France, a country that has long boasted of romance, lavender and frog legs. The allure of Paris has made the city one of the most visited in the world, but what about the rest of the country? France is much more than the Eiffel Tower and Notre-Dame, as spectacular as they may be. History and stories scatter throughout the country and there are places that look like they jumped straight out of a fairy-tale. Here, I will not be talking about Paris, or even many of the most famous and well-known cities. Instead, I will be sharing some of the true and lesser known gems that this country has to offer.
Some Useful Things to Know Before Visiting France
Knowing the expectations before you visit France will prove useful. It is possible that you may not have the best experience you possibly could if you are unaware of the way things work. Below is a list of things you may want to familiarise yourself with before booking that flight.
- Always have cash on you – not all stores accept card payments and many that do have minimum spends.
- You must always have your ID on you as the law dictates. Accepted IDs include some form of a national identity card of passports. Drivers licenses will not do.
- No matter where you are or who you are talking to, always say bonjour (hello) or bonsoir (good evening). It is very rude if you do not and you may not get the happiest response.
- Try to learn some basic French before you arrive. It shows that you made at least a little bit of effort and the locals will most likely revert to English to save their ears.
- Speak in a hushed voice. No one wants to hear the conversation you are having from the other side of a busy street. Why does this rule not apply everywhere?
- Reading body language will save you from many sleepless nights when it comes to the traditional bises. Maybe kissing strangers is not so popular with COVID around, but it always helps to know for the future.
Translating to ‘Island of France’, Île-De-France sits in north central France. Unlike the French name suggests, land fully encloses the region rather than water. This region holds the title of having the highest population density, largely due to the capital, which holds a total of just over 12 million. The river Seine and its tributaries cut through the beautiful limestone plains giving spectacular views. Agriculturally, the most common products farmed include barley, maize, rapeseed, wheat, sunflowers, sugar beets and legumes. Additionally, the limestone caves are famous for growing mushrooms on a large scale.
Fourteen miles southwest of Paris lies the magnificent town of Versailles. Officially founded in 1671, King Louis XIV developed the town around the palace in the 17th century. At the time of the death of Louis XIV the town had 30,000 inhabitants. Due to the work of Louis XV, his successor, the town grew as did the palace. For over a hundred years the palace was the seat of government in France as well as the residence of kings. The palace become known as a symbol of royal extravagance. The intricate details and superb aesthetic make that title only fitting. If you decide to visit this palace, which I wholly encourage, you will see why.
The Palace of Versailles is more than a building. Inside, the Hall of Mirrors will take your breath away. The hall is 73m long and holds beautiful depictions of the victories and achievements of King Louis XIV. Furthermore, as the name suggests, the 357 mirrors in the hall as well as the arches and chandeliers make for the photo of a lifetime. Other iconic places in the palace include the War Room, the Peace Room and the King’s Apartment. Truthfully, there are enough spectacular rooms in the palace to dedicate an entire article, maybe more.
It would be wrong to talk about Versailles and not mention the gardens. These gardens are all you could hope they would be. Hundreds of beautifully carved sculptures, exquisite fountains and long walkways make for a place you would not want to miss. Unique groves and paths give the gardens a sense of enchantment. They become a place you do not want to leave, but linger in. There are endless possibilities to get a postcard perfect picture.
Normandy, Northern France
A beautiful and beachy region of northern France, Normandy is a region that we are all familiar with. Stunning chalk-white cliffs line the pebble and sandy beaches alike. History washes over every inch of Normandy. From the Norman invasion in 1066, the execution of Joan of Arc in 1431 and home of the Bayeux Tapestry. Not to mention the D-Day landing of World War 2 in 1944. The capital city, Rouen, has a population of just over 100,000 and is full of medieval style houses and gothic churches. There are over 35 golf courses in the region as hundreds of parks, making it very scenic. Monet, the father of impressionism, lived and died in Giverny after moving there from Paris. The beauty of Normandy transcends through his paintings that we can see today.
