100 things to do in France
This is not a list of the best tourist sights in France, but suggestions for expats looking to do something different
24 February 2011
By Ken Seaton
- Ride a bike: you don’t need to do the Tour de France; try a tour in the mountains, or along towpaths such as the Canal du Midi or the Nantes-Brest canal, or through the rolling hills of the Dordogne.
- Stride out straight across a French pedestrian crossing – daring the drivers not to stop [perhaps this should be the final item on the list]. France recently changed the law giving much more priority to pedestrians, even when not directly on the crossing, so drivers should stop...
- Walk on water when you take the Sillon de Talbert, a 3km sliver of land that stretches north from the Côte de Granit Rose at Québo in Brittany. It is thought that currents from the rivers Trieux and Jaudy on either side of the 30m-wide strip of sand and pebbles help defend it from Channel storms.
- Cycle from St Malo to Biarritz on the Voies Vertes. A dedicated cycle route covers nearly all the 500 miles down the west coast; there are in the north. Safe routes with plenty of access to villages for accommodation and refreshments. www.voiesvertes.com
- Ski down a slagheap: Snow is usually in short supply in Nord-Pas-de-Calais – except over the past festive season - so at Loisinord in Noeux-les-Mines they have covered a slagheap left over from the mining industry with fluorescent green turf that stretches down the 320m artificial ski slope. The site also has a water park. www.noeux-les-mines.fr
- Play petanque for real: just head out into the country with your boules and play in a forest clearing or a path.
- Travel the length of the longest river in France: the Loire starts in the Cévennes in the Ardèche and is 1,013km long. Because of its high floods, it is known as the last wild river in France. It crosses 12 departments. Much easier to handle is the Dordogne, which is 483km from its source at Puy de Sancy in the Massif Central. It covers five regions and 11 departments and is navigable for much of its length.
- Visit a graveyard: Tyne Cot near Ypres is the largest Commonwealth War Graves cemetery – filled with rank after rank of white grave stones; the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, has ranks of crosses. Père Lachaise in Paris is said to be the most visited cemetery in the world, with the graves of Oscar Wilde, Colette, Tour de France winner Laurent Fignon and rock singer Jim Morrison. For somewhere less sombre, try the AFRA aeroplane graveyard at Chateauroux, where aircraft are recycled; or Kerhervy, Morbihan, where tuna boats are sinking into the mud after being dumped in the Blavet boat graveyard. Animal-lovers can head for the Cimetière des Chiens in the Paris suburb of Asnières-sur-Seine.
- Play golf on the oldest course in France, set up at Pau in the Midi-Pyrénées in 1856. A weekday round will cost €69 and €78 at weekends. You could also play the second-oldest at Dinard and Biarritz, which were set up in 1887-88.
- Spend the day at Paris Plage. Bury your toes in sand by the River Seine every summer. There are lots of attractions for youngsters of all ages.
- Take part in a rescue dig: Archaeologists need help to excavate caves, Roman villas, historical digs, industrial archaeology and many other endangered sites. Amateurs are usually welcome and a list of what is available and where, is on the Ministry of Culture site at: www.culture.gouv.fr/culture/fouilles/
- Visit the Abbey of St Denis, the burial place of French kings over the centuries. Clovis and nearly every king from the 10th to 18th century are interred at the abbey, now cathedral, on the outskirts of Paris. It is said to be the first Gothic building.
- Find the Statue of Liberty: There are several versions of the iconic Lady Liberty since the original was presented by France to the US in 1886. Three are in Paris: on the Pont de Grenelle, near the foundry of creator Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi; another is in the Musée des Arts et Métiers; and the last one, said to be Bartholdi’s working bronze model, is in the Jardin du Luxembourg. Bartholdi’s home town of Colmar has one, 50cm taller than the Pont de Grenelle version. There are others, including those at Saint-Cyrsur-Mer in the Var, Roybon in Isère, Cléguerec, Morbihan and in Bordeaux. A 13.5m version stands in Barentin, Seine-Maritime, after being made as a prop for a film.
