As to specific destinations, Paris, of course, is the outstanding cultural centre, with its stunning buildings and atmospheric back streets, its art, its trendy nightlife and its ethnic diversity, though the great provincial cities Lyon, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Marseille all now vie with the capital and each other for prestige in the arts, ascendancy in sport and innovation in attracting visitors.
For most people, however, it's the unique characters of the regions and not least their cuisines that will define a trip. Few holiday-makers stay long in the largely flat, industrial north, but there are some fine cathedrals and energetic cities to leaven the mix. The picture is similar, in Alsace-Lorraine, where interesting Germanic influences are strong, notably in the food; to the south, the wooded mountains of the Jura provide scope for outdoor pursuits. On the northern Atlantic coast, Normandy has a rich heritage of cathedrals, castles, battlefields and beaches and, with its cream-based sauces, an equally rich cuisine. To the west, Brittany is more renowned for its Celtic links, beautiful coastline, prehistoric sites and seafood, while the Loire valley, extending inland towards Paris, is famed for soft, fertile countryside and a marvellous parade of châteaux. Further east, the green valleys of Burgundy shelter a wealth of Romanesque churches, and its wines and food are among the finest in France. More Romanesque churches follow the pilgrim routes through rural Poitou-Charentes and down the Atlantic coast to Bordeaux, where the wines rival those of Burgundy. Inland from Bordeaux, visitors flock to the gorges, prehistoric sites and picturesque fortified villages of the Dordogne and neighbouring Limousin, drawn too by the truffles and duck and goose dishes of Périgord cuisine. To the south, the great mountain chain of the Pyrenees rears up along the Spanish border, running from the Basque country on the Atlantic to the Catalan lands of Roussillon on the Mediterranean; there's fine walking and skiing to be had, as well as beaches at either end. Further along the Mediterranean coast, Languedoc offers dramatic landscapes, medieval towns and Cathar castles, as well as more beaches, while the Massif Central, in the centre of the country, is undeveloped and little visited, but beautiful nonetheless, with its rivers, forests and the wild volcanic uplands of the Auvergne. The Alps, of course, are prime skiing territory, but a network of signposted paths makes walking a great way to explore too. Stretching down from the mountains to the Mediterranean is Provence, which, as generations of travellers have discovered, seems to have everything: Roman ruins, picturesque villages, vineyards and lavender fields and legions of visitors. Its cuisine is similarly diverse, encompassing fruit, olives, herbs, seafood, lamb and an unusual emphasis on vegetables. Along the Provençal coast, the beaches, towns and chic resorts of the Côte d'Azur form a giant smile extending from the vibrantly down-at-heel city of Marseille to the super-rich Riviera hotspots of Nice and Monaco. For truly fabulous beaches, however, head for the rugged island of Corsica, birthplace of Napoléon and home to an Italian-leaning culture and cooking and some fascinating Neolithic sculptures.
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