Six unique ways to embrace French culture

Whether you want to make your own perfume in Grasse, wander around royal châteaux in the Loire or dive into Alsace’s storybook villages, France enthralls with its one-of-a-kind culture.

Published 6 Sept 2021, 17:59 BST, Updated 7 Sept 2021, 15:14 BST
Grasse is the perfume-lover’s dream, rippled with fields of lavender, roses, jasmine, violet and mimosa.

Grasse is the perfume-lover’s dream, rippled with fields of lavender, roses, jasmine, violet and mimosa.

Photograph by Superstock

French culture isn’t just presented behind ropes and glass; it's a living, breathing entity, told through the country's lyrical landscapes, picture-book villages and local people. Here, hills melt into rippling lavender fields, and vineyards fan out in fold after fold. So, too, is culture richly expressed through food and wine, be it a lovingly crafted fromage in Normandy, a Michelin-starred menu in Paris, or a glass of rosé in the vineyards of Provence. For those with a penchant for history, France dazzles, from medieval castles and gothic abbeys to museums bringing the past to life. Switch back to the present, and simply to go for a stroll is to soak up French culture; listening to the language, stopping by a local bakery or admiring an artisan’s workshop. Take a deep dive into France and you’ll be amazed by what you find, and if you need a little more inspiration, here are six ways to make the most of your next trip.

1. Make your own perfume in Provence

Even the French grow wistful at the mention of Provence. In the hills north of Cannes, Grasse is the perfume-lover’s dream, rippled with fields of lavender, roses, jasmine, violet and mimosa. The ochre-coloured hill town has been awarded UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage status for its 500-year-old perfume-making history, as presented in its International Perfume Museum. For deeper insight, book a place on a one- or two-hour workshop to make your own perfume at Fragonard, Galimard or Molinard. The area is known for its May rose and jasmine, both of which are used extensively in scents, and feature most famously, perhaps, in Chanel No. 5. 

While you’re there...

The fragrances of the land go into local wines, too. The Route des Vins de Provence knits together some of the region’s finest cellars and wineries. And if you want to throw contemporary art into the equation, stop by the sculpture-strewn Commanderie de Peyrassol in Flassans-sur-Issole, or Château La Coste in Puy-Sainte-Réparade, where 36 works sprinkle vineyards at a cutting-edge, Jean Nouvel-designed winery.

Le Bec-Hellouin is one of France's most beautiful villages, with its medieval abbey, flower-draped streets and photogenic line-up of half-timbered houses.

Photograph by Superstock

2. Visit historical villages in Normandy

With its wild, wave-lashed coast, orchards and châteaux, Normandy has a pinch of everything. It also has some of the country’s most beautiful villages: notably Le Bec-Hellouin, with its medieval abbey and photogenic line-up of half-timbered houses. Every bit as lovely is forest-rimmed Lyons-la-Forêt, the former stomping ground of the Dukes of Normandy, with its alley-woven heart of half-timbered, pink-brick façades. Both features are showcased by Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, an independent organisation that shines a light on France’s most picturesque rural villages.

While you’re there…

Head to the apple orchards of Calvados country, stopping for cider tastings and to sample Pont-l'Évêque cheese. Hailed France’s oldest fromage, the unpasteurised cheese was first made in Normandy’s abbeys in the Middle Ages.

The food scene in Paris is as varied as it is wonderful, from family-run boulangeries to high-flying restaurants boasting multiple Michelin stars.

Photograph by Marc Bertrand

3. Dine sustainably in Paris

Paris has always walked the culinary high wire, but now the French capital is dabbling in new, more sustainable gastronomy. At Green Michelin-starred restaurants, provenance is key in nature-inspired menus that sing of the region and seasons.

Shining with two Michelin stars, David Toutain’s eponymous neo-rustic, oak-and-glass restaurant has impeccable eco credentials, presenting farm-to-fork ingredients with panache and imagination in menus with names like ‘Lemon Balm’ and ‘Queen of the Meadows’. Also riding this new eco wave is coolly understated Septime, where Bertrand Grébaut delivers clean flavours and employs a bio-waste recycling scheme. In the 17th arrondissement, Thibaut Spiwack heads up responsibly minded Anona, where dishes like Poitou escargot with creamed herbs, petits pois and kale are simple but stunning.

While you’re there…

Post-prandial exhibition? Check out the redesigned Bourse de Commerce, Paris’ hottest new contemporary art venue in the former stock exchange, bearing the imprint of Japanese architect Tadao Ando. At its heart is the 10,000-work private collection of François Pinault.

A riot of turrets and towers, Henry II set up his royal court at the Fortress of Chinon in the Loire Valley.

Photograph by Superstock

4. Learn about royal history in the Loire Valley

The Loire is France’s beating heart: geographically, spiritually and culturally. The region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, made for riverside cycling and château-hopping, with palaces where kings, queens and dukes once lived. A riot of turrets and towers, the Fortress of Chinon hides centuries of history: this is where Henry II set up his royal court, Joan of Arc met the Dauphin, and the Knights Templar were imprisoned. No fewer than 10 queens and seven kings have lived at the splendid royal Château de Blois, once the feudal seat of powerful counts. Its hotchpotch of gothic, Renaissance and classical architecture chronicles the ages.

While you’re there…

One of the world’s largest surviving medieval monastic complexes, Fontevraud Abbey — the final resting place of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lionheart — now harbours the Loire’s new flagship modern art museum. Set in the royal abbey’s former stables, its outstanding collection includes a self-portrait by Toulouse-Lautrec, a bust signed by Rodin and Degas sculptures.

The much-celebrated wines of Bordeaux are the region's pride and joy; there are even museums dedicated to the tipple, such as Musée du Vin et du Négoce.

Photograph by C. Pamelard

5. Visit an exhibition dedicated to wine in Bordeaux 

With châteaux and vineyards reaching as far as the eye can see and the waves and winds of the Atlantic hammering its western coast, France’s largest region strides effortlessly between the good life and the wild outdoors. The much-celebrated wines of Bordeaux are its pride and joy, and the exhibition of the Cité du Vin is a great place to begin really delving into the wine culture that has shaped this region's history and culture for millennia. The space pulls out all the stops (and corks), with tastings, tours, winemaking experiences and an exciting roster of events. 

While you’re there…

Fancy some seafood to go with that wine? Catch a boat down the river with local fisherman Jean-Marie, who supplies local restaurants with eels, shrimp and catfish. Two-hour fishing trips and one-and-a-half-hour discovering cruises take in the river, its wildlife and the carrelets (fishermen’s’ cabins) lining its banks.

The Alsace bonnet is a flamboyant, winged creation in black velvet, worn a festivals throughout the region. 

Photograph by Alamy

6. Try on a traditional bonnet in Alsace

This lushly wooded, vine-ribbed region straddling the German border holds a near-legendary place in French hearts, with ancient villages, deep, dark forests and hilltop castles straight from the pages of a children’s story. The region clings tightly to its one-of-a-kind heritage, which is celebrated at local folk festivals throughout the year, where you might spot the Alsace bonnet: a flamboyant, winged creation in black velvet.

While you’re there…

With its gothic church, colourful ensemble of half-timbered houses and richly stocked Humanist Library, founded in 1452, Sélestat is one of Alsace’s most culturally alluring towns. The library’s most famous tomes include one that contains the first written mention of the Christmas tree (1521) and a 16th-century book in which the New World is first referred to as ‘America’.

For more information on France and its myriad cultural treasures, visit Atout France

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