CLAIM TO FAME
France is famous for more than wine and cheese. Catriona Burns discovers some of the country’s most popular locations where products take pride of place
From books in Brittany to perfume in Grasse, discover three places with a famous product
France is famous for many things; world-class wine, cheese and iconic monuments, to name a few. But besides the obvious claims to fame, there is plenty more that has put France firmly on the map; delve a little deeper into individual departments and you’ll find that some of the country’s most popular locations are celebrated for local products that you might not have realised before. And whether it’s books or flowers, food or art, these products that take pride of place just add to France’s celebrated joie de vivre. So whether your move to France is motivated by a desire to read more, enjoy the simplicity of country life, or soak up French culture, everyone can find something to enjoy in these three locations.
IN THE GOOD BOOKS
If you want the next chapter of your story to play out in a storybook-pretty French town, look no further than Bécherel in Ille-et-Vilaine where books abound. Often dubbed the ‘Hay-on-Wye of Brittany’, France’s best-loved book town is like something out of a fairy tale in itself. Quiet, quaint streets lined with granite stone buildings come with a burst of cheer by way of colourful doors painted in pillar box red, sky blue and baby pink. But Bécherel’s buildings are more than just postcard-pretty – the town boasts 15 bookshops specialising in every topic under the sun where you can easily spend hours scouring characterful shops for first edition copies, long-forgotten poets and classics and rare editions of your favourite
FUN FACT Bécherel derives its name from the word becquerelle, which is an old Gaulish word for windmill
books. Many of these librairies also have cafés accommodating cosy corners that seem made for afternoons of snuggling up with a good book and an endless supply of tea.
Bécherel officially became a book town in 1989 when it hosted its first Fête du Livre. Now an annual event that takes place every spring, the three-day festival includes exhibitions, author readings, workshops, concerts and stalls with bookbinders, sellers and secondhand dealers. Though this is the highlight in the town’s calendar, it is complemented by a series of literary events throughout the year, including a reading festival in October, that always caters for lovers of letters.
Like many towns in France, Bécherel has a regular market. But here, locals’ wicker baskets are not filled with fruit and vegetables or locally sourced seafood. Rather, residents and visitors to the town delight in stocking up with paperbacks at the open-air book market, held on the first Sunday of every month at Place des Anciennes Halles, where you can also find an organic bread maker selling freshly baked baguettes.
Also located on the square are 16thcentury merchant houses; a reminder of the town’s textile past, when Bécherel was better known for linen and hemp used for making sails, than it was for books, with street names including Rue de la Filanderie and Rue de la Chanverie also hinting at this textile history.
But there is more to Bécherel than books and history. The surrounding area has more than 106 miles of paths that can be explored on foot, bike or on horseback with riding schools on the outskirts of town offering treks around the idyllic countryside. A petite cité de caractère since 1978, Bécherel is one book town that can certainly be judged by its charming, character-filled cover.
PICK OF THE CROP
Tucked away in the hilltops of the French Riviera, the Provençal town of Grasse is cocooned by fragrant fields of lavender, mimosa, jasmine and roses; its swoony scent seducing many to the dreamy way of life in Provence.
Filled with such fragrant flowers, Grasse is the perfume capital of the world – the town has been synonymous with the perfume industry since the 16th century when Catherine de’ Medici set the fashion for scented leather gloves – and as such, makes an ideal location for expats considering a tourism-based venture, with the town’s famous trade providing a ready supply of visitors.
In addition to visiting the nearby picturesque purple lavender farms and golden sunflower fields, your guests can also discover the history of the perfume industry by visiting the trio of perfumeries open to the public including Parfumerie Fragonard. There are also museums such as the Musée International de la Parfumerie (MIP) where a collection of artefacts, bottles, videos and vintage bottles relay the development of Grasse’s perfume production. A garden in full bloom, multimedia stations, and a real-life replica of a 19th-century perfume shop prove a treat for all the senses.
