France just makes sense. As a European destination, the country offers the best of anything you could dream about in a holiday: beautiful old buildings and sprawling castles, snow-capped alps just a few hours drive from warm stone beaches, and food you’ll still be thinking about on your death bed.
But it’s also the practical things – like a supermarket ban on throwing away unsold food (shops must donate wastage to food banks), the excellent public transport system, and the living wage they provide artists, writers and musicians to develop their work – which gives the whole country a sense of civility.
France is a grown up — it knows how to do things properly. It even maintains this sense of extreme style and dignity while being one of the most-visited countries on earth, with over 83 million tourists each year. With numbers like that, it’s likely that you or someone you know will be collecting a French stamp on your passport soon. Here’s our guide to the country’s greatest hits for the full French experience in under two weeks.[related_articles]40934,48178[/related_articles]
Paris to Bayeux, Normandy
The drive from Paris to the medieval town of Bayeux takes about three hours (buses and trains run non-stop) and is an excellent introduction to rural France. On the way, stop at villages like Camembert – all rolling green countryside, thatched houses, cider orchards and, yes, cheese – or the seaside town of Arromanches, the site of the D-Day landings.
Here, there’s a really good museum (Musée du Débarquement) perched on the cliff overlooking a beautiful little oceanfront town.
Bayeux itself is decently-sized and, while so many other Norman towns took a beating during WWII, it miraculously escaped, its stone buildings remaining more or less untouched for the past three to four centuries. It’s most famous for a 70m-long piece of cloth known as the Bayeux Tapestry, which records the Norman conquest of England. Everyone’s wild about it, but you do kind of walk out of the museum feeling like you just paid $20 to see a glorified tea towel. You’re better off buying some picnic supplies from Rue St-Jean, the main street, and heading down to the river.
Or head over to Le Petit Bordelais, a bar, restaurant and wine shop combined which offers wine tasting and has a travel-budget-friendly lunch menu.
Bayeux to Loire Valley, via Mont Saint Michel
The World Heritage-listed Mont Saint Michel commune, which dates back to 800AD, is pretty bloody impressive. The UNESCO-listed city built around the lofty Mont Saint Michel monastery, all perched on a big rock in the middle of a bay, looks a lot like the home of a Bond villain. It’s the best place to stop as you head into the fairytale landscape of the Loire Valley.
Wild deer? Check. Hundreds of castles scattered around the place? Check. Fields of poppies and wild flowers? Check. The 280km stretch of extremely attractive riverside land was a favourite of French royalty for hundreds of years and is almost offensively pretty. The epic Château de Chambord is our pick for top castle.
If you’re keen on staying a while (and, really, why wouldn’t you be?), hire a place in Orléans, a small city in the Loire Valley with wide boulevards and a huge crush on Joan of Arc.
Loire Valley to Bordeaux
You might go into Bordeaux expecting a fancy French wine city, which you’ll get, but this university town is also lots of fun. City squares full of cafes and street performers, food trucks parked out the front of neo-classical architecture, adorable French children playing in water fountains: Bordeaux is completely alive. Give yourself a good few days here.[related_articles]48632[/related_articles]
Start in the central Triangle-d’Or and eat and drink your way out. Try Campari spritzers and crepes at Brasserie Le Noailles, picnic in the gardens that line the river Garonne, treat your peepers at the Museum of Contemporary Art and then your tastebuds with a day trip out to the vineyards at St Emilion.
Bordeaux to Carcassonne
Welcome to Carcassonne — you are now in Game of Thrones. The main draw is the fully restored medieval fortress that looms over the entire city, open to the public and full of archaeological exhibits and tours of the inner ramparts.[related_articles]51659[/related_articles]
But the city is also famous for its yearly festival, which sees over 100 concerts and shows, including French and international variety shows, theatre, circus, dance, jazz, opera and classical, 80 of which are free, held in prestigious venues around the city in the month of July.
The restaurants around Place Marcou in the city are your best bet for hearty French stews, crusty bread and good cheap wine.
Carcassonne to Nice, French Riviera
The French Rivera in general – Nice, in particular – has been a magnet for holiday-makers and high-rollers for well over a hundred years. Enjoy the obscene blue of the ocean, the opulence of the old town against the Miami glamour of the new, the huge antique, seafood and produce markets all clamouring for attention, and proximity to Cannes and its famous visitors that will have you constantly whispering, “Wasn’t that…? I think that’s…?”
There’s a wealth of great restaurants, smooth-stoned beaches perfect for people watching and sun-bathing (even though you do have to fork out if you want a spot on one of the lounges), an excellent tram system, and plenty of open-aired bars in which to make plans of never going home.
For a serious snoop at the lifestyles of the rich and famous, head out to Monte Carlo for the evening. Did you know the famous Monte Carlo casino was originally called a “health spa” to avoid criticism from the church? Even to this day, the citizens of Monaco are not allowed to step inside – let alone gamble at – the casino, and all visitors must show their passport to gain entry.
French Riviera to Annecy
Start the day by visiting either Avignon, the small city that used to be the centre of the Roman Catholic world, or nearby Arles, the town made famous by the paintings of Van Gogh. The yellow restaurant in the Café Terrace at Night? Still there. Starry Night Over the Rhone? Plays out for free every time the sun goes down.
But the real star of this region is Annecy, a medieval town built over the river Thiou, with canals that cut directly through the old city district like a mini Venice. The storybook town at the base of the French Alps has a crystal-clear lake and arcaded streets full of chocolate shops and boutiques, with a huge castle presiding over the whole thing.
A boat tour on the Thiou River might not sound like a good time, but it’s amazing. The grand hotels (abandoned or not) are insanely beautiful and transport you to the golden era before WWII when the town was a hot destination for the obscenely wealthy.
Annecy to Lyon
The Lyon air is crisp and the views of the French Alps are spectacular. While it looks a little shabby on the outskirts, the heart of the city is pure European grandeur – plenty of gold plating and yawning church mouths.
Lyon sits at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers and its city centre reflects over 2000 years of history; medieval and Renaissance architecture in Vieux Lyon, a Roman amphitheater in Fourvière and the modern confluence district on the Presqu’île peninsula between the rivers.
It’s considered the culinary capital of France with the most Michelin-starred restaurants in any single place. For a tres Lyon meal, order Rosette de Lyon (pork sausage), Quenelle (creamed fish or meat served in an egg shape) and a Marron glace (candied chestnut).
Oh, and in case it pops up at your next trivia night, cinema was invented in Lyon by the Lumiere Brothers in 1895, and the New York Police Department operates in Lyon (along with 10 other foreign cities).
Alice Williams was a guest of TopDeck travel.
(Lead image: Sandra Voss /Flickr)
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Alice Williams was one of the original creators of and long-time editor for Melbourne print magazine, SPOOK. She now lives at Junkee Media, but looks better on Twitter @awildwilliams Her opinions are those of her employers and are definitely not her own.