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France

The most visited country in the world, and for good reason.  

What doesn't France have?

Mountains, forests, the sea, art, architecture, history, food, wine...no matter what you want, it is here. 

It is my favorite place to visit, also.  Between 2019 and 2023, I spent a total of 5 months in this country during 8 separate visits, and yet there is so much more to see.  After all, it is larger than California, and has 40 cities with a population of over 100,000...and each with its own personality. Not to mention the hundreds of beautiful little villages and national parks throughout the country.  

 

One of the things I enjoy most about France is the sheer variety of cultures and architecture and history throughout the country. Certainly, visiting the City of Lights is the iconic trip to Europe, and I do enjoy it so much that I have been to Paris at least a dozen times in my life; but really enjoying France is to get out to see the port cities in the south, the wine region in the southwest, the Germanic influences in the east, the Norman influences in the west. Plus, Basque and Catalan culture. Roman and Celtic history. It seems the choices are endless.

 

In the following pages, I will give some ideas on not only visiting the capital, but also what else is out there to enjoy around France. Adding a little experience in how to maximize your enjoyment on your trip. Some helpful tips and suggestion. A little history and background on places of interest. Plus, some tips on planning.

 

I am hoping I can inspire you to get more out of France than you might have otherwise chosen to and enjoy it more than you thought possible.

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Paris

No trip to France would be complete without a return to Paris. I cannot get enough of this city. There is always more to explore. And re-visiting places like The Louvre or the Musee D'Orsay or Versailles never gets old.

Lyon

Summer or winter...there is still the same wonderful art, history, and architecture. The people are still as lovely. The parks are still wonderful to walk through.

It also happens to be the gourmet capital of Europe

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Provence West - Avignon/Arles/Orange

There are 13 regions of France, and the southeast region is known as Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur.

This one region has so much variety it would take many vacations to explore it all.  From the Hautes-Alps in the north of the region, to the French Riviera (Cote d’Azur) in the south. The part of the region I will explore in this section is the western part, the departments called Vaucluse and Bouches du Rhone (mouth of the Rhone River).

It encompasses many incredible cities to see including Orange, Avignon, and Arles to name a few. An area roughly 30 miles by 50 miles. It packs a lot into such a small area. Don’t worry if you cannot see it all. The French people will certainly welcome you back for another visit!

 

You can stay in any of the cities of Provence, and you will love it, but I would recommend Avignon for a base. It is larger and will have more options. Plus, it is centrally located so you can spend each day in a different city. For example, Arles and Orange are just 15-20 minute trains rides from Avignon.

However, Aix en Provence is 1.5 to 2 hours by train from Avignon (or about 1 hour by car). So, it is easier to visit Aix-en-Provence when you come from Marseille.

 

Before France existed, Roman civilization flourished in this part of southern France because the climate and geography would feel quite familiar to Romans. The contributions of this region in the Roman Era can still be seen today; including the amphitheater at Orange, the Pont du Gard aqueduct, the arena at Arles.

After the end of the Roman empire, Provence was a region that was fought over continuously. In the late Middle Ages, the city of Avignon and the area around it belonged to the Popes, who established their palace there. Most of Provence was finally incorporated into France in 1486. Avignon followed in 1791.

Avignon

The papal home in the 14th century, and officially not part of France until the 18th century.

With a history that dates back 5000 years, this was once a stronghold of the Gallic tribe of Cavares, and also the Roman city of Avennio.  In the 12th century, Avignon attained a short lived independence that only lasted until the 13th century but the city flourished during that time as a trading center.

By 1309, Avignon was controlled by the Duke of Anjou, and its primary historical importance was gained when Pope Clement V decided to move the papacy from Italy to Avignon during the great schism.  

The city was ruled by legates of the papacy until 1791, when the French ultimately took control.  During those centuries under papal control, some of the greatest architecture in France was created.  

Avignon
Avignon
Avignon
Avignon

Favorite places in Avignon

Like most medieval towns in France, my favorite thing to do is simply walk around and enjoy the streets.  It is very walkable, as the old center is about 1 mile across.   But, when you are ready to go inside places, here are some the best.

Palais des Papes

A split in the papacy in 1305, required the need for a second home away from The Vatican.  Pope Clement V chose Avignon which was already a vassal city of the Holy See. Construction of the palace stated in earnest under the following pope, John XII in 1314, and lasted until 1352 when most of the palace was complete. At the beginning of the 15th century, at the end of the Great Schism, the palace became the residence of legates and then vice-legates, until the Revolution in 1791.

Musée Du Petit Palais

14th century Archbishop's Palace, now an art museum housing Renaissance works including Botticelli.  On September 14, 1791, a law was passed bringing together the State of Avignon with France; which, until then, had remained the property of the Church. In 1791, the archbishop's palace was declared national property and seized. For decades, the building was divided into shops and inns and was even used as a barracks.  Later, it was purchased by the Archbishop of Avignon and used it as a seminary.

Then, in 1905, the building was returned to the state and used a school for 55 years when the city took over and started restoration. 

Remparts d'Avignon

14th century city walls with views of the Rhone River. The more than 4 kilometers of walls  encircle the entire old city.  Building started in 1355 during the Papacy of Pope Innocent VI, to protect the city from the assaults by the roving bands of mercenaries. They were finished in 1370 under Pope Urban V.

Fort Saint-André

Just across the river, about 3 kilometers from the center of Avignon, is more 14th century history with a fortress on the hill.  Enjoy it for the history, and for the views. The fortress consists of a 700 meter long enclosure, defended by towers, including a powerful châtelet consisting of two cylindrical towers flanking the only entrance.

Pont Saint-Benezet  (Bridge of Avignon)

The bridge of Avignon was started in 1177. At 920 meters long, it originally had 22 arches and measured 4 meters wide. It was built in only 8 years, taking until 1185.  in 1226, 3/4 of the bridge was destroyed during a siege by the troops of Louis VIII. Floods destroyed parts of the bridge in 1603, 1605 and 1633. 

Saint-Pierre Basilica

Gothic cathedral dating to 1358, featuring carved walnut doors and interior artworks.

Getting to and around Avignon

Depending on where you come from, there are two train stations in Avignon. 

If you come from the larger cities like Marseille or Paris or Lyon; you will arrive on a TGV (high speed train), and the station will be 5 minutes from the center. Just take the short 5 minute train ride from the TGV station to the Gare de Avignon. From this center train station, you are just outside the city walls and can walk from there. 

If you arrive on a local train, say from Orange or Nimes or Montpelier, you will arrive at the center station. 

Once you have arrived, you likely will not have a lot of use for public transportation.  Most of what you will want to see will be in the city center, and the center is less than 1 mile across. 

But, if you are going to take some public transport, and are planning on spending a couple of days in Avignon, then the Avignon City Pass might be a good deal. For 32 Euros, you get 48 hours of public transport plus free admission to many attractions. However, a little inconvenient in that you can only purchase these passes at the Avignon or Villeneuve-les-Avignon tourist offices.  

Alsace

Alsace is the Germanic region of France in the northeast. It is a region lying to the west of the River Rhine and east of the Vosges mountains. To the north and east it shares a border with Germany, and to the south with German-speaking Switzerland. Regarding heritage and culture, especially villages of brightly-painted steep-roofed half-timbered houses, Alsace is definitely Germanic.

There are some great Alsatian villages around Strasbourg to visit, like Eguisheim and Ribeauville, plus the Chateau on the Hill, Chateau de haut Koenigsbourg; and the city itself has some amazing architecture.

Strasbourg and Alsace

This city is unique in that it sits at the crossroads of German and French influence.

In 12 BC, the Romans built a fort on an island in the Rhine River, and by the 5th century the Franks had a thriving trade town there. The Roman fortifications lasted for centuries still defending this town.

Strasbourg declared itself a free republic in the 14th century until the reign of “The Sun King” Louis XIV who incorporated it into France in the 17th century.    

Religion was immediately changed from Protestantism to Catholic, but the language of Strasbourg remained dominantly German until the Revolution in the 1790’s.

Today, its unique position has made it a seat of the European Council and the European Court of Human Rights, and the city houses the largest parliament room in Europe.

 

To tour Strasbourg, start in the center, which is actually an island, the Grand Ile of Strasbourg. Most of what you want to see here will be located all on the island.

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Ribeauville
Eguisheim
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Eguisheim
Eguisheim
Eguisheim

Favorite Places in Strasbourg

Notre Dame de Strasbourg Cathedral

Undoubtedly, the highlight of Strasbourg.  Built between the 12th and 15th centuries; it has a rose window and clock form the 16th century. it is an impressively tall cathedral, reaching 466 feet at the spires. 

Covered Bridges of Strasbourg

4 towers and 3 bridges built in the 13th century. Plus, don't forget the small Pont du Faison nearby.  Just walking around this area of town is incredibly quaint. 

Place Kléber

I enjoy this plaza in the center of the island, not just for the openness and the statue of General Kleber, but to enjoy the architecture of the town, which is very different form traditional French architecture.  You feel more like you are in Germany, which makes sense, since you are only 3 miles away.

Getting to and around Strasbourg

The simplest way to get to Strasbourg is the direct nonstop train from Gare de L’est in Paris. It takes less than 2 hours. But you can also take connecting trains from Frankfurt in less than 3 hours, or a direct train from Stuttgart in about 90 minutes. You can also reach Strasbourg from Zurich in less than 3 hours. So, if you want to visit this part of France, there are several options of places where you could fly to.