- Take a hot-air balloon flight in Annonay, where the Montgolfier brothers started it all with the first flight on June 4, 1783. Each year the Ardèche town celebrates the event with a mass balloon festival with montgolfières of many fantastic designs. If you want more, head for the balloon museum in Château de Belleroy, Normandy. The museum is open all year and the chateau opens on March 15, but there are no flights.
- Go potholing in the Dordogne, Tarn, Ardèche or Mercantour – see the caves as nature left them, with the stalactites and stalagmites and the brilliant colours left in the calcareous rock by minerals. The south of France is renowned for its caves but there are caving clubs in Brittany and Normandy exploring locally and the Spéléologie Finistère group is organising trial sessions at Huelgoat this spring.
- Take a ride on a TGV: the 300kph trains travel from city centre to city centre; special low-fare idTGV services can be booked on the internet. The first trains ran from Paris to Lyon in 1981; in 2007, a TGV set a record speed of 357mph. Originally using dedicated high-speed lines they were later modified to use ordinary track and now travel all over France. www.idtgv.com
- Take a train to the top of a mountain – the Petit Train de la Rhune climbs 736m over its 4.2km journey from Col de Saint-Ignace, near St-Jean-de-Luz, Pyrénées-Atlantiques. Even higher is the Montenvers Railway, which heads out from Chamonix and makes its way 800m up the sides of the Aiguilles de Chamonix to an altitude of 1,913m where the station overlooks the Mer de Glace glacier.
- Trample grapes: During the fête des vendanges, in many areas villagers will set off in the evening and pick grapes by twilight. The grapes are taken back to the village and trampled in the old-fashioned style. Afterwards they drink the fresh bourru grape juice, which is slightly fermented. In Nuits St Georges, it is known as the Fête du Vin Bourru. The Languedoc village of Chusclan is transformed with costumed villagers parading to the vineyard before the fun starts.
- Go and see Ionesco: The double bill of The Lesson and The Bald Soprano have been playing six days a week at the Theatre de la Huchette in Paris since 1957. The theatre has only 85 seats, but the shows have been seen by nearly 1.5 million.
- Do a stage of the Tour de France – Each year, a charity Etape du Tour is organised where people can challenge themselves on the exact stage that the tour will cover (last year it was the Col du Tourmalet: 10,000 started and only 6,888 finished). This year, the Etape du Tour Mondovélo is a double effort: Modane Valfréjus to Alpe d’Huez (109km) on July 11 and Issoire to Saint-Flour (208km) on July 17.
- Walk to Paradise: 500m up the cliff-face from Pont-sur-Loup in the Alpes-Maritimes to Gourdon on the Chemin du Paradis, named not for Paradise but from the Provençal word paradou, which means “near water”.
- If you have a head for heights, try out your fitness on the Via Ferrata – the iron roads that were first built by Italian troops to get quickly round the Alps. Look to the Mercantour, Alps, Pyrenees and Auvergne, or the 130m version at the Chateau de Marqueyssac in the Dordogne. There are many organised trips which supply equipment, including the vital safety line.
- If you don’t have a head for heights, head underground and do the Via Souterrata at Caille, near Castellane in the Alpes-Maritimes. The trail is 350m long and 35m underground, with fixed cables, a monkey bridge and a rope bridge. Temperature is a cool 10C all year round.
- Check the Bayeux Tapestry to find out if Harold really did get an arrow in the eye at the Battle of Hastings – or was it just one of the first examples of war propaganda and the winners of 1066 taking the chance to write history? Spot Halley’s Comet as it becomes a bad omen for King Harold.
- Walk the Route Napoléon from Golfe Juan to Grenoble: see if you can match the emperor’s trek of six days. It is now a 325km section of the RN85. If you don’t want to walk it, the road is one of Europe’s best motorcycling roads, with spectacular scenery and few of the hairpins that bedevil the Alpine roads.
- Meet Joan of Arc, although she may be a bit pale. If you go to the basilica at Le Bois-Chenu Domremy in the Vosges, you may see her ghost. St Joan was born nearby at Domrémy-la-Pucelle and it was where the basilica stands that she heard the voices that sent her to take up arms to defend France in the Hundred Years War.
