Great Places – France

       France has long been one of the premier travel destinations in Europe, primarily because of the allure of Paris, but also because there are many other sights that beckon the tourist. France has a long and storied history and is blessed with cultural traditions which vary depending on the region. It is also, perhaps, the most famous wine-making area in the world. Many of the most popular wines are named from the region of France where they originated. Its chefs are considered among the finest in the world. And its people… can 10,000 Frenchmen be wrong?
      Below are descriptions of some of the country’s major travel destinations. A photo album will be available shortly.
      1. Paris
             Paris may be the most beautiful city in the world. The area around the Seine River is not only historically and culturally significant, but the architecture is stunning. There is no more romantic stroll than a walk along the Seine River at dusk. The Eiffel Tower is visible all along the river.
             The Eiffel Tower is one of the world’s most famous landmarks. It dominates the skyline of Paris and is visible from almost anywhere in the city. It is beautifully lit at night, a spectacular sight. It was the centerpiece of the 1889 World’s Fair and remains today as an icon of the city. Expect long lines to both climb and/or ride (on elevators) to the observation decks. Near the base of the tower, along the river Seine, are the embarkation docks for the Bateaux-Mouche, boats which ride up and down the Seine with their narrated tours of the sights along the river. The boat ride is especially nice in the evening (Paris has very late sunsets in the summer) when it is cooler and the light is softer.
           To the east, the visitor will find the Place de la Concorde, an elegant square and the historical location of the guillotine used to execute King Louis XVI and others in 1793. Today it contains the Luxor Obelisk, an Egyptian monument over 3300 years old. This square is a bit difficult to appreciate because of the noise and traffic.
           Nearby, one will also find the Louvre, perhaps the world’s greatest and, rightfully, most popular Art museum. It is positively huge, and impossible to manage in one visit, so do what most tourists do — concentrate on a few galleries and/or pieces, then return in subsequent visits to see other parts of the museum. The absolute must sees are the following: Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, in the Italian collection (there are also other Da Vinci’s here, as well as a huge collection of other Renaissance paintings); and the famous sculptures of Venus de Milo (Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of Love) and the Winged Victory of Samothrace, which are located in the Ancient Greek and Roman section. The Louvre is also famous these days as one of the settings for the popular novel and movie, The Da Vinci Code.
           Try not to be disappointed by the Mona Lisa — many tourists are, since it such a small painting in such a large room, surrounded by many other more intimidating works. The fact that it is behind glass in also disconcerting for some, since it makes picture-taking more difficult. But a close look at the painting (the crowds do make it difficult to get a clear view) reveals its elegance and mystery.
           Notre Dame Cathedral, one the most beloved houses of worship in the world, located on the Ile de Cite (city island), in the middle of the Seine, is another of the must-see attractions of Paris. It has been immortalized in Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. Its construction began in the 12th century and is certainly an imposing, Gothic edifice, perhaps the quintessential Gothic cathedral in the world. Its facade has been much copied, while its gargoyles (strange-looking creature sculptures which adorn its exteriors) are the stuff of legend. Note the row of statues (Kings of Judah) and the statue of Mary, mother of Jesus, on the facade. Inside, don’t miss the Rose windows.
           Before leaving the Notre Dame area, walk across the Seine on the bridge to the rear of the church for a spectacular view of the flying buttresses, a distinctive characteristic of Gothic churches, actually an engineering requirement to support the arches, which allow the expansive height of these churches.
           Other areas of the city should also be included on everyone’s travel itinerary. Walk west long the Champs Elysses (an extremely broad, tree-lined avenue, replete with upscale shops and restaurants) to the Arc d’Triomphe, which commands the upper end of the famous street. It is a monument, commissioned by Napoleon, to commemorate his victory at Austerlitz and is the largest memorial of its type in the world. The arch is fittingly located at the convergence of 12 huge avenues, which lead, like spokes of a wheel, away from it. Visitors must walk through a tunnel under the very busy traffic circle to gain access to the arch. Climbing the 284 stairs to the top rewards the visitor with a panoramic view of the city of Paris. The view of the Eiffel Tower from here is especially beautiful.