Once you reach Strasbourg, it is very easy to get around. The center of town is only 10 or 15 minutes to walk from the train station. But, if you don’t feel like lugging your bags around, hop on the tram lines that seem to go just where you want them.

Tickets are easy. There are ticket machines at all the tram stops. But they also have contactless payments, and you get a discount for using that. You can also download the CTS app to make things easy. I have found Strasbourg very easy to navigate and never use the metro when exploring the center as it only takes about 20 minutes to walk from one end of the Grand Isle to the other end. But I have never stayed in the center because I prefer to have somewhere quieter and less expensive, so I use the metro to get to and from my lodging.

Colmar

Colmar is located a half hour south of Strasbourg by train, or about an hour by car. The city that dates back to the 9th century at least,  is on the Alsace Wine Route, and local vineyards in the area specialize in Riesling and Gewürztraminer wines.

Getting to and around Colmar

Colmar is just a 30 minute train ride down from Strasbourg, so it is a perfect day trip. However, if you are going to add the villages of Alsace to your journey, this could also be a good base for visiting those villages.

Not that you will save any money staying in Colmar, but my favorite villages are nearer to here than to Strasbourg.

Public transport is not as convenient here as other larger cities, but I recommend having a car in this town, so it doesn’t really matter.

 

Favorite Places in Colmar

 

Unterlinden Museum

13th-century Dominican convent building converted into a religious and local history and art museum. The buildings were used as a convent from 1230 to the revolution in 1793. With the revolution dissolving the order, the buildings fell into disrepair until the mid-19th century when the archivist of Colmar transformed them into a museum. Today, with collections covering everything from paleolithic history to 20th century art, this museum will have something for everybody.

 

La Petite Venise

Canals and promenades with plenty of dining choices. This pedestrian area of Old Colmar, one of the largest in Europe, allows you to enjoy the riches of a remarkable heritage. The Middle Ages left wonderful examples of Gothic architecture including Satin Martin Collegiate Church and the Dominican Church.

 

St Martin’s Church

Built between 1230’s and 1360’s. A wonderful example of Gothic architecture with status surviving since the Middle Ages.

 

Statue of Liberty

One of many throughout France, this 12 meter tall replica located about 2 miles north of the town center.

 

Musee Jouet (Toy Museum)

Toys from the 19th and 20th centuries. Open since 1993 and housed in a former neighborhood cinema, the Colmar Toy Museum is enjoyed by young and old.

Alstatian Villages

As much as I really enjoy Strasbourg, and I have returned to visit again, I enjoy the little villages around it just as much. They are so picturesque. The drive around the area is peaceful and beautiful.

 

Ribeauville

This small town of less than 5000 people has been around since at least the 8th century.

For centuries, it was ruled by influences from areas now part of Switzerland and like the rest of Alsace, was brought under French rule in the late 17th century.

The town is known for its ancient walls, medieval homes, and pair of Gothic churches. You will also want to visit the famous castles on the northwest edge of town; Saint Ulrich, Girsberg, and Haut-Ribeaupierre.

 

Chateau de Haut Koenigsbourg

Located about 10 miles north of Ribeauville, this is probably the most famous chateau of Alsace. Situated on a steep hill, the 12th century fortress offers a wonderful visit. But prepare for crowds, it is quite popular. And make sure you have your walking shoes. Just getting from the parking area to the castle entrance will get you a little exercise.

 

Eguisheim

A smaller village with less than 2000 people, less population than it held two centuries ago, it is arguably more picturesque. The stream running along Alsatian homes make for quite a picture, and the town center is just beautiful.

History here dates back to the Paleolithic, The Romans, and the Celts.

Its most famous resident is Pope Leo IX who was born here in 1002.

About 10 minute drive west of town, visit the “three Castles” of Eguisheim. You can drive up and park a few hundred feet away from them, or you can park below at the Hotel Spa Husseren, and hike uphill for a bit if you feel like you should earn this view! It is also possible to hike up from the city center which will take you about an hour each way.

 

Getting to and around Alsace

If you are staying in Strasbourg, it is certainly possible to visit the best Alsatian villages by bus and rail. But I do recommend a car for this part of your trip. Not that the car is faster, sometimes, it is even slower. But you will pass by so many gems along the way, it is nice to be able to just stop and enjoy. Of course, parking will be the biggest issue. Typically, what I will do is search on google maps for a parking lot close to but outside the town center and drive directly there. Then, park and explore.  If I were to visit Strasbourg and Alsace, I may even change lodging mid trip to one of the smaller towns. That will make it easier to drive around, and to find parking at the end of the day.  

Loire Valley - Orleans/Tour/Borges

This area was very popular with the kings of France and their dukes in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and is rich with magnificent châteaux. Notably, some of the most famous of the chateaux are those such as Chambord, Azay-le-Rideau, Blois or Chenonceaux.

The true name of the region is "Centre Val-de-Loire" and as the name suggests, it lies generally in the center of the country.

  Today, the northern half of the region benefits economically from its proximity to Paris, and by excellent transport links to the capital. Tours is served by TGV, and Orleans by express trains, both of which can be reached from Paris in 60-90 minutes by train.

Getting to and around The Loire Valley

Depending on where you want to stay in the Loire Valley, it is easy to get there from Paris.

Orleans is an hour train ride south from Gare d’Austerlitz station.  Tours is an hour and Nantes is 2 hours, both from Montparnasse Hall in Paris.

You can certainly grab a car to further explore the region, but I have never done so, and I don’t think it is necessary. Buses and trains are in plentiful supply going along the river, and I believe that the Loire is best seen by bicycle.  Plus, not having a car gives you more options and ease in finding lodging.

While staying in Tours, I did find that public transportation running along the river was fine. However, running to and away from the river was not good. So, on any return visit, I will keep that in mind and try to stay within walking distance of the river.

In Orleans, I found the town small enough and easily navigable and I didn’t need the metro at all. Plus, I had rented a bicycle for my stay there. Borges is small enough to walk most of the time. 

And Nantes, if you continue that far, has enough public transport to never need a car.

If you are worried about not being able to see countryside Chateaux without a car,  remember how good public transport is.  Many of the chateaux are along or close to the river, and there are buses and trains that go about everywhere. 

Orleans

A mid size city of just over 100,000 people, about an hour south of Paris; it is perhaps most famous for being saved from the English by Joan of Arc in the 15th century. Indeed there are still statues, paintings, and even an annual celebration dedicated to her.

 But, it is also sitting in the Loire valley, with the river flowing through town.  There is a wonderful art museum, a grand cathedral, and museums for archeology and the environment.  Finally, its size makes this great little place to visit a very walkable city.  It also may be the best deals on museums in France. 6 euros gave me a combined ticket for the art museum, the archeology museum, the museum of biodiversity, and the house of Joan of Arc. 

Musée des Beaux-Arts d'Orléans

established in the 19th century, this museum houses an impressive collection from the 16th century to the present.  Wonderful pieces of French art, as well as Dutch and Italian.  Arranged quite nicely over 4 floors. 

Cathédrale Sainte-Croix d'Orléans

Churches have been in this location since the 13th century, but the last was destroyed in 1568 during the Reformation.  Then, in 1599; Henry IV decided to rebuild a gothic cathedral, but it wasn't until 1829 that it was finished.  What stands today is the largest cathedral in the Loire Valley. 

The House of Joan de Arc

Not really, though! She stayed here for 1 night during the siege of Orleans in 1429.  Today, you may go into 1 room, and see a 15 minute video with a brief, but interesting history of her life.  There is not much to see, but the price is right at 4 euro.

 

Biking The Loire

While in Orleans, and so close to the Loire, it would be a shame not to rent a bicycle and go for a ride up and down the river. I took a few rides while there, going east, west, and north; but my favorite was heading downriver to the Château de Meung-sur-Loire. It took a little over an hour each way to cover the 13 miles and it is a lot more enjoyable if you take the path on the south side of the river. For the more adventurous, go all the way to Chateau de Beaugency which is 17 miles each way.  For both examples, when you arrive there will be plenty of choices for food and drink near the chateau.

Tours and Loire Valley

I spent some time in Tours, at the head of the Loire Valley, and was able to get in some biking and Chateau visits.

The ability to bike from chateau to chateau, and along the Loire River, and through vineyards all make this my favorite place to bike in Europe so far.

To me, spending time in the city of Tours was nice, but being in the Loire Valley is all about visiting the chateaus and there are too many to list here but some suggestions are;

  • Chateau de Clos Luce – a former home of DaVinci – Amboise

  • Chateau Royal d’Amboise – 15th century castle located near the Loire in Amboise

  • Chateau de Chenonceau – 16th century castle straddling a river 20 miles SE of Tours

  • Chateau de Villandry – castle with a garden maze about 12 miles west of Tours

  • Chateau de Chamont – castle with round turrets about 25 miles east of Tours.

 

If you want to spend some time in town, there are some interesting things to see there also.

 

Musee de Beaux Arts

Fine-arts museum, in a former archbishop's palace, with furniture plus paintings by Rubens & Degas.

 

Cathedral Saint Gatien

Gothic Cathedral built between the 13th and 16th centuries.

 

Old Town

Walk through the streets of Old Town and see the Clock Tower, Saint Martin College, and Saint Martin Basilica.