- Play the casino at Monaco – or, if you prefer to stay in France, just over the border in Menton, Beaulieu, Nice or Cannes. The casino at Monte Carlo is not a place to rub shoulders with the locals; native Monégasques have been banned from gambling there since the 1850s.
- Enjoy yourself at Fest Noz or Fest Dez festivals in Brittany. These traditional festivals were used as a way to batter down the bare earth for a new house. Today they are held in most communes with dancing, dancing and more dancing: gavottes and plinns in lines or in circles. Dancing as a couple, called belly-to-belly or kof-a-kof dancing, was once banned.
- Pan for gold: There are many places to find gold in France. The Rhine, east of Mulhouse, is a well-known area and you can get gold-panning lessons there and on the “old” Rhine from Bad Bellingen to Efringen. However, the best areas are the Cevennes, Auvezere, Corrèze, and rivers south of there in the Massif Central. Panning courses are run in the river Cèze in the Gard and on the river Gardon at Boisset Gaujac, near Nîmes. You can find nuggets and flakes in each, though professionals will only find one gramme a day; it takes 75g to make an 18 carat ring. www.chercheurdorenfrance.com
- Discover for yourself the oldest cave paintings in the world. Not Lascaux, but further east in the Gorges de l’Ardèche, where the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave has been dated back 30,000 years. Although the caves have been closed since 1995, there is an exhibition at Vallon, which has a video with details of Cro-Magnon paintings.
- Dive to the underwater village off Golfe Juan at La Fourmigue. Created by artist Nejad Silver, it was originally created in the 1960s for a film project, but was destroyed by souvenir-hunting divers. A new version was built south of the rock known as La Fourmigue and took 7,000 dives over six years. Nearby is a small grotto known as the Grotte de Miro, which holds the bust of Commandant le Prieur, inventor of what French historians say was the first self-contained underwater air breathing apparatus.
- See how chateaux were built in the 13th century. Watch how it is done with the original tools at the chateau of Guédelon in Yonne, Burgundy or join in to learn the skills of a mediaeval builder. www.guedelon.fr
- Swim the traversée between Iles Ste Marguerite and the Ile de Lerins just off Cannes. The 1.5km swim is held every year on the first Sunday in September. This year will be the 40th event. It is organised by the Amis de l’Ile Sainte Marguerite.
- Get lost in the largest permanent plant maze in the world, at Guéret in the Creuse: it measures 2.2 hectares. The next biggest is at Bouguenais near Nantes, which is 1.5 hectares. The Labyrinthe du Corsaire at Saint-Malo covers 11 hectares, but that includes four mazes and many other activities. You can’t get lost in the labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral: the flat stone design leads you to the middle and then back out again.
- See France in miniature at Elancourt, 30km west of Paris. Owned by the same firm as Parc Astérix, France Miniature has 160 1/30-scale models of landmarks scattered over its five hectares. Model trains take you to the different areas of the site.
- Find a little bit of Texas in Paris. From 1836-45, the soon-to-be Lone Star State was an independent republic and had its own embassy on the corner of Place Vendôme and Rue de Castiglione. Today there is a plaque marking the site.
- Feel small by standing alongside the biggest Gothic cathedral in France: Notre-Dame at Amiens, which is 112.7m high. Built in a little over 40 years from 1220, it is all in one style and recent research work has revealed traces of the original colourings, which are reproduced in a spectacular evening light show on the west portal in winter.
- Take a train into a mountain. The Grotte de Rouffignac in the Dordogne has two kilometres of railway for visitors. Or take a train into and up a mountain: the Train des Merveilles from Nice to Tende threads across valleys and through spiral tunnels to climb 1,000m up the Alps.
- Go deep to find France’s oddest church – the Eglise of St Jean at Aubeterre-sur-Dronne, Charente. Carved out of solid rock from AD345, it was enlarged by 12th century Benedictine monks and is now 27m by 16m and 20m high. http://aubeterresurdronne.com
- Drive or motorcycle round the Gorges du Verdon in Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, the French rival to the Grand Canyon. Approaching across the plains from Comps-sur-Artuby, you reach the Balcons de la Mescla, where it looks as if someone has scooped out a ditch 250m deep. It takes 130km of road to travel the 21km of canyon. The opal-blue water is stunning.
