV) and the Samaritaine on the Right Bank and the Bon Marché on the Left Bank. The remains of the great forests of the Île-de-France (the area surrounding Paris) can still be seen at the magnificent châteaux of Versailles, Rambouillet and Fontainebleau on the outskirts of Paris. The capital’s nightlife has never looked healthier. The ‘beautiful people’ may have moved on to Menilmontant, but the bustling streets of Bastille are still a nocturnal playground for far more than just tourists. Menilmontant itself rewards visitors prepared to venture beyond the guidebooks to discover the vibrant, hip, twenty-something scene.
Disneyland Resort Paris
The Disneyland Resort Paris, now open year-round, lies to the east of the capital, a complete vacation destination located at Marne-la-Vallée, 32km (20 miles) from Paris. Disney’s first European venture has become one of the continent’s most popular attractions. The site has an area of 1943 hectares (5000 acres), one-fifth the size of Paris, and includes hotels, restaurants, a campsite, shops and a golf course, and has as its star attractions the Disneyland Paris Theme Park and Walt Disney Studios. Inspired by previous theme parks, Euro Disneyland features all the famous Disney characters plus some new attractions especially produced to blend with its European home. The site is easily accessible by motorway, regional and high-speed rail services, and by air.
Brittany is a region of France that boasts a fiercely independent culture that dates back to its Celtic past. Brittany comprises the départements of Côtes d’Armor, Finistère, Ille-et-Villaine and Morbihan. Fishing has long been the most important industry and the rocky Atlantic coastline, high tides and strong, treacherous currents demand high standards of seamanship. At Finistère (finis terrea or Land’s End), the Atlantic swell can drive spouts of water up to 30m (100ft) into the air. The coastal scenery is particularly spectacular at Pointe du Raz and Perros-Guirec. The Gauls arrived on the peninsula in about 600 BC. Little is known about their way of life or why they constructed the countless stone monuments to be found throughout Brittany – cromlechs, altars, menhirs and dolmens (Carnac is the supreme example of this). They were displaced by the Romans during the reign of Julius Caesar who, in turn, were displaced by Celts arriving from Britain in AD 460. The Celts named their new land Brittanica Minor and divided it into the coastal area, l’Ar Mor (the country of the sea), and the inland highlands, l’Ar Coat (the country of the woods). The two areas in Brittany are still referred to as l’Armor and l’Argoat. The Celts were master stonemasons, as may be seen by the many surviving calvaires, or elaborately carved stone crosses. Brittany emerged from the Dark Ages as an independent duchy. A series of royal marriages eventually brought Brittany into France and, by 1532, the perpetual union of the Duchy of Brittany with France was proclaimed. Despite the rugged coastline, it is possible to enjoy a conventional beach holiday in Brittany. The Emerald Coast, a region of northern Brittany centerd on Dinard, has many fine bathing beaches. The beach resorts are often named after little-known saints: St Enogat, St Laumore, St Brill, St Jacut, St Cast, and so on. There are also bathing beaches in the bay of St Brieuc, including Val André, Etables and St Quay. Brittany’s main attractions are her wild beauty and the unique Bretn culture. In general, coastal areas have retained a more characteristically Breton way of life than the hills inland, though much of the coastline is blighted by the holiday homes which seem to occupy every possible space. Elaborate Breton head-dresses are still worn in some parts, the style varying slightly from village to village. Breton religious processions and the ceremonies of the pardons that take place in a number of communities at various times of the year may have changed little since Celtic times. In the region around Plouha, many of the inhabitants still speak Breton, a language evolved from Celtic dialects, and Celtic music and cultural performances are also popular. The coast from Paimpol consists of colossal chunks of rock, perilous to shipping, as the many lighthouses suggest. The very pleasant villages and beaches of Perros-Guirec, Trégastel or Trébeurden contrast with the wild and rocky shoreline.
Near the base of the peninsula, at Aber Vrac’h and Aber Benoit, the ocean is caught and churned up in deep, winding chasms penetrating far inland. Further along the coast is the huge and sprawling port of Brest, possessing one of Europe’s finest natural harbors which has a 13th-century castle. The canal running from Brest to Nantes makes a very pleasant journey either by hired boat or walking or on horseback, although not all of the route is navigable by water. The interior consists of wooded hills and farms, buttes (knolls) with fine views, short rivers and narrow valleys. Many of the so-called mountains are merely undulating verdant dunes, barely 300m (1000ft) high. They are nonetheless remnants of the oldest mountain chain on the planet. Breton architecture is perhaps more humble than in other parts of France, being more akin to that of a village in England or Wales. Inland, there are several impressive castles and many walled towns and villages. The churches are small and simple. For the most part, Brittany benefits from the warmth of the Gulf Stream all year round, but the tourist season runs from June to September. The countryside blazes with flowers in the spring, attracting many varieties of birdlife. The city of Rennes, the ancient capital of Brittany, is a good base from which to explore the highlands; sights include the Palais de Justice, the castle, the Musée des Beaux-Arts and the Musée de Bretagne, which seeks to preserve and foster all things Breton. Some of Brittany’s most productive farms are close to the northern shore. Fertilized with seaweed, they produce fine potatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, artichokes, peas, string beans and strawberries. The quality of locally produced ingredients lends itself to the simple Breton cuisine, which brings out natural flavors rather than concealing them with elaborate sauces. Raw shellfish (including oysters), lobster, lamb and partridge are particularly good. The salt meadows of lower Brittany add a distinctive flavor to Breton livestock and game. Crêpes (pancakes) are a regional specialty and there are two distinct varieties: a sweet dessert crêpe served with sugar, honey, jam, jelly or a combination (eg suzette); and the savoury sarrasin variety, made from buckwheat flour and served with eggs, cheese, bacon or a combination of several of these (the crêpe is folded over the ingredients and reheated). They can be bought ready-made in the local shops. Little or no cheese is produced in Brittany, but some of the finest butter in the world comes from here – it is slightly salted, unlike the butter from the other regions of France. Cider is frequently drunk with food, as well as wine. The popular wine, Muscadet, comes from the extreme southern point of Brittany, at the head of the Loire Estuary, near Nantes. It is a dry, fruity white wine that goes very well with shellfish, especially oysters.
Normandy is a region dominated by farming, with mile upon mile of unbroken farmland, which eventually gives way in the west to the waters of the English Channel. Normandy contains five départements: Seine Maritime, Calvados, Manche, Eure and Orne, with all but the last two touching on the sea. Its southern border is the River Couesnon which has, over the years, shifted its course as it flows over almost flat country, gradually moving south of Mont-Saint-Michel, one of Europe’s best-known architectural curiosities. Mont-Saint-Michel and its bay are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The tides are phenomenal: at their peak, there is a difference of about 15m (50ft) between the ebb and the flow, the height of a five-story building. The sands in the bay are flat and, when the tides are at their highest, the sea runs in over a distance of some 24km (15 miles), forming a wave about 70cm (2ft) deep. The sandbank changes from tide to tide and, if the legend of the sea entering the bay at the speed of a galloping horse is perhaps a slight exaggeration, the danger of quicksand is real enough. The present Abbey of Saint-Michel was built in the eighth century by Bishop Aubert; his skull bears the mark of the finger of Saint Michel, the archangel Michael. Cabourg is the Balbec in Proust’s novels. Maupassant and Flaubert included Norman scenes in their novels and Monet, Sisley and Pissarro painted scenes of the coast and the countryside. Deauville – with its beach, casino, golf course and race track – is the social capital of the area. Bayeux is worth a visit for the fantastic tapestry – there is nothing like it in the world. The landing beaches and World War II battlefields are remembered by excellent small museums in Arromanches (the landings) and Bayeux (battle of Normandy). There is also a peace museum in Caen, with its beautiful Romanesque church and ruins of an enormous castle, founded by William the Conqueror. Other monuments worth visiting include the 14th-century Church of St-Etienne, the Church of St-Pierre (Renaissance) and the Abbaye aux Dames. There is also a museum of local crafts from the Gallo-Roman period to the present.
