FRANCE

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

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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.

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