When you think of France, where are you thinking of? Paris? Calais? A childhood holiday in Brittany? Maybe the picture you conjure up is of the Eiffel tower, a Parisian café or a vineyard somewhere. The chances are, you are only thinking of one or two of the many diverse regions of France. This article aims to tell you a bit more about the different areas of France, what they are like, what there is to see and do there.
How many different regions of France are there? This is a tricky question! In mainland France, there are officially 13 regions each of which is divided up into a varying number of ‘departments’. There used to be 22 regions, but as of 1 January 2016 the French parliament passed a law reducing the number to 13. Sadly, they haven’t properly renamed them yet, they’ve just added the names of the old regions together. So for instance the old regions of Aquitaine, Limousin and Poitou-Charentes have now become the new region of Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes. Oh dear! I understand they are going to all be given new names, but this kind of thing takes time.
For this article, I’m not going to talk about 22 or even 13 regions, I’m going to cherry pick different areas, and hopefully in the process will cover most of France.
Normandy is a quiet, rural region of France between Paris and the English Channel, threaded through by the River Seine from Paris through pretty woodlands until it empties into the sea at the port of Le Havre. Along the coast of Normandy there are many huge beaches, including the five beaches of the D-Day Landings in World War II – Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno and Sword. As well as the beaches there are many D-Day related museums you can visit as well as the military cemeteries and memorials.
It is not just recent history that Normandy is famous for. The region is named after the Norsemen who sailed along the River Seine, invaded and settled in the area, so it came to be called Normandy. The most famous Norman of all was William the Conqueror who invaded England in 1066 and became its King. This is celebrated at Bayeux where there is the famous Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidered tapestry celebrating the Norman invasion of Britain. This is quite a phenomenon, it is nearly a thousand years old, and records in glorious colour all aspects of the invasion. It’s the size that’s so amazing – it is over 70 metres long. That must have taken a lot of stitching!
One of the most specatacular places in Normandy, indeed in the whole of France, is the of Mont St Michel. It is an amazing site, an important Benedictine Monastery and a great centre of medieval learning. Originally completely surrounded by the sea, it is now linked to the mainland by a causeway. You can visit for the day, or even stay on the island in the island town surrounding the Abbey at the top.
It’s not just the coast that is worth a visit however, inland there is luscious, bucolic countryside famed for its cheese, its apples and of course cider! There are also many great cathedrals and churches, including the wonderful medieval cathedral town of Rouen. One of the most interesting is the chapel in the village of Sainte-Mere-Eglise. It was one of the first villages to be liberated by the Normans, and one of the stained glass windows in the chapel depicts the paratroopers who were involved in the liberation.
If you’ve seen a beautiful picture of vivid fields of purple lavender, perhaps with snow capped mountains in the background, the chances are you are looking at Provence. Considered one of the most beautiful regions of France, it is in the south east of France, bordered by the Rhone river to the west, the Mediterranean Sea to the south and the Italian border to the east.
Provence has got every thing – delectable food, wonderful wines, beautiful scenery, great weather. The Cotes du Rhone region is celebrated for having some of finest wines in France, which is after all the pre-emiment wine producer in the world. One of the most famous is the vineyards of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, planted around the new castle built by the popes of Avignon in the 14th century – hence the name which in English translates as ‘New Castle of the Pope’.
When thinking about Provence, most people are thinking about the amazing countryside or the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean, and these are its biggest draws, but its towns shouldn’t be overlooked either, particularly Avignon with spectactular buildings and cultural attractions.
If history is your thing that Provence has a lot of it. Provence has some of the earliest archeological evidence of human habitation, with stone tools found which date back over a million years. Closer to the present day, there had already been an indigenous population for a long time when the Greeks arrived in the 7th century B.C. In around 600 B.C. they founded their first permanent colony in France, Massalia in modern day Marseille. One of the most spectacular historic sites in all of France is the magnificent Pont Du Gard, a 3 tiered Roman 900 foot long Roman aqueduct built over 2000 years ago and still standing to this day.
Massif Central & The Auvergne
In the centre of France is a huge area called The Massif Central, a strange, remote little known wilderness. In the centre of the Massif Central is The Auvergne, a beautiful mountainous terrain with deep forests and a range of long extinct volcanoes including the massive Puy de Dome, as well as lots of hot springs. It is little visited, but has been a magnet for adventurers for centuries and today is popular for hikers in summer and ski-ing in winter.
The area is sparsely populated and isn’t known for big cities, but there are some very interesting towns which are worth a visit, including the capital of the region Clermont Ferrand, a pretty town with a population of around 140,000 which is famous for being surrounded by a ring of extinct volcanoes. Also of interest is Vichy, a small town with hot and cold springs which were popularly thought to cure all sorts of ailments, making the town popular with the rich and famous in France and around the world. Today though the waters are strictly for medicinal purposes – you need to book 30 days in advance and have a doctor’s prescription!
You may recognise the name Vichy but not be able to place it. During the Second World War when France was part occupied by the Germans, Vichy was the seat of the French government for the unoccupied part of France which operated as something close to a puppet state of Nazi Germany. Not that there is much if any evidence of Vichy France in the town of Vichy, there are no museums for the Vichy government in the town at all – it is something they only wish to forget.
On a happier note, something that The Auvergne is famous for is its cheeses. Anyone who wants to explore cheese by travelling in the area are in luck – the Auvergne has its own Routes des Fromages where you can visit where the many great cheeses are made and have a taste of them. I can’t think of much better to do!