Our France Travel Guide
Whether it’s your first time travelling to France or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.
At a glance
"Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world."
The 96 départments and 26 regions of France each have their own character, and offer a wide and varied landscape, history, architecture and cuisine. With over 8,000km of pistes, France offers unrivalled opportunities for skiers, and away from the slopes visitors can engage in activities ranging from walking and horse riding, cycling, canoeing and rafting. Vineyards welcome wine connoisseurs, and gastronomic tours are legion.
The great cities of Paris, Lyon, Cannes, Aix-en-Provence, Reims, Bordeaux and Strasbourg each boast year-round cultural and festive delights, and 5,500km of coastline varies from the pink granite coast of Brittany and the Silver Coast of Aquitaine to the dramatic limestone valleys of the Côte d'Azur.
The châteaux of the Loire, Nôtre Dame de Paris, the palace of Versailles and Mont Saint-Michel off the coast of Normandy are the jewels in France's crown, and are counted among some 10,000 châteaux, abbeys and mansions. The Louvre and Musée d'Orsay in Paris, the Carré d'Art in Nîmes and the Musée Granet in Aix head the list of must-visit museums, while splendid Roman ruins can be seen from Lyon to Nîmes and Arles.
If this wealth of natural beauty and cultural history isn't enough (or if you have to take the kids), families are catered for with theme parks ranging from Disneyland Paris and Parc Astérix, both within easy reach of the capital, to the volcano park Vulcania in Auvergne and the Futuroscope multimedia park in Vienne, which boasts a wide choice of 3D and even '4D' cinema experiences.
Culture & etiquette
"We are all free, completely free. We can each do any damn thing we want. Which is more than most of us dare to imagine."
Without risk of generalisation, it can be stated that the French cherish their culture, history, language and cuisine (which is considered an art), and the values of fraternité, égalité and liberté. World leaders in fashion, food, wine, philosophy, art and architecture, they embrace new and traditional concepts with enthusiasm as long as they are elegant. With a self-confidence bordering on a superiority complex, the French are often accused of arrogance, but they have much to be proud of. Aside from a rich culture and history, they drink, smoke and eat more than anyone, yet for the most part remain slim and healthy.
Women were granted suffrage after World War II, but until 1964 needed a husband or father's permission to open a bank account or get a passport. Succeeding generations are refreshingly outspoken and emancipated, and the political system is now built on 'parité', whereby political parties must put up an equal number of female candidates in any election.
Multiculturalism is outwardly celebrated - 1998 World Cup-winning captain Zinedine Zidane, a Marseillais of humble Algerian origin, remains a national hero - but tensions simmer below the surface. Egalitarianism and the separation of state and religion can place draconian measures on immigrants, such as the 2004 law banning all religious clothing and symbols in French schools. Over 8% of the population have immigrant roots, and up to 90% of French Muslims are non-citizens, living in slum areas outside Paris, Lyon, Marseille and other cities. If the immigrant population feels hard done by, so too do members of the far-right Front National, whose current leader Marine Le Pen took over from her father Jean-Marie in 2011. Her candidacy, based on the FN's hardline anti-immigrant stance, attracted 18% of the popular vote in the 2012 presidential elections, but only resulted in two seats in parliament.
"One should always be drunk. That's all that matters; that's our one imperative need... But with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you choose. But get drunk."
Charles Baudelaire, Paris Spleen
The first drink of the day, almost always a coffee, is often consumed at a local bar or café, standing at the counter. Small cups of espresso-strength coffee are the norm, though tea and hot chocolate are available.
The most popular drink throughout the rest of the day is wine, and no wonder, with some of the world's best produced in France, notably in Bordeaux, the Rhone, Burgundy and Champagne. A meal is not a meal without a glass of something appropriate, and in the evenings, an apéritif, perhaps a pastis or a Kir Royal, champagne with a splash of crème de cassis. After the main event, a digestif such as cognac, Armagnac or calvados is standard.
France produces beer too, though it's not nearly as popular nationally as wine. Cider is de rigeur in Normandy, where it is produced - following the cider route here, through ancient apple orchards, makes for a charming trip.
The French take their mineral water as seriously as they do all aspects of food and drink, and dozens of varieties are produced and consumed, including Perrier, Badoit, Evian, each with a distinctive taste. Whatever the drink, the standard salute is santé, or good health.
"To live is not to breathe but to act. It is to make use of our organs, our senses, our faculties, of all the parts of ourselves which give us the sentiment of our existence. The man who has lived the most is not he who has counted the most years but he who has most felt life."
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile
Nationwide and internationally famous celebrations and events include the Tour de France, the midsummer Fête de la Musique, Bastille Day, and the Cannes Film Festival but it's worth checking ahead of your stay for regional festivals with a distinct colour and character. July is by far the busiest month, and a good information source for festivals and other listings is www.viafrance.com.
La Folle Journée, Nantes. Five-day festival of classical music.
Fête du Citron, Menton (Alpes-Maritimes). Forty days before Easter, the 'city of lemons' hosts a traditional festival celebrating local produce and featuring giant sculptures and floats decorated with oranges and lemons.
Nice Carnival. Dazzling parades and a gastronomic celebration centring on the Promenade des Anglais.
Festival de Cannes. For twelve days from mid-May the influential international film industry event takes over the Riviera.
