Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Oh the places I've been: France

I've now lived in France for a total of 5 years (I announced this last year as well, but my maths was wrong). So I think I know the place fairly well. And yet, other than a day in Avignon, I've never visited Provence (if we don't count the Côte d'Azur as Provence); out of the entire South-West, I've only spent a weekend in Toulouse; I thought I'd just squeaked into seeing a tiny bit of Brittany with an overnight trip to Saint-Nazaire, but turns out it's not in Brittany after all, and I've never set foot in Normandy. Geez, when you put it like that, I really barely know the place at all!

So I suppose I'm the last person that should be writing a little listicle about places to visit in France, but hey. The places I have been, I tend to know pretty well, so here are some perhaps lesser-known destinations I've enjoyed over the years.

Beaumont-Hamel



Let's start out with one that's probably unfamiliar to most. Long, long ago, when I first lived in France, I used to work as a tour guide of sorts, accompanying British school children around northern France. Amongst many cemeteries, memorials, farms and chocolate shops, one of the places we visited was the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial in the Somme. This is a little piece of Canada in France (it actually, legally is) where friendly and knowledgeable Canadian guides (if you know any young Canadians, you can actually apply to do this) take you through the terrible battles that happened here.

I've never been big on military history, but this place really brought it alive and helped me to understand a tiny bit of what it must have been like and why so many people died. On July 1st 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the British (including the Newfoundland troops) lost almost 20,000 men, with nearly 40,000 more casualties. Absolutely mind-blowing, and with the WWI centenaries coming up, a good place to visit if you want to get some perspective on the war. There are other good WWI sites to visit in the region (Thiepval, Ypres, Vimy Ridge etc.) but this one stood out for the quality of the guided tour, which is probably free (I'm not sure, being there as part of a school group, but I would guess so).

Musée National du Moyen Age

Source

Home of the famous Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, but probably not top of people's Paris lists regardless. I am big on the Middle Ages, however, so I loved it when I visited back in 2010. Apparently the exhibition space for the tapestries has recently been given a "relooking", as the French would say, so if you haven't been yet, now is the time to check it out!

Angers



While we're on the subject of tapestries, I've got to give a shout-out to the Apocalypse Tapestry in the Château of Angers, which I checked out back in 2012. This is amazingly old, amazingly complete (there are missing bits, but 71 huge tapestries still survive) and just all-around amazing, actually. They're packed with interesting symbolism, reflecting not only the Biblical accounts of the Apocalypse, but also the troubled times they were made in (war, famine, pestilence, etc. not being exactly uncommon at the time).


Blois



As we all know, you're spoilt for choice when it comes to châteaux in the Loire Valley, and I've been to a fair few of them. Chenonceau is probably the most spectacular, and the gardens at Villandry definitely deserve a mention, but I thought I'd give a shout-out to the château of Blois, which probably gets my vote as the most underrated of the Loire châteaux. I visited with my parents in early 2011 and it gets points for not only being pretty, but also making an effort to have things to see on the inside, as opposed to some which are basically empty shells.

Chinon



Home to my favourite rosé wine, it's a charming little town in its own right, and my favourite of the small Loire Valley towns I've visited (I've been there maybe 5 or 6 times). It has an old-school castle; a nice main square, good for noshing and people-watching; a hilariously kitch wine museum; lovely river views; tons of old buildings, and did I mention the wine?

Walking the Côte d'Azur

Cap d'Ail - if this looks familiar, it's the background image of the blog

Okay, this is more of an activity than a place, but while thousands flock to the Côte d'Azur every year, I think not so many walk along the coastline, and I can tell you they are missing out! I lived in Nice for 7 months in 2009-10, and my favourite activity became walking along the coast whenever it was nice weather and I had free time (which was a lot, since it's Nice and I only worked 12 hours max a week). I walked the whole coast from Nice to Ventimiglia in Italy, and quite a lot in the other direction towards Cannes. And wow, is it beautiful! If you'd like to try, it's easy to do as well - just follow the coast (the only tricky part was Monaco, too many damn private beaches) and the buses are so frequent that whenever you get tired there'll be one along within the next 20 minutes or so. Makes me miss living in Nice, I'm glad I got out and made the most of it though, in spite of (or because of) being terminally poor (see: worked max. 12 hours a week).

