10 French Cities To Explore This Summer
In August French cities empty out as their inhabitants head to the coast and countryside for the summer holidays. So why not take advantage and enjoy getting to know one or more French city when they can be seen at their most peaceful and sporting their summer colours.
Palm trees, pedals, canoes – I made a decision a few years ago never to visit Paris in any month other than August. Not only is it at its most peaceful but all along the banks of the River Seine you can enjoy the pop-up beaches with palm trees bringing the seaside to the city. Deckchairs, ice cream parlours, sand, children’s play areas, pedalos, canoes and wine bars with sun loungers and a library all tempt visitors to relax and watch the Seine gently flowing passed.
Whatever time of year you visit Paris, however, you are always made aware that it is Europe’s most romantic city and one that is renowned for its love of fashion, food and culture. Sitting, watching the world go by, in the Jardins de Tuilleries or the Jardin du Luxembourg you really couldn’t be anywhere other than Paris. Despite the summer heat, the few Parisiens who choose to stay can be seen promenading in their elegant summer clothes or caught in romantic embraces. Even the local children who rent a toy yacht to float on the pond look so much smarter than children seen elsewhere. Paris is just so very French!
Other than the wonderful art galleries my favourite treat when in Paris is to take a boat ride along the Canal Saint-Martin passing under some of the bridges made famous by the film ‘Amelie’. Every time I make my summer visit to Paris I discover a new, special corner of this wonderful city. In the summer in Paris there is space to explore and enjoy a slower pace of life.
Whereas Paris has become an international city, Limoges, the capital of Haute Vienne, remains a truly provincial French city. It is not one that attracts many overseas tourists and this is certainly part of its charm. It’s medieval heart is home to the famous Rue de la Boucherie, which retains its original medieval feeling with some shops used as a museum to butchery which was such an important part of life in the home of the famous Limousin cattle. The medieval part of the city clusters around the banks of the Vienne river and as you climb away from this area the buildings lose their medieval look and become noticeably Renaissance in character. At the top of the hill sits the large covered market which offers an amazing visual delight as you browse the stalls teeming with fresh, local produce. The cafés at each end of the market offer wonderfully tempting lunches at a very reasonable price which staves off hunger until you get home to cook some of the delights you bought in the Marché.
Limoges is famous for its porcelain and you are never far away from shops offering elegant, highly priced dinner ware and, probably more interesting, bargain seconds which always appear faultless to my eyes. Less well known is the famous enamel work that was carried out in Limoges in the Middle Ages and the Museum housed in the Bishop’s Palace has an amazing collection of this work. Housed in the same building is the fascinating Musée de la Resistance which tells the story of the importance of Limoges as a stronghold of the Resistance movement in the Second World War.
One of my favourite places to visit when in Limoges is the Park de Zoo Reynou. Here the lie of the land means that you can view the large family of giraffes face to face, if you have never done this, it really is a wonderful experience to eyeball a giraffe or two!
Renowned as being the hub of the French wine business, Bordeaux attracts tourists from all over the world. However, as a summer destination it is ideal as the city goes quiet waiting for the harvest to begin at the end of September. To me Bordeaux is best described as the ‘white city’. Its elegant, graceful, cobbled streets ooze lightness as the sun reflects off the multitude of almost white, 18th century stone buildings. However, despite the heat and light in this city close to the Atlantic, there are many wonderful tree shaded squares in which to enjoy just being part of the elegance.
Bordeaux is very much a port city with much of its summer life spread out along the banks of the river Garonne. There is much music and dance to watch or to join in with and loads of physical fitness activities all taking place in the shady gardens along the riverside. Bordeaux is also a city of art with the Musée des Beaux Arts and the Musée of Contemporary Art being the two most famous galleries. The Gothic church of St. Michel is the tallest and probably the most elegant building in Bordeaux but if you tire of physical activity and culture there are some of the best shops in France to be found along the little streets of the city. And should you tire of all that Bordeaux has to offer, then head out to see some of the surrounding vineyards which gladly welcome visitors before the busy harvest season gets underway.
Lyon is the capital of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alps region and sits on the junction of the Rivers Rhône and Saône. It’s the 3rd largest city in France but it’s real fame comes from its reputation as the gourmet city of France. Despite its importance to the French economy, Lyon remains a very walkable city focussing on Vieux-Lyon which forms the UNESCO centre of the city. This is the area which was home to the owners of the silk mills and their workers. The tiny passageways, little shops and houses remind visitors of the history of this lovely city and the characterful bistros known as bouchons, serve as a witness to the reputation of the city as the gourmet capital. It is to the mothers of the sons who worked in the silk mills that we have to offer thanks for the cooking of Lyon. The original bouchons owe their existence to the experienced mothers who cooked local fare for travellers and whose recipes have been passed down the generations.
From Vieux-Lyon you can take the cable car to the top of the surrounding hill to get a view of both old and new Lyon spreading along the banks of the two rivers. From here you can see Presqu’il with its museums, galleries and the chic lifestyle that Lyon offers. The largest collection of French impressionist art outside of Paris is on show at the Musée des Beaux-Arts.
Visiting Lyon in August is delightful, parking is free throughout the city, there are not too many tourists and some of the best ice cream I have ever eaten is to be found in a tiny shop in Vieux-Lyon, near the bottom of the cable car station.
Recognised as the capital of the Alps, Grenoble is surrounded by mountains and arranged on the banks of the River Drac and Isère. The first thing to do when you arrive in this dynamic city is to take a ride on the téléphérique to La Bastille Fort to get an amazing view not only of the city but also as far away at Mont Blanc. Despite Grenoble being known as the winter sports capital of France I think it is even better enjoyed in the summer. It is green, it is quiet and there is so much to see. The numerous parks within the city, the riverside walks and every road heading out to a regional park makes Grenoble the perfect place to enjoy the sophistication and culture of a city while having easy access to lovely walks with wonderful views.
