"Every man has two countries – his own and France." These words were supposedly spoken by Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States and ardent Francophile.
Whether apocryphal or not, there is surely a kernel of truth to these words, since no place on earth would seem to inspire travellers in the way France does: the streetlights and cobblestones of Paris, the snow-capped Alps, the sun-kissed Riviera, the chateau-strewn banks of the Loire – each has a lustre that lures writers, artists, musicians and philosophers from across the globe (not to mention the 90 million or so 'regular' visitors).
Of course, when considering the country's must-see destinations, a multitude of towns, cities and regions present themselves, but the following stand out for the way in which they have captured the world's imagination.
No other region in Europe, not even Tuscany, has so nourished our dreams and sensual demands. Provence has been a playground since the Romans scattered arenas and theatres across the landscape. When the 14th-century Popes fled Rome for Avignon, their interests were markedly more licentious than liturgical: Petrarch described contemporary Avignon as “a thoroughfare of vices”. And life in the region may still flow uninterrupted from the spiritual to the voluptuous.
Provençal markets effortlessly rise to their reputation for colours, curves and lust-inducing display. And the region fulfils its other promises – of canoeing and climbing, of prettily-perched villages and of old blokes bringing ancestral wisdom to the game of pétanque. Tourists are now numerous, and welcome. But they retain only walk-on parts. Provence remains overwhelmingly Provençal, its villages still held together by family and farming, festivities and feuds round the fountain.
The uniform sandstone of the Haussmann buildings, the abundance of gilded historic monuments, and the glimmering Seine and its elegant bridges have arguably made Paris the most recognisable and romanticised cityscape in the world. But though the city wears its history – of monarchy, revolution, revolt and artistic innovation – with characteristic style, it is also increasingly looking to the future and outwards to the rest of the world.
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Those looking to explore the city’s rich heritage can spend long afternoons getting lost in the Louvre or exploring the Musée d'Orsay, or ducking in and out of Paris’s countless historical churches (many of which were reinvented as Republican temples after the Revolution). For more contemporary tastes, there’s plenty of exploring to be done in the less tourist-trodden outer arrondissements – from arts venues on the sloping streets of Belleville to the boutique hotels and reinvented dive bars of Pigalle.
Stroll the most graceful streets in France, eat well, drink better and then have the liveliest possible time in a city lately in touch with its Latin side. The centre of Bordeaux has a grandiose 18th-century harmony unmatched in Europe – so much so it seems quite possible that the French Revolution never made it this far. And the city has had the renovators in with a vengeance too, restoring noble façades, installing trams and reclaiming from dereliction the vast swathe of riverbank.
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This also remains the world HQ of wine and château-owning folk. Many do their business in the Chartrons district, where there’s a lingering air of aristocratic commerce. But there’s also a cracking museum of modern art next door, tapas bars up the road and fusion food in the restaurants. Welcome, in short, to the Bordeaux nouveau. It offers the ancient dignity but with added zest and fruitiness. For immediate drinking.
Burgundy may well be renowned for its wine – with villages such as Chablis and Nuits-St-Georges known throughout the world – but its rural reaches have a great deal more to offer. Renaissance chateaux, medieval abbeys and fortified villages all stand testimony to the colourful history of this lesser-known region of France. Burgundy’s history stretches further into the past. Hilltop villages and market towns are adorned with some of the most magnificent Romanesque structures in Europe.
At Burgundy’s rural heart lies the Morvan National Park, dotted with lakes and picturesque villages, many of which have family-run brasseries in their tree-shaded squares. And even if there were no historical wonders in Burgundy, the gastronomic cuisine would be reason enough to holiday here. Boeuf bourguignon is the region’s signature dish but there are scores of other local specialities. One of France’s most celebrated cheeses, Epoisses, comes from a lovely little village of the same name (complete with rambling medieval castle).
From a distance, the cité of Carcassonne looks as if it recently landed on its hilltop fresh from a starring role in a medieval myth. The arrangement of ramparts, pointy-roofed towers and bulky buildings is almost Disney-perfect. The mind’s eye can’t help filling in the knights, damsels-in-distress and a dragon or two. Up close, though, the prospect is real enough. The 52 towers and monumental walls battled their way through the Middle Ages, guarding the frontier against the Spanish.
But by the 19th century, the whole place was in a state of collapse. Rescue work was as much about recreation as restoration, but it left Carcassonne with the finest fortified medieval city in Europe. The Carcassonnais make the most of this world-class site. The old stones throb with multi-coloured gift shops and more eateries than you could get round in a month of lunchtimes. Purists sniff, but let them. The 12th-century cité, overseen by the Trencavel family, would have been full of merchants, food and music, so a certain vibrant raucousness is traditional.
