THE STATISTICS SHOW that France is the most visited country on earth. There is a very good reason for this – it is a marvellous place. It is physically the largest country in Western Europe, the most diverse, and probably the most scenic.
France rates second in the world to place to visit in the Top 100 Countries index. It rates well in every area, except it is expensive and there is a bit of petty crime about (you really have to watch your valuables in the tourist areas).
La Belle France has wonderful scenery – both urban and rural – and fabulous food. It has history galore. It has the best museums and art galleries in the world, or at least as good as anywhere else.
The French themselves do not travel much outside of France. You don’t meet nearly as many French when you are traveling as you do people from other major European countries. That’s because the French tend to spend their vacations in France. They like it as much as the millions of visitors who go there each year.
Let us banish forever the myth of the arrogance or rudeness of the French. They are wonderful people, as people all over the world usually are. But they are a very proud race, justifiably so, and very aware of the extent to which the Anglosphere has largely displaced France’s former cultural dominance over the last few hundred years. They can get a bit touchy.
The French detest loud tourists and people who don’t try to be at one with their culture. Most of them speak some English, but they really want you to at least pretend to try to speak French. In most countries this is not a big deal, but it is in France. If you start out in bad French and apologise for it, the ice is broken. And it’s an easy language in which to pick up a few phrases.
The best way to think of France is in terms of its major regions. They are each very different, but they share the French language and French pride. The definitions vary a little difficult - the regions were all reorganized in 2016.
Paris and the Île de France
AH, PARIS, THE City of Light! It is the most wonderful place. It is the most famous and most visited city on earth. Everybody should spend some time in Paris. In fact everybody should visit Paris many times, because every time will be different.
Paris is a big place – more than 10 million people in the greater metropolitan area. The area around Paris is known as the Île-de-France, though it is not of course an island. But the heart of the Paris, where you want to be when you visit, is remarkably compact. It has an inexpensive public transport system and is very easy to get around.
What to do in Paris? It’s hard to know where to start. If you like the arts, the Louvre is incomparable. Equally impressive, for 19th and 20th century art, is the Musee D’Orsay, just across the Seine.
Notre Dame Cathedral and the Île de la Cité. The Eiffel Tower. The Arc de Triomphe. The Champs Elysee (overrated). The wonderful bridges across the Seine, and the river itself. The Left Bank (a bit too touristy). Montmartre. The sidewalk cafes (avoid the big ones on the corners full of tourists) and fabulous small restaurants and bars. The markets and the street stalls. The parks and gardens. The shopping. And just the feel of the place.
One of the things that makes Paris so beautiful is the street-scapes. The city was totally transformed in the 19th century by Baron Hausmann, who bulldozed through the slums to form Les Grands Boulevards that give the city so much of its character, and who decreed the uniform heights of the buildings along them.
Then there is the world’s most famous cemetery, Père Lachaise, where Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, Frederic Chopin, Marcel Proust, Abelard and Heloise and many other famous figures from history are buried. It is well worth a few hours. So with the other great mausoleum, the Panthéon, on the left bank.
Inner Paris is divided into 20 districts called arrondissements, numbered in a spiral from the center of town Those who know Paris well refer to these numbers a lot – master them and you too will be an old Paris hand. You must be able to say things like “The 7th is a bit expensive,” or “I really like the restaurants in the 11th.”
If anybody tells you that they are over Paris or that they don’t like the place, they are speaking through their hat. They must be very hard to please. Like every truly great city, Paris will reward you handsomely upon further investigation.
Not far out of town is the Palace of Versailles, a very worthwhile day trip. Another popular day trip is Monet’s garden in Giverny, a famous, picturesque and popular place. But beware the crowds in both places, especially in summer.
Paris is like London – you can never really tire of it. We especially like the 3rd and the 4th arrondisements, an area known as the Marais. The further north you go the less touristy it is. And we love riding the buses rather than the Metro, because you see a lot more. But walk as much as you can. Get yourself a good guidebook and immerse yourself properly in the place.
Here’s a good pointer – don't go up the Eiffel Tower unless you feel you really must. The lines are too long and it’s all pretty cramped. Go to the top of the Arc de Triomphe instead – it’s a more human scale of a view and it’s cheaper and much easier.
The Riviera, Provence and Corsica
THE FRENCH RIVIERA is famous as the playground of the jet set. But it is popular with people from all walks of life on all budgets. You don’t have to be rich or famous to go there – it is full of good value accommodation and restaurants. It can be touristy, and is best avoided in summer, but it is a great place to visit.
The hinterland – the area called Provence – is as worth visiting as the coast. It is wonderfully pretty, dotted with picturesque towns and villages. The south of France is one of those places on the planet you really need to visit, and as often if you can, if only to say you’ve been there.
It is essentially one long urban area spread along the coastline. The biggest town is Nice, where the airport is, with other famous locations including Cannes and Monaco. Monaco is technically a separate country, though France looks after things like its currency and foreign policy.
The town of Grasse above Cannes is the perfume capital of the world. There are great art galleries. The small village of Eze, perched high on a hill between Nice and Monaco, offers spectacular views down the coast.
The Riviera is also known as the Côte d'Azur (the ‘blue coast’, from the colors of the sky and the sea). It extends into Italy, with great towns like Ventimiglia and San Remo (see section on Italy, below). Menton, just on the French side of the border, is very quiet and laid back. We really like the French Riviera.
