Wooden chalets with steep rooftops and lovely balconies, ornamented with flower boxes and carved silhouettes of fleur des lis, this tiny hamlet tucked deep in the lush forests of the French Alps is fit for a fairy tale. Located just above the picturesque Gorges de Diosaz inside the lovely Réserve Naturelle de Carlaveyron, this little hamlet offers brilliant views overlooking the magnificent Chamonix Mont-Blanc Valley. The perfect jumping off point for hiking in Alpine forests, the snug hamlet of Montvauthier seems to have fallen of the pages of a Disney tale. This is the Alps at their best, the backstage pass. Mont Blanc and Chamonix are stunningly unforgettable and are clearly the stars of the show. But the French Alps have so much more to offer the curious visitor than just that. In fact, the French Alps contain some of the world’s best hiking trails. The Alps have gorgeous snow towns world renowned for skiing. And they have countless tiny villages and hamlets as equally gorgeous as they are unknown. Montvauthier is one such place. The best part about the Alps is that you don’t have to go here – not specifically here anyway. You just have to get off the beaten track because the massive Alps are full of amazing places waiting for you to discover.
One of Lyon’s best-kept secrets is the stunning Parc Lacroix Laval. Based around the former estate of the Domaine de Lacroix Laval, the park expands on all sides for 115 hectares. The present Domaine de Lacroix Laval dates from the 16th century, with some later additions, but it was built on the ruins of a 12th century castle. A wealthy estate, the mansion is as beautiful as it is expansive. Today, the Domaine de Lacroix Laval serves as a wedding venue (imagine getting married here!) as well as exhibition space in the summer months. The surrounding park is popular with joggers, picnickers, dog-walkers and families. With both open spaces, playgrounds, farm animals and wooded paths, the Parc Lacroix Laval is a welcome escape from the hubbub of downtown Lyon. Pro tip: the park is best reached by car, though you can take bus 98 or local train TER from the Gare de Lyon-Saint-Paul.
The French region of Ardèche, with its stunning Gorges d’Ardèche, Pont d’Arc over the Ardèche River, the Monts de Forez and Les Cevennes, is a veritable nature’s paradise. The western half of the central region is rocky, mountainous and forlorn. Industries such as viticulture and sheep-farming did not leave the inhabitants as nearly as prosperous as those on the eastern half of the region that benefited from being on the banks of the all-important Rhone River, a highway of maritime trade. As a result, this little corner of France is lost in time. Quaint medieval villages are tucked away into the folds of the ruggedly dazzling mountains. The miniature beaches of the Ardèche River welcome swimmers and paddlers looking to escape the sticky summer season. Cobblestone village centres bustle with markets sporting local produce, industry and crafts. Trails and paths and country roads abound making Ardèche the place to go to lose oneslef in France’s wild side. Cliffs sweep in sunburnt valleys. Though none of Ardèche’s peaks can rival the Alps or even the Pyrenees, the region offers a far quieter and less touristic alternative – perfect for those who want to visit France lost in time. Pro tip: avoid Vallon-Pont-d’Arc as it is very busy with domestic tourism and instead base yourself in one of Ardèche’s medieval villages like Baluzuc, Montreal or Largentiere.
The Palais des Papes is a massive heap of fortified and sacred medieval stone built for the king-like popes during the schism with the Catholic Church in the heart of ancient Avignon. Six rebellious popes ruled Western Christianity from this impressive – and costly – building. (In fact, the Palais des Papes was so expensive that it nearly burst the papal purse). Built during the 14th century, the old palais (of Benedict XII) and the new palais (of extravagant Clement VI) form the largest Gothic building constructed during the Middle Ages! And during the 14th century, the Palais des Papes once held about 2,000 volumes – considered to be the largest library of its time. This impressive library attracted bibliophiles and scholars from afar, and the Palais des Papes became a place of great study. It was also within the walls of this immense palace that the Church was able to centralise and create a standardisation of services and operations – mostly to meet the needs of the popes and the Church with less regard to its common flock. The church administration workers (known as the Curia) grew from a modest 200 to 500 people plus 1,000 laymen at the Palais des Papes in less than 100 years. Today, the Palais des Papes is a UNESCO site, and is well worth the visit from a historical and architectural perspective, as the Palais des Papes is both a great historical turning point and one of the best exemplars of Europe’s great Gothic constructions.
