Gargoyles of the Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France
After the April 14th 2019 fire, it’s not even certain if these iconic gargoyles still even adorn the amazing Notre Dame Cathedral. Even if they do, it won’t be possible to visit them until the cathedral is rebuilt… which will take years, possibly as long as two decades despite the overwhelming donations pledged (if only these sort of donations were pledged for all important monuments damaged and destroyed! Like the ancient temples of Iraq and Syria destroyed thanks to ISIS…). Notre Dame Cathedral is a special place, and the devastating fire is one of Europe’s terrible tragedies of recent times (though luckily avoiding loss of life). Built in the Middle Ages in the 12th and 13th centuries, Notre Dame is a stone building topped with a wooden roof made of strong oak from the 1200s (much of which was burned to ciders on April 14/15th). It is in this cathedral where Victor Hugo’s le bossu (or the hunchback) lived out his life in the famous book, and up until the fire, it was Paris‘s most visited monument (12-14 million each year!). Notre Dame is a symbol of Paris and France, but also one of architectural beauty, history and cultural heritage. Following the fire, this beautiful building is also a symbol of hope and resilience sitting in the centre of one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Let’s hope they rebuild it quickly, keeping in the same style as its original architects designed it… (no Pompidous, please!)
Pro tip: You can’t visit Notre Dame following the fire, but there are many other beautiful medieval structures in Paris well worth your visit, and many other great cathedrals in throughout France. Looking for gargoyles? Try Dijon Cathedral. Medieval grandeur? Lyon’s St Jean Cathedral. Simple elegance? Blois’s Church of Saint-Nicolas in the Loire Valley.
Lyon is surely one of Europe’s most beautiful and yet under-rated cities. Overlooked in favour of its more popular big sister Paris, in many ways, Lyon is actually far cooler. Known as France‘s Gastronomic Capitol, it is the place to come to eat. The city is renowned for its restaurants – from Michelin-starred Paul Bocuse’s fine dining to delicious family-run bouchons de Lyon. Pair you Lyonnais dinner with local wine from the vineyards of the Côtes de Rhône or Beaujolais. Lyon is an ancient place. Once the capital of Roman Gaul, Lyon’s rivers – the mighty Rhône and the graceful Saône – have long made Lyon a maritime power. The city progressed eastwards. The Romans inhabited the hill of Fourvière (the remains of the amphitheater are still there); between the bottom of the hill and the Saône riverbanks is the medieval and Renaissance Vieux Lyon with its traboules and cobblestones; northwards is the hill of Croix Rousse, once home to Renaissance silk merchants; between the two rivers is the Presqu’île, home to elegant 18th and 19th century masterpieces. On the far side of the river, 20th century Lyon has exploded in massive concrete blocks, and at the southernmost point of the rivers’ meeting is the Confluences, where the ultra-modernity of the 21st century shocks visitors. But the best way to explore Lyon through the ages is by following its rivers. The Rhone is the more popular – its banks popular for jogging, picnics, and even clubbing (on the boats), while the Saône is quieter, calmer, somehow more French, more Lyonnais – follow the river north for a lovely introduction to this very amazing city before wandering its varied districts.
Pro tip: Looking for a good bar? Les Fleurs du Malt in the Vieux Lyon has incredible array of beers. Food? The bouchons of the old town are all great, but for true authenticity, head into the modern 7ème district to either the Bistrot des Fauvres or L’Autre Côté du Pont (nearby Italian restaurant San Marco is also delicious). Be sure to visit the traboules, tunnel/passages, in the Vieux Lyon – head to #52 Rue Saint John and go through the door.
