If you are like most people, when you think of France you think of the Eiffel Tower or the Champs-Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe or the Notre Dame Cathedral (that as of this writing is currently being restored / rebuilt following a devastating fire in 2019). And all of those are certainly well-known, popular tourist attractions – in Paris. However, France is so much more than Paris. Don’t get me wrong – I adore Paris. There is nothing I love better than to sit in Café du Monde by the Arc de Triomphe and people watch while sipping on coffee.
But when you venture out of the cities in France, you find vast countrysides, beaches, vineyards, and history – a lot of history. I recently had the pleasure to speak with Fanny Cadudal of France Private Travels who just so happens to my main contact and my go to person when a client wants to experience a true cultural immersion in France. (Side note: A big positive is that outside of Paris you can do the whole social distancing thing very easily because there’s a lot of countryside!)
With Fanny we will touch on several different regions – there are twelve total – to highlight the vast differences between each and the different experiences you can have in them. As you read on you will get a good sense of the flavor of each destination where we – along with Fanny’s assistance – can arrange private tours. You will also get an overview of some of the most important parts of each area that are not to be missed. So, pour a cup of coffee – or a glass of wine – and fasten your seat belt for our virtual tour through some of France’s most beautiful locations.
Destinations: As stated above, France is traditionally divided into twelve different regions which all vary historically as well as gastronomically. Today we are looking at four of those regions which include Paris and Normandy, Loire Valley, Bordeaux and Dordogne Valley and Provence and French Rivera.
- Paris: Fanny first spoke of what she called My Secret Paris which is an opportunity to meet with a local Parisians, talk with them about their private lives and get a glimpse into their apartments. There is one in particular whom Fanny recommends – Jaqueline Cano – who is a historian who has opened her apartment to visitors to share some of France’s history. Here you will have the opportunity to visit her fabulously decorated apartment – that is filled with furnishings and paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries. Even the kitchen is like that of an 18th century home as it is actually a fireplace or an open oven if you will – not like the ovens we use in our homes today. She will take you on a trip back in time – relating stories of how people lived in those centuries – how they set or dressed the table and what a huge part of life eating dinner around those tables was. Gastronomy in France is particularly important, and a huge part of their traditions and this particular experience is a great way to become a student of life through cultural immersion.
Another way to re-visit history in Paris is through their many cafes. Most of the cafes in Paris have a history to them and offer an opportunity for you to go in and speak with a writer who is there to present that history to you. Cafes were and still are a space where the French come and have great conversations on politics, gourmet food and life in general. They are places to have meetings, exchange experiences, laugh, eat and drink and thus the decor and ambiance are very important to the French and are lovely sites to behold.
- Normandy: There are many different experiences you can have in this region and it is suggested that you add in all of them for a fabulous introduction to it. Of course, Normandy holds a lot of history for World War II buffs and offers an amazing opportunity to learn about that history. What a fabulous experience for children – who study world history in school – to experience this specific period of the war firsthand and to actually step on the beach where history happened!
One such story of hearing about history that Fanny told us while visiting the Normandy beach, was about a man she met who has a castle nearby. He relayed the emotional, true story of how the castle came to be his – and it goes back to the war. His father used to assist with the war efforts and at one point the castle was taken over by the Germans. However – when the American’s came to save the French, they took over that castle and housed their army there. Eventually it became his father’s castle once again and the story is a testimony about what happened between our countries back then. Fanny also stated that you can arrange to have lunch in the castle with this gentleman and hear more on the history of the war. What a great way to spend an afternoon in Normandy!
Normandy also has fantastic landscapes and great gastronomic experiences for you to discover as well. Think oyster farms – thanks to its location near the ocean – as well cheeses – lot of great, different tasting cheeses! One of the great cheeses of France is Camembert and in Normandy you can visit a farm, see how it is made and get to taste the different flavors of Camembert. According to Fanny they can taste different depending on how the farmer made it. And you can enjoy it hot or at room temperature – while sipping white wine or cider – what an amazing gastronomical story to tell!
- Loire Valley: The Loire Valley is known for its world class wines, enchanting landscapes and awe-inspiring castles – such as Chambord Castle and Chenonceau Castle – among a host of others where many aristocrats summered in. Loire Valley is actually known as the “Garden of France” and in fact each year the Chaumont-sur-Loire castle hosts a garden festival featuring different species of flowers and trees of the region – offering an opportunity to slow down and take in nature – now that’s wellness!