Part of the Massif Centrale mountain range that thrusts upwards in the centre of France (notably part of rural Auvergne), the Cévennes ramble across southern France, including through Herault, Gard, Ardèche and Lozère. Lush forests and sweeping valleys hide glittering turquoise lakes and sunburnt meadows. Alive with diverse flora and fauna, the Cevennes Mountains cover some of France’s remotest communities – and have the best sunny weather! Though not always easy to access (especially the mountains in the region of Lozère, which rejects the notion of commercial tourism), the Cévennes Mountains and the Cévennes National Park are rich in natural beauty. The term Cévennes comes from an old Celtic (Gaul) name, Cebenna, later Latinised by Caesar upon conquering the region as Cevenna – and more than 2,000 years later, the name still sticks. Even today, the Cévennes are rife with protestants who identify as descendants of the ancient Huguenots who escaped to the rough mountain terrain which provided shelter and protection to refugees of centuries past. Today, the beautiful mountains are perfect for cycling, hiking, and other outdoor adventure activities. Practical tip: on the southern side, the closest true cities are Nimes and Montpellier. To visit the Cévennes rural beauty, you should rent a car. St Guilheim-le-Desert (see below) is just one of the Cévenne’s lovely villages to stay in.
Just south of the great French city of Lyon is the orange-topped suburb of Givors, huddled on the banks of the thundering Rhone River. It would be an unremarkable, cheerful little place with all the usual amenities found in French towns – cheerful boulangeries, leaf-strewn squares, poorly-parked cars, schools emitting the playful laughter, terraces serving the local plats du jour and vin de table. Givors could easily be overlooked as ordinary – if not for its strange and evocative Cité des Etoiles – the City of Stars. 270 interlocked apartments and businesses climb the hillside – each visibly in the unusual shape of a star. Part of the “Achieved Utopias” movement that swept through Lyon (largely thanks to famed urban architect Tony Garnier of the 1920s and 30s), the City of Stars was a project born in the 1970s at the behest of Givors’ mayor, Camille Vallin, who dreamed of quality but attractively-priced lodgings in downtown Givors permitting each resident to have their own garden. This great architectural undertaking evokes the socialist, urbanist and Utopic ideas and movements that swept through France – and beyond to Europe in general – throughout the 20th century. Made of cement – a favourite French building material even today – the City of Stars hangs from the steep slopes under the watchful eye of the old, crumbling Château Saint-Gérald. Though little remains of the once-magnificent castle, the ancient place and the amazing panorama it affords, is ample reward for the short climb. Practical info: the City of Stars is located very close to the Gare de Givors, about 30 minutes south of Lyon, and there are also several Lyon city buses to Givors that leave from Gare d’Oullins. Wander amongst the stars yourself or better yet, get a guided tour offered by the local tourism office. Keep in mind that people still live here! The castle is located above the City of Stars and can be accessed by a narrow path behind the City of Stars.
Opposing the roughness of Marseille is the pristine beauty of the Calanques National Park. Though not far from the city, a short hike into the Calanques park feels like a foray into another world! Offering a 20km stretch of coastline in the south of France, the Calanques are a series of rocky headlands, rough landscapes, hidden coves, and secret beaches. The azure shades of the Mediterranean will dazzle you as far as the horizon stretches. Here in the national park, there are over 900 protected places as well as certain eagles, reptiles such as Europe’s largest lizard and longest snake, as well as countless others. Of the many calanques, some are easier to reach than others – popular calanques are the Calanque de Sormiou or the Calanque de Morgiou. Seen here is the Calanque de Sugiton, easily accessible from the Luminy University City (under 30 minutes ride on public transport from Marseille’s city centre) for those willing to hike. Before arriving at the amazing coastline, you’ll first experience breathtaking minimalist landscapes reminiscent of the American southwest on your initial hike through the path! Adventurous souls may prefer to approach by sea – either by boat or even better – kayak! NB: Before visiting, check if trails are closed due to fire risk.