Villas Ephrussi and Kerylos



While we're on the Côte d'Azur, there's actually a ton to see in terms of museums and so on, which again people perhaps don't automatically think of when they think of the French Riviera. The ones that stick most in my head are two lavish and beautiful 19th-20th C villas on Cap Ferrat, the villas Ephrussi and Kerylos. Ephrussi was home to one of the Rothschilds, and Kerylos was built as a reconstruction of a classical Greek villa by a rich guy (who, in my opinion, squandered its amazing location, but that's by the bye). 

Strasbourg



So, Strasbourg hardly counts as off the beaten track, but it definitely earns a spot as one of my favourite places I've visited in France. From the awe-inspiring cathedral to the cute canals of Petite France, it really is a lovely place. And the food - miam miam! If you go, don't miss the painted St Pierre le Jeune church, I'm a real sucker for a polychrome church. 

Poitiers



I was going to finish there, but "polychrome church" reminded me how much I enjoyed Poitiers (which also has one). And a 5th century Baptistry, imagine that! I didn't really have any preconceptions of Poitiers, but it seemed like there was some historical treasure around every corner, I'd gladly go back for a longer visit. 


So that's definitely not all the cool places I've been in France (Reims, Dijon, Chartres, Chamonix, to name a few), but they're some that stick in my mind. Those of you who've lived and travelled here, where are your favourite places? We're hitting up Rouen at the end of the month, and I'd love to get to Bordeaux, Brittany, Lyon, Mont St. Michel, amongst others, but I know there's so much out there to see!

17 comments:

  1. Would be an idea to put this (and any similar future posts) under a tab at the top...

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    1. Maybe, would have to get around to a few more I suppose!

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    2. Or past ones (about art/museums etc not partying ha ha!) xx

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  2. Walking along the coast in Nice sounds incredible. I've walked a short stretch of it during a visit, but I'm imagining how you were able to do that whenever you wanted... that sounds like a dream. I love walking and water, so put them together, and wow.

    One of my favorite places in France is Aix-en-Provence. Charming cobblestone streets, pretty warm-colored architecture, Cezanne's Mont Ste-Victoire, and those tall skinny trees that you see in the South of France (poplar trees? cypress trees?).

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    1. Poplar? Depends on your point of view!

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    2. Yes, it's plane to cedar, poplarity is in the buckeye of the beecholder.

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    3. Yep, I was really lucky to be able to do that, it's super gorgeous. Aix is one of those places I've always heard good things about, will definitely have to check it out one of these days!

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    4. Yew have to be Joaking!

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    5. You wood think so, but I'm not larching about!

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    6. Ha ha I don't think I'm witty enough for this conversation, but I certainly appreciate it!

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    7. Cheers, my mum thought it was groan-inducing!

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  3. You SHOULD be the person writing a list about places to visit in France, Gwan! You have more experience in this country than most French people I know! Ever thought about getting your knowledge published? There are tons of travel sites that would love this information in article form! You've got what it takes. Something to think about.... : )

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    1. Aw, thanks darl. I have not...

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  4. I would love to visit Bretagne for its prehistoric monoliths and cute fishing villages. I've only been to Rennes and Vitré so I've seen absolutely nothing.

    The only two I've visited in your list are Strasbourg and Blois and I didn't see the castle in Blois. The Loire Valley is another region I don't really know yet either. Thanks for your advice on the Blois château - I visited Chambord once and it was, like you said, an empty shell.

    One of my favourite areas in France is the area in between Perpignan and Foix. This area is known as the 'Pays Cathare' with its 'Châteaux Cathares'. The Cathars were a group of people that broke away from the Catholic religion to form their own form of Christianity. They mostly lived in south-west France, from Toulouse and Albi to the Spanish border, and in northern Italy. The Cathars never really had their own castles - they were sheltered and protected by lords in these castles and in turn they grew food for their protectors. They were gradually all burned at the stake, however, because the Pope was scared of their religion.

    I love this region so much that I have visited twice. I enjoyed Perpignan with it's colourful façades, the Maury wine region (kind of like Porto but better in my opinion), visiting the Cathar castle ruins and abbeys, eating the great food down there (French but with Spanish and south-west influences), Foix with its mix of southern France and mountain atmosphere, etc. I hope to go back soon!

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    1. Oh yes, I read a book about the Cathars several years ago, I'd really like to visit too!

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  5. Isn't it funny how I've been in France for four years, you for five and our lists are completely different! There are so many places to explore here and I'm sad that I haven't gotten to see them all :( x

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    1. I know, that's the trouble there's so much good stuff everywhere! You'll be back for visits though right? x

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