France: a feast for the senses

Date Posted: 03/11/2011

Fine art, food and wine, sunny beaches and snow-clad mountains have made France the world’s number one tourist destination, writes Michael Macaroon.

France is rich in culture and rich in landscape. Its elegant cities, unspoilt countryside and long sandy beaches attract around 80 million holidaymakers each year. What’s more, its celebrated quality of life incorporates delicious food, affordable wine, a wealth of cultural activities, plus the time and space for the pursuit of leisure.

France is one of Europe’s largest countries - getting on for three times the size of Britain. It has more kilometres of road than any other EU country, as well as the most extensive railway system. Visitors will therefore have no difficulty getting around: motorways and high-speed trains link the Mediterranean with the North Sea and the Pyrenees with the Alps.

Urban chic

For a taste of French style, Paris is your first port of call. The look of the city today is largely credited to town planner Baron Haussmann, who from the 1860s created the grand boulevards and unified the Arc de Triomphe, the Opera and other civic monuments. Haussmann’s modernising zeal drove many of the city’s poorer inhabitants out to areas such as Montmartre, where the narrow cobbled streets and squares remain largely unchanged to this day. The old windmills are still here, and the district even retains its own vineyard, where in early October the grape harvest attracts hundreds of volunteers, and parades troop through the streets, just as they did when Picasso and a gaggle of other bohemians took up residence here in the early 1900s.

To the east of Paris is the Alsace region and its capital, Strasbourg. This is where France meets Germany - in more ways than one. For periods of its history
Alsace was part of Germany, and German influence remains strong today. Sauerkraut and frankfurters are staples in its restaurants, and its medieval timbered buildings huddle around the towering gothic cathedral as in the fairy-tale towns in the stories of the Brothers Grimm. The city is now also home to a clutch of EU institutions, including the European Parliament and the Court of Human Rights.

For another dramatic change of scene, travel all the way south to the Riviera city of Nice, near the principality of Monaco and the Italian border. Drenched in sun, the city has been a popular holiday spot for the well heeled since the 18th century. The Promenade des Anglais is a reminder that the English upper classes once came here in droves. Similarly, the onion-domed Russian Orthodox Cathedral (paid for by Tsar Nicholas II a few years before the Russian Revolution) is testimony to the city’s favour among the old Russian aristocracy. Nowadays, visitors flock to the beaches, cafes and seafood restaurants, and peruse the modern art in the city’s museums.

Rural idylls

Escaping the hubbub of the city is easy in France, and a region that is associated more than any other with rustic charm is Provence. In summer, what better than a tour of a lavender farm in Provence’s Luberon regional park? You can see the blue prairies being ruffled in the wind at the Gerbaud Discovery Farm in Lourmarin or else at Sénanque Abbey, where the monks earn their livelihoods from the lavender fields and the bees that make their honey there.

Further to the west, the Aveyron region is noted for its wonderfully preserved mountain villages. Conques has been a place of pilgrimage since the Middle Ages, and the relics in the abbey church of Sainte-Foy include a gold medieval sculpture of the girl-martyr namesake. Meanwhile, the village of Najac is dominated by its ruined castle - though visitors may be more attracted to the pretty cafes in the arcaded market place. The surrounding countryside is popular for horse riding and mountain-biking holidays.

A paradise for history buffs

France’s history is packed with adventure and comedy, tragedy and triumph. Perhaps the greatest glory of that heritage is the country’s 40,000 châteaux, the most famous of which is Versailles, just to the south west of Paris. It is the ultimate symbol of pre-Revolutionary France - where Marie Antoinette played at being a shepherdess and courtiers competed for the king’s favour by devising the best witticisms.

Another château, just to the north of Paris, is Chantilly. It houses arguably the finest collection of paintings in France after the Louvre, though it’s equally famous for its palatial stables, built in the early 18th century by a Prince of Condé who believed he would be reincarnated as a horse. Today, the purebred horses perform three shows daily of dressage and other feats.

For those with a taste for the more ancient, head for the south west and Lascaux, where stone-age cave paintings depict animals and hunting scenes. France’s south east, on ,the other hand, has a wealth of Roman remains, including an amphitheatre in Nîmes, a mini-Pompeii at Vaison la Romaine and a colossal theatre in Orange (which hosts an opera festival each summer). Also in the south, but moving on to the medieval period, the Palace of the Popes in Avignon is another must-see. Its courtly architecture and floral frescoes date back to the 14th century, when the papacy relocated here from Rome.

Bringing the story up to the 20th century, the poppy fields of the Somme and the beaches of Normandy - scene of the D-day landings - still never fail to evoke and move.

Gastronomic delights

After all the history and culture, most visitors will be in need of food and drink. The food capital of France is often considered to be Lyon, which, having grown rich
on the back of the silk trade, is now home to numerous Michelin-starred restaurants as well as the more humble bouchons - simple neighbourhood r restaurants serving traditional local cuisine. Here, dishes such as tripe sausages and coq au vin are accompanied by the region’s most famous wines, Beaujolais and Côtes du Rhône.

For something a little more genteel, however, pay a visit to Épernay, the capital of the champagne-producing district, just to the south of Reims. Following the designated Champagne Route takes you through the region’s picturesque vineyards and villages, with opportunities to see the production process in action - and, of course, to taste its results.

Top three sights

1. The Louvre: Once a royal palace, and now arguably the world’s greatest art museum, the Louvre boasts masterpieces such as the second-century BC Venus de Milo, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and Vermeer’s The Lacemaker.

2. Mont St Michel: The most romantic of France’s Gothic monasteries seems to grow out of the rocks of this tiny island on the coast of Normandy. At low tide, you can drive or cycle across the causeway and climb up the steps to the fortifications and the church with its soaring spire. For night-time visits, the monastery is illuminated to spectacular effect.

3. Saint-Tropez: This jewel of a town on the Riviera is notorious as a playground for millionaires, fashionistas and celebrities. But outside peak season, the beaches and enchanting streets are quieter, and you’ll appreciate why artists such as Matisse came here to paint the sun-soaked bay.

France essentials

Eat: While France has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other country, there are also many excellent places to eat for those with smaller wallets. Neighbourhood bistros usually serve local dishes together with classics such as steak frites and snails with garlic. Brasseries are more elaborate establishments, serving regional beers, seafood and often Alsatian specialities such as sausages and choucroute (sauerkraut).

Drink: The world’s largest winemaker produces seven to eight billion bottles each year. In addition, good beers are brewed in the country’s northern regions, cider is produced in Normandy, and cognac and armagnac are distilled in the south west.

Try: Book to see a cabaret show at the Moulin Rouge nightclub or on board a cruiser gliding down the Seine.

Go: In the south, sun-seekers are out in force from June to early September. Up in the mountains, there’s good skiing from mid-December to late March. It is best to avoid the big cities in August, when many shops and restaurants close for their annual holiday and the weather can be unpleasantly humid. Spring and early autumn are ideal for Paris, when it’s slightly less busy with visitors.

Factfile

Getting there: Coach companies and tour operators can arrange travel using either one of the many ferryservices or the drive-on-drive-off Eurotunnel trains from Folkestone to Calais. Direct services on Eurostar trains run from London St Pancras International to Paris, Disneyland Paris, Lille and Avignon. There are direct flights from London and regional airports to a host of French cities.
Flight time: Between 1hr and 2hrs.
Time difference: GMT +1hr.
Currency: Euro.

 

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