The cross-Channel terminus and port of Dieppe has attractive winding streets and a 15th-century castle, housing the Musée de Dieppe. There are some beautiful châteaux in Normandy, particularly along the route between Paris and Rouen. They include the Boury-en-Vexin, Bizy-Vernon, Gaillon, Gaillard-les-Andelys, Vascoeuil and Martinville. Along the same route are found a number of other sites classed monument historique; the Claude Monet House and garden in Giverny, the Abbey de Mortemer (Lisors) and the village of Lyon-la-Fôret. All of these merit a detour. The ancient capital of Rouen features restored ancient streets and houses, including the Vieille Maison of 1466 and the place du Vieux-Marché, where Jeanne d’Arc was burnt in 1432. There is a magnificent 13th-century cathedral (the subject of a series of paintings by Monet), as well as many fine museums and churches, including St Ouen and St Maclou. The cloister of St Maclou was a cemetery for victims of the Great Plague. The old port of Honfleur, with its well-preserved 18th-century waterfront houses, is also well worth a visit.
Normandy is a land of farmers and fishermen and is one of the finest gastronomic regions of France. Exquisite butter, thick fresh cream and excellent cheeses, including the world-famous camembert, pont l’evêque and liverot, are all produced here. Both crustaceans and saltwater fish abound; sole Normande is one of the greatest dishes known to the gastronomic world. There is also lobster from Barfleur, shrimp from Cherbourg and oysters from Dive-sur-Mur. Inland one finds duck from Rouen and Nantes, lamb from the salt meadows near Mont-Saint-Michel, cream from Isigny, chicken and veal from the Cotentin, and cider and calvados (apple brandy) from the Pays d’Auge.
Nord, Pas de Calais & Picardy
Northern France is made up of the départements of Nord/Pas de Calais (French Flanders) and Somme-Oise Aisne (Picardy). Amiens, the principal town of Picardy, has a beautiful 13th-century cathedral, which is one of the largest in France. The choirstalls are unique. The nearby Quartier Saint-Leu is an ancient canal-side neighborhood. Beauvais is famous for its Gothic Cathedral of St-Pierre (incorporating a ninth-century Carolingian church) which would have been the biggest Gothic church in the world, if it had been completed. Its 13th-century, stained-glass windows are particularly impressive. There is also a fine museum of tapestry.
Compiègne is famous for its Royal Palace, which has been a retreat for the French aristocracy from the 14th century onwards, and where Napoleon himself lived with his second wife, Marie-Louise. There are over 1000 rooms within the palace and the bedrooms of Napoleon and his wife, preserved with their original decorations, are well worth viewing for their ostentatiously lavish style. Surrounding the town and palace is the Forest of Compiègne, where the 1918 Armistice was signed, and which has been a hunting ground for the aristocracy for hundreds of years – a wander through its dark and tranquil interior is an exceptionally pleasant experience. The town also has a fine Hôtel de Ville (town hall) and a Carriage Museum is attached to the Palace.
The château of Chantilly now houses the Musée Condé and there are impressive Baroque gardens to walk around, as well as a 17th-century stable with a ‘live’ Horse Museum. The town of Arras, on the River Scarpe, has beautiful 13th- and 14th-century houses and the lovely Abbey of Saint Waast. There are pretty old towns at Hesdin and Montreuil (with its ramparts and citadel). Boulogne is best entered by way of the lower town with the 13th-century ramparts of the upper town in the background; the castle next to the Basilica of Notre Dame is impressive.
Le Touquet is a pleasant all-year-round coastal resort town with 10km (6 miles) of sandy beaches. The port of Calais, of great strategic importance in the Middle Ages, is today noted for the manufacture of tulle and lace, as well as being a busy cross-Channel ferry terminus. Calais and its surrounds are also very popular for their large shopping malls, which are particularly popular with British visitors, who often travel across the English Channel specifically for a shopping trip. The further north one goes, the more beer is drunk and used in the kitchen, especially in soup and ragoûts. Wild rabbit is cooked with prunes or grapes. There is also a thick Flemish soup called hochepot which has virtually everything in it but the kitchen sink. The cuisine is often, not surprisingly, sea-based – matelotes of conger eel and caudière (fish soup). Shellfish known as coques, ‘the poor man’s oyster’, are popular too. The marolles cheese from Picardy is made from whole milk, salted and washed down with beer. Flanders, although it has a very short coastline, has many herring dishes, croquelots or bouffis, which are lightly salted and smoked. Harengs salés and harengs fumés are famous and known locally as gendarmes (‘policemen’).
Champagne & Ardennes
The chalky and rolling fields of Champagne might have remained unsung and unvisited, had it not been for an accident of history. Towards the end of the 17th century, a blind monk, tending the bottles of mediocre wine in the cellars of his abbey at Hautviliers, discovered that cork made a fine stopper for aging his wine. After the first fermentation, cork kept air - the enemy of aging wine - from his brew. But it also trapped the carbon dioxide in the bottle and when he pulled the cork it ‘popped’. At that moment, some say, the world changed for the better. ‘I am drinking the stars,’ he is said to have murmured as he took the first sip of champagne the world had ever known. This northeastern slice of France is composed of the départements of Ardennes, Marne, Aube and Haute Marne. On these rolling plains, many of the great battles of European history have been fought, including many in World Wars I and II. The Ardennes was once known as the ‘woody country’ where Charlemagne hunted deer, wild boar, small birds and game in the now vanished forests. The area has three main waterways: the Seine, the Aube and the Marne. The Marne Valley between Ferté-sous-Jouarre and Epernay is one of the prettiest in France. Forests of beech, birch, oak and elm cover the high ground, vines and fruit trees sprawl across the slopes, and corn and sunflowers wave in the little protected valleys. The valleys form a long, fresh and green oasis, dotted with red-roofed villages. In 496, Clovis, the first king of France, was baptized in the cathedral in Rheims. From Louis VII to Charles X, the kings of France made it a point of honor to be crowned in the city where the history of the country really began. Rheims and its cathedral have been destroyed, razed, and rebuilt many times over the centuries. The Church of St-Rémi, even older than the cathedral, is half Romanesque, half Gothic in style. The most remarkable feature is its great size, comparable to that of Notre-Dame-de-Paris. Beneath the town and its suburbs, there are endless caves for campagne. Epernay is the real capital of champagne, the drink. Here, 115km (72 miles) of underground galleries in the chalk beneath the city store the wine for the delicate operations required to make champagne. These include the blending of vintages, one of the most important tasks in the creation of champagne. It is left to age for at least three years. Aside from champagne as the world knows it, there is an excellent blanc de blanc champagne nature, an unbubbly white wine with a slight bite and many of the characteristics of champagne. The perfect Gothic style of the Cathedral of St-Étienne in Châlons-sur-Marne has preserved the pure lines of its 12th-century tower. Nearby, the little town of St-Ménéhould, almost destroyed in 1940, has contributed to the gastronomic world recipes for pigs’ feet and carp but, historically, it is known for the fact that the postmaster, in 1791, recognized Louis XVI fleeing from Paris with his family and reported him. Before the annexation of Franche-Comté and Lorraine, Langres was a fortified town. Its Gallo-Roman monuments, its 15th- and 17th-century mansions and its religious architecture make it well worth a visit. Troyes, ancient capital of the Champagne area, has a beautifully preserved city center with a Gothic cathedral, dozens of churches and 15th-century houses and a system of boulevards shaped like a champagne cork. The city also boasts the Musée d’Art Moderne in the old Bishops’ Palace – a private collection of modern art, including works by Bonnard, Degas and Gauguin. Troyes is becoming increasingly popular as a base for exploring Aube en Champagne, an area that is less saturated with tourists than the more popular champagne areas around Rheims and Epernay. There are beautiful lakes in the Champagne-Ardenne region, the largest being Lac du Der-Chantecoq. The Fôret d’Orient has a famous bird sanctuary. There is no school of cooking founded on the use of champagne, but locally there are a few interesting dishes that include the wine. Châlons-sur-Marne has a dish that involves cooking chicken in champagne. It goes well in a sauce for the local trout; kidneys and pike have also been fried in champagne.
