France, one of the largest countries in Europe, has airline connections with most cities in the world. Paris is the major transport hub, with two international airports; others include Bordeaux, Lille, Lyon, Nice and Toulouse. There are good, high-speed rail links with the rest of Europe, and a network of efficient motorways. A number of ferry routes cross the Mediterranean to Corsica and beyond. Cross-Channel ferries serve several ports, with the Channel Tunnel providing an alternative link by rail.
Set at the heart of France, with Paris as its hub, the Ile-de-France extends well beyond the densely populated suburbs of the city. Its rich countryside incorporates a historic royal region of monumental splendour central to “la gloire de la France”. The region became a favourite with French royalty after François I transformed Fontainebleau into a Renaissance palace in 1528. Louis XIV kept the Ile-de-France as the political axis of the country when he started building Versailles in 1661. This Neo-Classical château, created by the combined genius of Le Nôtre, Le Vau, Le Brun and Jules Hardouin- Mansart, is France’s most visited sight.
The rolling plains of Northern France run from the English Channel to the wooded Ardennes hills and the Vosges mountains of Alsace. Apart from sombre battle memorials, the area has France’s finest Gothic cathedrals – and a long tradition of brewing good-quality beers. There is fine wine, too, in Champagne and Alsace. The old heavy industry has gone, while Lille’s growth as a transport hub has brought new prosperity. Beneath the modern skin of France’s northernmost region, the sights and monuments bear witness to the triumphs and tur bulence of its past: soaring Gothic cathedrals, stately châteaux, and the battlefields and memorials of World War I.
Champagne is a name of great resonance, conjuring up images of celebration and the world-famous cathedral at Reims. Yet beyond the glamour lies an unspoiled rural idyll of two strikingly contrasting landscapes: the rolling plains of Champagne, giving way to lakes and water meadows to the south and the dense forests and hills of the Ardennes in the north. As border regions, Alsace and Lorraine have been fought over for centuries by France, Austria and Germany, their beleaguered past recalled by many a military stronghold and cemetery. Today, the region presents only a peaceful aspect with pastel-painted villages, fortified towns and sleepy vineyards.
The western regions of France have played very different historical roles, from the royal heartland of the Loire Valley to separatist Celtic Brittany. These are mainly rich farming regions, with fishing impor- tant along the coasts. Heavy industry and oil refineries are concen- trated around Rouen and Le Havre. Visitors come for the wonderful beaches, quiet rural byways and the sumptuous Loire châteaux. The geological contrasts of this region reflect its enormous variety, from the industrial and gastronomic metropolis of Lyon to the largely agricultural landscape of Burgundy. The mountains of the Massif Central and the Alps attract visitors for winter sports, superb walking and other outdoor activities. The major sights of this richly rewarding area, both natural and architectural, are shown here.