Although Loire Valley has less farmers than Bordeaux or Burgundy – it’s very rich on the different kind of wines that they can produce there. And you will have the opportunity to visit the private vineyards as the owners open their land to you to taste and explain their wines.
- Bordeaux: Bordeaux is home to a lot of amazing wines and is very famous for its red wines in particular. And due to the sun in the region as well as the irrigation of the land it makes for great tannic wines as well. There are many different appellations in Bordeaux and thus they produce wines of many different tastes and aromas. This is because the flavor of the wine not only depends on how it’s made, but also on the land where it grows and the different grapes that are produced on that land.
In addition to visiting the countryside around Bordeaux and can also venture to Arcachon which is a nearby seaside resort – thus giving you an extension of your trip from the Bordeaux wine experience to a beach experience! And what a wonderful beach experience it is for the family as here you can walk up the Dune of Pilat – the largest sand dune in Europe – and take in fantastic views of the bay!
- Dordogne Valley: Dordogne Valley is referred to as the Valley of One Thousand Castles and exposes you to the Medieval lifestyle – as well as more delicious food and wine – and chocolate! It is a beautiful region and some of the oldest land in France dating back to the middle ages. In fact, walking around the authentic middle age village you feel like you actually are in the medieval ages! As Fanny said you can actually feel the past when you walk through the village. You will see local markets along the streets, each day with different products they have grown. It makes you feel like you are living in another time and it is a very emotional experience. (Although inside the homes you will find all the modern conveniences.) This is a wonderful outside adventure that is truly an off the beaten path experience as it is a place where you will not find many tourists and you will have authentic local experiences.
One of the things Dordogne Valley is famous for is truffles. Truffles can be found in wintertime – from October through January or February – and this is the best time to actually take a truffle tour. The tour can be taken in summer, but you will find the taste is not the same – as it is a stronger taste in the winter. Truffles are one of the best delicacies to test in the region and can be eaten in a plethora of ways! For instance – oils are made out of truffles and used to cook and marinate meats. Or you can eat truffles with strawberries or a chocolate dessert. There are so many ways to eat them that Fanny and I suggest you experiment with them all!
- Provence and French Riviera: Provence is the picturesque countryside of the French Riviera sprawling with gorgeous lavender plants. In Provence you will notice that the way of living is slowed way down as the people there want to take their time and really appreciate life. In fact – Fanny said they even have a different way of speaking – akin to accents we have in different parts of the US – and it is almost as if they are singing when they talk. Here you will find numerous French markets as you are in the country as well as a lot of local art and up and coming art. This is one of my most favorite areas to be in because of all the nuances and the opportunities in the French Riviera to get on a boat and sail from one port to another. Boat excursions here are a must as the coast is stunning to see from the sea. Bonus – you can do side trips to enjoy Monaco and Monte Carlo as they are not far away!
Provence also has a striking village – Roussillon – that is known for its red rock and cliffs. Here you can stroll through the village or you can hike or bike through the fascinating landscape on the Ochre Trail.
And we cannot forget the perfumeries! My friends I have taken an amazing workshop here where I had the chance to create my own perfume and would be super happy to set you up with this experience! Making your own fragrance is like a part of you that you are taking home from France. It is such a mind, body and spirit, experience and it is so very fulfilling to create something for yourself. And – many of the perfumery’s will keep your recipe and you can order it online once you are back home!
Transportation: It is quite easy to get around in France because everything is connected by train – high speed trains to be exact! The Train à Grande Vitesse or high speed train is known as the TGV and believe me – I have been riding it since I was little and it is much better than the rail service you find in the US!
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing travel the CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential international travel to France.
So as you can see I didn’t break this overview down into separate categories such as hidden gems, history, wellness, sightseeing and gastronomy like I normally do because, quite frankly, the entire country is all this – and more – rolled into one!
On a personal note – I discovered my love for culinary art and hospitality in France and its actually what drove me to study in Switzerland and eventually to embark on a career in hospitality. A lot of my passions for travel and gastronomy started at a young age thanks to the travel opportunities I had, and I think it is so very important to instill these – and really any positive passion – in our children at a young age.
That being said – for more details on things to see and do in France, where to stay, it’s price points and more – contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!