Château Gaillard sits atop the Andelys cliff overlooking the river Seine. The region’s capital lies 25 miles from the castle. Château Gaillard’s construction began in 1196 by Richard the Lionheart and took two years to complete. The name translates to ‘saucy castle’ – a term we now associate with ‘defiant’ or ‘gallant’. It’s construction was a symbol of defiance to the French monarchy. Richard the Lionheart died around the time of it’s assembly but believed it to be the strongest castle for its time. Though this may have been the case, it was captured by King Philip II of France in 1204 after an eight month siege. It was during this siege that part of the castle collapsed.
This castle went between the hands of the French and the English during the Hundred Years War and was the death place of Louis X’s wife. Historical records show that the wife, whose name was Margaret of Burgundy, was unfaithful. As a result, she was imprisoned within the castle and strangled using her own hair. Years later in 1417 the castle withstood a 16 month siege from the English but ultimately had to surrender. Two hundred years later in 1605 King Henry V had the castle largely destroyed due to the structure being unsafe.
Iconic Villages in Normandy
Veules-les-Roses must be on your list if you appreciate the beauty in life. This village, with a population of more or less 600 is located on the Alabaster Coast. The buildings in this settlement are half-timbered and emanate a sense of wonder from the. Veules, the smallest river in France, flows through the village, adding to its already tranquil nature. The village was a popular resort in the 19th century and is a place that poets and painters have fallen in love with. There are many local restaurants in the area that specialise in oysters and fresh fish. If you decide to spend some time here, do not forget to try out one or more of the several trails in and around the village. You will not be disappointed.
Barfleur was originally a Viking settlement when it first came to be. It is home to a 17th century church and a 71 meter tall lighthouse that lights sailors’ ways. The village, with a population of roughly 600, is listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France. If that does not give you enough of a reason to visit this place maybe the many activities available will. Here, you can enjoy mussels fresh from the sea, hiking, fishing, swimming and even renting a bicycle for the day. Much like Veules-les-Roses, Barfleur is a village that has won the hearts of great people. Writers such as Jules Renard and Victor Hugo were said to have held this village near to their hearts.
Alsace, North-eastern France
Alsace lies north of Switzerland and west of Germany, on the borders of both countries. The region has beautiful natural boundaries which include the Vosges Mountains to the west and the Rhine river to the east. Unlike many places in Europe, the region of Alsace is very fertile. Beech, oak and fir trees grow on the hills and mountain sides. Many small farms and vineyards are scattered across the region, some of which are famous for growing grapes for excellent wines. Common crops include sugar beets, tobacco, asparagus and various other cereal crops, as well as foie gras.
The region was conquered by Julius Caesar in the 1st century BC, which influenced the area greatly. However, In the 5th century CE, the Alemanni invaded and took over and ruled, but they were defeated by the Franks in 496. By that time Alsace became Frankish and prospered under their rule. Over the course of history Alsace has gone between German and French rule, even up to the second world war. This constant change has resulted in the region being a magnificent cultural and architectural mix.
Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg
Built by the Hohenstaufens in the 12th century, this castle looks like it comes straight from a fairy-tale. Located on the French border at an altitude of 757 meters it is a must see if you ever visit Alsace. The castle has tall walls, towers and even drawbridges peeking out from the mountain. Inside, a blacksmith shop, inn and a mill hide away and in the castle rooms traditional medieval décor brings the fantasy to life. A garden full of plants that would have been used in the 13th century decorate the grounds and give you insight into what life was like. You can even enjoy guided tours in medieval garb. These tours teach you the history and the conflict that the castle survived and will only make you appreciate it more.
The Grand Bastion in Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg gives you a spectacular view of the Alsace Plain, Black Forest and the Vosges Mountains. If you are lucky and visit on a clear day, you may even see the Alps towering in the distance. Years of warfare and conflict rendered the castle badly damaged. The Thirty Years War left the castle abandoned and it was not until the turn of the 20th Century when things began to change. Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany decided to renovate the castle, a feat that took eight years to complete.