The quiet and ancient region of Auvergne, located in central France, is a bastion of tradition, history and culture. Far from most tourists radar, those who do visit the region generally head to the iconic mountain Puy-de-Dome or perhaps the capitol city, Clermont-Ferrand (especially for rugby fans). Few head deeper into the countryside towards the ultra rural Cantal region. Besse-et-Saint-Anastaise (or Besse, as it’s known locally) is just one of the many spectacular gems that reward those who venture into Auvergne’s hidden corner. A fairytale village of wandering cobblestone streets and, intricate buildings topped with steep roofs and lined with overflowing flower-boxes, the best way to enjoy Besse is to simply lose yourself in the beautiful medieval streets of the photogenic village. Admire the half-Romanesque, half-Gothic Eglise de Saint-André, the Maison de la Reine Margot, the town hall, and the guard tower at the entrance to this ancient place. Try various flavours of nougat, a local delicacy, or in summer, be sure to stop for deliciously creamy ice cream at one of the local vendors in the shadows of the ancient stone buildings. In the evenings, relax at one of the village’s lovely terrases for a cold beer as you people-watch the bustling village centre. Besse is a perfect example of medieval charm surrounded by verdant and unexplored landscapes perfect for hiking, biking and paddling – ideal for those looking to relax in a rural environment while visiting a corner of France that has changed little through the years.
Pro tip: If you can, time your visit to correspond with one of the brocantes or outdoor flea markets (very popular in rural France) to find unique souvenirs. The nearby, nearly-round Lac Pavin is a very pretty place for a walk. Visiting in summer? Try the famed Tyrollean. Visiting in winter? You’re in luck – Besse is known for its skiing!
Find other places nearby to make the perfect Auvergne holiday
Vienne is most famous for its Roman ruins – the Temple of Auguste and Livie, amphitheatre and obelisk – though there is far more to this ancient place than that. A bit eerie and yet hauntingly beautiful, Vienne’s Pipet Cemetery is a fascinating place to visit. Vast alleyways and avenues are lined with massive tombs and headstones making a sort of French city of the dead. Climb to the top of the hill for a view of the fantastic ruins of the medieval castle, Chateau de la Batie, which still cling to the rugged hilltop, crowning Vienne’s dramatic skyline. The view of Chateau de la Batie seems straight out of Victorian-era painting, of a folly perhaps—dramatic cliffs, dark forests, a ruined castle, a grey cemetery, a hanging sky—and yet, the view is entirely authentic. Perched at the top of Mont Salomon, the castle Chateau de la Batie was built on the foundations of Roman ruins in 1225 by the archbishop of Vienne in order to protect the city from would-be medieval attackers. While the castle is not open to the public, it turns a rather ordinary landscape into something dramatic, romantic and even extraordinary to behold, and both the cemetery and Vienne’s hilltop are well worth the visit.
Pro tips: In the summer months of June and July, the city comes alive with the annual festival, Jazz a Vienne. Just across the Rhone Riveris Saint-Romain-en-Gal (only a separate town because it crosses county lines), find the ruins of a Roman city and an excellent museum of Roman archeology. Sometimes the site even hosts living history festivals. Vienne is an easy day trip from Lyon.
Though part of the much-loved Loire Valley region of central France, Blois has a reputation to be grim, grey and foggy. And though Blois does not have the same fairy-tale charm as the magnificent Chateau du Chenonceau, nor the impressive grandeur of Chateau de Chambord, it has its own gems. One such gem is the Church of Saint-Nicolas (not to be confused with the Cathedral of Blois), an impressive remnant of the Middle Ages in Northern France. Founded as an abbey in 1138 by Benedictine monks fleeing from the Normans, the Romanesque–Gothic church took nearly a century to complete. The abbey section of the complex was destroyed by the Protestant Huguenots during the bloody and long-suffering Wars of Religion. In fact, Saint-Nicolas was built relatively quickly for the time, though a hiatus of about 20 years means Saint-Nicolas has two different marked architectural styles. Blois itself is a town that often gets overlooked from Loire Valley visitors, who come to the region to admire the fine Renaissance chateaus. Blois does indeed have a castle (though not on par with the other Loire Chateaux) but it is its northern streets and ancient architecture such as this church that make Blois stand out. Well that – and the fact that in 1429, French hero Joan of Arc made Blois the base of her operations – riding out from the city 35 miles on Wednesday 29 April to relieve Orléans, what is today known as the Siege of Orléans during the 100 Years War (France’s first major victory since Agincourt in 1415).
Pro tip: Blois can be a good base for people visiting Loire Chateaux. The closest one to Blois is the massive and magnificent Chateau de Chambord, only 15km from Blois. See more about getting to the castle by car or public transport here.
