Date Posted: 31/10/2010
Jeannine Williamson takes a look at some alternative destinations and attractions for groups visiting France.
When it comes to taking your group abroad, our nearest continental neighbour is an obvious choice, and getting there has never been easier. Eurotunnel and ferry operators offer a wide choice of timetables and routes, plus competitive fares. The Eurostar terminal at St Pancras has shaved at least 20 minutes off previous journey times to Paris and Lille, and there are daily flights to France from London and regional airports. Whether you opt to travel on, under or over the sea, your group will soon be heading through the wide open French countryside en-route to your chosen destination.
From instantly recognisable sights like the Eiffel Tower to attractions immortalised in famous paintings, such as Monet’s garden at Giverny, and the chic seaside resorts of the French Riviera, there are countless well-known destinations to entice groups. Similarly, there are plenty of roads less travelled, and in this feature we focus on some alternative French fancies.
For GTOs that have organised trips in the past, the French tourist office has had a change of name. Previously known as Maison de la France it was recently rebranded and is now called Atout France - France Tourism Development Agency. The UK website and contact details remain the same.
Paris is purportedly the world’s most visited city, but away from the French capital you will find plenty of other enchanting city destinations. Lille, a former European Capital of Culture, is proud of its restored heritage and new cultural venues. Your group members can stroll past beautiful Flemish houses, marvel at masterpieces in the Palais des Beaux Arts, which is ranked second to the Louvre, and climb the town hall belfry for panoramic views. Nancy Square, dating back to the Middle Ages, has one of the grandest squares in Europe and is famous for its art nouveau architecture.
Strasbourg, capital of Alsace and also known as the dynamic capital of Europe, has a beautiful UNESCO-listed historic centre. Top sights include the cathedral with its astronomical clock and the half-timbered houses and canals of ‘La Petite France’. Avignon – residence of popes in the Middle Ages - reflects this heritage through its gothic Palais des Papes, churches and chapels while Reims was the coronation place of French kings. In Dijon, capital of Burgundy, your group cannot fail to enjoy the beauty and wealth of its heritage as well as its gastronomic delights; whilst in picturesque Grenoble - capital of the French Alps - the mountains create a stunning backdrop.
The drama of the D-Day landings and the poignancy of wartime memorials and cemeteries in Normandy have long been a major draw for groups. Further inland is Arras, capital of the Pas-de-Calais region and an absorbing destination for any group interested in wartime history. In 1917, 24,000 men were housed beneath the streets of Arras in an underground city, created from tunnels connecting medieval stone quarries.
The ingenious British brainwave for a subterranean advance towards the German line was the key to a surprise attack that relieved pressure on French troops. Although the ensuing battle produced the highest daily British casualty rate of World War One - 4,076 compared with 2,943 on the Somme - the Battle of Arras remains relatively unknown. Groups can discover more in Wellington Quarry, part of the underground site, where an evocative audio-guided tour brings the story of the daring offensive to life.
Know your onions
The classic image of French onion sellers hails from mid- 19th century Brittany, when Bretons famously took their bikes to Britain to peddle their wares door-to-door and were affectionately nicknamed Johnnies. Today they even have their own museum on a former farm in Roscoff.
Everything about Brittany is distinctive, from its 1,700-mile coast and rugged granite cliffs to its traditions and native language, closely related to Welsh and Cornish. Although the world-famous island abbey may stand just across the border in Normandy, much of the phenomenal Baie du Mont St-Michel World Heritage Site forms part of Brittany. The cobbled streets of St Malo’s old town provides groups with an authentic glimpse of the region’s important seafaring past. Another top destination is Nantes, where the imposing 15th century Chateau des Ducs is a good place to start a visit.
Sightseeing will build up an appetite for some delicious pancakes, the region’s culinary speciality. The Brittany tourist board recently launched a newlook website, packed full of information on where to go and what to see, as well as the lowdown on Brittany’s vibrant festival calendar. Visit www.brittanytourism.com.
For a really authentic taste of France, your group members can immerse themselves in a short course or activity. Many tour operators can help package a course as part of your trip, such as a weekend cookery course where you will learn to prepare delicious recipes using local produce.
Wine tasting courses and short workshops run year-round throughout France, and during the autumn harvest season there are packages for visitors that include a morning’s grape picking followed by a well-deserved lunch and tasting session. November to March is the truffle hunting season and groups can go out into forests with specially trained dogs that sniff out this prized gourmet speciality. For another very different sensory experience, you can go on a perfume course, where each member of your group will go home with a personal scent they have created themselves.
Active groups can enjoy an unforgettable experience riding the famous white horses of the Camargue, the wild area of marshland, dunes and lagoons sandwiched between the two mouths of the Rhone where it reaches the Mediterranean. Experienced riders can go out on half or one-day rides and there are also one-hour hacks suitable for beginners.
Situated in the Mediterranean more than 100 miles from mainland France, the ancient Greeks called Corsica Kalliste, meaning the most beautiful. Part France since 1769, the year Napoleon Bonaparte was born, it is a destination with a distinctive rustic cuisine, local wines and a language, Corsu, spoken by a large number of islanders. Famous for its scenic coastline and rugged mountainous landscape, the island can be reached by direct flights from the UK or daily boat crossings from the French mainland.
Napoleon’s birthplace, Ajaccio, is one of the largest towns, and his family home is now a museum. The Baroque Bastia fortress dominates the town and Ajaccio is also home to Corsica’s largest church, Saint Jean Baptist. Other interesting areas include Corte, the former capital of independent Corsica, surrounded by lakes and mountains.
Follow a theme
Disneyland Paris - a slice of America that’s a 35-minute train ride from Paris and also has its own Eurostar stop - needs little introduction, but if your group has done Disney there are other exciting theme parks to discover.
Parc Asterix, north of Paris and themed around the French cartoon character, is also ideal for family groups, and the wild west-themed OK Corral, near Marseille, has a new 1,000-seat arena for thrilling live shows. Nausicaa, in Boulogne, can easily be visited en-route to or from the Calais ferry terminal, and gives a thought-provoking insight into the world’s seas and oceans. Futuroscope, near Poitiers in south-western Poitou-Charentes, is based on the visual senses rather than rides, and fantastic cinematic experiences take visitors on thrilling journeys into space, under the ocean and more.
Caught on film
You don’t need to go to the Cannes Film Festival to capture the excitement of the silver screen, here are some film locations where groups can see the backdrop to a selection of their favourite movies:
•Thunderball: The 16th century Chateau d’Anet near Dreux in north-west France was a location in the classic James Bond film starring Sean Connery.
•The Da Vinci Code: Permission was granted to film in the Louvre, Paris, but filmmakers were not allowed to shine any light on the Mona Lisa so a replica of Da Vinci’s enigmatic painting was used instead.
•And God Created Woman: The film that launched Brigitte Bardot as the sex symbol of the 50s, also turned the sleepy fishing village of St Tropez into a glamorous tourist resort.
•Chocolat: The medieval town of Flavigny-sur-Ozerain in Burgundy was used for the film adaptation of the Joanne Harris novel.
•Saving Private Ryan: The Normandy American National Cemetery and war memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer featured in Steven Spielberg’s war epic.
•Amelie: Many scenes were shot in the Montmarte district of Paris including the Cafe des Deux Moulins, in Rue Lepic, and Lamarch-Caulaincourt Metro station.
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