During my first months in France, which I had taken as a sabbatical from my life as an attorney, I took a road trip around the Western part of France. Many Americans think of Provence in the South Eastern part of the country as the most beautiful vacation spot. Since Peter Mayle wrote his now classic A Year In Provence in the early 1990s, tourists of all strips have swarmed the area. And it is indeed beautiful with lavender fields on the edge of mountains. But it’s neither the most beautiful nor the only enchanting part of France.
The French are certainly endowed with an abundance of riches when it comes to their homeland. Broken up into 22 regions all boasting their own individuality and character, France is as diverse in geography as the U.S. or Canada – much the way the North East of the United States is quite distinct from the South East or the Mid West. Similarly in Canada, the Eastern islands of Prince Edward Island or Nova Scotia present a refreshing calm and peace among the rushing tides of the Atlantic compared to the more robust atmosphere of Ontario or the natural exquisiteness of British Colombia.
The French regions are likewise plentiful and one gets the feeling that at some point in time each region offered its special alimentary yield up to the country making a perfectly fed whole. Each region owns a history and culture unique to itself and a natural beauty nothing short of breath-taking.
On my first road trip, I started out in Paris and drove West through Normandy to Brittany. I drove through the small winding side roads and avoided the highways. I wanted to taste the real countryside as it stood before modern convenience. I drove past lush rolling hills reminiscent of England, cows grazing on emerald-green pastures. Forests lay to my left and right. Streams cut through the green and brown patchwork. A few châteaux were sprinkled on the hillsides, and the villages were filled with board-and-batten homes. I made my way through the town of Bayeux and took a moment at the Landing beaches and D-day cemetery. As an American, the scene was all very quieting, surreal in an odd way. I felt more patriotic standing among those perfectly lined rows of white crosses than I had in a very long time. Those crosses are representative of a time when Americans were heroes, savers, internationally appreciated. It all made my heart ping.
I then continued West toward Mont Saint Michel, an ancient monetary and village built on a mountainous island over a 1000 years ago. It’s a world marvel. The village weaves its way to the top of the mountain where the ancient church stands as a testament to man’s achievements with his hands.
In Brittany, I ate the traditional Bretagne dishes like crêpes and pot-au-feu (stew) and drank the local cider. Normandy and Bretagne (otherwise called Brittany) are also known for their milk, butter (especially sea salt butter) and pastries. Brest is the largest town in Brittany, but was destroyed in WWII. As a result, there is not much left of its old world charm. The weather, however, is stormy and mysterious. Standing on the rocks at the seashore, sail boats and fishermen are bountiful.
From Brittany I travelled South through Western Loire Valley to Aquitaine. I stopped at a château in Cognac, was given a tour by a family of wine makers and tasted some of their special blends. On my way further South – I didn’t know it at the time but – I passed right through the village where my future parents-in-law own family property. I then spent a day in lovely Bordeaux. I thought it a small Paris with as much culture and architectural beauty with fewer crowds, less big-city chaos.
Having reached Pau, the tip of France on the border of Spain, I found myself in a town I’d always envisioned as Monaco. In fact, Pau is sometimes called the Monte Carlo of Western France with its skyline of the Pyrénées and cliff-lined city limits. The Grand Prix races are held along the city’s winding roads as are a division of the international equestrian trials. The city center is romantic and quaint. And unbeknownst to me as I strolled through Place Royale, my to-be-parents-in-law could have been peeking down on me from their home off the main square.
On the way back up to Paris, I visited Saint-Emilion. The wine capital of Bordeaux and a gorgeous ancient town built up on a hill. Saint-Emilion is a must-see in Dordogne. Meander along the Dordogne River through the tiny villages and vineyards. This is wine country at its finest.
Up the center of France, I travelled through the regions of Limonsin and Central Loire Valley. Perigueux is the heart of South Western French cuisine. Duck (canard) is the specialty of the region. Fois gras, confit and magret, as well as rillette (paté). Old-town Perigueux is charming and filled with just about as many Michelin starred restaurants as Paris. Food is the reason for stopping in Perigueux.
Limoges was my next stop northward. The town is now a modern city but traditionally was where the fine porcelain of France was manufactured. A wonderful selection of small snuff boxes and tableware can be had at a bargain in the many stores along the central avenues.
After a day in Limoges and having bought a small King Louis XIV box, I travelled through the Loire Valley. Magnificent, in a word. Laden with flowing rivers and lush green landscape and surrounded by dense forests that were once a King’s hunting playground, the Valley is known as the King’s Valley for its awe-inspiring châteaux. You practically cannot drive a mile without stumbling upon another gorgeous property fit for the French aristocracy. The history of this region, needless to say, is fascinating. Must see châteaux include: Chambord, Chenonceau (built over a river) and Chaumont-sur-Loire. I stayed in charming, delightfully maintained Bed & Breakfasts along the route. This is a place to see if you love history, ancient times and the lives lived therein.
My final stop was Blois smack tab on the edge of the Loire River about an hour-and-a-half south of Paris. Its château is the town’s geographical center and the small roads leading to it are filled with an old-fashioned reverence that now transports you to a time long ago.
Stayed tuned: The next regions I’ll write about under the “Exploring France” banner are Champagne and Alsace, and the Dordogne.