10 great things to do in France

Fairytale castles, Alpine skiing and gastronomic dining

10 great things to do in France Villandry Chateau and gardens - © iStockphoto/Jose Ignacio Soto
By Time Out Editors

France is a wonderfully diverse country, and many of its riches are familiar – plenty of visitors will have treasured memories of waving goodbye to the White Cliffs of Dover on Channel crossings or spending lost weekends on Paris’s Left Bank. However, we have also tried to delve a little deeper and stray a little further from the well-trodden holiday path – not too hard in a country twice the size of the UK but with a similar population. From champagne drives and bobsleigh rides to Renaissance gardens, we hope you find some inspiration amid the diversity.

1. Hit the slopes

Ski the slopes of Val d’Isère

If you’re looking to keep all the people happy all the time, then Val d’Isère (04.79.06.06.60), spread out along a remote valley on the road up to the 2,770-metre (9,080 feet) Col de l’Iseran, France’s highest mountain pass, is probably your best bet. Families will love the superb Children’s Village at the base of the slopes; piste-bashers will love the seemingly endless intermediate ski area and seriously smart lift system and powder fanatics will enjoy some of the finest lift-served off-piste in the world. So why don’t we all go there? Well, the main reason to stay away is the cost: ski passes, hotel rooms and cafés au lait all come at a premium in ‘the world’s best ski resort’. But if your pockets are deep enough, this place is hard to beat.

Snowboard at Courcheval

In Courchevel, social status rises with altitude and Courchevel 1850 is firmly at the top of the pile. As the Côte d’Azur’s spiritual winter home, Courchevel’s highest outpost is the last word in luxe and, with its very own altiport, you can avoid the hairpins and fly directly into this luxury winter wonderland, where the pistes are perfectly groomed, the champagne is perfectly chilled. Courchevel (04.79.08.00.29) is a great boarding destination, with three funparks and plenty of underused off-piste. On the Verdons piste, rolling curves provide the perfect practice zone for budding freestylers, while more experienced boarders will want to head for the Plantrey snowpark, with an obstacle course and half-pipe. There’s also a third park at the ‘Hoops of Biollay’.

Ride the bobsleigh run at La Plagne

Eager thrill-seekers should head for the bobsleigh run at La Plagne (04.79.09.79.79), which was built for the Albertville Winter Olympics. If you want to hear your screams echoing around the valley, climb into the 90km/h (56mph) self-steering mono bob, lie back and think of England as you shoot down the track. Alternatively put your faith in French driving skills and climb into the taxi bob, which reaches speeds of up to 100km/h (62mph).

2. Follow the fizz

As you drive along the Route du Champagne between Reims and Epernay, keep in mind that champagne tasting is about swallowing rather than spitting, and go steady behind the wheel. There are three classic drives to discover. The Montagne de Reims and Côte des Blancs circuits are renowned for the quality of their champagnes, including several ‘Grands Crus’. The nearby Vallée de la Marne circuit has the best prices and some of the fruitiest champagnes. The circuits are all well signposted from Epernay and Reims and you can also download maps from www.tourisme-en-champagne.com.

The sheer number of champagne houses is astonishing, but these are our favourites:

Champagne Barnaut

Champagne Barnaut is one of the few houses to make red wines as well as fizz, and it makes an equally good job of both in the heart of the tiny village of Bouzy.

Montagne de Reims, Bouzy 1 pl André Collard (03.26.57.01.54).

Champagne Charlier

A flower-clad domaine (best appreciated in spring and summer) that uses traditional methods to grow, press and assemble its own champagnes. Charlier’s champagnes are light and fruity, including some delicious party-pink rosés, and start at around €12.70 a bottle.

Vallée de la Marne, 20km (12 miles) W of Epernay off the D24, follow signs to Châtillon 4 rue des Pervenches, Montigny-sous-Châtillon (03.26.58.35.18).

Champagne Milan

If you fancy a day picking grapes during the vendanges (harvest) or a real grape-picking job, Champagne Milan is for you (enquire from July onwards). The production methods here haven’t changed since 1864 and the champagnes (all Grands Crus) are mostly woody with hints of lemon.

Côtes des Blancs, 11km (7 miles) S of Epernay on the D10 6 rue d’Avize, Oger (03.26.57.50.09).

