Off the Beaten Track
This wild but beautiful island epitomises the ruggedness of the Brittany coast. An old local saying 'Qui voit Ouessant voit son sang' ('He who sees Ouessant sees his blood') dramatically expresses its untamed nature and the fear inspired by the area's powerful currents and treacherous rocks. The 8km (5mi)-long island guards the entrance to the Channel, and is appreciated as a visual landmark by over 50,000 ships every year.
While the inhabitants are no longer isolated from the rest of the world, centuries of tradition prevail: houses are painted blue and white for the Virgin Mary, or green and white to symbolise hope with interiors furnished from driftwood; gnarled old women make lace crosses to represent the souls of their husbands lost at sea; small black sheep roam freely over the land; and ragoût de mouton (lamb baked under a layer of roots and herbs) remains a staple dish. Ouessant also has the world's most powerful lighthouse, good museums on local history and stunning walks and scenery.
The island is 20km from the mainland and can be reached from the ports of Brest or Le Conquet on Brittany's northwestern coast.
back to top
Parc National des Pyrénées
Created in 1967, the Pyrenees National Park stretches for about 100km (60mi) along the French-Spanish border and covers an area of 460 sq km (180 sq mi) that contains hundreds of high-altitude lakes and the highest point in the French Pyrenees, the 3300m (10,825ft) Sommet du Vignemale.
Forested areas make up only 12% of the park, which is streaked by rivulets and brooks fed by both springs and over 2000mm (78in) of annual precipitation, much of which falls as snow. Protected fauna includes the brown bear (only about 15 remain), lynx, chamois, marmot and endangered birds of prey such as the bearded vulture and golden eagle.
A big favourite with rock climbers and hikers, the park has 350km (215mi) of trails - some interlinked with trails in Spain - plus a good number of refuges (basic mountain huts) that are open throughout the year. Companies in nearby Pau can arrange guided treks for small groups as well as logistical support for unaccompanied hikes and cycling trips. Cauterets, in the eastern portion of the park and 30km (20mi) south of Lourdes, is the easiest and most accessible entry point.
back to top
The tiny walled town of Vézelay, another of France's exasperating number of heritage spots, is surrounded by some of the most beautiful countryside in Burgundy - a patchwork of vineyards, sunflower fields, brunette furrows of farmland and stacks of hay reinventing Impressionism. Originally built on a hilltop for defence purposes, it became an important site of pilgrimage in the 10th century and later a gathering place for crowned heads and grandees embarking on the Crusades.
Vézelay's focal point is the Basilique Sainte Madeleine, a former abbey church that was founded in the 9th century. During the Middle Ages, it housed what were believed to be the relics of St Mary Magdalene, which ensured a steady stream of pilgrims on her saint's day, 22 July. This tradition continues, and every year celebrations include a procession in which the relics are paraded around town. Magnificently restored, the church features a tympanum that is considered a masterpiece of Burgundian-style Romanesque architecture, grotesque carvings, sculpted capitals and an enormous nave. Behind the basilica is a park that has wonderful views of the Cure River valley and nearby villages, while walks in almost any direction will deposit you in rural loveliness.
Vézelay is 15km (9mi) from Avallon, 51km (31mi) from Auxerre, and lies within the Parc Naturel Régional du Morvan.
back to top
Clinging to the slopes of the Pre-Alpes 17km (11mi) north of Cannes, Grasse has served the country well in the art of perfume production for centuries. It is here that master perfumers - also known as 'nez' (noses) - train their probosci for seven years to recognise around 6000 scents. The town, with its distinctive orange roofs sheltering densely packed cottages, also produces some of France's finest flowers, including jasmine, Centifolia rose, lavender, mimosa, orange blossom and narcotic narcissus.
Of the 40 perfumeries, only three are open to the public. The conveniently placed Fragonard is housed in a 17th-century former tannery. A tour will take you through cellars filled with stacks of soaps, bales of scented leather, and chests and crates stuffed with spices. Every stage of perfume production is evidenced here, from extraction and distillation to the work of the nez, as well as the vast number of flowers needed to make one litre of essence. At the end you'll be squirted with a few house scents, invited to purchase as many as you'd like and will leave the scene reeking.
back to top
Located 170km (105mi) southeast of the Côte d'Azur, Corsica is the geological envy of all the other islands of the Mediterranean. From mountain ranges with tumbling torrents to endless stretches of fine-sand beaches, it offers highly photogenic scenery as well as ample opportunities for hiking. Corsica is suffused with a welcoming ambience courtesy of the islanders' distinctive language, cuisine and way of life. The committed movement for Corsican independence is the harder edge of this distinctive culture. Although nationalist groups generally restrict their violence to internal tit-for-tat killings and property damage, travellers are advised to act with caution.
The port city of Ajaccio, birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, is where most begin a visit to the island. Although subject to recent modernisation, this pastel-shaded, French-Mediterranean city remains a fine place for a stroll, especially noodling along the narrow streets that wind through the older parts of town. Apart from a number of monuments and museums devoted to Napoleonic lore, you can visit the Pointe de la Parata, a black granite promontory famous for its sunsets, or bathe in the beaches just out of town.
The island's most famous natural sight is Les Calanche, a spectacular mountain landscape of multicoloured granite forms resembling both nightmarish and prosaic people, animals and buildings. When it's clear, there are terrific views of both the Mediterranean and the northern mountains. There are a series of short but challenging hiking trails nearby. The Citadelle of Bonifacio, in Corsica's extreme south, is perched atop a long, narrow promontory of limestone cliffs. The town was subjected to several cruel sieges during the Middle Ages and retains a medieval ambience by way of its cramped alleyways and flying buttresses funnelling rainwater. Calvi, also radiating from its citadel, is a beachy town in the northwest of Corsica. The coast between Calvi and l'Île Rousse, 25km (16mi) to the north, is punctuated by a series of attractive beaches.
The best time to visit Corsica is during May and June, when the island is generally sunny, the wildflowers are in bloom and it's not overrun with Eurotourists. Corsica's towns are accessible by direct air connections from mainland France's large metropolitan airports, as well as from other European cities. Ferry links are cheaper, but all routes are frequently cut by strikes, sometimes for weeks at a time.