Arena of Nîmes, France

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The Arena of Nîmes, France 

The Arena in the centre of Nîmes (formally Nemausus) is one of those places that is both beautiful and terrifying. Built in 70 AD, the Arena is one of the first things you come face to face with when arriving in Nîmes. Despite being destroyed in 737 by angry Franks, the completely round building with windows and doors all intact, is beautiful today thanks to a refurbishment in 1863. Once upon a time, the amphitheatre was fortified by the Visgoths, then the viscounts of Nîmes actually built a fortified castle inside its walls, and then a small neighbourhood was built inside the half-ruined building (complete with two chapels and 100 inhabitants!) – talk about reuse and recycle! But since the mid 1800’s when the ‘neighbourhood’ was removed and the amphitheatre restored, the beautiful Arena has sadly been used for bullfighting, with two fights held every year. Despite this unfortunate choice in repurposing (bull fighting, though a closely-held cultural tradition in southwestern France and throughout Spain, is a cruel game that is unjust to the animals forced to participate), the Arena is still one of the most beautiful examples of the Roman reach in what was once the region of Gaul, of the Roman Empire, more 2,000 years ago. While in the region, don’t miss out on the nearby Pont du Gard, an aqueduct bridge part of the Nîmes aqueduct, a 50-kilometre (31 mile) structure to carry water from Uzes to Nîmes (built 1st century AD).

Strasbourg, France

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Petite France, Strasbourg, France

The origin of the name la Petite France, has a less-than-lovely origin – it comes from the Hospice des Vérolés (House for the syphilitic) which during the German occupation was called Franzosenkrankheit (French disease). While the name’s origins may not be charming, the alleyways, canals and houses most certainly are charming! Alsace, the region of France where Strasbourg is located, has a complicated history, flashing back and forth between France and Germany for much of it’s past. In the Middle Ages, la Petite France was the economic centre of the city, and Strasbourg as the region’s most important city. La Petite France once comprised of many merchants, millers, tanners, fishermen and other tradesmen and artisans. Today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, la Petite France (‘little France’) seduces history, culture and architecture buffs with its quintessential streets, half-timbered architecture, colourful houses, quiet riverbank, and charming shops. At Christmastime, the Strasbourg Christmas Market is one of the most famous in Europe and is generally agreed upon to be the best Christmas market in France. Hot wine, sausages, and sauerkraut are local favourites – especially when the weather turns cold! The impressive Strasbourg Cathedral was the world’s tallest building from 1647 to 1874 (so, for 227 years!), and today, it remains the 6th-tallest church in the world. It is the sandstone from nearby Vosges that gives the cathedral its unique pinkish hue.

Balazuc, Ardeche, France

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Sunset over Balazuc in the Ardèche region, France

Sunset cascades over the little medieval village tucked into the heart of the Gorges de l’Ardèche, nicknamed by the locals the ‘European Grand Canyon.’ The 30-km long canyon runs from the tourist hotspot Vallon-Pont-d’Arc to the less-well-known Saint-Martin-d’Ardèche. The village of Balazuc is listed on the ‘Most Beautiful Villages in France‘ (along with Pérouges and St Guilhiem-le-Désert) – as it should be. The village hugs the edge of the steep hill as narrow medieval alleyways weave and climb the hill’s slope from the shores of Ardèche River up to Balazuc’s castle. Cobblestone alleys meander through ancient dwellings, passing through echoing tunnels, climbing up uneven staircases. Well-worn steps lead up to the top of some of Balazuc’s buildings, affording breathtaking views over the clay roofs, the Ardèche River, and the Gorges themselves. In Balazuc, it’s easy to peel away the centuries to another era – all the while enjoying the creature comforts of our own!

