About 80 million people took cheap flights to France last year, making it the world’s most popular tourist destination. As well as the hexagonal-shaped country in Western Europe and the island of Corsica, France has a number of overseas territories: Martinique, Guadeloupe, Reunion and French Guiana.
For many, the mere idea of fetching fresh bread from the local boulangerie, seeing the Eiffel Tower up close or catching the scent of the lavender fields in the South of France is enough to spark travel to France. More than anyone else, it seems, the French know how to live, appreciating the value of simple fare and raising the production of bread, cheese and wine to near art forms.
It’s a country of wonderful diversity, about 80 per cent of it is countryside. The beaches and fishing villages of the west coast, the small towns of the east, the towering snow-capped Alps in the south east, the densely forested and river-crossed Massif Central in the south and the Spain-bordering Pyrenees in the south west, not to mention the south of France – le Midi – that region of ritzy resort towns and historic cities.
Paris, the capital, is one of the most enchanting cities. Its gilded streets, splendid buildings, stylish locals, and reputation as a city for lovers ensures its place on the visit-before-you-die lists. Lourdes, the small town in the foothills of the Pyrenees, welcomes more than five million religious tourists each year, while many Australians make a pilgrimage to the the key battlefields in France to pay their respects to the 48,000 men who were killed on the Western Front.
France can be divided loosely into five regions. The north and northwest have a maritime climate. Winters are mild and summers are warm and rain falls year- round. In the southwest, winters are mild and summers are hot. Around the Pyrenees and along the border with Spain rainfall can be heavy. In the centre of the country, Paris for example, winters are cool and summers are hot. Along the Mediterranean Coast, the winters are mild and summers are very hot. Rain is scarce. The Mistral, a northerly wind, blows in the spring time bringing very cold weather. Corsica has a Mediterranean climate too, along the coast, that is. In the mountains, there’s plenty of snow in the winter. The Vosges in Alsace and Lorraine, the Jura and Alps along the borders with Switzerland and Italy, the Pyrenees in the extreme south, and the higher parts of the Massif Central get a lot of snow.
Mid-May to September (July and August in particular), the second half of October, Christmas and New Year’s, February, and Easter are the high season times in France. These follow the school holidays when French families and European tourists take to the cities and the resorts.
November–February is the low season in the cities and at the beaches, but this is high season for skiers and snowboarders.
The major cities – Paris, Bordeaux, Lyon, Nice and Strasbourg – have excellent public transport networks. Trains, buses and trams, in some cities, make it easy to get around.
Air France, the flag-carrying airline, connects Paris with most of the big French cities. There are plenty of low-cost airlines operating in France too. EasyJet and Ryanair, to name just two well-known European no-frillers, both offer cheap flights around France.
France’s rail network is best in class. The TGV trains, which travel at speeds in excess of 550kph, make getting between some cities faster than taking flights. The railway network runs to every corner of the country, but several routes radiate from Paris and cross-country routes and services are fewer and, sometimes, less frequent.
Bus services augment the rail services especially in more rural areas.
Hiring a car is a great idea, especially if you are travelling outside the major cities. In the bigger cities, traffic can be very heavy and parking can be difficult.