France offers some stunning city break destinations, but good things often come in small packages. Gillian Thornton investigates some remarkably attractive alternatives.
From Paris to Nice and Lyon to Marseille, France has vibrant city break destinations to rival anywhere in Europe. But with so many big hitters to choose from, it’s easy to overlook some of the smaller but equally rewarding towns, brimming with architectural, historical and cultural gems of their own.
Welcome to Remarkable Cities, an association of 19 cities around the Hexagon and beyond that are working together to tempt travellers away from the well-trodden tourist track with their unique combination of slow-tourism, French charm and authenticity. Some have a unique architectural heritage, others a rich culture or history. Some are renowned for their local gastronomic traditions, others for their green spaces or waterside walks. All of them tick more than one box.
Here are seven of my personal favourites, together with the full list to help you decide which ones tick your own boxes for a break that is high on atmosphere but low on crowds.
1. Charleville-Sedan, Ardennes
Too many travellers heading across the Channel from Britain miss out on these twin gems tucked in the north-east corner of the Meuse Valley in Ardennes. I’ve never forgotten my first sight of the magnificent ducal square in Charleville, with its russet bricks, ochre stone, and uniform arcades beneath blue slate roofs. Commissioned in 1606 by Italian prince Charles de Gonzague, it was designed in the Italian Baroque style, a twin of the Place des Vosges in Paris. Also discover the colourful life of local poet Arthur Rimbaud through the Rimbaud Museum and the street art murals that showcase his words. Just along the river at Sedan, Europe’s largest fortified château is a stunner, with its massive towers and lofty rampart walks. Explore with an audio guide, watch one of the daily equestrian shows within the castle grounds, and maybe stay within the castle walls at the 4* Hôtel du Château Fort.
2. Besançon, Montagnes du Jura
There’s more stylish, multi-coloured stonework at another of my favourite riverside towns, Besançon, which nestles in the meanders of the river Doubs in the verdant Franche-Comté region of eastern France.
Stroll along quaysides, through streets and squares beneath the elegant façades of townhouses built from pale blue and cream stone. Take time out to enjoy Besançon’s many natural spaces that combine to make it the greenest city in France.
You can’t miss the massive perched citadel that dominates the town. Designed by Louis XIV’s military architect, Vauban, it is now home to a very moving Resistance and Deportation Museum, as well as a small conservation park and a natural history museum. Take in the impressive panoramic views of both town and river from the rampart walk.
Visit the birthplace of Victor Hugo; absorb the artwork at the newly refurbished Museum of Fine Arts; and visit the Museum of Time inside the sumptuous Granvelle Palace to discover how Besançon became France’s capital of watchmaking.
3. Auxerre, Burgundy
Lined with colourful half-timbered houses, the conservation area in Auxerre’s historic centre is a relaxing place to browse the boutiques and maybe linger over a glass or two of the renowned local wines.
The 15th-century clock tower and ornate astronomical clock will be restored to their full medieval glory later this year. The lunar and solar hands move at different rates but you might just catch them together if you are passing at midday at new moon or midnight at full moon. Take in the panorama of Saint-Germain Abbey from the banks of the Yonne, then head inside to discover 16 centuries of history, including the oldest murals in France. Nearby Saint-Étienne Cathedral is renowned for its stained glass windows and sculpted façade. Explore the city’s ‘green corridor’ by hiring a bike and following the old railway line, and maybe cycle farther afield along the bank of the Nivernais Canal.
4. Moulins, Auvergne
Set on the banks of the river Allier, Moulins boasts a remarkable built heritage that includes the Castle of the Bourbon dukes, who were kings of France from the accession of Henry IV in 1589 to the death by guillotine of Louis XVI in 1793.
Explore the cobbled streets of the historic centre, lined with half-timbered houses; head to the top of the Jacquemart tower for 360° degree views; and visit Notre-Dame Cathedral where the Bourbons are immortalised in stained glass. Don’t miss the opulent Grand Café, a jewel of Art Nouveau style, nor the Maison des Palets d’Or that has been producing chocolate temptations for more than a century. Whether you love fashion, needlework, or just a nostalgic look at the past, take a tour of the National Centre for Stage Costume and Scenography. The only one in the world, it includes costumes and sets from the Opéra de Paris and the Comédie Française.
