France and the art of living

Date Posted: 25/07/2012

Photo credit: CRT Riviera Côte d'Azur - Pierre Behar

The enthusiasm of the French rubs off on everyone. Michael Macaroon encourages us to pay a visit and replenish our vim and zest.

The French are justly renowned for their joie de vivre. Where else can you see such pleasure being taken in all that life has to offer – from high art in museums to grass-roots café culture to life-affirming sporting feats?

And while many of these things are part of the texture of everyday life, if you know where and when to go, there’s also the possibility of experiencing something really exceptional – perhaps the perfect combination of fluffy snow, blue skies and panoramic views for skiing, or maybe the first savouring of a new vintage in a Bordeaux vineyard.

In pursuit of Picasso and Matisse

France has long been associated with great art, and the two most famous artists of the last century, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, pursued their careers here, leaving a colourful legacy across the country. Following the trail of this notorious pair of bons viveurs gives a fascinating insight into French culture.

Picasso started out in ramshackle studios in Paris’s Montmartre, a pretty enclave of cobbled streets and quaint cafés, but it wasn’t long before he moved upmarket; the Hôtel Salé – now the Musée Picasso – is one of the grandest mansions in the now-fashionable Marais district. After World War Two, Picasso moved to a succession of villas and castles in the south, including Antibes’s 14th century Château Grimaldi, which now houses a museum showcasing some 150 of the artist’s paintings.

In nearby Nice, you can compare Picasso’s art with that of his friend and rival, Matisse. The Musée Matisse, established by the artist in 1952 in his own villa (an Italianate affair painted a deep red and surrounded by palm trees), is packed with paintings, drawings and collages. Another destination for Matisse aficionados is the Chapel of the Rosary in the nearby village of Vence. It’s decorated as an oasis of serenity – all white, except for the green, blue and yellow stained glass, which makes wonderful use of the Mediterranean light.

Spiritual highs

Art and religion have formed a powerful alliance over many centuries. France is second to none for its ecclesiastical architecture, and Matisse found his precursors in the jewel-like Sainte Chapelle in Paris, in Chartres Cathedral, whose 176 windows have earned the town the nickname City of Light, and in the soaring Gothic splendour of Notre-Dame de Reims, where every French king between 815 and 1825 was crowned

Perhaps France’s greatest draw for the faithful is the pretty market town of Lourdes in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Each year between March and October up to five million people make the pilgrimage here. Since 1858, when a young peasant girl claimed several sightings of the Virgin Mary in the Grotto here, the Catholic Church has recognised dozens of miracle healings at Lourdes, and many believers still bathe in the Grotto’s waters in the hope that they too might be cured.

A passion for food

Mealtimes are considered sacrosanct in France: work stops, the roads clear, and people sit down together for meals both humble and grand. At the top end of the scale are France’s Michelin-starred restaurants. Paris chalks up ten restaurants with the full compliment of three stars, and the country as a whole has 26 (compared with Britain’s measly four). Paris establishments such as Guy Savoy and Le Meurice will set you back over €200 a head excluding wine. But there is relative value to be had elsewhere: L’Arnsbourg and Auberge de l’Ill near Strasbourg cost “only” half as much.

Each region of France also has its more homely tradition of cooking, which can be sampled at the family-run bistros lining every market square. Strasbourg, as might be expected so close to the German border, is renowned for its sausages and choucroute (sauerkraut). The city even has its own beer festival, held each October.

Many visitors devote their holidays to liquid refreshments, and tours of wine châteaux in the Bordeaux region are particularly special. Apart from offering the opportunity to see how wine is made and taste the results, many estates also have beautiful gardens (Château Pape Clément for example), offer overnight stays (Château Franc Mayne) or have fine restaurants (Château Lynch Bages) - some even welcome children (Château Cablanc). In mid-September, harvest festivals are held in many villages – perhaps most notably in Saint-Emilion, which has a torch-lit parade, vineyard walks and, of course, abundant food and drink.

Sporting France

The French are highly attuned to excellence in sporting endeavours too. Quintessentially French is July’s Tour de France. Stages in the world’s top cycling event are dotted around the country, but culminate in a dash down the Champs-Élysées in Paris. For weeks the nation stands enthralled.

In October is the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, France’s premier horse race, run at Longchamp near Paris. Tickets are relatively inexpensive, which leaves plenty to punt on the winner. The other major destination for equestrian sports is Deauville on the Normandy coast. As well as being the centre of France’s horse-breeding industry –with major races at its courses – this resort has grand Belle Époque hotels, elegant casinos, smart boutiques and beautiful beaches. The town hosts a major film festival each September that attracts ‘A-listers’ such as George Clooney and Brad Pitt.

Visitors also flock to France’s big motor-racing events. The French Grand Prix is scheduled to return in the summer of 2013 after a break of five years, and looks like it’ll be held at the Paul Ricard Circuit near Marseille. But the most glamorous fixture in the Formula 1 calendar is at Monaco (pictured), the tiny principality nestled between Nice and Menton on the French Riviera.

A completely different style of race again is the annual 24-hour speed and endurance test at Le Mans, just north of the Loire Valley. Each car has three drivers who work shifts racing circuits around the city’s public roads and racing track.

Sublime mountains

If you prefer to participate rather than spectate, you could head for the mountains. The French Alps offer first-class skiing at Courchevel and Val-d’Isère, and in summer there’s hiking and mountain biking (most ski lifts also take bikes). The setting is spectacular – with Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest peak, looming above – but group holidays here do not usually come cheap.

The Pyrenees in the south west offer a good-value alternative, and resorts such as Barèges and La Mongie tend to be family-orientated and better suited to beginners. La Pierre St-Martin has excellent facilities for disabled skiers, while Cauterets, on the edge of the national park, offers good cross-country skiing in winter and trekking in summer. The region is also famed for its white-water rafting, and the Ariège and Aude rivers have numerous water-sports centres to provide equipment and instruction.

Top three sights

1. Champs-Élysées: With the Arc de Triomphe at one end, the Tuileries Gardens at the other, and dozens of designer boutiques, museums and luxury hotels in between, this is one of the world’s greatest streets.

2. Giverny: When Monet made this Normandy village his home he put it firmly on the map. Visitors today cannot fail to be charmed by the eccentrically decorated house and the romantic gardens with their magical lily ponds.

3. Loire Valley: This glorious valley in central France has the historic towns of Orléans and Tours, the vineyards of Chinon and Saumur, and over 300 châteaux, including the spectacular moated Château d’Azay-le-Rideau and Renaissance masterpiece, the Château de Chambord.

France Essentials

Eat: Savour regional specialities such as bouillabaisse (Marseille’s soupy fish stew), snails in garlic butter (Burgundy), sole and scallops (Normandy), and foie gras (Dordogne). Some visitors, however, are relieved to find that steak frites is available pretty much everywhere.

Drink: As an apéritif, try the anise-flavoured pastis, a kir (blackcurrant liqueur with white wine), or simply a glass of champagne. Enjoy wine with dinner, then finish off with a cognac, armagnac or calvados.

Try: A game of boules, which you’ll see being played by locals on any available patch of open space. Similar to the British game of bowls, the aim is to get your balls to land as close to the jack as possible.

Go: Spring and early autumn are perfect for Paris, when it’s less busy and not too humid. Your best chances for winter sun are in the south east. Up in the mountains, the ski season is from mid-December to March.

Factfile

Flight time: Between one to two hours.
Time difference: GMT +1hr.
Currency: £1 = €1.20 (changeable).

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