Welcome to the Palais Ideal, or Ideal Place of the Postman Cheval. Built by a wildly-imaginative postman in the early 20th century in Hautrives, France, this structure is an extraordinary example of naïve art architecture, with definite influences of the Art Nouveau movement of fin de siecle Europe. True to it’s name, this supposedly naive art is made by someone, like Postman Cheval, who has no architectural training. In fact, the Postman simply picked up interesting-looking rocks on his 30-some mile daily postal delivery and brought them home. He went back to the same spot the next day, and found another, and another. Remembering a dream he had when built a palace, castle and cave, he started to construct a bizarre palace inspired by myth, history, nature, religion, and the world all around. In his own words, he said to himself: “since Nature is willing to do the sculpture, I will do the masonry and the architecture.” He kept going for the next thirty-three years until he had built his castle or palace or cave (even he himself admitted, “I cannot express it well.”) until he finally had his ideal palace.
One of France’s Most Beautiful Villages and one of the most charming towns one can expect to stumble onto in Europe, the tiny, spiral-shaped village lost in the middle of France is reminiscent of another era. The fortified town was built in the Middle Ages, and though Pérouges has no castle, it does feature a fortified church (with extra-thick walls), as well as an enticing maze of weaving streets, all eventually ending at the Place de Tilleul. Today the quiet centre of this tiny village and site of a delicious local restaurant, Place de Tilleul was one the thriving marketplace of bustling Pérouges during medieval times. Crumbling into dust until recent years, the village has seen a seen an upturn in tourism, saving the cobblestoned marvel from becoming a ghost town like so many other quaint but behind-the-times places across Europe. Here in Pérouges and its romantic Place de Tilleul, one can briefly capture a glimpse into another world, a peek into another era, before slipping out through the village gates and back towards the main road that leads to nearby town Meximieux and the 21st century. Pérouges is most quickly approached on foot via the road Route de Pérouges from Meximieux but a far more picturesque way to approach the village is via the forest track along Aubepin Pond.
The tiny French village of Balazuc snuggled deep within the timeless county of Ardèche is a place you go to lose yourself in another era, another way of life. Sun kissed hills are woven with ancient villages, a patchwork of medieval architecture fused seamlessly with the brown earth and golden fields of southern France. Balazuc is one of such places. A veritable labyrinth built of golden stone, the village’s narrow alleys wind up and down, dipping half-underground, through other buildings, around and through the hills in a completely random and at times mysterious manner. Hole-in-the-wall cafes dot the facades, and a hilltop castle and church duo seem to be trying to outdo one another. To access the steep hilltop village, one must first cross a surprisingly high bridge over the Ardèche River – not a bad place for a quick dip! And just a stone’s throw away is the equally-beautiful and heart-throbbingly medieval village of Largentière as well as the ever-impressive Gorges d’Ardeche. Get ready for a coup de foudre – French for love at first sight!
As the world evolves, so does our sense of architectural beauty. Being subjective, the cliche rings true: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This dictum certainly holds water in the modernist/futurist architecture that peppers cities like Valencia, London, Bilbao, Warsaw, Vienna, Lyon and others. Originally built atop Fourviere Hill, Lyon is an ancient Roman city that slowly expanded eastwards, across the Saone River, then across the Rhone River. Where the two rivers meet – the confluence – there was once unusable swampland. Drained, it first was an industrial hub (it’s across from the former dockyards, now an up-and-coming almost-hipster neighbourhood), and the remains of old warehouses, factories, shipyards, and railways is still seen. Rather than destroy them, the city repurposed them – the old sugar factory is now an art gallery, for example, and the old custom house is now offices and a restaurant. The rest of the ultramodern Confluence neighbourhood has been inspired by and modelled on its former industrial history. Apartment blocks resemble shipping containers, 20th century factories, goods warehouses and more. Even the mall bears resemblance to this architecture. The above building is the Musee des Confluences, a futuristic steel-and-glass throwback (and throw-forward) to the Confluences past and future. Commanding the tip of the rivers’ confluence, the museum houses exhibits on evolution and science. It is this glittering, reflective, glassy structure vaguely resembling a ship and ever-popular with skateboarders that is the first thing visitors arriving from the south will see – so it is only fitting then that it is here the city chose to place their sign bearing Lyon’s catch-phrase: ONLYLYON. As a former resident of this city, I quite agree.
