Top Ten Things to Do in France - Top Ten Must-See Places For My French Vacation
Traveling to Europe was once expected of a young North American person of gentle breeding. Much like a society debut, the requisite trip to the continent was once considered the finishing, or final social polish necessary for a young person to be considered well-rounded and adult. Indeed, this idea lasted well into the 20th century, when young people of later generations took to back-packing through Europe after graduating from college or university.
I haven't made it across the Atlantic yet, but I have compiled a list over the years, of some of the wondrous places I would visit, and the sights I would see - my Top Ten Sights to See in France. This list includes, among other things to do and see, several cathedrals, museums, and monuments. Unfortunately, some of my favored sights are no longer "see-able" as they have passed into history long ago, places like the Left Bank of Edith Piaff's soulful songs, or the Montmartre district of Lautrec, Monet, Modigliani, and the Moulin Rouge, but their modern versions remain to be enjoyed.
The National Archives
One of the first things I would like to do in France is visit the National Archives to carry out some genealogical research on my grandfather's family - originally, Huguenot lace-makers. The family name was Anglicized when my ancestors moved to Ireland, and then again when they immigrated to the United States.
The French archive system, reorganized after the revolution, is second to none. Not only are the records meticulously kept, but they are organized by district, and held at the local level as well as in the National repository. The thrill of taking a walk through history to find my family, and then traveling from town to town following their journey, would ensure that the Archives would be my first stop,
Basilique du Sacre Coeur, in the center of the 19th Arondissment, Paris' Right Bank - Monmartre
Montmartre - the Martyr's Mount
My mother adored French chanteuse (songstress) Edith Piaf, and our house resounded with the strains of "La Vie en Rose" and other soulful ballads of lost love and Parisian life. As well, I remember the night we sat up late watching the 1954 version of Moulin Rouge. I think my mother had a crush on Louis Jourdan.
My mother and I watched many old movies together, and though I didn't understand them, I found many of them deeply moving. Moulin Rouge was one such experience, though I must say some of the Montmartre denizens seemed a tad eccentric.
Those films, and that music left me with a nostalgia for a place I have never seen. My list of places to see and things to do in France would have to include a stroll through the Montmartre district of two or three centuries ago, when a person could rub shoulders with bohemian, absinthe-sipping artists and their models, or enjoy a rustic meal in a cafe where Toulouse Lautrec might pop in for a light repast on his way to enjoy the night-life further up the road.
Champagne - The Wine District
No trip to France would be complete without at least one trip into the French countryside to visit a winery.
Famous Châteaux wineries and vineyards abound, but one of the most famous is Champagne, home of a special wine - a wonderful bubbly beverage named for the district that gave it birth.
Moet et Chadon, an amazing sparkling wine, owes its very nature to the same fungus that causes grapes to ferment into the delightful beverage that is wine.
Chosen by French kings to grace their coronation festivities, champagne has become one of the most popular beverages for special events. Symbolic of New Year's Eve, champagne has become the premier choice for wedding receptions, anniversaries, christenings, and almost every significant celebration in our lives.
Champagne - Heart of the Wine District
I "discovered" cathedrals during my first art history class. The rose window of Chartres Cathedral is, to me, one of the world's wonders, along with the flying buttresses of Notre Dame de Paris.
From the Romanesque beauty of Notre Dame de Poitiers, to the extravagant Gothic wonder of the cathedral of Rouen, and from Reims to Avignon, many examples of exquisite French architecture invite the traveler to stop and marvel.
To do justice to these fabulous structures, you might want to dedicate an entire visit to them, and spend your time in France touring from Cathedral to Cathedral.
Four More "Musts" To Do and See
No self-respecting, first-time tourist to France would miss out on any of these attractions:
- The Palace of Versailles - a walk through the public rooms and formal, sculptured and manicured gardens would be like stepping back into the pages of history. One could almost hear the rustle of silken skirts, and the tap-tapping of red-heeled shoes of the gentry who once strolled those very paths at the Sun King's pleasure.
- The Louvre - who could visit Paris and not want to at least peek at the wonders of the art world on display there, from Matisse and Degas to one of the arguably most famous paintings in the world, Leonardo DaVinci's Mona Lisa.
- La Tour Eiffel - perhaps one of the most recognizable French icons, the Eiffel Tower was originally built as a radio tower, but has succeeded as an attraction in its own right. Millions of visitors flock to this amazing structure to see and photograph Paris from atop its sturdy viewing platforms.
The Left Bank of the River Seine has always seemed like the most romantic place in the world to me, celebrated in song by this lovely ballad, recorded by the Kingston Trio when I was a young and impressionable teenager - "The Seine."
"One night along the river, at St. Germain de Pre
I first met my beloved at a small sidewalk cafe;
We walked along the river, the shadows passing by,
But we only saw each other, the shining water, and the sky..."
All too soon, the lovers part, tearfully, and in the best romantic tradition:
"We walked along together, til dawn was in the sky;
Beneath the Eiffel Tower, we said our last goodbyes;
There in that quiet moment, your eyes were full of tears,
But the beauty of that hour will stay within me through the years..."
To me, this song personifies the American experience in Europe - the young man traveling to Paris, falling under her spell, and then meeting a beautiful French girl whom he knows he must leave when he goes back home...sigh...
My grandfather distinguished himself both in The Great War, and again during WWII.
I would like to see some of the places of which he spoke - the beaches of Dieppe, the little village where he met the fortune teller, Vimy Ridge - places steeped in legend and watered with the life's blood of so many young men from so many nations, all struggling over the same ridge, the same beach-head, the same blood-soaked strip of land.
This may not be high on most agendas, unless perhaps a traveler was inclined to seek out famous battlefields the world over. In that case side-trips to Bayonne, Orleans, and Agincourt might be in the works.
No trip to France would be complete for me without traveling to those places to which my grandfather once made his way, to walk in my grandfather's footsteps, and see in a gentler light, the paths he trod as a young man in his country's service.
Bed and Breakfast Tours of the French Countryside
I do believe that what I would enjoy the most though, would be the time I would spend in the French countryside, relaxing in charming bed and breakfast establishments between day-trips into the surrounding areas.
One such at the very top of my list would be Les Trois Chenes, so that I could meet one of my favorite hubbers in person. As well, I could explore the Limousin country side and visit the china works both there and in Limoges.
Painting and sketching, as well as simply sight-seeing would be the affairs du jour, and certainly a highlight of my French vacation. In fact, I might have to reassess this whole list. I may just throw it all out and keep only this last section on the countryside - though I would hate to miss Paris... and the cathedrals...
Then again, I may have to plan on several trips to France - after all, I should hate to rush and miss anything.
If you could travel anywhere, where would you go?
© 2011 Text by Elle Fredine, All rights reserved
Thank you to Barbara Walton, who suggested I write about some of the many wonderful places to see in France