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8 fairytale places in France you don't know about

Chambord 2
Millau Viaduct
Millau Viaduct 2
Mont Saint-Michel 2
Mont Saint-Michel
Colmar 2
Le Quesnoy 2
Le Quesnoy 3
Neuf-Brisach 2
Carcassonne 2
Saint Malo 2
Saint Malo

8 fairytale places in France you don't know about

story by: Tom Ricketts

France is easily the world’s top tourist destination with nearly 84 million visitors in 2014, about ten million ahead of the second placed United States. Iconic sights such as the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Versailles and the French Riviera are justifiably top of most peoples lists, but France is much more than just Paris and the Cote d’Azur. Here’s a few of our favourite less visited, but equally as beautiful destinations…

1. Chambord
The Royal Chateau de 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 though, the hunting has ceased and the chateau and estate are open to the public.

2. Millau Viaduct
Due to increasing traffic congestion on the main route between Paris and the southern cities of Marseille and Montpellier it was decided in 1987 that a new bridge needed to be built over the River Tarn. Typical beauracracy and bickering over costs intervened, but finally in 2001 construction started on the viaduct which takes its name from the nearby town of Millau. Three years and 400 million Euros later we have the gigantic Millau Viaduct which doesn’t just cross the River Tarn, but in fact crosses the entire valley. That’s not a short distance! The 2,460 metre span is easily longer than the Rakaia Bridge (our longest at 1,756 metres) and more than double the length of Auckland Harbour Bridges. At 343 metres it’s also the tallest bridge in the world and often considered to be one of the modern world’s great feats of engineering.

3. Mont Saint-Michel

Mont Saint-Michel is probably the most well known of the attractions on this list, but it still gets a say because it’s just so totally amazing! 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 50 people live on the island today, but there are hotels and shops for tourists.

4. Colmar

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!

5. Le Quesnoy
This small town of 5,000 people lays in the north of France, not far from the Belgian border. The town has an incredibly long history of having battalions of troops based there by various kings and rulers throughout history. There is literally too many to name, so you’ll need to learn about that yourself when you get there. In 1914 the town was quickly taken by the Germans and stayed under their rule for four years. When the allies slowly moved into Europe, our very own finest were tasked with retaking the town which held thousands of German soldiers. Not wanting to destroy the historic city walls and buildings, the New Zealand battalion simply used ladders to climb over the walls and quickly retook the town. The citizens were so elated that the Kiwi’s had not destroyed their city that the soldiers became instant heroes. Today many street, parks, public buildings and even a school are named after New Zealand places or soldiers who took part in the battle. Even today any Kiwi who visits receives a warm welcome, which aren’t all that common in some parts of France!

6. Neuf-Brisach

This gorgeous wee town is located on the French-German border in the Alsace region (like a state or province). Back in 1688 the Nine Years’ War started and pretty much every European country ganged up and went to war with France. After the conclusion of the war, France started building fortified towns on their borders as better defences. The town of Neuf-Brisach is one these towns, and when viewed from the air is a striking octagonal shaped walled township. Huge defensive earthworks were built around the city walls, so nothing has been built over top of them ever since, making it look like the city is plonked out in the middle of nowhere by itself. 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.

7. Carcassonne

Carcassonne is a relatively small town, slightly smaller than Nelson or Invercargill, but its strategic position on a plain between the Mediterranean and Atlantic means it has long been an important town. Its importance is epitomised in the gigantic castle Cit de Carcassonne. Construction started sometime between 260-174 and has it’s had many many additions, and owners since then. At various stages it was under control by the 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! Eventually the castle became abandoned and the government almost demolished it, but thanks to local protests they instead restored the castle and it is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

8. Saint Malo

Not far away from Mont Saint-Michel lies another beautiful fortified town, Saint Malo. Unfortunately much of the city was destroyed during the wars but what did survive has been preserved, and its new buildings are purposely built stay in theme with the rest of the town. Tourists 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!

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