Loire Valley
Loire Valley
Loire Valley
Loire Valley

 Bourges

In the Val de Loire, about 75 miles south of Orleans, this is a lovely little city of 66,000 people. I discovered this place by accident as I had a 2 hour stopover on the train so instead of just sitting in the station, I explored for a bit . I didn't have much time to look around, but what little I found made me want to return someday.  This would be a great base for exploring the villages and the chateaus of this region by car. Plus, the center of town was quite nice. 

The one downside I found was there wasn't a single place to do stopover luggage storage in the whole town.  But, I took a chance and rode the bus to the tourist office hoping they knew of a place; and the nice person at that office confirmed there was no luggage storage but she let me keep my suitcase in their closet for a couple of hours (for free!). 

Getting to and around Borges

Getting there is simple, as there is a local train from Orleans that takes 75 minutes and drops you off at the station on the north side of town.  You could catch connecting trains from Paris that would take a little over 2 hours starting at the Gare de Austerlitz.  Or, if you are coming from Tours, there is a local train that takes about an hour and 45 minutes. Once you arrive, there are busses next to the train station.  But, the center of town is only a 15-20 minute walk so you probably will not need the bus unless you are carrying luggage. 

 

Bourges Cathedral

Right next to the tourism office, this is an amazing cathedral for a town this size, actually for a town of any size. 125 meters long, with a nave that is 41 meters high, and towers that reach up to 65 meters.  Built between 1195 and 1245; it was built alongside the Roman fortifications, and had chapels added in the 15th century.  

Jacques Coeur Palace

Built in the 15th century, by the steward to King Charles VII; this palace remained a private residence for over 200 years until it was sold to the town in 1682. Used variously over the centuries as a town hall, a tribunal, and law court; it has been restored to former glory.  You can still Gallo-Roman walls that were incorporated into the structure.  

Provence South - Marseille / Aix-en-Provence

Around 600 B.C., the Greeks from the city of Phocaea established a prosperous Mediterranean seaport known as Massilia, today's Marseille. Eventually, the region came under Roman rule, and the area was so important, the Romans named it Provincia, or Province. 

Today, with 1.6 million residents, greater Marseilles is the second largest urban area in France behind Paris. 

Marseilles

Port city in the South.  Plenty of space to park your yacht.

There is a lot of great history in this city, the 2nd largest in France.  However, to be perfectly honest, the city has faced many challenges with crime.  Not that you would feel unsafe here. By American standards, it is not bad.  But, one thing I have noticed is that it sems like Marseille is the most graffiti affected city in western Europe that I have seen yet.  It is a shame because it takes away from what is quite an interesting and beautiful city. Don't let a bad reputation stop you from seeing this great city!

Marseilles La Major Cathedral
Marseilles
Marseilles Saint Victor Abbey
Marseilles Parc National des Calanques

Getting to and around Marseille

You can take a train from Paris that takes as little as 3 hours from Gare De Lyon. A great way to see the countryside pass by at 300 kilometers per hour.

But you can also take a 90 minute flight from Paris for $100-$200 round trip.

Once you arrive in Marseille, there is an extensive public transportation network including buses, subway, trams, and ferries. Buying a ticket couldn’t be easier. All transport uses contactless credit cards. Just swipe when you board and you are all set. You can even transfer as long as it is within 60 minutes. You will only be charged for 1 ticket.

If you prefer to actually buy tickets, they are available in machines at all metro stations and tram stops plus more than 150 vendors of RTM tickets around the city. You cannot buy a ticket from the bus driver, though.

You can buy single tickets or books of 10 tickets. You can also get unlimited 24 hour or 72 hour tickets. But, if you are spending a few days here, the best value is the 7 day ticket. Unlimited rides for €15.50 as of 2023.

Getting from the airport is quite easy. Just take the L091 bus. It leaves every 10 to 15 minutes, and only takes 45 minutes to Gare St Charles near the center of Marseille.

 

Travel tip

If you are visiting for 1 to 3 days, consider the Marseilles City Pass with transport. It not only gives you access to all public transport but includes tickets to the Mucem Museum and Regards Provence plus discounts at dozens of other attractions and activities. Prices start at €29 for 1 day.

Favorite Places in Marseilles

Calanques National Park

It is not terribly convenient to get to from the city by public transportation, but it can be done (it takes 60-90 minutes each way by busses), and is worth the effort. There is some beautiful hiking here, and you can drop down to the sea for wonderful views. If for some reason you have a car with you while in Marseille, it is about a 30 minute drive without much traffic. Much longer with traffic. 

Abbaye Saint-Victor

Marseilles is a port city and was well defended, so even this church looks like a fortress. it was built over the 5th century structure.  The current abbey was built in the 12th and 13th centuries, but retains the history from the 5th. It was abandoned during the revolution, and rebuilt in the 19th century.  A great place to see the religious history of Marseilles.   

Museum of Civilizations

Opposite the port from Saint Victor is this former fort turned museum.  A great place to explore history and walk along the old walls of the city. 

Cathédrale La Major

Large 19th century Cathedral built with striped stone in the Byzantine style.  an easy walk from the port. 

 

 Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde

sitting at the highest point of the city makes this basilica extra special. 

Built between 1864 and 1892, like La Major, it is not old, but it is impressive!

Aix-en-Provence

The birthplace of Cezanne, and when you see how wonderful it is here, you will understand the beauty of his works. 

Founded by the Romans in 122 BC, it was called Aquae Sextiae (waters of the Sextius).  Today, owing to those two inspirations for this city, the motto is "city of water, city of art".

Top things to see in Aix-en-Provence

Fontaine de la Rotonde

Gathering place near the city center, this fountain in the plaza was built in 1860 and features 3 statues representing art, justice, and agriculture.  Great place to enjoy lunch at one of the surrounding cafes.

Hôtel de Caumont

Just on the south side of the city center, this 18th century mansion is housing art exhibits. Personally, I prefer this over the Cezanne Museum.

Paroisse Cathédrale Saint Sauveur Aix-en-Provence

Built between the 12th and 19th centuries, it incorporates different styles like Gothic and Romanesque.  it even still uses parts of the baptistry form a 6th century church

Musée Granet

For more modern art, like Picasso and other 20th century artists, visit the Musee Granet in a refurbished chapel.  

Getting to and around Aix-en-provence

If you are not driving a car during your trip, Aix-en-Provence is a perfect day trip from Marseilles.  It is just a 35 minute train ride from St Charles station in Marseilles to Gare d'Aix en Provence on the L050 line.  Then, AIP is very walkable once you get there. From the train station, it is just a 5 to 10 minute walk into the center and just 15 minutes across to the Cathedral.  No need for public transportation here. Just enjoying walking around this beautiful city. 

If you are driving in anyway, just find a parking lot outside the center, and leave the car. 

Brittany - Rennes / Brest / Nantes

In French, it is Bretagne.  The name comes from the Britons that fled The British Isle during the Middle Ages. Today, it is still the most British of the French Regions where there are tens of thousands of Brits with permanent, or second homes here. 

Brittany is quite distinctive, with its own language and Celtic cultural tradition that set it apart from the rest of France.  Celtic traditions are still alive today in Breton folk music, Celtic festivals, and many prehistoric monuments.

Brittany is geographically quite a diverse region; the north and west coasts, open to the North Atlantic, are rugged and rocky, with beautiful sandy coves and beaches. The south coast, facing the Bay of Biscay, is flatter, much milder, and composed of many large, sandy beaches.

Thought mostly flat throughout Brittany, in the center of the region lies Monts d'Arrée, a range of hills that top out at 385 meters (1260 feet). 

Rennes

The capital of Brittany in the northwest.  Known for its timbered houses and grand cathedral. 

Rennes’s history goes back more than 2,000 years, when it was a small Gallic village named Condate. From the 16th century, Rennes was the heart of the Brittany of the Kingdom of France. 

Today, it is the 10th largest city in France with over 700,000 residents, and also a education center with over 60,000 university students. 

Rennes Parliament
Rennes Palais Saint Georges
Rennes Marie de Rennes
Rennes La Vilaine

Favorite things to see in Rennes

Parc du Thabor

quite a large and popular park with varied spaces like a botanical garden and open lawns.  It is easily accessible as it is just a couple thousand feet east of the city center.

 

 Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rennes

located on the river, just east of the center, it is quite a nice museum with impressive works.  It is not too busy, so if you want to enjoy masterpieces in relative peace, this is a good place for it.

Parliament de Bretagne

Just a beautiful building and plaza.  It was originally a 17th century palace now used as the Court of Appeals. 

Saint-Pierre de Rennes Cathedral

The small courtyard means this cathedral will tower over you as you approach.  It is relatively young, as it was built after the revolution. 

Getting to and around Rennes

By train, Rennes is less than 2 hours from Paris. You can go direct from Montparnasse station and the train takes about an hour and 45 minutes. 

You could also drive from Paris, but it would take twice as long.

 

Getting around Rennes is simple. By metro, you can cross the city center from the railway station to the Place Sainte-Anne in just 3 minutes along line A’s 15 stops, even in rush hour, using the same network and ticket. The STAR public transport network also consists of 149 bus routes that serve the 43 municipalities that form the Rennes Metropolitan District.

Plus, tickets are quite affordable at €1.50 as of 2023.

Nantes

It was a beautiful city, and I love the addition of a little whimsy.

You can visit the 15th century castle and then stop by the Les Machine de I'Ile and see people operate a giant spider or elephant.

Then, walk by the 600 year old cathedral, or head to the art museum, and follow it with a walk through the park with sculptures and an enormous park bench.