3. Taste Bayonne: the chocolate coast

Situated in the Basque Country, at the confluence of the Adour and Nive rivers, the historic port of Bayonne is the rough diamond to elegant Biarritz. One of Bayonne's lesser-known claims to fame is as the birthplace of French chocolate, and it’s still big business here. Many Jews who were expelled from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition in 1609 subsequently settled in the St-Esprit quarter of the town, and they brought with them the know-how to transform the cocoa bean discovered by the Conquistadores in Latin America. Before long hot chocolate had become a fashionable drink and was introduced into court circles by Anne of Austria, consort of Louis XIII.

Bayonne Chocolatiers

Cazenave

Cazenave has been using the same machinery to make chocolates since 1850 and keeps up the tradition of hot drinking chocolate, served under a mound of hand-whipped froth in rose-sprigged Limoges porcelain at its period tearoom.

19 rue du Port Neuf, Bayonne (05.59.59.03.16).

Daranatz

Founded in 1890, Daranatz is the source of chocolate bars in numerous plain and flavoured varieties (including, of course, the inevitable espelette pepper version).

15 rue du Port Neuf, Bayonne (05.59.59.59.03).

Pariès

Pariès is renowned for its prize-winning chocolate ganaches, as well as kanougas (toffees) and marzipan tourons (nougats).

14 rue du Port Neuf, Bayonne (05.59.59.06.29).

Other ways to enjoy chocolat

If all those sweet treats have left you hungry for a bit of background, you can learn more about the history of chocolate, from the Mayas to the present day, at the excellent Planète Musée du Chocolat (14 av Beaurivage, Biarritz, 05.59.23.27.72), which has a huge collection of chocolate moulds, advertising memorabilia and weird chocolate sculptures on display.

Alternatively, the Atelier du Chocolat de Bayonne (17 allée du Gibéleou, Bayonne, 05.59.55.70.23) allows you to drool as you watch chocolates being made on the spot.

4. Marvel at ancient cave art

The famous Lascaux cave, in the Vezere Valley of the Dordogne, was discovered in 1940 by four teenagers out looking for their dog. It has been closed since 1963 and its iconic Great Hall of the Bulls and Painted Gallery have been reproduced at Lascaux II, an artificial cave created in the same hillside. Of the other sites, the Grotte de Font-de-Gaume, the Grotte des Combarelles with over 800 drawings and engravings, the Abri de Cap-Blanc with a monumental sculpture of horses, bison and deer, and the Abri du Poisson with its clear representation of a fish, are the best. Admission to some of these sites is very limited, and you will have to book well in advance for visits from April to September (preferably in January of the year you want to visit).

Vallée de l’Homme, 20km NW of Sarlat Guided tours only. Book through Sarlat Tourist Office, 3 rue de Tourny, Sarlat (05.53.31.45.45) or Les Eyzies Tourist Office, 19 av de la Préhistoire, Les Eyzies (05.53.06.97.05). Open times vary.

5. Breath in glorious jardins

Paris

Jardin des Plantes

Although small and slightly dishevelled, the Paris botanical garden – which contains more than 10,000 species and includes tropical greenhouses and rose, winter and Alpine gardens – is an enchanting place. Begun by Louis XIII’s doctor as the royal medicinal plant garden in 1626, it opened to the public in 1640. The formal garden, which runs between two avenues of trees, is like something out of Alice in Wonderland. Ancient trees on view include a false acacia planted in 1636 and a cedar from 1734.

36 rue Geoffroy-St-Hilaire, 2 rue Bouffon, pl Valhubert or 57 rue Cuvier, 5th. Open Main garden Winter 8am-dusk daily. Summer 7.30am-8pm daily. Alpine garden Apr-Sept 8am-4.30pm Mon-Fri; 1-5pm Sat, Sun. Closed Oct-Mar. Ménagerie Apr-Sept 9am-5pm daily. Admission Alpine Garden free Mon-Fri; €1 Sat, Sun. Jardin des Plantes free. Ménagerie €7; free-€5 reductions.

The Dordogne

Jardins d’Eyrignac

Garden-lovers should not miss the Jardins d’Eyrignac, located 10km (six miles) north-east of Sarlat. It is a beautifully restored masterpiece of 18th-century garden design, and every Monday night from mid July to mid August visitors can take part in a ‘picnic in white’ in the white rose garden with live music – a great excuse to buy a hamper of gourmet goodies in Sarlat.

10km NE of Sarlat Salignac (05.53.28.99.71). Open Apr 10am-7pm daily. May-Sept 9.30am-7pm daily. Oct-Mar 10.30am-12.30pm, 2.30pm-dusk daily. Admission €9.50; free-€4 reductions.