Chateau de Val is certainly one of the luckiest castles in all of France. Built from the 13th to 15th centuries, Chateau de Val is a little-known castle located in the centre of France in a remote and little-visited region known as Le Cantal. Le Cantal itself is within the underrated region of Auvergne, known for its extinct volcanoes, rugby team, and Michelin (and locally, its cheeses!). In fact, poor Cantal is one of France’s least-populated (and least-visited) regions – though this is not for lack of beautiful sites! Tucked into this quiet region is one of the most dramatically romantic castles of France: the Chateau de Val. Once upon a time, the castle of Chateau de Val overlooked a massive and fertile valley in the Cantal Mountains, ancient volcanoes that have been ground down with time. Then, in 1942, the dam of Bort-des-Orges was proposed – and a decade later, water from the dammed river filled the valley – lapping softly and perfectly at the feet of the castle as if it was meant to be so. And yet. When the Bort-des-Orges dam was proposed and the valley’s villages were evacuated, the castle was purchased from the ancient family – with the full intention of the castle being left to drown under the new lake. But – an error occurred, a miscalculation, a change in water levels or equations or perhads funds. In any case, instead of water pouring through the medieval halls of a once-proud castle, hiding it forever from the eyes of the 21st century, fortune intervened, and the water level was lowered. The lake arrived just below Chateau de Val, giving it a dramatic position on a newly-formed peninsula. The electric company that built the dam tried to sell it back to the previous owners (who rejected it on the grounds that it had lost all of its ground) so instead, the electric company sold Chateau de Val to the town hall for €1 symbolic. And that’s why one could say that the Chateau de Val is the luckiest castle in France!
Pro Tip: Cantal is remote and not very touristy so don’t expect big visitor centres or roadside tourist signs, menus in English or many local English speakers. Other local sites to visit are: the medieval sites of Besse & Chateau de Murol, as well as the village of St Nectaire (where the cheese of the same name comes from!). Cantal is also the name of a regional cheese – both are delicious and should be tasted while you’re there! The whole region is an outdoor lover’s paradise with plenty of trails and panoramic views.
From farmer’s markets to flea markets, ice cream stands to crêperies, from sunshine to rainy days, Place Saint Léger, tucked within the bright, colourful streets of Chambéry, has seen it all. Chambéry is a small but beautiful French town not far from the Italian border and comfortably snuggled in the foothills of the French Alps. In fact, on a clear day, the Alps are clearly visible; on a rainy day, you may just make out their massive silhouettes in the fog. Chambéry’s air is much cooler and crisper than the air of larger nearby cities like Lyon or Torino. It’s surprisingly colourful here, as if Poland‘s vibrant market squares have been transported to Western Europe and imposed upon a French city. Despite its small size and vaguely-remote location, Chambéry is a bustling mini-metropolis. Street after street exudes colours from their painted facades. Neighbours stop to chat, tourists wander the streets in small groups, cafes fill with patrons. Everywhere, there is an air of tranquility. This is a place where one eats heartily, walks slowly, breathes clearly, and relaxes entirely.
Pro tip: Looking for something unique? Head to Place des Éléphants to see Chambery’s strange centrepiece: the Elephant Fountain! It is exactly what it sounds like, a fountain made of 4 elephant sculptures. For hikers and outdoor lovers, Chambéry is a good base to explore the western fringes of the Alps and still enjoy the charms of a sizeable city.
