It’s easy to understand then why so many travelers head straight for Paris and forgo those out-of-the-way locales beyond that great city. But consider for a moment that your time in France is limitless, your gas tank is never empty and your rail pass is inexhaustible. Where would an adventure like that take you in such a magnificent landscape?
For starters, you would stumble upon the picture-postcard town of Annecy tucked away in the Rhone-Alps region where snowcapped mountains backdrop pavement cafes, where colorful gardens soften the stone contours of ancient castles and where outdoor adventure is laced with the prospect of lakeside leisure.
You would find yourself cruising down Burgundy’s Route des Grands Crus wine road running straight through the region’s best appellations, where beautiful villages like Volnay, Pommard, Puligny-Montrachet and Vosne-Romanee adorn the route and offer their own wealth of exploits. But you would find it hard to beat the colorful charm of Beaune in the heart of Burgundy. Here a self-guided tour through the cellars of Marché aux Vins offers visitors a taste of wines from around the region before setting off to explore the history of winemaking at the Musée du Vin de Bourgogne.
You could head to Bordeaux, a place popularly known as the wine capital of the world. You could soon break away from that bustling city and venture out for a day of wine tasting amid the cobblestone streets and Romanesque ruins of St. Emilion, a medieval city so full of history that it’s listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A landscape of sloping vineyards and historic structures set the stage for a winemaking narrative that began as far back as the 2nd century.
Just a three-hour train ride from Paris would deliver you to the laid-back, artsy atmosphere of Aix-en-Provence. Here the boulevards and squares are lined with lush green trees and a seemingly endless display of stunning mansions, gushing fountains, and, best of all, a host of French terrace cafes that rival those found in Paris. Walk along the Cours Mirabeau, the town’s main thoroughfare, and rest beneath the plane-tree shade of Café le Grillon or settle in at the more classic Les Deux Garcons. Or for a taste of the tucked-away charm of Aix, leave the busy streets and visit Old Town Aix.
A French getaway beyond the confines of Paris might find you somewhere like Lyons. Settled amid a rich landscape ripe for growing great red and white wines, like the vineyards of Beaujolais and the Mâconnais region to the north and the Rhône Valley to the south and yielding culinary brilliance from the wild fish and game and locally raised livestock, Lyons, France, is a must for visitors looking to tantalize their untested palate. When in Lyons, your palate will revel in the bouchons. These bistro-like establishments started in the 19th century as a place for passing coachmen to stop and groom their horses while filling up on drink and food. Today the Lyonnaise bouchons remain a tradition, offering their own unique and inexpensive, albeit sometimes limited, menus alongside a French atmosphere like none other. A trip here would oblige pause at the local favorite Café des Federations, the cozy and classic Le Cafe Comptoir Abel and the always-bustling La Mere Jean on the popular rue des Marronniers.
Along with food and wine, France offers a wealth of archaeological attractions you would miss unless you strayed far enough from Paris. Take, for example, the prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux in the Dordogne, the medieval fortress town of Carcassonne in the south of France, the Grand Roman Theatre of Lyons and the Chartres Cathedral, believed to be the finest Gothic cathedral in the country. But the highest concentration of such sites is the Brittany region, a landscape filled with mystic forests and meandering rivers assembled across France’s westernmost promontory.
When it comes to basking in the beauty of French landscapes, look no further than the island of Corsica where an ever-changing setting of white sandy beaches and half-moon bays flirt with lush green forests that climb to towering jagged mountaintops overlooking sparkling hilltop villages unrivaled anywhere in the Mediterranean. The beaches of Corsica are what seduce most visitors and for good reason. Simply put, there are no bad beaches in Corsica. From the spacious local favorite Capo de Feno to the wild and out-of-the-way Barcaggiu, you’ll be hard-pressed to settle on your favorite. Just know that the beaches are only the beginning here. Home to the challenging GR20 hiking trail—a rugged, 180-kilometer, 15-day traverse across the island—Corsica is as much for trekkers and adventure-seekers as it is for sunbathers.
Although it’s easy and completely reasonable to think first of Paris when you think of a France-bound getaway, remember that beyond the more familiar French landscapes lies a vast and remarkable realm of history, culture and endless opportunity worthy of an extended departure.
Things to Know Before You Go
There seems to be a common belief that the French can be a bit rude toward American travelers. Whether this is true or not, there are a few easy steps one can take to avoid any cultural misunderstandings.
Learn the Language: You don’t have to be fluent, but it’s best to make an effort with a handful of easy French phrases. Begin with bonjour (hello), parlez-vous anglais (do you speak English?), monsieur/madame (sir/ma’am), au revoir (goodbye) and merci (thank you). If you know nothing else, you’ve at least made a courteous attempt. Just imagine if someone walked up to you and started speaking their language, presuming you could (or should) understand every word.
Remember Your Table Manners: It’s important to practice a little etiquette when eating out in France. For example, when drinking wine at a restaurant (and you will be drinking a lot of wine), don’t pour your own glass; instead, wait for the server to do it for you. Keep both hands on the table, and remember that your right hand is for your knife and your left hand is for your fork. Don’t cut the salad, and don’t refuse a course. That’s almost always a no-no. But if nothing else, always compliment the food and respect your server.
Relax and Lower Your Voice: The French are not commonly a loud, boisterous people, so it would serve you well to follow suit when visiting their country. When touring the town, eating at restaurants, chatting in cafes or just riding public transportation, remember to lower your voice and relax. This includes shouting on your cell phone. Don’t do it.
Do Your Homework: Study the French culture before you go. Whether you read a Lonely Planet guidebook or study your Rick Steves, a little bit of knowledge will go a long way. Know what to expect and what’s expected of you. The less touristy you appear, the more you will enjoy your travels. And who knows, you might even get invited back.