01 of 10
Walk through History in the Loire Valley
The Great Château of Amboise
The great château of Amboise was one of the great playgrounds of the French Kings. Rebuilt in 1492 by Charles VIII its golden age saw French history being made in the warm stone building overlooking the stately River Loire.
Amboise was a particular favourite of François I who invited Leonardo da Vinci to come and live out his last years at the nearby small, but delightful, Clos Lucé. Amboise featured in a less pleasant way in the 1560s when Protestants tried to take the 16-year old François II away from Amboise and the influence of the Guise family. It was a misguided and botched attempt and the perpetrators ended up hung from the towers or thrown into the river in sacks. But the Duke de Guide did not fare much better; he was later murdered in the nearby Château of Blois.
Walk into the castle through the Tour des Minimes where knights could ride on horseback into the castle grounds, then spend time in the gorgeously decorated and furnished rooms.
More about the Châteaux of the Loire Valley
With the royal châteaux strung along the river like so many jewels in a necklace, the Loire Valley is without doubt a major destination for visitors. You can do it in a more unconventional way by cycling along part - or for the truly ambitious - the whole of the valley from the source at Gerbier du Jonc in the high reaches of the Auvergne to where the river empties into the sea at Saint Nazaire. It’s some 500 miles long so you’ll need to be fit and free for the Loire a Velo challenge.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Loire valley is as interesting for the gardens as it is for the châteaux. My own favorite is Ainay-le-Vieil where a series of differently themed ‘rooms’ take you past beds heavy with the scent of roses, along small canals and beside herbaceous borders. It’s in the feudal, massive castle of the same name, presided over by the redoubtable owner, Princess Marie-Sol de La Tour d'Auvergne, whose family has lived here since 1457.
More Gardens - this time in the west part of the Loire Valley.
For accommodation, try one of the delightful bed and breakfasts in the Loire Valley.Continue to 2 of 10 below.
02 of 10
Take a Spectacular Drive
For many people, driving in France is pure pleasure as you weave your way through small villages, wooded river valleys and historic towns. If you don't have a car, consider getting to your destination then hiring a car to take you on some spectacular journeys, long and short.
Short Trip around the Gorges du Verdon in Provence
It’s worth booking a hotel in the Gorges (I recommend the good-value, fairytale Château de Trigance in Trigance or La Bastide du Calalou, a pretty old manor house.)
The Gorges du Verdon drive takes you along roads that cling to the sides of the Gorge, past views that remind you of the Grand Canyon in the US, though on a smaller scale, and through small villages which are perfect stops for lunch.
Long Trip on the Route Napoleon
Still in the south of France, I thoroughly recommend the Route Napoleon, a road trip of approximately 325 kms (200 miles) which combines history with spectacular views in the Alpes-Maritimes, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Hautes-Alpes, Isère and Var Departments.
This route pretty much follows Route Nationale 85 (with side trips if you want), the road taken by Napoleon in March 1815 after he returned from imprisonment on Elba. He left the road at various points for safety, food and shelter, but all of these are well signposted.
On March 1st Napoleon landed at Golf-Juan, near Antibes on the Mediterranean with around 1,100 loyal soldiers. From here he set out north, first to Grenoble which he reached on March 7th where the current Route Napoleon ends. On March 20th, he entered Paris and took over the Tuileries Palace, beginning his famous Hundred Days that ended at the Battle of Waterloo.
The current route that was opened in 1932 is marked with statues of the flying eagle, Napoleon’s symbol of power.
The route goes along the coast west to Cannes before turning north on the D6185 through Le Cannet and Mougins up to Grasse, the center of the world’s perfume industry. From here the D6085 winds through the foothills of the Alps past Escragnolles and on to Castellane, the eastern gateway to the Gorges du Verdon. You’re now on the D4085 going through the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence up to Digne-les-Bains, far removed from Napoleon’s time when his small army had to use mule paths covered with winter snow. The next stop is Sisteron, the most important mountain gateway to Provence for centuries, and on the N85 continue to Gap, a vital town from Roman times on and one of the stops on the pilgrim routes.
From here there are a succession of small towns including Vizille where the French Revolution started. And finally you’re in Grenoble.Continue to 3 of 10 below.
