The Auvergne in Central France
If you're after underrated destinations, the whole of the Auvergne will qualify. It's a glorious mountainous area -- remote, wild and rural and with a remarkable geology. The Allier River runs through it, starting at its source near Mende, and gathering strength and power until it joins up with the Loire near Nevers.
From the market town of Langogne to sleepy Brioude, you can follow the Allier's serpentine flow from the scenic train ride. For the active, there's good whitewater rafting and kayaking -- your only companions the birds of prey soaring in the skies above. The historic-minded can explore the small rustic châteaux associated with the family of the hero of the American Revolution, the Marquis of Lafayette. It's a delightful chateau in the middle of nowhere.
Le Puy-en-Velay in the Auvergne
Approaching Le Puy across a high plateau where the clouds race across the sky, three extraordinary landmarks suddenly come into view: a towering red statue of the Madonna, a dark basalt cathedral, and a chapel perched on a 270ft high lava pinnacle. In the heart of deepest France, medieval Le Puy was one of the starting points for the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and still attracts serious walkers. In September the city fills up with the sights and sounds of the strange 16th-century Renaissance Festival of the Bird King.
- Travel from London or Paris to Le Puy-en-Velay
The North French Coast
Get off the cross channel ferry in Calais and the dash to get onto the motorway south is like a Formula 1 race. But gently motor down the coastline on the small roads and you enter a patchwork of delightful towns like Montreuil-sur-Mer perched high on the cliffs, 19th-century villas, genteel Le Touquet-Paris Plage and a series of long sandy beaches where children catch crabs and adults sit in painted beach huts.
There's plenty to explore and for the Brits, it's a rich historic area. It was here that Henry V fought the battle of Agincourt and you can see the battle shown in a small museum. Exploring the area makes a great 3-day trip for families.
More Sightseeing on the North Coast
Dijon in Burgundy
Yes, Dijon is known for its mustard, but the city, once the capital of Burgundy, revels in its rather more aristocratic days under the powerful and notorious Dukes. The Ducal palace is made up of a whole collection of buildings -- all golds, painted ceilings, pomp and circumstance. The Banqueting Hall is strangely full of unusual ornate tombs. There are good museums and parks and plenty of historical interest.
Dijon is compact and its restaurants, bars and cafés, offering local classics like boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin, are clustered in the center. Shops that opened in the late 18th century lure you in for the famous mustard, pain d'épice and beautifully packaged confectionery.
It's not as well known as famous nearby Beaune, with its wonderful, internationally known Hospices de Beaune, but Dijon is less crowded, feels more local and is definitely worth a long visit.
Albi in the Tarn Region
Many people know walled, romantic, medieval Carcassonne, but nearby Albi is strangely ignored. Dominating the town, the remarkable red cathedral is like a fortress, built after the local heretical Cathars had been stamped out with unbelievable cruelty. The Toulouse-Lautrec museum is full of exuberant paintings of decadent late 19th-century Parisians. Don’t miss the boat trip on the Tarn river for its magnificent view of the city.
Troyes in Champagne
Troyes is the less well-known town, and ancient capital, of the Champagne region, lagging behind co-capital Reims which wins with its great cathedral. Troyes in the southern Aube department, is a delightful warren of winding streets of half-timbered houses, a Gothic cathedral glowing inside like a jewel from its stained-glass windows, and small museums, including one with a good collection of Fauves paintings. It’s also the biggest center for discount fashion stores in Europe with two Marques and one Mc Arthur Glen outlet malls just outside the heart of the town.
Lyon in Rhone-Alpes
Lyon is France's second largest city, but it often loses out as a destination with visitors just using the airport as a gateway.
Lyon is a gracious historic city, once an important Roman settlement, on the banks of the Rhône and the Saône rivers with a gastronomic reputation second only to Paris (Paul Bocuse has four brasseries in the town). Museums range from the Musée Lumière (where you can watch the first film ever made) to the sombre Museum of the Deportation about World War II; and don't miss the new Musee des Confluences in a former industrial part of the city which takes the big issues of life and makes them fun. Lyon has wonderful antique and antiquarian bookshops, and a historic quarter where you walk between the streets through secret 16th- to 18th-century passageways known as traboules.
Lyon also hosts the Festival of Light in December, one of the best known in France when the facades of buildings are covered in extraordinary patterns of light.
And finally, Lyon is France's gastronomic heart, the place for hearty meals in traditional bistros, and sophisticated menus from top restaurants.
Nantes on the West Coast of France
Visitors to the western Pays de la Loire region mostly ignore Nantes. It's a shame as this once mighty port that grew rich on the slave trade is today a lively university town with a mass of attractions and a reputation for excellent seafood restaurants.
Not to be missed are the castle of the Dukes of Brittany which graphically tells the story of the city, the cathedral with its beautiful 1502 tomb of François II, the botanical garden and Jules Verne who was born here on Île Feydeau in 1828.
One of the most visited, and unusual, attractions is the Island where those famous, huge Machines de L'Ile are made. You'll find the enormous elephant strutting slowly through the area with delighted passengers on his back, a carousel with different levels where you sit in peculiar imaginary sea creatures and work their controls, and a workshop where you can glimpse the carpenters and technicians who look rather like gnomes from way above constructing new bizarre creations for worldwide destinations.
All this works up an appetite for scallops and crabs fresh from the Atlantic or simple, sizzling, delicious crêpes.
Colmar in Alsace
Colmar, the capital of Upper Alsace, is not just a charming town with old cobbled streets and half-timbered, colourfully painted buildings. Colmar also has a museum with the Isenheim altarpiece that is mind-boggling in its beauty and displays a symbolism that still has scholars scratching their heads with puzzlement.
Stretching out from the city runs the 105-mile Route des Vins which passes by rich vineyards, romantic ruined castles perched on sandstone cliffs, and of course, those famous stork's nests. It all makes for a region with fairy tale quality.
The Jura Region in East France
The Jura Region in France is one of France's undiscovered regions, along with the Auvergne. One of the 7 main mountain regions of France, it's known in winter for overland skiing in the Jura mountains, and in summer as the place to walk, see historic towns and drink the local Jura wines, which are distinctive and very good.
The Jura also has some great industrial architecture, including the strange Salins-les-Bains saltworks in the spa town.
Don't miss a trip to the charming capital of Dole, with its stone, classic buildings, old streets and canals used by the former tanning industry, and the house where Louis Pasteur was born.