Fête de la Sainte Sarah, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (Camargue), 24 May. Romany festival commemorating the arrival of the Black Madonna in France.
Festival de St-Denis, Paris. Classical and world music festival.
Festival Furies, Châlons-en-Champagne. International circus and street theatre festival.
Festival de Musique de Strasbourg. Two-week festival of classical music.
Bordeaux Fête le Vin. Biennial wine festival (even-numbered years) involving tastings and events along a 2-km stretch of the Garonne.
Festival Django Reinhardt, Samois-sur-Seine (Île-de-France). Open-air jazz festival in honour of the guitar maestro.
Fête de la Musique. Country-wide night of free music concerts in streets, parks and public buildings on 21 June.
Marche des Fiertés LGBT. Gay Pride march from Montparnasse to Place de la Bastille, with parties, balls and other events spilling out into Le Marais and beyond.
Les Nuits de Fourvière, Lyon. Festival of performance arts embracing theatre, dance, music and cinema.
Montpellier Danse. International contemporary dance festival.
Jazz à Vienne. Two weeks of jazz in and around the city's famous Roman amphitheatre.
Eurockéennes, Belfort (Franche-Comté). Pun-friendly rock and indie music festival in a nature reserve beside Lac de Malsaucy.
Flâneries Musicales d'Été, Reims. A series of over 100 mostly free promenade concerts in the city's courtyards, gardens and other public spaces.
Tour de France, nationwide. Celebrations and special events mark each stage of the internationally famous bike race as it traverses the country's cities, countryside and mountains for three weeks and over 3,000km.
Bastille Day, 14 July. France's national day is celebrated throughout the country with fireworks and other festivities and civil ceremonies to mark the storming of the Bastille fortress and prison, an act that symbolises the uprising of modern France. A military parade takes place in the morning on the Champs-Élysées in front of the French president and other officials and guests.
Festival International d'Art Lyrique, Aix-en-Provence. Annual festival of opera, orchestral, chamber, vocal and solo instrumental music.
Cratère Surfaces, Alès (Languedoc-Rousillon). International festival of street theatre.
Les Tombées de la Nuit, Rennes. Eighteen nights of street concerts, cinema and performance arts.
Les Rencontres d'Arles international photography festival. A week of events in early July, with exhibitions continuing to September throughout the city.
Les Suds à Arles. World music festival.
Festival d'Avignon. Contemporary dance and theatre.
Festival International d'Opéra Baroque, Beaune. Baroque opera revivals, Mozart recitals on original instruments and other performances over four weekends.
Festival des Vieilles Charrues, Carhaix (Brittany). The small farming town hosts France's largest rock music festival with big-name international acts
Les Cultures du Monde, Gannat (Auvergne). International music, dance and folklore festival.
Rencontres du Jeune Théâtre Européen, Grenoble. Contemporary theatre performances and events.
Jazz à Juan, Juan-les-Pins, Antibes. Big-name classical and modern jazz performances in a forest setting.
Nice Jazz Festival. An important five days in the jazz calendar with a history dating back to a legendary 1948 programme featuring Louis Armstrong, Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt.
Festival de Saintes (Charente-Maritime). A programme of daytime and evening classical music concerts in the historic Abbaye aux Dames.
Festival Pablo Casals, Prades (Pyrénées-Orientales). A three-week programme of classic and contemporary chamber music.
Festival International de Piano, La Roque d'Anthéron (Provence). Month-long festival of classical and contemporary keyboard music.
Festival de Musique, Menton. The city of lemons becomes the city of chamber music for a fortnight, kicking off with an open-air concert in the forecourt of the Basilica of St Michael the Archangel.
Mimos, Périgueux (Dordogne). Six-day international mime festival also featuring clowning, circus, dance, puppetry and (wordless) music.
Festival International de Théâtre de Rue, Aurillac (Auvergne). For four days in late August Aurillac hosts a spectacular programme of street theatre, installations and circus acts.
Festival Interceltique, Lorient. A twelve-day Celtic folk festival takes over this corner of Brittany.
Festival Météo, Mulhouse (Alsace). Thirty jazz concerts in five days at venues across the city.
Rock en Seine, Haute de Seine. Three-day rock festival established in 2003, held in the garden of the Château de Saint-Cloud, west of Paris.
Semaines Musicales, Quimper (Finistères, Brittany). A classical and contemporary music festival with a rich and eclectic programme.
La Route du Rock, Saint-Malo. Popular four-day rock music festival in and around the walled Breton seaside city.
Jazz à la Villette, Paris. Two weeks of traditional and modern jazz concerts in the city's northeastern park.
Les Francophonies en Limousin, Limoges. Contemporary French-language theatre, dance and music from around the world.
Bienniale de la Danse, Lyon. Biennial festival (even years) featuring dance performances, events and a grand parade.
Biennale d'Art Contemporain, Lyon. Alternating with the dance festival, every other year the city plays host to international contemporary art.
Biennial des Antiquaires, Paris. Ten-day biennial antiques fair (even years) in the majestic Grand Palais.
Visa pour l'Image, Perpignan. International photojournalism festival with exhibitions and events throughout the city.
Fête Renaissance du Roi de l'Oiseau, Puy-en-Velay (Haute-Loire). Historical pageants, shows and re-enactments from the Renaissance era.