03 of 10
Marvel at Prehistoric Cave Art
They drew by the light of flickering torches, producing scenes of hunting, wild animals racing across the contours of the landscape. They did it 36,000 years ago at a time when the living was primitive and man struggled to survive. Every time a discovery of this Paleolithic art is made, the world marvels at the sophistication of our very distant ancestors. France has two major sites, Lascaux in the Dordogne, and La Caverne Pont d’Arc, discovered in the 1990s. Both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
La Caverne Pont d’Arc is breathtaking. It’s in the deep-cut gorges of the Ardeche river but the actual site is a well-kept secret. Instead you can visit the replica which opened in April 2015. It’s well worth the visit and is open all year round.
- Also visit the Aven d'Orgnac cave nearby for its fabulous stalagmites, stalactites and wonderful rock formations.
Stay at the fabulous Chateau de Balazuc nearby for a warm welcome in this upmarket bed and breakfast, good food and company.
Lascaux in the Dordogne
Lascaux IV opened in December 2016 in the Dordogne. It’s a replica of almost the whole original cave.Continue to 4 of 10 below.
04 of 10
Taste Authentic France
Bouchons in Lyon
The Café des Fédération in rue Major-Martin is an authentic bouchon (bistro particular to Lyon) in a city that counts itself as the gastronomic centre of France. Bouchons are traditional and that means unreservedly old-fashioned. Here you can expect red gingham table cloths, a crowded, noisy, enormously enjoyable setting and some real Lyonnais cooking. You don’t have to order brains or strong-tasting sausages but you do have to love meat in all its forms. Start with charcuterie, wild boar terrine and the like; finish with an enormous, splendid cheese plate and in between try the strong-tasting sausage if you’re feeling brave, or the chicken in vinegar if you’re uncertain.
Bouchon menus typically run around €25 to €30 per menu and local wines are equally good value.
Eat Local Regional Dishes
And in Provence? For something different book at the Restaurant Prévot where Jean-Jacques Prévot has come up with a melon-burger (Cavaillon is world famous for its melons). It has a few other things like foie gras. Lunch from €26, dinner from €48; summer melon menu €66.Continue to 5 of 10 below.
05 of 10
Enjoy the Fizz
You can’t go to Champagne and not drink the fizz; it’s everywhere. Start with a visit to a Champagne house before you set off on your own bubbly-buying spree. Pommery has an excellent tour, deep underground in the chalk cellars. Pommery began in 1856, though it was the widow of one of the original founders, Madame Louise Pommery, who started making Champagne in 1868.
Women have always been movers and shakers in the Champagne business. What about the redoubtable Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin who, as a single mother stepped into the shoes of her deceased husband’s winery?
Then there was Camille Olry-Roederer who saved Roederer in the 1930s through her drive and her position as a leading socialite in Europe, and Lily Bollinger who famously said:
"I only drink Champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it—unless I’m thirsty."
Check out Champagne Cellar visits in and around Reims, capital of Champagne.
Read a Guide to Reims in Champagne.
Champagne isn't all famous bubbly; try these hidden treasures in Champagne to visit.Continue to 6 of 10 below.
06 of 10
To Market, to Market…
L’isle sur-la-Sorgue is famous for its antique and brocante shops; in fact it’s the 3rd most important center in Europe. You can buy almost anything here, either at the smart shops that fill the charming Provençal town, or at the stalls that set up in the streets every Sunday from 8am to 6pm.
Market Shopping in France
Try any of the local vides-greniers (attic clearance sales) that pop up throughout France in the summer. Even if you don’t find anything (and I always buy a few old plates, tins, or bistro glasses), you’ll have huge fun.
Or get serious at France’s major and huge weekend braderies (flea markets). At Lille, the huge fair takes place on the 1st weekend in September (September 15 and 16, 2016); in Amiens it’s in the spring (Sunday April 17, 2016) and autumn (Sunday October 2, 2016).
More Shopping in FranceContinue to 7 of 10 below.
