The French way of life
How can a country so plump with pleasant offerings harbour a people so fond of bickering? Truth is the French passion for life reaches to both extremes; the subtle enjoyment of all things fine and the vociferous discontent with all that is not exactly perfect.
For the visitor, political disputes, looming strikes and the cheese that has gone ‘off’ is not likely to be an issue accepting perhaps the bad cheese.
For the visitor, France promises to be a fountain of exquisite pleasure. A place where your senses thrill to new and unexpected surprises. This is the world of haute cuisine, haute couture, fine wine and fine art. Where gothic cathedrals and medieval castles fill your soul with inspiration and wonder.
Where alpine meadows lead from rustic villages to the snowy Alps. Where rocky windswept headlands protect sleepy fishing ports, and where glittering crowds strut the promenades of ritzy seaside towns. France is a basket of fresh bread and ripe cheese; of wineskins, hunting dogs and truffles; of trawlers and salty beards and strong tobacco; perfume, catwalks and celebrities le Mistral! Le Mans, Le Tour de France, Vendee Globe, Château Neuf du Pape, Champagne, Bordeaux, Brie, Camembert, Yves Saint- Laurent, Coco Chanel, Monet, Gauguin, Bizet, Debussy the list is exhaustive if not endless, but all represent icons of French culture that have reached beyond her shores to an appreciative world audience.
France, in the heart of Europe, is a destination fit for connoisseurs, gourmets and anyone who can appreciate good living.
The one and only Paris, the City of Light, admired for centuries as a centre for the highest order of human expression. Once a magnet for great artists, philosophers and all who aspired to gain a certain sophistication associated with French aristocracy.
Paris is a majestic city of grand boulevards and striking architecture with an unrivalled energy that still draws visitors numbering in the hundreds of thousands each year.
On the streets and in the cafes amid much gesticulating and excited expressions, frenetic Parisians seemingly indifferent to the grandeur of their city, go about their business.
Tourists, on other hand, are not hard to spot; they are normally standing awe-struck before one of any number of celebrated monuments, cathedrals, or buildings. Since the 3rd century when the Parisii tribe first settle on the banks of the Seine River, Paris has flourished and expanded its sphere of influence.
Having consolidated its political power and cultural prowess late in the 10th century, Paris became the capital of France. Its position as the nation’s premier city has remained undisputed ever since, despite periods of war, revolution, and foreign occupation. This alluring city in the north central portion of France, boasts so many remarkable heritage sites and stunning examples of modern architectural art forms, it would be an arduous task indeed to highlight each one.
Many, such as the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Grande Arche at La Défense, and the George Pompidou Centre are world-renowned.
The Louvre remains a sumptuous never-ending feast for the eyes. The streets, alleys and cafes of neighbourhoods like the Latin Quarter, Montmartre and Mon parnasse continue to entice visitors to experience the rich and colourful ambiance of past and present day Paris.
The Bois de Boulogne and the Bois de Vincennes are the large forested parks flanking the city centre providing recreation and leisure opportunities to harried Parisians and curious tourists alike.
On the outskirts of Paris towards the southwest, is the fabulous Chateau Versailles of Louis XIV-not to be missed. Above all, Paris is an event that will remain etched in your mind long after you have gone back home.
After a time wandering the hillsides and rustic villages of the Vaucluse surrounding the historical city of Avignon, the seaside communities of the French Riviera are the logical next step.
A great place to start is from the ancient seaport of Marseille, founded by Greek seafarers in the 7th century BC. It is the second largest city in France, and still very proud of its notorious proclivity to provoke Parisian contempt.
The winding roads along the coast from Marseille lead over hilly outcrops offering breathtaking views of the Mediterranean Sea, past towns and cities and villas and mega yachts and beaches lined with glistening bodies. Flash cars and jet setters sparkle and shimmer among the crowds of vacationing Europeans in towns like St. Tropez, Cannes, Antibes (Juan-Les-Pins), and Monaco.
Nice is the principal resort city of the Cote d’Azur, and a great place to visit museums devoted to works of the 20th-century artists Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall. The Cote d’Azur is Nirvana for millions of sun-worshippers during the high summer season. The winter sun finds contented communities enjoying the peace and quiet of deserted beaches, ‘closed for the season’ shop signs and cooler climes.
For a tour of quite a different order, visit the rocky homeland of the Celts, Bretagne.
From this northwest corner of France, at the top of the Bay of Biscay, a rugged coastline of sandy beaches and jagged rock extends south from seaports such as Brest, Nantes, La Rochelle, and Bordeaux to the elegant resort town of Biarritz in Aquitaine.
Bretagne features shellfish, crusty seafarers, windswept headlands and cozy cafes. A side trip inland from Nantes to Tours would gratify those seeking the delights of wine tasting by traipsing through some of the best wine growing regions of France (the Loire valley to Bordeaux). Biarritz, nestled in the southwest corner of France, is a perfect place for sorties in the Basque country and the Navarra region of northern Spain.
For access to the Hautes Pyrenees head east to Lourdes. A special feature of Lourdes is the grotto where the 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary. The medieval fortress town of Lourdes now attracts a multitudeof grotto-visiting pilgrims each year.
Aside from the notable array of historic sites and museums, such as the illustrious restored 13th-century Cathedral Notre-Dame, considered one of the finest Gothic structures in France, Reims is the centre for Champagne production in France.
After all the ‘bubbly’ you can drink, consider the fine white wines of Lorraine-Alsace. A specialty of the countryside surrounding Strasbourg is the homemade sweet liqueur derived from the Mirabel fruit.
Considerable pride and secrecy veil ancient family recipes. Strasbourg, where yet another famous Cathedral de Notre Dame is located, is dandy city to spend time in.
Enjoy a little ‘pâté de foie gras’ with your ‘vin d’Alsace’ because Strasbourg is big on the production of foie gras (goose liver pâté). Should you decide the time is nigh to put aside the self-indulgent whims of gastronomy for those of fresh mountain air and vigorous alpine trails, climb the Alps a little further to the south.
French, Swiss and Italian Alps all come together near Lyon, France’s third largest city at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers. Lyon, once an important centre for silk production, has turned to the manufacture of synthetic fibres today.
Among the many exceptional museums of the city is the Historical Museum of Textiles. From Lyon, the road east leads to the majestic Alps; south, along the Rhône Valley through Provence to the Med; west, takes you to the Massif Central where sheep and goats roam, and where ancient underground chambers display prehistoric wall paintings of animals.
Visiting France can be approached from a thousand and one different ways under any number of themes. Whether your choose to meander through wine growing regions by river barge or cycle the rural routes of Auvergne, chances are, just over the horizon another dimension of this multifaceted country will attract your attention. The problem with France is, no matter how many times you visit, it keeps calling you back.