by Nicola Williams
France seduces travellers with its unfalteringly familiar culture woven around its cafe terraces, village-square markets and lace-curtained bistros with their plat du jour chalked on the board.
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France in Europe
'Great cooking and great wines make a paradise on earth,' said Henri IV of the southwest of France but it is true of France as a whole. The Hexagon, as the French affectionately call their country, referring to its shape, is blessed with fertile soil and clement weather and as a result the food and wines cultivated there are second to none. There are twenty two distinct areas in France, each with their own heritage, history and culture and each is worth exploring.
Normandy, Brittany and the Loire Valley in Western France are where most British visitors to France begin. It is a rich farming region, with a strong fishing tradition in the coastal areas. Local hearty meat dishes such as duck of Rouen are in abundance. Whilst in Normandy you may be tempted to try the region's Camembert, cider and Calvados, an apple brandy and in the region next door, Brittany, delicious crepes and galettes (sweet and savoury pancakes) and its superb oysters. You may well wish to sample the wines of the Loire valley too, particularly its dry white wines and summer rosss. However, if you are a serious wine connoisseur, you will head for Burgundy in the central region of France because it is here that you will find the world famous vineyards Cote d'Or, Cote de Beaune and Chablis. Perhaps you will want to try wine from the Bordeaux area in the south west of France where you will find vineyards growing Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes. This area is famous too for its stunning caves. In the Dordogne and the foothills of the Pyrenees, some of the caves show ancient rock paintings by prehistoric tribes. There are a number of beautiful examples around the village of Les Eyzies in Dordogne. The rock shelter of Abri du Cap Blanc has a very rare life size frieze of horses and bisons sculpted into the rock which are believed to be over 14,000 years old.
Few people visit France more than once without seeing Paris. What was true for Thomas Jefferson, visiting Paris in the late eighteenth century is just as true today. "A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty and in the point of life." And it is a truly beautiful city, not least because very few buildings are over five or six stories tall. Consequently, the sky is still very much part of the Parisian cityscape. You do not feel hemmed in or over powered by sky scrapers as you do in London or New York. The iconic Eiffel Tower is by far the tallest structure in the city at over 1000 feet. There are too many wonderful places in Paris to see in one short stay but most visitors choose the Musse du Louvre, the Musse d'Orsay, Notre Dame, the Pompidou Centre, the Left Bank and Montmartre during their first visits for it is true that Paris is a city you will want to return to again and again.
The south of France is perhaps the most quintessentially French for the foreign tourist. The lavender hued landscape and luminous light have inspired artists such as Van Gogh, Cezanne, Modigliani, Matisse, Renoir and Picasso. There is so much to see and do in this lovely region. You will taste the marvellous 'cuisine du soleil' or cuisine of the sun, sampling local dishes from the classic fish stew bouillabaisse to boeuf en daube and the beautiful creme catalane. The ingredients of the delightful bouillabaisse vary from town to village but the city of Marseille claims to have the original recipe. It is also in Marseille that you may wish to see the impressive Citt Radieuse, designed by French architect of world renown, Le Corbusier. Only in France are top architects commissioned to design beautiful buildings for those who cannot afford to buy their own homes.
The beautiful, medieval town of Avignon in Provence hosts France's largest festival during the month of August. It is in Avignon too, of course, that you can visit what is left of one of the world's most famous bridges, the twelfth century Pont St-Benezet. When it was still complete, before the destruction wreaked by floods in 1668, the people of Avignon would dance on an island below the bridge. Over the years however, the words of the famous song have changed and sous became sur, under became on.
France is twice the size of Great Britain and yet has a similar sized population. You can be sure that you will encounter well built, well maintained roads with little traffic if you drive outside any of the major cities. For peace, tranquillity, good weather and great food, France really is very hard to beat. Where you stay whilst there is, of course, up to you. You will have a wide selection of camp sites, hotels, gites and villas in France from which to choose. You might choose a hotel in Paris or a gite in the south of France but wherever you go, you will be assured of fine food, fine wines and a memorable stay.