France – a land of sensual delights
World-renowned for its food and wine, culture and lifestyle, it’s no wonder that France is the world’s most-visited country. Every year, around 80 million tourists head for La République to indulge in some Gallic joie de vivre. Mainland France offers a gorgeous array of sights, sounds and smells for visitors to soak up in all parts of the country – from the Pyrénées and Côte d’Azur in the south to the Breton coast and the urban flair of the Île-de-France region in the north. Not forgetting the French Alps!
A history of revolution
France has a rich history and a tremendous amount to see and do. The country’s national motto of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (Liberty, equality, fraternity) traces its origins back to the French Revolution, when the monarchy was overthrown and the population rose up against the power of aristocrats, landowners and the Catholic Church. This was followed a decade later by the Napoleonic Wars, which saw Napoleonic France conquer much of Europe, only to be driven back and defeated in 1815. Today, France is proud of its status as a republic, and in the 20th century the country played a major role in the creation of the UN and EU.
Paris – city of dreams
Without doubt one of the world’s most stunning cities, Paris is almost like a giant, bustling open-air museum – one that has to be seen to be believed. Whereas many cities are architecturally chaotic, Paris is remarkably uniform thanks to its complete redesign by Haussmann in the 19th century, which transformed a medieval city of winding roads and narrow alleys into a grand modern one of spacious squares and broad boulevards. Paris is the world’s number-one tourist destination and most of the city’s major tourist attractions, such as the Eiffel Tower, the Trocadero, the Louvre art museum (home to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa), the Arc de Triomphe and the striking Pompidou Centre are north of the Seine, on La Rive Droite. For shopping – and to see and be seen – there’s no better place to head for than the legendary Avenue des Champs-Élysées, home to upmarket brands (Chanel, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Louis Vuitton, Cartier, …). Or for the latest in French fashion, head for the historic department stores Galeries Lafayette and Printemps on Boulevard Haussmann in the 9th arrondissement.
Live like a Parisian
South of the Seine, on La Rive Gauche, is where Paris’s true, unique character really shines through. There is perhaps no location more archetypically Parisian than Rue Mouffetard, a long, narrow cobbled pedestrian street in the city’s Latin Quarter, lined with a seemingly infinite selection of bakeries, confiseries, cafes, restaurants, delicatessens, market stalls, and highly specialised independent food shops. One of the city’s best kept secrets and surprisingly easy to overlook, it’s here that Parisians come day in day out to meet all their culinary needs, from the most elaborate and expensive gateau to a simple punnet of juicy French raspberries. Quaint yet bustling and almost impossibly picturesque, it’s no surprise the street has been used as a location in French films such as Trois Couleurs: Bleu starring Juliette Binoche.
Just outside of Paris is the Château de Versailles, a grand palace that testifies to the pre-Revolutionary power of France’s monarchy. Even more historic is the Basilica of Saint Denis to the north of Paris, where the country’s patron saint is buried.
Rural and rustic
France’s northern coast may be less explored than its Mediterranean counterpart, but boasts delights all of its own – like the fairytale castle of Mont St. Michel, built on a promontory and regularly cut off from the mainland by high tide. It’s located in the region of Normandy, the closest part of France to the UK, and known for its characteristic half-timbered houses and cider production. The region also includes a number of historic abbeys such as Jumièges, Gruchet-le-Valasse and Bec Abbey.
Further west lies Brittany, the scenery of which is strikingly different from the rest of France, being more similar to that of southwest England. The Breton coast features dramatic cliffs as well as marshes and forests and over 800 islands. Locals speak the Celtic language of Breton, closely related to Welsh. Brittany is also peppered with dramatic chateaux and beautiful Gothic and Romanesque cathedrals, and many towns in the region still retain their full medieval fortifications. Neolithic sites testify to the region’s early settlement.
France is renowned for its countryside. The French Alps are popular among skiers and snowboarders in winter and hikers in summer, many of whom stay in the beautiful city of Grenoble or in resorts like Chamonix, site of the first ever Winter Olympics, and Annecy, on the northern shore of Lac Annecy. Here you will find some of the highest peaks in the Alps, such as the impressive Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe. Forming the border with Spain, the Pyrénées mountain chain also provides ample hiking opportunities. The Pyrénéan town of Lourdes in southern France is visited by millions of pilgrims a year, as the water is believed to have healing properties.
In summer, the most-visited part of France is the Mediterranean coast or Côte d’Azur, so named for its turquoise waters. Part of the Provence region, it’s the playground of the rich and famous and a major yachting destination. Cities on the Côte d’Azur include Nice, Cannes – which hosts the annual film festival – and Monaco, a tiny principality and one of the world’s smallest countries, home to the Monte Carlo casino and prestigious Monaco Grand Prix. Nearby Corsica, an island in the Mediterranean Sea, boasts more than 200 beaches and its own language. Further inland in the Provence region, the city of Avignon has a beautifully preserved historic centre and medieval ramparts, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Food is an incredibly important part of French culture. The country’s cuisine is based around multiple small courses – the French love nothing more than savouring rich meats, decadent desserts and pungent cheeses. Meals typically begin with an amuse-bouche (taster) and hors d’oeuvre (starter) – perhaps escargots (snails) – before moving on to a soup. Then it’s time for the plats principaux or main course, commonly a meat or vegetable dish such as coq au vin (chicken braised in wine) or ratatouille (a vegetable stew from Provence). Before moving on to dessert, tasting some French cheese is a must. Desserts are small and calorie-rich, and include crème brûlée, éclairs, madeleines, profiteroles and crepes.