The echo of footsteps ring in the quiet cloisters of the ancient Béziers Cathedral. Officially known as Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire-et-Saint-Celse de Béziers, Béziers Cathedral is a 13th century Catholic church perched above the southern town of Béziers. Not far from Toulouse and Carcassonne, medieval Béziers was a stronghold of Christian sect called the Cathars, horribly persecuted by militant factions of the Catholic Church during the Albigensian Crusades of the 1200s. Béziers, the first town to be attacked by the crusaders, was hard hit. The courageous local Catholics of Béziers chose not to betray their Cathar compatriots and resisted the crusaders, resulting in a terrible sacking and massacre in the town and up to Béziers Cathedral. No one survived. Every man, woman and child – even priests and the elderly – were killed. According to legend, the crusaders asked how to tell Catholic from Cathar (let’s face it, they’re more or less the same thing…), evil Papal Legate Arnaud Amaury said, “Kill them all – the Lord will know them that are his.” Béziers was one of the worst hit during this bizarre crusade against a little-known Christian sect in the south of France, but it was far from the only town – Toulouse and Carcassonne as well as others also saw battle. The marauding crusaders invaded Béziers Cathedral of Sainte Nazaire and burned it thoroughly, killing all those who had taken sacred refuge inside. Though this tragedy happened 800 years ago, Béziers has never forgotten, ensuring that we continue to remember this tragedy. In modern times, Béziers is a great base to visit places like Les Cévennes and other Languedoc parks, Montpéllier, the Camargue, and both seaside and mountain villages. Not overly touristy, Béziers is a lovely part of Southern France to visit that will both take you away from the crowds of places like Carcassonne, Nice, St Tropez, and Aix-en-Provence. Today, Béziers is a quiet town, but the town and its magnificent cathedral serve as a history lesson as to what happens when religion is allowed power, have access to a military or meddle in politics.
Pro tip: Visit a winery for a wee wine tasting while you’re there! There are many to choose from, one of which is the little Domaine des Deux Rousseu, in the direction of the village of Sauvin. Serviced by a bus though cab might be the best bet. Just be careful – cell service there is spotty, so arrange in advance. Don’t miss the photo op at the Pont Vieux looking across the River Orb at the Cathedral Sainte Nazaire. If you’re interested in learning more about what it may have been like to live there, author Kate Mosse has written several novels set in and around Béziers, some of which are about the crusade against the Cathars.
The coast of southern France is a fascinating place. Not far from the city of Marseilles, the coast erupts in series of jagged finger-like formations. This is the Massif des Calanques, a collection of impressive narrow inlets with steep walls rising on either side that comprise the Calanques National Park. As these walls are made of soft rocks like limestone, erosion carves out stunning jagged landscapes filled with turquoise waters – the picture of tranquillity. The Calanque de Morigou is one of the largest of the whole Massif des Calanques park. At its base are beaches and a narrow harbour where those so inclined can explore this exotic landscape by boat. Above, the landscape of the Calanque de Morgiou is no less impressive as the panoramas over these rugged headlands under the brilliant French sunshine is magnificent. Many hiking trails criss-cross this landscape, perfect for hikers of all abilities. Once a fishing port because of its strategic and protective location, the harbour at the Calanque of Morgiou is famed for giant tuna fishing hosted by the Marseillais when King Louis XIII visited the region in 1622. It is here too that we find the submerged entrance to the astounding Cosquer Cave, some 37 metres (121 feet) below sea level. After divers swim through a 175-metre (574 ft) tunnel, the narrow entrance opens into the Cosquer Cave – a cavern full of prehistoric art, including 65 stencils of human hands made 27,000 years ago! Though rising water levels have destroyed most of the art, there are still about 150 paintings visible. Even if you can’t see this amazing cave, the Calanques – and the Calanque de Morgiou in particular – are such a spectacular place to visit.
Pro tip: Hike to the Cap Sutigan overlooking the Calanque de Morgiou from the University (even accessible via bus from Marseille). Or drive down to the harbour itself on a road from Marseille suburb, Les Baumettes.
Most visitors zip by this historical town in southern France. To the majority of strangers, the town of Montélimar is just a blip on the map in the little-known region of Drôme to be passed by on the way to greener (or sunnier!) pastures such as Provence and the Cote d’Azure (better known as the French Riviera). Towering over the clay-roofed town is the impressive Romanesque stone pile that is the Chateau des Adhémar. Full of architectural beauty, the town of Montélimar itself is a lovely place. Stroll the town centre exploring the streets lined with facades representing the tastes of different centuries – grand mansions and townhouses such as the former home of courtier of kings Diane de Poitiers, an impressive Renaissance building dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries. Other buildings are from the 17th and 18th centuries, sporting a variety of styles, each topped with beautiful clay tiles. Montélimar is the place to be when the sun is shining – wandering the walls of the ancient castle, strolling the streets of the historic centre, sipping rosé at a pocket-sized cafe or soaking up the sun in the gardens or the riverbanks of the Rhône River and its offshoots the Roubion and the Jabron.