Vineyard of Robert Sauzay, Beaujolais, France

Vineyard in Beaujolais, France

Vineyard of Robert Sauzay, Salles-Arbuissonas-en-Beaujolais, France

Wine has always been an important part of French culture, and French wine has always been an important part of the wine industry. Dating back to 6th century with the colonisation of southern Gaul (notably, Marseille), viticulture took hold in France, who made the act of wine production an art, integrating it deeply into their culture. Many grapes you’ve heard of (such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Sauvignon blanc, Syrah, etc.) have their roots (literally!) in France – because the ancient Gauls practised a new technique allowing them to increase production: they pruned their vines. Since then, various groups preserved the art of wine-making: the Romans, medieval monks, the French nobility. Today, France is still a top wine producer.Here, wines are identified by the vineyard, chateau, manor, village, monastery, etc. where the alcohol is produced (not by the grape itself). This is known as the ‘terroir’ (linking wines to production location – exe. see Tain l’Hermitage). The AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) system controls which grapes and wine-making practices can be attached to which geographical locations. Wine still plays an important role in today’s France – it’s consumed during special occasions but is also a household object. It is a gift to be offered to a new colleague or to one retiring, it is a housewarming present, a Christmas gift, a drink to be consumed with friends. Wine bars are popular, and wine in France is considerably cheaper than elsewhere (a decent bottle costs from €3-10; mid-range wine ranges from €10-25; anything over €25 is considered an expensive bottle). The Beaujolais is a popular wine region near Lyon, with hundreds of vineyards covering the area – whether you decide to hike through the vines, cycle by on two wheels, organise a wine-tasting tour (most vineyards offer this via rendez-vous, like the Sauzay Vineyard above), or even become a grape picker during the famous September harvest, experiencing both the wine and the vineyard is a great way to connect to French culture.

 

Château de la Batisse, Auvergne, France

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Château de la Batisse in the Vallée de l’Auzon, Auvergne, France

Once upon a time long ago in a kingdom far away, there lived a fierce lord called Gérard d’Aultier. He lived in a beautiful castle in the charming, sunlit valley known by those who lived there as the Vallée de l’Auzon, a place often passed through by pilgrims following the St James Way (part of Santiago del Compostela). Sadly, the lord had no sons to inherit his magical castle, and so it was passed on to another powerful local family, La Volpillière, who added turrets and towers and other adornments, until they, too, had no male heir. Due to legal quarrels, the chateau lay dormant, slowing becoming derelict, until being bought by a local enterprising man, repairing the castle to its former glory before reselling it. The new owner of Château de la Batisse was Jean Girard, the Secretary of the King, and his newfound seat of power allowed him the prestigious name-change, Girard de Chasteauneuf. A tangled family web handed the château from one heir to the next, finally arriving in the hands of its present owners, the respected family, Arnoux of Maison Rouge from Riom, who lovingly care for the aged yet enchanted building. Defended as much by its defensive walls, thick towers, arrow slits, and keep as by concerned parties such as Monuments Historiques, and La Demeure Historique, Château de la Batisse is also preserved via the prestige, respect and loyalty it inspires in the region’s inhabitants. Nestled into its enchanted woodland valley in the heart of Auvergne, on the cusp of the charming village Chanonat, and under the watchful eyes of the burg Saint-Amant-Tallende, it is safe to say that the fairytale Château de la Batisse is living its happily ever after.

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Largentière, Ardèche, France

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Largentière, Ardèche, France

Rusted rims, broken headlights, faded paint, cracked leather. The sun bathes the ancient automobile (for no other word can describe this masterpiece) in warm, southern light. The backdrop of ancient stone buildings hundreds of years old provides an appropriate setting for such a magnificent historical treasure trove such as this vintage auto. Largentière, a medieval town in the heart of the French region of Ardèche, seems as if it was meant for this car. A stone labyrinth since the 13th century, Largentière was once a thriving industrial towns thanks to mining  of silver and lead (hence its name, ‘l’argent’ means ‘silver’ in French) and its prime location along the rails, but the mining has since died down, leading to the closure of its train station. Largentière is a veritable labyrinth of narrow stone streets, overhanging arches, and cobbled alleyways. Artsy and hipster, the village boasts an organic crêpes restaurant, La Rue Crêpanous; a quirky thrift shop called Recycl’arts; Le Goupil, an artisanal hipster beer bar; and a bookshop piled floor to ceiling, Le Voyageur d’Écriture, or ‘the traveller of writing,’ among others. It is a window to another time, or to several other times. Lost in the Ligne Valley in the sunburnt southern landscapes of the south of France, buried in the magnificent Gorges d’Ardèche, this paradisal little village reminds us that what has past is not necessarily lost.

