France is one of the top destinations for travellers from all parts of the world and its capital Paris is rated as one of the world’s favourite cities. With this year marking the 70th anniversary of D- Day and the Battle of Normandy, ROGE R ALL NUTT takes
Apart from the capital, tourists flock to the Mediterranean coast from Nice and Cannes, to the alpine regions in both winter and summer and along the Loire and other rivers for the stunning chateaux. However, there is much more to see in France, which is a large country with quite distinct regions all offering amazing experiences. In fact unless you have lots of time it is sensible to select two or three regions and do these in depth. The benefits of staying in one place for a few days absorbing the diversity of the region and “travelling like a local” are numerous. A good way to travel around France is by rental car or, if staying over 21 days, leasing a car through either the Peugeot or Renault programmes. Driving on the “wrong” side of the road is not a problem for most drivers, although extra care should be taken for the first couple of days. Having a car enables you to stay outside cities and large towns ( train travel often restricts you to accommodation near the station), where the choice of accommodation is good and usually much cheaper. There are plenty of hotels, many with kitchen facilities, or there are thousands of apartments and rooms for rent. If renting or leasing a car note that diesel ( gazole) in France is about 15 to 20 per cent cheaper than petrol. Also most French towns have large supermarkets located in the industrial areas on the edge of town and
they have petrol outlets ( often available 24 hours a day) that are again much cheaper than at ordinary roadside stations. I favour staying where possible in apartments, as I prefer to be able to cook and prepare my own meals especially breakfast. As mentioned, there are excellent supermarkets readily available and even smaller market groups like Dia and Casino are good. The range of goods is incredible. You have never seen cheese displays like it, hams and terrines and pates are delicious, the breads particularly the famous baguettes are superb and the range of wines mind- boggling. Even the cheaper wines with prices around two to three euros are of good quality. Many supermarkets have dishes like quiches available to take away. Interestingly the advent of the large supermarkets has transformed the dining habits of locals especially outside the big cities. The supermarkets are packed throughout the day ( some don’t open on Sunday) with locals appearing to cook at home rather than going out to lunch or dinner. Unlike in the past where tourists were attracted to good value “tourist menus” – these have largely disappeared. Many restaurants only open at lunchtime – the two- hour break from 12.00 to 2.00pm is still religiously observed. Parking in towns is often free during those hours, which make it a good time to sightsee. One of the great delights of travelling in France, particularly from May to mid- July, is the wonderful display of flowers. This year the colours and profusion were superb. This profusion is not only in the wonderful botanic gardens ( jardins), but also in flower boxes on window ledges, huge boxes straddling bridge railings, hanging baskets in streets and even roundabouts on the roads have masses of flowers and even sculptures. Some sculptures appear to be made out of flowers but are either forms covered in flowers, or bushes cut to shapes – terrific examples are found in the botanic gardens at Nantes and near the waterfront at Villers sur Mer on the Normandy Coast. France has a system of awarding towns a star rating for their floral standard – four is the highest number of stars. French towns have an army of workers trimming overhanging trees, cutting the grass verges of roads, in general everything is neat and tidy with very little graffiti and the locals are very proud of their towns. Many of these wonderful floral displays can be found in towns and villages that are classified as “the most beautiful towns in France”. There are 156 of these dotted around the country and it is worthwhile seeking out some of them. They often contain buildings of architectural merit, be it half- timbered houses, or ancient constructions such as Roman bridges. I had vowed on my recent trip I wouldn’t visit as many
churches as in the past. As a Catholic country there seem to be churches, large and small, in most towns and even villages. Many date from the 13th and 14th centuries and I am always amazed at how these structures were built, given the height and huge stonework. Many are quite simple inside, often with colourful stained glass windows. They are invariably open during the day and are free to enter. There are also great cathedrals throughout France, like the Notre Dame in Paris, Chartres, Amiens and Rheims. Others such as Bourges, Limoges and Beauvais just north of Paris are wonderful buildings. In Beauvais the Cathedral of Saint Pierre is remarkable. Apart from the high vaulted choir it contains two unique clocks, one from the 14th century is one of the oldest in the world and still in running order and the other astronomic clock built in the 1860s contains over 90,000 perfectly synchronised parts. Other smaller churches are interesting too, with contrasting styles, different interiors – and always spotless. This year is the 70th anniversary of the D Day landings in June 1944 along the coast of the northern region of Normandy and many dignitaries gathered for the celebrations. Visiting the area is very moving and instructive as we tend to learn mainly about places where our soldiers fought. Start your visit with a visit to the new Memorial de Caen an evocative explanation of those terrible days where loss of life was so great. It provides a comprehensive, informative and balanced account of the events leading up to World War II and on the Normandy landings. Along the coast there are a number of museums covering many aspects of the battles in the area. You can visit the beaches ( some wreckage is still visible), see what foxholes and bunkers were like ( the Hillman site which is maintained by the Suffolk Regiment is a good example) and go to the new 360 Circular Cinema on the cliff top above Arromanches to see the 20- minute film The Price of Freedom. This is shown on nine screens in a circular cinema, offering a medley of hitherto unscreened archives filmed by war correspondents. For the celebrations many towns in the area including some well inland from the beaches, installed photographic displays to show the devastation caused by the German and allied armies. I was intrigued by a display at the small town of Pont d’Ouilly where in 1940 Douglas Bailey designed the Bailey Bridge to replace a blown- up one. General Montgomery claimed that “without the Bailey Bridge we would not have won the war” – strong sentiments. At Falaise near Pont d’Ouilly is a large 11th century castle where William the Conqueror was born. As anyone who has been to France or even has watched the Tour de France on TV will attest, France is a large country with amazingly varied scenery, rugged coastlines and beaches, vast flat areas of crops ( huge farm equipment annoyingly use roads), vineyards, mountains, charming towns, museums and galleries. The French honour many of their past heroes, including war generals and members of the arts. For example Rue de General Gaulle and Rue Victor Hugo are everywhere. Travelling round is like living history. It used to be said that the French could be rather snooty with visitors who didn’t speak French. This is rarely the case now, although speaking some French or even making an effort is appreciated. Vive la France.
Cathedral of St Pierre, Beauvais.
Colourful garden ornament, Botanic Gardens, Nantes.
Art gallery around an old swimming pool, Roubaix.