Thursday, May 2, 2013

10 Extraordinary Experiences in France

As a self-proclaimed Francophile, I’ve spent the past decade traveling and discovering every corner of France.  From the picture perfect country sides of Alsace to the magnificent beaches of Dune de Pyla, I love all the wonders that the country has to offer: breathtaking scenery, charming villages and towns, spectacular beaches (mostly the western coast and not the proverbial Cote d’Azur) and mountains, the divine selection of wine, the scrumptious cuisine … and on … and on … and on.

However, here are 10 extraordinary experiences I've had that were not only a lot of fun but also has changed the way I traveled. It is unlikely that any of them will be mentioned in travel guides or magazine as "must dos", but they are extraordinary experiences beyond just visiting and seeing the conventional tourist attractions.

Rollerblading in Paris 
Over the years, rollerblading (roller, as the locals call it) in Paris has become a trendy event, and these days, you can even join hundreds of skaters (called Pari-Roller) to cruise down the magnificent city of lights in the middle of the night. 
However, I like to think that I started this trend back in 1997, while I was studying there, and blazing through the cobblestone streets of Paris while observing the gorgeous scenery and the Parisian sitting at outdoor cafes was truly an unforgettable experience.

Learning French in Strasbourg 
Strasbourg is a picture perfect town in a region that borders Germany known as Alsace, and ever since the European Parliament has moved its headquarters there, it’s become a bustling town that attracts thousands of tourists who flock to get a glimpse of its magnificent gothic cathedral and immaculately maintained vieille ville, la Petite France.

I had the pleasure of attending a language school filled with people from all over the world, which made for a very festive atmosphere, and we were more interested in learning about each other than conjugation. Nevertheless, it was a great place to soak up the French language and culture.

Megeve is a wonderfully charming ski village near Mont Blanc with a splendid selection of restaurants, hotels and shops.  Among all the beautiful ski resorts and towns in Europe, Megeve is my absolutely favorite.  The village with its turreted houses around a 17th-century church, the scent of wood smoke  that permeates through the entire town, and the sounds of hooves clopping on cobblestones is straight out of a fairytale.

From 11am to 6am, the center of the old village closes to traffic, except for pedestrians and sledges, and you can shop at your leisure, stopping everywhere from the cobbler to the antiques dealer to the many boutiques.  The picture-perfect charcuteries, fromageries and boulangeries sell some of the best delicatessen in France, and the shops offer a wonderful variety of traditional crafts.

Biking Around Lac Leman 
Covering about 140 sq miles (362 sq km), crescent-shaped Lac Léman is the largest, and in my opinion, the loveliest lake in Western Europe.  My husband and I’d discovered it on our way from Provence to Frankfurt, and what a lovely surprise it turned out to be!  We’d stayed overnight in a little town of Thonon-les-Bains at Hotel le Duche de Savoie.  We’d arrived late at night and didn’t get to see much of the town that evening, but when we woke up the next morning, we were pleasantly surprised by the spectacular view outside our window. 

Lac Léman truly is a hidden gem, and we’ve gone back several times throughout the years exploring different cities and towns around it.  However, the BEST part of being there is observing and absorbing the breathtaking scenery.

Wonderful Meals in Beaune 
People often ask me where I’ve had the best meals during my travel, and although the term ‘best’ is highly relative, without hesitation, Beaune comes to mind. Having said that, the great thing about traveling in France is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money on great food, which throws the whole myth about 'French food being overly pricey' right out the window, and Beaune is a perfect example of that.

Beaune is a relatively unknown town in Bourgogne, which makes it an ideal place for a stopover, especially since there is a larger selection of charming hotels and wonderful restaurants that offer haute cuisine at a reasonable price. Also, the town has a charming market on Saturday mornings that offers rather a large selection of produce and crafts, and the Hotel Dieu alone is definitely worth a visit.

Beautiful Town of Orange 
Orange is a charming little town, located in the south of France. Although it may not be as sophisticated as some of the more tourist-driven towns and villages in Provence, it has one of the most well-maintained Roman theaters in Europe. It also has a beautiful town square and offers budget travelers a great selection of charming hotels at a reasonable price.

To me, Orange will always be the best kept secret in Provence. It is without a doubt one of the most charming little towns in the region, and my husband and I have such fond memories of visiting Orange on our first road trip and staying in Hotel St. Florent, which has become one of our favorites in France.

Enchanting Medieval Town of Sarlat-la-Canéda
Sarlat is a picturesque town located in the heart of France, and although it’s the best-preserved medieval town in southwestern France representative of 14th century France, or Europe for that matter, due to its isolated location, tourism-wise, it remains to be one of the least developed places in France.

Walking through this gorgeous town filled with so many ancient buildings, we felt as if we’d stepped back into another age.  My favorite experience in Sarlat was going to the outdoor market on the weekend, and having a lot of scrumptious meals, as even the rustic food are prepared with the freshest ingredients from local farmers.  Oh what I would give to taste cassoulet in Sarlat again!

Pilgrimage to Rocamadour 
All the guide books may rave about Mont Saint Michel, but I prefer Rocamadour.  Located about 100 miles north of Toulouse, Rocamadour is a pectacular natural and religious site perched high on a rocky plateau.  The name literally derives from “roc”, which translates into rock, and “Amadour” named after the Saint whose body was known to be preserved in the area.

Aside from being one of the most spectacular sites in France, Rocamadour serves an important pilgrimage destination. Today, tourists come to Rocamadour for its religious interest, historical significance, beautiful architecture, and most of all, for the spectacular views, and for us, staying in Rocamadour, especially our favorite Hotel Beau Site, was a truly unique experience we would never forget.

Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp is undoubtedly one of Le Corbusier finest work.  High on a hill near Belfort in eastern France, Le Corbusier’s masterpiece unfolds in the round, offering, like a sequence of Mondrians and Arps, different and uncannily poised compositions from every angle, back and front, side to side, inside and out and, crucially, in relation to the grounds. It commands the hill as the Parthenon does the Acropolis, its immense roof a great airfoil or billowing sail appearing to lift the building off the earth, and simultaneously seeming to weigh it down, compress it.

What Le Corbusier called the chapel’s “ineffable space” derives not from Zen-like simplicity or Baroque extravagance but from this quasi-Cubist asymmetry of robust, jaunty, sensuous shapes, held in improbable equilibrium as if by a juggler on a tightrope. It’s a sculptural feat. Nowadays architects rely on digital technology to fashion swooping, soaring spaces that look as if they folded in on themselves. Ronchamp, by contrast, is the product of old-fashioned craft and serendipity, every surface different from every other, imperfectly, lovingly made. – “Quiet Additions to a Modernist Masterpiece” by Michael Kimmelman

Picnics on Dune de Pyla 
About 60km (40miles) from Bordeaux lies the Dune de Pyla, the highest dune in Europe and one of the most magnificent beaches in the world.  At the summit, you get a spectacular view of the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the large pine forest on the other.

One of my favorite travel experience was sitting on top of the dune, having a picnic consisting of a great bottle of Bordeaux with my husband while soaking up that glorious view, which seemed surreal at times.  We also loved our charming little hotel La Corniche which had a breathtaking view of the Ocean.

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