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Massif Central Mountains, Auvergne, France

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Puy de Sancy in the Massif Central, Auvergne, France

Typically evoking ideas of fire and brimstone, volcanoes are not generally the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions ‘France.’ And yet, volcanoes – or at least extinct ones – are the dominating natural feature of the French province of Auvergne, located in central France. Rated the 6th top destination to visit in 2015 by Lonely Planet, the unique volcanoes of Auvergne are at least in part responsible for Auvergne’s intrigue. As part of the Massif Central, a mountain range that covers most of Auvergne and plays a significant role in the region’s natural and cultural landscape, some of the volcanoes are as old as 65 million years, while others are as young as 7,000 years (mere toddlers in mountain live spans). Being elevated and surrounded by mountains makes Auvergne’s climate chillier (and foggier) than the rest of central France, perhaps attributing to the region’s hearty mountain dishes such as aligot and truffade (both made with potatoes, types of pork, and hearty cheeses). The locals also seem to have a higher appreciation of nature than people from other regions, and can be found enjoying the outdoors during weekends – whether that be a backyard picnic, a leisurely stroll in the park, or climbing the rugged volcanic landscape. When it comes to hiking, climbing, kayaking, paragliding and other outdoor activities, Auvergne’s mountains are certainly the place to go. Exhilarating, rugged, beautiful, lush, scenic, challenging  – the mountains and volcanoes of the Massif Central become whatever you make them out to be. So get your coat and boots on and go out for a walk in the wild!

Dijon, France

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Dijon, France

X marks the spot – or maybe it just marks a row of charming houses in Dijon, built in the infamous wattle-and-daub style. But what really is wattle-and-daub anyway? In use as a construction method for some 6,000 years (and still popular today due to it being low-impact technique), such buildings are created by weaving a braid of wooden strips called wattle, then daubing them with a sort of caulk made of soil, clay, sand, straw, and other ingredients. Thick wooden beams are then factored in as supports to the structure, and together, they form sturdy, isolated walls. Sustainable and relatively easy to do, houses erected in this style are also just so charming. DijonStrasbourg, Stratford-upon-Avon, many Germanic villages and more exude such charm because of the high predominance of wattle-and-daub structures. Charming and beautiful, it would seem that fairy tales are alive and well in Dijon – one can just imagine one of those windows popping open and Belle or Rapunzel smiling out!

Pont du Gard, France

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Pont du Gard, Gardon (or Gard) River, France

Not many architects can say that their construction will lest centuries, let alone millennia, though many Romans can. Not many tourists can say that they have beheld constructions that are more than a millennia old, though those who have visited the magnificent Pont du Gard can. This ‘pont’ (‘bridge’ in French) over the Gard (also called the Gardon) River in the south of the Hexagon is one of the the most country’s most spectacular ancient sites, left over from the days when the Roman-dominated territory was called Gaul, and Lyon (or ‘Lugdnumum‘) was still the capital. Built around 40-60 AD spanning 275m at its longest point, the aqueduct in entirety descends only 17 m over the course of it’s length, while the Pont du Gard has a mere 2.5 centimetres slant, which makes you marvel at the ingenuity and intelligence of the Romans without computers, machinery, calculators or any other aspects of modern technology. The Pont is impressive enough when viewed from land, but the best way to truly experience such a structure is the way it was meant to be seen – by water. So, jump in a canoe or kayak, grab your paddle, splash through the Gard River and don’t be afraid to get wet!

