As a specialist in France, I’m always being asked to name my favourite place. Impossible! So much depends on my mood. But France is as much about experiences as places, so here are 12 of my must-dos – or as the French say, les incontournables – all perfectly accessible to Silver Travellers. And these are just for starters.
1) Feel your spine tingle as you come face-to-face with original prehistoric cave paintings. My all-time favourites are in the Grottes de Niaux in the Ariège department of Midi-Pyrenees – simply walk through a door in the mountainside and follow an old river bed by flashlight to confront bison and antelope so realistic you think they’ll gallop away across the rock. Hooked on ancient history? See cave paintings at Pech Merle in the Lot Valley and Font de Gaume in the Dordogne, and don’t miss the new Caverne du Pont d’Arc in southern Ardèche, an exact replica of the Chauvet Cave with 425 painted animals.
2) I’ve never forgotten the magic of a candlelit summer evening at Vaux Le Vicomte, a magnificent castle east of Paris built by Nicholas Fouquet, finance minister to Louis XIV. So jealous was the young king of his minister’s new home, he imprisoned him for fraud and commissioned his architect, interior designer and landscape artist to build him his own palace, Versailles. Watch out for similar candlelit events at some of the Loire Valley chateaux.
3) OK, it’s pricey, but worth saving up to float over Gascony on a golden autumn evening in a hot air balloon – or montgolfière – looking down on the perched village of Lectoure. If that’s beyond the budget, watch the colourful spectacle of the annual hot air balloon festival from Annonay in Ardèche, homeland of the pioneering Montgolfier brothers.
4) It always thrills me to walk in Roman footsteps across the paving stones of Vaison la Romaine, just off the Rhône Valley north of Avignon. A little further north is another Roman favourite, St-Romain-en-Gal. Too often overlooked by people flying down the fast lane of the motorway, it has a great museum and extensive remains of villas, streets and even public toilets! On the opposite bank stands Vienne with its twin theatres and temple.
5) Humbling and uplifting despite the obvious sadness are the war cemeteries of two world wars. Everyone should walk amongst the Great War headstones, crosses and memorials across Northern France, not just to the Commonwealth dead, but to the French and Germans, Portuguese and Indians, all so close together. The D-Day landing beaches of Normandy are also unmissable with museums and visitor centres that are personal to so many of us whose fathers fought for our freedom.
6) France has some fantastic museums, large and small, but one of my all-time favourites is the Musée Lumière in Lyon, former Art Nouveau home of photographer Antoine Lumière and his two sons who invented the cinematograph projector and first colour photographs. I sat spellbound in front of flickering black-and-white films, some barely a minute long. The first film of workers filing out of the factory was shot here on site, and when the brothers’ film of a train pulling into a station was first screened in cinemas, people jumped out of their seats for fear of being mown down!
7) Join in the fun of the annual Transhumance Festival in late May when herds of tranquil honey-coloured cows are blessed in the village square at Aubrac in the Lot Valley before being walked up to the summer pastures of the Aubrac Plateau. Lead cows are decked out in headgear of decorated holly bushes or French flags in this flamboyant bovine version of Royal Ascot. Other transhumance festivals take place throughout early summer in the Alps and Pyrenees.
8) The French love their little trains, not just the Petits Trains which trundle round tourist towns on wheels, but also narrow gauge railways. My vote goes to Le Petit Train d’Artouste which is accessed via a cable car from Fabrèges in the Ossau Valley of the Pyrenees. Ride up through the clouds before climbing aboard the open-sided train which once took men and materials to build a dam, then walk round the lake or hike up into the Pyrenees.
9) Take a light aircraft flight from Megève altiport in summer. I sat spellbound as the green lower slopes morphed into pristine snow and we flew low over the glaciers around Mont Blanc. If you’ve no head for heights or no holiday cash to spare, take the 100-year-old tramway to the café beneath the glaciers or swim in the natural swimming pool – or biotope – at Combloux in the shadow of France’s most iconic peak.
10) Glide through ‘Green Venice’ in a traditional punt. This ‘wet marsh’ area of the Marais Poitevin straddles the border of Poitou-Charente and Pays de la Loire on the Atlantic coast. On a summer evening, I spotted water vole swimming about their business, watched heron in search of supper, and caught the azure flash of a kingfisher. Pole your own punt or, my tip, let an expert local guide do the hard work and tell you about life in this magical area. Further north, there are gentle cruises to enjoy through the Brière marshes behind La Baule.
11) Largest area of wetland in France, the Camargue is famous for its black bulls, white horses and flamingos. Explore on horseback to get up close and personal with the wildlife, no equestrian experience necessary to enjoy a gentle ride, safely cocooned in a Western-style saddle. Returning from the dunes at dusk, we splashed through the shallow lagoon as flamingos sifted the shallows and coypu sat in wait for a fish supper. Love riding? I loved my spring hack through the lush landscape of Normandy’s undulating Suisse Normande.
12) The chateaux of the Loire Valley have been staging son et lumière shows for decades, but many cities also now offer highly sophisticated light shows and trails. See the summer projections on the Roman walls surrounding Le Mans; the multi-coloured projections on churches in Poitiers, Rouen and Amiens; and wander the spectacular illuminated trail through historic Chartres. For winter magic, head to Lyon around December 6th for the annual 3-day festival when buildings all over the city become the backdrop to the best in urban lighting.