The Beaujolais is one of France’s most spectacular places. Beloved for its vineyards, Beaujolais is a household name for those who enjoy French red wine, though few people manage to visit. More than just hills of grape vines (though there’s plenty of that too!), the Beaujolais is full of tiny medieval villages, such as Ternand. The size of a teacup, Ternand is as picturesque as it is hard to find. Perched on the top of Mont Chatard, one of the Monts du Beaulojais, Ternand’s tiny village streets lined with ancient houses encircle the church (with frescos from the Carolingian era), the 12th medieval castle – or what’s left of it – and its donjon (the castle’s fortified tower). Only about 700 people call this quiet hilltop village home today, though its construction using the beautiful golden-coloured stones found in the Beaujolais means it is classed as part of the Pierres-Dorées region. Located within the Azèrgues Valley with views over nearby villages like that of Oingt, this rocky outcrop has long been inhabited – possibly dating back to Roman Gaul. Ternand village, constructed in the 12th century, was under the ownership of the archbishops of Lyon. The castle long stood solidly atop Mont Chatard – until 1562, when the Hugenots (as part of the Wars of Religion), stormed the castle and left it a smoking ruin. Today, Ternand does not appear on tourist maps nor is it along the path-well-travelled. It’s a bit of a climb to get to the hilltop, and seems far from civilisation or the 21st century. Instead, it is a quiet place where cats wander the cobblestones, children play in the gardens, and the sounds of clinking cutlery emits from modern kitchens tucked away inside ancient homes. In short, Ternand is the perfect getaway from our fast-paced, screen-loving, need-it-now world.
Pro tip: Instead of walking straight into the village from the small carpark, follow the path down around the back side of the village. Here, you’ll get an amazing view of the Azergues Valley. Take the stairs up into the village, where you can wander the tiny streets. If you’re interested in wine and grapes, consider taking part in the vendages or the grape harvest, which is end of August or September, in one of the many vineyards in region!
Tucked away in the French Alps are the shimmering silver-green shores of the Lac d’Annecy, or Lake Annecy in English. A small but characterful town, Annecy is an Alpine gem – close enough to the mountains to facilitate outdoor adventures, but still quick and easy enough to get to and around, even without a car. In the middle of the far side of the lake is the small Island of Roselet. Lake Annecy‘s story starts long ago in the Bronze Age, when Roselet went from peninsula to island. Its isolation as an island made it a safe place to live – where apparently, people did. Much later, in the Middle Ages, a castle was built. Though now lost, it has since been replaced with another structure, the current Château de Duingt and church were built in the then-popular neo-gothic style. Perhaps a result of too much Scooby-Doo, the Château de Duingt seems sure to be haunted – or owned by an eccentric old man – or simply eerily deserted. We’ll never know though, as today the island and its castle privately owned and are closed to the public. The closest you can get to the northeastern side is via a boat touring the lake. The island and causeway themselves are closed to guests so curious onlookers will have to view the castle from the village of Duingt where you can see the castle from the small pier that functions as a port landing, or from the park on the opposite side. No matter though – the lake and castle are best appreciated from the deck of a boat floating in the gentle lapping waters of the scenic Lake Annecy.
Pro tip: There are several boat companies operating out of Annecy. While in town, visit the old prison (Palais de l’Île) if you like history and the Château d’Annecy if you like (contemporary) art. There are many great restaurants and the local pizzas and ice cream are to die for!
North of the city of Lyon, hovering in the centre of the elegant Saône River, is a small island, home to the Abbey of Île Barbe. One of the last places to be conquered (the name Barbe suggests origins in the word ‘barbarians‘), the 5th century saw the construction of a small but powerful abbey on the island. Though little more than a squat and forgotten Romanesque church tower – the Église Romane de Notre Dame – remains today, the Abbey of Île Barbe is one of the oldest in Roman Gaul (the Roman name for what is roughly equivalent to modern-day France) – and the first in greater Lyon. The Abbey once possessed dozens upon dozens of churches, villages and fiefs in the Middle Ages – and even contained a great library thanks to Charlemagne – and it rose to great importance in the region (one such connection was with the church at Montelliemar). With wealth comes danger however, and the abbey was attacked and pillaged on more than one occasion. Though it changed hands and functionalities multiple times, it wasn’t until the French Revolution that the Abbey of Île Barbe was abandoned. Today, the abbey is slowly falling into ruin, giving way to the tangled forests of the small island. Half of the island is actually closed to the public – it contains a private residence for some of Lyon’s wealthiest. The island is connected to both banks by a narrow metal suspension bridge erected in 1827 – which so happens to be the oldest such bridge in Lyon that is still in use today!