           Stroll through and/or relax in the Luxembourg Gardens, a treasure of tranquility in this very crowded city.
           Sacre Coeur, another of Paris’s beautiful churches, sits atop the Montmartre section of the city. Its location is extremely prominent, and, although initially disliked by the Parisians, has become one of the city’s many symbols. It is elegant in white, and is best reached by a funicular, since the climb is extremely steep. It also offers a spectacular view of the entire city. Montmartre itself is still the domain of artists and provides a wonderful stroll.
            Near Sacre Coeur, at the bottom of the hill, is the famous Moulin Rouge, a nightclub in the Pigalle (red-light) district. It is certainly worth a look for those who can tolerate the atmosphere of smut and pornography. It still operates as a nightclub, in the evenings.
            The most important excursion from Paris is to Versailles, the epitome of a kingly palace, the envy of monarchs everywhere, often copied, never duplicated. It is located just (about 50 km or 30 miles) west of Paris and makes an excellent day trip. There are numerous options for the visit. Highlights include the Hall of Mirrors, the State Apartments, King’s Apartments, and the Gardens. A guided tour is recommended to get the most from the visit, since guides offer many interesting tidbits of information. Inside, no matter how the visit proceeds, the cacophony of sound from various guides speaking myriad languages, each trying to speak louder that all the others, is disconcerting to say the least. Try to arrive early in the day, before the hordes of buses and their tour groups.
            Another popular day trip is south to the town of Chartres to explore its famous Cathedral. It is considered a model of Gothic architecture and has been copied many times over the years. A cathedral has existed on this site since the 4th century, although today‘s gothic structure dates to the 12th century. It is an imposing sight for any visitor since it towers over the town and can be seen for miles.
            The cathedral is famous for its stained glass windows and their very distinctive, glowing, “Chartres-blue” (only recently have scientists discovered that Sodium compounds may be responsible for its uniqueness. Note also the portals over the doors. Much of the church is somewhat run down and should be restored.
            One of the most popular excursions from Paris is to Eurodisney, or Disneyland Paris, the European version of the famous theme park first constructed in Anaheim, California. The European park is similar to its counterparts in the USA except for some of the details, such as language, etc. The park is composed of five major areas or “lands”, Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, Discoveryland, and Main Street. Each of these “parks within a park” has themed rides, authentic-looking buildings and architecture, as well as shops and restaurants. Disney Characters patrol the park and interact with visitors. An additional area, Walt Disney Studios Park, opened in 2002, showcases the world of motion pictures. It is a great experience for adults and children alike.
        2. Mont-St-Michel
               Mont St-Michel rises dramatically from the sea as one approaches from the mainland. It is truly an awe-inspiring sight and positively unique in the world — an offshore rocky mountain transformed into a place of worship with a village fortress around it. It is difficult to imagine how someone conceived the idea to build such a structure and the engineering involved in its construction makes one marvel at the ability of Medieval stone masons and architects.
               The island is approachable today by a causeway which links it to the mainland and which offers a parking area for vehicles (no cars are allowed inside the walled city). Visitors must walk along the causeway to enter through the Bavole Gate, which leads to the main street, the “cour de l’Avancee”, which then winds upward to the Abbey. The street is crammed with shops and restaurants.
               But the Abbey is the purpose for visiting. It is precariously perched on top of the rocky island and has had an interesting, sometimes surprising, history since construction first began in 708 AD. The church and associated buildings (the Marvel) were built in several architectural styles, including Gothic, Flamboyant Gothic, and Romanesque. Somehow, it all blends together.
               An interesting anecdote about Mont St-Michel focuses on US Astronaut, Alan Shepard, who had the “right stuff” to be chosen as one of the first group of astronauts for the United States manned space program. As a matter of fact, he was the first American to be launched from a rocket. As the story goes, when Shepard was later chosen to participate in a lunar landing, he decided to bring three (3) pairs of rosary beads with him to the moon. When he returned, he kept one pair for himself, gave another to the Pope during an audience subsequent to his return, and he kept the third for a religious site which “truly inspires me”. He gave the third pair of rosary beads to the Abbott of the monastery at Mont St-Michel after his visit there.