Lorraine, Vosges & Alsace
This part of France is made up of two historic territories, Alsace and Lorraine, in which there are six départements: Vosges, Meurthe-et-Moselle, Meuse, Moselle, Bas-Rhin, Haut-Rhin and the territory of Belfort. These territories have see-sawed from French to German control during conflicts between the two countries for centuries. The major cities of the area are Strasbourg, Metz, Nancy and Colmar. Strasbourg, by far the largest and most important, has been for centuries what its name suggests: a city on a highway; the highway being the east–west trade (and invasion) route and the north–south river for commerce. Today, it is the headquarters of the European Parliament and the European Court of Human Rights, but it is rich in historic monuments and architecture and possesses a magnificent cathedral.
Metz, a Gallo-Roman city, is situated in a strategic position as a defense point and is also a crossroads of trade routes. It contains some elegant medieval walls, arches and public buildings, but its pride is the Cathedral of St-Étienne. Nancy is best known for its perfectly proportioned Place Stanislas, gracefully surrounded with elegant wrought-iron gates. The history of Lorraine is excellently documented in the town’s museum. A visit to Colmar can be a pleasant glimpse into the Middle Ages, and it is one of the most agreeable cities in Alsace, as well as being capital of the Alsatian wine country. The narrow, winding, cobbled streets are flanked by half-timbered houses, painstakingly restored by the burghers of the city. The 13th-century Dominican Convent of Unterlinden, now a museum, contains some important works from the 15th and 16th centuries, including the exquisite Grünewald triptych.
Colmar is a perfect place from which to set out along the Route du Vin (Wine Route) stopping at many of the appealing towns along the way to taste the local wine. Turckheim, just outside Colmar, has some of the best-preserved array of 15th- and 16th-century houses in the district and a town crier takes visitors through the streets at night to recall the atmosphere of old. The town of Eguisheim, with its Renaissance fountain and monument in the village square, is also a charming Alsatian town with many historic houses and wine cellars open to the public for wine-tasting. Kayersberg (the birthplace of Dr Albert Schweitzer, whose house has been turned into a museum with mementos of his work and life) also has some castle ruins on a hill overlooking the town and a picturesque stream that meanders through the town. A particularly popular town with tourists is Riquewihr, with its 13th- and 14th-century fortifications and belfry tower and its many medieval houses and courtyards. St Hippolyte is another picturesque wine-tasting town at the foot of the Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle, a sprawling and impressive medieval castle where Jean Renoir filmed La Grande Illusion. Self-steer boats are readily available for canal cruising in a number of locations. There are also regularly scheduled Rhine river and canal tours daily all summer; several hotel boats ply these waterways as well. Sightseeing helicopters and balloons make regular flights, weather permitting. Several ancient steam trains make regular circuits including Rosheim/Ottrat (on the wine route); at Andolsheim, a steam train runs along the Canal d’Alsace between Cernay and Soultz. Throughout Alsace there are artisans’ workshops, including glass and wood painting at Wimmenau and pottery in Betschdorf where studios and shops are open to the public. Organised walking tours that include overnight stops and meals en route are arranged from Colmar and Mulhouse. Bicycle trails are marked along the Rhine, where bicycles are readily available for hire. Belfort, a major fortress town since the 17th century, commands the Belfort Gap, or Burgundy Gate, between the Vosges and the Jura mountains. Dominating the routes from Germany and Switzerland, it became famous during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 when it withstood a 108-day siege. This is commemorated by a huge stone statue, the Lion of Belfort, by Bartholdi, the creator of the Statue of Liberty. The ‘route du vin’ lies between the Rhine and a low range of pine-covered mountains called the Vosges. The flat, peaceful plain is covered with orchards and vineyards. Lovely, rural villages dot the landscape, their church spires piercing the horizon. The wines of Alsace have a long history; the Alsatian grapes were planted before the arrival of the Romans. It has never been clearly understood where they originated; unlike other French wines, these depend more on grape type than soil or processing. Almost exclusively white with a fruity and dry flavor, they make an excellent accompaniment to the local food. Beer also goes well with Alsatian food, and as might be expected, good beer is brewed in both the Alsace and the Lorraine areas. There are famous and popular mineral water sources in Contréxeville and Vittel (also a spa town). They were well known and appreciated by the Romans and today are the most popular in France. One of the food specialties of Alsace is truite bleue, blue trout, which is simply boiled so fresh as to be almost alive when tossed into the water. The swift rivers provide gamey trout and they can be fished by visitors if permits are obtained (at any city hall). The cooking is peppery and hearty and quite unlike that of any other French region. Munster, a strong winter cheese, is usually served with caraway seeds. Lorraine and Alsatian tarts are made with the excellent local fruits: mirabelles (small, yellow plums), cherries, pears, and so on. Each of these fruits also makes a world-renowned eau-de-vie, a strong white alcohol liqueur drunk as a digestive after a heavy meal. Lorraine is famous for quiche lorraine made only in the classical manner: with cream, eggs and bacon. Nancy has boudin (blood sausage), although this is found in all parts of France.
Burgundy & Franche-Comté
Burgundy begins near Auxerre, a small medieval town with a beautiful Gothic cathedral, and extends southward to the hills of Beaujolais just north of Lyon. The départements are the Yonne, Côte d’Or, Nièvre and the Saône-et-Loire. Driving through this region, one seems to be traversing a huge carte des vins: Mersault, Volnay, Beaune, Aloxe Corton, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Vosne-Romanée and Gevrey-Chambertin. This vast domain of great wines was an independent kingdom for 600 years, at times as strong as France itself, enjoying its heyday in the 15th century. Throughout a stormy history, however, Burgundy’s vineyards survived thanks in large part to the knowledge, diligence and good taste of its monks. Several of the orders owned extensive vineyards throughout the region, among them the Knights of Malta, Carthusians, Carmelites and, most importantly, the Benedictines and Cistercians. As a result, the 210km (130 mile) length of Burgundy is peppered with abbeys, monasteries and a score of fine Romanesque churches, notably in Fontenay, Vézelay, Tournus and Cluny. There are also many fortified châteaux. Dijon, an important political and religious center during the 15th century, has several fine museums and art galleries, as well as the Palais des Ducs, once the home of the Dukes of Burgundy. There are also elegant restored town houses to be visited, dating from the 15th to the 18th century, and a 13th-century cathedral. The towns of Sens and Macon both possess fine churches dating from the 12th century.
