advertisement

Though France's 547,030 sq. km (211,209 sq. miles) make it slightly smaller than Texas, no other country has such a diversity of sights and scenery in such a compact area. A visitor can travel through the north's flat, fertile lands; the Loire Valley's green hills; the east's Alpine ranges; the Pyrénées; the Massif Central's plateaus and rock outcroppings; and the southeast's Mediterranean coast. Even more noteworthy are the cultural and historical differences that define each region.

Destinations in France are within easy reach from Paris and each other. French National Railroads (SNCF) offers fast service to and from Paris -- though trains tend to crawl on routes that do not serve the capital. The train trip from Paris is 4 hours to Alsace, 5 to the Alps, 7 to the Pyrénées, and 8 to the Côte d'Azur -- and the newer TGVs (high-speed trains) cut that travel time dramatically.

You'll find nearly 71,000km (about 44,100 miles) of roads, mostly in good condition. Try not to travel the Route Nationale network all the time. Nearly all of France's scenic splendors are along secondary roads.

A "grand tour" of France is nearly impossible for the visitor who doesn't have a lifetime to explore. If you want to get to know a province, try to devote at least a week to a specific region; you may have a more rewarding trip if you concentrate on getting to know two or three areas at a leisurely pace rather than racing around trying to see everything. To help you decide where to spend your time, we've summarized the highlights of each region for you.

Ile de France (including Paris) -- The Ile de France is an island only in the sense that rivers -- with odd-sounding names such as Essonne, Epte, Aisne, Eure, and Ourcq -- and a handful of canals delineate its boundaries (about an 81km/50-mile radius from the center of Paris). France was born in this temperate basin, where the attractions include Paris, Versailles, Fontainebleau, Notre-Dame de Chartres, and Giverny. Despite industrialization (and Disneyland Paris), pockets of charm remain, including the forests of Rambouillet and Fontainebleau, and the artists' hamlet of Barbizon.

The Loire Valley -- This area includes two ancient provinces, Touraine (centered on Tours) and Anjou (centered on Angers). It was beloved by royalty and nobility until Henry IV moved his court to Paris. Head here to see the most magnificent castles in France. Irrigated by the Loire River and its many tributaries, the valley produces many superb wines.

Normandy -- This region will forever be linked to the 1944 D-day invasion. Some readers consider a visit to the D-day beaches the most emotionally worthwhile part of their trip. Normandy boasts 599km (372 miles) of coastline and a maritime tradition. It's a popular weekend getaway from Paris, and many hotels and restaurants thrive here, especially around the casino town of Deauville. Normandy's great attractions include the Rouen cathedral, the abbey of Jumièges, and medieval Bayeux.

Brittany -- Jutting into the Atlantic, the westernmost (and one of the poorest) regions of France is known for its rocky coastlines, Celtic roots, frequent rain, and ancient dialect, akin to the Gaelic tongues of Wales and Ireland. Many French vacationers love the seacoast (rivaled only by the Côte d'Azur) for its sandy beaches, cliffs, and relatively modest -- by French standards -- prices. Carnac is home to ancient Celtic dolmens and burial mounds, and the region's most sophisticated resort, La Baule, is near some of Brittany's best beaches.

Champagne -- Every French monarch since A.D. 496 was crowned at Reims, and much of French history is linked with this holy site. In the path of any invader wishing to occupy Paris, Reims and the Champagne district have seen much bloodshed, including the World War I battles of the Somme and the Marne. Industrial sites sit among patches of forest, and vineyards sheath the steep sides of valleys. The 126km (78-mile) road from Reims to Vertus, one of the Routes du Champagne, takes in a trio of winegrowing regions that produce 80% of the world's bubbly.

The Ardennes & Northern Beaches -- This northern region is often ignored by North Americans (which is why we feature it as a side trip from Reims). In summer, French families arrive by the thousands to visit Channel beach resorts such as Le Touquet-Paris-Plage. This district is quite industrialized and has always suffered in wars. Its best-known port, Calais, was a bitterly contested English stronghold for centuries. Calais is now the port of disembarkation for ferries, hydrofoils, and Channel Tunnel arrivals from Britain. Notre-Dame Cathedral in Amiens, the medieval capital of Picardy, is a treasure, with a 42m-high (138-ft.) nave -- the highest in France.

Alsace-Lorraine -- Between Germany and the forests of the Vosges is the most Teutonic of France's provinces: Alsace, with cosmopolitan Strasbourg as its capital. Celebrated for its cuisine, particularly its foie gras and choucroute, this area is home to villages with half-timbered designs that make you think of the Black Forest. If you travel the Route de Vin (Wine Road), you can visit towns such as Colmar, Riquewihr, and Illhaeusern, famous for great food and wine. Lorraine, birthplace of Joan of Arc, witnessed many battles during the world wars. Its capital, Nancy, is the guardian of a grand 18th-century plaza, place Stanislas. The much-eroded peaks of the Vosges forest, the closest thing to a wilderness in France, offer lovely hiking.

