Now we’re carrying on from the last post here, looking at all manner of groovy things to be getting up to in the wonderful land of France. Before, we looked at the north west and mid west. Now, let’s move on in a circular view, carrying on anti-clockwise, as you look at a map of France.
The Dordogne region is a fantastic place to be for an extended period of time – or a short period. To such an extent that together with the Poitou Charente region, it has the highest numbers of English expats living there.
There are some wonderful places to go, gites to stay at, people to meet, wines to taste and food to gorge on. Bergerac has a lovely sleepy country feel to it, while you soak yourself in the local wine. The same inevitably goes for Saint Emilion, which is worth a visit. It has become a little touristy as the wines have gotten a bigger and bigger name for themselves, but the village itself is stunning. Catch it on a sunny day and roast yourself in the square, sitting out, drinking the wines. Mmmm… I’m almost there myself…
Heading into Dordogne a bit more, Brantome is a great place to visit – known as the Venice of the Dordogne. Nice architecture, nice food.
Give yourself a bigger world view picture of yourself in time, panning out across history, by visiting the Lascaux caves.
The cave paintings there are estimated to be 17,000 years old (yes, that is the right number). It is well worth paying for a tour guide to show you around and explain it. You will feel a sense of wonder and probably feel a little bit smaller but part of something much biger, by the end of your tour.
Heading further south, you have the big mountainous divider that is the Pyrenees, separating France from Spain. The Gascon region is where the fabled D’Artagnan is from. There is some seriously good pate Foi Gras down here. And a whole lot of other gastronomic delights too.
The Gascon region is a fascinating melting pot of English and French heritage. Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitane, thereby gaining her possessions of Aquitane and Gascony. And so bubbled up the English-French issue of ownership and dominance that boiled for over a hundred years, with England claiming right and possession over Gascony, Poitou Charente, Aquitane and Normandy, ending only in full French ownership.
One thing worth noting about Gascony and most of the Pyrenees region; it is incredibly rural.
If you want a retreat away from it all, or even want to go and live in a beautiful and remote area, Gascony might just be for you – especially if you love wonderful and diverse Gascon foods. The rolling hills and higher mountains and breath-taking to walk or drive through.
And so we get down to the south coast, by way of Perpignan, in the Languedoc Roussillon region, overlooking the sea and (sometimes) snow capped mountains.
One fascinating theme that runs through much of this region, and to differing extents, throughout the south coast is the historical mix of influence (and control) from Arab, African, Roman and more local forces.
There is a whole heap of other cool places to visit in Perpignan. It is probably worth getting a tour guide unless you want to just wander and soak it up.
The Camargue is the famous French cowboy area along the salt marshes of the Languedoc Rousillion area. If you are remotely into horse riding, you will want to hire a beast and go out for a hack here.
Narbonne, Bezier and Sete are worth a visit for different reasons. The Millau Bridge viaduct is a phenomenal feat of engineering and worth a detour just to see it.
If you look closely at that photo above of the bridge, can you see the parked cars? Then you start to get an idea of the scale of it. Big. And amazing.
Further east, into Marseilles, you enter the big melting cultural hotpot of the south coast. Parts of it are very nice, but much of it has suffered from ineffective multiculturalism due to lack of integration of different races and cultures, which is why there is high levels of disatisfaction and a swing to the political right. The Front National is strong here, as is an undercurrent of islamic fundamentalism. Much of this stems from the failure to integrate and the unemployment, leading to poverty, frustration and unhappiness. Which is a huge shame.
Further east we head into the French Riviera – the Côte d’Azur. You need a LOT of money to be able to eat and drink here, let alone stay or even live here. If you happen to be a A-lister celebrity you are welcome. Otherwise consider visiting only for a bref period.
It is beautiful and the weather is fabulous, darling! Dont forget your multi-million pound Bling.
The city of Nice is quite nice. St Tropez is amazing. Just dont expect to walk away with much money left.
So let’s leave this tour around the delights of France right here and we’ll revisit this tour to travel up the east side of France in teh next episode at some point in the future. Next though, I want to tell you about some amazing places to stay – the best Gites and other shelters – in France.
OK, its a BIIIIG place to sweepingly say “cool things to do”. But lets dive into it like it isnt a massive place to generalise with such a cavalier attitude.
There is a lot to explore and a huge amount of land to cover. But we can do it. You know we can…
So the north west area of France, Brittany and around is a hilly and in places, wind-swept, land. Much of it is very desolate. But the beaches are beautiful. The Finistere is a fascinating place to drive through. The coastal areas and meach campsites around St Malo are worth a plunge in summer time. Too chilly in winter though.
One thing I personally love about Brittany is that it is so easy to get a ferry to, from England. Obviously the further south you go into France, the less viable it is to use the ferry because there is more and more driving to do. So if you love taking the ferry – getting blown to bits up on deck – then you’ll love a trip to Brittany. Maybe on Brittany Ferries!
So definitely check out the French beaches of Brittany. Nice!
