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France is brimming with iconic sights. The Eiffel Tower, le Louvre, Versailles and the French Riviera typically top Kiwis' lists, but the country offers much more than Paris and the Cote d’Azur. Here are a few of our favourite less visited (but just as beautiful!) destinations in France.
Chambord has to be one of the most stunning buildings in the world. The goliath of a building was intended to be a hunting lodge for the then king of France, Francis I. Starting in 1519, the building took 28 years to build and the design changed many times during that period. It’s even said that at one point, Leonardo da Vinci may have been involved. The chateau has a whopping 440 rooms, 282 fireplaces, 84 staircases and a 128 metre façade… so you know, just your standard weekend hunting lodge (not). The chateau sits on a 13,000-acre woodland estate which is well stocked with red deer. A 31-kilometre wall surrounds said estate, which makes the ‘hunting’ a rather one-sided affair. Thankfully today the hunting has ceased and the chateau and estate are open to the public.
Mont Saint-Michel is probably the best known spot on this list, but it gets a spot because it’s just so supremely stunning. The small island lies just a kilometre off the coast of Normandy in the English Channel. The island sits in an estuary and is accessible by foot at low tide, but totally surrounded by water at high tide. Thanks to its easily defendable location, the island has a long history, particularly with the Roman Catholic Church who built, demolished, and rebuilt many churches on the island. Today’s existing 84 metre Mont Saint Michel Abbey was built in 1523. During the Hundred Years’ War, large fortifications and walls were built on the island which greatly contribute to the stunning scene we’re left with now. Only about fifty people live on the island today, but there are plenty hotels and shops for visitors.
Although not far from the French-German border, the small town of Colmar miraculously survived the World Wars, as well as many wars from ancient times. This means the town has an incredibly varied amount of architecture on display, much of it painted in bright colours meaning you’ll be snapping photos for hours. As if the bright paint wasn’t enough, the locals are also keen gardeners and great bursts of flowers adorn the sidewalks and window boxes. There’s countless museums, churches and fountains to discover, as well as a canal lined with many delightful restaurants. A gondola ride down the canal is an absolute must too!
Less fairy tale and more modern history, this small town of 5,000 people lays in the north of France, not far from the Belgian border. The town has an long military history reaching back to early Europe. In 1914 the town was quickly taken by the Germans and stayed under their rule for four years. When the Allies moved into Europe, New Zealand soldiers were tasked with securing the town — which was then held by thousands of German soldiers. Not wanting to destroy the historic city walls and buildings, the New Zealand battalion used ladders to climb over the walls and became instant heroes. Today many streets, parks, public buildings and even a school are named after New Zealand places or soldiers who took part in the battle. Even today, Kiwis get a warm welcomes here.
This gorgeous wee town is located on the French-German border in the Alsace region. Flash back to 1688 and the Nine Years’ War, when every European country in Europe went to war with France. When that conflict finally ended, France began building fortified towns along its borders for better defences. The town of Neuf-Brisach is one these towns, and when viewed from the air, visitors see its striking octagon shape. Huge defensive earthworks were built around the city walls, and nothing has been built over of them since. The centre of the town has a wonderful public square and an impressive church. Along with a handful of other fortified towns, it has now been given UNESCO World Heritage status.
Carcassonne is a relatively small town but it boasts the gigantic castle Cit de Carcassonne. Construction started sometime between the years 260-174 (!) and the structure has seen many additions, and owners since. At various stages, it was held by Romans, Visigoths, Saracens, the Crusaders, and today of course, the French. Today the behemoth has three kilometres of fortified walls dotted with 52 lookout towers! That’s some serious defence! Thanks to local protests, the buildings were restored and it's now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Not far from Mont Saint-Michel lies another beautiful fortified town, Saint Malo. Unfortunately much of the city was destroyed during the World Wars, but what did survive has been preserved, and its new buildings are purposely built to historic code. Visitors can walk the cobblestone streets or along the city walls to look out over the ocean where two small islets lay which have also been fortified. Foodies will love this town too as it’s famous in Europe for its oysters, and said to have more restaurants per head of population than anywhere else in Europe!
The Loire Valley is chateau country and the sheer volume of decadent Renaissance castles will take your breath away. We estimate there are over 300 chateaus in this region of France and most of them were built by French kings and nobility wanting holiday homes. Lucky for us, the result is incredible castles like the iconic Château de Chambord and the royal Château d’Amboise.
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