Two Minute Guide to France
As a brief introduction to France for future visitors, here is a short guide to each of the 22 French mainland regions.
Alsace: capital Strasbourg. A new museum, the Musee Lalique opens this month in Wingen-sur-Moder, the place where Rene Lalique chose to build his factory after WWI. Known for its vinyards, Alsace borders Germany and Switzerland. The Northern Vosges park has been given World Biosphere Reserve status. Gastronomy is a strong attraction on two grounds; it has more Michelin starred restaurants than any other area outside Paris and Alsatian food, such as Munster cheese and Alsatian beer has strong traditions. Chocolate-box type scenery with medieval castles and small wooden house villages abound. Good walking country for those fit enough.
Aquitaine: capital Bordeaux, the area will forever be linked to fine wine and Armagnac. It has Europe’s largest forest and stretches alongside the Pyrenees on the Spanish border. Surfing is popular and the area is known for its wide beaches. The Lascaux prehistoric cave is a big visitor draw. Biarritz on the Atlantic coastline was a hugely popular destination for us last century and there you’ll find the Musee del la Mer which has just had an extension added to it.
Auvergne: capital Clermont-Ferrand, sightseeing is a major draw. Midway between Paris and the Mediterranean, it is dominated by the peaks and 80 old volcanic craters of the Massif Central. There is a theme park, Vulcania which draws all the appeal of volcanoes ( and earthquakes) together. This year celebrates the 50th anniversary of Super-Besse, the ski resort in the Monts d’Auvergne. The area attracts France’s motorbike enthusiasts for the terrain and views. At Moulins there is the world’s only museum dedicated to the costumes and sets of the performing arts, National Stage Costume Centre, which holds over 9,000 costumes.
Brittany: capital Rennes, the part of France in the west that has strong ties, through its language and past trading links to Cornwall and Wales. Has 1,700 miles of coastline, a Celtic culture and is one of the most visited areas by us. There are standing stones and heritage to see wherever you go but at Carnac there is one of the largest complexes of megalithic stones dating back to about 4,500BC. Much more modern – and just beginning today – is their answer to Glastonbury, Les Vieilles Charrues at Carhaix.
Burgundy: capital Dijon. If the region means wine and the capital means mustard to most people, then good food and gastronomy sums this region up. Located south east of Paris, this is the area of Chablis and Mersault, Pouilly-Fuisse and Maconnais. 200 million bottles of wine are produced each year. As well as wine, there are 800 miles of canals with 450 boats to rent on both canals and the rivers. Now promoting itself as a golfing destination.
Centre: capital Orleans. This has the most boring name for a region but boring it is not. Chartres, 60 miles south west of Paris, is known the world over for its stunning mediaeval cathedral which has world heritage status. Tours, called the garden of France, (has a cedar tree planted by Napoleon) with its old mediaeval district of wooden buildings and lanes and pavement restaurant culture is the largest city in the region. Orleans will be linked to Joan of Arc – known as the maid of Orleans – for all time for here she was burnt at the stake 580 years ago.
Champagne-Ardennes: capital Chalons-en-Champagne. In the north east of France abutting Belgium it has two names that all of us know. Champagne from our favourite French import and the Ardennes being a reminder of the battlefield sites from two world wars. It was in the ancient city of Reims that Germany surrendered after the second world war. Prior to that, this was the city in which French kings were crowned. But is also is where Renoir (born in Limoges) lived and died and his village, Essoyes – has a €2 million project that has turned it into an artist’s village.
Corsica: capital Ajaccio is the island in the Mediterranean from where Napoleon hailed. There is a 1000 kilometres of coastline ranging from sandy beaches in the west to wilder areas in the north. It has a culture distinctly different from France not only in heritage and language but in food as well. Scandola, a national marine reserve, is a UNESCO heritage site.
Franche-Comte: capital Besancon. Bordering Switzerland, it is a mix of Swiss and French culture and traditions. As such it is skiing country and the Jura Mountains provide that in winter and hiking and walking trails in summer. From the summit of Haute Jura you can see Lake Geneva. Besancon describes itself as a town of art and history and it has been claimed that it has one of the most beautiful town centres in France
Ile de France: capital Paris. Say no more. To write anything about Paris would be superfluous. It has to be seen in anyone’s lifetime.
Languedoc-Roussillon: capital Montpellier. Stretching from the Spanish border to the River Rhone it is easily reached from the UK having five airports;- Nimes, Carcassone, Montpellier, Perpignan and Bezieres. A large winegrowing area, we liked the wines so much we bought and bought without remembering we had come by plane! The Roman history is to be found everywhere ( see the huge amphitheatre in Nimes) and Carcassone is not to be missed. It even has an English teashop. Then there are the wild horses of the Camargue, the birds and the spectacular light not to mention the climate. And the Canal de Midi flows through it as well.
Limoussin: capital Limoges. Located in the south west of France in the Massif Central your first thought might be of porcelain (50% of all French porcelain comes from here) but this is an area to enjoy outdoors. There are lakes, rivers, forests, (where wolves still roam) wide open spaces and a valley that has been reclaimed as a botanical garden, the Arboretum de la Sedelle. For the rainy day, the cathedral in Limoges took 600 years to build and the Jacques Chirac Museum is to be found at Sarran. Then there is the Musee de Beaux Arts de Limoges which houses one of the finest collections of the city’s main industry.