The Loire Valley

Villandry

Villandry is possibly the only château in the Loire whose gardens are more famous than the building itself – and for good reason. They’re France’s most complete example of the formal Renaissance style adopted in the 16th century, with majestic patchwork flowerbeds best appreciated from the castle’s upper terrace. From here you get a bird’s-eye view over the first ornamental garden’s topiary hedges, symbolising the faces of love – tender, tragic, passionate and lustful. In the centre lies the ornamental vegetable patch whose 40 varieties of 16th-century vegetables (excluding the potato which hadn’t yet arrived in France) are rotated with the seasons.

Villandry, 32km NE of Chinon (02.47.50.02.09). Open Gardens 9am-5pm daily (until 6pm Mar, Oct; 7pm June-Sept). Castle 7 Feb-15 Nov & Xmas hols 9am-5pm daily (until 6pm Mar-Oct). Admission Castle & gardens €9; free-€5 reductions; Gardens only €6; free-€3.50 reductions.

6. Experience an architectural awakening

Stained glass: Metz

Cathédrale St-Etienne de Metz

All roads lead inexorably to the glitzy 42m (138ft) nave of the Cathédrale St-Etienne, the third tallest cathedral in France (behind Beauvais and Amiens) and Metz’s most striking attraction. Despite its prodigious height, the cathedral (built between 1220 and 1522) is famed mainly for its stained glass – allegedly the largest expanse in the world. It was installed between the 13th and 20th centuries, including latter-day additions from Chagall. Illuminated naturally by day and artificially by night, the windows provide visitors with a kaleidoscopic visual feast.

Pl d’Armes (03.87.75.54.61). Open Oct-Mar 8am-6pm daily. Apr-Sept 8am-7pm daily. Admission free.

Architectural oddities: Loire Valley

Pagode de Chanteloup

If you’re into architectural oddities don’t miss this 18th-century Chinese Pagode de Chanteloup. It is the only remaining part of the Duc de Choiseul’s (Louis XV’s finance minister) Versailles-inspired château, which was sinfully bulldozed by estate agents in 1823. It’s a hairy climb up the seven storeys (only six people at a time), each narrower than the other, but the balcony views from the top hint at the Château de Chanteloup’s former grandeur. On a fine day, the surrounding expanses are prime spots for a picnic.

3km SW of Amboise on D31 (02.47.57.20.97). Open Apr 10am-6pm daily. May-Sept 10am-6.30pm daily (until 7pm June, 7.30pm July, Aug). Feb half-term 2-5pm Mon-Fri; noon-5pm Sat, Sun. Closed 15 Nov-Apr (except Feb half-term). Admission €8; free-€6 reductions.

Religious works: Lille

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de la Treille

Lille’s cathedral is an architectural curiosity. Begun in 1854 on what was probably the site of the medieval castle mound, it remained unfinished until the 1990s, when a stark grey marble west end was added on to the neo-Gothic apse and transept. Although the exterior looks forbidding, go inside on a sunny day and you’ll appreciate the orange glow of the translucent marble façade and the rose window designed by artist Ladislas Kijno. The crypt contains the Centre d’Art Sacré Contemporain (2-5pm Thur, Fri; 2-6pm Sat), a surprising collection of modern religious works by artists including Baselitz, Combas and Warhol.

Place Gilleson (03.20.55.28.72). Open 10am-noon, 2-6.30pm Mon-Sat; 10am-1pm, 3-6pm Sun. Admission free.

7. Taste authentic France

Classic Bistros: Lyon

Bistro Pizay

This very attractive bistro is scattered among several others on this small street close to the opera house. Inside the atmosphere is wonderfully cosy with exposed stone walls, wooden bar, tightly packed tables, low lighting and good food. The €18.90 menu might include an earthy paté de campagne simply served with green salad, followed by flavoursome confit of duck served en cocotte with dauphinoise potatoes. Forget about buying a bottle of wine and instead do as everyone else does and order a ‘pot’ (carafe) of Côtes du Rhone (€5.50 for 25cl). A real find.

Presqu'île 4 rue Verdi, 1st (04.78.28.37.26). Open noon-2.30pm, 7-11.30pm daily. €€.

Fine dining: Nice

Le Chantecler

For those longing to bask among ornate tapestries and a slew of 16th-century antiques, the Negresco’s classy restaurant is the only place to dine. Having taken the helm in this Michelin-starred kitchen, young wonderchef Jean-Denis Rieubland has introduced some modern touches to its menu. The foie gras is served with pineapple, pomegranate jelly and chutney, for example, with hazelnut- and mushroom-stuffed sole to follow. Go at lunchtime for the bargain €50 menu plaisir – an outstanding three-course sampler of Rieubland’s latest creations.