There is more to the south of France than the Riviera. All of Provence is pretty. The old walled town of Aix-en-Provence is a great place to spend a few days, and it is not far to medieval Avignon, once the seat of the popes. The old port city of Marseilles seems more like North Africa than France.
Napoleon’s birthplace, the large island of Corsica, is like another country. It is wild and scenic, with fabulous climate and great beaches and a cuisine all of its own. Ferries go from Genoa in Italy or Marseilles, or you can fly there.
Stay in the old town in Nice – it’s fabulous. Avoid the new part of town. There’s lots of local trains and buses everywhere – you don’t need to hire a car or do expensive tours.
Get a train to Ventimiglia to visit a foreign country for the afternoon. Go to Monaco and have a coffee or glass of wine at the Casino just to say you’ve been there.
Central France and the South-West
THE CITY OF LYON is the gastronomic capital of France, which is the say the world. It is a largish city, with its own Metro, a bit like a smaller version of Paris without the crowds and the smells and prices. And with much better food. It is also the global head-quarters of Interpol, the international police agency.
Small restaurants called bouchons are everywhere. The most famous restaurant street, Rue Mercier, has become rather touristy and you’re better off in some of the more obscure and smaller bouchons, where you will most likely get one of the best meals you have ever had. The
You can see the Alps from downtown Lyon. The ski slopes of Val d’Iser and Albertville and the beautiful Lake Annecy are close by. So is Grenoble, which styles itself as the capital of the Alps. It’s an attractive city which is a great destination in its own right.
Some say the South West is the real France, incorporating the historical regions of Aquitaine and Languedoc in the south and the Loire Valley in the West. It is a region of wonderful wine and beautiful scenery. It contains the city of Bordeaux and the nearby town of Cognac, which rather tells you what goes on there.
The very south-west, near the Spanish border, is the famous resort town of Biarritz. If you drive around this region – and that’s definitely the best way to see it – don’t miss the Viaduc de Millau on the highway between Clermont-Ferrand and Montpellier. The world’s tallest bridge, the viaduct spans the valley of the Tarn river and is one of the most impressive structures on the planet.
We love Lyon. It is a very pleasant change after the madness of Paris. One of the best things to see is the Musee Lumiere, the museum in the family home of the appropriately named Lumiere brothers, who invented movie pictures.
But the real reason to go to Lyon is for the incomparable food. It truly is gastronomic heaven.
Brittany and Normandy
NORMANDY IS MOST famous as the site of the D-Day landings in World War II, but there is a lot more to it. Like fabulous oysters.
Brittany is a large region on a peninsula at France’s western-most extremity, jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean. It is the wildest part of France, known for its beaches and rocky shoreline. Some people there still speak Breton, a Celtic language related to Scots and Irish Gaelic. Brittany is a great place to unwind, and there aren’t too many tourists there.
The most spectacular sight in the region is the Abbaye du Mont-Saint-Michel, the famous abbey on the island that features in so many images of France. It is a major tourist attraction and suffers from too many people in summer, but it is one of the great sights of the world.
The abbey is built on a rocky outcrop on mudflats, with a causeway connecting it to the mainland. You can do it on a long day trip from Paris, but it’s too far and doesn’t do it justice. Stay nearby.
Northern and North-Eastern France
NORTH OF PARIS are the battlefields of World War I, worth a visit for history buffs. It abuts the wine region of Champagne (guess what they make there) and the city of Rheims, with its soaring cathedral. If the sparkling stuff doesn’t come from Champagne, it’s not allowed to be called that.
Rheims, with its cathedral and its champagne, is really worth a day or two. Most of the major champagne companies fabulous cellars and hold tastings, though these are now rather expensive.
Not far from the delights of Rheims is Verdun, site of the longest and bloodiest battle of World War I, where the French and Germans bled each other to death all through 1916. It was a slaughterhouse. The battle of Verdun was the epitome of pointless trench warfare and massed artillery barrages. Hundreds of thousands, on both sides, died.
You can still go down into the fortifications, a sobering experience. More than a hundred years later, Verdun remains a French sacred site, and much of the area remains unpopulated because of the sheer volume of unexploded artillery shells in the ground.
There are many other memories of that horrible war in Northern France. The battlefield sites of the Somme are dotted with dozens of meticulously maintained war graves, and there are memorials everywhere. This part of the front lines was mainly the responsibility of British and Empire troops, and most of the cemeteries of their bodies. The massive Australian War Memorial on a hill high above the village of Villers-Bretonneux is an impressive and somber place.
To the East are Alsace and Lorraine, which have swapped between France and Germany for the last couple of hundred years and where you hear those very different languages oddly mixed. Strasbourg, symbolically near the French and German border, is where the European Parliament sits. It has a good old town with a great cathedral.
The Bourgogne (Burgundy) region to the south is known for its fine wines, and its capital Dijon is the mustard capital of the world. It is a stunningly attractive city, as is nearby Beaune. It is a beautiful region, and a paradise for the gourmet and the gourmand (though not so much as Lyon).
The Historial de la Grande Guerre in Péronne is one of the great war museums of the world, showing the lives of the common soldiers in World War I, with equal emphasis to French, German and British. We spent a full day there – a fascinating place.