France offers something for just about everyone: it’s one of those rare countries where every region offers something worthwhile and distinctive. Paris represents the height of fashion, art and food—its sense of style is so strong it intimidates some visitors, yet the city can also be remarkably comfortable and intimate. The provinces offer their own landscapes and cultures: the glittering crowds of the Cote d’Azur, the elegant châteaux of the Loire Valley, the hospitable vineyards of Bordeaux, the rocky coasts of Brittany, the dramatic slopes of the Alps and the Pyrenees and the charming farms and villages of Provence. The country can satisfy just about any traveler’s taste.
Every century has added a new architectural facet to the France of today. The Romans, who first occupied Gaul in 120 BC, built beautiful arenas, villas, aqueducts, thermal-spring baths and other structures still prominent in southern France. They were soon followed by the medieval religious orders, who built the stunning fourth-century Baptistery of St. Jean in Poitiers, the Trinity Chapel on the Bay of Cannes and hundreds of abbeys throughout the country. Medieval towns were circled by thick walls for protection; some, like Carcassone, still stand, and the track of the old walls of other towns can be seen in their street plans. Around the beginning of the 12th century, the Romanesque style was eclipsed by Gothic architecture in the soaring cathedrals of Reims, Amiens, Chartres, Vezelay, Mont-Saint-Michel and many others. The Renaissance introduced the architecture now seen in the homes and chateaus of the Loire Valley. French 20th-century architecture, such as Le Corbusier’s Chapel of Ronchamp, Piano and Rogers’ Pompidou Center and Pei’s glass pyramid for the Louvre, have influenced architectural thought well beyond the borders of France. In art, literature and philosophy, the French accent is pervasive.
France is bounded on the south by the Pyrenees Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea; on the east by the Alps and the Rhine River; and on the west by the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel. The countryside, relatively flat in the northwest, gives way to gently rolling hills in the north and west and the Massif Central (a plateau) in the center.
The regions of northern France include Brittany, which juts out of the country’s northwestern corner into the Atlantic; Normandy, which extends along much of the English Channel; and the Pays du Nord, which lies in northeast France along the Belgian border.
The country’s interior contains such noted districts as the Loire Valley (a large swath southwest of Paris) and Burgundy (southeast of Paris). Along France’s eastern edge, butting up against Germany and Switzerland, are the regions of Alsace and Lorraine. Just to the south are the Alps, which share a border with Switzerland and Italy.
In southern France are the Basque region and the Pyrenees, which lie along the Spanish border; the Riviera (also called the Cote d’Azur), which includes much of the Mediterranean coast; and Provence, which stretches from a small part of the Mediterranean coast, inland.