The food of Brittany is largely sea-influenced – cockles, muscles, crab, oysters. And Apple influenced – cider and calvados. There is a fab range of different calvados to try. Just dont be driving!
Upper Normandy is where a lot of the World War 2 beach landings happened, so if you are interested to know just what ghastly horrible things had to happen there in order to secure our freedom, then it might be worth a visit. You might want to visit the Bayeux Tapestry at… Bayeux. The cathedral there is stunning. I alwanys cannot help thinking “what a ridiculously HUGE amount of effort went into building this that could have maybe better gone into helping the people”. But then I dont understand because I wasnt alive back then.
In Lower Normandy, they still grow a whole heap of apples so the cider is pretty good. In both Brittany and Lower Normandy, there are “cider routes” which you can walk or cycle along and sample the cider along the way. Again, if you choose to go by car, make sure you’ve got a designated driver. Not cool, I know, but neither is wrapping yourself at high speed around a sturdy oak tree.
Alencon is one of Lower Normandy’s cheeky best kept secrets. It is a wonderful old town that you can get briefly lost in as you stroll around, stopping for coffees and pastries. Some great back lanes and tiny shops.
South of that, you’ve got Le Mans, famous for its race days.
Expect high levels of testosterone. I have heard many, many stories of high jynx at Le Mans. Mostly involving copious quantities of alcohol. Which just goes to show that drinking and driving can go together – so long as you’re not the one behind the wheel.
As you head down through Pays de la Loire, you will pass an insane amount of Chateaux (castles built in regional french style – the architectural style rolls and changes as you move through France).
Like the Dordogne, in the Loire, seeing amazing chateau after amazing chateau, you get a bit awesomeness-numb. You’re soon saying “Yeah, yeah, another amazing chateau. Whatever” (or whatever your dialect for numb tedium might be).
Natnes and Anger have some good night life but are quite industrial for large chunks of it. Like Rouen in Upper Normandy. Going through Rouen is like a drive through the industrial revolution. Plus one amazing bridge and one stunning cathedral. Apart from that, Rouen is pretty dull.
Back to the Loire region…
Ahh, the coast! The Bay of Biscay is THE place to be in summer, if you cant get to the south coast. If you look at a map showing the number of days of sunshine per year, there is a radial area around La Rochelle. This means that is it warmer than most other places in France, other than the south coast. This map shows it fairly clearly…
And this in more detail…
Obviously the reddest areas (warm) are on the south east of France. But you can also see a warmer area half way dwon the west coast. That is why the Bay of Biscay and the La Rochelle area are crazy busy in summer. Beautiful but busy.
Coming down France, the Poitou Charente region starts to get a bit warmer with the summer and spring seasons longer through the year. Which makes for more fun outdoors.
And personally, I’d say the wines start to get better too.
Anywhere on the coast down this area of the west of France is stunning. The Ile de Re and the Ile d’Oleron are hugely popular. Book early. Like about 3 years early! It is fun there though, so worth it.
Coming down to Bordeaux, you’ll find a beautiful town with a fantastic night club. Bordeaux has it all, with the right balance of fun and lively without heading into being grubby or having too much of a seedy underbelly.
Beautiful architecture, mostly clean, and a friendly and lively atmosphere.
OK, now I’m going to break this post up here so it doesnt get too huge to read. I’ll cover more fun things to do in France in the next post. See you then.
So I thought we’d kick things off right at the heart of where it is all going on.
FAR too much has already been written about Paris, but that is an oxymoron because it is simply linguistically impossible to write too much about Paris.
There is so much going on there, and so much of that is either cool, damn cool or lies.
And the only real bad thing you can say about the French capital is…
It aint cheap.
It is expensive to stay at a hotel. It is expensive to eat. It is expensive to go out and have a great time.
If they could charge you for standing still on the pavement, they probably would.
So I will have to assume that you have a small war chest with a pile of cash the size of some country’s defence budget.
Or something close, anyway.
You see, there are many bars and restaurants in Paris where you can pay over 10 Euros for a small glass of wine.
And it wont be because it is the world’s most amazing wine (although they will be available).
It is more about the fact that you are in a swanky restaurant in a swanky city.
Get over it. Embrace it. Enjoy it.
It is a bit like going to Las Vegas.
You know that after a few days, you’re going be spat out of the city like a worn out chewed up piece of meat, feeling equal parts adulterated and exhiliated. And less monied.
Embrace it. With that in mind, you’ll love it.
Go check out all those cliches you’ve been hearing about since you were 4. The Eiffel tower, the Louvre, the Champs Elysee, the Arc de Triumphe, the Notre Dame, the Basilica of the Sacre Coeur, and all those other well known and cultural icons.
That should take you 2-3 days to do them justice.
Take 2 more days to just get lost.
Go on. Walk around, with minimal intent. Dont have a plan other than to have no plan. Take some cash and just go out and be prepared to talk to people and adjust accordingly.
And I guarantee you will have the best time you possibly could.
I have met some of the most fascinating people and had the most mad and/or interesting conversations by simply being open to talking to people.