           Be sure to see the Abbey Church, the Cloister, the battlements, the Guest’s Room, and the Crypts (not tombs but hidden areas which support the Church and Marvel).
           Take the guided tour for a richer and more meaningful experience since the concept of the church’s construction and layout can be confusing and the history is extremely interesting.
      3. Loire Valley
            The Chateaux of the Loire Valley epitomize the power and wealth of 15th and 16th century France. There are numerous mansions in this region, but the mainstays are Chambord and Chenonceau, both striking examples of the indulgences of the time.
            Chambord began as a hunting lodge, but has evolved into perhaps the most elaborate and perhaps garish example of royal excess. Its towers and pinnacles are, nevertheless, imposing and striking.
            Chenonceau is softer and more pleasing, especially because it extends over the river Cher, making for a dramatic effect. On the inside, the part of the villa known as the gallery (an addition supervised by Catherine de Medici) is probably the most interesting part of the visit. Chenonceau’s gardens are also worth a stroll and offer numerous photo opportunities.
            Other chateaux also deserve mention and should be included if the visitor is spending several days in the region. Azay-le-Rideau is a far more intimate castle and seems, not the residence of kings, but of common men and women. Villandry is, perhaps, most noted for its lovely gardens. Blois has a wonderful setting, right on the Loire River, and the town itself invites exploration. Loches also is a charming Medieval village with ramparts which can be walked and the Church of Saint-Ours, which is very interesting. Angers has perhaps the most formidable castle in the entire valley and also has numerous hotels and restaurants so can serve as a base of operations. The city of Tours is perhaps a better base since it is closer to the most popular of the chateaux.
      4. Alsace Region
             The Alsace is an area of France near the German-Swiss border which has changed hands (between France and Germany) many times over its history. It is also a major wine-producing area of France today, and its “Wine Road” (Route du Vin) is extremely popular with knowledgeable tourists. The incredibly attractive villages along the road vie for attention, with their walled Medieval flavor, their obligatory castle on the hill, and with an unbelievable display of flowers hanging from window boxes, on street lights, etc. Strolling through several of the villages, sampling the wines, and having lunch in one of the many restaurants or cafes, makes a great day trip.
              All the villages are attractive, but try to stop at Riquewihr, Ribeauville and Kaysersberg (the birthplace of Dr. Albert Schweitzer) in particular. Others include Obernai, and Turckheim. Colmar makes a great base of operations if staying in the area for several days.
              In the vicinity is the city of Strasbourg, one of Europe’s most elegant cities. It was founded in 12 A.D. by the son of Augustus. The most famous sight in the city is its beautiful pink-limestone Cathedral, which dates from the 12th century. Its Gothic spire is one of Christianity’s highest. Inside the cathedral, watch at 12:30 PM for the elaborate Astronomical Clock, complete with moving Apostles and angels, to strike noon!! There are less elaborate displays at the quarter-hours. Pet the tiny carved dog on the pulpit for good luck.
             Self-Walking tours of the city are available at the Tourist Information Office. Also take advantage of the excellent museums, if so inclined.
             Another possible base of operations for an exploration of this region is the Swiss city of Basel, located at a bend in the Rhine River where France, Germany, and Switzerland meet. Basel has a cute, little Old Town with a bright, red Town Hall and several interesting fountains.
      5. Monaco
             Monaco, a tiny principality on the French Riviera, is world-famous for its casino (Monte Carlo) and for its royalty and wealthy visitors. The entire area is positively spotless and totally geared for tourism, especially involving the rich and famous. The view from the park in front of the casino, looking toward the casino, with its beautiful flowers, fountains, and flags, is picture-perfect.
             Inside the casino, the elegance is pervasive, making this an extremely comfortable place to lose money. Check out the Hotel de Paris, right next door, for a further glimpse into the lifestyles of the pampered and catered-to.
             Walk down to the harbor to drool at perhaps the most expensive fleet of yachts in the world.
      6. Provence
              Avignon, France, is in the heart of the Provence region and, besides being a major tourist destination on its own, makes a great center of operations for an exploration of this charming area. The city traces its roots to Roman times although little is left from those days. However, the Place de l’Horloge, the main gathering place in the city with its many cafes and restaurants, is built over the location of the ancient Roman forum.