- Become a WWOOFer – and earn your keep while learning about organic farming. Standing for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, it is a chance to live with a family and join in their day-today activities and meals around an organic lifestyle. There are farms across France and many of the hosts speak English. http://www.wwoof.fr/eng/index.htm
- Walk barefoot across the sands to Mont Saint Michel. You’ll need a guide and you’ll need to hurry, because a dam being built further upriver is intended to scour away the sands so the Mont stands surrounded by water.
- Find Spanish land in France. The “city” of Llívia is a Spanish enclave in the Pyrénées 2km inside France. Formerly the ancient capital of Cerdanya, it was excluded from the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrénées, which gave up other villages to France, because it enjoyed the status of a city, and so stayed Catalan and Spanish.
- Punt along the green Venice of the west coast. The Marais Poitevin is 1,000 sq km of marsh and canals that extends across Vendée, Deux-Sèvres and Charente-Maritime. Hire a punt-type barque from one of the embarcadères piers and discover the astonishing insect and wildlife – especially the dragonflies.
- Drink a glass of calvados next to an open campfire and watch the stars – or shooting stars if you do it in August, when the Perseid meteor shower hits the atmosphere on the 12th-13th.
- Enjoy the best view in Paris. The Institut du Monde Arabe (1 Rue des Fossés-Saint-Bernard) gives a bird’s eye view of Notre Dame Cathedral from its rooftop terrace and cafe. Otherwise, take the funicular to the steps of the Sacre Coeur, sit back and enjoy the panoramic view. If you head for the Arc de Triomphe after the sun is down, you get a spectacular view of the Eiffel Tower’s 10-minute lightshow every hour on the hour.
- Take a lift with a difference. The Louvre has an open hydraulic lift: once you reach your floor, a slide-out walkway lets you off. The Eiffel Tower has lifts in each of its four legs. As the pillars are curved, the angle of the lift’s ascent changes. Try the Tour Montparnasse for Europe’s fastest elevator: 38 seconds to cover the 196 meters (over 640 ft) from bottom to the top.
- See the Sistine Chapel of the Alps. The 12th-century chapel of Notre Dame des Fontaines near La Brigue is decorated on every surface with frescoes featuring the Virgin Mary and the Passion of Christ. It was built from donations from pilgrims on the Tende-San Remo road.
- Cross the Millau viaduct (it is closed to pedestrians, but runners were allowed across in 2007). Standing 270m above the Tarn, it is the tallest bridge in the world and carries the A75 autoroute. The 343m central pillar is taller than the Eiffel Tower and four times the height of London’s Big Ben; it is only just lower than the Empire State Building. Visitors can walk or drive under the viaduct, or take a bus or boat trip to see it from ground level, or fly over it in a helicopter.
- Test yourself on Europe’s toughest trek: the GR20 long-distance trail in Corsica. Expect 180 miles of hard walking and scrambling, with sheer ascents and descents; 15 days of rising early to beat the heat of the sun; a memory that will never fade. www.le-gr20.com/gb/
- Listen to an organ concert in Chartres Cathedral, Notre Dame de Chartres, at the Festival d’Orgue in July and August. It is a spiritual experience for believers and a moving experience for non-believers.
- Visit Claude Monet’s home in Giverny, Eure, where the house and gardens have been restored to what he would have known. Nearby is the water garden with its famous water lilies.
- Go up in the world and live in aee house. Keycamp Holidays have built the “ultimate adventure accommodation”, with tree houses built round the trunks of trees, about four or five metres above ground. There is a large decked terrace for meals and looking down on the people. www.keycamp.co.uk
- Find the most beautiful villages in France: all 155 of them, across 21 regions and 69 departments. The Plus Beaux Villages de France have history as well as beauty: Montréal in Gers was the first Gascon bastide when built in 1255; Lyons-la-Forêt, Eure, is in a beech forest and is the birthplace of Maurice Ravel; Angles-sur-l’Anglin in Vienne has been famed for 150 years for its embroidery. Mosset in the Pyrénées-Orientales is perched high above the Castellane Valley. www.les-plus-beaux-villages-de-france.org
- Stroll across the Pont des Arts in Paris. An elegant metal pedestrian bridge with nine arches, it connects the Louvre with the Institut de France across the Seine. However, lovers who have attached padlocks, known as cadenas d’amour, to the grilles will be disappointed as Paris council is removing them because they are “disfiguring a monument”.