Promenade Hôtel Negresco, 37 promenade des Anglais (04.93.16.64.00). Open 12.30-2pm, 7.30-10pm Wed-Sat. Closed Jan. €€€€.

Superb seafood: Marseille

Chez Michel

Marseille's Chez Michel, looking across the Anse des Catalans, has been a failsafe choice for bouillabaisse or bourride (€60 a head) since it opened in 1946. The fresh fish is expertly de-boned by sea-weathered waiters, and served up with garlicky rouille. Other options on the menu include Marennes oysters and fish soup.

La Corniche 6 rue des Catalans, 7th (04.91.52.30.63). Open noon-2pm, 7.30-9.30pm daily. Closed mid Feb-2 Mar. €€€€.

'Lick the plate' crêpes: Northern Brittany

Crêperie Margaux

This convivial establishment in the middle of the old town is one of St-Malo’s best crêperies: Crêperie Margaux. In keeping with the no-fuss nature of its focal dish, the recently redone dining area is a straightforward set-up of green vinyl bench seating and plastic chairs at stone-topped tables; in summer, tables are set on the terrace out the front. All the ingredients are fresh, and the dark wheat crêpes (named after the owners’ friends) are made to order: choose from classic versions or something more elaborate – scallops flambéed in whisky (the Jeff), or smoked ham, goat’s cheese and fig jam (the Manu). A sign on the wall reads ‘You’re allowed to lick the plate’ – and a lot of people do.

St-Malo 3 pl du Marché-aux-Légumes (02.99.20.26.02). Open noon-9pm Mon, Thur-Sun. €.

8. Lose yourself in a fairytale

The Loire Valley

Resplendently lush and supremely regal, France’s Loire Valley is a fairytale land of medieval and Renaissance châteaux. Loire’s central regions of Touraine and Anjou contain the main historical towns of Amboise, Chinon, Saumur and Angers, each with their own castle and chocolate-box town centre.

Château Royal d’Amboise

Château Royal d’Amboise was favoured by Louis XI and Charles VIII, who grew up behind the safety of the ramparts away from the squalour of the town. In the early 19th century, much of the castle was demolished by its owner Roger Ducos – after receiving it as a gift from Napoleon, he couldn’t afford the upkeep. But the remaining parts, spanning several styles from vaulted Gothic to Renaissance and Empire, are fascinating and include Charles VIII’s and François I’s living quarters, as well as a complex network of underground tunnels leading to the curious Tour des Minimes (open April-Sept only), a breathtaking 15th-century helter skelter-like tower that looks like a medieval predecessor of New York’s Guggenheim museum. Outside, the jewel in the crown is the tiny Flamboyant Gothic Chapelle St-Hubert, thought to house Leonardo da Vinci’s remains.

Pl Michel Debré, Amboise (02.47.57.00.98). Open Jan, 16 Nov-31 Dec 9am-12.30pm, 2-4.45pm daily. Feb 9am-12.30pm, 1.30-5pm daily. Mar, 1-15 Nov 9am-5pm daily. Apr-June 9am-6.30pm daily. July, Aug 9am-7pm daily. Sept-1 Nov 9am-6pm daily. Admission €9.50; free-€8 reductions.

Carcassonne

Come at Carcassonne by road from the south or east, and you’re met by something straight out of a book of romances: a proud medieval citadel of turrets, conical roofs, arrow slits and crenellated walls, all apparently resting on a thick cushion of trees.

Basilique St-Nazaire

The Gothic St-Nazaire basilica is the Cité’s main sacred building, but its oldest portion is Romanesque and dates from the 11th century. It was much enlarged in the 13th and 14th centuries, and although Viollet-le-Duc refashioned the exterior in the 1850s, it’s not all that spectacular to look at from the outside. The real interest lies within, in its sculpture and, in particular, some of the finest stained glass in the south of France – the oldest of which is over 700 years old. Mass is held here every Sunday at 11am; decorous dress is de rigueur at all times.

Pl Auguste-Pierre Pont. Open Summer 9am-noon,2-7pm daily. Winter 9am-noon, 2-5pm daily. Admission free.

