World Travel Guides


France - Off the beaten track


Shooting skyward, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Corsica

Balzac described Corsica as 'a French island basking in the Italian sun', but the island has a singular character that is entirely its own. This beautiful, wild outdoor playground is the ultimate après outdoor destination - physical exertion in the elements by day, French wine and cuisine by night, and a peaceful night's sleep to boot.

Not for nothing is Corsica called l'îsle de beauté (the island of beauty). The delicately-shaded capital, Ajaccio, is a shrine to its famous native son Napoleon. The rest of the island is like a miniature continent, with marshes, mountains, coastline and a small uninhabited desert.

Grasse

Grasse has served the country well in the art of perfume production for centuries. It is here that master perfumers - called nez (noses) - train their probosci for seven years to recognise around 6000 scents. The town, with its distinctive orange roofs sheltering densely packed cottages, was heaven-sent for flower fans.

Grasse and its surrounds produce some of France's most highly prized flowers, including lavender, jasmine, centifolia roses, mimosa, orange blossom and violets. In springtime, the green-fingered should take a stroll around Jardin de la Villa Noaille. Of the 40 perfumeries, only three are open to the public.

Ile d'Ouessant

This wild and beautiful island epitomises the rugged Brittany coast. An old local saying 'Qui voit Ouessant voit son sang' ('He who sees Ouessant sees his blood') expresses its untamed nature and the fear inspired by its powerful currents and treacherous rocks. There are stunning walks and amazing scenery.

Lampaul is the main village of the island, but it is only a tiny huddle; the most interesting things to do here are to visit the phares (lighthouses) and to walk along the island's rocky coastline.

Vézelay

The tiny walled town of Vézelay, another of France's exasperating number of heritage spots, is surrounded by some of the most beautiful countryside in Burgundy - a patchwork of vineyards, sunflower fields, brunette furrows of farmland and stacks of hay reinventing Impressionism. Originally built on a hilltop for defence purposes, it became an important site of pilgrimage in the 10th century and later a gathering place for crowned heads and grandees embarking on the Crusades.

Vézelay's focal point is the Basilique Sainte Madeleine, a former abbey church that was founded in the 9th century. During the Middle Ages, it housed what were believed to be the relics of St Mary Magdalene, which ensured a steady stream of pilgrims on her saint's day, 22 July. This tradition continues, and every year celebrations include a procession in which the relics are paraded around town. Magnificently restored, the church features a tympanum that is considered a masterpiece of Burgundian-style Romanesque architecture, grotesque carvings, sculpted capitals and an enormous nave. Behind the basilica is a park that has wonderful views of the Cure River valley and nearby villages, while walks in almost any direction will deposit you in rural loveliness.

Vézelay is 15km (9mi) from Avallon, 51km (31mi) from Auxerre, and lies within the Parc Naturel Régional du Morvan.



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