Uzès, France

Uzes copy

Uzès, France

Ah, the magic of southern France. Uzès is a small, typical town huddled in the sunny southern region of Languedoc-Roussillon. A short drive away from the bustling market towns of Nimes and Avignon, Uzès started life as a Roman settlement, and it was in fact from the source here that the Roman aqueduct that includes the famous section now known as the Pont-du-Gard was built. Uzès has a varied cultural history. It was once home to a thriving Jewish community thanks to a tolerant local population, until the more narrow-minder northerners forced Uzès to expel the non-converted Jews. Later, it was the northernmost reach of the Moorish Spain, staying in Andalusian control until the 750s – though this 30-year period didn’t result in any of the splendid Moorish Mudejar architecture so resounding in Spain. And then in the medieval era, Uzès played host to a group of Cathars, a minority religious group that was both prevalent and persecuted in the south of France. Today, Uzès is a small, lovely town. Its main sights include a Capuchin chapel (primly built on a former Roman temple, thanks Christianity), the beautiful twice rebuilt Uzès Cathedral (the current building dates from the 17th century), several towers, and the medieval château du Duché. The town also hosts a splendid local market on Saturdays. It is a typical regional town and offers a lovely small town vibe compared to the larger Nimes or Montpellier.


Pro tips: Languedoc-Roussillon is a fantastic wine region – we recommend a wine tasting or at the very least trying a few local wines. One lovely wine region not too far from Uzès is Mount Ventoux – the “windy mountain.” Nearby Provence is known for lovely rosés – the perfect summertime drink. Head to cosmopolitan Nimes for Roman architecture, Avignon for religious structures, and into the Cevennes Mountains for great hiking. 


More of Cute France Towns


 

St Suliac Village, Brittany, France

St Suliac

St Suliac Village, Brittany/Bretagne, France

This tiny fishing village in the northeastern corner of Brittany is easy to miss and not on most tourist routes. Not too far south from the well-loved St Malo, St Suliac is another village listed under the official list of “Most Beautiful Villages in France.” Sitting along the shores of the Rance estuary, St Suliac is a quaint village with a long history of fishing – something that is still evidenced in the design and decor of the village. Fishing nets are everywhere, and seafood dishes are common. You’ll also likely spot statues in niches all over town – usually that of the Virgin Mary, erected in a bid to ask her to keep watch over its seafaring populace. This typically Breton commune is part of the “Emerald Coast” – so named for its deep colour brought on by the wet climate. Brittany is one of France’s most fascinating regions. The climate isn’t the region’s only thing in common with the Celtic countries. It has its own Celtic language (though like all Celtic regions such as Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Galicia, the Isle of Mann, Cornwall, etc), the occupants all speak the main language (ie French in this case). Brittany or Bretagne also shares its mysterious Neolithic history and monuments with its Celtic neighbours, most notably Ireland. It is an amazingly rich region with many places to explore – with St Suliac as just one of Brittany’s many treasures to be found!


Pro tip: The promenade of St Suliac makes a lovely spot for a walk, a picnic or just a coffee with a view!


More of Brittany / Bretagne


*Please note that all photos posted since the start of the Pandemic travel restrictions are from the archives, or taken locally within a short distance of our home. 

Bagnols Village, Beaujolais, France

Bagnols

Bagnols, Beaujolais, France

Small and quaint, Bagnols is a firm member of the so-called ‘Golden Villages’ of the Beaujolais region in central France, just north of Lyon. While not an official member of the “Most Beautiful Villages in France” list, Bagnols is widely considered to be one of the Beaujolais’ loveliest little secret spots. Tucked well into the southern slopes of the Beaujolais, the village of Bagnols has ties to the middle ages and the Renaissance. The château (now a hotel) is 13th century, while the village church is 15th century. There’s even a Napoleonic statue from 1804. As with most villages and towns in the Beaujolais, wine-making and viticulture has been the prominent industry, and Bagnols is no exception. The golden-green hills surrounding the village are lined with vineyards and vines, and good (cheap) wine is easy to come by here, and throughout the Beaujolais and wider Rhône region. Though quarrying is no longer occurring here, once upon a time, there was a local quarry where the gorgeous golden stones you see in Bagnols came from, as well as other golden villages throughout this beautiful and over-looked region.