This structure needs no introduction. Perhaps the most famous landmark in the world, did you know that in the beginning of its existence, the Eiffel Tower was nearly unanimously hated by artists and citizens alike? French writer Guy de Maupassant disliked it so much that he’s said to have routinely dined in the tower’s restaurant as it was the one place in Paris where the tower was not visible. Indeed. The Eiffel Tower was built over a two-year period to welcome people to 1889’s World’s Fair, the 100-year anniversary of the storming of the Bastille (fairgrounds included a reconstruction of the Bastille!). At the time, the World’s Fair was a big deal, and much like today’s Olympics, huge constructions were built to impress Fair visitors; each year’s host trying to out-do the previous host (the now-nonexistent London Crystal Palace was another famed World Fair creation as was Seattle’s Space Needle). The Eiffel Tower was France’s response. Originally meant to be demolished at the end of the Fair, it quickly became not only the symbol of the 1889 World Fair, but also the symbol of Paris, the most visited (paid) monument worldwide, and for 41 years, the world’s tallest building. Designed by Gustav Eiffel (the man who designed the interior support system of New York’s Statue of Liberty), the Eiffel Tower is still a unique, iconic and wildly-beloved monument of France and the City of Lights. France is a country resistant to fast change, but if they eventually came to love the Eiffel Tower as a symbol of fin de siècle France, hopefully the Louvre Pyramids, Centre Pompidou, and other modernist or postmodernist designs will eventually be welcomed as symbols of a modern Paris. (Or not?)
Hamlet of Fougères in the Livradois-Forez Regional Park, France
Unlike US national and state parks, French parks are home to more than just animals. Tucked away into the Livradois-Forez Regional Park in the rural yet beautiful region of Auvergne is the tiny hamlet (in French, a ‘lieu-dit’ or a ‘spoken place’) of Fougères, home to less than two dozen people. One of dozens of other such hamlets throughout Livradois-Forez Regional Park and beyond, what makes Fougères special is not so much the place itself as it is the collective co-habitation of people and wilderness in Livradois-Forez. In the USA, national/regional parks and people’s homes are regarded as two separate, un-mixable entities – but in Europe, the story is different. Parks in France, while protected from certain types of development or land-harming actions (like mining, logging, hunting, etc.) can be home to farms, homes, hamlets, villages, as well as forests, rivers, lakes and wildlife. This is seen across Europe in countries such as Italy, Poland, Latvia and beyond. Local people can live in the parks while people from cities or faraway places can visit in order to hike, bike, kayak, canoe, ride horses or camp in the fresh air of the countryside. End result? Perfect harmony. Quick tip – use the medieval village of Olliergues or the quaint town of Ambert (famed for its delicious local cheese of the same name) as a base if you don’t plan to sleep under the stars.
The 12th century Chateau des Adhémar remains one of the last true examples of Romanesque architecture, a style defined by rounded arches, thick walls, squat towers and sturdy pillars. This study, box-like castle was built atop a sunburnt hill which overlooks the orange-tiled, sunny town of Montélimar (located in the Drôme department in the south of France). Appropriated by the papacy in the 14th century until 1447 when it re-entered the Kingdom of France, the castle has been used as papal residence, an armament for several conflicts and wars, a citadel, a prison, a country residence, and now a contemporary art museum. In fact, Chateau des Adhémar was largely saved in the last few centuries as it was put to use as a prison. The famed loggia, or loge, with the striped design and rounded windows attached to the main keep was added during the Renaissance to ‘beautify’ what was considered a ‘plain’ Romanesque design. The beautiful Renaissance loggia was also built to add light to formerly gloomy rooms as well as show off the expansive countryside on Chateau des Adhémar’s toes. Located in the inner courtyard is the ancient 11th century St Pierre Chapel. Once a part of the wide-reaching monastic network centred at the Monastery of Ile Barbe in Lyon, the simple Romanesque chapel was later incorporated into the castle complex by the powerful Adhémar family. Today, the castle is a fine example of Romanesque and Renaissance architecture, as well as the modern art movement. It offers splendid aerial views of Montélimar and is a perfect stop on a road trip heading from Lyon to Nimes, Avignon, Montpellier or any other destinations in Southern France!