Nice, the capital of the Côte d’Azur, is beautifully curved round the Bay of Angels, desirable and as lively as you like. Awaiting you is the clearest-possible light, which spangles the Mediterranean to create a setting for sybarites, and shadows for well-dressed decadence. This is France's WAG, a fine-looking courtesan at once cultured and racy; a glorious, and playful, slice of urban greensward. And it’s bewitching at pretty much any time of year.
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The key sight - it's unmissable as you wing into Nice airport - is the glorious curve of the Bay of Angels, miles of the loveliest urban sea-front in Europe, fringed by the celebrated Promenade des Anglais. You could spend an entire trip just wandering along here, but you'll also need to see Nice old town. Here, the Niçois jostle to sell Provençal frocks, dodgy art, olive oil – and simmered lambs’ trotters on restaurant terraces.'Touristy', cry the purists. Purists know nothing. Nice has always done commotion and boisterous commerce.
The fabled Côte d’Azur ribbons from St Tropez to the Italian border in a vital medley of blue sky, turquoise sea and shocking pink rosé. Artists attracted by this kaleidoscope of colour – Picasso in Antibes, Cocteau in Menton, Matisse in Nice – gifted the 100-mile shore more museums than any other area outside Paris. But in truth, most visitors to the region are drawn by the many miles of beach, the enticing turquoise hue of the sea, and the 300-plus days of sunshine a year.
But there's plenty to tempt the sunbathers away from the shoreline. The region is home to more than 3,000 restaurants, plenty of them serving world-famous Provençal staples such as bouillabaisse and daube, the pretty coastal harbours are lined with smart cafés and trendy bars, and there are numerous medieval villages and towns to explore in the tranqil hinterland that forms a blurred boundary between the Riviera and Provence.
It is not difficult to coax the British to the Dordogne in southwest France – the English fought the French over this glorious rural idyll until the end of the Hundred Years War (1453) for goodness sake. The cuisine is sensational, combining a natural love for seasonal fruits of the land with duck, goose and one of the most luxuriant foods known to mankind, black truffles. Wine from Bergerac is not as revered as neighbouring Bordeaux vintages but it is eminently respectable; while a glass of sweet Monbazillac paired with foie gras or early summer strawberries is a fine marriage indeed.
Then there is the undulating landscape, a perfect mirror of quintessential France with its pastoral green meadows and vineyards romantically wrapped around chateaux, farms, honey-stone bastides (fortified hilltop villages) built by feuding French and English in the 13th century and – the pièce de résistance – the languid twists and turns of the majestic Dordogne River itself. In the east, ancient caves and rock shelters conceal Europe’s best treasure trove of prehistoric art.
Much smaller and less substantial than its Côte-d’Azur neighbour, Nice, Cannes gleams on the surface. But it’s mainly glitter and bling underneath too, and all the way down. Since noble Britons rolled in to what was then a tiny fishing village in the 1830s, the place has been fashioning itself in the image of the fashionable. More recently, its real achievement has been to spin out the sparkle generated by the two-week film festival across the whole year.
Of course, the bay is glorious and there are sandy beaches. But such things aren’t unknown around the Med. What sets Cannes apart is the shiny veneer with which it has coated these elements. For the truth is that Cannes’ visitor population is not entirely made up of movie legends, Russian billionaires and Mid-East moguls. Ordinary Joes like you and me are there in our thousands. It is the town’s triumph to pretend that its visitors are all wealthy, beautiful and glam, while catering to the fact that they aren’t.
Ever since Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier, this fairytale principality has been centre stage. Monte Carlo’s pristine streets are paved with Michelin-starred restaurants and designer shops, while the superyacht-lined harbour is home to late-night bars. The Old Town recalls its medieval roots through its castle, its cobbled streets and its earthy Monegasque cuisine. Carefully watched over by the world’s largest police force per capita, this billionaire’s playground is occasionally shady, but usually sunny.
Start up on the Rock where Monaco itself started. Be before the Princely Palace at 11.55am for the daily changing of the guard. Then wander the narrow streets of the old town - buffed up as if for a royal visit at any moment. Take in the wonderful Oceanographic Museum, before descending to the Port Hercule - and up the other headland to Monte Carlo, the casino, the limos, the posh shops and magnificent gardens.
Normandy is often described as the Devon of northern France, with Brittany as the corresponding Cornwall. It’s easy to see why – Normandy is altogether a gentler place, dotted with lush meadows and bucolic farmland, and famed for its cheese and apples. Rather than locked in an endless tussle with a wild ocean, its coastline consists for the most part of long low dunes, lapped by the Channel. For visitors, the chance to combine cultural heritage with gastronomic indulgence makes for a winning formula.
The remarkable legacy of the Normans is everywhere apparent, with showpiece sights including the thousand-year-old embroidery of the Bayeux Tapestry, the cathedrals of Rouen and Coutances, and above all the magnificent abbey of Mont St-Michel, on the border with Brittany. Lovely old ports line the coast, ranging from medieval treasures like Honfleur and Barfleur to nineteenth-century resorts such as Etretat and Trouville, while the Seine too holds gems like the abbey of Jumièges and Richard the Lionheart’s castle at Les Andelys, as well as Monet’s waterlily-filled garden at Giverny.