Musica, Strasbourg. Two-week festival of modern classical music performances.
September to December
Festival d'Automne, Paris. A wide-ranging seasonal festival of contemporary arts including theatre, concerts, dance, films and exhibitions.
Les Musicales, Bastia. Corsica's longest running music festival, embracing a wide range of musical styles.
Nancy Jazz Pulsations, Nancy (Lorraine). Eleven-day jazz and world music festival.
Foire International d'Art Contemporain, Paris. City-wide contemporary art fair, combined with a programme of musical, contemporary dance and theatre performances.
November - Jazz d'Or, Strasbourg. The final date in the jazz calendar offers a fortnight of contemporary jazz performances from around the world.
Rencontres Transmusicales Rennes. Three-day festival showcasing new trends in contemporary music.
Christmas markets, Alsace and beyond. Strasbourg has held a Christmas market around its cathedral since 1570, and they are a seasonal feature in other Alsatian towns as well as Angers, Grenoble, Lyon, Metz, Nantes and Reims.
Food & drink
"Everything ends this way in France - everything. Weddings, christenings, duels, burials, swindlings, diplomatic affairs - everything is a pretext for a good dinner."
Paris & Ile de France
As the capital of a nation devoted to eating well, Paris is, as you'd imagine especially well served for restaurants - there are over 9,000. You can find pretty much every kind of world cuisine here, including strikingly good Vietnamese and North African, but on the whole, whether opting for a brasserie or one of the many Michelin starred restaurants, the emphasis is firmly on classic French food. The traditional menu will consist of at least three courses. Les entrées or hors d'oeuvre - starters; les plats or main courses, followed by the cheese course and then dessert. Classics from coast and countryside are common, including platters of fruits de mer and boeuf bourguinon, as is every French staple you can imagine, from steak frite to snails with parsley and garlic butter, crepes and coq au vin, duck cooked with orange sauce, cheese courses featuring a delicious selection of regional cheeses. And then there are fabulous food markets, chocolatiers and patisseries and artisan boulangères to explore... it would be hard to leave Paris without enjoying least a few outstanding culinary experiences.
Alsace: Formerly a stronghold of the kingdom of Germany, Alsace only became fully French during the reign of Louis XIV, and the cuisine of this border region still carries a strong German influence. Pork and variations of pork in the form of sausages, frankfurters and bacon predominate, often served alongside dumplings or choucroute - the local take on sauerkraut - shredded cabbage pickled in wooden barrels with salt and juniper. Hearty mains are the order of the day, such as Bäckeoffe, a casserole made with two or three kinds of meats, usually pork, beef and lamb, layered with potatoes and leeks and cooked in an earthenware pot with white wine. Cakes and tarts are as popular here as they are across the border in Germany, and Kugelhopf, a light but richly flavoured cake with raisins and almonds is a favourite, eaten for Sunday breakfast, with afternoon coffee or as a pudding. Munster cheese - named for the town where it's produced, is a creamy and pungent affair. Foie gras from Alsace is also said to be especially good, though of course, many visiting gourmets may not be inclined to try this particular local delicacy.
Champagne: Another border region, with Belgium across the line and therefore it is quite common to come across Flemish classics such as carbonnade de boeuf à la flamande (beef braised long and slow in beer) or flamiche (a pie filled with leeks cooked in cream) on the menu, and vans selling sugar-dusted gaufres or Belgian waffles. The traditional culinary specialities of Champagne, like the sparkling stuff, shouldn't be ignored though, based as they are on the delicious game and wild mushrooms found in the local forests - France's largest game hunting area is located in Champagne. As a consequence, delicious dishes based on venison, boar, rabbit and game birds are served everywhere. Try medaillons de chevreuil a la sauce cameline - venison fried in a flash and served with a rich wine sauce, or pigeons casseroled in a wine sauce with a touch of Marc du Champagne. More conventionally, le maquereau fumé avec la caille les oeufs or smoked mackerel with quails' eggs wrapped in smoked salmon, goes perfectly with a little local champagne.
Le Nord and Picardy: As in Alsace and Champagne, there's more than a hint of Flemish influence here, with moules-frites and hearty stews, such as the historic hochepot, which has been cooked for centuries, usually made now with oxtail, lamb shoulder, salt pork and vegetables. But there are also several firmly French favourites too, including light and delectable Crème Chantilly, andouillettes, strong cheese - Maroilles and Vieux Puant (old stinker), eel cooked in a variety of ways, Ficelle Picarde or 'Picardy string' a savoury crêpe gratin filled with cheese, mushrooms and ham; as well as excellent pré sale lamb, distinctively flavoured as a result of grazing on the salt marshes of Picardy. As you'd expect the fish and seafood is plentiful and sparkling fresh.