Pro tip: The island is also home to a gastronomic Relais & Chateaux eatery, the Auberge de l’Île. For more budget-minded travellers, on the opposite bank (Quai Raoul Carrié), there is a lovely boulangerie – perfect for picking up a picnic to enjoy on the island’s park. Get to the Île Barbe on public transport from Place Bellecour on TCL bus 40, direction Caluire.
Overlooking Puy de Dôme from Puy de Sancy in Auvergne, France
Everyone knows about the Alps and the Pyrénées, but the greatest French mountains you’ve never heard of are the Massif Central mountains. Located in the centre of France, the Massif Central occupies several départements (including the Ardèche and Rhône-Alps) but most notably, the beautiful lush central region of Auvergne. These mountains are old. Formed over 500 million years ago, the Massif Central mountains are of volcanic origin – only becoming dormant some 10,000 years ago. The largest puy or volcanic peak is the Puy de Sancy (1,885m – from which this photo was taken) but by far the most famous is the Puy de Dôme (1,465m), featured in the photo. Auvergne is famous for its volcanoes – forming the base pride for the local residents. A good bit of Auvergne is taken up by the Parc naturel régional des Volcans d’Auvergne (Auvergne Volcano regional nature park) – and oh do the locals love to explore the many trails that snake across these ancient lands. Of course some of the most famous are Puy de Dôme, Puy de Sancy, and Puy de Côme, but there are many gorgeous mountains and hills in Auvergne worth exploring! Riddled with caves and draped in legends, Auvergne is a magical place that sees few international tourists and has managed to remain relatively unspoilt. The rich dark soil (enriched with minerals brought by volcanic ash) makes the region one of the best in France for agriculture – in season, spot alternating fields of beets, corn, wheat and best of all, sunflowers, sprawling across the sun-kissed hills of Auvergne’s lowlands, while thick forests and vibrant wildflowers take advantage of the rich soil to grow on the mountain slopes. Further down the hills, untouched medieval villages lounge in the lush valleys and ancient castles and towers cling to the inclines. It is a wild and magical place – perfect for both hiking the wild outdoors as well as discovering the France of past eras.
Pro tip: Clermont-Ferrand is the regional hub (though its airport is tiny! Use it for flights to London, Paris and occasionally Portugal) and though it’s worth poking around its black cathedral and modest old town, its better to use a village like Montpeyroux, Billom, Pont-du-Chateau or Ambert as a base to explore this beautiful region. Try local potato and cheese dish l’aligot while there!
France has a lot of amazing places – including so many places you’ve never even heard of! The Ardèche region is certainly one of them. Snuggled into the mountains in the southeast of France, the Ardèche is a hilly, rugged region full of narrow and winding lanes, deep canyons and timeless villages. Most international tourists completely miss out on this magical region due to its relative anonymity and to a degree, its inaccessibility. An extension of the Cévannes mountains further south, the Ardèche is perhaps best known for the Gorges d’Ardèche and the Pont d’Arc (a popular swimming area with locals). One of the Ardèche’s most magical secrets is the perfectly medieval village of Largentière. Tiny alleys twist and turn, ducking in and out of the bright French sun, meandering through ancient buildings, winding through covered alleyways and tunnels, and broadening suddenly into sunlit squares. Small cafes and tiny shops dot the streets and squares, medieval houses rise above, and a river trickles by. Overhead, Largentière Castle stands sentinel as it has since the 12th century. Wander the quiet cobbled streets, enjoy your French café on a terrasse in the sun, and take in the ancient wonders of this forgotten world.
Pro tip: Though the castle cannot normally be visited, if you visit Largentière during July or August, you can visit the medieval festival held there, Au Dela du Temps. Back in the village, there is a great hipster bar, quirky thrift shop, a delicious crêpes place, and a dusty but lovely used bookshop, all worth ducking into at one time or another.