If there’s one word that British visitors indelibly associate with Brittany, it’s beaches. Great beaches are everywhere you look, from the posh north-coast watering hole of Dinard, beloved by nineteenth-century British aristocrats, to any number of humbler family resorts strung along the entire, endlessly intricate and gloriously unpredictable coastline. Some of the region’s abundant strands of sand bustle with life and energy; others lie tucked away at the end of unpromising little rural lanes, rewarding those who take the trouble to find them with splendid, unspoiled isolation.
There’s much more to Brittany than beaches, though. For many centuries this was a proudly independent realm, with closer connections to Britain than France. The pan-Celtic traditions of that era are still going strong; the Breton language remains proudly spoken, while cultural festivals celebrate Celtic music and dance. There are striking walled medieval citadelles that once guarded its borders with France – places like Dinan, Vitré and the ports of St-Malo in the north and Vannes in the south. And in the west, vestiges of ancient forests survive around villages such as Huelgoat.
Pays de la Loire
Cooler, greener, more refined than the heaving south, the Loire in France is an enchanted land of elaborate chateaux, verdant landscapes and world-class vineyards. Steeped in nobility, the Loire is easily France’s valley of the kings. An impressive cast of renaissance men and royal megalomaniacs – from the culturally minded Francis I to the bombastic Louis XIV – made the region their playground, with the result that its medieval past is still its backbone today in the shape of the hundreds of fairytale castles strewn along its banks.
Poets and painters, too, have long been drawn here; the delicate light and pastel colours of the Loire sky that so inspired Turner are an enduring attraction. Go for the gentle pace of life, the grandeur of the countryside, perhaps at its most beautiful against the backdrop of autumn leaves – and leave plenty of room in the boot for the fruits of the land. There are almost as many wine appellations as turrets.
It may not have the mythical might or romantic heritage of Paris, but France’s second-largest city is French-charming to the core. Lyon is a discreet seductress, quietly surprising with its elegant architecture, vibrant museums, twinset of rivers and magnificent Unesco World Heritage-protected old town set between the hills of Fourvière and Croix-Rousse, its narrow streets punctuated with characteristic passageways that were used by the silk merchants to transport their products when the city echoed with the clacking of hundreds of thousands of looms.
Exceptional cuisine – from resolutely traditional to dazzling contemporary – creates the urban buzz today, new-generation chefs reinventing classics with trademark chic and panache. A gourmet slant is inevitable on any weekend itinerary thanks to the healthy sprinkling of Michelin-starred restaurants and streets packed with the traditional Lyonnaise bouchons, their red-and-white checked tabletops groaning with dishes of offal, quennelles de brochet and unctuous St Marcellin cheeses.
For around 100 years or so, Avignon jostled for position at the centre of the Christian world when, in the 14th century, the papacy decamped here from the Vatican on the orders of French-born Pope Clement V, who didn't much fancy the idea of living in Rome. Six subsequent popes (and a further two antipopes) didn't quite cement this status, but the period known as the Avignon Papacy has left the city with a history as unique as it is well-preserved in the form of the Palais des Papes (the papal palace), the cathedral and the Pont Saint-Bénézet.
Strategically situated high above the river Rhône and encircled by medieval ramparts, Avignon's walled old town – designated a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1995 – is a warren of cobbled streets, lantern-lit passageways and architectural treasures. Bathed in the extraordinarily brilliant Provençal light, this former papal enclave has long attracted artists and painters, as well as those in search of cultural diversion, which can be found in the form of Europe’s greatest drama festival: hundreds of shows held daily in 133 different venues and encompassing theatre, music, art and absurdity.
The key attraction of Marseille is the city itself – the atmosphere, flux and throbbing beat of a big port city. The place lives and works essentially in the present, and has done for the past two and a half millennia. Almost despite itself, though, it has accumulated a backlog of culture – to which Marseille's stint as European Capital of Culture in 2013 brought a certain amount of coherence and much pizzazz. From wandering along the Old Port to getting lost in the colours and smells in Le Panier, there’s a wealth of cultures and communities to explore.
Since 2013, the emphasis has been on cultural consolidation. New and renewed museums are hitting their stride. The Stade Vélodrome soccer stadium - epicentre of culture for many Marseillais - has appeared in refurbished apparel, and Marseille will remain magnificent with its coast of rocks, the sea, and the beat of a big port city. Spring and autumn are generally perfect for pursuing outdoor moments – say, walking along the glorious calanques (limestone creeks). Meanwhile, summer in the city might involve the south-side beaches followed by an al fresco evening until whatever hour you deem is bedtime.