Hiking in Chazay d’Azergues, France

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Hiking in Chazay d’Azergues, France

Ahh…The Great Outdoors. It says it all in the name – ‘great!’ No matter whether you’re hiking in Ireland or Denmark, Poland or (as in this case), France, hiking in Europe is bound to be ‘great.’ Being based a city may be ideal for working, for nightlife, for cultural outings, for restaurant variety, and for transportation connections, but breathe in the city air too long, and you’ll go crazy. We all need a good dose of the outdoors in our systems: fresh air, cool wind, natural landscapes, lack of noise, isolation, tranquility. And there are no excuses, for a hiking trip doesn’t always have to be a grand Alpine expedition – if you’ve only got a weekend, head out to the surrounding countryside (every town and city has one!) and hit the trails. Explore the unknown, and who knows what you may find? On this particular day the photo was taken, not only did we find this extensive root system, but we also stumbled across hidden ponds, forgotten manor houses, placid villages, sun-dipped fields, cheery locals and fellow hikers. Exploring the world on foot (no matter how close to or far from home) always seems to add another dimension to the final destination, somehow making that place seem more meaningful to you simply by approaching it via your own two feet. Whether that be in Slea Head Peninsula in Ireland, the Gauja River Valley in Latvia, the Val de Susa in northern Italy, Mt Esja in Iceland or the Beskids and Tatras in Poland, discovering the world on foot is all the more magical.

Chateau de Chambord, France

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Chateau de Chambord, France

The biggest chateau in the Loire Valley, and one of the most distinctive chateaus in the world (thanks to its smooth blend of Medieval and Renaissance styles), the Chateau de Chambord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is as absolutely magnificent as it is immense. The chateau (for there is no other word to use; Chambord and its fellow Loire Valley neighbours define the usage of the word ‘chateau’ in English) was built by Francis I as a hunting lodge – a break from his royal residences at Blois and Amboise (each no more than a stone’s throw away by modern distance standards). The castle rooms themselves are relatively simple – large, rectangular, few in number but large in size. The roof, on the other hand, is an intricate network of sculptures, buttresses, statues, odd angles, elevated passageways, elegant windows and pointed towers, all arranged together like a miniature city. But that’s not the most remarkable part of this structure. No, that honour goes to the intricate and astoundingly unique double helix staircase, serving as the centrepiece and central element of the building. Elegantly carrying visitors up three floors, the two entangled staircases curl around each other but never meet, making it an architectural unicorn. There are rumours that a one Leonardo da Vinci (who stayed there for a time) was the creator of the DNA staircase, and this is quite possible, as the inventor was known for his unique and often outlandish projects, though his involvement has not been proven. In any event, the massive and iconic chateau certainly merits its place on Loire Valley itineraries!

Annecy, France

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Annecy, France

Quiet canals meander the cobbled streets of Annecy. Colors slip down the facades, floating into the canals’ ripples, drifting out into the lake. One of the cleanest in Europe, it must certainly also be one of the prettiest. The stout, stone fortress glares over the orange rooftops of its town, a citadel lost in time. Artists sell their wares – paintings, photographs, jewellery, pottery. Vendors sell ice creams and chocolates to tourists while diners chat on sunny terraces, sipping beers and lemonades. The swans swim by, searching for the forgotten crumbs that tumble in the canals. The streets ring with people taking advantage of summer in the mountains. Like a scene from a painting, Annecy’s streets merrily portray summer bliss.

