France manages to make almost everything look chic and sexy and awash with romance. From the peeling paint of countryside farmhouses to the sweet sugar of macarons, the bright lights of dazzling Paris to the snow-powdered wooden chalets that speckle around the ski resorts, it seems there are plenty of reasons why more people travel to France than any other country in the world.
But you know the drill here on Inside the Travel Lab. What about the unusual things to do?
Well, I’m glad you asked. Let’s go.
High in the Pyrenees, the tiny town of Espelette splashes bright brilliant red across its chalk white houses and obsessively clean streets. Piments, or red peppers, are the name of the game here in the Basque country but look out as well for cerise noir (black cherry) wine with a hint of – you guess it – pepper.
The tiny, no cars Ile d’Aix near La Rochelle falls silent once the day trippers go home. Poppies flutter and bicycle paths criss cross around amid quirky museums full of passion and purpose. Napoleon himself spent his last night on French soil here, before being exiled to St Helena by the British.
The buzzing city of Lyons already has plenty to recommend: great art, Roman ruins and gastronomy that’s high even by stickly French standards. But did you know that you can stay in a hotel that played a key role in the French Resistance? Explore the Old Town and marvel at the strange history Europe has seen over the last millennium or so.
Marie Curie may not have been French, but she made her home here, setting up her lab in Paris and earning not one but two Nobel prizes (in two separate science subjects, a feat that’s yet to be repeated.) Learn more about her incredible life and contribution, not to mention the fashion trend for radioactive beauty cream, at the remarkable Curie Museum, Paris.
Let me explain.
Toulouse-Lautrec, artist responsible for most of those iconic Moulin Rouge posters, hailed from the Midi-Pyrenees.
Today, the UNESCO-recognised pink city of Albi holds the world’s largest collection of his work in the former bishop’s palace. The art is worth a visit all by itself and picturesque Albi is easy to fall in love with. Yet the final twist in the interest of this place? The frolicking Can-Can dancers now hang in the same room that oversaw a religious genocide centuries ago.
If that doesn’t make you stop and think, perhaps nothing will.
Well, OK, you don’t have to forget the macarons completely. But do head to Angers to try the lavender-laced Quernons d’Ardoise.
Sail to the South Americas, shiver along an ice wall and wrestle with dinosaurs and a giant Venus flytrap. The Terra Botanica theme park manages to combine floral education with a cracking day out. That was a sentence I never imagined I’d be writing but there we go: it’s true. Hop on a boat and ride til dawn through the tulips at this strangely fascinating place.