Protip: There are many good “sentiers” (ie waymarked trails) weaving throughout the Beaujolais for those who like hiking. There are many different Beaujolais wines – you may want to start your journey with a wine tasting – there are many vineyards that offer this, or find one in Villefranche the regional capital.


Find More Beaujolais

*Please note that all photos posted since the start of the Pandemic travel restrictions are from the archives, or taken locally within a short distance of our home. 

Château de Ravel, France

chateau de Ravel Auvernge France

Château de Ravel, Auvergne, France

Our virtual travel today takes us to the centre of France, to the not-so-famous region of Auvergne. Despite it not being well-known outside of France, Auvergne has a lot to recommend it. Volcanic mountains, hearty dishes, amazing cheese, distinct churches, great hiking, and of course, plenty of castles, to name a few. One such castle is the Château de Ravel, whose foundations go back to at least 1171, commenced by Bernard de avel. In the 1280s, Ravel was actually owned and lived in by the King of France (Philippe the III), though his son gave away the castle to his the man who would be named chancellor of France. Like most castles, Ravel has gone through a series of alterations and face lifts, each changing with the styles of the times. Most of what we see here today is 13th century, along with a 17th century terrace and courtyard, which has an incredible view of Auvergne’s volcanic peaks, the Puys of the Massif Central. Inside, the rooms have been decorated in 17th and 18th century styles – and all without damaging the original Gothic structures and design elements.


Pro tip: The castle is privately owned but opened some days in the summer. The grounds are open to visitors year round. While here, you’ll definitely have to go for a hike up one of the peaks, such as the Puy de Dôme, Puy de Sancy or Puy de Côme! 


French Castles


 

La Roche aux Fées Neolithic tomb, France

Roche aux Fees

La Roche aux Fées Neolithic tomb, France

While travel isn’t possible right now, we’re continuing with our virtual explorations, this time a visit to northern France. Ireland probably contains the Neolithic era’s highest density of Neolithic monuments, but it’s not the only country with great prehistoric sites. Scotland and England are also home to quite a few Neolithic – and Prehistoric in general -era sites. The region of Brittany / Bretagne is another place of Celtic influence (as well as parts of Spain and Portugal), and Bretagne also home to quite a few of these ancient sites. What the region lacks in quantity, it makes up in quality. The Roche aux Fées – translating as the Rock of the Fairies – is one of the best-preserved ancient sites of this era. Comprising of 48 stones (9 of which are roof slabs) – the heaviest of which weighs 40-45 tonnes – the site is very complex. Like many sites we still see in Ireland (notably, mountaintop cairns), the original structure of the Roche aux Fées would have been covered with a mound of stones and earth. Stones used to build this 20 metre long gallery tomb would have been dragged here on a series of ropes, wheels and pulleys from the quarry site. Though its gallery form is not unique – there is a similar tomb at Lough Gur in Co Limerick, and others in rural Ireland such as in Co Mayo – the Roche aux Fées is certainly one of the best specimens of its type, and one of the largest. It is thought that it dates to 3,000-2,500BC, making it about 5,000 years old (and therefore older than the Pyramids of Giza)! Unlike in Ireland where such sites were built atop mountains or near bodies of water, the Roche aux Fées is located down a country lane in a quiet woodland. It is possible to go inside the tomb – the highest point is 4 metres, so you can stand up inside. As its name suggests, local legend claims that the Roche aux Fées was built by fairies (also common in Irish folklore) as a house or temple.


Pro tip: Generally, April and May are ideal months to travel in France – the weather is mild (generally just a light jacket needed), you’ll avoid peak season prices and there are few others travelling at this time. Watch out for May 1st (Labour Day) when most museums, castles etc are closed. The Roche aux Fées has free entry. Visitor centre open from June to August. 


