Tain l’Hermitage, France

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M. Chapoutier Vinyards, Tain l’Hermitage, France

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

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Megève, France

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Megève, France

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

St Guilheim-le-Désert, France

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Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, France

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

Albigny-sur-Saône, France

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Turreted house in Albigny-sur-Saône, France

Turning a corner and spotting a pair of turrets, even in a small village, is a pretty normal thing in Europe. There was a moment in history where everyone in Europe with a lofty bank account wanted a castle (during the 18-19th century), and there just weren’t enough to go around. So, they started building – and they got creative. Sometimes these ‘new’ castles were habitable, like this one here in Albigny. Sometimes, they were ‘follies’ (more common in England), where people constructed facades of (usually ruined) castles on their property for aesthetic purposes, like Sham Castle near Bath, UK. Their constructors always pretended they were old and ruined but in fact they were carefully constructed to look that way. Or sometimes they renovated their old mansions to look medieval or Gothic, adding turrets, gargoyles, crinolines, moats, towers, or other objects of the same effect (like the gargoyles at the House of Chimeras in Kiev). Sometimes they modelled their new castles on other famous castles, like Vajahunyad Castle‘s Transylvanian inspiration. Other times, in order to maintain some ‘authenticity,’ they bought up bits of old castles and put them together in a Frankenstein-type creation, like at Kreuzenstein Castle. In any case, with all these creations, it begs the question…what is a ‘real’ castle? Is there such a thing? Or are they all ‘real’ castles…?

Château de Vimy, Neuville-sur-Saône, France

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The château de Vimy in Neuville-Sur-Saône, France

Of course, the list of reasons why you should fall in love with France is longer than China’s Great Wall, but one of things from the list that particularly stands out is the sheer number and beauty of French villages. While places like Poland, Croatia or Latvia have their own form of beauty (Polish old towns are especially beautiful, Croatia has an magnificent coastline and Latvia has some magnificent “unexplored” wilds), 9 times out of 1o, the villages you encounter in their countryside are just okay. Of course, Spanish and British and German villages are cute too…but nothing beats France. One of the best ways to see France is to get a bike, head out to the countryside – biking along the Saône River, the Rhône River, the Loire River or the Gard River are just a few examples of river-based itineraries – and visit the villages. This particular village, renamed Neuville in 1665 by the archbishop of Lyon, Camille de Neufville, features this castle or une maison forte, as the French say (literally, a “strong house” i.e. a fortified dwelling), that rises up from the town’s centre. Sadly, the castle is in disrepair and closed to the public, but this has little affect on the loveliness of the surrounding village. The Monts d’Or region north of Lyon (literally, “Mountains of Gold”) along the Saône River, is full of adorable, take-your-breath-away villages (and not just because you’re huffing and puffing after putting a few kilometers on that French bicycle!) – so don’t forget your camera. Or a bit of cash – Les Monts d’Or borders the Beaujolais wine region, so be sure to taste local wines, perhaps buy fresh, local produce, or even stop for a quick beer by the river!