The region of Franche-Comté is shaped like a fat boomerang and is made up of the départements of Doubs, Jura, Haute Saône and Territoire de Belfort. The high French Jura Mountains, rising in steps from 245 to 1785m (805-5856ft), run north–south along the French–Swiss border. To the west is the forested Jura plateau, the vine-clad hills and eventually the fertile plain of northern Bresse, called the Finage. The heights and valleys of the Jura are readily accessible and, in the summertime, beautifully green, providing pasture land for the many milk cows used in the production of one of the great mountain cheeses: Comté. There are many lovely (and romantically named) rivers in this region – Semouse, Allance, Gugeotte, Lanterne, Barquotte, Durgeon, Colombine, Dougeonne, Rigotte and Romaine (named by Julius Caesar). They weave and twist, now and then disappearing underground to reappear again some miles away. All these physical characteristics combine to make Franche-Comté an excellent region for summer vacations and winter sports.
Val de Loire
One of France’s most famous regions is the Loire Valley, the former playground of the French monarchs, whose traces and grand palaces attract visitors today. The ‘center’ of France from Chartres to Châteauroux and from Tours to Bourges includes the départements of Eure-et-Loir, Loiret, Loir-et-Cher, Indre, Indre-et-Loire and Cher. The Central Loire includes the famous Châteaux country, perhaps the region most visited by foreign tourists to France. Through it flows a part of the Loire River, the longest river in France, and considered to be its most capricious, often reducing to a mere trickle of water in a bed of sand. It has been called a ‘useless’ great river, because it drives no turbines or mill wheels and offers few navigable waterways. It could be said that the Loire serves only beauty and each of its tributaries has its own character. The Cher is a quiet, slow-moving river, flowing calmly through grassy meadows and mature forests. The château of Chenonceaux stands quite literally on the river; a working mill in the early medieval period when the Cher flowed more vigorously, it was transformed into perhaps the most graceful of all French châteaux, its court rooms running clear from one bank to the other on a row of delicate arches. Chenonceaux’s development owed much to a succession of beautiful and powerful noblewomen, and its charm is of an undeniably feminine nature. The Indre is a river of calm reflections. Lilies abound and weeping willows sway on its banks. The château at Azay-le-Rideau was designed to make full use of these qualities and stands beside several small manmade lakes, each reflecting a different aspect of the building. Water is moved to and from the river and between the lakes through a series of gurgling channels. The water gardens and its reflections of the intricately carved exterior more than compensate for the rather dull interior. The Vienne is essentially a broad stream. It glides gracefully beneath the weathered walls of old Chinon, where several important chapters in French history were acted out. The château of Blois, which is - architecturally speaking - one of the finest, is certainly the most interesting in terms of history. It stands in the center of the ancient town of the same name, towering over the battered stone houses clustered beneath its walls. Chambord, several miles south of the Loire, is the most substantial of the great châteaux. Standing in a moat in the center of a vast lawn bordered by forests, the body of the building possesses a majestic symmetry. In contrast, the roofscape is a mad jumble of eccentric chimneys and apartments. Some have attributed the bizarre double-helix staircase to Leonardo da Vinci. The five châteaux described above are generally ranked highest amongst the Loire châteaux and form the core of most organized tours. There are, of course, dozens more that can be visited and it is even possible to stay overnight in several of them. The Loire Valley is very warm and crowded with tourists in summer. Besides châteaux, there is much else of interest in the Loire Valley and surrounding districts. There are magnificent 13th-century cathedrals in Chartres and Tours, as well as abbeys and mansions and charming riverside towns and villages. Other places of outstanding interest include Orléans, famous for its associations with Jeanne d’Arc, with a beautiful cathedral, the Musée des Beaux Arts and 16th-century Hôtel de Ville; and Bourges, a 15th-century town complete with old houses, museums and the Cathedral of St-Étienne. The charming little town of Loches, southeast of Tours, has a fine château and an interesting walled medieval quarter. It was in the heartland of the Touraine that the true cuisine of France developed (Touraine was given the name ‘the garden of France’).
The region of the Western Loire comprises the départements of Loire-Atlantique, Maine et Loire, Mayenne, Sarthe and the Vendée. The Vendée and the Loire-Atlantique share a beautiful and wild coastline with Brittany. There are 305km (190 miles) of sandy beaches. Inland, the mild climate makes for beautiful mature pastures, often made more attractive by clumps of wild camelias and roses.
In the Western Loire, La Baule, a summer resort with a fine, seemingly endless beach, is a pleasant town with winding streets and giant pines, excellent hotels, restaurants and a casino. It has an unusually mild microclimate and is exceptionally warm for the region. Le Mans, famous for its racetrack, is an historic old town built on a hill overlooking the west bank of the Sarthe. The 12th-century choir in the Cathedral of Saint-Julian is one of the most remarkable in France. The magnificent 13th- and 14th-century stained glass is also impressive. Most of the Sarthe Valley consists of beautifully wooded hills, divided by the thick hedges that are seasonally draped with wild roses, honeysuckle, or large juicy blackberries. In May or early June, the apple and pear blossoms blend with the hawthorn; the orchards are in bloom and the fields and forests are rich and green. These two months are most attractive and the weather at that time is usually favorable; the autumn is less dry but usually remains pleasant through October.
Nantes, on the coast of the Loire-Atlantique, is a thriving commercial and industrial center. There is a medieval castle, which also houses the Musée d’Art Populaire, a display of Breton costumes; a 15th-century cathedral; and a naval museum. St-Nazaire, along the coast from Nantes, boasts the Escal Atlantic, a replica of an ocean liner containing interactive exhibits evoking the golden age of ocean travel. Upstream from Nantes, the town of Angers contains some spectacular tapestries. In the castle can be seen St John’s Vision of the Apocalypse (14th century) and in the Hôpital St-Jean, Jean Lurcat’s Chant du Monde (20th century). The Hôpital itself is very beautiful and there are several museums and art galleries in the town worth a visit, as well as the magnificent castle/fortress and the cathedral. The regional cuisine has the advantages of excellent vineyards, an abundance and variety of fish from the Loire and its tributaries, plentiful butter and cheese, fruits and vegetables and easily available game from the forests. In general, the wines of the Loire all have a clean refreshing taste that makes them ideal for light lunches or as an apéritif.
Aquitaine & Poitou-Charentes
This area of sunshine and Atlantic air in the southwest of France includes the départements of Deux Sèvres, Vienne, Charente-Maritime, Charente, Gironde, Dordogne, Lot-et-Garonne, Landes and Pyrénées Atlantiques, the latter on the Spanish border. The coastline has 270km (170 miles) of beaches and the 30km (20 miles) or so from Hossegor to Hendaye fall within the Basque area and offer some of the best surfing in Europe.