              The Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) recalls another critical event in the history of Avignon. Pope Clement V moved the papal residence from Rome to Avignon in 1309, to escape the bickering and in-fighting in Rome, where it continued until 1403 (although from 1378 to 1403 there were two popes, one in Rome and the other in Avignon). This palace is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
              Above the Palace is the Parc de Rochers des Doms, once the domain of Cardinals and Bishops, now a public park, where a walkway offers superb views of the surrounding countryside, including the Pont St-Benezet, which spans the nearby Rhone river, to an island in the middle of the river. It is also a World Heritage Site, although 18 of its original arches have been destroyed over the years.
              Provence’s Villages, in the minds of some, rival Tuscan villages in charm and ambience. A visit to the area should include at least several, depending on time.
              One area which should not be missed is the Luberon, a ridge of hills to the east of Avignon. Towns that merit a visit here include Roussillon, with its picturesque square and lovely panoramic views of the surrounding area, Fontaine de Vaucluse, which, along with Gordes, is extremely popular with tourists, Joucas, which is often skipped in favor of other towns, Lacoste, Bonnieux, Oppede le Vieux, and Goult. Expect windy conditions throughout the area during any season.
              Another cluster of villages are found in the Cotes du Rhone area, north of Avignon and the Luberon. This area is an important wine-producing region of France. Among these towns are Vaison la Romaine, with its Lower City and pedestrian-only Hill Town above; Gigondas, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which has the ruins of the Papal summer residence; and Orange, with its Roman Theater, still in use for entertainment.
              While in Avignon, be sure to take an excursion west of the city to the Pont du Gard, a perfectly preserved Roman aqueduct which supplied water to the city of Nimes. The attraction is well-developed as a tourist sight with the Grande Expo, a visitor center of sorts, which offers a film, a museum, and activities for children to appreciate the sight better. Be sure to walk out to the aqueduct to inspect and get a feel for its construction.
       7. Eze
             Eze, in southern France, along the French Riviera, between Nice and Monaco, is a wonderful half-day trip from either location. It is a Medieval hill town, perfectly preserved, with breath-taking views of the Mediterranean. It requires a steep walk up the narrow, cobblestone street, but is worth every huff and puff. Stop, for a rest, at the myriad boutiques, shops, and restaurants.
             For an interesting and unusual experience, stop at the perfume outlets (Fragonard or Gallimard) to learn about the manufacture of perfume and to sample and/or purchase the fragrances.
             For a spectacular view of the French Riviera from atop the village, visit the Jardins Exotiques, an additional expense.
      8. Nice & the French Riviera
             Nice and the French Riviera are located on the southern shores of France. This particular area of the Mediterranean is stunningly beautiful and has become a playground for both the rich and famous as well as the average tourist. Nice is a great base of operations for exploring this area, since it is central, is an attraction in its own right, and has extensive lodging accommodations and other tourist services.
             Vieux (Old) Nice is a charming area with narrow streets, squares, shops and restaurants. Any time spent in Nice should include a stroll up and down the Promenade des Anglais, the boulevard along the beach. Here, one can admire the “beautiful people” who frequent the cobbled beach, check out the elegant hotels, and enjoy the semi-tropical ambiance.
             Parallel with the Promenade, behind the numerous hotels which face the beach, is a pedestrian street which offers shops, restaurants and crowds of people.
             Other towns along this section of the Mediterranean coast include Cannes, world famous for its film festival which takes place each year in May and attracts some of the most famous celebrities in the world. The Croisette is its elegant, tree-lined walkway which runs from the casino, past numerous sheik hotels, to the port.
             Another equally famous town is Saint-Tropez whose Vieux Port is great for people-watching and browsing upscale shops.
             Saint-Paul-de-Vence is a walled, Medieval town with fountains and flower-laden terraces.
             The port city of Marseille has seen a resurgence recently and seems to be trying to vie with Nice as the capital of the area.