Pro tip: Make sure you try some of the local wines while there. This is the Côtes de Rhône wine region (famed for their reds) of which there are many varieties (though one we quite like is M. Chapoutier – see more about this region here. In the other direction, you’ll find another delicious wine, the Ventoux, from a grape variety that grows on Mt Ventoux, the windy mountain. This region is also just north of Provence, heralded for its rosé wines, perfect for a summer’s day.
Church of Notre Dame de St Saturnin, Auvergne, France
Like a wedding cake made of overlapping layers of towering stone, the church of St Saturnin rises up dramatically into the sky. The centrepiece of the little Auvergnat village of St Saturnin, the church Notre Dame de St Saturnin is impressive in its representation of the local architectural style, “Auvergne Romanesque.” A variation of the Romanesque style, Auvergne Romanesque was developed in the rural, volcanic region of Auvergne in the 11th, 12th and into the 13th centuries. This quaint, rural church is the smallest (and least ornate) of what is locally considered Auvergne’s 5 great Romanesque churches (among the other four, there is also the Basilique Notre Dame de Clermont-Ferrand – Auvergne’s regional capital, the Basilique Notre-Dame of Orcival and the Church of Saint-Nectaire). Of all five, St Saturnin has the simplest apse, as it is the only one without an array of chapels. This particular church at St Saturnin was the last of the Big 5, built late in the 12th century, though the bell tower was destroyed during the French Revolution, not to be rebuilt until 1850, a fate that was unfortunately quite common the during the bloody, anti-religious rebellion of the late 1700s (many religious buildings were destroyed or damaged – those that escaped harm often had to change or mask their purpose to fit that of the Reign of Terror, like the Temple of Vienne just south of Lyon). Inside, Notre Dame is dark, sombre, and cold but somehow this makes the Church of St Saturnin exude a certain sort of eerie beauty. Somehow, the church’s tranquil simplicity and the quaintness of the small village that encircles the little church work together to make the church even more picturesque.
Pro tip: There is a chateau in St Saturnin but it isn’t wildly impressive. For turrets, towers and layered gardens, head to the nearby Chateau de la Batisse – learn more about opening times here.
France is a country of many wonders, be they natural, cultural or a bit of both. One of the most underrated regions of France is the Ardèche, a small sun-kissed, hilly place in the south-central region of France. Though the Ardèche has its fair share of tourists, they are mostly French, mostly local, and mostly converged around a couple of over-visited spots such as Vallon du Pont d’Arc. Places like Largentière and Baluzac are breath-taking medieval splendours well worth a visit when you’re in the region. But the most spectacular part of Ardèche is probably the Réserve Naturelle des Gorges d’Ardeche. Actually made up of a series of gorges carved out over thousands of years by the Ardèche River, the Gorges d’Ardèche is known locally as the “European Grand Canyon.” (Other impressive French canyons are the Gorges de Verdon and the Gorges de Tarn). Not only are the landscapes beautiful, but the Gorges are a well-known haven for wildlife. Admire the dramatic geology from above the Gorges as well as from within them, from the river that created the rock formations. The most famous example is the Pont d’Arc, a natural arch 60 metres wide. In summer, the Gorges d’Ardèche become a popular swimming place, and the riverbanks are brimming with swimmers, sunbathers and divers – though nearly all visitors to the river are local. Another popular activity is kayaking or canoeing but this is such as popular activity that you may want to avoid it. The area is riddled with caves and caverns, many of which contain paintings and other signs of human habitation. To put things into perspective, humans have called the Gorges d’Ardèche home for over 300,000 years!
Pro tip: There are several swimming holes along the river, one of which is just under the Pont d’Arc. Stay overnight in one of the local picturesque medieval villages like Largentière or Balazuc.
Often nicknamed the ‘Gateway to the Alps’ and the ‘Capital of the Alps’ (though these are titles shared by other Alpine hubs like Chamonix and Innsbruck), Grenoble is a lovely town on the foothills of the French Alps. A university town as well as recognised hub of art, science and culture, Grenoble has a quaint old town populated with many historical buildings such as the pedestrianised and cafe-fringed Saint-André Square, the magnificent Dauphiné Parliament building tinged with Gothic and Renaissance styles, the Place de Notre Dame and its 13th century cathedral and a market square with a still-functioning daily market. In Grenoble, intrepid visitors will also find several “hôtels” or fancy houses and mansions, a fountain that has links to the French Revolution, several beautiful squares, and dozens of beautiful roads ranging from quaint alleys to grand boulevards. Overlooking the historic old town, on a backdrop of jagged Alpine silhouettes, is the impressive and impregnable Bastille of Grenoble, dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1590, during the final Wars of Religion, the leaders of the Daupiné branch of the Huguenots took over the previously-Catholic Grenoble via a 3-week siege attack. It was they, the Lesdiguières, who ordered the construction of the hilltop fortifications that would become the Bastille. Today, Grenoble remains an important cultural centre in the Alps on the edge of France, and the Bastille makes for an impressive piece of history, great views and a good workout to climb to!