More Neolithic & Prehistoric Ireland


 

Saint Gervais les Bains, France

St Gervais les Bains

Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, France

Saint-Gervais-les-Bains is the posh cousin of the even more posh ski resort of Chamonix. In winter, both Saint Gervais and Chamonix – and countless other Alpine towns – turn into a winter wonderland, welcoming skiers from all over the world (but usually the poshest parts of the world in the case of Chamonix and Saint Gervais. Less posh visitors might go instead to Grenoble or Annecy). The summer season, on the other hand, is quite different. During summer, the Alps become less… well, posh. People arrive with muddy hiking boots, trekking poles, and well-worn backpacks, ready to get out into the wild. Places like Saint-Gervais-les-Bains become fantastic jumping off points for hiking in the Alps, the perfect combination between comfort and rustic mountain rustic charm. The trails are limitless, and there’s plenty for every level. Whether you prefer challenging mountain hikes, gentle countryside ambles, or something in between, it’s certain you’ll find it in the Alps. We recommend hiring a local guide for a day to show off the best trails best suited to your level – or at the very least, consulting the local tourism office. And by evening, settle in to the cosy warmth of the town with a well-earned cold beer and steaming pizza!


Pro tip: Be sure to try some of the local Savoyard pizzas – the proximity to Italy makes them utterly delicious. Also, be sure to try other dishes like tartiflette, raclette or fondu – all dishes made with local cheese.


Explore More of the Alps


 

Château de Menthon-Saint-Bernard, France

Annecy hills Château de Menthon-Saint-Bernard

Château de Menthon-Saint-Bernard near Annecy, France

Perched atop the lush foothills of the French Alps and overlooking the beautiful azure waters of the Lac d’Annecy, the Château de Menthon-Saint-Bernard (more commonly known as the Château de Menthon), is a spectacular medieval castle that can trace its foundations back to the 10th century! Originally built to maintain control of the lake and the old Roman road through the mountains, Château de Menthon is named after St Bernard of Menthon, the patron saint of skiers (as well as founder of hospitals and other saintly deeds). Unlike most castles who have changed hands many times, the Chateau de Menthon has actually been in the Menthon family since about 1180 – an impressive feat! Though little changed throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the castle was renovated several times in the 18th and 19th centuries. Fun fact – the father of the present owner was present during the Nuremburg Trials (representing France) and was one of the early forces behind a “united Europe” (later to become the European Union). With over a 100 rooms (though not all on display of course!), the castle is an incredible architectural undertaking. The Château de Menthon’s fairytale-like setting overlooking village, lake and mountains, tucked deep into the woodland, adds to the castle’s charm, wonder and intrigue.

Pro tip: Also visit the Chateau d’Annecy, who shares a similar architecture (and is currently home to a modern art museum). Make the most of the lake and explore the Lac d’Annecy by boat.


Visit More of Annecy


 

Arnas Village, Beaujolais, France

Arnas flowers.jpg

Arnas Village, France

Tucked into the Beaujolais, the wee French village of Arnas is found just outside of Villefranche-sur-Saône, the “capital” of the Beaujolais wine region. On the lovely city of Lyon’s doorstep are two impressive wine regions – to the south is the Côtes du Rhône, and to the north is the Beaujolais. Though smaller than the Côtes du Rhône, the Beaujolais is the superior wine-making region as its rolling hills and tiny cobbled villages follow an ancient tradition ever-present to the region and imprinted into the landscape. Arnas is one such village where wine is all-important, an art passed from father to son, mother to daughter. Every September is the harvest season, a time of year in which the whole family gets together to harvest the grapes. Not long after the harvest (or “vendanges“) is the festival of the Beaujolais Nouveau in November – the presentation and drinking of the new wine. This year, it was this past weekend – the 21st of November – but the festival of the Beaujolais Nouveau is held around the same time every year – see more info here. Arnas itself is a small place though bustling with life, from dancing sunflowers on the edge of the village to a busy village square where church, school, bar, restaurant and bakery all jostle for place. Cobbled streets, historic houses and narrow alleys make this place the perfect stereotypical Beaujolais village. Make sure you don’t leave without a bit of wine!


Pro tip: Come in November for the Fete de Beaujolais Nouveau! But even if you visit at another time of the year, there will be plenty of wine – and probably the odd festival too. There are many signposted hiking paths (“sentiers”) that weave through the region, lovely for short hikes and countryside rambles. Don’t miss the lovely domaine, Château de Fléchères on the other side of the river – visitor info here


Other Places in the Beaujolais & Nearby


 