Even if you’re not lucky enough to have your own French garden in Grasse, flowers are never far away. The nearby Jardins du MIP are filled with scent-making blossoms, while flower farms, such as Le Domaine de Manon, provide true floral spectacles. Having cultivated centifolia rose and jasmine for three generations, the farm, located 7km from the centre of Grasse, now supplies exclusively to the fashion house Dior, and offers tours during flowering periods.
While Grasse quietly buzzes all year round, interest in the town blossoms
around the summertime flower festivals, including that of the rose in May and August’s Fête du Jasmine, when locals and tourists come together to celebrate locally grown buds with flower-filled parades, fireworks, and dancing in the petal-strewn cobbled streets of the Old Town.
It’s here, too, in the Old Town that you can buy fresh bouquets at the daily market (which also sells food produce) located among the cluster of ancient arcades, museums and shops on Place aux Aires. Buying a bunch of your favourites before getting lost among the winding narrow streets that are lined with pretty Provençal houses and enjoying a café crème outside on an ancient square fringed with restaurants and cafés has to be one of the most perfect starts to anyone’s day.
And, if you ever need to take time out to appreciate your new life in France, ascend the cathedral’s 18th-century clock tower and enjoy panoramic views of Grasse’s red and orange tiled roofs bordered by a glinting Mediterranean coastline; and stop and smell the roses.
DOWN TO A FINE ART
During the late medieval and Renaissance periods, the capital of Tarn, Albi, enjoyed a golden age thanks to its production of pastel dyes. Along its crooked streets, shops selling cartons of the colourful chalk and pastel-dyed garments can still be found, as can plenty more attractions for art aficionados who want to soak up some of France’s world-renowned culture.
Birthplace of the Post-Impressionist painter, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi’s star attraction is the Musée ToulouseLautrec that houses more than 1,000 works by the city’s most famous son, including paintings from when he was a young boy living in Albi to portraits of his family and friends and his world-famous posters. Despite being a top tourist destination, the modern museum set within the centuriesold Palais de la Berbie offers a peaceful place for locals to dip out of the hustle and bustle of Albi life, while a separate gallery hosting temporary exhibitions means you can visit time and time again, with the hope of seeing something new.
But it’s not just in museums where you can appreciate art in Albi. The iconic 13th-century Cathédrale Ste-Cécile, built by the Catholic Church to demonstrate its supremacy after the Cathar Wars, houses a plethora of 15th-century frescoes and intricately painted chapels that would rival any museum collection. Go see them at Sunday Mass, where music from the largest pipe organ in France will take the cultural experience to a new level.
All that art, you’ll find, will make you hungry, providing a perfect excuse to make the most of Tarn’s tempting local food on offer. On Place Fernand Pelloutier, the open-air farmers’ market takes place every Tuesday and Saturday morning with stalls selling organic fruit and vegetables, cheese, homemade jams and other farmfresh food, while the adjacent covered market buzzes with stallholders selling everything from fish and meat to pastries and wine. Once you’ve finished stocking up on supplies for the weekend, be sure to join the locals for a glass of Gaillac wine at a market eatery; the best place in town for a catch-up.
For those who want to get involved with Albi’s artistic life, the city’s cultural calendar offers plenty of opportunities, such as the summertime music festival, Pause Guitare and Arte Tango in October; just some of the dates providing a rousing programme of entertainment throughout the year.
But for a quieter culture quarter, slip back onto the residential area in the city centre; a little labyrinth of lanes where Romanesque and Gothic buildings and half-timbered houses sit enchantingly along lantern-lit pebbled streets. Most magical of all are the 10th-century homes, constructed with bricks made with clay from the River Tarn, where you can make out medieval thumbprints that have been preserved in the baked clay.
Clockwise from top: Bécherel in Ille-et-Vilaine; winding streets in Grasse’s Old Town; Bécherel boasts many traditionally Breton shops; one of Bécherel’s 15 bookshops; the rural surroundings of Bécherel can be explored on foot, bike or horseback on more than 106 miles of paths
Clockwise from top: The hilltop town of Grasse sits north of Nice; Albi’s Cathédrale Ste-Cécile looms large over the city; botanical bliss in Albi’s city centre; the River Tarn flows through the capital of the Tarn department