 

Tain l’Hermitage, France

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M. Chapoutier Vinyards, Tain l’Hermitage, France

M. Chapoutier, one of the most famous vineyards along France’s Rhone River is located in Tain l’Hermitage, about a half an hour south of Lyon, in what it called the Cotes de Rhone region. Cote Rotie, Crozes Hermitage, St Joseph, Ermitage, Cornas, Chateauneuf-de-Pape, Condrieu, Cotes de Rhones Villages are just a few of their wine types, and within these, many more brands and types. In France – one of the most important wine-producing regions in the world – wine is everywhere. And it it is cheap. A bottle of Crozes-Hermitage here costs anywhere between 7 – 15€ (depending on the type), but the same type/brand of wine in the US can cost upwards of $12 a glass! Therefore, it is easy to drink decent wine without going broke, and Chapoutier wines are, in fact, pretty decent. And because good wine is cheap and accessible, nearly everyone knows their way around wine. To be a wine connoisseur (a French word, you may notice…) in France, you have to be REALLY knowledgeable; an ordinary French person would seem like an expert in the US!  And another interesting fact is that in the US, the wine is named after the grape (chardonnay, syrah, pinot noir or gris, etc) but in France, wine is named after the town, region, village or castle where it is produced, meaning you have to be even MORE knowledgeable (and even have some notion of geography!) to pick your wines. Chapoutier-produced wines are the kinds of local wines, along with the wines of the Beaujolais, that you find in and around Lyon. And if you visit the vineyard, be sure to do a tour, and a tasting to increase your French wine knowledge!

Cantal, France

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Cantal Department, France

Quiet and rural, this quintessential part of central France’s countryside has changed little over the years. To some, this may seem backwards, but to many, it is reassuring, a quiet escape from the bustle of cities and towns. One of the most rural parts of France (actually in the top 3 most rural French departments), Cantal is known for nature and the cheese it produces (of the same name). Cows outnumber people here. Villages dot the countryside, narrow roads wind themselves through the countryside, circumventing obstacles such as the occasional farmhouse, field, or gnarled tree. Lakes, ponds, and streams provide a cool retreat from the summer heat. In the winter, temperatures drop far below than those of ‘nearby’ cities (a relative term) such as Clermont-Ferrand, Lyon or Dijon. Residents lead a simple life here, and few tourists venture into this rural paradise. Yet those who do come are rewarded with the elegance of relaxation, respite from the high-tech, high-speed urban world. Take a dip in a local lake, go on a hike through silent forests, make furry forest friends, chat with the local farmers, or take a drive through tree-covered roads and take a break from life.

Beaujolais, France

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Beaujolais, France

If you’re a wine-lover, you may already know about the Beaujolais – it is a well known wine-producing location in central France. Houses (or manors) like this one are a common occurrence throughout rural France. Unfortunately, due to an interesting combination of high (and complicated) inheritance and habitation taxes, overall elevated French taxes, costly repair bills, enormous amounts of energy needed to heat such buildings, and isolation from cities and towns, manors like the one above are all too often left to live out their long days alone. In the case of this manor, as you can see, there is a perfectly functioning farmhouse less than 100 meters away – and yet the manor remains so empty that even at a distance, one can see through it from one side to the other. To avoid other beautiful buildings suffering the same fate, local economies need to be further stimulated – of which one way is tourism, which brings in people, awareness and money to rural destinations. In any case, the Beaujolais has great wine, beautiful villages, and charming country roads and trails built to hike – and beautiful rural architecture !

Megève, France

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Megève, France

There are still some secret places in Europe where fairy tales seem to come alive and the words “Once upon a time…” seem to be the town slogan. Megève, in the heart of the French Alps, is one of those places. Megève, along with many alpine villages, seems to have fallen off the pages of a fairy tale storybook. Wooden chalets with steeply pointed roofs cluster around an ancient church. Cobblestones ring with the sound of horse hoofs and the creak of wagon wheels. A towering pine tree stands in the centre of the town square – proudly occupying the place of honor. Snug little shops, cozy cafes and sturdy lodges weave along Megève’s narrow streets. Everywhere, skiers in puffy vestments and giant boots mingle with the locals, skis in one hand, a hot chocolate in the other. Gentle snowflakes are falling, adding  to the thick, soft blanket of snow that covers everything. It is truly a magical place.