Tunnel de la Croix Rousse, Lyon, France

CroixRousse Tunnel.jpgTunnel de la Croix Rousse – Modes Doux, Lyon, France

One of Lyon’s many little-known secrets is the Tunnel de la Croix Rousse. Tunnels and passageways have a long history in Lyon, with the most famous being the traboules of Vieux Lyon and Croix Rousse (sort of interior passages used to transport silk and other textiles without going outside). The Tunnel de Croix Rousse – passing underneath the historic neighbourhood – was originally opened to motor vehicles in 1952. It wasn’t until much later, in 2013, that the pedestrianised tunnel was opened – just in time for the renowned Fête des Lumières, an amazing lights festival held over several days in December every year. But even when it’s not the Fête des Lumières, the whole length of the Tunnel de la Croix Rousse plays host to animations, colours, and short films projected on the walls and ceiling of this long pedestrian tunnel. For a city that prides itself on films, cameras, tunnels (or passages) and imagination, the Tunnel de la Croix Rousse is the perfect combination. Traversing this tunnel is far more than for getting from point A to point B – it is a veritable work of art, bringing the viewer into the heart of the city.


Pro tip: At 1.8 kilometres long (roughly 1 mile), biking through the tunnel is perhaps the easiest way to enjoy the show – walking will take about 25 mins. You can rent a city bike from any of the hundreds of stations of the Velo’V all around the city at a very reasonable daily rate. Learn more about the tunnel hereAnimations from 16h to 20h on weekdays and from 14h to 20h on weekends. 


Caves of Clierzou, Auvergne, France

Auvergne caves

Caves of Clierzou, Auvergne, France

The region of Auvergne is surely one of the most under-rated in all of France. Barely a blimp on most tourist’s radars, Auvergne, located in the heart of the country, is home to an incredible mountain range, the Massif Central. Incredibly ancient, beautiful and rugged though accessible, the Puys of the Massif Central are a hiker’s paradise. While the Puy de Dôme is the icon of Auvergne and its mountain range, there are many other lesser-known mountains, like the Puy de Clierzou (or Cliersou), rising some 1,199 metres and home to a network of caves. Though the mountains were remote until opened up by recent roads, the Caves of Clierzou have been used since Antiquity, when they were found and inhabited by the Gallo-Roman peoples. Atop the Puy de Dôme there is the Roman-era Temple of Mercure, but in smaller places like the Caves of Clierzou, there is also evidence of human use through the centuries. From the Caves of Clierzou, one has a good view of the Puy de Dôme, a sacred place for those who built their temple here. Oh and did we mention these mountains are extinct volcanoes? On your hike through the Puy de Clierzou and the Puy de Sansy past the caves, you’ll get the chance to stand inside an ancient volcanic crater…


Pro tip: Clermont-Ferrand is the regional capitol and main point of entry. Near the Caves of Clierzou, Orcines is the closet town, and home to a splendid cathedral (one of five of the same design, like this one at nearby St Saturnin). There are many hikes in the Massif Central and the Puys – the hike up Puy de Sansy (with the added bonus of Puy de Clierzou) is one of the more popular and well-marked. There is some info here and a circuit of Puy de Sansy here. No wild camping or fires allowed. 


More of Auvergne


 

Autumn Foliage in Parc Tete d’Or, France

Lyon parc tete d'or.jpg

Autumn Foliage in Parc de la Tete d’Or, Lyon, France

Though far from its only park, le Parc de al Tete d’Or is certainly Lyon‘s premier public park. Though lovely all year round, Parc de la Tete d’Or holds a particular charm during the transitional seasons. Spring is full of blooming flowers while autumn bursts into fall  flame of foliage. During autumn, the whole park erupts into a patchwork quilt of golds, oranges, reds and yellows, making it a lovely place for a romantic stroll, a quiet picnic, a lovely jog or even a nice place to walk the dog. Translating as “the Park of the Golden Head,” it is supposedly named for a legend claiming that a golden Christ’s head is buried here. Founded in 1845 after much call for an urban park, the Parc de la Tete d’Or encompasses 117 hectares (almost 300 acres). Within these acres, find an outdoor zoo, botanical gardens and a great glasshouse, a rose garden, a lake with several island, sports facilities, children’s playgrounds, and kilometres of trails lined with trees, gardens, sculptures and cafes (bonus – everything in the park is free!). There are paddleboats on the lake (better to look at then to actually use), and even a little train (also best avoided). Running groups use this as a place to swap urban scenes with beautiful landscapes – if you’re looking for a longer run, follow the Rhone river north of Tete d’Or to connect with the Parc de la Feyssine. No matter when you visit, the Parc Tete d’Or is sure to impress!


