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La Belle FranceApril 1, 2008 By: Anne Sophie Guerin Home-Based Travel Agent
Discover the Regions in Your Own "Tour de France"
Celebrated for its gastronomic greatness, inexhaustible cultural heritage, stunning natural scenery and the joie de vivre of its citizens, France has inspired visitors for centuries. But some folks become so enamored with Paris—savoring the café life, museums, architecture, and stylish boutiques in the glittering capital—that they never venture outside the City of Light. If you hop on a TGV and depart the Île-de-France, you'll be rewarded with just as many jaw-dropping sights and mouthwatering meals. In fact, the great Champagne vintners (like Taittinger and Piper-Heidsieck) are just an hour outside Paris in Reims.
France offers something for everyone—from sun-worshippers to adrenaline junkies, from history buffs to wine snobs. Et bien sûr, France is a foodie's delight. You could eat your way around the country, sampling distinctive regional dishes, perusing the bounteous street markets. Celebrity chefs like Joël Robuchon and Alain Ducasse serve up sumptuous meals in their Michelin-starred establishments, but the average French bistro also takes great pains to impress its customers.
Dozens of perfect itineraries await in the vast hexagon of France. The variety can be overwhelming, so here's a breakdown of the different regions.
The Loire: The summer playground of French royalty, the Loire Valley is chock full of legendary châteaux. Rising from the vineyards around the mighty Loire River, these grand castles are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Chambord is the big daddy of them all, built by the ambitious François I in 1519. The king's château is mind-blowing in its scale and architectural beauty. The turreted château of Chenonceau is likewise magnificent. Built over the currents of the river Cher, it actually straddles both banks. Don't miss the extraordinary gardens at château de Villandry. Excellent regional wines include Vouvray, Sancerre and Saumur-Champigny.
Normandy and Brittany: A land of rural tradition, Normandy lures with its inspiring scenery and rich history. Visitors are awe-struck by the sight of the abbey of Mont-St-Michel—rising from the sea on its rocky perch. At Rouen, discover the cathedral captured in paint by Monet, whose house and garden at Giverny are also located in Normandy. Visit the D-Day landing beaches where 10,000 Allied soldiers lost their lives in 1944. Jutting westward into the Atlantic, Brittany is a land steeped in legend, mythology and culture. Set apart by its Celtic roots, Bretagne even has its own dialect: native Breton. The cuisine reveals the region's intimate relationship with the sea: freshly caught fish, oysters, mussels and lobster. You can also dig into the region's other famous specialty, crêpes, washed down with a glass of local cider.
Atlantic Coast: Some of the most spectacular beaches in Europe are found not on the Côte d'Azur but on France's Atlantic Coast. From the port of La Rochelle—its seaside fortifications built by Vauban, the Sun King's military engineer—sandy beaches stretch to the Spanish border. In the southern region of Aquitaine, Bordeaux lures with its fabled vineyards. Taste wines at château Margaux or château Lafite-Rothschild, then enjoy an overnight stay at the picture-perfect medieval town of St-émilion. Soak up the sun at a sidewalk café with a carafe of local red or a dainty cup of espresso. Just south of Bordeaux, the magnificent Dunes of Pyla are the highest sand dunes in Europe. Surfers flock to the seaside resort of Biarritz for one of the best surf breaks in Europe.
The Greater Southwest: Land of foie gras and truffles, the southwest is dotted with charming hilltop villages straight out of a fairytale and impressive châteaus dating from the Middle Ages. For a trip even further back in time, head to the Dordogne Valley, one of the cradles of civilization, to explore the prehistoric grottos and the 15,000-year-old paintings at Lascaux. The region's rivers are perfect for canoeing, and the Canal du Midi—connecting the Atlantic and the Mediterranean—offers a unique way to discover rural France: canal barging. Hike along the ancient Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route, which leads all the way to Galicia in Spain. Don't miss Toulouse, the buzzing rose-pink city, where you can feast on rich cuisine like duck confit and cassoulet paired with full-bodied red wines. Outdoor enthusiasts adore the snow-capped Pyrénées, filled with villages and spa resorts with thermal springs. You'll also find some of the best hiking trails in France in the National Parks.
Provence, Côte d'Azur, and Corsica: Drenched in sunshine, the glamorous French Riviera stretches from Toulon to the Italian border, encompassing chic seaside resorts like St. Tropez, Nice, Cannes and Monaco. Picturesque towns dramatically hug the cliffs above the sparkling Mediterranean. The Impressionist painters were inspired by the intensity of the light in Provence, and the landscapes seem right out of a painting: cypress trees, whitewashed houses with terra-cotta roofs, and fields of lavender. Sip pastis at an outdoor café, eat the famous bouillabaisse of Marseille or enjoy fruit from a Provençal market. The sea-swept Mediterranean isle of Corsica boasts dizzying landscapes—where mountains meet the sea.
Burgundy, Lyon and the Alps: Smack in the middle of the Côtes du Rhône wine-growing region, Lyon is nestled between the Rhône and Saône rivers. The exuberant city is often considered the country's gastronomic capital. Bouchons, the traditional eateries, serve hearty fare like boudin noir aux pommes (blood sausage with apples). Vieux Lyon is a marvel of tiny cobbled alleys and medieval houses, and the Roman ruins are showcased in the splendid Musée Gallo-Romain. Wine lovers must make the journey north to Burgundy to follow the Côte d'Or, one of the world's most famous wine routes. Check out the Marché aux Vins in Beaune, and pick up a pot of specialty mustard in Dijon. At France's western frontier, the Alps soar skyward from lush green valleys. This Alpine wonderland draws adventure seekers in all seasons. Tucked beneath Mont Blanc, Chamonix is the country's oldest ski resort and the site of the first Winter Olympic Games in 1924. Excellent powder and a hopping après-ski scene distinguish the Alps as one of the hottest ski destinations in the world.