Coincidentally, there also happened to be a carnival in town when I went.

The city is inspiring, interesting and fun. Great place to visit!

Nantes Chateau de Ducs de Bretagne
Nantes Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul
Nantes Jardin de Plantes
Nantes Saint Clement Church
Nantes Place Royal
Nantes Les machines de I'Ile Elephant

Favorite Places in Nantes

Les Machines de l'Île

Normally, I mention art and history and architecture, but this place is fun. Large machines built like animals or insects, operated by people, including guests.  When I went, the tour was just in French, and I didn't inquire of there was ever an English tour.  But, there were other English speakers in our group and they made us feel welcome and included. 

Château des ducs de Bretagne

The heart of Nantes, and very impressive. a Multi story history of the town, plus temporary art exhibitions, a large courtyard and walls with a moat. really cool!    

Botanical Garden

A little northeast of the town center, and behind the train station, this is a very nice botanical garden.  I grabbed a baguette, and enjoyed lunch here looking over the flower gardens.

Brest

The second largest city in Brittany and a major port city, Brest was largely destroyed in bombings in 1944 and has to come back to life since then.

Favorite things to see in Brest.

 

National Maritime Museum

Shipbuilding traditions & naval history in maritime museum set in medieval fortress with bay views.

 

Oceanopolis

Aquarium with marine wildlife in tropical, temperate & polar zones, including 7 shark species.

 

Tanguay Tower

Built in the 14th century, the Tanguy tower is an essential place of Brest heritage. Witness to 600 years of history, it houses 14 dioramas, models which reconstruct the history of Brest before 1939.

The tower traces the life of Brestois since the 14th century. An immersive journey plunges you into the heart of the history of the city of Ponant: between naval battles, the arrival of Emperor Napoleon 3 and a stroll through the streets of old Brest, a visit to the Tanguy tower promises you a unique discovery of the history of Brest.

 

Beaches

If you like, you can head out of town to the west and visit scenic overlooks to Brest Bay and beaches such as Plage du Dellec and Plage de Saint-Anne in Brest Harbor. Or head a half hour outside of town to Plage de Blanc Sablons (White Sands Beach) on The Atlantic Ocean.

The beaches in Brest harbour are best reached by car. But, if you want to use public transport, you can take the 2b bus to De Rochon and walk the last 15 minutes to Plage du Dellec. However, Plage de Saint-Anne is easier and closer the the bus line.

To get out to the much more popular Plage de Blanc Sablons, you will lily need a car for the 30 minute drive.

Getting to and around Brest

From Rennes, the train takes about 2 hours out to Brest, making 3 additional stops along the way. 

In Brest, you will use the Bibus network. Tickets can be purchased from bus drivers, from ticket vending machines in tramway stations, from the bibus.fr e-boutique, from the Bibus app, from the Bibus boutique, from the B relays and from Brest Tourist Office. As of 2023, prices are €1.60 for a single ride. Or you can buy a day ticket (4.50 €), or a 3 consecutive day pass (9 €)

Southwest - Narbonne / Perpignan / Beziers/ Carcassone

The coastal cities in the Southwest of France, and nearing Spain.  As you get down to Perpignan, you are more likely to hear Catalan spoken as French, plus some Spanish.  This is a great place to be if you like sitting on a beach while looking at snow capped peaks.

I really thought this would be the area I would like most to settle down for the long term, but I think I still like Lyon better. 

Narbonne

Narbonne was the first Roman colony established in the land of the Gauls. It was called Narbo. A name that essentially it still retains.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Visigoths took over in 413. For a brief time, ruled by the Saracens; the town was controlled by the counts of Toulouse for many years before being incorporated into France in the 16th century.

With a current population of nearly 60,000; today, it is a mainly a freight transit hub (mostly for wine products) and also a tourist town.

 

Favorite places in Narbonne

 

Saint-Just et Saint-Pasteur Cathedral - Narbonne

A cathedral built between 1272 and 1340, but not completed. It has only a choir and 2 small towers.

 

Palais-Musée des Archevêques.

Striking building dating from the 1200s with Gothic additions form the 19th century and a tower offering city views.

 

Roman Granary Museum

Guided tours are available through this subterranean warehouse system built by ancient Romans.

 

Narbo Via Museum

Archeology museum

Canal De La Robine
St Just Cathedral

Perpignan

Situated as it is, this town was contested for centuries. Originally part of the territory of the counts of Rousillon, the town passed to the House of Aragon in 1172, and in the 13th century the land was split and became part of Majorca. Perpignan was heavily fortified for centuries having to defend itself from Spain and France, but finally came under French control in 1659.

The defensive walls were removed in the 19th century, but the Castillet remains and are now part of a museum.

Like Narbonne, the city still flourishes in its trade, especially in wine products.

 

Favorite places in Perpignan

 

Salses Fortress

Located 10 miles north of Perpignan, on the way to Narbonne; this brick fortress built by the Spanish in the 16th century to guard the French and Catalan border.  It became French territory after 1659.

 

Palais des Rois de Majorque

A gothic Palace built in the 13th century for King James II of Majorca. 

 

Perpignan Cathedral

Active Catholic place of worship with a famous wooden carving of Jesus.

 

Hyacinthe Rigaud Art Museum

Museum featuring a collection of baroque to modern decorative art & paintings, including Picasso's.

Perpignan and Canigou Peak.jpg
Perpignan Campo Santo and Perpignan Cathedral
Perpignan Palace of the King of Mallorca
Perpignan Le Castillet

Bezier / Valras

The history of Beziers goes back to the Celts and then the Romans, starting from the 6th century BC.

Control of this area has changed hands many times, from the Moors and viscounts of Beziers, the counts of Carcassonne, the Trencavels.

Beziers was the home to a large massacre during the Crusades in 1209 wiping out the entire population, even including the Catholic priests.

Today, it is the home to alcohol distillers, fertilizer manufacturers and wine distributors. After struggling for decades, the town has regained the population it held in the 1960’s.

 

Favorite places in Beziers

 

Plateau des Poètes - Bezier

Beautifully landscaped park along a hill over the train station, linking the lower town and the upper. 

 

Cathedral Saint-Nazaire

Roman Catholic church built in the 13th century elevated over the river.

 

Bezier Arena

Arena built in 1897 and still used for bullfighting, as well as concerts and events.

 

Valras Beach

Not really in Beziers, but just a 20 minute bus ride south gets you to some beautiful beaches with mountain views. In the winter, it is pretty calm and a great place for a quiet walk. I think there is something special about a sandy beach to walk on with snow capped peaks visible in the distance.  In the summer, there is plenty to enjoy from a performing arts theatre to jet ski rentals to cafes and bars and a casino.

Bezier Arena
Valras Plage.jpg

Carcassone

I think I found my favorite city in Southwestern France...Carcassonne. Maybe I was just awed by the old citadel, but the whole city seemed lovely. Great shopping avenues, views of the Pyrenees to the south, and the Haut-Languedoc to the north. Throw in a pretty river running through town and some centuries old architecture, and it is a wonderful place to visit.

Carcassonne Aude River
Carcassonne Saint Nazaire Cathedral
Carcassonne countryside from Cite de Carcassonne
Carcassonne Cite de Carcassonne

Favorite places in Carcassonne

Cité de Carcassonne

To me, the reason for going to Carcassonne.  An incredibly impressive rebuilt old town that was created in the 4th century.  27 acres (11 ha) encircled by walls and 52 towers.   Just inside this old city, there are days with of things to see, chateau, inquisition museum,  haunted house...

Carcassonne Cathedral

when, and if, you tire of touring the Cite; head down the hill back into town and visit the Gothic Cathedral built in the 13 century. and stop at a boulangerie for a croissant, or better yet a pattiserie for some sweets.  

Bordeaux

Wine country all around, of course.  But, the city center along the Garonne Rover is beautiful. 

The history of Bordeaux goes back to the Bronze Age and has millennia of recorded history. It was the chief town of Burdigala under the Celts.  It was capital of the province of Aquitania under the Romans. The area fell under English rule in 1154, and finally under French rule in 1453.  

Known for its Gothic cathedrals, along with the parks and plazas along the river, this port city of about 250,000 people is very manageable to visit.

Your visit here will be focused along a 2-3 mile stretch of the river in the center.

The town is the capital of the Nouvelle Aquitaine province of France which is the largest of the French provinces.

This province has 720 kilometers of coastline, but the capital isn’t actually on the coast. It is up the Garonne River. However, you can get to beaches along the Bay of Biscay in just about an hour's drive from the city. 

For a true beach town, you will want to head about 2 hours south to Biarritz. 

Favorite places in Bordeaux

Favorite places in Bordeaux

 

Miroir d'eau and Place de la Bourse

The "water mirror" is beautiful. Located between the river and the palace, it creates a cool effect along the Place de la Bourse. In the summer, join the throng cooling their feet in the inches of reflecting water.

Saint-André Cathedral

Built between the 12th and 14th century, the cathedral is famous for holding the weddings of Louis VII and Louis XIII. Unfortunately, the revolution saw nearly all its treasures taken, and the church was used for various purposes afterwards. It took decades in the early 19th century to restore its former glory. The bell tower wasn’t fully changed back from being a lead factory until 1852.

Monument aux Girondins and Place des Quinconces

Large plaza on the north side of the city center, with a statue of Michel de Montaigne, and surrounded by parks. One of the most photographed places in Bordeaux, and at 30 acres, said to be the largest square in Europe (not including Russia).

