France is the undisputed leader in international visitors, totaling upwards of 84 million a year. This surpasses the US, with around 75 million, and far outpaces Britain with around 32 million. What are some of the reasons France is on so many travelers’ bucket lists? And which of these reasons might inspire you to follow suit? As a start, consider these three motivations for taking a trip to France.
Reason #1: Cultural Discovery
A trip to France is endlessly entertaining and fascinating. France is proud of its heritage and celebrates its history. Everywhere you go you will find atmosphere and old-world charm and historic buildings with stories to tell. You will constantly be reminded that you are walking in the footsteps of kings and artists, conquerors and queens. Every day will be filled with discoveries.
A trip around the Loire Valley to visit Châteaux will take you along the travel route of the extravagant 16th century King Françoise I, who mounted up astonishing national debts in order to live large and well. His castle in Amboise, perched high above the river, is a source of many stories. There are the large round turrets, with wide spiral roadways inside to allow horse-drawn carriages to ride up into the castle grounds to deliver its passengers-especially handy when one of the queens was pregnant. Here on the expansive lawns, firework and festival displays were performed, designed for Françoise by his cherished friend Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci himself lived out the final years of his life across the street from the king, in a fascinating mansion that is now filled with models of his many ground-breaking inventions. A secret tunnel connects the abodes of these two close friends, used for late-night visits between the king and his brilliant buddy.
In Blois, Françoise added an elegant wing to the already impressive palace, accessed via an exquisite external stone staircase. Here you will see the study of Catherine de Medici, wife to Françoise’s son and successor, Henri. The wood paneled walls provided her with secret hiding places for her acclaimed collection of poisons, the political “solutions” of those perilous times.
Then there is the stunning Chenonceau, with its glorious gardens and the vast ballrooms that extend out over the river. Initially this gem was home to King Henri’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers. But when Henri was killed by a large splinter in the eye during a joust, his wife, Catherine de Medici, threw Diane out of her Château and took it over for herself. Not to be outdone by the mistress, Catherine then proceeded to construct an even more splendid garden on the opposite side of the chateau from Diane’s, and an even grander balcony than Diane’s to overlook it. She placed a huge, glaring portrait of herself, looming over the bed in what had once been Diane’s bedroom. And she had the initials on the tiles reengraved, replacing the “D” for “Diane,” intertwined with an “H” for “Henri,” with a “C” for “Catherine.” This was a woman determined to make her point. As you enter these lives from long ago, and experience their luxurious surroundings, you will gain a true and immediate sense of the culture and the history.
And on it goes. The people, the history, the passion, and the humanity… All of these surround you on a trip to France. You will be intrigued and awed, captivated and enthralled. Every day of your visit will be intensely interesting, as well as surrounded by carefully orchestrated beauty.
Reason #2: A Feast for the Senses
Your senses will be stunned for the entire time you are in France. The sights are beautiful beyond description. The Eiffel Tower in Paris rises up like a giant erector set, with an elevator to take you to the top for views out over the Seine and the city. At night the tower is set aglow, best to be viewed from a boat as it drifts along the Seine, passing under one lovely bridge after another.
The Orsay, once an elegant turn-of-the-century train station that was built to welcome guests to the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle, now houses a startling collection of impressionist art – Monet, Renoir, van Gogh, Dégas, Gauguin, Cézanne, Seurat – within a building that is itself an historic, architectural treasure. Here you will be able to lunch in the grand ballroom of the former grand hotel attached to the train station, and look through the glass of the giant clock that faces the river and makes this building distinctively easy to spot.
There is more and more to come… The glories of Notre Dame. The remarkable stained-glass windows of Saint Chapelle Chapel… The beautiful flowers and statuary of Tuileries Gardens… The onslaught of visual sensations of the Champs-Élysées… The towering Arch de Triomphe, facing the smaller Arch in front of the Louvre at the other end of the five-mile grand boulevard where Napoleon pictured himself leading a march of his victorious armies.
There will be the glorious tastes of the food and wine. You will hear marvelous music of all sorts, from the Vivaldi at Saint Chapelle, to the lively piano bars and boat bars along the left bank of the Seine in Paris and atop Mont St. Michel, to the mighty organ of Notre Dame. You will walk through flower markets, vivid with colors and scents, and shop at weekly markets, alive with people and all manner of tempting offerings.
This assault to the senses will remain with you in memory long after your travels are over.
Reason #3: Intro to the Good Life
The last, but certainly not the least, reason to visit France is that it will introduce you to another, and a better, way of life. You will experience a different manner of interpersonal interaction in France – more engaged, curious, outgoing, and animated. The French truly recognize the importance of enjoying the best of life.
Here dining is a delightful experience, not just a stop to refuel. Food is an art form, combined always with the ideal wines to enhance the meal. Waiters take pride in their work, striving to make dining a memorable occasion by offering up their expertise, and carefully guarding your right to take all the time you need to enjoy your meal without feeling rushed.
People in France are carefully polite with each other, and will be with you. You always will be addressed as ma’am or sir, and asked with a please, followed by a thank you. Cordiality is not only suggested in France, it is expected and omnipresent. You will quickly grow to anticipate and appreciate this.
From the first moment you walk down a street passing all the umbrella-shielded outdoor tables of the cafés, you will notice that this is a culture where people gather together to enjoy each other’s company. Old, young, families, singles, rich, modest, fashionable, artistic, intellectual – everyone is out in the squares and along the avenues, drinking in cafés and eating in restaurants. It becomes easy to join in and be stimulated by the lively, friendly atmosphere. Musicians wander the streets, from old men playing accordions outside the restaurants, to full jazz bands playing in city squares. And because the house wine is so inexpensive, stopping off for a glass or a carafe is a customary, not an exceptional, occurrence.
At the tables that surround you at these cafés, you will notice couples engaged in animated conversation, looking intently into each other’s eyes. France is a culture of philosophy and art, science and technology, style and literature, and of love. As you take all this in, you may begin to find it has an impact on you and how you yourself relate to others. You’ll notice yourself listening more actively, expressing yourself more earnestly and clearly, paying closer attention, acting more considerately, showing more curiosity and interest.
The luxury of time for all this gathering together is in part thanks to the French commitment to keeping an optimal balance between work and life. Shops close for lunch so workers can focus their attention on enjoying a good meal and the company of friends and colleagues. Employees who work 39 or more hours a week must receive more than the legally-required five weeks of vacation per year.
While you are traveling in France, you will come to enjoy and to expect this higher level of connection, this enhanced appreciation of food and wine, this better balance between work and life. You will never forget what you have learned about a different, and better, way of living life.
The Sum of these Three Parts
Taken together, the cultural discovery plus the feast for the senses plus the introduction to the good life, create a travel opportunity that is second to none. You will have a great trip to France, particularly if you travel independently and avoid the bus, possibly by using a preplanned trip-in-a-book to guide your explorations and adventures, and to ensure that you have the full experience while you are there.
Your trip will enrich you. It will refresh you. And it will change you. When you return home, you will find yourself incorporating elements from your travels into your lifestyle, and plotting to return to France.
Carolee Duckworth is an avid traveler, an experienced trip designer, and co-author (with Brian Lane) of the book “Your Great Trip to France: Loire Chateaux, Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy & Paris,” now available on Amazon. For more tips, and to view videos about making travel more fun, visit http://www.YourGreatTrip.com. Join our list as a Great Trip Travel Insider to receive a complimentary copy of “How to Pack Like a Pro” and periodic emails with helpful travel ideas, tips and updates.