North of Bordeaux the region of Guyenne is sometimes referred to as ‘west-center’ as if it were a clearly defined part of France, yet a diversity of landscapes and an extraordinary mixing and mingling of races exists here – Celts, Iberians, Dutch and Anglo Saxons, to name a few. The linguistic frontier between the langue d’oïl and langue d’oc runs between Poitiers (former capital of the Duchy of Aquitaine) and Limoges, creating a dialect which developed from both. These people have in common the great north–south highway, the important line of communication between the Parisian basin and the Aquitaine basin. Throughout the centuries it was the route of many invaders: Romans, Visigoths, Alemanni, Huns, Arabs, Normans, English, Huguenots and Catholics all moved along it. Not far from Poitiers is Futuroscope, which is the domestic answer to Disneyland Resort Paris, offering a huge theme park containing interactive and cinematic exhibits, as well as rides and other entertainment. Biarritz and Bayonne are both resorts on the Aquitaine/Basque coast, close to the Spanish border. Biarritz has been famous as a cosmopolitan spa town since the 19th century, when it was popular with the European aristocracy. There are several sheltered beaches, as well as a casino. Bayonne, a few kilometers up the coast but slightly inland, is a typical Basque town that is worth a visit. There is a 13th-century cathedral and two museums (one of them devoted to Basque culture). Bordeaux is on the Garonne River just above where it joins the Dordogne, the two streams forming an estuary called the Gironde which forms a natural sheltered inland harbor. It is flanked on both sides by vineyards as far as the eye can see. The combination of great wines and great wealth made Bordeaux one of the gastronomic cities of France and the city offers an impressive sight from its stone bridge with 17 arches that crowns the enormous golden horn which forms the harbor. The second-largest city of France in area, the fourth in population, the fifth port, it was described by Victor Hugo with the words: ‘Take Versailles, add Antwerp to it, and you have Bordeaux’. The city is the commercial and cultural center for all of the southwest. Its nightlife scene is fuelled by the large local student community, which, along with its eating and drinking scene and the new budget airline route to Bordeaux, is bringing more and more city-breakers into the city. South of Bordeaux along the coast is a strip of long sandy beaches backed by lagoons, some communicating with the sea, some shut off from it. Just at the back of this is the Landes, covered with growths of scrubby pine. Here in the marshes, the shepherds walk on stilts. The hilly region between the Adour and Garonne rivers comprises the inland part of Gascony, first known as Aquitania Propria and later as Novem Populena. It was inhabited by Vascones, or Basques who, since prehistoric times, had lived in this area and south of the Pyrénées. In the south, the Basque language has survived to this day, but the northern part of the area became known as Vasconia and then Gascony, a name made famous by the swashbuckling Gascons of literature: Cyrano de Bergerac, d’Artagnan of ‘The Three Musketeers’ and le vert gallant – Henri IV. In the center of Gascony is the old countship of Armagnac which, like Cognac, provides the world with a magnificent brandy that bears the name of the region. The difference between the two stems from several factors: the type of grape used, the soil, the climate, the method of distilling the wine and the variety of wood used in the maturing casks. Armagnac is still made by local artisans and small farmers. The quality and taste varies much more than Cognac, but it inevitably retains its fine flavor. The Dordogne (and neighboring Lot) is the area where traces of prehistoric (Cro-Magnon) man abound. The Dordogne River itself, one of the most beautiful of all French rivers, flows swiftly through the region, its banks crowded with old castles and walled towns. In Montignac, the fabulous painted caves of Lascaux are reproduced in the exact proportions and colors of the original, a few miles away. The reproduction was necessary as the original deteriorated rapidly when exposed to the heat and humidity of visitors. A highly interesting and informative museum and zoo of prehistoric artifacts and animals has been created in Le Thot a few miles from Agen. The area around Périgueux is a country of rivers and castles – very different from those on the Loire as these are older and, for the most part, fortified defense points against medieval invaders. There are facilities for renting horse and gypsy wagons (roulotte à chevaux) for slow-moving tours of the region. Along with hiking treks, river boating and bicycling tours, it offers a relaxed way to explore this beautiful land.
It is possible in Aquitaine and Poitou-Charentes to find pleasant hotels and auberges for an overnight or few days’ stay. They range from gîtes and chambre d’hôtes – a farm bed & breakfast program – to châteaux hôtels with elegant restaurants. There are no less than 150 chambres d’hôtes stopovers in the Poitou-Charentes region alone, including many on the coast, near beaches and pleasure ports. The area of Poitou-Charentes has lovely mature woodland and an attractive coast where oysters are cultivated. The Charente-Maritime is known as ‘the Jade Coast’, with Royan to the south (a fine modern resort with 13km/8 miles of fine sand beaches) and La Rochelle to the north. The center of the département of Charente, amid low, rolling hills covered with copses of trees and vineyards, is a little town of only 22,000 inhabitants, whose name is known all over the world. Here, in an area of some 150,000 acres, the only brandy that can be called Cognac is produced. Use of the name is forbidden for brandy made elsewhere or from other than one of the seven officially accepted varieties of grape. The Valois Château located here is the birthplace of Francis I. The ancient port of La Rochelle, from which many pioneers left to explore the new world, is today a popular vacation and sailing port. La Rochelle is becoming more and more popular, thanks in no small part to new budget airline route to the city from London. The rivers of the region offer quiet scenic walks or boating trips. Close by, the offshore islands of Oléron and Ré are both connected to the mainland by bridges.
Auvergne & Limousin
West of the Rhône are the volcanic highlands of the Massif Central, historically known as Auvergne and consisting today of the départements of Haute-Loire, Cantal, Pays-de-Dôme and Allier. The Limousin region to the west comprises Haute-Vienne, Creuse and Corrèze. Architecturally, Auvergne is rich in châteaux and churches (especially in the Allier and Loire gorges) and is noted for its colorful, rich and mysterious nature. The National Park here offers magnificent walking country – a land of water, mountains, plains and extinct volcanoes (the Cantal crater may once have been 30km/20 miles wide). There are 10 spa resorts within its boundaries, as well as many lakes, rivers and forests. The high plateau of Combrailles, Forez and Bourbonnais are very beautiful. Clermont-Ferrand, which is the political and economic nucleus for the whole of the Massif Central, is a lively and sprawling town and the birthplace of the Michelin tire empire. Much of the town’s architecture (especially in the older parts of the Clermont area) is black, because of the local black volcanic rock. There is a 13th-century Gothic cathedral and a 14th-century Romanesque basilica, as well as several museums. The town makes a very good base for exploring the beautiful areas around it.
There are plenty of good hôtels, gîtes d’hôtes, and gîtes de France throughout the region. The cuisine is splendid, including cornet de Murat (pastries), pounti, truffades and the St Nectaire cheeses. At nearby Saint-Ours-les-Roches is the European Volcano Center, Vulcania, a specially designed exhibition and entertainment center.
The 2000-year-old regional capital of Limousin, Limoges, is an important rail and route crossroad, famous for the production of extremely fine porcelain. The nearby city of Aubusson is noted for its tapestries (a local tradition dating back to the 8th century). Both cities are also famous for their enamel.
