France is in the epicenter of Europe, with a variety of borders that have influenced the country. Here you’ll find influences from Belgium in the north; Germany in Alsace; Switzerland and Italy to the east and south-east and the different cultures of Spain at the border that runs along the Pyrenees. It makes for a heady mix of cultural differences and particularly cooking styles, and if you’re in these regions, it’s easy to make a quick trip to the neighboring country.
France and the Belgian/Luxembourg Border
The region in the north of France, taking in Nord-Pas-de-Calais and the Ardennes, runs along the Franco-Belgian border. It starts at Bray-Dunes just north of Dunkirk south to just near the hilltop town of Cassel near St-Omer, then turns slightly northeast to take in lively Lille and the textile manufacturing and design town of Roubaix then south down past the Luxembourg border through the glorious and much underestimated Ardennes region.
World War I and II
This was a region ravaged by the two world wars so it’s prime territory for anybody interested in wartime history of the 20th century.
In World War I, the first tank battle took place at Cambrai and the area around there has numerous sites and memorials, large and small to British, Australian and Canadian troops. It is also the place for the moving American memorials and cemeteries to the vital part the U.S. played in the war. Here's a great tour of the main sites in the area. Many of them like Wilfred Owen's memorial is recent, the result of worldwide interest in World War I.
Hitler used the region to launch the V2 rockets on London from La Coupole which today houses a spectacular museum; the first tank battle took place at Cambrai.
In World War II, Dunkirk featured as one of the most important sites due to the huge evacuation of British, French and Commonwealth troops. Learn more about Operation Dynamo and Dunkirk and the wrecked ships and World War II sites around Dunkirk.
Things to See in the Region
The region has some delightful places to visit that have no echoes of the wars. Included here is one of our favorite gardens in France, the private and secret gardens at Séricourt.
Don’t miss the Louvre-Lens, the outpost of the Louvre museum in Paris for an overview of French art from the ancient civilizations to today in a permanent exhibition as well as a series of important temporary shows.
Henri Matisse might be associated with the south of France, but he was born and spent much of his formative life here in northern France. Visit the Matisse Museum in Le Cateau-Cambresis for a different perspective on the famous Impressionist painter.
Other Cities, Towns, and Sites to Visit
Arras was completely rebuilt after its destruction in World War I so that it looks like the medieval city it once was with arcaded streets and large squares.
St-Omer is a delightful small city with an old part, a spectacular Saturday market, a marshland which you can take a tour through where the postmen deliver by boat, a Jesuit college where some of the founding fathers of the U.S were educated, and where the first folio of Shakespeare was discovered (in 2014).
Charming hilltop Cassel is worth a visit, and a stay at the romantic Chatellerie de Schoebeque in an 18th-century manor.
France and the German Border
The Alsace region looks east first to Germany and Switzerland and then from that to the rest of Central Europe so it's something of a crossroads. Here everything is transformed by nearby Germany with the region's biggest city, Strasbourg, just across the Rhine River from Germany.
Strasbourg is an ancient city, part of the Holy Roman Empire until Louis XIV stepped in in 1681 and it became part of France. In 1871 Alsace along with Strasbourg, was annexed by the Germans until 1918, then again from 1940 to 1944. Today it's more European than ever, hosting the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights and the European Parliament. It also has the largest university in Europe.
German Influence in Alsace
Hardly surprisingly, German influence remains to today and it looks different from the rest of France. The architecture is more German fairy tale with half-timbered houses reminding you of Hansel and Gretel type stories. Strasbourg hosts one of France's most important Christmas markets, with stalls selling as many goods from Germany as from France.
Other Cities and Sites in Alsace
- Travel to Colmar for its famous, and astonishing Issenheim Altarpiece.
- Mulhouse is not the most popular of French cities for tourists, but if you’re a car fan you must visit the famous national collection of cars, the Cite de l'Automobile, one of the top car museums in France.
- Metz in adjacent Lorraine, is a pretty town with the Centre Pompidou-Metz, the latest branch of the Pompidou Center in Paris, hosting internationally important exhibitions.
- Verdun was the site of one of the most brutal battles of World War I, becoming for the French the symbol of the destruction and pointlessness of warfare is the same way that the battle of the Somme has for the British.
- The Vosges mountains cover a very large part of Alsace. Take the Crest Road for stunning views.
More to Do in Alsace
If you're here try taking the famous Route des Vins, running down the foot of the Vosges mountains to the west along the west side of the Rhine valley. It begins in Marlenheim, west of Strasbourg, to Thann near Mulhouse. It's a beautiful route in itself, taking you through small villages and past ruined castles. The wines of Alsace are sensational, particularly the whites. It's famous for producing top wines from Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Muscat, Sylvaner and Pinot Noir grapes.
You can also cycle the route (or just part of it; it's 180 km long), check with the Tourist Off ice in Strasbourg which will also provide cycling maps of the route, cycle-friendly hotels, and more information.