Pro tip: Don’t miss Boulevard des Belges, a grand avenue running parallel to the park’s southern side. Lined with grand and beautiful hotels or mansions dating from the last two centuries, Boulevard des Belges has long held a reputation as the most expensive street to live on in Lyon – rent upwards of €2,500/month! Crane your head upwards to view all of the architecural detail. On the northern side is Interpol HQ. Housed in a modern complex near the Musée d’art Contemporain, it may not be much to look at, but it’s a pretty cool place behind the scenes… 


Find other urban parks


 

Réserve Naturelle de Carlaveyron, Alps, France

Alps valley.jpg

Réserve Naturelle de Carlaveyron, Alps, France

The Alpine city of Chamonix is famous the world over as the premier luxury ski capital. But beyond the glamorous Alpine resort, there are many smaller towns, villages and hamlet, including the wee hamlet of Montvauthier, on the edge of the Réserve Naturelle de Carlaveyron. And though Mont Blanc is the famous Alpine mountain, there are many other lesser-known places for hiking in the Alps. The beautiful reserve of the Réserve Naturelle de Carlaveyron, created in 1991, is part of the Arve Valley, and is distinguished by high peaks, lush woodlands, and rich flora and fauna. The peaks of Carlaveyron were almost given over to more than a dozen lifts but luckily instead, Carlaveyron was designated as a nature reserve, protecting the rich Alpine flora and fauna of the Haute-Savoie. At heights ranging from 1,000-2,300 metres (3,200-7,500ft), the hiking is rough but the fantastic panoramas are worth it. Carlaveyron is also home to the impressive Gorges de la Diosaz, an impressive river gorge at the foot of the mountain. The mountainous reserve is also home to everything from owls to deer, lynx (reintroduced 1970 – there are now about 300!), chamois, eagles, and many species of bird. Hiking in the park can range from short (though steep) hikes to much more difficult Alpine hiking for more experienced hikers used to rough footing, steep ascents and high altitudes. If you’re only looking to do a couple of kilometres, try starting your hike from the Servoz train station, or even the car park of Diosaz. The magical panoramas will carry you up the mountain…


Pro trip: While in the Alps, you’ll have to try some local delicacies like tartiflette, raclette, fondu or even pizza! There are many regional Alpine cheeses to taste as well. 


Where else in the French Alps?


 

Cloisters of Beziers Cathedral, France

Beziers Cathedral cloisters southern France

Cloisters of Beziers Cathedral, France

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. 


Other Places in the South of France


 

Harbour of Calanque de Morgiou, France

calanqes harbour.jpg

Calanque de Morgiou, France

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. 


More Amazing Coastal Landscapes


 

Rooftops over Montélimar, France

Montelliemar tower

Rooftops of Montélimar, France

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. Chapoutiersee 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. 


Visit more Southern French Towns:


 

Church of Notre Dame de St Saturnin, Auvergne, France

St Saturnin.jpg

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.


Other Impressive French Churches


 

Les Gorges d’Ardèche, France

Gorges Ardeches (1)

Les Gorges d’Ardèche, France

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.


Other Great Rivers in Europe


 

Grenoble Old Town, France

Grenoble

Grenoble Old Town, France

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! 


Other Places in the French Alps


 

Walls of Carcassonne, France

Carcassone inside walls.jpg

The Walls of Carcassonne, France

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. 


Find More Amazing French Destinations


 

Billom, France

Billom

Billom, Auvergne, France

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.


Other sites to Visit in Auvergne


 

The Ramparts of St Malo, France

St Malo ramparts blue

The Ramparts of St Malo, France

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. 


Other Places to Visit in France


 

Notre Dame Gargoyles, Paris

Paris Notre Dame Cathedral gargoyles

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. 


Other extraordinary places to visit in France:

 

River Saône in Lyon, France

Lyon river Saone, France

River Saône in Lyon, France

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.


Other Amazing but Under-rated Cities in Europe

 

Besse, France

Besse.jpg

Besse-et-Saint-Anastaise, Auvergne, France

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

 

Chateau de la Batie, Vienne, France

Vienne Batie

Chateau de la Batie, Vienne, France

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 River is 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.


More Great Day Trips from Lyon


This post was originally published in November 2014. It has since been revised and rewritten.