Travelling around France is easy. Restaurants and hotels proliferate, many of them relatively inexpensive when compared with other developed Western European countries. Train services are admirably efficient, as is the road network – especially the (toll-paying) autoroutes – and cyclists are much admired and encouraged. Information is highly organized and available from tourist offices across the country, as well as from specialist organizations for walkers, cyclists, campers and so on.
As for where to go in France, Paris, of course, is the outstanding cultural centre, with its impressive buildings – not least Frank Gehry’s stunning new Fondation Louis Vuitton – and unparalleled art, nightlife and ethnic diversity, though the great provincial cities – Lyon, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Marseille – all now vie with the capital and each other for prestige in the arts, ascendancy in sport and innovation in attracting visitors. Marseille, in particular, has a host of exciting new cultural institutions, a legacy of its year as European Capital of Culture in 2013.
For most people, however, it’s the unique characters of the regions that will define a trip. Few holiday-makers stay long in the largely flat, industrial north, but there are some fine cathedrals and energetic cities to leaven the mix. The picture is similar in Alsace-Lorraine where Germanic influences are strong, notably in the food. On the northern Atlantic coast, Normandy has a rich heritage of cathedrals, castles, battlefields and beaches – and, with its cream-based sauces, an equally rich cuisine. To the west, Brittany is renowned for its Celtic links, beautiful coastline, prehistoric sites and seafood, while the Loire valley, extending inland towards Paris, is famed for soft, fertile countryside and a marvellous parade of châteaux. Further east, the green valleys of Burgundy shelter a wealth of Romanesque churches, and their wines and food are among the finest in France. More Romanesque churches follow the pilgrim routes through rural Poitou-Charentes and down the Atlantic coast to Bordeaux, where the wines rival those of Burgundy. Inland from Bordeaux, visitors flock to the gorges, prehistoric sites and picturesque fortified villages of the Dordogne and neighbouring Limousin, drawn too by the truffles and duck and goose dishes of Périgord cuisine. To the south, the great mountain chain of the Pyrenees rears up along the Spanish border, running from the Basque country on the Atlantic to the Catalan lands of Roussillon on the Mediterranean; there’s fine walking and skiing, as well as beaches at either end. Further along the Mediterranean coast, Languedoc offers dramatic landscapes, medieval towns and Cathar castles, as well as more beaches, while the Massif Central, in the centre of the country, is undeveloped and little visited, but beautiful nonetheless, with its rivers, forests and the wild volcanic uplands of the Auvergne. The Alps, of course, are prime skiing territory, but a network of signposted paths makes for great walking too; to the north, the wooded mountains of the Jura provide further scope for outdoor adventures. Stretching down from the Alps to the Mediterranean is Provence, which, as generations of travellers have discovered, seems to have everything: Roman ruins, charming villages, vineyards and lavender fields – and legions of visitors. Its cuisine is similarly diverse, encompassing fruit, olives, herbs, seafood and lamb. Along the Provençal coast, the beaches, towns and chic resorts of the Côte d’Azur form a giant smile extending from the vibrant city of Marseille to the super-rich Riviera hotspots of Nice and Monaco. For truly fabulous beaches, however, head for the rugged island of Corsica, birthplace of Napoleon and home to an Italian-leaning culture and cuisine and some fascinating Neolithic sculptures.