Close your eyes. Imagine the smell of lavender. That is Provence in bloom. Picture tall, majestic sunflowers, gently swaying in the breeze – Van Gogh’s favourite. That is the French countryside in bloom. Envision luminous fields of yellow Canola (or Rapeseed) joining France and Canada in friendship and agriculture. That is Normandy in bloom. Imagine the sweet, juicy taste and smell of a freshly picked apple. That’s the apple orchards blossoming in Champagne-Ardenne. Savour the sweet scent of cherry blossoms, pink and plentiful. That is Paris in bloom. Imagine the proud and graceful fleur-de-lis, a majestic and internationally recognized symbol. That is France in bloom.
Got the picture? I’m not a horticulturist nor do I travel the world to see gardens, but my memories of France are accompanied by beautiful images, smells and tastes. When France is in bloom (which is basically all year long), it’s magical. Of course, there are many other great reasons to experience France, which is hands down one of the most beautiful and interesting counties in the world. The landscape varies from province to province and town to town. There are castles and gorges, cathedrals and heritage sites. There are parks and museums, beaches and wineries. There are monuments and monasteries, mountains and military history sites. I can’t possibly describe the country and all it has to offer, but I’ve included a few must-see places from my travels.
Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy
This medieval monastery is built on a rock in the English Channel. In the 8th century, the archangel Michael appeared several times to Bishop Aubert of Avranches, instructing him to build a church on one of the two rocky islands. Today, this little town of 50+ inhabitants welcomes visitors to climb the “never-ending steps” through cobblestone streets and past shops and restaurants up to the medieval Abbey. From the top, one can view the route many pilgrims took to reach the Abbey when the tide was out, and where many lost their lives when the tide rapidly returned with little warning.
Cannes, French Riviera
Everyone knows this city for the annual Film Festival, but it is a stunning and glamorous feast for the eyes. It is also a treat on the taste buds due to the myriad of luxury restaurants that line La Croisette and all around the city. Settled in the 2nd century, this former fishing village offers world-class beaches, surrounded by art galleries, grand villas and medieval churches. Music and theatre are plenty during the many annual festivals.
Yes! Paris welcomes more than 15 million visitors a year because it’s amazing. From the incredible Renaissance architecture to the 20 districts known as arrondissements, that are like distinct neighbourhoods, to the infamous landmarks like the Eiffel Tower. The city is breathtaking. Of course the Louvre offers days of entertainment, where one can see the real Mona Lisa, the real Winged Victory of Samothrace standing 8 ft high (headless), and the actual Venus de Milo. I could go on, and on. The iconic Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral represents the epitome of French Gothic architecture, with the incredible Archaeological Crypt open to visitors underground. The Champs-Elysees is a street bursting with culture and excitement (and incredible shopping), leading to one of the most famous monuments, L’Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile. Of course the charm of Paris is represented perfectly by artists like Renoir and Van Gogh, in the culture, the bistros and restaurants and the joie de vivre that flourishes everywhere.
Cordes Sur Ciel, Tarn
I have a pretty special relationship with this beautiful place. This well-preserved gem of a town sits high on a hilltop in southern France in the Tarn. The bastide town of Cordes sur Ciel is approximately 24km from Gaillac and surrounded by amazing vineyards, 25km from the cathedral town of Albi and 80km from Toulouse. Stepping into a time machine right back into the the medieval area, you can see signs of how not much has changed in centuries and of how this town has fought to keep it that way. With views at the top for miles, you can see the stunning landscape and gardens in a 360 view of southern France. This is likely my favourite town in the world, that I’ve visited so far. Absolute magic.
This medieval city lies along the Rhone River and boasts the Gothic Papal Palace from the 14th Walking through the quaint streets, one finds art, theatre and music surrounded by churches and historic buildings. It’s a step back in time to when and where the Catholic Church basically ran Christianity. Not to be missed is the medieval Pont d’Avignon, a Unesco World Heritage Site, where one can actually dance (sur le Pont d’Avignon, on y danse…..).
Amboise, Loire Valley
This is one of the only places outside of Canada where my parents actually considered moving. The 15th century Chateau d’Amboise, home to King Charles VIII, features stunning gardens, architecture and underground passageways. The claim to fame of this beautiful city is the former home (Clos Luce) and the crypt of Leonardo da Vinci, where he spent the last year’s of his life (thanks to a close friendship with King Francis I). The views are stunning, the cobblestone streets welcome visitors back in time and the troglodytes (homes built into caves) are magnificent and add to the unique and stunning architecture.
I know I said I’m not really a flower-fanatic, but the Gardens of Versailles rival the beauty of the Palace of Versailles that they adjoin. Over 800 hectares of sculptures, manicured lawns, fountains and flowers in bloom, give the visitor a glimpse into the life of Louis XIV’s (and his successors) 17th century life of royalty during the French Revolution. The gardens are visible from every West facing window in the extravagant gold-leafed, art-clad, well-preserved palace. Also known for the infamous Marie Antoinette (wife of Louis XVI), the “let them eat cake” Queen put on many balls, plays and concerts in the palace before her unfortunate execution in 1793. Being that it’s the 400th birthday of Andre Le Nôtre this year, it’s a great time to visit! He was the famous gardener of Louis XIV and a landscape architect, but also a confidant of the king. André Le Nôtre is the origin of the development of French gardens.
Now, I haven’t even touched on the food and wine or France – which deserve their very own posts! France is in bloom all year long and offers something for everyone, be it hiking, exploring history, sun seeking, gastronomic adventures or, of course, pursuing what ever blooms are in season. Without question, one of the most beautiful counties in the world. Allons-y, mes amis!
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Catherine Sugrue, CNP
Photos by Catherine Sugrue, Daniel Reyes, Loire Valley Tours, France.Fr