- Follow in the final footsteps of Leonardo da Vinci to Clos-Lucé at Amboise, where he spent his final days. He crossed the Alps on a mule via Montgenèvre, then through St Gervais, Grenoble and Lyon – all the while carrying the Mona Lisa in his leather saddlebag. A da Vinci and France exhibition closes this month.
- Look closely at the Mona Lisa the next time you are in the Louvre in Paris. Leonardo da Vinci was said to have followed the fashion of the time, and painted La Giaconda with no eyebrows. However, research has uncovered traces of painted eyebrows that may have been lost in a clumsy restoration.
- Spend midsummer on the Pic du Canigou. It is a Catalan sacred hill and each June 23 groups gather to build a bonfire for the Flama del Canigó, where they light torches and relay them to kindle the feux de St-Jean for Catalan villages. It is noisy, but the view from 2,784m takes in Roussillon, the Mediterranean, Catalonia and the Pyrenees.
- Drink a coffee on the tree-lined Cours Mirabeau, Aix-en-Provence, and watch the world go by, a provincial version of sitting in a Champs-Elysée café (but cheaper). Then visit the Quartier Mazarin to see the world as it used to be.
- Check your watch at the Notre Dame in Dijon and see the Jaquemart, which has a man, woman and two children striking the bells with hammers.
- Step back 1,000 years in Vezelay, Yonne, and imagine the massive ranked armies of two crusades gathering in front of the Basilica Ste. Madeleine before heading to the Holy Land.
- Enjoy wine without the headache in Colmar, Alsace, which is one of France’s main organic wine-making areas. No chemicals are added, and this is said to mean no headache or allergic reactions. Make it an expedition and cover the 100 miles of wine route between Mulhouse and Strasbourg. If you are in the south, head for Saint-Remy-de-Provence and its fellow Baux-de-Provence rosé makers, which are almost all exclusively organic.
- Love Lyon: Its Roman ruins on the Fourvière hill, its original medieval city on the west bank of the Saône (a Unesco heritage site); its luxury silk trade, its antiques markets and, like Paris, its river boats. On top of all that, Lyon is the gastronomic capital of France. Below are the Traboules, the name for covered passageways taking you from one street to another via a courtyard and which are typical of the city.
- Marvel at the multi-coloured tiled roof on the Hôtel-Dieu in Beaune. You can only see it from the interior courtyard, but the former charity hospital is worth a visit for its kitchen museum, apothecary and surgical instrument collection.
- Go for a dip in Montreuil-sur-Mer and you won’t get wet. The town, with its Vauban-built ramparts is now 20km from the sea, as the river Canche has silted up. It is notable for a short visit by Victor Hugo, which led to it being the setting for Les Misérables.
- Surf at Hossegor, about half an hour north of Biarritz in the Pays Basques. If you are experienced, the waves are more powerful and challenging near the shore. If you are less experienced, go in the summer, when the waves are smaller.
- Take to the sandy paths of the Forest of Fontainebleau to see the thousands of naturally sculpted rock formations that litter the area. It is a labyrinth for youngsters and a playground for climbers with many testing, if not huge, ascents. End your walk at the Palace of Fontainebleau, which is an architectural patchwork of building done by successive kings, who used it as a hunting lodge. The Mona Lisa once hung in a royal bathroom.
- While at Fontainebleau, visit the village of Barbizon, where artists, inspired by Constable, turned away from formal painting and towards a natural style. Théodore Rousseau and Jean-François Millet quit the studio for the open air of the forest and painted the people they found there.
- Stroll under the Pont du Gard Roman aqueduct. Nearby Nîmes is itself almost a living Roman museum. A key destination in France for two millenia, it is a Unesco world heritage site with the amphitheatre at the Place des Arènes, the Temple of Diana and the Roman walls.
