France, we love you. I know, I know. At the moment you're none too enamoured with us. Harsh words have been flung. But this lovers' quarrel will pass. You mean too much to us for this to be the end of the affair. How could we live without these French delights?
Yes, we admire your chateaux and your grand cathedrals, but for architecture to fall in love with, you can't beat a French cottage. Take a road trip through any part of France and you will find encounter one picturesque village after another, each one packed with cottages ready for their close-up. The rust-red stone houses of Collonges-la-Rouge and the pastel-painted shutters of Cordes-sur-Ciel in the Tarn, the circular streets of Eguisheim in Alsace, the ivy-draped cottages of Brittany's La Gacilly: how could we pick a favourite?
I have plenty of memories of my first visit to Paris - the smell of chestnuts roasting in the streets, walking for hours through The Louvre – but most vivid of all is the pleasure of standing in front of patisserie windows, mesmerised by the exquisite array of sweet treats. The French phrase for window-shopping, "lecher les vitrines", literally means "licking the windows", and that's pretty much what we do at patisseries. From the flaky rings of Paris-Brest to rows of macarons displayed like jewels, the displays are so mouth-watering that you can sate your appetite without a morsel crossing your lips.
STREETS MADE FOR STROLLING
Strolling the streets of Lyon. Photo: iStock
Every French city has its signature style – from the illuminated bridges of Bordeaux to the elegant squares of Lyon and the palm-lined promenade of Nice – but what all of them share is that they are perfect for perambulating. Whichever city you land in, you will find the well laid-out streets invite you to take a stroll, with plenty of café-lined squares where you can stop in for restorative beverage when you need one and plenty of eye candy along the way, from elegant architecture to equally-elegant locals. As a form of exercise, it leaves jogging for dead.
Really, do I need to say more? The fresh-from-the-oven aroma. The crunchy crust. The pillowy interiors. You can find baguettes virtually everywhere in the world, but nowhere do they taste as good as in France. Best of all, you can eat them with almost any meal, as an accompaniment to an onion soup or topped with a slab of creamy butter or cheese. Speaking of which…
It figures that the country that invented the concept of jolie-laide (ugly-beautiful) would specialise in cheeses that reek to high heaven yet taste divine, even though they smell like the inside of a gym shoe. An aromatic cheese like Vieux-Boulogne or the magnificent Epoisses de Bourgognes, left out to soften to the point where it's making a run for the door, is one of France's simplest, but most sublime, plaisirs de la table.
THE WILD BLUE YONDER
The ruins of Montsegur. Photo: iStock
It's so easy to enjoy the many civilised pleasures of France that some travellers never take the time to discover the country's wild heart. They are missing out. With no fewer than five mountain ranges and plenty of high plateaus, France's most untamed landscapes offer another level of delights, from the solitary splendour of the ruins of Montsegur, the last refuge of the medieval Cathars, perched on an isolated peak, to the hiking and biking trails through the austerely beautiful landscapes of the Aubrac.
Despite its appealing art deco signs, the urine-soaked reality of the Paris Metro is often distinctly lacking in romance. On the other hand, the TGV, the sleek high-speed trains that whisk you efficiently across the country – tackling the 400km trip from Paris to Lyons is just two hours - are things of joy.
THE ENDLESS DRAMA
The French don't really do understatement, but it's not their fault. The language won't let them. People aren't pleased to meet you, they are "enchanté". When someone apologises to you – for treading on your toe, perhaps, or being a few minutes late to a meeting – they are "désolée". This sense of theatre adds a frisson to otherwise everyday encounters – and it also makes us hopeful that the current diplomatic turbulence is merely a passing shower, and that when we are finally free to travel again, we'll be welcomed back en France with open arms.