Burgundy -- Few trips will prove as rewarding as several leisurely days spent exploring Burgundy, with its splendid old cities such as Dijon. Besides its famous cuisine (boeuf and escargots à la bourguignonne), the district contains, along its Côte d'Or, hamlets whose names (Mercurey, Beaune, Puligny-Montrachet, Vougeot, and Nuits-St-Georges) are synonymous with great wine.

The Rhône Valley -- A fertile area of Alpine foothills and sloping valleys in eastern and southeastern France, the upper Rhône Valley ranges from the French suburbs of the Swiss city of Geneva to the northern borders of Provence. The district is thoroughly French, unflinchingly bourgeois, and dedicated to preserving the gastronomic and cultural traditions that have produced some of the most celebrated chefs in French history.

Only 2 hours by train from Paris, the region's cultural centerpiece, Lyon, is France's "second city." North of here, you can travel the Beaujolais trail or head for Bresse's ancient capital, Bourg-en-Bresse, which produces the world's finest poultry. You can explore the Rhône Valley en route to Provence. Try to visit the medieval villages of Pérouges and Vienne, 27km (17 miles) south of Lyon; the latter is known for its Roman ruins.

The French Alps -- This area's resorts rival those of neighboring Switzerland and contain incredible scenery: snowcapped peaks, glaciers, and Alpine lakes. Chamonix is a famous ski resort facing Mont Blanc, western Europe's highest mountain. Courchevel and Megève are more chic. During the summer, you can enjoy such spa resorts as Evian and the restful 19th-century resorts ringing Lake Geneva.

Provence -- One of France's most fabled regions flanks the Alps and the Italian border along its eastern end, and incorporates a host of sites that have long been frequented by the rich and famous. Premier destinations are Aix-en-Provence, associated with Cézanne; Arles, "the soul of Provence," captured by van Gogh; Avignon, the 14th-century capital of Christendom during the papal schism; and Marseille, a port city established by the Phoenicians (in some ways more North African than French). Provence's gems are the small villages, such as St-Rémy-de-Provence (Nostradamus's birthplace) and Les Baux. The strip of glittering beach towns along Provence's southern edge is known as the Côte d'Azur, or the French Riviera.

The French Riviera (Côte d'Azur) -- The fabled Côte d'Azur (Azure Coast, or Blue Coast) has become quite overbuilt and spoiled by tourism. Even so, the names of its resorts still evoke glamour: Cannes, St-Tropez, Cap d'Antibes, and St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. July and August are the most crowded, but spring and fall can be a delight. Nice is the biggest city, and most convenient for exploring the area. The principality of Monaco occupies only about 2 sq. km (3/4 sq. mile). Along the coast are some sandy beaches, but many are rocky or pebbly. Topless bathing is common, especially in St-Tropez, and some of the restaurants are citadels of conspicuous consumption. Dozens of artists and their patrons have littered the landscape with world-class galleries and art museums.

Languedoc-Roussillon -- Languedoc may not be as chic as Provence, but it's less frenetic and more affordable. Roussillon is the rock-strewn French answer to Catalonia, just across the Spanish border. The Camargue is the marshy delta formed by two arms of the Rhône River. Rich in bird life, it's famous for its grassy flats and such fortified medieval sites as Aigues-Mortes. Also appealing are Auch, the capital of Gascony; Toulouse, the bustling pink capital of Languedoc; and the "red city" of Albi, birthplace of Toulouse-Lautrec. Carcassonne, a marvelous walled city with fortifications begun around A.D. 500, is the region's highlight.

The Basque Country -- Since prehistoric times, the rugged Pyrénées have formed a natural boundary between France and Spain. The Basques, one of Europe's most unusual cultures, flourished in the valleys here. In the 19th century, resorts such as Biarritz and St-Jean-de-Luz attracted the French aristocracy; the empress Eugénie's palace at Biarritz is now a hotel. Four million Catholics make annual pilgrimages to the city of Lourdes. In the villages and towns of the Pyrénées, the old folkloric traditions, permeated with Spanish influences, continue to thrive.

Bordeaux & the Atlantic Coast -- Flat, fertile, and frequently ignored by North Americans, this region includes towns pivotal in French history (Saintes, Poitiers, Angoulême, and La Rochelle), as well as wine- and liquor-producing villages (Cognac, Margaux, St-Emilion, and Sauternes) whose names are celebrated around the world. Bordeaux, the district's largest city, has an economy based on wine merchandising and showcases grand 18th-century architecture.

The Dordogne & Perigord -- The land of foie gras and truffles is the site of some of Europe's oldest settlements. For biking or indulging in gourmet meals, the region is among the top vacation spots in France. In the Périgord, the cave paintings at Les Eyzies reveal traces of Cro-Magnon settlements. The Dordogne is the second-largest département (the French equivalent of an American state). Highlights are the ancient towns of Périgueux, Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, Sarlat-le-Canéda, and Beynac-et-Cazenac.

The Massif Central -- The rugged heartland of south-central France, this underpopulated district contains ancient cities, unspoiled scenery, and an abundance of black lava, from which many buildings were created. The largest cities are Clermont-Ferrand and Limoges -- the medieval capitals of the provinces of the Auvergne and the Limousin. Bourges, a gateway to the region and once capital of Aquitaine, has a beautiful Gothic cathedral.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.