Normandy: With its extensive coastline, Normandy enjoys a great variety of seafood, all of it sparkling fresh and highly rated, so much so that the local fish stew - Marmite Dieppoise - is as iconic as Marseille's Bouillabaisse. The region produces about a quarter of all the oysters in France, some grown in distinct terriors, with the Huître special d'Isigny considered exceptionally fine. Lobster, clams, whelks, scallops, mussels are other key components of the excellent plateau de fruits de mer that features on most menus. Coquilles St Jacques, that timeless classic of sautéed scallops served in the shell with mushrooms and a gruyere and breadcrumb topping is another firm favourite, as are moules marinières, cooked in Normandy with cider instead of wine. Cider and all manner of apple products are as prevalent as seafood here, thanks to the sprawling apple orchards that characterise the region. The apple tarts you'll find here are especially delicious, but apples are also used in savoury dishes, including slow-cooked tripe, but perhaps most satisfyingly in Normandy Pork casserole. The dish is made richer still with that other local ubiquitous product - crème fraiche - the area is also well known for the quality of its dairy produce, which of course includes an impressive cheese board, featuring Camembert, Pont-L'Eveque and Livarot. Also worth trying is the local pré salé lamb, from animals that graze on the salt marshes around Mont St Michel.
Brittany: As in Normandy, it's mostly about the seafood, with splendid fish and shellfish hauled onto the beaches daily, including scallops, several kinds of crabs, langoustines, local Belons and other oysters, and wonderful sea urchins. Brittany's is a long coastline, and dotted with small harbours where its often possible to buy straight from the fishing boats, but if you miss the moment, most menus will feature the fish that arrived that day, with spectacular shellfish platters, moules marinières, or the deeply flavoured soupe de poissons, served with rouille (garlic mayonnaise) and grated gruyère cheese. The vegetable harvest is as bountiful as the maritime one - Brittany is a prime vegetable growing region, particularly for potatoes, artichokes, cauliflowers, and white beans. The latter are especially good with the many varied sausages and cuts of pork that are popular here. Not as popular though as pancakes - sweet crêpes and savoury buckwheat galettes are beloved throughout Brittany.
The Loire Valley: The longest river in France, the Loire is in part responsible for the richness and fertility of the valley it sweeps through. The French nobility were drawn to this lovely region and called it the 'Garden of France' because of its mild climate and abundant produce - the area is also referred to as 'the larder of the Loire' and is one of the richest in France. There's fish from the sea, shellfish from the estuary, freshwater fish along the river and its tributaries, an abundance of excellent fruit and vegetables and plenty of game in the forests. Zander or pike served with beurre blanc, grilled carp or tench spiked with a sorrel sauce, lamproie (an eel-like fish) cooked in locally produced walnut oil, stuffed bream, deep-fried tiddlers or smelt-like fish (friture de la Loire) served with lemon, can all be enjoyed along the length of the Loire, as can more substantial fishy delights such as matelote (a mixture of fish cooked with mushrooms, onions and wine, or matelote d'anguilles (eels stewed in red wine) or eel and white fish cooked with garlic and potatoes in white wine. Away from fish, pork products such as rillettes and pâteés are as popular here as they are throughout France, however in the Loire, game is the meat of choice. And there's a lot of choice - pigeon, duck, pheasant, venison, rabbit, guinea fowl and wild boar are all hunted and turned into delicious dishes in rich wine or wild mushroom sauces. Cabbage stuffed with hare, partridge with wild mushrooms, and duck with baby turnips are just some of the dishes worth trying while in the Loire, as is the charcuterie, a speciality of the region - try pâté au biquion, made from pork, veal and young goat's meat. Goats' cheeses are another speciality here, and are generally superb. Offset it all with the excellent local vegetables and fruit, from asparagus and lentils, to small and succulent strawberries and deeply sweet cherries.
Central France and the Alps
Burgundy and the Franche-Comté: Burgundy is as rich in local produce as it is in history. Charolais cattle provide some of the best beef to be found in the world, while the orchards and farms in the Saône and Rhone valleys supply the region with excellent fruit and vegetables. This is a place of full-blooded, hearty cooking that packs a powerful punch.
Snails and frogs legs are heady with garlic, local Dijon mustard sharpens creamy sauces (often served with offal such as kidneys), ham sits in a succulent jelly flecked with parsley, eggs are poached in a rich red wine sauce to make intensely satisfying ouefs en meurette, stews are velvety with wine or blood or both. Boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin, two of the most famous French dishes originate here, and both share the same principle of meat being marinated overnight in red wine and herbs before being cooked into melting succulence with onions, bacon and shallots.
In the autumn flavours are stronger still, with dishes based on the plentiful game available - from roe deer and hare to wild pigs - and the numerous wild mushrooms to be found, including chanterelles, trompettes de la mort, and cépes. Truffles add yet more earthiness, if any extra were needed. Cheese too, can be on the strong side, with Eppoisses washed in brandy, and Bouton de Culotte (trouser button) providing a deeply pungent single mouthful.
Cheese is perhaps the most famous product of the alpine slopes of the Franche-Comté, where old shepherd traditions still thrive. It really is dairy country, and the variety and excellence of cheese is something to delight in, from nutty Comté to the famously runny Vacherin. Morbier, with its distinctive grey streak, to the artisan produced Bleu du Haut Jura.
The Alpine forests add to the bounty with morels in spring and cépes in the autumn, while the cool and dry mountain air is perfect for drying and curing hams and sausages, including the well-known Saucisse de Morteau. The clean and clear rivers fed by the Alps also provide delicious trout; while the valleys are a source of cherries, walnuts and chestnuts, which often feature in puddings, including the super sweet Mont Blanc, meringue covered in chestnut purée and whipped cream.
"Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are." Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, gourmet and native of Dijon
The Massif Central: Still something of a secret, this stunningly scenic part of the country is rugged and, apart from the cities of Clermont-Ferrand, Vichy and Limoges, generally untouristy and relatively undeveloped. The food reflects this, with hearty peasant fare being the norm. Two common dishes that exemplify this style of cooking are Potée Auvergnate, a stew of salt pork, sausages, potatoes, cabbage, beans and turnips; and Potée Savoyarde a similarly substantial affair, with chicken, ham and sausages cooked with assorted vegetables. Sausages are popular, as are other variations on pork - pâté of pork liver, stuffed pigs feet (pieds de porc farcis), and peppered ham. Petite sale - salt pork cooked in wine with green lentils is also popular. The highlands of the Auvergne area provide ideal pastures for cattle and sheep, and the cheese produced in this region is some of the finest in France, which is saying something. Roquefort, allegedly Charlemagne's favourite cheese, is the best known, aged in the caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, as it has been for centuries. Cantal, another old-timer, is also popular, particularly when whipped into garlicky mashed potatoes, to form the luscious aligot.
The Rhone Valley and French Alps: Lyon may be France's second city, but as far as gastronomy is concerned, it certainly ranks first, with more restaurants per square metre in the old town than anywhere else in the country (and possibly in the world). Of these, the bouchons are the most authentic - descendants of the 17th and 18th century inns where travellers stopped to have their horses rubbed down (bouchonné). There aren't too many genuine bouchons left, though plenty of pretenders are about. It's worth seeking out the real thing for a fix of robust, regional fare, generally offal and meat based - lamb's sweetbread salad for instance, or pickled ox muzzle, or barboton perhaps, a rich lamb stew with potatoes and carrots; or gateau de foie de volaille (chicken liver tart) or gras double, tripe cooked with onions or tête de veau sauce verte, poached boned veal head with parsley sauce. At the other end of the spectrum, Lyon has the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe after Paris, London and Brussels. Paul Bocuse is perhaps the most celebrated of the celebrated chefs in town, serving up truffle soup as created for the French president in 1975 as well sea bass stuffed in a puff pastry shell, traditional Lyon quenelles of pike with crayfish and fricassee of Bresse chicken in cream sauce with morel mushrooms. Poulet de Bresse - the only chicken in the world to be protected by an AOC (Apellation d'Origine Controlée) - is one of the most delicious regional products, full of flavour and a world apart from the blotting paper taste and texture of battery hens. The food found in Lyon is representative of the Rhone Valley in general, with meat and charcuterie very much centre stage.
In the alpine region, the emphasis changes, with butter, cream and cheese dominating - fondue Savoyarde, tartiflette (potatoes, Reblochon cheese, bacon lardons and onions all baked together into an unctuous melting whole) and raclette (melted raclette cheese served with potatoes, ham and cornichons) are typical of the comforting cheese-based fodder found here. In the winter months, hearty soups and stews such as the famous potée, a substantial mix of pork and vegetables cooked in an earthenware pot and polenta based dishes provide further comfort; but during the rest of the year the clear alpine lakes yield trout, pike, perch and Artic char (locally known as omble-chevalier and quite delectable) and fruit, wild mushrooms and game vary the menu substantially.
Poitou and Aquitane: The Atlantic coastline means that this region is rich in seafood - the fish, from sea bass to mullet is outstanding, and fresh mussels and oysters abound, the latter generally served with a dash of shallot vinegar or a squeeze of lemon, though in Bordeaux the tendency is to serve them with small sausages - a terrific contrast between cold and hot, smooth and rough, the essence of sea and earthy pungency. The oysters of Marennes-Oleron are distinctive for their green colouring, a result of the blue algae on which they feed. Seafood may be a defining feature, but the nearby forests provide mushrooms and truffles, and the region is also noted for goats cheese, including the distinctive soft chabichou de Poitou. And of course, wine from Bordeaux is as much an ingredient as it is a complement to the rich food, forming the basis of dishes cooked 'a la bordelaise'. Of these, entrecote à la bordelaise is especially fine - steak in a sauce of red wine,
Perigord, Quercy and Gascony: Truffles from Perigord, often referred to as 'black gold', are world famous, and transform simple local dishes like omelettes into luxurious treats. Wild mushrooms, often cooked simply with garlic, shallots and parsley, provide another earthy delight. The region is a leading producer of garlic, which is served everywhere, either as a component or baked whole. But the defining dishes are based on the high quality poultry, ducks and geese raised here, in particular cassoulet, a rich stew featuring duck or goose, goose fat, sausages, and white haricot beans under a thick crust of breadcrumbs. The fat from duck and geese is also used for baking potatoes, for preserving duck legs as tender confit, and in numerous local dishes.
The Pyrenees: The robust country fare of southern France meets spicier Spanish cuisine amid the mountains. The high pastures provide high quality meat - beef, lamb, Barèges mutton and wild goat, while the rivers are a source of excellent trout. Hearty rib-sticking soups and stews are popular - in particular garbure, a stew thick with bacon, cabbage and confit of duck or goose, and the traditional L'ouillade, a soup made from pig's trotters, cabbage and turnips remains a regional staple. In the Basque, intense Bayonne ham and dishes flavoured with red Espelette pepper make up a distinctly Spanish repertoire, featuring in dishes such as Pipéarde Basque - eggs stirred into cooked tomatoes, garlic, peppers and onions, with strips of Bayonne ham laid on top. Fish and seafood stews have a Spanish touch too, such as baby squid cooked in their own ink, or Ttoro - a mixed shellfish and fish stew made with tomatoes, onions and potatoes.
