From the boulevards of Paris to the fashionable seaside resorts of the Côte d’Azur, France offers some of the most beautiful scenery in the world
If I ever was to move back to Europe, I will probably try to settle down in France, as it is my favourite European country. There are tons of things to do in France, the food is amazing, and unlike some of the smaller European countries, it is still possible to find large uninhabited stretches of land. But for you, the casual visitor there are so many things to do in France as well.
Get this: Whether it is tropical (Réunion), snowy (the French Alps) or urban (Paris and Marseille), France has it all. Réunion is one of many paradisiacal islands under the French flag, and even parts of the arctic belong to France.
Needless to say the French are notorious for doing things their own way, sticking to strictly French words for everyday items, and there have been several instances where French officials have walked out of International meetings, refusing to speak English. So it is safe to say the French may be a little chauvinistic. More on that later.
I am not even going to go into Paris, as you can’t write about France without it. Paris is a given, and you really should spend at least a few days there. It’s an awesome city.
Mt. Saint Michel
My most favourite attraction and sight in the whole of France must be Mont Saint-Michel. As all kids grow up fantasizing about feudal castles and the battles between knights, Mont Saint-Michel is on a different level. Having grown up in the Netherlands, it is quite normal to visit a local castle during a school excursion, but none of them come even remotely close to this island community.
Built on an island a mere 600 metres out of the coast, legend has it that the archangel Michael appeared before a local Bishop and instructed him to build a church on the rocky islet. Over the centuries, the structure grew in size and importance eventually becoming a perfect model of feudal society in Europe: Outside of the walls, the farmers and fishermen had their houses and stalls. Inside, the store owners and their shops were at the lowest point, followed by the houses of nobility. even higher up the rock, the abbey and monastery are to be found, with the church (the house of god) at the very top.
When visiting, this becomes abundantly clear as you gradually make your way to the top and more attention seems to have been put in the buildings higher up. Nevertheless, the view riding up to the rock is spectacular, and for tourists unfamiliar with Romanesque architecture it is an absolute must-see (I am talking about you, my American reader).
Do you remember Minas Tirith from the Lord of the Rings movie? It was the white city, and the set designs were heavily inspired by Mont Saint Michel.
A word on the French and Chauvinism
One could Say France has a dividing quality, as I know people who can’t stop talking about the country and all of its merits, and then there are the others. They will say that it is an overrated country, and come up with a bunch of other casual remarks that is meant to communicate their dislike for France.
This is the point where you should be asking questions, because in 99% of the cases, it boils down to a simple thing. While travelling through France or somewhere else, they encountered some French Nationals who behaved like jerks.
Usually, it all comes down to the language barrier, and with the French, it is an unusual thick one. Most European countries, especially the Western ones put a huge emphasis on languages. France has always stood out, considering itself “La Grande Nation”, and as such, there was no need to learn foreign languages.
With globalisation speeding up, this policy has come back to bite them, as there is an entire generation of French millenials who cannot compete with other EU residents because of their language barrier.
But here is where it gets astonishing; if you find yourself in a situation like this, try moving out of your comfort zone instead and speak some French. You will see faces instantly shift from hostile to smiling, and insurmountable problems suddenly become little details in the big scheme of things. “Monsieur, we are so sorry we put zis coffee additionelle on your bill… consider it on ze house please!”
Truth is, the French, especially the older generation are still terrified to speak any other language than their own. If you take that into account, you are going to navigate the French territories much easier, earning yourself smiles, respect and free drinks.
French alps and winter sports
Having grown up in Southern Germany, I am very familiar with the German and Austrian alps, and on occasion I have made some trips into the Swiss alps as well. For winter sports though, the French alps are on a whole other level as skiing is one of the popular activities in France.
Where the German and Austrian resorts gradually evolved from wonky one-seaters and a family-run hotels to support the emerging tourism sector, the French went about it completely different. Instead of working with existing villages and communities, they developed mega-projects in areas that were carefully selected for their suitability. This resulted in massive resorts that were purpose-built. And while there are some backcountry areas that are great for off-piste discoveries in Austria and Switzerland, the French alps have no equal when it comes to variety.
Les Trois Vallées is the largest linked winter sports area in the world, boasting over 600km (370 miles) of slopes, 183 lifts and the ability to easily transport 260.000 skiers per hour. Consider that an average skier covers between 20- to 30 km in a day, and you see that these resorts are truly massive.
Visitors usually buy tickets that give them access to certain sections of the area as they don’t expect to be covering the entire in the one or two weeks they will spend there. And unlike the other European resorts, where it is not uncommon to see patches of green everywhere towards the end of the season, most areas in Les Trois Vallées were selected for their ability to accommodate skiers late in the season.
If you are extremely late in the season though, maybe look into Tignes? With an extreme height of up to 3500 meters above sea level it is considered the most snow-sure spot in the country. And for good measure, there are over a hundred snow cannons to patch things up.
