The sheer physical diversity of France would be hard to exhaust in a lifetime of visits. Landscapes range from the fretted coasts of Brittany and the limestone hills of Provence to the canyons of the Pyrenees and the half-moon bays of Corsica, and from the lushly wooded valleys of the Dordogne and the gentle meadows of the Loire valley to the glaciated peaks of the Alps. Each region looks and feels different, has its own style of architecture, its own characteristic food and often its own dialect. Though the French word pays is the term for a whole country, people frequently refer to their own region as mon pays – my country – and this strong sense of regional identity has persisted despite centuries of centralizing governments, from Louis XIV to de Gaulle.
Industrialization came relatively late to France, and for all the millions of French people that live in cities, the idea persists that theirs is a rural country. The importance of the land reverberates throughout French culture, manifesting itself in areas as diverse as regional pride in local cuisine and the state’s fierce defence of Europe’s agricultural subsidies. Perhaps the most striking feature of the French countryside is the sense of space. There are huge tracts of woodland and undeveloped land without a house in sight, and, away from the main urban centres, hundreds of towns and villages have changed only slowly and organically over the years, their old houses and streets intact, as much a part of the natural landscape as the rivers, hills and fields.
Despite this image of pastoral tranquillity, France’s history is notable for its extraordinary vigour. For more than a thousand years the country has been in the vanguard of European development, and the accumulation of wealth and experience is evident everywhere in the astonishing variety of places to visit, from the Dordogne’s prehistoric cave paintings and the Roman monuments of the south, to the Gothic cathedrals of the north, the châteaux of the Loire, and the cutting-edge architecture of the grands projets in Paris. This legacy of history and culture – le patrimoine – is so widely dispersed across the land that even the briefest of stays will leave you with a powerful sense of France’s past.
The importance of these traditions is felt deeply by the French state, which fights to preserve and develop its national culture perhaps harder than any other country in the world, and by private companies, which also strive to maintain French traditions in arenas as diverse as haute couture, pottery and, of course, food. The fruits of these efforts are evident in the subsidized arts, notably the film industry, and in the lavishly endowed and innovative museums and galleries. From colonial history to fishing techniques, aeroplane design to textiles, and migrant shepherds to manicure, an array of impressive collections can be found across the nation. Inevitably, however, first place must go to the fabulous displays of fine art in Paris, a city which has nurtured more than its fair share of the finest creative artists of the last century and a half, both French – Monet and Matisse for example – and foreign, such as Picasso and Van Gogh.
There are all kinds of pegs on which to hang a holiday in France: a city, a region, a river, a mountain range, gastronomy, cathedrals, châteaux. All that open space means there’s endless scope for outdoor activities, from walking, canoeing and cycling to skiing and sailing, but if you need more urban stimuli – clubs, shops, fashion, movies, music – then the great cities provide them in abundance.Read More
For your average Frenchman, any recipe for a relaxing summer’s evening would have to include the three Ps: plane trees (or palms at a pinch); pastis; and that most quintessentially French of games, pétanque. You’ll see this Gallic version of bowls played on countless squares across the country, where groups of mostly middle-aged men in baggy shorts congregate around gravel-and-dirt boulodromes to lob heavy metal boules at diminutive wooden ones called cochonnets (literally “piglets”). Pétanque matches played after work and on weekends are part and parcel of the daily rhythm of life, especially in the south.
The game was invented in 1907 in the town of La Ciotat on the Côte d’Azur by an enthusiastic bowler whose rheumatism prevented him from making the usual extended run up. Instead, he devised a version of his favourite sport in which the bowler’s feet stayed planted firmly on the ground (pieds tanqués). The pitch was shortened accordingly, and after the local bar owner firmed up a set of rules, the new game quickly caught on. A whole lexicon has evolved around pétanque to describe different throws and scenarios. Each team, for example, has a mix of “pointeurs” (pointers), players who place the ball as closely as possible to the jack, and “tireurs” (shooters), whose job it is to displace the opposition’s balls with spectacular lobs. If the throw falls short, it’s a “palouf”. If it nudges one of the other team’s balls, it’s made a “biberon”, or “baby’s bottle”. “Faire la Micheline” means to turn up for a game without your own set of boules. “Faire la chanson” refers to attempts to distract the opposition by chatting between points. And, most insulting of all for wannabe pétanque players from the UK, “faire de l’anglais” describes a totally hopeless throw.
Finally, if you’re lucky enough to spectate at a complete whitewash, you’ll experience the most ribald of all pétanque traditions, “Kissing the Fanny”. When a team or individual player loses by 13 points to zero they have to kiss the bare buttocks of a statue or framed picture of a lady named “Fanny”, usually kept in the nearest bar expressly for the purpose.
“La Grand Boucle”
“La Grand Boucle”
Each year, in the sweltering heat of July, millions of people take up positions on roadsides around France to cheer, shout and bellow cries of encouragement to a pelaton of nearly 200 cyclists as they speed past in a stream of day-glo lycra. Millions more watch on television – though few of them are cycling aficionados. Because the Tour de France is far more than a mere bike race. For the French, it’s a national institution; a symbol of unity; a chance, as the riders pit themselves against the toughest terrain the mighty héxagone can throw at them, to admire the scenic splendour of the country in all its summer glory, with the fields of the Garonne’s sun flowers in full bloom, the Côte d’Azur at its most sleek, and the craggy Alps basking under boundless blue skies.
Started in 1903, the Tour was born out of the rivalry between two sporting papers, L’Auto and Le Vélo, as a ruse to boost sales. The passion it incited nearly scuppered the event in its second year, when riders were beaten up by rival fans and cheating was rife (racers were spotted jumping into cars and taking trains). These days, in the wake of a series of high-profile doping scandals, performance-enhancing drugs pose the main threat to the survival of the 3600-km (2200-mile) race, though La Grand Boucle (the “Great Loop”), as it’s known, still casts a powerful spell over the nation. And it’s not just an obsession for the French; in 2012, Britain’s own Bradley Wiggins clinched the title – the Tour’s first British winner – successfully ensuring a new and ardent fan base just across the Channel.