Eur First Trip to France
Wherever you travel in Europe, you will have a great time and see wonders too beautiful describe, but in France you will experience the soul of Europe... streets filled with music and the fragrance of pastries, caves decorated by the world's earliest artists and museums filled with the best art of modern times. There is a collective spirit that lives in the streets of Paris and the beaches of Mediterranean that will capture you. Surrender to it...take long walks and idle over coffee at a cafe, talk to shopkeepers, ask questions and let the French show you their country and their pride. We were there before and after the disputes between Chirac and Bush over the war in Iraq and were welcomed throughout the country by friendly people. Don't believe the stereotype of rude Parisians....a women walked over three blocks with us (and out of her way) to make sure we found the Eiffel Tower. If you are friendly and polite, you will be treated the same. Just remember the advice you should keep when you are traveling in any foreign country--you are their guest and should behave like one.
There are many places in France that to which I'd love to return. There are other places that you should experience at least once...so I've made two top ten lists based on my experiences. If something is on both lists it is both amazing and fun. They are spread throughout the country so that if you are only in France for a limited time, it might be hard to see all of them. I'd never encourage you to dash to all of them over just slowing down and enjoying where you are, but almost always, travelers must choose between one place and another, so I offer this as a way to understand what I felt were the most memorable experiences I had in France. If I only had a week...I'd spend 4 days in Paris, travel to Chartres (and spend the night there), Mt. St. Michel (and spend the night there)and return to Paris. Mine is the list of someone who is moved by history and gothic architecture; someone who was obsessed by wines or fascinated by military tactics might would give you another list.
Top ten things you should see while in France:
Top Ten Places I'd love to visit again:
The great line from the famed old movie, Casa Blanca, often echoes in my mind....."We'll always have Paris." Often, I'll smile at my husband as we think about our next trip and what our budgets may or may not allow us to do, and we are grateful that we've been there at least four times.
Take all the energy and joy you associate with Rio or New Orleans at Carnivale, add some etiquette and elegance and the drama of ancient cathedrals and palaces and you have a sense of what is Paris. Without a doubt, it is elegant....but it is not pretentious or stodgy. It's a city that loves life and throughout the summer, it puts on some of the greatest parties in the world.
Start in June with Fete de la Musique, the trans-France celebration of music that fills Paris's street corners with live music and dancing crowds. A few weeks later, Bastille Day honors those who planted the seeds for one of the world's most engaged democracies. Then the month ends with the Tour de France finishing on the Champs Elysee.....bicycling fans line the streets for hours waiting to see the final laps of the premiere cycling event. If you have only one week in Europe, spend it in Paris. Walk, smile, eat pastries and crepes and have the time of your life. For sure, despite whatever your preconceived notions may be, get to the top of the Eiffel Tour (Rick Steeves is wrong when he says you will be satisfied on the second level!). And remember that if you are friendly, most Parisians are gracious and will respond kindly. More detailed information on Paris
Paris Travel Guide - Online travel guide for Paris
A short drive or train ride west of Paris is the ancient city of Chartres, most famous for its 11th cathedral with spectacular stained glass windows. Among my plans for our trip to Europe was to spend a day at Chartres Cathedral watching light come through the windows at dawn, at dusk and throughout the day. Our travel plans reversed the order so that we arrived in Chartres about two hours before it clased after the city had been cleansed with a great summer thunderstorm. In the morning we spent four more hours wandering through and around the opulent building and took over 100 digital pictures of the stained glass, the altars
and the statues beheaded by French revolutionaries as who charged the church with complicity in the crimes of King Louis XVI. With such great expectations, I could easily have been disappointed, but I was not.
The rest of the city is much like other small cities in France. There are many hotels, good restaurants and any other services you need, but it is the cathedral that still draws worshippers to this city. So if you are fascinated by gothic cathedrals, make time to visit this one.
If you head just a bit to the southwest of Paris, you come to the city of Orleans where Joan d'Arc was born. For us, it was the gateway to the Loire Valley. We stopped at a grocery store and got provisions for next few days of camping.
After finding our campground, Le Château de la Grenouillère near the city of Blois,we headed to the restored chateau of Giverny. On the next day we stopped at Chambord, an amazing residence with grounds that hold one of France's best hunting events. We also visited the home of Leonard Da Vinci and the amazing home of French queens and mistresses at Chenonceau.
