A local guide for traveling in France
It was in 1987 and I was studying French in a language school in central France. The truth is, I was a horrible student, and instead of taking my French lessons seriously, I ventured out to visit the local chateaux that dotted the villages surrounding the small provincial town of Tours. Playing on the radio at the time was a French song that perfectly captured my feeling of that summer of discovery – “Voyage, voyage” by Desireless. It’s a catchy dance number that climbed the European charts that year, and the lyrics sung by the French singer invite the listener to travel, to visit the vastness of the world. For this aspiring small-town South Carolina globetrotter, it was a tantalizing siren call.
Today, I call France my home. After 16 years of living in Paris, I still have many places to discover in this diverse country. For many, the first thing that comes to mind when they think of France is wine and cheese, and in this case, the cliché rings true. The French take their wine and their cheeses very seriously. But there is also an abundance of regional cuisine and specialties that makes traveling outside of Paris a wonderful adventure.
Take, for example, Bretagne, or Brittany, as it is called in English. Cradle of crepe and cider, this charming region stands out from the rest of mainland France as if to join its Celtic neighbors of Ireland and Wales, which is actually not far from the truth. It takes its name from the exiled tribes of Britons who fled England when overrun by invading Angles and Saxons in ancient times. Today this rocky and windswept region is home to charming hilltop villages that overlook the Atlantic and has some of Europe’s oldest historical sites dating back to the 5th century BC With its own unique language which is a cousin of Celtic Irish (Breton), Brittany is a separate country within a country.
Likewise, in the southwest near Spain is the Basque country of France. Perhaps its most famous city is Biarritz, with its world famous surfing culture thanks to the strong waves that crash on the continental shelf on the seabed of the Atlantic. With its sunny and warm climate and its sweetness of life, the Basque Country is the cradle of tapas, delicious appetizers offered at sunset. There, a visitor can fill a plate with a variety of local specialties; usually each one costs around a euro ($ 1.20) and a real treat for those on a budget – even better when paired with a delicious glass of chilled sangria. As for understanding the Basque language, good luck. It is its own unique language unlike any other language known in Europe, its origins remain a mystery to language scholars.
Continuing our visit to France, as the French call their six-sided country, is the region that most Americans know when they think of France outside of Paris. Provence is in the southeast corner next to Italy, and was originally settled by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Indeed, the vast vestiges of these civilizations are omnipresent in the region, the cities of Nîmes, Arles and Orange having the most impressive reminders of their ancient origins. Vast aqueducts, temples and imperial baths, even gigantic theaters and arenas that rival anything to be found in Rome and North Africa are popular tourist spots. Of course, the local vineyards are also world famous, as is the fresh, seafood-rich ‘Mediterranean diet’ that Provençal cuisine promises.
But my favorite place in France is Paris. Whether it’s a first-time visitor or someone who frequents the City of Light often, the best way to experience Paris is through a traditional sidewalk café. The terrace is a Parisian experience par excellence. From this three-by-three-foot apartment building that you rent out, you can enjoy the human comedy (or tragedy) unfolding in front of you while sipping your wine or enjoying a croissant and espresso for breakfast. . Part of the fun of exploring the city is finding your own little cafe. Each neighborhood has its own unique personality, with some more lively that cater to a midday business crowd and others slightly more relaxed, only coming to life once the sun has slipped behind the surrounding buildings and what passes for smiles emerges on local Parisian faces.
My personal recommendation is to explore the Montorgueil district and the streets and alleys emanating from the Marais on the right bank of the Seine, or if you find yourself on the left bank, the charming winding promenade between Saint Sulpice and the Odéon sur Saint Germain des Prés is one of my favorites.
Save me a place on the terrace.