5. Périgueux, Dordogne Valley
Whichever way you look at it, Périgueux packs a powerful punch, with its extraordinary cathedral, archaeological remains and charming maze of medieval streets. Bisected by the river Isle, which is a tributary of the Dordogne, this small town of 30,000 people is set in stunning countryside that is easily accessible on foot, by bike or by car.
As well as being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Cathedral of Saint-Front is a one-off, France’s only cathedral with five Byzantine cupolas, reminiscent of St Mark’s in Venice. And I love the Gallo-Roman museum of Vesunna, a glass-sided building that contains the extensive site of a Roman villa right in the heart of the modern town. For an unforgettable view over roof tiles, towers and those extraordinary cupolas, head to the top of the Mataguerre tower. And for the full-on colour and scents of the Périgord, head to the market, which spreads over four squares in the town centre every Wednesday and Saturday.
6. Dax, Aquitaine
A bath, a ball and a bull are the three key items that link this historic thermal spa town on the southern edge of the Landes forest.
The practice of thermal cures supposedly dates back to Roman times when a legionary heading off to war said goodbye to his crippled dog on the banks of the Adour. When he returned, he was amazed and delighted to find his dog reinvigorated by the river mud. Today nearly 2.5m litres of hot water flow through the fountain where the old Roman thermal baths are thought to have stood.
Meanwhile, the ball in question is an oval one, Dax being a passionate rugby town. And the bull? Head to the city bullring to watch a thrilling performance of Course Landaise, an ancient sport in which skilled professionals dodge and leap over small athletic bulls, which leave the arena unharmed. All the fun of the bullring with none of the bloodshed.
7. Pézenas, Occitanie
Inland from the Mediterranean resort of Cap d’Agde, Pézenas boasts 39 historic monuments but just 8,000 inhabitants. And thanks to one iconic French actor and playwright, born 400 years ago this year, the town is also famous for performing arts.
Seat of the Montmorency family (the Governors of Languedoc) since the 13th century, Pézenas hosted five annual trade fairs and today its narrow streets of honey-coloured stone are fringed with elegant houses, hidden courtyards and Italianate loggias.
In 1650, they invited Jean-Baptiste Poquelin – better known as Molière – to entertain the officials of Languedoc with his troupe of players. You can discover more about their five-year stay on a guided tour from the Tourist Office. Don’t be surprised if you happen to bump into a costumed character, especially during the arts festival which takes place each year in July.
Take in a performance at the town’s historic theatre throughout the year or maybe at the 250-seat Illustre Theatre, home to a professional acting company.
Other Remarkable Cities
Calais, Hauts de France
Le Havre, Normandy
Listed by UNESCO for its post-World War II architecture that includes St Joseph church. MuMa contemporary art museum has an outstanding Impressionist collection.
Home of enamelling, both traditional and contemporary, with a citadel listed by UNESCO as one of the major sites by 17th-century military engineer Vauban. www.longwy-tourisme.com
Seat of the Dukes of Lorraine with grand 18th-century château known as ‘le petit Versailles’. Home to Baccarat Crystal, fine embroidery and baba au rhum.
Gateway to the Vosges forests, Saint-Dié boasts contemporary art and architecture, including the Liberty Tower, Le Corbusier’s Usine Verte and an excellent street art trail.
Enjoy its wealth of half-timbered buildings with brightly coloured façades, the cathedral, the museums of both fine and contemporary arts, the tool museum and the lively restaurant scene.
This is the largest completely fortified town in Europe and offers panoramic views from the city walls. Take in its historic centre, fine arts museum, and coloured shutters and façades.
Medieval houses nestle alongside 18th-century mansions in this pretty town of just 7,000 people, with its belltower, abbey church, and lively Saturday market. www.destinationvalsdesaintonge.com
Figeac, Lot Valley
Discover 27 historic monuments in a town of 10,000 people. Visit the birthplace and museum of Champollion who deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics. https://www.tourism-figeac.com/lot-valley
This perched town in ancient Gascony was made wealthy by the production of blue dye from woad. Gallo-Roman origins; cathedral; art and photography exhibitions.
Visit the fortress, troglodyte abbey and fine town houses in this historic town in the Gard department, once a stopover on the Via Domitia between Italy and Spain.
Saint-Pierre de la Martinique
On an island famous for its beautiful beaches, this is a town rich in history but almost entirely rebuilt after the volcanic eruption of 1902 devastated it. www.martinique.org
Find out more at www.france.fr/en
From France Today magazine
Lead photo credit : Pézenas, Occitanie © Sites & Cités remarquables de France
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