Where to Go in France
Browse the France Photo Gallery 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 centered 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. Organized 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