France - Attractions
Paris assaults the senses, demanding to be seen, heard, touched, tasted and smelt. From romance along the Seine to landscapes on bus-sized canvases to the pick-an-ism types in cafés monologuing on the use of garlic or the finer points of Jerry Lewis, Paris is the essence of all things French.
Many of Paris' significant sights are strung along its river, and its quartiers each have their own distinct personalities, so you can experience a lot without covering much ground. The museums, monuments and the two islands are a magnet for visitors but it can be just as rewarding to wander.
On summer days, watch the waves of heat rise from the plains, just as Van Gogh did a century ago; olive groves and vineyards still cover the surrounding limestone hills. Central Arles is a relaxed place of intimate squares, terraced brasseries perfect for sipping pastis and men with long moustaches playing pétanque.
The charming city of Arles is renowned for its Roman remains, its houses with their striking red barrel-tiled roofs, and its shady, twisting alleys so narrow you'd be hard pressed to swing a cat there.
The high-toned coastal town of Biarritz, 8km (5mi) west of Bayonne, started as a resort in the mid-19th century when Napoleon III and his Spanish-born wife, Eugénie, began coming here.
These days Biarritz is best known for its fine beaches and world-class surfing. Its sights are compactly arranged; if you're in Bayonne, it's easy to come over for a day-trip and see everything of interest.
During the Film Festival in May, Cannes is crammed with more money, more champagne, more mobile phones and more cleavage than anywhere else in the world. Apart from posturing boutiques, hotels and restaurants, it also has beaches (studiously avoided by the sallow) with the equivalent of room service.
Cannes has just one museum and, since its speciality is ethnography, the only art you are likely to come across is in the many pretty galleries scattered around town. Still, the harbour, the bay, the hill west of the port called Le Suquet, the beachside promenade, the beaches and the people sunning themselves provide more than enough natural beauty.
The town of Chamonix lies in one of the most spectacular valleys of the French Alps. Reminiscent of the Himalayas, the area is dominated by deeply crevassed glaciers and the cloud-diademed peak of Mont Blanc. In late spring and summer, the glaciers and high-altitude snow and ice serve as a backdrop for meadows and hillsides carpeted with wildflowers, shrubbery and trees. This is the best time for hiking; in winter, travellers can take advantage of over 200km (125 mi) of downhill and cross-country skiing trails.
Not to be missed is the Aigulle du Midi, a solitary spire of rock several kilometres from the summit of Mont Blanc that stretches across glaciers and snow fields. Easily accessible, the views from the top are postcard-perfect. A further treat is a trans-glacial ride on the world's highest téléphérique (cable car), which stops en route at skiing and hiking destinations. The Mer de Glace is the second-largest glacier in the Alps. It measures 14km (9 mi) long, 1800m (5900ft) wide and is up to 400m (1315ft) deep. For a better look at the glacier from the inside, you can tour an ice cave that is carved anew each spring. There is also a train that ascends to an altitude of 1915m (6275ft) and a number of uphill trails, but traversing the glacier is dangerous and should not be done without proper equipment and a guide.
Other activities in and around Chamonix include mountain biking, parasailing, ice-skating and screaming down a spit-shined summer luge track. The Swiss town of Martigny is only 40km (25mi) north of Chamonix, should you wish to border hop for watch repairs or chocolate.
Château de Chambord
The Loire Valley was the playground of French nobility, who used the nation's wealth to transform the area with many earnestly extravagant chateaux. The largest and most lavish is the Château de Chambord (1519). It was built by King François I, a rapacious lunatic who was fanatically dishonest with his subjects' money.
Begun in 1519, its Renaissance flourishes may have been inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, who lived nearby from 1516 until his death three years later. Construction of the chateau, during which François unsuccessfully suggested the rerouting of the Loire River so it would be nearer to his new abode, took 15 years and several thousand workers, although the king died wizened and drooly before the building's completion.
Inside is a famed double-helix staircase that buxom mistresses and priapic princes chased each other up and down, when not assembled on the rooftop terrace to watch military exercises, tournaments and hounds and hunters returning from a day's deerstalking. From the terrace you can see the towers, cupolas, chimneys, mosaic slate roofs and lightning rods that comprise the chateau's imposing skyline.
Saint Malo and the North Coast
The Côte d'Émeraude (Emerald Coast) stretches west from the oyster beds of Cancale to the broad beaches of Pléneuf-Val-André, a tempting coastline of rocky reefs and islets fringed with golden sand, vividly green shallows and aquamarine deeps.
The port of St-Malo is one of the most popular tourist destinations on the Emerald Coast. It is famed for its walled city, acessible beaches and one of the highest tidal ranges in the world. However, it is not the region's only gem; the Coast is studded with small towns that tempt their own share of eager visitors.
Known simply as Sarlat, this lovely Renaissance town in Périgord (better known in English-speaking countries as the Dordogne) grew up around a Benedictine abbey founded in the 9th century. Caught between French and English territory, it was almost left in ruins during the Hundred Years' War and again during the Wars of Religion. Despite this, Sarlat retains a distinctive medieval flavour with its ochre-coloured sandstone buildings and enticing streets. If you want to avoid the crowds, plan a visit outside high summer, when the town is overrun by tourists.
Among Sarlat's architectural treasures is the Cathédrale Saint Sacerdos, originally part of the Benedictine abbey. Higgledy-piggledy in style, most of the present structure dates from the 17th century. Behind the cathedral is the town's first cemetery, containing the Lantern of the Dead, a 12th-century tower built to commemorate St Bernard, who visited in 1147 and whose relics were given to the abbey. The town's other main focus is the Saturday market. Depending on the season, foie gras, mushrooms, truffles, trussed-up geese and sheep's heads with rheumy eyes are traded among a racket of vendors and spectators.
Sarlat also makes an excellent base for trips to the nearby Vézère Valley, which is peppered with nearly 200 prehistoric sites, including the Lascaux cave, thought to have been the site of a hunting cult where magical rites were performed. Discovered in 1940, this capacious labyrinth holds a number of 15,000-year-old doodles and paintings of bulls, horses and reindeer. There are other painted caves in the area, but Lascaux is sans pareil. Unfortunately, the exhalations of enthusiastic rock-watchers caused a carbon-dioxide fungus to cover the paintings; visitors today are restricted to a precise cement replica of the painted original, sealed off just a few hundred metres away.
Located between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic coast, a city of students and a centre of cutting-edge European technology, Toulouse is also the capital of the good life whose taste for celebrations and fine food is attracting a growing number of new inhabitants.
Toulouse rewards the wanderer. Its small, 18-century Old Quarter is a maze of narrow lanes and plazas in which to get happily lost. Its River Garonne is peaceful by day and romantic by night, when the Pont Neuf is floodlit. Stumble across grand churches, fine art and handsome 16th-century mansions.