Visit Other Amazing Small Towns and Villages in France
Megève is the perfect European Snow Town. In fact, this little French town was conceived to be just that. Megève was actually built in the 1920s as the first purpose-built resort in the Alps, providing an alternative to the Swiss resort at St Moritz by the wealthy Rothschild family. Tucked into the French Alps in the ancient region (and once kingdom) of Savoy, it has been a popular ski resort since its conception. And yet. Despite its popularity and proximity to Mont Blanc, even despite being purpose-built, Megève still somehow manages to retain its Alpine authenticity and small-village charm, mixed with an apparent modern luxury. Megève is a fairy-tale town – wooden chalets, snow-covered pines, dramatic mountains, cosy restaurants. Unlike many modern constructions, the quaint centre of Megève was designed to stay in touch with its Alpine and Savoyard history and roots. Even when the snow is gone and the sun is shining, Megève and its beautiful Alpine environs is just as glorious in the summer – the town’s idyllic mountain setting is enough to make anyone’s heart sing.
Pro tip: Looking for comfort and luxury on your snow town ski holiday? Try the elegant 5 star hotel, M de Megève combining old world charm and Alpine cosiness with modern luxury. They also happen to have a great restaurant!
Autumn Sunset over Les Monts des Beaulojais, France
France’s Beaujolais in autumn is a lovely, vibrant place – rich oranges, reds, yellows and golds contrast with the brilliant azure skies and the remaining emerald greens. It is magical place, reminiscent of a fairytale storybook. Contained within the Beaujolais, a breath-taking region just north of beautiful Lyon, are the enchanted Monts des Beaujolais, a colloquial name given to this corner of the Massif Centrale mountain range parading across the historical region. Though long integrated into the larger Rhône-Alps (really Auvergne-Rhône-Alps; French départements keep growing), the Beaujolais maintains its own identity. The hills, soil and climate make it ideal for wine-growing – in fact, some of France’s most respected wines come from this region, alongside sister vineyards of the nearby Côtes de Rhône. Want to try some Beaujolais wine? Next time you’re in France, try a Mâcon, Brouilly, Morgon, Fleurie, Chénas or even a simple Beaujolais Villages! Every fall, once grapes have been harvested, pressed and fermented, the Beaujolais villages celebrate the 3rd Thursday of November with a festival to taste the Beaujolais Nouveau – the season’s new wine. With 12 AOCs (Protected Destination of Origins), the Beaujolais produces on average 1 million hecto-litres each season, of which 97% from Gamay grapes (almost exclusively red wine). And it’s not just wine that makes the Beaujolais special. What makes the Beaujolais ideal for growing grapes has made a prime region to control over the centuries – hence the remnants of ramparts and fortifications. It is a beautiful region full of colourful hills each topped with ancient medieval villages, crumbling and imposing castle ruins.
Pro tip: For the most adventurous, sign up for les vendanges, the grape harvest in August/September. Hard work but worth it! For those with less time, simply visit an authentic vineyard for a tasting fresh from the barrel. Visit the tourism office in Lyon or Villefranche-sur-Saône for an updated list in vineyards.
The Loire Valley is one of the most spectacular castle regions in Europe. Full of what can only be described as French chateaux, the Loire Valley houses some 300 extravagant palatial buildings!! Among the most famous are the immense Chateau de Chambord and the spectacular Chateau de Chenonceau. Spanning the River Cher in a unique castellated bridge, the river literally runs through the castle. Though it has had many owners, Chateau de Chenanceau is really a tale of two women and their rivalry for King Henri: Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Medici. Diane de Poitiers was a noblewoman – beautiful, talented, intelligent and elegant – who fall in love with young King Henri II. In order to take control of Italian states, Henri was married to the much younger Catherine de Medici. Despite his marriage, Henri spent his entire life dedicated to the beguiling Diane de Poitiers and their children, culminating in gifting her Chateau de Chenanceau. Though it took many years of delicate legal manoeuvres to make Diane the true owner of Chateau de Chenanceau, she loved the castle and was responsible for the phenomenal bridge across the Cher, as well as the flower and vegetable gardens. When Henri died in a jousting accident, his jealous widow Catherine de Medici illegally forced Diane to yield her the castle – though she was then forced to offer Diane Chateau de Chaumont in exchange. Catherine further renovated the gardens and the castle interior, as well as adding new rooms and a service wing (of course she did, she’s Catherine de Medici…). Unlike her more enlightened rival Diane, Catherine was a girlish socialite whose favourite activity was hosting lavish parties at Chenanceau, including France’s first ever fireworks show. Chenanceau’s third notable woman was the enlightened Louise Dupin, who hosted countless literary salons in the chateau – Louise saved the castle during the French Revolution by claiming that it was essential to commerce as it was the only bridge for miles. Though Catherine may have stolen the chateau from Diane and Louise saved it from demolition by angry hordes, Chateau de Chenanceau remains synonymous with Diane de Poitiers and her love for King Henri.