      9. Normandy Beaches
            The Normandy Beaches, because of their significance during World War II and their connections, as a result, to the many descendants of soldiers from that era, present a moving experience for the visitor. It is interesting to drive along the roads parallel to the beaches, stopping at various towns or gaining access to the water to see some of the remnants of the campaign which are still visible.
            Omaha Beach, near the town of Colleville is probably the most popular tourist stop, since this was the main location used by American troops, and has been much documented in a number of movies. Walk down to the beach to get an idea of how intimidating it must have been for the soldiers to try to land on this strip of sand with little or no cover and ascend to the distant ridge, heavily fortified with German machine guns.
            Then travel to the American Cemetery to be overwhelmed with the number of graves of servicemen who died in the days around D-Day. There are 9,387 Americans buried here and this number represents only about 40% of the actual casualties. It is a very sobering experience. Wander awhile amongst the graves and visit the memorial which commemorates their sacrifice.
            A great base of operations for an exploration of this area is the city of Caen, which, besides offering accommodations and numerous restaurants for visitors, also has several attractions worth a short visit. These include the Chateau Ducal, the castle-palace of William the Conqueror, which was constructed around 1060 AD, the Men’s Abbey, and the Ladies’ Abbey.
           Between Caen and the Normandy Beaches is the lovely town of Bayeaux, which is world-famous for its Bayeaux Tapestry, an 85 meter (250 foot) long depiction of the events leading up to and including the Battle of Hastings, which took place in 1066 AD, in England, and forever changed the history of Europe and the Western World.
           While in Normandy, travel east to the coastal town of Honfleur, France. This town has gained a reputation as an artist colony due to the work of a number of Impressionists, particularly Claude Monet. It is located on the northern shore of France, in the very eastern part of Normandy. It is a charming, picturesque fishing village with a lovely harbor and attractive buildings along the water, narrow, cobbled streets with many shops and restaurants. The most important attraction besides the village itself is the Church of St Catherine, the oldest, surviving wooden church in France.
      10. Beaune
            Beaune, France is a charming village in the Burgundy region of France, just south of Dijon. Besides wine-making, Beaune is noted for its hospices (almshouses), the most famous and recognizable of which is the Hotel-Dieu. Note the distinctive colored roof tiles and the easy-to-walk, pedestrian-only streets. Residents decorate their homes and businesses with flowers which add to the charm.
            Also in the Burgogne (Burgundy), a popular and worthwhile stop is Vezelay, whose Romanesque Basilica of Sainte Madeleine has lured pilgrims since its construction in the 11th century.
      11. Carcassone
             Carcassonne, France, a walled city, also in the Provence region (see #above), is the largest fortress in Europe. La Cite’ is actually surrounded by two walls and includes 38 towers. The city was never taken in battle, although often threatened, and has had a long and interesting history. Visitors can check out the Chateau Comtal, a 12th century palace, and the Cathedrale St-Michel. Part of Carcassonne’s history is connected with the Knights Templar, of Da Vinci Code fame and has been documented frequently, of late, due to the popularity of the book.
      12. Lyon
             Lyon, France, bills itself as the “gastronomic capital of France” but it has much more than good food to offer the tourist. There are three basic areas of the city which are the domain of the traveler.
             Fourviere Hill is the location of the white-domed Notre Dame Basilica. The inside is covered with mosaics depicting the events in Mary’s life. The Lower Church is dedicated to St Joseph and is considerably less elaborate. Note the golden statue of the virgin outside the church.
             Vieux Lyon (the Old Town) has perhaps the largest concentration of Renaissance buildings in the world and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The area is noted for its covered pathways (Traboules) which link streets and homes. Entry into this mysterious world is through heavy doors. Unfortunately, only a few of the 300 or so are actually open to the public, but these are worthwhile in that they provide access to several hidden courtyards. The St Jean Cathedral is an interesting combination of Gothic and Romanesque architectural styles since its construction spanned a considerable amount of time.
             Presqu’ile refers to the land between Lyon’s two rivers and is the major shopping district of the city. Place des Terreaux is its vibrant center and contains the City Hall and a famous fountain by Bertholdi (the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty).
             Lyon is attractively lit at night. Check out the scene from the Bonaparte Bridge.


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