The combined territories of Languedoc and Roussillon include five départements: Aude, Gard, Hérault, Lozère and Pyrénées-Oriental. The area has been French since the 13th century and the name languedoc comes from langue d’oc, or language in which ‘yes’ is oc (as opposed to langue d’oïl the language in which ‘yes’ is oui). This ancient language is still heard throughout the south of France, on both sides of the Rhône. The Mediterranean coast between Perpignan (the ancient capital of the Kings of Mallorca) and Montpellier now has one of the most modern holiday complexes in Europe, including the resorts of La Grande Motte, Port Leucate and Port Bacarès. Montpellier itself is the city that surveys show most French people would like to live in. With its grand civic spaces, cutting-edge architecture and state-of-the-art tram system, the city offers a vision into the future of urban living. Other attractions include some excellent museums, galleries and a string of fine, good value restaurants. More wine is produced in Languedoc-Roussillon than any other place in the world. The vineyards, started in the Roman era and producing red, white and rosé wine, begin in the Narbonne area, run past Béziers (the wine marketing center for the region) and on to Montpellier. Once an important seaport which imported spices (its name derives from ‘the Mount of Spice Merchants’), the city is an important intellectual and university center with five fine museums, impressive 17th- and 18th-century architecture and a superb summer music festival. There is a great variety of other attractions in this warm southland. The Roman (and some Gallic) ruins are often magnificent; the Maison Carré, Diana’s Temple and the Roman Arena in Nîmes, the Rome of the Gauls, are among the finest examples of Greco-Roman architecture to be found today. The 2000-year-old Pont de Gard is one of humanity’s greatest architectural accomplishments and certainly merits a special trip. There is the medieval city of Aigues-Mortes which would still be recognizable to St Louis and his crusaders, for it was from here they embarked for the east; and the crenellated walled city of Carcassonne and towers of Uzès are unmissable. On the coast, Sete is Mediterranean France’s largest fishing port and boasts an attractive town center, complete with canals, beaches and bountiful restaurants and cafes. Nearby, Agde is a smaller fishing port whose main attraction is Le Cap d’Agde, with its wide expanse of unspoiled beaches and large nudist colony.
The Canal du Midi, ideal for cruise holidays, is a tranquil waterway, largely abandoned by commerce, that connects the Atlantic with the Mediterranean. It runs through the sleepy village of Castelnaudary, famous for its cassoulet, past the citadel of Carcassonne and on through Montpellier.
Rhône, Savoie & Dauphiny
This region includes the French Alps and their foothills, and the vast long valleys of the Rhône and Saône rivers. The départements are Loire, Rhône, Ain, Ardèche, Drôme, Isère, Savoie and Haute-Savoie. Lyon, in the deepest part of the Rhône valley, has a proud gastronomic tradition. More and more city-breakers are flocking to the city on gastronomic trips, exploring the city’s myriad of eating and drinking opportunities, opportunities that many locals and visiting foodies argue more than match those of Paris. France’s second city, Lyon is a major cultural, artistic, financial and industrial center, with international festivals and trade fairs. The Cathedral of St Jean is well worth a visit, as are the Roman remains of the city and the Musée de la Civilisation Gallo-Romaine. The French Alps stretch across Savoie and Dauphiny on the border with Italy. Napoleon came this way after escaping from Elba in 1815. Landing with 100 men near Cannes, he intended to march along the coast to Marseille and up the Rhône Valley to Lyon and Paris, but he received reports that the population on that route was hostile and was forced instead to head inland through the mountains. They reached Gap (150km/93 miles) from the coast) in four days, Grenoble a few days after and arrived in Paris (1152km/715 miles) from Cannes) in 20 days with a large and loyal army in tow. It is possible to retrace his route, which passes through much beautiful scenery; each stopping place is clearly marked. The Alps have demanded much of France’s engineers and some of the roads and railways are themselves tourist attractions. Notable examples include the 9km (6 mile) steam locomotive run from La Rochette to Poncharra (about 40km/24 miles from Grenoble); and the 32km (19 mile) track (electrified in 1903) from Saint-Georges-de-Commiers to la Mira (near Grenoble), with 133 curves, 18 tunnels and 12 viaducts. As in most mountainous regions of the world, white-water boating (randonnées nautiques) can be enjoyed on many of the Alpine rivers. Hiking is popular and well organized, utilizing the GR (grandes randonnées or main trails) maps that show where the official marked trails pass. The rivers racing from the Alpine heights into the Rhône provide a great deal of electrical power and good opportunities for trout fishing. The Fédération des associations agréées de Pêche et de Pisciculture de la Drôme in Valence can lead a fisherman to the right spot (HQ in Valence, but branches in 36 cities). Skiing, however, is the principal sport in the French Alps. The best skiing is found, for the most part, west of Grenoble and south of Lake Geneva. All the resorts are well equipped, and provide warm, comfortable lodgings and good food. Some specialize in skiing all year round, but almost all have summer seasons with facilities such as golf courses, tennis courts, swimming pools and natural lakes. At the lake resort of Annecy, there is an unusual Bell Museum with a very fine restaurant attached; international festivals of gastronomy are held throughout the year.
The Midi-Pyrénées area, with its magnificent mountain scenery, lies between Aquitaine to the west and Languedoc-Roussillon to the east. It encompasses part of the Causses, the high plateau country and most of Gascony. Included in it are the départements of Lot, Aveyron, Tarn-et-Garonne, Tarn, Gers, Haut-Garonne, Ariège and Hautes Pyrénées. This is a land of plains dotted with hillocks, sandy stretches, moors and pine woods, desolate plateau cleft by magical grottos, and little valleys covered with impenetrable forests. The northeastern section is a rough, mountainous land, known as the Rouergue. It is situated on the frontier of Aquitaine, formed by the plateau of the Causse, where game and wild birds feed on the thyme and juniper growing wild in the chalky soil. As a result, these little animals and birds develop a delicious and individual flavor. The principal town, Rodez, is severe and beautiful. The crenellated summit of its red tower, one of the marvels of French Gothic architecture, rises above a confusion of narrow streets and small squares. From here, there are views of the high plateau beyond the Aveyron, a majestically stark landscape of granite outcrops and steep ravines. The villages and farmhouses, built of local rock, often mimic the rock formations to the extent that they are all but invisible to outsiders.
To the southeast is Millau, gateway to the Tarn gorges, and to the south lies Roquefort with its windy caves that store the famous ewe’s-milk cheese. These damp cold winds are the secret that has created the ‘cheese of kings and the king of cheeses’. Auch was the ancient metropolis of the Roman Novem Populena, one of the most important towns in Gaul, long rivaling Burdigala (Bordeaux) in importance. The cathedral has two Jesuit towers, choirstalls carved in solid oak and a 16th-century stained glass window. The people of Auch have erected a statue to le vrai d’Artagnan (‘the real d’Artagnan’), the famous Gascon musketeer immortalized by Dumas. Cahors, situated on a peninsula formed by the River Lot, has a famous bridge, Pont Valentré, with its six pointed arches and three defensive towers rising 40m (130ft) above the river. It is the most magnificent fortified river span that has survived in Europe and was begun in 1308. Legend has it that the construction work was plagued with problems and the bridge still remained unfinished after 50 years. Then one of the architects made a pact with the devil and the bridge was finished without another hitch. A small figure of the devil is still visible on the central tower. A fine, very dark red wine bears the name Cahors. It is made from grapes of the Amina variety brought in from Italy in Roman times. Toulouse, one of the most interesting cities of France, is an agricultural market center, an important university town, an aero-research center and one of the great cities of French art (it has seven fine museums). After the Middle Ages, the stone quarries in the region were exhausted so the city was built with a soft red brick which seems to absorb the light. As a result, it is called the Ville Rose and is described as ‘pink in the light of dawn, red in broad daylight and mauve by twilight’. There are many beautiful public buildings and private dwellings, like the 16th-century Renaissance Hôtel d’Assezat and one known as the Capitole, now used as a city hall. The finest Romansque church in southern France is here. The first Gothic church west of the Rhône was built in Toulouse, the Church of the Jacobins; and the first Dominican monastery was founded in Toulouse by Saint Dominic himself. Toulouse is a vibrant city with much activity, with its long rue Alsace-Lorraine being its axis. It is here in the early evenings that Toulousians and visitors alike sit for an apéritif at one of the large sidewalk cafes. The region was an important part of the Roman Empire, subjected for 800 years to Arabic influence (the Moors holding substantial parts of Spain just across the Pyrénées) and the cuisine has therefore developed from both Roman and Arabic. Toulouse sausage, a long fat soft sausage whose filling must be chopped by hand, is one of the ingredients of the local cassoulet as well as a very popular dish in its own right. Albi is another red-brick city, smaller but no less interesting than Toulouse, located on the River Tarn. The first extraordinary thing about Albi is its brick church. Albi was the center of violent religious wars (the Albigensian Heretics resisted the Catholic crusaders for decades). The mammoth red-brick Cathedral of Saint-Cécile, towering above all the other buildings of the town, was built as a fortress to protect the cruel bishop who imposed the church on the populace. Inside is a vast hall, subdivided by exquisite stonework embellished with statues. The nearby 13th-century Palace of the Archbishop (also fortified) is now a museum containing the largest single collection of the works of Toulouse-Lautrec. The town of Lourdes has acted as a magnet for the sick in need of miracle cures, ever since the visions of Bernadette Soubirous in the mid 19th century. Apart from the famous grotto, there is a castle and a museum.