The Vosges

Thick forests, fairy-tale villages fall within the Vosges. With its strategic position at the crossroads of Europe, the Vosges has historically been an important military outpost, and the area’s mountainsides are littered with spectacular ruined and restored castles from bygone eras. In the southern Vosges, ruined fortresses overlook many of the villages along the Route des Vins, offering the possibility of a pleasant hike away from the summertime crowds.

Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg

The jewel in the Vosges’ fortified crown, however, is the Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg nestled 757m (2,500ft) above the Alsace plain. Built in the Middle Ages and subsequently abandoned, the site was given a grandiose restoration after Alsace fell under the German Empire in 1871. For Kaiser Wilhelm II, Haut-Koenigsbourg represented both a link with Germany’s glorious Imperial past and a symbol of its new power, and he threw money aplenty into the renovation project. Today, the castle’s high fortified walls and radiant pink towers have become a symbol of the Vosges, and a magnet for tourists. A visit takes you across the immaculately restored drawbridge and into a grand courtyard, complete with old-fashioned inn, forge and windmill.

9. Fill your suitcase with market goodies

Flea markets

Paris

North of Barbès Rochechouart métro station, at porte de Clignancourt, is the city’s largest flea market, the Marché aux Puces de Clignancourt (open 7am-7.30pm Mon, Sat, Sun).

Lille

Grande Braderie is the biggest flea market in Europe. It dates back to the 12th century and pulls in over three million visitors each year. Sellers include everyone from professional antiques dealers to individuals keen to clear out their attics. Visit the Lille Tourist site for details.

Northern Corsica

Bastia, both handsome and authentic, is far removed from the island’s more southerly seasonal resorts. And as capital of the northern Haute-Corse region the massive place St-Nicolas is a café-strewn parade ground for promenading couples or mobile-wielding mademoiselles. A flea market is held here on Sundays.

Food markets

Metz

You can buy local produce at the wonderful covered market, formerly the bishops’ palace, opposite St-Etienne cathedral (8am-7pm Mon-Sat); look out for the Chez Mauricette stall.

The Dordogne

Food is the main attraction in the Dordogne town of Sarlat, built in a kind of basin, with narrow cobbled alleyways running down to attractive place de la Liberté, where the Wednesday and Saturday morning market is one of the best in the area. Otherwise a covered market in the converted church of Ste-Marie and some chi-chi food boutiques will enable you to stock up on the Sarladaise specialities of foie gras, confit de canard, walnuts and honey.

Montpellier

At one end of the city, there is the landscaped esplanade Charles de Gaulle, where there’s a market most mornings. There you can try a wonderful variety of local delicacies produced by the city’s position between mountain and Med – such as pélardon goat’s cheese, savoury olive and bacon fougasse breads, and oysters from Bouzigues.

10. Camp beachside in Corsica

Plage de Saleccia

One of Northern Corsica’s most isolated beaches is Plage de Saleccia, a huge sweep of soft white sand and turquoise sea that was used as a location for the invasion sequences in the film The Longest Day. It’s a windswept spot, punctuated only by lean-tos made out of sarongs, driftwood and other bits of flotsam by the odd passing tourist. If you fancy staying on a few nights at Saleccia, then bring a tent – the simple, seasonal U Paradisu campsite backs right on to the blissful beach.



Getting there

Getting to Saleccia requires some considerable effort – a bumpy 12km (7.5-mile) drive or mountain bike ride down a 4x4-only track off the main D81 highway, or a 45-minute hike through the wilderness of the Désert des Agriates from the similarly stunning Plage du Lotu. In summer, the latter is linked to St-Florent’s harbour every hour by Agriate Marittima (06.17.50.65.58, €14 return) and the good ship Popeye (06.62.16.23.76, €14 return).

Camping de la Plage

A beachside campground that does exactly what it says on the tin, only better. Camping de la Plage even has its own train platform, from which you can rattle all the way along the coast to Calvi or Bastia. The tracks separate Algajola’s golden sands from the main campsite area. A European union of holidaymakers set up shop here from spring onwards; Germans with ritzy mobile homes, Swedes with electric BBQs, Polish walkers with gas stoves and Brits with vast dome tents. The attraction is obvious: a choice between shady and sunny pitches, a spotless stack of showers and loos, and an open-all-hours shop selling roast chickens. 
A notch up are the wooden chalets and studios, each with a patio, kitchen and bathroom. The splurge option are the air-conditioned Tonga and Morea beach huts, advertised as pied dans l’eau. They need to be reserved way in advance.



Algajola Aregno Plage (04.95.60.71.76). Closed Mid Nov-mid Mar. No credit cards. €.

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France: Perfect places to stay, eat & explore

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