See Other Fascinating Places in the South of France
Sur le Pont d’Avignon, France (On the Avignon Bridge, France)
Another day, another bridge. In contrast to the super-sleek, ultra-design Zubri Zuri Bridge in Bilbao, the Pont d’Avignon is one of the world’s most famous traditional, historic bridges – not unlike Prague’s Charles Bridge. The Pont d’Avignon is famous largely because of the classic French nursery song about it (Sur le Pont d’Avignon/On y danse, On y danse/Sur le Pont d’Avignon/On y danse tous en rond) – even though the song is wrong. It’s unlikely people ever danced ‘sur’ (on) the bridge; lacking for space, it’s far more likely that they danced underneath…Today the bridge only crosses half the Rhone River, the rest having been washed away (learn more about the Pont d’Avignon’s history here). Rising majestically behind the broken bridge is the Palais des Papes – the Papel Palace – which was the seat of 6 ‘rebel’ popes in the 14th century. During the Avignon Papacy, in 1305 the Palais became the papal residence when French Pope Clement V elected to move the papal centre of authority to Avignon in an effort to avoid facing the chaos in Rome (in all fairness, I’d be inclined to think the same thing…the Eternal City is eternally chaotic). Though succeeding in centralising power and church regulations, the Avignon Papacy also succeeded in consuming most the papacy’s purse by constructing this overwhelmingly extravagant Palais des Papes. Today, this magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the largest and most important constructions in the Gothic style in Europe – with its massive halls, extensive dining rooms, glamorous bedrooms and beautiful chapels, it’s easy to why. You can buy a combined ticket in order to visit both sites. For a nice aerial view, climb up the hill Rocher des Domes afterwards.
Find More Amazing European Gothic Architecture Here
Chateau de Chambord, France as Seen From Across the Moat
As the most expansive and over-the-top chateau in the Loire Valley and among the most excessive of Europe, Chateau de Chambord is certainly the crowning jewel of the already castle-laden Loire Valley. Known for its rich (and royal or at least very noble) castles, the Loire Valley is full of lavish summer residences – the Chateau de Chambord is no exception. Built in 1547 in the extravagant French Renaissance style (a style which was, by definition, extremely extravagant), it was constructed for King Francis I of France as a hunting lodge, it was though never finished. Among the many distinguished guests who stayed there, the most important was Leonardo da Vinci, and it is to him that we attribute (though without proof) the chateau’s unique and fascinating double-helix staircase – i.e. two intertwined, parallel staircases that twist upwards around each other but never touch. 16th-century chateaux are in many ways faux chateaux. Architects used basic designs of castles – like moats, towers, turrets, crinolines, keeps, drawbridges, etc. – but they were never meant to be defensive, and indeed weaponry and war in this era had changed so dramatically that castles were of less use in combat (to be fair, most of Europe had settled down a bit to form some degree of stability, at least from one region to another, though there were exceptions like the French Revolution). If boiled down, Chambord is really composed of a central keep and four massive bastion towers, connected by high walls; the rest is elaborate design. Chambord is best visited in conjunction with other Loire Valley Chateaux like the Chateau de Chenanceau for example – try driving from one to the next, or if you’re feeling adventurous, consider biking from chateaux – the castles are close enough together to make this a relatively a feasible task!