An experience of a different kind awaits at the cote D’Azur in Douce France (“Sweet France”). The French Riviera has been the playground of European royalty and nobility for centuries and numerous celebrities have one- or several homes on the Cote D’Azur. And for good reason, as the area boasts over 300 days of sunny weather a year and some incredible coastlines.
The microstate Monaco is also located on the Riviera, housing a highest numbers of millionaires anywhere in the world, which should give you an idea of just how good the quality of life is around this area.
For lesser mortals, high-end spots like Cannes and Nice are very popular tourist destinations too, but be ready to be in awe of the high pricing around these areas, especially during the summer months.
I have spent most of my summers there in a tiny fisher village called Sanary sur Mer just outside of Toulon, and while it is much more affordable than the jet set cities like Cannes, Nice and Saint Tropez, the lifestyle is just as easy-going and gorgeous.
Largely undiscovered by mass tourism, these small communities combine great weather, gorgeous beaches and cute little harbour towns to make a perfect getaway. One of my fondest memories is driving a vintage Mercedes through never-ending fields of Lavender just outside Aix-en Provence, which is a small university town just above the Cote D’Azur and closer to the Italian border.
During the summer months, this area of France is buzzing with activity and seasonal business come to life. The rich and famous have their yachts brought in well in advance and the countryside is littered with ultra-luxury villas owned by designers, Russian oligarchs and the occasional movie star.
If you have the means, Johnny Depp is rumoured to sell of an entire village for $63 million in the area close to Saint-Tropez, which is another hotspot where the likes of Puff Daddy and other celebrities like to party.
If none of this concerns you, windsurfing, sailing or playing golf are one of the many popular activities in France and tennis is a popular pastime as well, judging from the many private courts you can see on satellite pictures of the region.
The ideal way to check out the Riviera is by renting a car and driving from West to East or vice versa over the course of several days. Stop in the cities mentioned above and walk down the boulevards, or check out the harbours for a dose of opulence. Especially outside Cannes and Monaco, the real super yachts are too big to enter the ports and they anchor outside of the city, flying in its owners by helicopter.
Shop at a local market
You haven’t experienced France if you haven’t bought artisan food at one of the many markets all throughout the country. It simply is one of the things to ear in France. Mostly a weekly affair, the different cheeses, fish and other delicacies are sold here locally and it is a great way to connect with the regional foodie culture and make some friends along the way.
I remember examining some avocados that I found far too small to consider, when the grocer stopped me in my tracks, sliced open one of them and spread its entire content on a baguette (local bread). After sprinkling it with some salt he demanded we each take a bite before we leave. Of course we ended up buying a bag of these mini-avocados because they happened to be delicious. And I admire that grocer’s commercial instincts to this very day.
Note that the French are extremely proud of their culinary heritage, and that there is an infinite amount of different cheeses on sale, each one being the speciality of a specific village, region or district. All of these taste amazing, and depending on your skill level most of them deserve at least a try. I mention skill level because some of these really ought to be labelled “for experienced users only”.
I once ate a cheese people told me that was “the thing to eat in France” but I simply couldn’t enjoy without covering my nose, as the smell was like a fist of knuckles planted in your face. Afterwards I was praised for eating it like a professional… All things considered, it is one of the more adventurous things to do in France.
Regardless, its taste was rich, creamy and very satisfying. And I have been told there are cheese far worse than this. As a person who runs for his life when he sees blue cheese, France can be like that TV show Fear Factor at times.
No-go areas in France
Much has been said about certain no-go areas outside of Paris, and I tend to agree with all of them. The housing projects outside of Paris are depressing and besides aggressive locals and the occasional burning car, there is very little to see.
The same applies to certain areas outside of Marseille and you will notice right away just what I mean when driving into the city. Some of the suburbs outside of Marseille look like post-apocalyptic shanty towns and like the suburbs in Paris there is nothing to see.
I would like to expand this section to travellers on a road trip through France. While the Provence is beautiful and deserves all the attention you can give it, there are certain areas in Northern France that you should drive through as fast as possible. Stuck in the past, when mining was a formidable industry, many of these little villages are gradually emptying out and you can almost smell the resentment of “city people” and strangers in general. Plus, these are the last areas in France where you will still find squatting toilets, so it really is best to just keep driving.
Pro tip: When in Northern France, avoid former mining communities like the plague.
While most European countries offer a many a treat, somehow France was at the start of the line when the goodies were handed out, because they really got the best deal it seems. Without a doubt my #1 holiday destination in Europe for its sheer diversity, France simply has it all. You simply can’t go wrong with a tour of France, whether you are going there for sports, extreme sports, sightseeing, culinary experiences or simply to relax.
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Sacha Albarda is an copywriter/online media expert living in South-east Asia for the better part of a decade. Asked what he likes best about living there, he usually answers that it’s “the tightly organized anarchy”.