INTRODUCTION The sheer physical diversity of France would be hard to exhaust in a lifetime of visits. The landscapes range from the fretted coasts of Brittany to the limestone hills of Provence, the canyons of the Pyrenees and the half-moon bays of Corsica, from the lushly wooded valleys of the Dordogne to the glaciated peaks of the Alps. Each region looks and feels different, has its own style of architecture, its characteristic food, and often its own patois or dialect. Though...
The sheer physical diversity of France would be hard to exhaust in a lifetime of visits. The landscapes range from the fretted coasts of Brittany to the limestone hills of Provence, the canyons of the Pyrenees and the half-moon bays of Corsica, from the lushly wooded valleys of the Dordogne to the glaciated peaks of the Alps. Each region looks and feels different, has its own style of architecture, its characteristic food, and often its own patois or dialect. Though the French word pays is the term for a whole country, local people frequently refer to their own immediate vicinity as mon pays - my country - and to a person from another town as a foreigner. This strong sense of regional identity, often expressed in the form of active separatist movements as in Brittany and Corsica, has persisted over centuries in the teeth of centralized administrative control from Paris.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the French countryside is the sense of space. There are huge tracts of woodland and undeveloped land without a house in sight. Industrialization came relatively late, and the country remains very rural. Away from the main urban centres, hundreds of towns and villages have changed only slowly and organically, their old houses and streets intact, as much a part of the natural landscape as the rivers, hills and fields.
The nation's legacy of history and culture is so widely dispersed across the land that even if you were to confine your travelling to one particular region you would still have a powerful sense of the past without having to seek out major sights. With its wealth of local detail, France is an ideal country for dawdling; there is always something to catch the eye and gratify the senses, whether you are meandering down a lane, picnicking by a slow, green river, or sipping Pernod in a village caf. There is also endless scope for all kinds of outdoor activities, from walking, canoeing and cycling to the more expensive pleasures of skiing and sailing.
If you need more urban stimuli to activate the pleasure buds - clubs, shops, fashion, movies, music, hanging out with the beautiful and famous - then the great cities provide them in abundance. Paris, of course, is an outstanding cultural centre, with its stunning contemporary buildings and atmospheric back streets, its art and its ethnic diversity. And the great provincial cities like Lille and Lyon, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Marseille and Nice vie with the capital and each other, like the city states of old, for prestige in the arts, ascendancy in sport and innovation in urban transport.
For a thousand years and more, France has been at the cutting edge of European development, and the legacy of this wealth, energy and experience is everywhere evident in the astonishing variety of things to see: from the Gothic cathedrals of the north to the Romanesque churches of the centre and west, the chteaux of the Loire, the Roman monuments of the south, the ruined castles of the English and the Cathars and the Dordogne's prehistoric cave-paintings. If not all the legacy is so tangible - the literature, music and ideas of the 1789 Revolution, for example - much has been recuperated and illustrated in museums and galleries across the nation, from colonial history to fishing techniques, aeroplane design to textiles, migrant shepherds to manicure, battlefields and coalmines.
Many of the museums are models of clarity and modern design. Among those that the French do best are museums devoted to local arts, crafts and customs like the Muse des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris and the Muse Dauphinois in Grenoble. But inevitably first place must go to the fabulous collections of fine art, many of which are in Paris, for the simple reason that the city has nurtured so many of the finest creative artists of the last hundred years, both French, Monet and Matisse for example, and foreign, such as Picasso and Van Gogh.
If you are quite untroubled by a need to improve your mind in the contemplation of old stones and works of art, France is equally well endowed to satisfy the grosser appetites. The French have made a high art of daily life: eating, drinking, dressing, moving and simply being. The pleasures of the palate run from the simplest picnic of crusty baguette, ham and cheese washed down by an inexpensive red wine through what must be the most elaborate take-away food in the world, available from practically every charcuterie; such basic regional dishes as cassoulet; the liver-destroying riches of Prigord and Burgundy cuisine; the fruits of the sea; extravagant pastries and ice cream cakes; to the trance-inducing refinements - and prices - of the great chefs. And there are wines to match, at all prices, and not just from the renowned vineyards of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. If you feel inadequate in the face of all this choice, never be afraid to ask advice, for most French people are true devotees, ever ready to explain the arcane mysteries to the uninitiated.