- Walk in the steps of Friedrich Nietzsche as he thought through some of the themes for the book he called the “deepest ever written”, Thus Spake Zarathustra. Starting in Eze Bord de Mer, near Nice, he walked up to Eze village at 427m, along the path now known as Sentier Nietzsche.
- Rejuvenate yourself with Sir Lancelot at Bagnoles de l’Orne. This Orne spa town has been known for its healthgiving waters since the Middle Ages, but was born with the tourist boom in the 1900s. It is a classic of Belle Epoque styling in the middle of what is said to be the home of Lancelot de Lac. Daily tours visit nearby sites taken from Arthurian legend.
- Go to Bordeaux for its wines and its 120,000 of vineyards, with labels such as Margaux, Yquem, Pétrus, Cheval Blanc and Haut Brion, but also for its architectural heritage, which is on a scale that is difficult to comprehend – the Unesco world heritage site covers 1,810 hectares, or about half the city’s size.
- Take a strenuous walk on the GR5 or Europe 2, covering 1,500 miles from the Hook of Holland on the North Sea to Nice on the Mediterranean. Some hikers recommend the alternative GR52, which finishes just along the coast from Nice, at Menton, as it is said to be be a more spectacular ending. www.grfive.com/
- Take the “Sentier Stevenson” and the walk that Robert Louis Stevenson turned into Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, his tales of his adventures with Modestine. Known as the Grand Causses, the limestone tablelands ring with sheep bells, but there are also 1,400 miles of walking routes. You can even hire a donkey.
- Count the volcanoes from the top of the Puy de Dôme or, farther north, the Plomb du Cantal – and remember to include the one you are standing on. The Auvergne Volcanoes Park sits across two departments and is part of Europe’s largest volcanic range, in the Massif Central. It also features Vulcania, the world’s only volcano theme park.
- Cycle a railway line. A Vélo-rail connects two mountain bikes on a frame, with seats for youngsters and you cycle along the tracks. Vélorail is all over the country: the one at the Gare de Médréac in Brittany, for example, has a 14km out-and-return track on the old La Brohinière-Dinan-Dinard route. In Dordogne, the route covers 11km return from Corgnac to Thiviers or St Germain. www.veloraildefrance.com
- Take a spin round the Le Mans race track, or at least the section that is open to the public. The Bugatti track is inside the official Circuit de la Sarthe used for the 24-hour race, but includes the start-finish straight. You can get three laps of the circuit for €251, or do it as pillion on a motorcycle for €135.
- Skate Paris on a Friday night with the Pari Rollers, who meet in Place Raoul Dautry in the 14th arrondissement at 10pm for a three-hour caravan covering 30km of the capital. Police provide security, closing roads to traffic, and there is also an ambulance escort, just in case. You must be an experienced skater, because the route includes cobbles and hills: it is also fast. If that is too much for you, there is a Sunday afternoon event starting at 2.30pm from Place de La Bastille /Boulevard Bourdon.
- Cruise the Meuse: Described by canal writer Hugh McKnight as “one of the finest portions of river landscape in Europe”, the Meuse from Charleville-Mezieres to the Belgian border has steeply wooded cliffs over the river and inspiring scenery. It also includes a 500m tunnel.
- Submerge yourself in Annecy and its lake. Sitting underneath the Alps, Annecy is a perfect antidote to any stress: clean air, uncluttered cobbled streets and the “freshest lake in Europe”, with grassy banks and plenty of space to relax. You can also relax on one of the wooden vedettes, which will take you for a tour of the lake.
- Eat bouillabaisse in Marseille, or, if you are a cook, buy the fish in Le Vieux Port. No two versions of the fish stew are the same, but the effect on your stomach is the same every time: very tasty and very satisfying.
- Explore the Camargue by bicycle, 4x4 or, of course, horseback. The wild horses are a distinct breed and turn white at about four years old. If you see prehistoric cave paintings of horses, you will see the similarity. Wear insect repellent; lots of it.
- Sample French whisky: The French are not big fans of cognac, armagnac or calvados... drinking more whisky in a month than they drink cognac in a year. Now the French are making their own with whisky – but not Scotch – distilleries in Alsace, Brittany, Champagne, Corsica, Lorraine, Nord and Normandy.
