The sheer physical diversity of France would be hard to exhaust in a lifetime of visits. The landscapes range from the fretted coasts of Brittany to the limestone hills of Provence, the canyons of the Pyrenees and the half-moon bays of Corsica, from the lushly wooded valleys of the Dordogne to the glaciated peaks of the Alps. Each
looks and feels different, has its own style of architecture, its characteristic food and often its own patois or dialect. Though the French word
is the term for a whole country, local people frequently refer to their own immediate vicinity as
- my country - and to a person from another town as a foreigner. This strong sense of regional identity, often expressed in the form of active separatist movements, as in Brittany and Corsica, has persisted over centuries in the teeth o centralized administrative control from Paris.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the French
is the sense of space. There are huge tracts of woodland and undeveloped land without a house in sight. Industrialization came relatively late, and the country remains very rural. Away from the main urban centres, hundreds of towns and villages have changed only slowly and organically, their old houses and streets intact, as much a part of the natural landscape as the rivers, hills and fields.
The nation's legacy of history and culture is so widely dispersed across the land that even if you were to confine your traveling to one particular region you would still have a powerful sense of the past without having to seek out major sights. With its wealth of local detail, France is an ideal country for dawdling; there is always something to catch the eye and gratify the senses, whether you are meandering down a lane, picnicking by a slow, green river, or sipping Pernod in a village café. There is also endless scope for all kinds of
from walking, canoeing and cycling to the more expensive pleasures of skiing and sailing.
If you need more than urban stimuli to activate the pleasure buds - clubs, shops, fashion, movies, music, hanging out with the beautiful and famous - then the great
provide them in abundance. Paris, of course, is an outstanding cultural centre, with its stunting contemporary buildings and atmospheric back streets, its art and its ethnic diversity. And the great provincial cities like Lille and Lyon, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Marseille and Nice vie with the capital and each other, like the city-states of old, for prestige in the arts, ascendancy in sport and innovation in urban transport.
For a thousand years and more, France has been at the cutting edge of
and the legacy of this wealth, energy and experience is everywhere evident in the astonishing variety of things to see: from the Gothic cathedrals of the north to the Romanesque churches of the centre and west, the châteaux of the Loire, the Roman monuments of the south, the ruined castles of the English and the Cathars and the Dordogne's prehistoric cave-paintings. If not all the legacy is so tangible - the literature, music and ideas of the 1789 Revolution, for example - much has been recuperated and illustrated in museums and galleries across the nation, from colonial history to fishing techniques, aeroplane design to textiles, migrant shepherds to manicure, battlefields and coalmines.
Many of the
are models of clarity and modern design. Among those that the French do best are museums devoted to local arts, crafts and customs like the Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris and the Musée Dauphinois in Grenoble. But inevitably first place must go to the fabulous collections of fine art, many of which are in
for the simple reason that the city has nurtured so many of the finest creative artists of the last hundred years, both French, Monet and Matisse for example, and foreign, such as Picasso and Van Gogh.
If you are quite untroubled by a need to improve your mind in the contemplation of old stones and works of art, France is equally well endowed to satisfy to satisfy the grosser appetites. The French have made a high art of daily life: eating, drinking, dressing, moving and simply being. The
Pleasures of the palate
run from the simplest picnic of crusty baguette, ham and cheese washed down by an inexpensive red wine through what must be the most elaborate takeaway food in the world, available from practically every charcuterie; such basis regional dishes as
the liver-destroying riches of Périgord and Burgundy cuisine; the fruits of the sea; extravagant pastries and ice-cream cakes; to the trance-inducing refinements - and prices - of the great chefs. And there are wines to match, at all prices, and not just feel inadequate in the face of all this choice, never be afraid to ask advice, for most French people are true devotees, ever ready to explain the arcane mysteries to the uninitiated.