Not Sure What To See First?
Check out our authors' picks of must-see sights, local hangouts and unforgettable activities.
Superbly intact as a medieval port, thanks to the efforts of a past communist mayor whose legacy includes the free bicycles you can ride around town, La Rochelle offers beautiful beaches, delicious seafood, and boat trips to surrounding islands.
The French Alps
The French Alps are glorious in summer. To go walking, take one of the many ski lifts that operate year-round. Pretty towns to visit include Annecy, on its turquoise lake, set against the peaks of La Tourette.
There is so much life on the streets of Paris, plus a tremendous amount of public art and wonderful architecture, that just wandering the streets is a delight and doesn't cost you any money. The city centre is very compact so there's little chance of getting lost.
If you like drinking bubbly, there's no greater experience than quaffing the stuff in the region where it's made. A visit to Reims will enable you to catch one of France's most impressive gothic cathedrals, as well as take in several caves, including the famous Veuve Cliquot-Ponsardin.
Go to Chartres and see the Cathédral Notre-Dame, whose greatest asset is its magnificent rose window. Situated on the hilltop, the enormous building has plenty of other enthralling visible wonders, such as the geometry of the building and the 130 other stained glass windows.
From its medieval hilltop villages, through a rich agricultural countryside of vineyards, olive groves and fields of sunflowers, to the fascinating cities of Arles and Aix en Provence, this is perhaps the most irrestistible area of France.
For cheese, head for Normandy, particularly the area known as the Pays d'Auge, whose lush green fields help produce the rich milk so essential for the area's delicious Camembert.
The country which runs the world's most famous bike race (the Tour de France) is a rewarding place to cycle, and you may even get bigger servings in local restos if you indicate your means of transport. You don't have to rely entirely on pedal power, however - you can take bikes on certain trains for free.
The Camargue is a flat, marshy delta area, with flamingo-filled lagoons. Its long stretches of coastline include the popular resort of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, which offers plenty of facilities, and less commercialised areas, such as the plag de Piemancon.
Marseille, the second most populous city of France, though undeniably deprived, is a wonderful place to visit. It's a down-to-earth yet cosmopolitan city which spirals out from the old port. To check out its excellent seafood cuisine try the cours Julien behind the Vieux Port's southern quay.
PART ONE BASICS
Getting there from Britain
Getting there from Ireland
Getting there from North America
Getting there from Australia and New Zealand
Red tape and visas
Costs, money and banks
Health and insurance
Information and maps
Eating and drinking
Business hours and public holidays
Festivals and annual events
Music, film and theatre
Trouble and the police
Gay and lesbian France
Work and study
PART TWO THE GUIDE
CHAPTER 1 PARIS AND AROUND
Points of arrival and departure
Arc de Triomphe
Jeu de Paume
Muse National du Moyen-Age
St-Germain des Prs
Bois de Boulogne
Eating and drinking
Film, theatre and dance
Daytime amusements and sports
CHAPTER 2 THE NORTH
CHAPTER 3 ALSACE-LORRAINE AND THE JURA MOUNTAINS
The northern Vosges
The southern Vosges
CHAPTER 4 NORMANDY
CHAPTER 5 BRITTANY
CHAPTER 6 THE LOIRE
CHAPTER 7 BURGUNDY
CHAPTER 8 POITOU-CHARENTES AND THE ATLANTIC COAST
CHAPTER 9 THE DORDOGNE, LIMOUSIN AND LOT
CHAPTER 10 THE PYRENEES
Cirque de Gavarnie
CHAPTER 11 LANGUEDOC
Pont du Gard
CHAPTER 12 THE MASSIF CENTRAL
Puy de Dme
Gorges du Tarn
Parc National des Cvennes
CHAPTER 13 THE ALPS
CHAPTER 14 THE RHNE VALLEY AND PROVENCE
Gorges du Verdon
CHAPTER 15 THE CTE D'AZUR
CHAPTER 16 CORSICA
PART THREE CONTEXTS
The historical framework
Glossary of architectural terms