Think you know France? Forget what you’ve been told and everything you’ve read. The Eiffel Tower and the Louvre isn’t France; Sacré Coeur and the Arc de Triomphe don’t count either. If you want to experience France the way the French do, you have to get off the tourist grid. Here are 10 ways to do just that:
Wander through the Traboules of old Lyon Lyon is known for a great many things. It is the birthplace of Auguste and Louis Lumière and home of the Fête des Lumières. But we’re concerned with another aspect of its history: the Traboules. A labyrinth of passageways dating back to the Renaissance, stepping through Lyon’s famous Traboules is almost like stepping back in time. One minute you’re in the noisy street and the next, you’re making your way through a narrow passageway that opens out onto a hidden courtyard. Beautiful spiral staircases carved out of solid rock, vaulted ceilings and the unmistakeable, rich smell of history are what you can expect here.
Picnic in a Paris park The French love the outdoors and Paris is home to some of the best parks in the world. But skip the tourist-thronged Tuileries and Luxembourg gardens in favour of the ones the locals flock to. Buttes Chaumont, Montsouris and Monceau are great bets. Buttes Chaumont is located in the 19th arrondissement (district) and is home to the Belvedere de Sybil, making it a favourite romantic haunt of Parisians. Montsouris is located in the 14th arrondissement and its water reservoir sits on top of an entrance to the Paris Catacombs. Monceau sits in the 8th arrondissement of the city and is home to an array of spectacular anomalies including a pyramid; not something one expects to see in a Parisian park.
Go wine tasting in Provence or Burgundy If you’re wondering ‘why not Bordeaux?’ it’s because that’s where the tourists go. Provence or Burgundy is where you want to be. Provence Wine Tours (www.provencewinetours.com) conduct half-day and all-day tour of the region from 67 euros (Rs4,745) per person. Burgundy Wine Tours (www.burgundywinetours.com conducts a seven-day tour of Burgundy (or Bourgogne as it is known) which begins in Beaune.
Hit the waves in Biarritz One doesn’t usually think of France as a surfing destination. But that’s where Biarritz comes in. This seaside city on the Bay of Biscay has been popular since the 18th and 19th century: first, when doctors claimed its waters were therapeutic, and second when Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napolean III built a palace there—which today is the world-famous Hôtel du Palais. Today, Biarritz is an extremely popular surfing hotspot and will host 2013’s ASP Women’s World Tour.
Cycle through the Loire valley and visit the Château de Villandry Lovingly called ‘The Garden of France,’ the Loire Valley is vineyards, fruit orchards and asparagus fields as far as the eye can see. The valley is also home to many chateaux and choosing just one to see can be a daunting task. But we recommend Château de Villandry. It may not be as large or as opulent as France’s châteaux-poster-child Versailles, but its gardens—with their box hedged symmetry—are regarded by many to be the absolute finest.
Explore the fortified town of Saint-Malo, Brittany The walled port city of Saint-Malo is a must-see. Sitting on top of a granite hill, its Old Town may look ancient but its bars, restaurants and shops are anything but. Old Town covers a relatively small area and a walk along the ramparts is definitely recommended—the view is breathtaking. Make sure you stop at the main attractions like Chateau de St Malo, Cathedral de St Vincent and the Statue of Robert Surcouf. You can even go on boat trips from the Porte de Dinan at the south-facing walls. Walk out on to the curved jetty and look back to see the city from another angle.
Vist the town of Les Baux in the south of France Les Baux is a hilltop town situated in the Alpilles mountains. Straight out of a painting, its ancient stone buildings, narrow streets and unrivalled view over the plains only further enhance its charm. The chateau that sits imposingly above the town and dominates the cityscape is a must-see. It contains replicas of medieval weapons and there is a live demonstration of a catapult in action every day between April and September.
Admire Corsica’s rugged natural beauty
Located closer to Italy than France, Corsica is the most mountainous Mediterranean island, and is much-admired for its raw, rugged beauty and its stunning coastline. As far as outdoor activities go, there are tons of hikes and nature trails that you can explore on foot or horseback, mountain biking, white water rafting, canyoning and in other fun ways. For sun and sand, be sure to visit the beaches of Campomoro and the Gulf of Lava.
Get inspired at Monet's gardens in Giverny These lush gardens inspired Claude Monet, the founder of the Impressionist movement, and led to the creation of some of his most famous works. As the story goes, Monet saw Giverny from the window of a train as he passed by—and made up his mind to move here. In fact, some of his paintings—such as that of the lily pond—is his vision of his very own garden and his very own lily pond. Don’t forget to stop by the Museum of Impressionism Giverny on your way out.
Sip Champagne in Reims Reims is located in the decadent Champagne-Adrenne region of France, which is home to some of the world’s finest champagne. Therefore, a champagne tasting is definitely in order. Moët & Chandon has its estate and vineyard at Épernay and conducts hour-long guided tours of the cellars (from 9am to 11.30am and 2pm to 430pm) from 16.50 euro (Rs1,165) onwards, which are followed by tastings afterwards. Tattinger also conducts similar hour-long tours (from 9.30am to 11.50am and 2pm to 4.20pm) at its cellars located at 9, Place Saint Nicaisse in Reims. While most people visit Reims for these tastings, visit the town's giant Gothic-style cathedral Notre-Dame de Reims for a dose of history. The cathedral used to be the traditional coronation site for the former kings of France.
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