France: La vie en rose
The boundaries of France are mainly natural: the English Channel and the Ardennes hills in the north; the Atlantic Ocean in the west; the Pyrenees in the southwest; the Mediterranean in the south; the Alps in the southeast; and the Jura and Vosges Mountains and the Rhine River in the east. To these striking features add the Massif Central and its huge extinct volcanoes.
The distinctive style associated with France and Frenchness is rooted in an extraordinarily rich history that is full of contrasts. Hardly surprising, given all the riches, the French are extremely proud of their cultural heritage. Education is highly valued, and discussion of artistic and intellectual matters is taken for granted as part of everyday life.
Paris has the well-earned reputation for being one of the most beautiful, exciting, and romantic cities in the world. Often called the City of Dreams, Paris has been a mecca for aspiring artists, writer, thinkers, and adventurers since the earliest times. Stroll down almost any street in Central Paris, and you pass evidence of its past in the narrow, twisting medieval byways and awe-inspiring churches; in the ornate 17th-century Renaissance palaces that flaunt incredible wealth; in Napoleon’s classically inspired monuments; and in the sweeping tree-lined boulevards of Baron Haussmann’s 19th-century revamp of Paris.
Packed into the center of the grand city on the Seine are some of the world’s greatest museums, the most beautiful buildings in France, including the Eiffel Tower, and all possible luxuries. Paris continues to be a sophisticated, vibrant, living city, the economic and cultural center of France. The creativity of today is evident in the exciting new buildings and modern paintings and sculpture that dit harmoniously alongside the treasures of the past.
For all the splendors of Paris, and of the provincial cities such as Nice and Marseillaise, France is predominantly a country of villages. Rural France varies from region to region – from the gray, granite fisherman’s cottages to the thatched and half-timbered Normandy hamlets nestling among apple orchards dotted with cows, to the flat, Roman-tiled, red roofs of Provencal hill villages clinging in terraces to steep slopes.
Significant regional differences in climate, geography, and culture have given rise to the immensely varied and rich agriculture that contributes so strikingly to the diversity of the French landscape – and, of course, produces France’s fabled cuisines and wines.
Provence and Côte d’Azur is a jumble of orchard-dotted valleys and snowy peaks, turbid rivers, and bubbling springs. Mixed in are Roman ruins, pebbly beaches, bird-filled marshes, and dark forests. There are lively cities like Nice and Marseille, and sleepy medieval hill towns.
Old and new, traditional and modern, natural and artificial all combine to create this enchanted land, a varied and contradictory realm indeed. Provence is celebrated for its fruity wines, abundant fruits and vegetables, Romanesque architecture, year-long calendar of festivals, friendly people, lilting accent, famous beaches … all good reasons to explain why everyone from the ancient Romans to movie stars have been lured here.
Stroll through the produce-filled markets, luxuriate in the shade of centuries-old plane trees, and sip pastis in an old village square. Pick either the Quintessential Provence tour, centering on the charming towns of Avignon, Aix, and Arles; or the French Riviera tour, a celebration of beaches, contemporary art, and glitzy nightlife.
The Rhône Valley is not only a significant road and rail route and intersection of geographical areas, but it also combines different natural environments which have resulted in a variety of flora and fauna. The Pilat Regional Nature Park alone boasts some 90 species of bird. The beautiful mountainous region of the Monts du Lyonnais is famed for chestnut groves, with vineyards and orchards in the low-lying valleys. The wines of Beaujolais spread the region’s name far beyond the boundaries of France.
Situated at the confluence of the Rhône and the Saône, Lyon is a World Heritage Site. The “city of light” is magnificent at every level, from its architectural and cultural heritage to its contemporary wealth and renown.
What makes the Auvergne so unusual is the presence of a large number of volcanoes which, although extinct, constitute a significant feature of the landscape. They vary in appearance depending on their formation, type, and age. Clermont-Ferrand is the natural capital of the Auvergne. The city center is built on a slight rise, all that remains of a volcanic cone. The old houses built of the volcanic rock in the “Black Town” huddle in the shade of the cathedral.