I’ve spent more time in France than anywhere else in the world – from childhood holidays in Normandy to house-sitting in Paris and a winter skiing in the Alps. And one of the things I love most about the country is its diversity. Whatever kind of trip you fancy you can find it in France – museum hop around a city, laze on a sandy beach, taste wine from the vineyard, live it up in a luxurious château – the possibilities are endless.
It’s an autumnal Sunday morning in France – couples sit on deckchairs in the sunshine drinking coffee while their kids run around, steam rises from an outdoor pool in front of a glass dome, a swan swims across the lake as a rowing boat splashes past. It’s hard to imagine that just a few years back this whole site was just a patch of muddy farmland in north-east France.
Set on the banks of the Rhône and surrounded by medieval stone ramparts, Avignon is one of Provence’s biggest cities. So I was expecting it to be, well, a bit more like a big city. But instead I found a place with a relaxed, small town feel. It comes with a fascinating history, and its time as home of the Popes means there’s some impressive art and architecture. But it’s not just looking towards to the past – there’s a big student population and new bars, restaurants and shops springing up all the time.
If you’ve always fancied yourself running a vineyard in the South of France by day and swanning around a stunning château by night, then Château Autignac is the place to live the dream… without having to do any of the hard work. The Château was built in 1860 by a local vineyard owner, but by the end of the 20th century it was well past its best.
It’s a spring Sunday morning in France’s Languedoc wine region. My mum and I arrived in the dark last night after a long train journey to spend a few days at the luxurious Château Autignac wine estate. I’ve been to France more than anywhere else in the world but this is a new region for me – but I’ve never met a wine region I don’t like yet, and as I open the curtains onto a cool sunny morning with birds singing and look out onto a maze of red rooftops and flower-filled gardens, I don’t think this is going to be the first.
My childhood travel memories all start with France. Driving down to the south coast of England in our old camper van, catching the ferry over the Channel, pitching up at a gîte for the week, spending our days running wild on the beach and stuffing ourselves with cheese and pastries. There are lots of great memories, and some of the best come from Brittany.
Audrey Hepburn knew what she was talking about when she said ‘Paris is always a good idea’. There isn’t really a bad time of year for an escape to the French capital. You can ice skate halfway up the Eiffel Tower and warm up with a vin chaud at a Christmas market in winter. Take a walk through fresh blooms in the Botanic Gardens and eat pastel-hued macaroons in spring.
A picturesque harbour tightly packed with sailing boats. Rows of tall, thin, slate-fronted houses and stone salt stores. Waterside restaurants with colourful awnings and tables spilling out onto cobbled streets. Honfleur really is as pretty as a painting – and if you know much about art, then you might well recognise it from a few famous canvases. It started life as a fishing town, but the beauty of its historic port and Normandy’s luminous light made it a magnet for Impressionist painters.
I’ve been to France many times, but what I love about it (other than the cheese and wine obviously) is that it keeps surprising me. I thought I knew the Côte d’Azur – millionaires’ coastal villas, exclusive boutiques, casinos, luxury yachts – but Antibes wasn’t what I expected. Instead of a row of seafront apartments there was this 16th-century historic walled town, with red-roofed buildings and waves crashing against the ramparts. With sandy beaches on each side and the blue of the Mediterranean it was as pretty as a postcard.
Towering behind rows of boats in Antibes’ harbour, Fort Carré looks out over the Côte d’Azur. The fort was built in the 16th century to protect the border between France and the neighbouring county of Nice and saw its share of battles. After Nice became part of France it was declassified and used as a sports college for soldiers, who used to abseil down its walls, before opening to visitors. It’s claim to fame is that Napoleon was imprisoned there during the French Revolution, but you might recognise it as the villain’s lair from Bond film Never Say Never Again.