If you have ever watched Beauty and the Beast and thought that you wanted to live in Belle’s home town, Kayserberg-Vignoble is practically that. This medieval town is one of Alsace’s most charming towns and has a population of less than 5,000. Meaning ‘Emperor’s Mountain’ in German, this is one of the towns in the region that is a stunning mix of German and French ideas. The town is located on the Wine Route, which may be reason enough for a visit. However, the charm of Kayserberg-Vignoble goes beyond. Once a medieval fortress town and a former free city by the name of Décapole, there is a beautiful Romanesque church called Ste Croix. Not to mention there is a fortified bridge that leads to the castle ruins.
The town has many hotels and bed and breakfasts as the world cannot get enough of this place. Nearby you could take the opportunity to camp out and explore the forest or even take a guided tour. Several different tours exist which give you the chance to learn more about the town’s colourful past.
Aquitaine, Southwestern France
Located in the southwestern corner of France, bordering Spain and the Atlantic Ocean, Aquitaine is a region of beauty. It’s capital, Bordeaux, is a port city famous for its many 18th and 19th century mansions and gothic cathedrals. The region is famous for its vineyards which are known for making some of the most sought after wines in the world. Most of the population live in and around the capital, making Aquitaine rural for the most part and with a low population density. Farms in the region are known for producing maize, fruits, walnuts and tobacco, as well as world famous black truffles.
Aquitaine was once a part of Gaul in Julius Caesar’s time. It came under Frankish rule in the 6th century and in the 8th century Emperor Charlemagne seized it and gave it to his son, Louis. Louis handed the region to his son and then it passed to his grandson. Norman invasions led to chaos and the region became lost in many ways. Eventually on William X’s deathbed his daughter, Eleanor united the region with France by marrying Louis VII, giving it hope. Unfortunately the two divorced and soon after Eleanor married Henry Plantagenet. Henry would go on to become Henry II, King of England two years later. The region was then given to his son, Richard the Lionheart but over the course of the Hundred Years War Aquitaine would unite with France once again.
Castles of Aquitaine
Many castles call Aquitaine home. Here, I will just be going through three of my personal favourites. Château de Beynac sits atop a cliff overlooking the beautiful village of Beynac-et-Cazenac. The castle is one of the best in the Dordogne valley and is in excellent condition. Here, you can visit the site at any time of the year except for January. There are audio guides that will take you through the surreal history of the castle and you will have the opportunity to explore. The original keep, the guards rooms, private chambers and even a banquet room are all there to be investigated.
Château de Commarque is another beautiful structure in Aquitaine. This castle began as a single wooden tower in the 12th century and slowly became a fortress. It was occupied by military forces during the Hundred Years War as well as the French Wars of Religion. Eventually it was abandoned in the 17th century and became a historic monument in 1943. If you visit this incredible place, which I highly recommend, there are tours available. Just make sure you wear the appropriate clothes and footwear!
Lastly, there is a place like no other in this article. Château Observatoire Abbadia is a neo gothic structure that was built between 1864 and 1884 by Viollet le Duc. This castle used to have a functioning observatory where scholars could gaze at the stars. Thousands of books were kept here before the site was bequeathed to the Académie of Sciences in 1896. Even ancient Biblical manuscripts were kept inside before being transferred to Paris for safe keeping. This castle is full of wondrous things, including a chapel where you can have a moment of peace and truly take in all there is to see.
Does France Sound Interesting To You?
France is often only seen as being Paris, much like England is only London. There are many wonders in the French countryside, not even half of which have been included in this article. Castles and palaces show us the history of the country and walk us through the wars. Sites such as Château Observatoire Abbadia prove that even if ancient history may not be for you, there is so much more to be seen. Everyone loves lavender fields and the Eiffel Tower, and who can blame them? But when regions like Alsace exist and hold the almost fantastical castles and villages that it does, it makes you want to see more.
There are so many more regions to talk about and the astounding ruins and picturesque villages they hold. So many iconic foods to try too! But, for the meantime take in the history on these pages. If history is something you enjoy you might like my other articles on the catacombs of Rome or Angkor Thom. Maybe you prefer the tropics? No worries, here is my latest article on São Tomé and Príncipe, the tropics that the world has forgotten about.