Spectacular weather is one of the major attractions of Provence, whose départements comprise Hautes Alpes, Alpes de Haute Provence, Var, Vaucluse and Bouches du Rhône. The deep blue skies of summer are seldom clouded, although there is some rain in spring and autumn. The only inhospitable element is the mistral, a wind that sometimes roars down the Rhône Valley, often unrelenting for three or four days. When the Romans arrived in Gaul, they were so delighted with the climate of the Bouches du Rhône that they made it a province rather than a colony, which was more usual. The varied flora that has taken root in this land has given it the hues of pewter, bronze, dark green and vibrant green. The sun has baked the dwellings to shades of ochre and rose while the deep red soil has provided tiles that remain red, defying the searing rays of the Midi sunshine. The towns, their architecture, stones and tiles all blend subtly throughout Provence with the majestic plane trees in the streets and squares. Their long heavy trunks of mottled greys and the graceful vaulting of the heavily leafed branches create a peculiar atmosphere not found anywhere else. These are the principal adornments of most of the cities, market towns and villages, casting a deep blue shade on the inhabitants, the mossy fountains, cafe terraces and games of pétanque. The eras of Greek and Roman domination of Provence have left monuments scattered across the countryside. They include walled hill towns, triumphal arches, theaters, colosseums, arenas, bridges and aqueducts. Christianity brought the Palace of the Popes in Avignon, many churches and hundreds of roadside shrines or ‘oratories’ which have given the name oradour to many communities along the Rhône. Near Avignon is Orange with its stunning Roman ampitheater and Roman ruins.
Christian art of the highest quality is scattered throughout the area from Notre-Dame-des-Doms in Avignon to Notre-Dame-du-Bourg in Digne in the center of the lower alps. The pilgrims throughout the territory built wonderful churches typified by graceful semi-circular arches, round rose windows, statues of Christ surrounded by evangelists, saints, the damned in chains and processions of the faithful. These are carved in stone, so worn by the sun and wind they almost have the quality of flesh. Many of the towns and villages are marked by fortified castles and watchtowers to guard against the coming of the Saracens, the Corsairs of the Rhône and marauding bands. For this was the invasion route, by land from the north and by sea from the south. Tarascon, Beauclair, Villeneuve, Gourdon, Entrevaux, Sisteron and many others had their ‘close’ and tower situated high above the river or overlooking the sea. Marseille was founded by the Greeks (they called it Massalia) and used as a base for their colonization of the Rhône Valley. Today, it is France’s most important commercial port on the Mediterranean and consequently many people, often who have never been, dismiss it is an ugly port city. This does Marseille no justice at all as it actually offers a mass of things to do, a vibrant cosmopolitan ambience and some top-class culinary experiences. Marseille is France’s most energetic city: a living, throbbing mass of cultures – far more melting pot than salad bowl – unlike many of the country’s other major cities. The TGV Sud line from Paris, and a regular budget airline route from London have both helped to bring the city the recognition it has long deserved. There are many sites of interest – the old port, the hilltop church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, several museums, Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation, the Hospice de la Vieille Charité and, of course, the Château d’If, one of the most notorious of France’s historic island fortresses. Vast oil refineries and depots dominate the sparsely populated salt flats and marshes to the north and west of the city, but the land is not yet dead. It is the perfect habitat for several species of birds found in only a few other places in Eastern Europe, including bustards and nightjars. On the far side of the Rhône is the wild, marshy area known as the Camargue, long used for the breeding of beef cattle and horses, for the evaporation of sea water to make salt and, more recently, for growing rice. The cattle breeders, or cowboys, are armed with lances instead of lassos. Vast flocks of waterbirds nest here in a national bird reserve, among them pink flamingos and snow-white egrets. When, in 123 BC, Consul Sextias Calvinus established a camp beside some warm springs in the broad lower Rhône Valley, it was named Aquae Sextiae – today known as Aix-en-Provence. Other interesting ancient sites are the ruined Roman aqueduct at Pont du Gard and the amphitheater in Arles. This whole region is also fascinating since it was frequently painted by the great Post-Impressionist painters Cézanne and Van Gogh. The combination of gentle light and breathtaking scenery finds echoes throughout the art galleries of the world. Near Arles is Les Baux, a haunting medieval hilltop village. The many olive trees found throughout Provence provide a popular fruit and one of the important staples of the local cuisine, a fine olive oil used extensively in the cooking of local food. Garlic, though not exclusively associated with Provence, is used more here than in any other part of France. It is sometimes called ‘the truffle of Provence’. A third element, the tomato, seems to get into most of the delicious Provençal concoctions as well. The cooking here varies from region to region. In the Camargue a characteristic dish is estouffade de boeuf. Marseille is noted for a dish called pieds et paquets (‘feet and packages’) which consists of sheep’s tripe stuffed with salt pork and cooked overnight in white wine with onions, garlic and parsley. Trie à la Niçoise is similar, but nonetheless unique. Perhaps the most typical dish, and one found in most parts of Provence, is tomates provençales, a heavenly concoction with all the Provençal specialties: olive oil, garlic and parsley baked in and on a tomato. This combination can also be applied to courgettes and aubergines. All of these vegetables, along with sweet peppers, are found in the most famous Provençal vegetable ragoût known, for some long lost reason, as ratatouille, this too being well laced with garlic and, of course, cooked in olive oil. Mayonnaise, also, well mixed with Provençal garlic, becomes aioli, which is served with boiled vegetables and/or fish. Gigot (leg of lamb) is a more common local specialty. Surviving into the era of nouvelle cuisine and still the pride of the Provençal coast is the famous fish stew called bouillabaisse. Like cassoulet in Languedoc, there are several versions, each claiming to be the ‘authentic’ one. The ingredients are not vastly different – having to do with the amount of saffron or the inclusion or exclusion of certain fish.
Few wines are grown in Provence, although some are quite good, especially those originating in the Lubéron. The four districts that have been granted recognition are best known for their rosé wines: Cassis, Bandol, Bellet and la Palette. They are all on the coast, except la Palette, which is near Aix.