Are you looking for off-the-beaten-path France? You just found it. The St Cyr Hermitage, perched on the hilltop Mont Cindre above the little village of St Cyr-au-Mont-d’Or about 30 minutes from Lyon, is hard to locate, or even learn about in English. Founded by a monk from the nearby once-powerful monastery, L’Ile Barbe (on the northern outskirts of Lyon) some 650 years ago, St Cyr is composed of les pierres dorées or ‘golden stones’ found in this region of the Beaujolais. It is a place of rest, tranquility and repose, on the outskirts of the world. Because of the altitude, the monk of the hermitage can overlook the rivers Rhone and Saone, the city of Lyon, mountains of the Alps and even the summits of Mont Blanc on a clear day. With little to no architectural training, the hermit’s chapel, garden and dormitory is a creative and innovative mess of stones of all shapes, sizes and textures. Hand-carved statues, arches and other decorations abound, making the heritage feel like a surreal art project from another century. There are two ways to get there. One is via the village St Cyr: simply go upwards towards the tower, and follow the signs. The other, more adventurous way is walk up the trail: from St Cyr, head up Rue Fouilloux and pick up the trail head on your right: Sentier de Puits des Vignes, leading to a right on Montee du Grimpillon, and a left on Chemin Vial until the crosses of the hermitage rise above your head. The hermitage is only open for limited hours during the summer.
Deep in the French Alps, the ancient town of Annecy sits along the picturesque shores of Lac d’Annecy. At the heart of Annecy, at the intersection of the River Thiou and the city’s scenic, all-important canals, is the Palais de l’Ile, an impressive 12th-century building. Shaped like the prow of a ship setting sail, the Palais started out as a prison, became a coin mint, was transformed into a courthouse, housed the Presidial Council of the Province Genevois, and became military barracks. Today, it is a museum, though it is certainly more intriguing and alluring from the exterior. In a way, the Palais de l’Ile is the keystone of Annecy – the stone that holds the rest of the city’s splendour together. And what a beautiful city it is! Annecy is full of colourful facades, glittering canals, glowing lamps, bright plazas, cheerful terrace cafes, and arching bridges. It is often called the Pearl of the Alps, and any visitor to its streets, canals or lake will know that it certainly deserves its title.
The Roman city of Nîmes has been a splendid city in the south of France for thousands of years. Known for its chic boutiques, terrific Roman ruins (including the amazing Roman Arena), and mild Mediterranean climate, Nîmes has long been regarded as one of France’s most beautiful cities – and best-kept secrets of France’s Languedoc-Roussillon/Midi-Pyrenees region. But not all of Nîmes is ancient. The Romans built a spring (the Spring of Nemo) and decorated it with a temple (now gone). But in the 1700s, the growing city needed a better source of safe drinking water, and therefore opted to construct a network of canals. Ulterior motives included powering Nîmes’ mills to sustain its’ top-ranking position in the textile industry as well as the indigo dying industry for a new product, serge de Nîmes, better known today as denim (from the French, ‘de’ or ‘from’ Nîmes; indeed, thank Nîmes for your jeans!). The project became a grand affair, and included a beautiful park laced with ornate statues, exotic gardens, and of course, the wide, boulevardesque canals. They were the first gardens in France created for the benefit of the public, not royalty. Today’s visitors to Nîmes who wander the park and the canals will still feel the glamour and elegance that exudes off these complex and orate 18th century creations, so important to the Nîmois.
The Middle Ages left their architectural mark well and good on France. One of the many examples is the charming village of Olliergues, located in the rural and forgotten region of Auvergne, in the very centre of France. Surrounded by a crown of volcanoes, Olliergues is snuggled into the rolling green countryside, far from the ritz and glam of the modern world. Here, lives are lived much as they’ve always been. Villagers get their bread from the local boulangerie every morning, they drink their coffees in the cafes, they work in the fields or the little commerces. Children are walked to school. A dog barks, a cat streaks by. Here, tucked away in one of the most rural counties in France – and one of the most rural parts of that county – life is quieter, calmer. It is a good place to go to lose yourself. In the heart of the Livradois Forez Regional Natural Park, a huge chunk of protected woodland, farmland, and tiny communes (roughly 150), Olliergues is a good base for hiking, biking and other outdoors sports. Though the village has few eateries, there are plenty of places in the nearby (but far less beautiful!) town of Courpière – one of the best for tasty, local mountain cuisine is a little family-owned place, La Cave a Juliette. While in Auvergne, check out the beautiful Chateau de la Batisse, the more rugged Chateau de Murol, or the village known for its famous cheese, St Nectaire.