Grenoble is a university city and a science hub and many parts of the city feel very modern indeed. The architecture of the newly developed buildings blends well with the surrounding mountains. The galleries and museums are of a world class standard and rival anything to be seen throughout Europe. The old town has several lovely squares with impressive restaurants, little bistros and pretty cafés all surrounded by elegant mansions. Grenoble is not a city that many tourists visit in the summer months but to me, this certainly adds to its charms.
The City of Popes, Avignon is full of lovely surprises from the Palais des Papes, looking more like a fortress than a palace to the bridge from the song, “Sur Le Pont d’Avignon” which spans only half the river! It is a delightful city to spend time just wandering around, sitting in the little squares sipping a glass of Pastis, admiring the lovely flowers and plants gracing the fronts of so many of the expensive shops or lazing in the sun at the Rocher des Doms. The popes lived in Avignon from 1309 to 1377 and the home they built is very much a medieval fortress. It is fascinating to visit any time of the day or year but even better if you are in Avignon for the evening Son et Lumière experience called Vibrations. You can walk out to the River Rhône to view what’s left of the famous bridge but it’s best seen from the top of the Rocher des Doms which is reached, by a steep path friom the side of the Palais des Papes.
The Festival in Avignon at the end of July precedes the Edinburgh Festival and is just as much fun. Some of the performances are in English and many of them are purely visual. The city hums with crazy people doing crazy things during Festival time and has a real surrealistic feel to it. Colourful advertising postcards and posters adorn every wall of every building and every inch of every lamp post. You can either enjoy the chaos of Festival or the quieter period of summer once the performers leave town. Throughout the summer you can catch a Eurostar train direct from the U.K.
This is a little gem and although not a city, I couldn’t help but include it as it is one of my really favourite places. As soon as you cross the Rhône river to arrive in the centre of the town you can’t help but feel as though you are following in the footsteps of Van Gogh and Gaugin. The quality of the light that bounces off all the buildings makes it clear why these two famous artists chose to spend time painting in and around this Provencal town which was once the French provincial capital of Rome. Evidence of the time the Romans lived here is seen on every corner in the centre of Arles with the Arena, the Alyscmos (a passageway lined with sarcophaguses, the thermal baths, the cryotoportiques (underground galleries) and many other fascinating ruins.
With town so full of history and art it is not surprising that there are a selection of interesting museums and galleries to explore. Its position as the gateway to the Camargue also means that there is a sense of a traditional way of life still remaining in Arles. This is particularly highlighted in the costume festival when so many of the town turn out in the beautiful, traditional Provençal dress. Today Arles oozes a Provencal lifestyle but it never lets you forget its Roman heritage.
Nîmes is another French city that was a stronghold of Roman civilisation. In fact the UNESCO World heritage site of the Pont du Gard, just outside Uzès, was built to move water from the River Gardon to the Roman baths and to heat the houses of aristocratic Romans living in Nîmes. Nîmes has a further claim to fame in that denim fabric is so called as it was imported into France
at Nîmes, hence it was called deNime (from Nîmes). The largest arena outside of Rome is the one in Nîmes which also houses a wonderful museum of bullfighting. This may sound grim to some but the toreador costumes are simply stunning! For those people interested in all things Roman the new Museum of Roman Civilisation is well worth a long visit.
For lovers of art, the Museum of Contemporary Art designed by Norman Foster is worth exploring but my favourite bit of Nîmes to explore are the Jardins de la Fontaine with their canals and grassed terraces leading to the Tour Magna (another building kindly left by the Romans). For lovers of food Nîmes is famous for brandade, a paste made of salt cod and oil and also for the petit pate de Nîmes, the most delicious very tiny little meat pies. Both items could be useful to add to a picnic when visiting the nearby Camargue to see the black bulls, white horses, pink flamingoes and cowboys.
The city with the youngest population in France, easily explained by the fact that young people decide to study at university there because of its proximity to the Mediterranean and having enjoyed the city on the beach lifestyle they never leave! When you discover Montpellier it is easy to understand why so many young people fall in love with it. The centre, with its Place de la Comédie surrounded by Haussmannian buildings, remains traditionally French and is generally recognised at the grandest pedestrianised square in Europe.
This area is home to the theatre, orchestra, ballet and two opera companies and from the square lead the narrow, cobbled, uphill streets housing trendy shops and cafés. The other part of Montpellier is known as Antigone and is an ultra modern development in the neoclassical style and all of Montpellier is served by one of the first tram systems in France which keeps cars to a minimum and makes life in the centre so pleasant.
10kms from the centre is Montpellier’s Mediterranean resort of Pavalas which is reached by tram on on the dedicated cycle track which passes by the inland lagoon with its flamingoes. A pretty nice way to reach the beach!
Pau is situated close to the Atlantic coast of France and only 85 kms from the Spanish border. It became a popular summer resort for French royalty in the 19th century, who were attracted by the cooler climate and the stunning views of the Pyrénées. Early English and American expats also favoured Pau and added to the elegance of this mountain city which boasts grand villas, lovely parks and elegant palm tree lined avenues. It is a green and exotic city with the famous 1.8 km Boulevard des Pyrénées giving breathtaking views of the mountains.
Pau was the birthplace of Henry IV whose Renaissance palace, the Château de Pau can still be viewed and a visit to the Pau Museum of Fine Art is worth adding to your agenda. Mostly, however, I love walking in the numerous parks with the snow capped mountains in full view, and maybe stopping for a glass of wine from the local Jurançon vineyards. Without doubt there is a certain elegance to life in Pau.