The Côte d’Azur, or French Riviera, is in the département of the Alpes-Maritimes. It runs along the coast from the Italian border, through Monaco, and continues to a point just beyond Cannes and reaches more than 50km (30 miles) northward into the steep slopes of the Alps, connecting the balmy coastal region with the ideal ski resorts of the lower Alps. This part of the Mediterranean coast has more visitors each year during July and August than any other part of France, although many of the summer visitors are French. The two most famous French resorts, Cannes and Nice, are to be found here, and the area is one of the most renowned resort spots in the world. Over the centuries, it has attracted a lot more than tourists, with artists like Matisse, Picasso, Chagall and Dufy heading here. There is an abundance of palm trees, blue sea and beautiful beaches; sparkling cities and villages are set against backdrops of high green mountains. The weather is wonderful with long, hot and sunny summers. There is plenty of diversion here, especially in the spring, summer and early autumn months. The coastal resort towns include: Cannes, made popular as a resort by Lord Brougham in the 19th century when, because of a plague in Nice, he was forced to stop here; Nice, itself, the largest metropolis on the coast, a thriving commercial city as well as a year-round resort (the annual carnival and battle of roses perhaps date back to 350 BC); Napoule Plage, a small and exclusive resort with several sandy beaches, a marina and a splendid view of the rolling green Maure Mountains; Golfe-Juan, now a popular resort town with many expensive mansions and hotels; Juan-les-Pins, with a neat harbor, beaches and pine forests in the hills which protect the village from the winds in both summer and winter; Antibes and Cap d’Antibes, very popular but expensive resorts; Villefranche-sur-Mer, a deep-water port which has been used by pleasure yachts and navies for centuries; St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, an exclusive and expensive resort consisting of great private mansions and seaside estates; Beaulieu, much less exclusive, yet a fine resort town; and Menton (near the Principality of Monaco), once a fishing village and citrus-fruit-producing area, now a pleasant vacation resort. Despite their reputations, there is no denying that the beaches at Cannes and Nice are poor, and many savvy travelers choose to base themselves at better spots like Antibes, which offers a combination of historic town center and accessible, good-quality beaches. The Côte d’Azur is an extraordinary playground with every kind of amusement. There are excellent museums, historic places dating from the pre-Christian era to the present day, hills, mountains, lakes and rivers, gorges and alpine skiing trails. The entire area has a generous supply of good, comfortable hotels as well as luxury châteaux, restaurants with every sort of food, and good bars everywhere. One of the greatest museums in the world, the Maeght Foundation, is located in St-Paul-de-Vence. Picasso, Braque, Matisse and Léger museums also feature and there is plenty of beautiful foothill countryside to explore. Resorts further along the coast from Cannes include St-Tropez, a terribly crowded, hard to reach yet fashionable village (popular with the international jet set and their outrageously expensive yachts) and Port Grimaud. The ‘Port’, as many residents call it, sums up many of the worst parts of the Riviera with ostentatious wealth not making up for a lack of any local input, a dearth of nightlife beyond ‘British’ pubs and a largely ex-patriot population. Nearby are St-Raphael, at one time a Roman resort, and now a comfortable middle-class vacation town, and its twin resort of Frejus. Grasse, just north of Cannes, is a charming hilltop town famed for its perfume.
The island of Corsica is made up of two French départements: Haute Corse (upper Corsica) and Corse du Sud (south Corsica). The 8720 sq km (3367 sq miles) are inhabited by not many more than 250,000 people. It is one of the very few places left in Europe that is not invaded by campers and trailers during the vacation season and its charm lies in this unspoiled and rugged atmosphere. The name Corsica, or Corse, is a modernization of Korsai, believed to be a Phoenician word meaning ‘covered with forests’. The Phoenician Greeks landed here 560 years before the Christian era to disturb inhabitants who had probably originated in Liguria. From that time on, Corsica has been fought for, or over, creating a bloody history probably unparalleled for such a small area. The Greeks were followed by the Romans, then the Vandals, Byzantines, Moors and Lombards. In 1768, Genoa sold Corsica to France and its 2500 years of disputed ownership ended. In spite of its extensive and colorful history, it is of course best known as the birthplace of Napoléon Bonaparte. The island has been described as ‘a mountain in the sea’, for when approached by sea that is exactly what it looks like. A strange land, the mountains rise abruptly from the western shore where the coast is indescribably beautiful with a series of capes and isolated beachless bays; along its entire length rock and water meet with savage impact. The coastline, unfolded, is about 992km (620 miles) long. Corsica consists of heaths, forests, granite, snow, sand beaches and orange trees. This combination has produced a strange, fiery, lucidly intellectual and music-loving race of people, both superstitious and pious at the same time. The interior is quite undeveloped, with mountains, and dry scrubby land overgrown with brush called maquis (from the local maccia which means ‘brush’). It is a dry wilderness of hardy shrubs – arbutus, mastic, thorn, myrtle, juniper, rosemary, rock rose, agave, pistachio, fennel, heather, wild mint and ashphodel, ‘the flower of hell’. During the Geman occupation of France (1940-44), resistance fighters were given the name maquis from the association of the wild country in which they hid, much as the savage backlands of Corsica provided at one time comparatively safe shelter for the island bandits. There is a desolate grandeur about the maquis, while, on the other hand, the rugged beauty of Corsica’s magnificent mountain scenery is anything but desolate. A considerable amount of forested area remains although, since discovered by the Greeks, it has been frequently raided for its fine, straight and tall laricio pine that seems to thrive only here. They have been known to grow as high as 60m (200ft), perfect for use as masts and are still used as such. Corsica is also rich in cork oaks, chestnuts and olives. There is a Regional Nature Conservation Park on the island. North of the eastern plain are the lowlands, principally olive groves, known as La Balagne, the hinterland of Calvi and l’Ile Rousse. To the south is the dazzling white city of Ajaccio, full of Napoleonic memorabilia. The town runs in a semicircle on the calm bay, set against a backdrop of wooded hills.
At the foot of the cape at the northern end of the island is the commercial, but none the less picturesque, town of Bastia, with its historic citadel towering over the headland. The old town has preserved its streets in the form of steps connected by vaulted passages, converging on the Vieux Port. The port itself, with a polyglot population, is busy all year round. A little further north, the terraced St Nicholas Beach, shaded by palm trees and covered with parasols and cafe tables, separates the old port from the new. The new port, just beyond, is the real commercial port of the island. Corsican cuisine is essentially simple, with the sea providing the most dependable source of food, including its famous lobster. Freshwater fish abound in the interior and, as is to be expected, the maquis is game country. The aromatic herbs and berries add a particularly piquant flavor to the meat. Among the game available, sanglier and marcassin – young and older wild boar – turn up in season either roasted, stewed in a daube of red wine, or with a highly spiced local pibronata sauce. Sheep and goats are plentiful. Pigs, fed on chestnuts, are common at the Corsican table and they make an unusually flavored ham. The extremes of the Corsican climate limit the variety of vegetables available. The Corsicans like hot and strong flavors that use even more herbs than are used in Provence. They like to shock with hot peppers and strong spices. A fish soup called dziminu, like bouillabaise but much hotter, is made with peppers and pimentos. Inland freshwater fish is usually grilled and the local eels, called capone, are cut up and grilled on a spit over a charcoal fire. A peppered and smoked ham, called prizzutu, resembles the Italian prosciutto, but with an added chestnut flavor. A favorite between-meal snack is figatelli, a sausage made of dried and spiced pork with liver. Placed between slices of a special bread, these are grilled over a wood fire. Red wine is available in abundance, but white and rosé are also produced on the island.