- Take a flying fox ride from the pillars of the Villards d’Héria viaduct in the Jura. Attached by harness to the cables, you fly from pillar to pillar of the bridge at heights varying from two metres to 72, and at speeds up to 50kph. All the safety equipment needed for Accropont is supplied. www.accropont.com
- Find the emptiest place in France. In Lozère, the Causse Méjean has just 430 people living in 420km2; there really are more sheep than people. The scenery is outstanding and you can hike across a steppes-like limestone plateau. The area has become a breeding ground for Przewalski’s, the last wild horses, which are being bred to be released in Mongolia.
- See a troglodyte artshow. The village of Dénezé-sous-Doué in Maine-et-Loire has an underground marvel in its Cave aux Sculptures where 16th-century Protestant stonemasons carved more than 400 figures into the walls, floors and ceilings.
- Climb to the top of France. Provided you are in decent physical condition, a mountain guide will take you up Mt Blanc, at 4,807m the highest peak in Europe. An ascent will normally take two days, with one night in the Refuge du Goûter.
- Follow the apple to learn all about cider. The Route du Cidre in the Pays d’Auge is 40km long, and involves cider and calvados producers giving away many of their secrets. There is also, of course, a degustation. Big red apples show the signposted route starting at Cambremer gendarmerie – you do not want to end up back there!
- Sleep in an igloo. Discover the Pyrénées National Park with a guide and go on a snowshoe trek over the white paradise in the upper reaches of the Aspe valley, before building your own igloo and spending the night in it. www.bearn-basquecountry.com
- Drive a Formula One car. No, not really. This is a simulator in the hi-tech I-Way centre in Lyon, which has 18 different driving simulators covering F1, rally and many other races where you feel the Gforces and the other sensations of high-speed racing. www.i-way.fr
- Unwind on the LU tower in Nantes for great views. The tower once stood above the Lefèvre-Utile biscuit factory. After the factory closed, the tower was renovated and it now has a self-wind “gyrorama” platform that gives a new look on the city.
- Learn to sail at 850m up. Lake Aydat in the Massif Central is the largest in the Auvergne and its sailing school and watersports centre thrive on its location, which brings ever-changing winds. It was created by an immense lava flow 8,500 years ago that blocked the river Veyre.
- Find France’s Easter Island Statues at two sites at opposite ends of the country. Near St Malo are the grotesque sculptures carved by the hermit Abbé Fouré at Rothéneuf towards the end of the 19th century. He carved around 300 sculptures into the rocks. More than 3,000 years earlier, the inhabitants of the Filitosa archaeological site on Corsica carved their own statues to ward off invaders.
- Go boating in a volcanic crater on Lac Pavin in Mont-Dore. The crater is so deep and steep-sided that the water at the bottom never mixes with the water at the top. France’s deepest lake is Lac du Bourget in Savoie, which has a maximum depth of 145m. You can take cruises from Le Bourget-du-Lac or Aix-les-Bains.
- Visit the oldest trees in France. The robinia (false acacia) tree in Square René-Viviani near Nôtre-Dame cathedral in Paris was planted in 1636. Nantes is home to a magnolia that is 203 years old.
- Gawp at Art Deco sky-scrapers in Villeurbanne near Lyon. When the two gratte-ciels were built in the 1930s, they were the first in France. Some residents are so proud of the heritage of the buildings that they will let you in to see from the inside out.
- Breathe fresh air at the top of the world’s tallest traditional lighthouse, the Ile Vierge lighthouse in Finistère. Standing at 82.5m, it will take you either 400 or 365 steps to the top, depending on who you talk to...
- Explore Europe’s largest megalithic mausoleum, the Cairn de Barnenez in the Bay of Morlaix. The burial cairn, which is older than the pyramids, is 75m long and 25m wide.
- Beat the masses: The Calanque d’En Vau is a magnificent limestone cove between Cassis and Marseille that hides a white pebble beach that is a perfect sun trap. Surrounding pine trees also give plenty of shade. The coves of the Calanques have just been named as one of France’s new national parks.
- Buy the No1-selling quality English-language newspaper in France for the latest news, practical information about day-to-day life and our helpguides to find a way through the bureaucracy.
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