Cantal, France

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Cantal, France

One of the most rural regions in France is Cantal, located in the heart of Auvergne, central France. In fact, there are roughly as many people spread out over the Cantal region (147,000) than there are who love in the capital city of Auvergne, Clermont Ferrand (141,500)!  Located in a region known for its ‘dead volcanoes’ as the French love to say (so, dormant or extinct), much of what infrastructure that does exist is largely made from a coloured volcanic stone. Roads twist and turn, winding through cheery farms and past pleasant fields. It is a quiet place. This is the place one should come in order to seek solace, to escape from the hustle and bustle of the 21st century. Life is simply slower out here. It is the perfect escape – especially in the summer months, when temperatures are mild, and the water from local lakes and streams is perfect for swimming. Don’t miss out tasting the delicious local Cantal cheese, named after the Cantal Mountains (which give the region its name!). Made with cow milk and aged for 1-6 months, it is one of the oldest cheeses in France – dating all the back to the times of the Gauls. You won’t regret it!

Chateau de Murol, France

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Falconer at the Chateau de Murol, France

One of Auvergne’s most popular chateaus, Murol is a round hunk of stone dominating its mountaintop. While in and of itself it’s a very neat castle to visit, another thing that makes it special is the workshops that Murol puts on during holidays and  warmer months. These short demonstrations, activities and workshops show various aspects of what life was like in the Middle Ages for the people of the castle, from nobles to servants. Falconry (or hawking) is one such example. Falconry was quite popular during Medieval times, though only accessible to the wealthy, such as kings, royals, nobles and rich landowners or merchants, as they were the only ones with enough time and resources required to train the birds. Though it began as a means to hunt small game, hawking soon became more for sport than for necessity, as the falconers prided over his own birds and their accomplishments. Birds were trained to return to their trainers’ arms for bits of food and to bring prey back untouched, and hooded when not training. During certain periods at Chateau de Murol, visitors can still experience this ancient sport, watching hawks, falcons, owls and other birds of prey zoom around the castle, only to return each time to the falconers’ gloved arm.

St Guilheim-le-Désert, France

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Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, France

Casually labeled as one of “The Most Beautiful Villages in France,” St. Guilheim is a snug village in the south of France, located within reasonable distance from Montpelier. Don’t be fooled by its name; this is no desert! The name is leftover from another time, when the land was desert-like. And “Guilhem” is the local patois way of saying the name “Guillaume” (“William” in English). With cobbled streets underfoot and the tiled roofs overhead, voices echo off the tiny squares, footsteps echo off the narrow streets. Rock walls are crumbling under the bald mountain tops looming just behind as you wander the alleys clutching a melting ice cream. Though not very large, St Guilhem certainly is one of the most beautiful places in an already beautiful county!

Saint-Nectaire, France

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Saint-Nectaire, France

If you like cheese, you may have a stronger grasp on rural French geography than you realised. This is because in France, cheeses are often named for the villages where they originate, and remain very region-specific for centuries, shaping both local culture and local pride. Roquefort, for example, comes from…wait for it…Roquefort, France!  And the cheese Saint-Nectaire comes from the village of the same name–also the same name as the village church, pictured above. Located in central France, in the rural department of Auvergne (where Michelin comes from!), the village itself doesn’t seem that special at first glance. But no one can pass through without stopping to buy Saint-Nectaire cheese from the source!  However, it wasn’t always so tranquil here. This quiet village was once a thriving spa town in the 19th and early 20th century, and as a result, there are still several once-grand hotels from the 19th century at the base of the beautiful church. Today, thermal spa towns–including Saint-Nectaire–have lost some of their popularity (except in Scandinavia and places such as Budapest). Yet, there’s something enthralling about glancing into the past at these once top-of-the-line resorts that makes one long for the old days of steam engine travel: 2-month-long trips,  grand hotels, dressing for dinner, days spent visiting thermal baths or preparing for balls. Just make sure you try the cheese.

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