“Quinconces” refers to the way the way the trees are planted in staggered rows.

Porte Cailhau

From 1495, the monument was the main gate to the city. It was built to commemorate Charles VIII's victory at Fornovo, Italy and to this day, it is not known what Cailhau means.

 

And no trip to Bordeaux would be complete without a visit to a chateau, or a few of them. Here are some suggestions for a chateau tour heading south of Bordeaux.

 

Chateau Royal de Cazenueve

60 kilometers south of Bordeaux the chateau housed Abbeys since the 13th century, and once owned by Henry IV.

 

Chateau de La Brede

About 25 kilometers south of the city, the philosopher Montesquieu was born and lived here. This gothic château is protected by its lake and the surrounding moat and houses beautiful English gardens.

 

Malle Chateau

About 50 kilometers south of the city, the 17th century Malle Château is attractive with its Renaissance architecture and 15 acres of Florentine Gardens.

 

Chateau Toulouse-Lautrec

Former family home of the painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, it is also known as Château Malromé. Indulge in wine tasting and see the artist’s former apartments in this 5 century old working chateau.

South Central - Montpelier/Nimes

The Occitanie region is the 2016 combination of Languedoc- Roussillon and Midi-Pyrenees.  Now stretching 150 miles from the Rhone River and Camargue Regional Nature Park in the east to the Spanish border in the west. The southeastern part of the region centers around Montpelier and Nimes. 

the coast of Languedoc is characterized by long sandy beaches, the fertile coastal plain is consists of much agriculture, vineyards and fruit and vegetables. And, the historic cities date back to the Roman Era.

Getting to and around Montpellier and Nimes

 

If you want to visit this part of France, the best cities for a home base are Montpellier (about 250,000 people) or Nimes (about 150,000 people). They will offer the best options for lodging and restaurants and attractions. They are quite easy to get to from all directions. Nimes and Montpellier are just 90 minutes and 2 hour train ride west of Marseille.

From Barcelona, you can reach Montpellier in as little as 3 hours with a transfer in Narbonne.

From Paris, you can reach Nimes or Montpellier in as little as 3 or 3.5 hours.

Of course, you can also drive from any of these cities, but it can take twice as long by car on some of these routes.

Once you have arrived, the center of Nimes and Montpellier are 10 minutes on foot from the train stations. And, between the two towns, it is 34 minutes on the local train, or 24 minutes on the intercity train.

In Nimes, there are numerous bus lines to choose from and even a couple of tram lines.  You can buy tickets on all buses and at tickets machines at the tram stops. Or, to make it easier, you can use the Tango app to buy tickets. Another way to buy tickets is at dozens of authorized outlets, mostly tobacco shops.

Tickets are available in single, pairs, 5 or 10 tickets. But the best price is a day pass which will save you money after 3 rides in a day.

In Montpellier, there are 41 bus lines and 4 tram lines that will take you all over the metro area. Tickets are available as single trips, 10 trips, or day passes which are a good deal if you plan to take 3 trips in a day.  You can buy tickets online (commercial.tam-voyages.com) or at machines at all tram stops. For the greatest convenience you can use the M’ticket app by TaM.

Nimes

Founded by the Celts in the 5th century BC, Nimes fell under the Roman Empire in the 1st century BC.

So, this area is a treasure trove of Roman ruins, not only within and immediately around Nimes, but also in the surrounding towns.

One of the longest protective walls in the Roman Empire, a 30 mile long aqueduct, and an impressive amphitheater are just a few of the things available to visit.

But you also get a lovely choice of later French architecture to visit.

 

Here are just some of the highlights:

 

Temple of Diana

Designed on a basilica plan, this 1st century Roman monument housed a monastery in the Middle Ages

 

Castellum Aquae

Part of the Roman Aqueducts system for the city

 

Tour Magne

18m stone watchtower, part of the Roman city wall from the Augustinian era, with panoramic views.

 

Maison Carree

Restored Roman temple dedicated to 'princes of youth', with richly decorated columns & friezes.

 

Nimes cathedral

This 17th-century Romanesque-Gothic Catholic church is dedicated to Saint Castor & the Virgin Mary

 

Nimes Amphitheatre

An imposing Roman amphitheater hosting historic reconstructions plus regular concerts & events.

 

Clock Square

With its tower, rebuilt in the 18th century, it has marked time in the center of the city for five hundred years.

 

Gard’s Bridge

About a half hour drive northeast of town, and unfortunately, no public transport goes out here. So, it will take a car.

Built in the 1st century AD, the Pont du Gard is without doubt the most spectacular work of art of the aqueduct, listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. To cross the Gardon valley, the Roman builders built an exceptionally large bridge: 275 m long, 48 m high (the highest in the Roman world) made up of three levels of superimposed arcades.

Montpelier

France’s 3rd largest city along the southern coast after Marseille and Nice (and 7th largest overall). It is located 10 kilometers inland and currently has about 300,000 residents. Today, it is not only a port but also a university city.

The town was founded in 985 CE and still has 12th century defensive towers, but, since its relatively late founding date, it doesn’t have Roman ruins, like Nimes. As an American visitor, you have to love a place that is relatively younger but still over 1000 years old! 

 

 

Highlights of Montpellier

 

Montpellier Cathedral

Soaring cathedral with twin conical pillars at entrance, plus 12 chapels, artwork & stained glass.

 

Promenade du Peyrou

Paved city square with a statue of Louis XIV & views of the city & the Arc de Triomphe.

La Tour de la Babote

This 12th-century tower was once part of Montpellier's fortifications & housed an observatory.

 

Place de la Comédie

Expansive pedestrian plaza surrounded by historic buildings, alfresco cafe seating & street artists.

 

Arc de Triomphe

Iconic triumphal arch built in 1692, featuring bas-relief sculptures, medallions & guided tours.

Normandy - Rouen/Caen

Normandy is one of the great historic regions of France. In the Middle Ages, Normandy was one of the great dukedoms that rivalled the power and prestige with the kingdom of France. In 2016, upper and lower Normandy were reunited into a single region. 

The proximity to Paris offers economic benefits, aa well as prosperous agricultural areas.

Normandy
Rouen / Caen /Etretas

Normandy is the region of France directly west of Paris, and along the English Channel.  Mostly flat, it is the home to about 3.5 million people. 

The region is famous for its white seaside cliffs, the WW2 landing beaches, and the commune Mont-Saint-Michel. 

It is also home to 4 regional natural parks, the grand city of Rouen highlighted by the Rouen Cathedral, and the city of Caen with its 11th century Château de Caen built by William the Conqueror. 

Normandy is many vacations in one. History, art, cities, outdoors and seaside. And, if you visit France for the food, you will not be disappointed here either. From the oysters and scallops to the apples and cream and the camembert cheese, there is a delight for the foodie. 

Natural Parks

if you want o get outside, there is a bounty of choices around Normandy.  In the southeast, you have Regional nature Park du Perche with scenic hiking trails, stately manors, gardens and farms. IN the south, there is Regional Nature Park Normandy-Maine with half of a million acres of trails and old growth forests.  In the west, you have Regional Nature Park Marais du Cotentin et du Bessin with wetland and marshes for the bird watcher.  In the north of Normandy, there is Regional nature Park Loops of the Seine. as you can imagine, it highlights the Seine River leading all the way from Rouen to the Channel at Le Havre.

 

 Étretat

A small town on the coast of just over 1000 people.  Though a very cute little town, you are here for the seaside cliffs. Some of the more notable formations on the water are Porte d'Aval arch and L'Aiguille (the Needle), a pillar rising up from the sea. To the north, the cliffside Chapelle Notre-Dame de la Garde has dramatic views. But, as long as you are in town, stop by the Le Vieux Marché for some shopping and 5 minutes away on foot, Le Clos Lupin villa is a small museum that was once home to French author Maurice Leblanc.

Rouen

 

Place de Vieux-Marche

square where Joan of Arc was executed in 1431, with a modern church dedicated to her, The church of Saint Joan of Arc which was built in 1979 to replace the former church that was destroyed during the war.

Le Gros-Horloge

located o the appropriately named Rue de Gros Horlage, this 14th century astronomical clock spans over the street. a tour (7.50 euros)  gives you access the dial room and the belfry, you can also see the 14th century mechanisms.

Donjon de Rouen (dungeon of Rouen)

The remaining tower of the early 13th century castle where Joan of Arc was imprisoned.

Historial Jeanne d’Arc

Housed at the Archdiocese of Rouen, this 5 level history museum is dedicated to Joan of Arc.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen

12th-century Gothic cathedral with tours including remains of a crypt from Roman structure on site.

Rouen Museum of Fine Arts 

Important art collection from the 15th century on, including Monet paintings of Rouen cathedral.

Rouen Panorama De La Côte Sainte Catherine

a half hour walk east of the city center, this sweeping view from this hillside lookout was once painted by Claude Monet.

Caen

 

Caen Castle

Castle built on the ruins of a William the Conqueror fortress, includes museums of archaeology plus art exhibitions.

Memorial of Caen

Caen's Centre for History and Peace, including exhibitions on WWII, the Normandy landings and the Cold War.

Museum of Fine Arts

Museum set in a castle, with art dating back to the 16th century.

D-Day Museum

Indoor and outdoor museum commemorating WWII's Normandy campaign and D-Day landings, offering guided tours.

