Oui, Paris is the world’s most romantic city but even proud Parisians take a whole month off in summer to escape their beautiful city. Where do they go? They take the TGV, a fast train, just a couple of hours out of the capital to some amazing places brimming with things to do and see. Join Catriona Rowntree as she does what any chic Parisian would do: travel beyond Paris and journey to the closest coast (Normandy), or head to the capital of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, the city of Lyon.
Normandy is the agricultural heart of the ‘big farm’ we know as France. This region, north-west of Paris, is full of history, with a beautiful coastline featuring sandy beaches. It has a wonderfully genuine and authentic flavour. There are local markets on every day, in every village, selling local produce.
As well as being very green and picturesque, it is also an extraordinary centre for history and culture, with wonderful chateaus and gardens to visit, amazing restaurants, and brilliant shopping. On my recent trip, I based myself on the historic, breathtakingly beautiful River Seine at the height of summer and it was visually extraordinary.
It’s close, too: just two-hours from the capital makes it an attractive destination.
My top five highlights of Normandy:
Honfleur is really like taking a step back 200 years in time. It was, fortunately, not destroyed in the Second World War and not much has changed since then in this little coastal village where Monet first learnt to paint outside. There is a beautiful harbour and wonderful shopping.
Deauville is where a good proportion of the other half of Paris goes for their summer holidays. It is where the rich and famous like to play, which is perhaps why it is considered the 21st arrondissement of Paris.
It is said that this town was conceived for fashionable pleasures and that continues to this very day with the prevalence of horseracing, polo, golf, art galleries and upmarket shopping. On the magnificent, wide, sandy beach, there are lots of colourful parasols, with each resort having its own colour. Coco Chanel opened her first shop here in 1913 as a young dressmaker.
Giverny is where Monet has his house and garden, and painted his waterlilies. Go to Monet’s Garden first thing in the morning before the crowds. You can see first-hand the same landscapes that Monet painted. If you get there early you may even be able to chat with the gardeners.
Rouen is the capital of Normandy. Every night in summer, the town hosts the Cathedral of Light. This free sound and light show is along the lines of Vivid in Sydney, but the images are projected on to the Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Rouen dating back to 1023. Joan of Arc visited this cathedral and Richard the Lion Heart’s heart is said to be in this cathedral. The two shows explore the story of William the Conqueror and Joan of Arc and run from early June through to late September.
La Caronne is the oldest restaurant in France, opening in 1345. Soak up an authentic atmosphere in a wonderful Rouenese institution. This is where people sat outside in 1431 and ate lunch while watching poor Joan of Arc burn at the stake. When you visit, it feels bizarre to be in amongst this living history.
I recently travelled by train from Normandy, south-east to the gastronomical capital of France and beloved home town of one of the world’s greatest-ever chefs, Paul Bocuse.
I write of the city of Lyon, the culinary heart of France, as I sit at the junction of the Rhône and Saône Rivers, surrounded by vineyards and mountains.
The city of Lyon boasts 2000 years of history and is currently experiencing a tourism boom, being listed among the top 10 most popular tourist cities on Google.
More and more Australians are visiting Lyon each year and a lot of international travellers are now bypassing Paris and heading straight to Lyon, looking for an authentic, French destination in a down-to-earth city with friendly locals.
Lyon is France’s third-largest city, after Paris and Marseille, and it is rich in history. It is one of the most beautiful cities in France. Lyon is buzzing.
My top five highlights of Lyon:
Heritage: Founded by the Romans 2000 years ago, the city centre has been developed without destroying ancient buildings. It is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, specifically, the Roman district and Fourvière, the Renaissance district (Vieux Lyon), the silk district (slopes of Croix-Rousse), and the Presqu’île, which features architecture from the 12th Century to modern times.
Silk: One souvenir you must take home is a silk scarf. Lyon famously sits at the end of the Silk Road, which started in China. Thanks to the silk trade, the city became an important industrial town during the 19th century. The city still boasts the most beautiful silk factories including Hermes, famous for its luxurious silk scarves. You can receive a demonstration of the traditional ways of making silk scarves, dating back to Renaissance times, in the workshop of Soierie Saint-Georges in the old town.
Gastronomy: Eating well is part of the culture in France and the act of preparing and consuming food in Lyon is like a ceremony. People here respect and embrace the ceremonial experience. They also adhere to the tradition of all that goes with a typical French meal. Whether you’re with family, friends, or colleagues, you take time and have lunch in Lyon. Paul Bocuse is based here and you can visit his institute called Art de Vivre, and sign up to learn the secrets of French cuisine, pastry and sommellerie, even if you’re just passing through. I’m told Bocuse also holds his own luxury market every day except Monday at which he sells fish, cheeses, macaron, brioche, and lots of other goodies.
Roses: For the past 150 years, the city has been cultivating the art of the rose by creating new, prestigious varieties. More than 3000 varieties have originated here. Situated in the Tete d’Or Park, the International Rosepark covers five hectares, contains five million roses, and is lit every evening.
Cinema: The city has played a significant role in the history of cinema. The Lumiere brothers invented the cinematographe in Lyon, pioneering cinema in 1895. The Institut Lumière holds many of their first inventions. The city is also known for its famous light festival, Fête des Lumières, in December, earning Lyon the title of Capital of Lights. The festival is a celebration of thanks to the Virgin Mary, who purportedly saved the city from a deadly plague in the Middle Ages.
To read about more of Catriona’s travel adventures, and listen to her podcasts, visit journeystocome.com. For more French inspiration, download Catriona’s French podcast specials via Apple Podcasts.