The South of France
Languedoc-Rousillon: A touch of the Provençal - olives and tapenade, sun baked tomatoes, pungent fish stews such as bourride, served with a garlicky mayonnaise and heady with the aromatic herbs of the scrublands of southern France - can be found along the edges of this gastronomically rich region. The shallow lagoons of the coastal strip provide succulent oysters and mussels, and the Camargue is famous for both rice and salt production. Towards the border with Spain, the dishes are characterised by a distinctly Catalan flavour - from rich and refined Crème Catalan to tapas-style meals, and ollada, a rib-sticking soup studded with pork and equally popular both sides of the border. Perhaps the dish that best defines the region - though strictly speaking it is traditional to Toulouse - is cassoulet, a melting layering of haricot beans, sausages or pork, mutton and confit of goose. Duck confit is also popular throughout the area - like the goose, preserved by slow cooking in the natural fat both birds are so rich in. In the more mountainous regions, wild boar is a firm favourite, as are black truffles in season. The stunning local fruit and vegetables - from apricots, figs and cherries to wild mushrooms and asparagus, provide a modicum of healthy balance; and for vegetarians, there are several varieties of goats' cheese available.
Provence and the Cote d'Azur: Sun-ripened vegetables, a surplus of sparkling fresh seafood - this part of France serves up a zesty, intensely flavoured cuisine, one less reliant on meat than the rest of the country. A Mediterranean medley of tomatoes, olives, herbs, olive oil, and garlic - all robust in flavour - form the basis of many dishes and accompanying sauces. Among the most popular Provencal dishes is ratatouille, often served as a side but a satisfying dish in its own right, this medley of aubergines, tomatoes, onions, peppers and tomatoes typifies the vibrancy of cooking here. Other definitive dishes, which pack just as much punch include pissaladière, a crisp onion, anchovy and olive pizza; anchoiade, a pungent puree of anchovy and garlic, served with crudités or on toast, and tapenade, a paste of olives, capers and anchovies made spikier still with garlic. Garlic is the point of another Provencal classic - aioli - a thick mayonnaise that lifts everything it is served with, which can be anything from simply grilled fish to boiled potatoes or eggs to crisp vegetables. Aioli is also used to top the toasted baguette slices that accompany bouillabaisse, the saffron-laced and iconic fish soup that is perhaps best tasted in Marseille, where it originates. From Nice comes that other iconic dish - salade nicoise, seared tuna, black olives, crisp French green beans, eggs boiled just right, potatoes, those flavourful tomatoes - all combine to make the local and original version of this famous salad a very different affair from the lack-lustre variations served in faux-French eateries in other countries.
"To be astonished is one of the surest ways of not growing old too quickly."
France is the largest country in Western Europe, lying below England's southern coast and bordering Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland and Italy to the east, and Spain to the south, as well as the tiny principalities of Monaco and Andorra.
The landscape is hugely varied, with plains and rolling hills covering two-fifths of the country. The Massif Central rises from the Paris and Aquitaine Basins to general elevations of up to 900 metres, and peaks of ancient volcanoes at over 1,800 metres. Other prominent upland areas include the undulating hills of Brittany and Normandy and the Vosges on the German border.
The snow-capped mountain ranges of the Alps and the Pyrenees cover much of southern France. At the junction of the French, Swiss and Italian borders stands Mont Blanc, the highest summit in Western Europe at 4,807 metres, with the majestic Mer de Glace (sea of ice) glacier on its northern slope. The Pyrenees rise abruptly from the southern plains and extend from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean, creating a rugged border between France and Spain at elevations of over 3,000 metres. The Jura mountains north of the Alps have gentle slopes and rounded summits around 1,800 metres above sea level.
The longest river at over 1,000km is the Loire, which crosses the country in a broad arc from central Cévennes to the Bay of Biscay. The Seine flows rapidly over some 776km from Burgundy in the northeast to the English Channel via Paris, and remains an important commercial waterway. The Rhône enters France from Switzerland and empties into the Mediterranean. Other major rivers include the Meuse and Moselle, which begin in the northeast as part of the Rhine River system, and the Rhône tributaries the Saône, Isère, and Durance. The Rhine proper forms part of the French-German border.
The Atlantic coast is cool and temperate, the warm Mediterranean contributes mild winters and hot summers, while the highest peaks of the Alps and Pyrenees are covered in ice and snow all year round.
"Money may not buy happiness, but I'd rather cry in a Jaguar than on a bus."
Driving is the best way to tour France in complete freedom as the road system is extensive and well mapped and signposted, and it's easy to take your own car across the channel via ferry or Eurotunnel. Most motorways carry tolls of around €1 per 15 km.
The rail network is fast, reliable and inexpensive, and a relaxing way to get from A to B, especially on the comfortable high-speed TGV (trains à grand vitesse). Internal flights can also be handy for a quick hop between, say, Paris and the Mediterranean coast, or from the mainland to Corsica.
Public transport within the major cities is excellent. The Paris Métro is quick and easy to navigate, and tickets are valid on city buses. Lyon, Lille, Marseille, Rennes, Rouen and Toulouse have subway systems with stops at major tourist sites. Trams are making a comeback, with networks in over a dozen cities including Bordeaux, Cannes, Grenoble, Lyon, Marseille, Nice, Strasbourg, Nantes and Toulouse.