A pleasant drive through central France took us to Oradour, the remnants of a town that serves as a memorial to the autrocities of war. Just a few days before World War II ended, German soldiers brutally massacred all the people in the village and then set the buildings ablaze. What remains is a poignant reminder that war is not a glorious act but a tragedy that destroys families and communities. Please visit my page on Oradour to understand why this haunting town should be high on your list of things to see in France. I had never heard of this place until a French friend suggested we visit it during our travels. The children of Oradour now linger in my memory as little ones about the age of my husband who never got to have a first romance or hold their grandchildren. It was the most moving part of my first trip to France.
If you are fascinated by the delicacy and craftsmanship of Limoges porcelain, you will enjoy a trip to the factories where the delicately painted pottery is produced.
From there we headed to Sarlat, an beautiful medieval town on the Dordogne River. The river gives its name to the region which is more famous for the artwork that dates back to roughly 25000 BC. Deep inside caves, using the most simple of tools and lighting, early man painted pictues of bisons and other animals. The most well-known is Lascaux which has now been sealed to protect the orginal art for scientists and archeologists who are yet to be born. But cleverly, a neighboring cave has been painted to resemeble the first. There are other caves where you actually do get to see the original work. In the small village of Les Eyzies, you can visit two famous caves and explore the hillside dwellings of the Troglodytes.
In addition to the prehistoric artwork, the Dordogne is famous as the place where the 100 Years War raged between the French and English: the French held the ground to the north, the English held the land to the south of the river. As you paddle, bike, drive or walk along the river, you see castles and other strongholds of the warring parties. Whatever form of transportation you choose, you will feel like you have stepped back to the ages of chivalry as you travel through canyons decorated with another castle around every corner.
Rochamadour is another spectacular hillside town built in the middle ages as a tribute to Saint Roch. Over the centuries, pilgrims have climbed the long flight of rough stairs on their knees. Modern tourists find funiculars that take them up and down the hillside so strenously climbed by visitors from centuries gone by.
The Lot River is just south of the Dordogne and is home to some beautiful hillside towns that suffered as Christian battled Christian during the Albigensian Crusades. Travel up the river to the ancient villages that tell a story of a struggle between faiths. One of the most important is Albi, which is the birthplace of famed impressionist, Toulouse Latrec.
Stop at the famed walled city of Carcassonne to see life in a medieval French city. Continue on to the city of Toulouse, with its rich cultural history including the largest Romanesque Basillica in western Europe. This bustling modern city mixes art and music with its medieval history. Visit it during one of the many festivals that energize the city.
If you head west, you are in the spectacular scenery of the Pyrenees, a mountainous region with many hillside villages. In the summer, these mountains test the endurances of cyclists in the Tour de France. Throughout the year, many Catholics make pilgrimages to Lourdes. Wherever you go in these mountains, you will experience French life as few Americans see it.
Marseilles is the largest city in southern France but it is in the smaller towns of Languedoc and Provence that you will experience the beauty of the area. In the summer its warm weather can be stirred up by the strong breezes of the Mistral, but in other times of year, it has a moderate climate that invites tourists to linger. It is here you will see some of the most impressive Roman ruins that remain including the ampitheatre in Arles, the theatre in Orange and the three-tiered aqueduct across the Gard River.
It is also in this area where you can tan on the famed beaches of the French Riviera. During the summer, hotels, motels and campgrounds fill with tourists from around the world seeking a small spot of sand on the warm Mediterranean shores. As temperatures drop, so does the tourist traffic but you will still find much to do. Despite images of the region as a haven for jet-setters, you can have a great time in the area on a budget--just don't plan to bring home souveniers from the notable stores in the expensive shopping districts. Continued below
Many people think that the French Alps are chic ski resorts where European Royals spend winter holidays. But the region is a year-round home to thousands of French sports enthusiasts who have found ways to enjoy the beauty of the mountains in all seasons. Like mountainous areas throughout western Europe, there are comfortable conveyances into the mountains that make these places accessible to people who might never be able to experience the snow-covered peaks of the United States and Canada. And for those who want to have some extreme experiences while they are on their European vacation, the French Alps are sure to provide them.
Wherever you are on the night of the summer solstice, June 21, you will be regaled by all manors of music played late into the night in the Fete de la Musique. The lakeside city of Annecy was a spectacular place to enjoy great food, lots of wine and singers and musicians filling the streets with rhythm and sound.