07 of 10
Walk the French Paths
In September 1878, Robert Louis Stevenson set out from Le Monastier in the Auvergne on a 120-mile (200 kilometer) journey with his stubborn, wildly uncooperative donkey, Modestine that took him 12 days. In 1879 he published Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes which became a classic travel book, inspiring thousands of other walkers along what has become the Stevenson Trail. It follows GR 70, one of the Grande Randonée routes that criss-cross the whole of France though it goes further than Stevenson did, ending at Alès and covering 170 miles (272 kms), so pick just a part of it.
It’s a lovely trail, officially starting in Le Puy-en-Velay, a beautiful if relatively unknown city rather than Monastiers following some of the transhumance routes that shepherds take twice a year between the low to the high pastures. At times you look out at a rolling landscape, feeling on top of the world; other parts take you along rocky paths or through forests.
"For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more clearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilization, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints."
More about Walking in FranceContinue to 8 of 10 below.
08 of 10
Spiritual Moments in France's Great Cathedrals and Abbeys
Walk into the great, empty, echoing and magnificent Abbey at Vézélay in Burgundy on Midsummer’s Day when the sun is at its highest and pools of light flood through the windows to fall exactly in the center of the nave. No wonder our medieval ancestors believed in miracles.
Spend a short break in the medieval village of Conques in the Lot valley, another of the sacred sites on the pilgrimage routes through Europe to St James of Compostela. Built from 1045 to 1060 it stands in the heart of the crooked streets, dominating the village and the river valley it stands in. It’s not the abbey as much as the magnificent treasure here, the rich gold and bejewelled statue that it was believed could cure blindness that attracted the thousands of pilgrims.
France's Great AbbeysContinue to 9 of 10 below.
09 of 10
The Horrors and the Triumphs of War
Wellington Quarry, Arras
Of all the cemeteries, monuments and memorials that dot the French landscape, I find the most moving is in the beautiful Flemish Renaissance setting of Arras. In the elaborate warren of paths and hollowed-out sections dug underground by miners from Yorkshire and New Zealand the outside world disappears. 24,000 Allied soldiers lived here in the days before the Arras offensive in April, 1917 and through old, crackling films and forgotten voices you live the experience. “Each man had his own war”, a soldier says as you start to understand their daily lives, their fears and their nightmares.
The soldiers burst out of the tunnels on a snowy, freezing cold day. They fought fearlessly and were initially successful, taking nearby strategic Vimy Ridge. But the story did not end well.
- Read more about the Quarry and the Story.
World War I was intended to be the war to end all wars. But that did not happen and in very similar locations and on very similar reasons, World War II swept through France.
Normandy D-Day Landing Beaches
The Normandy D-Day Landing Beaches remain the major site for visitors to France. Today, it’s a beautiful sweep of Normandy landscape removed from the dark days of June 1944. To get a feel of this offensive, visit the American cemetery at Colville-sur-Mer which holds 9,387 American graves. It’s not the biggest; that honour goes to the World War I Meuse-Argonne cemetery in Champagne. But Colville is the most moving, telling the stories in the Visitor Centre of some of the young boys who went to war through letters, films and photographs.
Where to StayContinue to 10 of 10 below.
10 of 10
Chill Out in the South of France
Antibes, just along the Mediterranean coast from Nice and glitzy Cannes, is my favourite south of France city. It's small enough to feel you're living as a local and not a visitor, has great ramparts that circle the old town, good cafes and bars plus sandy beaches. It's also known for its great covered daily market, and the château where Picasso spent many years. If you're a yacht owner or enthusiast you'll know the main marina well where million-dollar yachts bob up and down in the gentle current.
Antibes is a hop, skip and a jump away from Juan-les-Pins which has one of the great jazz festivals each year overlooking the sea. It always takes place over Bastille Day, July 14, when the backdrop of the Mediterranean changes to a spectacular show of pyrotechnics. And finally Antibes is near Nice so you can enjoy the city that is known as the Queen of the Riviera without the crowds.
Antibes, Juan-les-Pins and Nice have always been magnets for sun lovers, painters, writers and celebrities and the two smaller resorts were particularly loved by Cole Porter and F. Scott Fitzgerald whose Great Gatsby fits in perfectly.
More about Antibes, Juan-les-Pins and Nice