D-Day Wings Museum

Dedicated to the aviation of the Normandy invasion on June 6th, 1944

Cote D'Azur - Nice/Cannes

The southeast part of the region known as PACA (Provence Alps Cote D'Azur), and on the Italian border, the Cote D'Azur section is known as The French Riviera.  

The French Riviera is a major tourist attraction as the winter is quite mild and spring arrives early.  

Getting to and around the French Riviera

The easiest way to get here is to fly into Nice. The airport is about 20 minutes west of Nice, and 30 minutes east of Cannes.  From the airport, you can take a local train to either city.

If you find a better deal on a flight into Marseille, it is about a 2 hour drive onto Nice, or about 3 hours by train.

If you want to take the train from Paris to Nice, it can be as little as 5.5 hours from Gare de Lyon. The same train stops in Cannes after just 5 hours. And also stops in Antibes.

While visiting, for most of us, we can take advantage of a great network of buses, trams, and trains throughout the region. But remember where you are! There are also boats and helicopters to get around in.

Several types of seagoing services exist. They connect Toulon harbor, the ports on Golfe de Saint-Tropez, Saint-Raphaël, Cannes and Nice.

The Côte d’Azur has 3 main heliports: Nice Airport, Cannes, and Monaco.

These heliports offer connections between the 3 cities as well as to Saint-Tropez.

The services are operated by specialist companies and offer a number of different discovery packages and panoramic flights available too.

 

If you want to be out and about – to see and be seen, there are plenty of places to indulge.

Highlights

Nice - Promenade du Paillon

Green space with diverse plants & trees, plus fountains, a play area for kids & a reflecting pool offering great views of the city and the water

 

Nice - Colline du Château

This historic hilltop park offers dramatic city & sea views, a man-made waterfall & a cafe.

 

If you want to enjoy the history of the area, here are some suggestions;

 

Cannes - Le Fort Carré

16th-century star shaped fort offering panoramic views and scenic grounds.

 

Cimiez Monastery

9th century monastery, next to the Matisse Museum. You can add the cemetery with famous graves and go across the street for the Roman era Cimiez Arena and Gardens.

 

 

Don’t forget to stop in one of the many incredible art museums along the Riviera:

 

Nice - Marc Chagall National Museum

Museum dedicated to paintings & work in other media by Russian-born French artist Marc Chagall.

 

Cannes - Musée Picasso

Revered Picasso collection on display in the chateau museum where he lived & worked during 1946.

 

Nice - Musée Matisse

Set in an elegant 17th-century villa, this museum of Matisse paintings offers tours & a library.

 

Nice - Modern and Contemporary Art Museum (MAMAC)

Towered building containing collections of avant-garde art from American & France

 

Nice - Musée national Fernand Léger

Modern art museum with works illustrating Léger's career & exterior mosaics by Heidi & Lino Melano

Rhone Alps - Grenoble/Clermont Ferrand/Chamonix

The Auvergne-Rhone-Alps region would take many vacations to explore.  It stretches from the Alps in the east along the Swiss and Italian borders, all the way to the central part of France in Clermont-Ferrand. 

Centered around one of France's great cities, Lyon, it also encompasses many other great places to visit.

 The region also has some reputed vineyard areas, the most prestigious ski areas of France, and the mineral water spa town of Vichy.

From east to west, it takes about 5 hours to drive just this region. 

Grenoble / Vecors

This is such a beautiful area of the country! Alpine lakes, forests, cows wandering around the meadows, and my favorite...what they call a "refuge". Somebody stays in a hut or yurt all summer, and sells refreshments....miles up the trail, away from any towns and roads. I had a cold beer. You know, "When in Rome."

I was also able to explore Grenoble and environs since I was staying nearby in Livet-et-Gavet.

For exploring Grenoble, unlike most cities where you will be in and around the center, here you will explore along the river.

Fort de La Bastille

not as grand as fortresses you will find in other cities, but it gives you a great view of the town from above.  And, you can take a cable car up if you don't want to make the 45 minute uphill walk. 

Jardin des Dauphins

next to the river, is this park with a fort, a 17th century gate, and a Mediterranean style.

Musée de Grenoble

Next to thew river Isere, the museum is small, but contains both classical and modern art.

Grenoble
Vercors
Vercors
Vercors
Grenoble
Vercors
Vercors

Clermont-Ferrand

The city sits at the base of extinct volcanos, so a lot of the material used is dark volcanic stone. I think it really gives an imposing feel to the churches in town, especially the beautiful 13th century cathedral.

Favorite places in Clermont-Ferrand

what I enjoy most about Clermont-Ferrand is the use of darker volcanic rock.  Something you will not see in most of France.  it gives an almost foreboding look to the building, especially the cathedral. 

Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption

Built in the 13th century, it is elevated in the center of town, with plazas next to it (Place de la Victorie and Place de la Bourse).  The volcanic rock makes it unique and the fact that the cathedral also has stained glass and murals dating back to the 13th to 15th centuries makes it special.

Place de Jaude

Large, open pedestrian plaza with fountains and statues.  a great plaza to take a rest or get a meal..

Jardin Lecoq

a small, but beautiful park not far from the center of town. it includes wonderful flower gardens, and a pond.  

St Etienne

an industrial and mining town an hour south of Lyon.

The favorite thing to do is tour the Couriot Mine Museum.  Unfortunately, when I visited, I didn't realize that booking ahead was required, so I didn't get to visit.  Also, most tours are in French only, so check for other languages if you need them.  

So, I was limited to walking around the city center, and was able to see the Saint-Étienne cathedral  and the Grand'Église de Saint-Étienne.

There is also a Modern and Contemporary Art Museum 2.5 miles north of town that is quite nice.  

St. Etienne
St. Etienne
St. Etienne
St. Etienne

Chamonix

Chamonix-Mont-Blanc (or just Chamonix) is a resort area near the borders of France, Switzerland, and Italy. At the base of Mont Blanc, the highest summit in the Alps, it is most famous for its skiing but year-round, cable cars take visitors up to several nearby peaks with panoramic views, including Aiguille du Midi above town, and Pointe Helbronner, across vast glacier fields on the Italian border.

Getting to and around Chamonix

 

From Lyon, there are buses that go to Chamonix that take about 3 hours.

As an alternative, you can take the train from Geneva connecting through Le Fayet that takes about 2.5 to 3 hours. Or the bus from Geneva that takes just over an hour.

Of course, driving is the easiest way to travel to Chamonix and there are dozens of parking lots available. Once you are in town, it is easy to get around as the town is quite small. Just a couple miles long and about ½ mile wide.   

 

 

Grotte de Glace (Ice Cave) and Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice)

From Chamonix, take the cog train up to the Mer de Glace, the largest glacier in France at 7 kilometers long. From there, you can reach the ice cave by hiking trail or by cable car.

Burgundy - Dijon

Located southeast of Paris, and long the Swiss border, Burgundy was historically a powerhouse of Medieval Europe. in 1477, the region was annexed into France as a result of the Burgundian War. 

Today, the region is most famous for its gastronomy, and especially its wines.

Dijon

Gastronomy and wine! This is your place. 

The Capital of the Burgundy region about 90 minutes south of  Paris, and 90 minutes north of Lyon. It is also officially recognized as a  “Ville d'art et d'histoire”  (city of art and history). 

With just over 150,000 people, it is also a very manageable place with a lot to see.  If possible, it seems there is too much in a small area!  Enjoy the museums, marvel at the numerous incredible churches, have a coffee in Liberation plaza, or hang out in the parks.

Cathédrale Saint-Bénigne de Dijon

Airy historic stone cathedral with geometrically patterned roof tiles

Saint Michael's Church

Started in 1499 and completed 30 years later; this church was built on the location where previous churches had existed for nearly 1000 years.  Having suffered extensive damage during the revolution, it was restored between 1803 and 1829.

Cité Internationale de la Gastronomie et du Vin

Opened in 2022, it contains shops and restaurants; and hosts exhibitions, cooking schools, tasting workshops, and experiential cuisine in the Gastronomic Village.

Museum of Burgundian Life

Housed in an old monastery; this museum recounts regional history and domestic life through costumes and artifacts.

Palais des Ducs et des États de Bourgogne

Medieval palace with a collection of artifacts dating from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.

Museum of Fine Arts Dijon

Dukes of Burgundys' former palace housing major collections of 14th-19th century western art.

Consortium Museum

Contemporary art museum with a permanent collection and temporary exhibitions.

Corsica

The 14th region of France. Also, an island in the Mediterranean located about 100 miles southeast of Cannes France and 8 miles north of the island of Sardinia (Italy).

The history of Corsica is fascinating.

It was peopled by the Phoenicians in the 6th century BC but were replaced with the Etruscans until the Roman Empire gained control of the area in the Punic Wars of the 3rd century BC.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Vandals took control, until the Byzantines arrived. During the Middle Ages, control passed through The Holy Roman Empire, the Papacy, feudal lords, and to the Genovese until the Franch finally took control in the 18th century.
Today, it is by far the smallest of the Franch regions in Europe. The home to just over 300,000 people. It is also poorer than any of the 13th regions on the mainland.

The capital, Ajaccio, is located on the wets side of the island and is known as the birthplace of Napoleon. It is also the largest city, with about 20% of the entire island population.

Even though the island is small, it is also the least densely populated region (other than French Guyana in South America), so there is plenty of space to find peace and quiet.

 

Getting to Corsica

Flights are the easiest way to get to the island. There are more than a dozen airlines that fly into Corsica’s 4 airports on all sides of the island.