There are over 30,000 km of marked cycling routes in France, and bikes may be carried on many trains, either for a small fee or for free. The self-service Vélib' cycle-transit system is a fun way to zip around Paris along appointed cycle lanes.
There are boat services along the coasts and to offshore islands, and a wide selection of canal barge, houseboat and river cruise trips are available. Walking too can be hugely pleasurable, whether exploring the neighbourhoods of Paris, mountain foothills or ancient pilgrim routes through the Lot Valley.
"Let us study things that are no more. It is necessary to understand them, if only to avoid them."
Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
From the cave paintings of Lascaux to Roman amphitheatres, medieval towns and villages, the grand châteaux of the Loire, the 19th-century remapping of Paris by Haussmann, the signature art and architecture of the Belle Époque, and the striking modernist constructions of the 20th century, wherever you go in France you will witness the depth of the country's history and invention.
Stone tools used by Homo erectus, discovered at Saint-Acheul on the Somme River in 1847, indicate that early man was present in France 800,000 years ago. The first modern humans appeared 40,000 years ago, the Lascaux cave paintings date from around 15000 BC, and the first written records date from the Iron Age. Modern-day France made up the bulk of the region known to the Romans as Gaul. During their exploration and occupation, Roman writers identified three main ethno-linguistic groups in the area: the Gauls, the Aquitani, and the Belgae. The Gauls, the largest group, were Celtic people.
During the first millennium BC, the Greeks, Romans, and Carthaginians each established colonies on the Mediterranean coast and islands. The Roman Republic annexed southern Gaul in the late 2nd century BC, and Julius Caesar conquered the rest of Gaul in the Gallic Wars of 58-51 BC. A Gallo-Roman culture emerged and Gaul was integrated into the Roman Empire.
In the later stages of the Empire, Gaul was subject to barbarian raids and migration by the Germanic Franks. King Clovis I united most of Gaul under his rule in the late 5th century, establishing Frankish dominance in the region that reached its apogee under Charlemagne. The medieval Kingdom of France emerged out of the western part of Charlemagne's Carolingian Empire (also known as West Francia), and achieved prominence under the rule of the House of Capet, founded by Hugh Capet in 987.
A succession crisis that followed the death of the last Capetian king, Charles IV, in 1328 led to the series of conflicts known as the Hundred Years' War between the Houses of Valois and Plantagenet. The wars ended with a Valois victory in 1453, solidifying the power of the ancien régime as a centralised absolute monarchy. Claiming divine guidance, Joan of Arc (Jeanne d'Arc) led the French army to several important victories during the war before she was captured by the Burgundians and put on trial by the pro-English Bishop of Beauvais. She was burned at the stake for heresy at the age of 19 in 1431, and pardoned by Pope Callixtus III and declared a martyr twenty-five years later (she was finally canonised as Saint Joan in 1920). Over the following centuries, France experienced the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, as well as recurring religious conflicts and wars with neighbouring powers. A burgeoning worldwide colonial empire was established from the 16th century.
The monarchy and its associated institutions were abruptly overthrown in the French Revolution of 1789-99, which had a resounding impact on French, European and world history. The Bastille was stormed on 14 July 1789 and French society was transformed as feudal, aristocratic and religious privileges evaporated under a sustained assault from radical left-wing political groups, and mass demonstrations on the streets and in the countryside. Old ideas about the tradition and hierarchy of monarchs, aristocrats and the Catholic Church were replaced by new principles of Liberté, égalité, fraternité. A republic was proclaimed in September 1792 and King Louis XVI was executed the following year. The country was governed for a period as a Republic, until the French Empire was declared by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1804. Following Napoleon's defeat in the Napoleonic Wars in 1814 France went through further regime changes, being ruled as a monarchy, a Second Republic, and then a Second Empire, until the Third Republic was established in 1870.
The resulting provisional government of national defence was quickly besieged by the Prussians, who claimed the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, which in turn led to the bloody revolt of the Paris Commune, during which several thousand Communards were killed and another 20,000 were executed. Political tensions simmered throughout the Belle Époque (beautiful age) that ushered in art nouveau architecture, Impressionist painting and huge advances in science and engineering, capped by the construction of the Eiffel Tower as the entry arch to the 1889 World's Fair, and the opening of the first Paris Métro lines in 1900.
France fought alongside Britain, Russia and their allies as one of the Triple Entente powers in World War I against Germany and Austria-Hungary. France joined the Allied Powers in World War II, but was conquered by Nazi Germany in 1940. The Third Republic was dismantled, and Paris and the north were controlled directly by the Axis Powers, while the south was controlled by the collaborationist Vichy government.
Following liberation in 1944, Charles de Gaulle seized power as prime minister of a provisional government, but stood down to make way for a Fourth Republic in 1946. The country struggled to recover from the devastation of the war, and the economy only gathered steam in the 1950s when the government invested in hydroelectric and nuclear power, oil and gas exploration, steel production and housing construction in response to a baby boom. The 1950s also heralded the end of French colonialism. Vietnamese resistance saw France withdraw from Indochina in 1954, and a bloody struggle in Algeria resulted in independence in 1962. Although these two major prizes were lost, France held on to far-flung overseas departments and territories including Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana, Réunion and French Polynesia.
