The grandeur of the Alps, or the only slightly gentler mountains of the Pyrenees; the sophisticated chic and monuments of Paris, or the thriving sea-port of Marseilles; the sun-warmed elegance of Nice and Cannes – the original Riviera, remember – or the rugged Atlantic coast of Brittany. That’s La Belle France as you might capture it on camera. But the real essence of France is in its tastes, its smells, its eating and drinking. Go to Provence and you can scent the hill-side perfumes of fresh herbs before you taste them in the cooking. Take a serious palate to Burgundy, where the blend of classic dishes and wine reaches a perfection unattained anywhere else in the world. Follow the lazily flowing Loire for its literally fairy-tale chateaux, or the Gironde for the equally spellbinding Bordeaux wines. (Oh, and we almost, impossibly, forgot Champagne) But if that’s still not enough variety, Napoleon’s island of Corsica (more wild-herb scents) or the tourist-neglected Alsace are almost stand-alone separate countries.
Renowned as the birthplace of the Napoleon, Corsica is an island région of mainland France with perhaps more diversities than similarities. A sub-tropical climate with many beaches, the fourth-largest island in the Mediterranean has a spectacular mountainous interior giving the unforgettable sweet-scented fragrance of wild herbs and flowers that every visitor takes away with them. In the 16th century it was a legal requirement for every farmer to plant four trees – chestnut, olive, fig and mulberry. Ajaccio, the capital boasts a fine (and picturesque) harbour, the house in which Napoleon was born, a handsome cathedral and, of course, a majestic statue of the Emperor himself.
Or Dunkerque as on the road signs from the busy cross-channel harbour (the third largest in France). For many, especially of an older generation, ’Dunkirk’ represents a key moment in English history when Winston Churchill’s ‘miracle’ small ships evacuation of the BEF, early in WW II, changed a potentially hugely different world. The army was saved, Nazism eventually defeated, and today’s town is a pleasant cross-channel gateway – though with the beach memorial still visited by countless visitors. Being French and on the coast, superb sea-food is everywhere to hand – with the nearness of the Belgian border highlighting ‘moules-frites’.
The stronghold of the Dukes of Burgundy when they were more powerful than the French kings, Lille has always been a ‘crossroads’ town on the Franco-Belgian border. It leapt in prominence with the opening of the Channel Tunnel and, in 1994, the 186 mph Eurostar high-speed train. It is the point at which the route diverges to Paris or Brussels but is a superb city in its own right for a fast-access visit to traditional France (100 mins from London’s St Pancras terminal). The Eurostar station is a five minute walk from the old centre of Lille with its cobbled streets, elegant shops and excellent restaurants – the world famous L’Huîtrière is there, near the Cathedral. The Palais de Beaux Arts is second only to the Louvre, crammed with fine art from renaissance to the impressionists. The proximity makes Lille a wonderful week-end or even same-day dining out destination (there’s a splendid Christmas market). But if you can spare the time, try the amazing Art Deco public baths with in-shower ceramics by Picasso.
Sheltered by the Alpes Maritimes and Cap d’Antibes, Nice’s balmy climate is ideal year-round. It’s everything you’d want from a glamorous Côte d’Azur resort. Amble along the broad sweep of the Promenade des Anglais, past the elegant Hôtel Negresco as far as the Opera House, then delve into the maze of ancient streets and squares that make up the Old Town. Faded townhouses topped with terracotta tiles surround the Cours Saleya, a polychromatic market by day, a tempting dining venue by sundown. Before you hit the beach or head for the hills of Provence, climb to the Chateau for views across the Baie des Anges, visit the Roman ruins and browse the Matisse and Chagall museums.
Ever more eclectic and cosmopolitan, the French capital remains reliably French. Familiar sights like the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Sacré-Coeur or the Arc de Triomphe act like points on a compass around this city of grand boulevards penned out by Baron Haussmann in the 19th century. Modern idioms like the Pompidou Centre or the Louvre’s glass pyramid sidestep controversy, while café philosophers seem more embroiled in the politics of the day than digesting Sartre. Whether browsing in the Quartier Latin, climbing the steps to romantic Montmartre, gazing at impressionist brushstrokes in the Musée d’Orsay, humouring besuited waiters in the Café de la Paix, deciphering French rap, dining on cous-cous or creole fare… Paris never fails to seduce.
A 13th century, still-flourishing, major university gives Toulouse a slightly raffish, bohemian feel. The headquarters of one of Europe’s key aero-space industries (flight of the Concorde and now home of AirBus) gives it a hi-tech dimension. Steeped in Crusader history and the former capital of the Languedoc region, the Ville Rose (rose-red city, for its characteristic brickwork) sits between Atlantic and Mediterranean France as well as being the gateway to the Pyrenees. Gastronomically, cassoulet simply could not have been invented without the Toulouse sausage and with Burgundy in one direction and Bordeaux in the other, yet again the only problem is choice.