Ferries are also a good way to get there. Various ferry routes will take from 6 to 13 hours. Here are just some of the available routes:

  • Toulon to Ajaccio

  • Marseille to Ajaccio

  • Naples to Porto Vecchio

  • Santa Teresa, Sardinia to Bonifacio, Corsica

  • Bastia, Corsica and Livorno, Italy

 

For getting around, there is one train line that runs from Ajaccio to Corte, but it is a bit slow, and departures are limited. However, the scenery is beautiful. Other than that, buses are the most common form of public transport.

Most travelers will choose to rent cars while visiting Corsica. And this will allow for greater flexibility to enjoy the beautiful scenery of the island.  There are plenty of local and national companies to choose from.

 

 

 

Highlights:

 

Ajaccio

 

Fesch Museum

Palace museum established by and displaying the painting collection amassed by Cardinal Joseph Fesch, Napoleon's uncle, with European art collection, including old masters. Fesch bequeathed to Ajaccio a thousand paintings from his extraordinary collection that numbered 17,000 works at his death. But, had earlier been even more expansive including artists like Rembrandt and Raphael.

 

 

Citadel de Ajaccio

Located at the southwest corner of the Gulf of Ajaccio.  The fortress was started in 1492 under the authority of the Genoese Office of Saint George. In 1553, with the arrival of French troops, work was carried out to enlarge the citadel. In 1559 work was done to reinforce the fortifications and separate the Citadel from the rest of the city.

 

Bonaparte Home

The Bonaparte family home from 1682—1923 is now restored and serving as a national museum. Napolean was born here in 1769. Over the centuries the home was improved and enlarged, then finally donated to the state in 1923.  In 1967, it was opened to the public as a museum.

 

Ricantu Beach

Head east of town to have a little quiet time on the beach. It is just a 5 or 10 minute drive from the center.

 

Outside the capital

 

Monte Cinto

Corsica's highest mountain, with 3 hiking routes leading to its 2706m summit.

 

Corte – Citadel of Corte and Corsica Museum

Hilltop citadel in the center of the island, alongside a popular museum housed in the old barracks and highlighting Corsican archeology.  It is about a 90 minute drive northeast of the capital.

 

Banifacio – stairs of Roy d’Aragon

A steep, narrow rock staircase leading down to the sea, offering unique water views. Located near the southern end of the island, 2.5 hours south of the capital.

 

Santa Giulia Beach

Located on the southeast side of the island and maybe the most popular beach, due to its clear shallow waters. 2.5 to 3 hour drive from the capital.

Lorraine - Metz/Nancy

In the east of the country, along the borders of Germany and Luxembourg.  This area was not always part of France.  In the 9th century, Charlemagne divided his empire into three parts, Lorraine, along with what is now Luxembourg, Holland and Belgium, was part of the "middle Empire", between France in the west and Germany in the east. 

Until the late 20th century, Lorraine was known as an industrial region that including coal, iron and steel.  But, Outside of the industrial areas, especially to the west and south of the region,  Lorraine is rural, with hills and forests and even the Vosges Mountain range. 

Nancy

A quick stop in Nancy on a train layover. Wish I had more time!  So many beautiful plazas, it makes me wonder what else is here.  I might have to return to find out.  

Place Stanislas
Place de la Carrière 3.jpg
Place de la Carrière
Place Carnot.jpg
Place Carnot
Basilica of Saint Epvre of Nancy.jpg
Basilica of Saint Epvre of Nancy
Place de la Carrière
Place de la Carrière.jpg
Place de la Carrière
Nancy Cathedral.jpg
Nancy Cathedral
Basilica of Saint Epvre of Nancy 2.jpg
Basilica of Saint Epvre of Nancy

Metz

Pronounced “Mess”, The area was inhabited earlier by the Celts then, in the first century, a Roman town was established here as a stop in the trade route between Lyon and Treves and eventually became a home of an imperial residence in the 4th century.

At the fall of the Roman Empire, the land fell to The Franks, and then the Merovingians and then integrated into the Holy Roman Empire. From the 12th to the 15th centuries, Metz was an independent republic. The Treaty of Chambord in 1552 finally put Metz under French control.  

Today, this city of a little over 100,000 in the northeast, near the German and Belgian borders still retains German as well as French influences, so you can enjoy the architecture and cuisine of both.

Getting there and around

You can travel to Metz from a number of directions.

From Nancy, the trains take 35 to 55 minutes.

From Gare de l’est in Paris, there is a 90 minute train to Metz.

From Luxembourg City, the train is just 45 minutes.

From Stuttgart, Germany, it is less than 3 hours by train connecting in Strasbourg.

From Brussels, it is about 4 hours by train connecting through Luxembourg.

 

Once arriving, public transport is easy to use. With 71 bus routes, they will take you anywhere you need to go. Tickets can be bought as singles, 2 tickets, 10 tickets, or day passes.

A day pass for public transport, (the Visi Pass’ ticket) costs €5.4 in 2023.

Tickets can be purchased at Espace Mobilité, at LE MET' dealers, at Automatic Ticket Dispensers and for reloading on the Online Shop.

You can buy a Metz City Pass if you like. It includes entry to the Center Pompidou-Metz, a guided or audio-guided tour of Metz and 1 unlimited day of public transport.

 

Highlights

 

Metz Cathedral

A church has existed here since the 5th century and over the ages has been rebuilt many times. The current cathedral was started in the 13th century and was not consecrated until 1552.  Today, the cathedral that is famed for its massive amount of stained glass has the third highest nave in France after Amiens and Beauvais.

 

Musée de la Cour d'Or

Established in 1839, the museum is located close to the Cathedral of Saint Stephen in the center of town, in buildings that once housed the Abbey des Petits Carmes and the Chrevemont Granary dating back to 1457. The collection comprises Gallo-Roman, medieval and Fine Arts spread over 6000 sq meters.

 

The Centre Pompidou-Metz,

with its undulating roof, exhibits contemporary art. Inaugurated in 2010, The building is a vast structure based on a hexagonal plan, intersected by three galleries. It is built around a central spire that stands 77 meters high, a reference to the date of the creation of the Centre Pompidou in Paris (1977)

 

Fort de Queuleu

French Resistance memorial set in a fortress from the 1870’s and a WWII Nazi internment and interrogation camp.

 

Germans' Gate

Straddling the Seille Rover, it is a medieval bridge castle and city gate in Metz, France. It is a relic of the medieval fortifications, with two 13th century round towers and two gun bastions of the 15th century.

Place de la République and Jardin de l'esplanade

Open square with ice skating and Christmas markets if you are there at the right time.  With a large park right next door.  And, stop by to see the Basilica of Saint-Pierre-aux-Nonnains, one of the oldest buildings, with a history as a Roman spa, a military garrison, a church and a warehouse. Today, it is used as a performance venue. 

Nord - Lille/Dunkirk/Calais

The region of Haut-de-France (top of France) contains the area between the Belgian border and ending just north of Paris.  It includes the coastline along the English Channel all the way down to Mers-les-Bains.

The architecture of this area is different than most of France, notably you will find many more brick buildings as opposed to stone.

Historically, it has been farmland, and was also a large part of the industrial revolution. But, today, it is the poorest region of mainland France. Despite that, there are some wonderful gems within the region, like Amien or Lille.

It is also a very flat region, as the highest point is Mont Pagnotte at 801 foot elevation. Still, there are a number of regional natural parks such as l’Avesnois, Scarpe-Escaut, and d’Opale.

Because of its proximity to the capital, the major cities of Haut-de-France can be reached in 1-2 hours from Paris.

Lille

The name « L’Isle » first appeared in 1066, in the charter of a donation to the collegiate church of St Peter by Baudoin V, Count of Flanders, who owned a castle on one of the islands in the Deûle River.
The town developed around this castle and around a port which existed on the site of the present Avenue du Peuple Belge.

With a population of almost 220 000 inhabitants, thanks to the recent addition of the town of Lomme, Lille claims its place as the tenth largest city and fourth largest metropolis (1.9 million inhabitants including 700 000 over the Belgian border) in France. With 36 % of the population aged under 25, Lille is a vibrant, young and dynamic city.

In the northeast, near the Belgian border. Now, a university town; the architecture here seems more Flemish than French. I found the center of town to be beautiful, but I didn’t see much outside of the center.  Therefore, this would also be a great day-trip town if you don’t want to stay here. It is just a 75-minute train ride from Paris Gare du Nord.

 

 

Getting around Lille

Though it is well served by public transportation, it is doubtful you will need it much. The old city center is just outside the train station, maybe a 5 minute walk. However, if you are like me, you may want to take advantage of staying outside the city center to save money and have a bit more quiet at night.

If you do need public transport, you will find plenty of options as there are 2 metro lines, 2 trams lines, and over 60 bus lines. Single tickets are available, and the day pass is great if you plan to use at least 3 rides a day.

 

A great savings if you want to visit Lille is the City Pass. It gives you free access to 29 museums, tourist sites and services in addition to free access to the network transport on Lille. And as of 2023 it only costs €25 for 1 day, €35 for 2 days, €45 for 3 days.

Lille Opera
Lille St. Andre Church

Favorite places in Lille

Place de la République

a great starting point in center of town.  Grab a coffee and a croissant at the many cafes, then head directly to the art museum

 

  Palais des Beaux Arts

a large and worthy art museum, covering both modern and classical art. The  museum holds over 70,000 pieces and covers over 230,000 sq feet.  Here, you will see the likes of Raphael, Rembrandt, Toulouse-Latrec, Rodin, among many others.  