Pro Tip: Chateau de Chenanceau is far more lovely when visited in the off season – despite the lack of flowering gardens, the lack of tourist crowds allows you to feel the romance of the castle. No car? It’s a short and easy train ride from the town of Blois.
Though the most famous gargoyles are on Notre Dame de Paris (thanks, Victor Hugo and Disney), one finds gargoyles on most French cathedrals, and Dijon’sNotre Dame Church is no different. This unusual, square-faced cathedral, commenced in 1230, is a medieval masterpiece. In fact, it contains no less than 51 gargoyles (nearly all mere decorations). Though Notre Dame de Dijon dates back to the Middle Ages, the gargoyles were only carved in the 1880s (around Hugo’s time…). The original facade had many such gargoyles of monsters and men, but local legend states they were all (but one) removed by the friends of a usurer (money lender), who was killed by a falling stone gargoyle on his wedding day. Gargoyles have long held both the fascination and horror of their audiences. While the original purpose was simply to drain water away from a wall, they quickly evolved into displaying grotesque and fantastical designs. The term itself comes from an French word “gargouille,” meaning “throat” (think “gullet”). The idea of the gargoyle is said to have came from an ancient French legend from Rouen, in which St Romanus conquered a terrible winged dragon called La Gargouille who was both long-necked and fire-breathing. Upon slaying it, the city burned La Gargouille’s body but its fireproof head and neck would not burn, so they mounted it on the church walls to ward off the evil spirits (though you’d think that’d ward off good spirits too!). Thus, the idea and name were adapted for fanciful drains sprouting from France’s soaring cathedrals, and Dijon’s gargoyles don’t disappoint: all 51 are fascinatingly fantastic, bizarre, eye-catching and grotesque.
Pro tip: The church also contains a small statue of an owl, now the symbol of the city, and said to have magical powers. Find it on the left side of the cathedral and touch it with your left hand to make a wish come true! Also, follow the owl symbols on the ground to discover Dijon’s historical heritage sites.
Quaint, medieval and beautiful, Crémieu is a small town with medieval roots tucked into the southeastern French department of Isère. In fact, each September Crémieu hosts a fascinating celebration called “Les Médiévales,” reenacting what life was like in France during the Middle Ages on a backdrop of Crémieu’s medieval streets. Interestingly, Crémieu’s seal, dating back to the Middle Ages, is in shape of a dolphin (or dauphin) which is where the famous (and delicious) dish called le gratin dauphinois comes from! In the town centre is the ancient 15th century medieval hall where merchants once traded their goods, surrounded by the stunning facades of the medieval houses once built and maintained by the very same merchants. Travel to Crémieu on a Wednesday for Market Day to continue a 500 year old tradition! While you’re here, visit the ruins of various abbeys and convents: Benedictine, Visitandines, Augustin… as well as the castle ruins.
Pro Tip: Climb the hill up to the castle for breathtaking views of beautiful rooftop panoramas such as this one, as well as the surrounding Isère countryside. Explore the castle ruins (free), then descend to the village via a narrow moss-covered trail, located down the road and off to the right, once a stream bed and now a hallway of vibrant emeralds. A perfect day trip from Lyon!
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. It’s also a great place for a morning jog!
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 oneself 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, Montréal or Largèntiere.
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.
Pro Tip: You can buy a ticket for both the Palais des Papes as well as the Pont d’Avignon, so be sure to pocket your ticket when you visit the palace! Great views from the Parc Rocher des Doms park of the whole of Avignon and beyond.
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.
Pro tip: On the southern side, the closest true cities are Nîmes and Montpellier. To visit the Cévennes rural beauty, you should rent a car. St Guilheim-le-Desert (see below) is just one of the Cévennes’ 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.
Pro tip: 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.