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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in France.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in France.
The serpentine ribbon of road that comprises Alsace’s celebrated Route du Vin is studded with picturesque towns featuring glorious food and sites, many worth overnight stops. The attractive town of Colmar is home to the popular Musee d’Unterlinden (Under the Linden Trees), housed in a 13th-century convent.
The jewel in its remarkable collection is an immense altar screen with folding wing pieces. Considered one of the most exciting works in the history of German art, the Issenheim Altarpiece was created in 1512-16 by Wurzburg-born Matthias Griinewald, “the most furious of realists.” Grtinewald’s carved altarpiece was believed to have had miraculous powers to cure ergotism, a widespread disease of the Middle Ages
Entire books have been written about this masterwork, majestically displayed in the convent’s Gothic chapel, and the museums assemblage of religious art. Colmar itself is rich in medieval and Renaissance architecture and is the birthplace of Auge Bartholdi, designer of the Statue of Liberty.
The Route du Vin begins (or ends) south of Colmar and runs along the lush vineyard covered slopes of the Vosges foothills. The road zigzags and moseys along a string of postcard-perfect walled medieval towns of half- timbered houses with quirky roofs and balconies, overflowing with geraniums. Convivial winstubs (the Alsatian equivalent of pubs) serve wine from hundreds of local vineyards.
Alsace’s fine, fresh wines include Riesling, Sylvaner, Gewurztraminer, Muscat, and Tokay-Pinot Gris. Rich farmland and orchards attest to Alsace’s reputation as “the pantry and larder of Europe,” and the ambrosial pâte de foie gras—one of man’s nobler creations and reason enough for the trip from Paris—is said to have originated here. Of the Wine Road’s 100 or so gabled wine villages, Riquewihr and Kaysersberg share the prize for sheer quaintness, and fortified Turckheim is said to be the best-preserved town in France.
To single out just one great inn is impossible, though a longtime favorite with Wine Road gastronomes and locals is the Auberge de l’Ill, in an idyllic riverside setting. Another star is the Château d’Isenbourg, where the hotel’s stellar Alsatian wine collection, stored in a vaulted 12th-century cave, complements a regional cuisine just as exceptional.
Bordeaux is an almost religious pilgrimage for oenophiles and gastronomes. At its heart is the refined city of Bordeaux, a wonderfully restored center of 18th-century architecture that serves as an elegant base for forays into vine-crossed districts with such revered names as Medoc, Graves, and Sauternes.
There are more than 10,000 vineyards, but the lovely little medieval village of St. Emilion lures one to linger. Sloping vineyards roll down to its 13th-century ramparts on all sides, enclosing cobbled medieval streets lined with wine stores and bakeries selling light-as-air macaroons. Châteaux Margaux and Mouton-Rothschild, and the digustation des vins they offer, are day trips away in Medoc. But the small-parcel vineyards that fan out from St. Emilion’s town walls provide an intimate opportunity to sample some of Bordeaux’s most refined and complex red wines. The aristocratic
19th-century Château Grand Barrail estate has recently opened as a country hotel. Many of the spacious guest rooms overlook the endless vineyards, and the Belle Epoque restaurant’s menu of regional specialties offers an impressive carte des virus, more than half from the cellars of St. Emilion vintners.
This tiny backwater village, whose thermal springs and pastoral setting enchanted the Empress Eugenie, after whom it was renamed, was ignored by time and tourism until the arrival of master chef Michel Guerard and his wife, Christine. Guerard was the creator of every gourmand’s pipe dream, cuisine minceur (“spa” cuisine, which helped spawn the nouvelle cuisine revolution of the 1970s, allowing diners to eat royally while staying trim).
Those of the calories-to-the-wind school can opt for Guerard s full-till cuisine gourmande menu. Either choice leaves visitors with unforgettable dining memories. The accommodations in this hamlet near Biarritz have a rustic but refined charm that’s almost too good to be true, Eugenie-les-Bains consists almost entirely of the meticulously run Guerard fiefdom: two spas (the original operation plus the newer La Ferine Thermale), three hotels (one housed in the former imperial residence), and two restaurants (the complex as a whole is known as Les Pres d’Eugenie).
Many travelers come intending to use this drowsy hamlet as a base for exploring the beautiful Pyrenees and Basque region to die south or the Bordeaux area to the north, but they find it hard to leave the small town that once enchanted an empress and her coterie.
Henry Miller called the lush green department of Dordogne a “country of enchantment.” The walled market towns here—Domme, Brantome, Sarlat, and Rocamadour—are some of France’s most picturesque.
Hilly but not mountainous, the Dordogne is also perfect walking and biking country. Deservedly associated with good food, such as duck and glorious foie gras, deep red Cahors wine, truffles, and wild cepes mushrooms, this scenic comer of France is also rich with flower-strewn valleys.
Romanesque churches, and medieval hamlets. Of the more than 1,500 châteaux, many are now hotels, often dramatically positioned along one of the tributaries (lowing into the majestic Dordogne River.
This was some of the most fought-over land in Europe, but Dordogne’s most significant history is truly ancient, as revealed underground in its painted caves. Discovered by four teenagers in 1940. the famous Cave of Lascaux (near Montignac) contains the world’s most extraordinary repository of prehistoric wall paintings, executed by Stone Age artists some 17,000 years ago. Permanently closed to the general public in 1963 to prevent deterioration, it was re-created 200 yards away, in the form of Lascaux II.
A dazzlingly accurate replica made in the 1980s by masters of the Beaux Arts in Paris, Lascaux II uses the same pigments that were available to Cro-Magnon man, and its limestone walls and 20-foot ceilings are covered with replicas of the original caves’ stunning renderings of bison, horses, boars, and bulls. Arrive early—Lascaux II sells out.
This area of the Dordogne, a fertile river valley, is riddled with grottes ornees, some dating back nearly 25,000 years. The town of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac in the Vezere Valley is the perfect base for forays into the Valley of Man, one of the richest in the world in ancient sites and deposits. Don’t miss the caves of Font-de-Gaume, whose Paleolithic artwork approaches that of Lascaux in importance.
Enamored of the town’s wild beauty, Victor Hugo prayed in 1830 that Biarritz would “never become fashionable.” His hopes were dashed when the newly married Napoleon III and his empress, Eugenie, arrived in 1855 and built the aristocratic pink-colored Villa Eugenie as a summer residence.
Biarritz became a favored destination, and royal and noble travelers came to “take the waters” long after the imperial couple stopped visiting in 1870. They were later replaced by a more diverse group of artists, writers, and other glitterati. Still tinged with past glamour, Napoleon’s villa now is the beautifully refurbished Hotel du Palais, the focal and social point of this Atlantic-coast resort.
Luckily for hotel guests today, Napoleon picked the choicest stretch of beachfront, La Grande Plage. Ask any of the young international surfing set, who first discovered the best waves in Europe along these same lovely beaches in the late 1950s and made Biarritz the unofficial surfing and windsurfing capital of the continent.
The hotel’s opulent, spacious guest rooms overlook the rugged coastline in this wild edge of the Basque country, where the mighty Pyrenees step into the Bay of Biscay. At the Palais, the delightful spirit of old Biarritz is much in evidence. Try your luck at the classic casino and enjoy the luxurious saltwater spa facility.