Lorraine: capital Metz. To be found in the north east of France it joins Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg but has a strong French identity. Lorraine has two memories; the cross that was the symbol of the free French in WWII and the quiche. Believe you me a quiche in Lorraine is nothing like our product. And Lorraine is known for its contribution to gastronomy; its pate lorraine, (which is in a puff pastry) potee Lorraine ( a stew of smoked meats and vegetables) and its tripe sausages. Then there’s the beer and the wine.
Midi-Pyrenees; capital Toulouse. As the largest region in France may be it is right that it has one of the greatest of appeals to the visitor. Be it modern (the Airbus factory in Toulouse) or ancient; (the prehistoric Niaux caves) there is plenty to see from a heritage standpoint. Or for those preferring the landscape, there are the river valleys of the Garonne, Lot, Dordogne, Tarn and Aveyron or the mountains in the Pyrenees Mountain Park. Then there’s the food (this is the home of Roquefort cheese, Toulouse sausage and Query Lamb) for here you can find truffles and foie gras. There is something for everyone
Nord Pas de Calais; capital Lille. The area of the day-tripper in many cases. Across the channel to Boulogne, Dunkirk or Calais in the old days to stock up on wine but nowadays you can go there for culinary schools, the fantastic beaches, the new Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (LAM) in Villeneuve d’Ascq or the numerous festivals. At Braderie de Lille, there is Europe’s biggest flea market with 10,000 stands (September 3-4th this year) where you can buy almost anything. Lille was the European capital of culture back in 2004 and the Palais des Beaux-Arts is considered to be the second best general museum after the Louvre.
Normandy. Split into two regions, Basse-Normandie ( capital Caen) and Haute-Normandie (capital Rouen.) We all know this area because of the link with William the Conqueror and the record on the Bayeux Tapestry. He was born in Falaise and buried in Caen. William was, of course, Duke of Normandy and this year there are celebrations for the 1100th anniversary of the creation of the Duchy. Normandy is also linked to the WWII landings in 1944 so there are many military museums and monuments to be seen. And who can miss Mont-Saint-Michel, the monastic island just off the coast. And there’s food. Normandy is linked to butter, cream, and brioches as well as being the home of camembert, boursin, neufchatel and pont I’eveque to name just four cheeses. Is it any wonder that the earliest French cookery book was written by a Norman, Taillevent.
Pays de la Loire: capital Nantes. The attraction to us may be the Le Mans 24 hour race but there is much more to see. Sandsail on the beaches of the Vendee. Follow the 88 kilometre Loire wine route. Go where the Tour de France started this year or visit the free, evening light show, La Nuit de Chimeres, which lasts all July and August. Visit Nantes, renowned as a centre of art and culture with its many museums and, in particular the Nantes History Museum (a prosaic name given its location) in the magnificent Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne. This fortified castle was the centre of the old province of Brittany and then a residence of French kings.
Picardy: capital Amiens. The newer region of Picardy (unlike the old ducal area) covers much of the area of the Somme battlefield of WWI and stretches from near Calais eastwards and then buts Belgium in one corner. Apart from the obvious visitor appeal by schoolchildren so that they are reminded of the heroism of their ancestors, Picardy is known from its wide range of standout churches and cathedrals; its food and its countryside. Amiens with celtic and roman heritage has had large renovations in the last twenty years so there is a combination of old and new for the visitor to see.
Poitou-Charentes: capital Poitiers. Sliding down the Atlantic coast south of Pays de la Loire, there are warm sunny beaches and islands to explore in summer making it an ideal family holiday destination. This is where Futuroscope is to be found, that modern theme park with 25 different attractions. Nearby is Poitiers, the site of a famous battle in the Hundred Years War but today a town that has a carefully preserved heritage area. And if you want something less mind-taxing try one of the many country walks or go to La Rochelle the old harbour which is one of the most visited tourist attractions.
Provences-Alpes-Coted’Azur: Capital Marseilles. We all know of the Riviera with its expensive feel of Antibes, St-Tropez and Cannes. We all know of Provence from the Peter Mayle book, the TV series and the large numbers of Britons who moved there. The two form one region that spans 900 kms of the Mediterranean coastline, ski resorts in the north and vineyards sandwiched between. And there are places like Aix-en-Provence, Arles, Avignon, Nice and Toulon to see. Spend some time upon the old fortified village of Hautes-de-Cagne and the Grimaldi Castle and Museum that’s there.
Rhone-Alpes: capital Lyon. Combining the Beaujolais vineyards with the 110 ski resorts that are to be found here, the attractions of this region are obvious. What skier has not heard of Chamonix or Chambery, Val d’Isere, Val Thorens and Tignes, Meribel or Corcheval? But this is also the area of spa towns like Aix-les-Bains for there are 16 thermal or spa resorts here. It also has the three largest lakes in France and 7,000 kms of rivers for anglers and boat enthusiasts to enjoy which makes it an attractive summer destination as well. It was an Englishman who publicised the Mer de Glace, near Chamonix in 1741. Since then we‘ve been going back time and time again for the skiing and the natural wonders of the landscape.
image and thanks go to Atout France for their help