Pro tip: Ok, so there is a cable car that goes up to the Bastille. But that’s cheating! Instead for the best experience, follow one of the numerous signposted paths cut into the mountain to the Bastille. The effort will make the views even more amazing! Back in town, there are many museums for you to visit, including: the Museum of Grenoble, the Archaeological Museum, Dauphinois Museum, Old Bishop’s Palace, Stendhal Museum, Museum of Isère Resistance, and more!
One of the best-preserved examples of medieval life and architecture is the walled city of Carcassonne in the south of France. Though La Cité started out as a Roman hilltop fort, it was in the Middle Ages that Carcassonne hit its peak. In 1067, Carcassonne fell into the Trencavel family through marriage, allying it with other great cities of the south, such as Albi, Nîmes and Toulouse – even Barcelona. The already-medieval city was further gothic-ified by the Trencavels – including the Chateau Comtal in the centre of Carcassonne. What Carcassonne is perhaps most known for its role in the horrid Albigensian Crusades. Carcassonne was a sanctuary for the ostracised Cathars of the Pays d’Oc. A gnostic offshoot of Christianity, the Cathars were not accepted by the Catholic Church, who attacked Carcassonne in 1209, killed Viscount Trencaval, and ousted the city’s citizens, with Carcassonne eventually passing into the Kingdom of France. 300 years later, the Huguenots of Languedoc, including those of Carcassonne, didn’t fare much better. Despite its troubled history, today Carcassonne is a beautiful medieval masterpiece, a living replica of what life looking like hundreds of years ago.
Pro tip: Carcassonne is a very popular tourist destination. Visit only in the off season to avoid the worst of the crowds. There are accommodations in La Cite as well as the more modern side of Carcassonne. Another (more cost effective) solution is to stay in the less-popular Béziers, and train in to Carcassonne.
France is a country full of quaint and historic towns and villages, many of which go unnoticed due to the sheer quantity of beautiful French villages. Billom is one such overlooked village. Located in the heart of Auvergne, tucked into the shadows of the mountains of the Massif Central, is the little medieval village of Billom. Its quiet centre is full of medieval houses, gothic churches and wandering alleyways, though the site itself dates back to ancient times. In fact, the name Billom comes from Biliomagus – of which bilio means “wood” and magnus means “market.” It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that Billom grew, becoming an important market and university town in an otherwise rural region. Due to its micro-climate, rolling hills and southern-European architecture, Billom is ‘capital’ of the region nick-named Toscane Auvergnate, or the Tuscany of Auvergne. Legend has it that it was Catherine di Medici who gave it that name while visiting Auvergne during the Renaissance – supposedly, Auvergne reminded her of the native Tuscany of her childhood. Today, Billom is a peaceful and beautiful town. It still has its markets – notably the annual the fete de l’Ail or the “Garlic Festival” – as well as food and antique markets galore.
Pro tip: Billom is a lovely day trip from Clermont if you have a car. Also in the area is the Chateau de Montmorin, a beautiful ruined castle. For something truly unique, visit for the Fete de l’ail, held each August.
St Malo, the gem of the Bretagne coast (known also as Brittany in English), is a famous walled city surrounded on three sides by ocean waves, rugged rocks and set of thick stone ramparts. Though perhaps not as well-known or as iconic at the nearby tidal city, Mont Saint Michel Normandy’s coast, St Malo is an amazing place in its own right. A walled city built onto a peninsula that juts out from the jagged Breton coast, the tall, grand houses of St Malo exude a sense of long-held wealth. And in fact this walled port town clinging to the northern French coast has a long and complicated history of piracy and extortion – something that is reflected in the city’s high ramparts, castalled towers, bastion strongholds – such as the Bastion Fort La Reine (from where this photo was taken) – and the forts atop the tidal island surrounding the ramparts. St Malo has always been a rebel. Like much of Bretagne, St Malo has long championed for autonomy – and from 1590 to 1593, St Malo was even an independent Republic! Going one step further than the rest of Bretagne, the walled city’s motto was: “Not French, not Breton, but Malouin” (the demonym for citizens of St Malo). Sadly, none of this stopped the city from being occupied in WWII, nor its destruction when it was bombed by the Allies in 1944, thinking it was a Nazi military base. Rebuilt in all of its former glory, the beautiful St Malo is today a popular summer holiday spot by French from Paris and other large cities as well as Brits arriving by ferry from Portsmouth, Poole, Weymouth and beyond.
Pro tip: Be sure to try the Moules Frites while in St Malo (and Bretagne in general!), especially drizzled in a delicious bleu d’Auvergne cheese sauce! For background info, especially to learn more about St Malo, read Anthony Doer’s All the Light We Cannot See, a beautiful book set partially in St Malo during WWII.
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.