In 1951, France, Italy, the Benelux countries (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg) and West Germany signed the Treaty of Paris to establish the European Coal and Steel Community, the precursor of today's expanded European Union.
"Once upon a time there was an old country, wrapped up in habit and caution. We have to transform our old France into a new country and marry it to its time."
Charles de Gaulle
The Fifth Republic, the country's present system of government, was established in 1958, and as its first president from 1959 to 1969, Charles de Gaulle gradually overcame the political chaos that had preceded his return to power. A new French currency was issued in January 1960 to control inflation, and industrial growth was promoted. But as the 1960s counterculture emerged, de Gaulle's government began to look conservative and outdated. May 1968 saw a volatile period of civil unrest punctuated by massive general strikes and the occupation of factories and universities across France, and spelled the end of the de Gaulle regime.
His successor Georges Pompidou made constant efforts to modernise France's capital: as witnessed by his construction of the modern art museum, the Centre Beaubourg (renamed Centre Pompidou after his death), tearing down the nearby open air markets at Les Halles to be replaced by a shopping mall of the same name, building the Montparnasse Tower, and constructing an expressway on the right bank of the Seine. He also facilitated the acceptance of the United Kingdom to the European Community on 1 January 1973. After his sudden death in office, Pompidou was succeeded by a third Gaullist president, Giscard d'Estaing, who held office from 1974 to 1981.
The first socialist president of the Fifth Republic, François Mitterand, presided over the decline of the once-mighty Communist Party and a series of radical economic reforms including the nationalisation of key firms and industries. He was a strong promoter of culture and implemented a range of costly 'Grands Projets', including the Louvre Pyramid, Musée d'Orsay, Opéra Bastille and the Bibliothèque nationale de France.
After Mitterand's 14 years in office came a shift back to the right in the shape of Jacques Chirac (1995-2007) and Nicolas Sarkozy, (2007-2012) both of whom became undermined by financial scrutiny. The present incumbent and second socialist president François Hollande's first act on taking power after the 2012 election was to lower the salaries of the president, prime minister, and other government officials by 30%, and to make them sign a 'code of ethics'.
"All the ills of mankind, all the tragic misfortunes that fill the history books, all the political blunders, all the failures of the great leaders have arisen merely from a lack of skill at dancing."
Even its most envious neighbours allow that France is a byword for style. The top fashion houses such as Yves St-Laurent, Chanel and Dior have their own boutiques in Paris and also sell through major department stores and boutiques in other main cities and resorts. For more affordable fashion for all ages, look out for brands like Alain Manoukian, Jules, Mexx, Naf-naf, Kookaï, Pimkie, Brice and Petit Bateau. Outside Paris, bargains can be found in the factory outlets of Troyes and Calais.
Rue de Rivoli, running along the Right Bank of the Seine, and the central part of rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré one block to the north, is the area with the chicest shops in Paris. The Champs Elysées is mostly home to flagship stores for large international chains, from Hugo Boss to Disney, plus a few undeniably elegant independent outlets with steep prices. Aside from Lacoste, Sephora, Cartier and Louis Vuitton right on the boulevard, many major French fashion stores and perfume houses including Dior and Chanel are found on the adjoining avenue Montaigne. Les Halles, le Marais and the eastern end of rue de Rivoli offer a wide range of fashionable French and international chainstores and boutiques. There are annual sales ('soldes') in January and July, and other offers year-round.
Boulevard Haussmann, behind l'Opéra, is home to the big department stores Galeries Lafayette and Printemps, but don't overlook Le Bon Marché, on rue de Sèvres on the Left Bank, Paris's original department store modelled by Gustav Eiffel and immortalised by Zola, whose Grand Épicerie is one of the finest food halls in the world.
Other major towns and cities all boast select boutiques and shops, including national chains and franchises. Throughout France, small traditional bakeries, patisseries, greengrocers, butchers and cheese shops still survive in old towns and villages, despite many out-of-town hypermarkets offering cheap provisions. Weekly open-air markets offer freshly harvested fruit and vegetables and local delicacies, while vineyard tours and wine tastings can be a major distraction across south-central France.
"Art produces ugly things which frequently become more beautiful with time. Fashion, on the other hand, produces beautiful things which always become ugly with time."
A service charge is included in most French hotel and restaurant bills. A small gratuity of a few euros on top of the service charge is expected for evening meals. There's no need to tip for drinks at the bar, but if brought to the table, tip as you would in a restaurant.
Most passengers offer taxi drivers a small tip, cloakroom attendants usually charge fixed fees, and hotel porters expect a euro or two per bag.
Where to eat
Eating out is so important to the French that even the tiniest village will have at least a café serving simple snacks. Café culture is a crux of bigger cities too, and popping into one for breakfast or just to hang out provides a real insight into local life. Brasseries are also a way of life in sizeable cities, staying open all day, serving beer on tap and house wine and uncomplicated meals. Restaurants vary enormously from elegant establishments specialising in haute cuisine to humble bistros serving traditional classics. In the countryside, eating a farm inn or ferme-auberge is a real treat - the produce is as fresh as it gets and almost certainly free-range, the cooking is traditional and regional, and the portions are pretty substantial too.
"Ice-cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn't illegal."