Citadelle de Lille

I put this in here, because it seems like it should be the center of tourism in Lille, a 17th century fortress surrounded by parks.  But, it is not, as it is still actively used by the military.  So, you can walk around it, but there is nothing really to see here.  However, the riverside parks are still very nice

Porte de Paris / Beffroi de Lille

17th century Gate built as a monument to Louis XVI capturing the city, and a bell tower that you can climb for views. 

Dunkirk

Highlights:

 

Dunkirk Museum 1940 Operation Dynamo

Museum in WWII casemates with exhibits recounting the history of the 1940 Battle of Dunkirk.

 

Port Museum of Dunkirk

This museum in a former tobacco warehouse features interactive exhibits on Dunkerque's history.

 

FRAC

 museum housing over 1,500 works of contemporary art in a large, glass assembly building at a former shipyard.

 

Dunkirk is also a city by the sea, and it is a great place to come and unwind for a weekend, so there are plenty of amusements there like Plopsaland de Planne (a theme park based on TV characters), The Camelus (a petting zoo for the kids), and Fort Adventures Dunkirk (zip lines, rock climbing bungee jumping).

Don’t forget to get down to the water and visit the Malo-les-Bains Beach near the center of town, Wind Park next to the water included a dog park, and Leffrinckoucke Beach which still has coastal defensive batteries.

Calais

Getting there

It is quite simple to get to Calais as it is just a 30 minute drive or 45 minute train ride west of Dunkirk.

Or, from Lille; it is 75-80 minutes by car or train west of Lille.

Of course, you can always take the ferry from Dover, UK. It is a 1.5 to 2 hour ride one way, and will cost as little as €62 including your car.

The buses of the Imag'in Calais Opale public transport network includes 13 lines and is free. There is also a center city shuttle that is also free.

You can also take advantage of The Majest’in, a boat service along the Calais Canal.

 

 

Calais Lighthouse

51 meter tall lighthouse built in 1848 with a museum and 271 steps to climb for views of the port & coast.

 

Citadel of Calais

An unrestored citadel with moat. Now, a center for sports fields. But it is still a great place to walk around and imagine what this was like in the 16th century when this citadel was built by King Francois II to defend against the English. Or even the 13th century when the original fort was constructed.

 

Beach of Calais

Just a 20-30 minute walk from the center of town, it is a popular beach with plenty of room to relax in the sand.  If you would like smaller crowds, head a mile west to Bleriot Plage, or even 3 miles west to Plage de Sangatte.

 

City of Lace and Fashion

Former lace factory now housing a museum dedicated to the local industry & its use in fashion and very affordable at just 4 euros entry.

 

Museum of Fine Arts in Calais

Featuring both classic and contemporary works, plus a permanent collection of Rodin sculptures. This free art museum is located across from Richilieu Park, which is a lovely little park with sculptures and a pond.

La Compagnie du Dragon

Take a tour of Calais and the beach on board a 12 meter tall and 25 meter long mechanical dragon.

Champagne - Reims

Champagne was a region in its own right until 2016, but today is one of the constituent areas of Great Eastern region (Grand Est). 

Directly east of Paris, and most famous for its sparkling wines; the region is made up essentially of areas of relatively flat agricultural land along with areas of gently undulating hills.

Reims

Getting to and around Reims

 

From Gare de l’est in Paris, it is just a 47 minute train ride to Reims.

Having arrived, public transport is managed by CITURA and contains 21 bus lines and 2 tram lines. Tickets can be purchased and recharged at the Boutique CITURA, tram station outlets and in some small shops. Some tickets can also be bought on buses.

 

Highlights

 

Saint-Remi Cathedral

Medieval church housing an abbey museum and Saint Rémi's tomb.

 

Mars Gate

The remains of the widest arch in the Roman world, standing in a small, flower planted park.

 

Cathedral of Notre Dame of Reims

Imposing, ornate, 13th-century, Gothic cathedral with twin towers & intricate stained glass windows.

 

Drouet dErlon Plaza

Pedestrian square known for al fresco dining & home to the Subé Fountain, topped by a gilded angel.

 

Saint-Remi Museum

Art & objects from the region, dating from prehistory to the Renaissance, in a medieval abbey.

 

Surrender Museum

Museum commemorating the end of World War II in Europe at the actual site of surrender.

Picardy - Amiens

Lying in the historic center of action of western Europe, in the triangle between Paris, Amsterdam and London, Picardy is an area with a very rich history.  That history contributed to the great city of Amien, the tremendous cathedrals, and the numerous Chateaux throughout the region. 

Today, the far north of Picardy reaches the English Channel, and is largely agricultural. But, the south borders along the Paris region and some parts are even commuter towns for Paris. 

Amien

City on the north known for its magnificent Amien Cathedral and also the floating markets on the canals. The grandeur of the Cathedral is impossible to capture on camera. Just look at the people next to the red doors. 

Top things to see in Amiens

Cathédrale Notre-Dame d'Amiens

The largest cathedral you will find in France.  Built in the 13th century,  It was built to contain the head of St. John the Baptist, brought back from the Crusades.  The dimensions are stunning.  For example, the roof is supported by 126 columns. The doors and the sculptures around them are quite worthy of the grandest church in the country. 

Musée De Picardie

19th century building featuring both archeological exhibits and art exhibits

Canals

Just a few minutes walk east from the cathedral past St Pierre park begin the extensive canals of Amien. Often called "green Venice" these canals are dotted with hundreds of gardens. A joy just to walk around. 

Midi-Pyrenees - Toulouse/Pau

The Midi Pyrenees was blended into the Occitanie region in 2016, but to me is quite unique. it incorporates an area from the Spanish border in the Pyrenees up to the gentle hills of Limousin, nearly 300 kilometers farther north. At its heart, is the city of Toulouse which is today the center of aerospace in France. 

Toulousse

Toulouse is known as the "Pink City" because of its architecture using much more brick than other French cities, which are normally populated with dominantly grey and beige buildings. And, Toulouse has a deep Roman history from the 1st to 4th centuries which was fascinating to learn about.

It is much less based on tourism, as Toulouse is the center for aerospace in France with companies like Airbus, Rolls Royce, CNES, and Dassault. That is good in some ways as I get to see more authentic France. But, when the tourist in me comes out, there is less to do. But, don't miss the 600 year old Pont NeufThe Domincan Couvent des Jacobins that houses Thomas Aquanis Tomb and Saint Stephen's Cathedral. 

I was fortunate to be visiting during Bastille Day and was able to enjoy the free concerts and the fireworks.

Toulouse
Toulouse
Toulouse
Toulouse
Toulouse
Toulouse

Pau

A city in southern France of about 75,000 people and between 500 and 800 feet in elevation.

It is located just north of the Pyrenees and about 50 miles from the Spain border and is famous as the birthplace of Henry IV.

The city was started in the 12th century as a defensive castle built by Viscounts of Bearn and by the 19th century and early 20th century had become world famous for tourism. It also had many famous residents including the Wright brothers who moved there a few years after their first flight and Mary Todd Lincoln who moved here in the 1870’s.

This is also the home of the first balloon flight, and the city became an aviation hub before and during the world wars.

Highlights of Pau

 

National Museum and the Chateau of Pau

The first known mention of the Château de Pau dates back to the 12th century, but it is likely that a fortification was built in the 10th century. Three towers thus date from the 12th and 13th centuries. In the second half of the 14th century, Château de Pau was radically transformed by Gaston III, Count of Foix and Viscount of Béarn.  Today, it hosts a castle museum with opulent interiors and artworks that is most famous as Henry IV's birthplace.

 

Musee de Beaux Arts

The museum hosts a collection of paintings from Italian, Flemish, Dutch, Spanish and French artists. Smaller than some others throughout France, but the admission is free.

 

Beaumont Park

The city purchased this park from the Countess Anna de Noailles for 800,000 Francs. In 1898, Henri Martinet, landscape architect, redesigned the park into English style.

 

Lescar Cathedral

12th century cathedral with original mosaics. From areas around the cathedral there are some great views south to the Pyrenees. It is located a bit outside the center, but it is just a 30 minute ride west on the #8 bus.

 

Funicular

Not that it is among highlights of history or art, but who doesn’t enjoy a funicular, and this one is free. It starts just across the water from the train station and ends in just a few hundred feet up at the convention center.

 

Getting to and around Pau

 

Pau is a little out of the way, located in the southwest but not near the water.

The easiest way to get there is a train from Paris Montparnasse station that takes just over 4 hours.

Or take the train from Bordeaux in a little over 2 hours or from Toulouse in about 2.5 hours.

Once you have arrived, public transport is very affordable. As of 2023, a single ticket cost only 1 euro, and a day pass costs €3.50. The easiest way to get tickets is to download the Ticket Modalis app. The way to validate your ticket when using the app is by the QR code posters displayed when you enter the transport.

Pyrenees Mountains

One of the fun things about France is that they have mountains everywhere. The Alps to the Southeast, The Jura and Vosges in the east, and the Pyrenees in the southwest.  I have been lucky enough to be able to get in some hiking in all of those.

I haven't chosen a favorite, so I guess I will have to go back and do some more hiking. But, so far I lean towards preferring the Pyrenees.  Kind of a goldilocks thing...not too high, not too short.  

Pyrenees Mountains
Pyrenees Mountains
Pyrenees Mountains
Pyrenees Mountains
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