Menus feature choucroute or sauerkraut. The regional specialty, baeckoffe, is like nothing you will find in Paris. Meat, potatoes, herbs, and onions marinate for a day, they are roasted in a terrine for hours. The result is delightful. Instead of coq au vin, you will find coq au Riesling, usually served over homemade egg noodles.
France and the Swiss Border
The France-Swiss border is 572 km (355 miles) with no customs controls. It’s a busy area due to the two airports near the border which have both Swiss and French customs for people traveling from outside the Schengen area.
There are two major airports: Basel-Mulhouse airport in France and Geneva Airport in Switzerland, both used heavily in the skiing season.
The Rhône-Alpes region in France which runs along the border is known for its skiing, particularly in this part for Haute-Savoie and famous Chamonix-Mont-Blanc.
Other places to visit: Megève, Morzine; Avoriaz and Les Gets.
France and the Italian Border
The mountainous Franco-Italian border begins in Chamonix and goes due south down to the Mediterranean at Menton in France and Ventimiglia in Italy.
The northernmost border (to where France meets Switzerland) is in the Alps, a premier skiing area in winter and a great place to hike in summer. For winter resorts, try Courchevel which at its highest resort is glamorous and expensive, along with other famous resorts like Val d’Isère.
Further south, the border runs through some beautiful parts of France, such as the famous Vallée des Merveilles (The Valley of Marvels) in the Mercantour National Park which runs along much of the border.
Here you’ll also find ski resorts, such as Isola 2000 which you can reach from Nice for a day’s skiing and snowboarding.
The French area was once part of Italy, so the Italian influence is strong, particularly in Nice, the major city of the region.
Nice is the capital of the Riviera and the 5th largest city in France, a place that has been internationally popular since the English aristocracy first made it fashionable in the 18th century. Originally a Greek city, then the Roman regional capital, its Italianate architecture fits in perfectly with the sparkling blue of the Mediterranean and green hills behind. See all the major sites in and around Nice in three days.
The markets in the Cours Saleya are full of French and Italian fruit and vegetables, with a huge selection of olives on offer.
Other cities in the area include Menton, famous for its gardens and its annual lemon festival in the spring; Digne-les-Bains; Gap; Briançon and Grenoble.
French and Italian influences are shown most markedly in the dishes you find in Nice where pasta of every kind will feature on restaurants’ menus alongside many north Italian dishes.
Eat socca in the market from a stall like Chez Teresa. The hot, crispy chickpea pancake is baked over hot coals.
Pizza is especially good in Nice. Try the local pissaladière, pizza topped with an almost caramelized mix of onions, anchovies, and olives. Another specialty, farcis, is a classic Nice dish, where vegetables like tomatoes, eggplant, and zucchini are stuffed with cooked minced meat, garlic and breadcrumbs. You’ll see these, particularly the tomato variety, for sale in every butcher in the south of France. Check out these articles on Nice for food lovers, top bistros, and good cheap restaurants.
France and the Spanish Border
The border of France and Spain runs from just south of Perpignan along the Pyrenees on the eastern side to just below Biarritz and the delightful St-Jean-de-Luz on the west Atlantic coast. The central area of the Pyrenees is particularly popular with walkers in the Parc National which offers high peaks, forests, streams and a cornucopia of wildlife.
To the east, Languedoc-Roussillon offers a gentler way of life, much more French than the western border (though the Catalan language and separatist movement are strong here). It's a rural area, away from the glitz of the Cote d'Azur and the sophistication of Provence, but with rolling countryside and wonderful small villages. It's popular with visitors, and the Canal du Midi which runs from the Mediterranean at Agde to join the River Garonne at Toulouse is particularly well known.
Major Cities of the Region
Toulouse is a major city; also seek out Albi, the city of Toulouse-Lautrec and Perpignan along the coast. Other cities in the region include Lourdes, globally known for its pilgrimages, and Pau which has been heavily influenced by the English
Other Regional Sites and Attractions
The area is on some of the major pilgrimage and walking routes of France.
The region is also famous for the Cathars, the heretics who rebelled against the orthodox Catholic church. They were centered in the medieval walled city of Carcassone and around Montségur and typified the feeling of remoteness from northern France that the whole region shared. The heresy was put down with huge brutality and the scars remain to this day.
The regional cooking is intense and hearty, part of the culture of the Pyrenean mountains, producing hearty dishes like cassoulet, consisting of Toulouse sausage, duck, and white beans, served with robust red wine.
To the west, you'll come to Basque country, where Euskara is spoken in the same way as it is just over the Spanish border. The Basque coast is superb, offering both rocky inlets and long sandy beaches ideal for the surf which pounds in from the Atlantic, particularly at chic Biarritz.
Basque Country Cuisine
Unique to this region, piperade is made from eggs with slow-cooked tomatoes, peppers and often Bayonne ham. Also, try sweet red peppers stuffed with morue (salt cod). Poulet basquaise is chicken browned in pork fat, then cooked in a sauce of tomato, ground chilies, onions and white wine.
Atlantic Seafood is well worth choosing in restaurants. Try the Basque fish soup, called ttoro, squid, tuna, sea bass, sardines, and anchovies.