Famous for its cuisine, art and architecture, France is the world’s most popular tourist destination. Visitors are lured by the romance of Paris and the sophistication of the south – but is there life beyond the Eiffel Tower, can-can girls and haughty waiters? Justine Shapiro travels to the western and northern regions of this surprisingly diverse nation to find out.
First Justine touches down on the Normandy beaches, site of the tragic World War Two D-Day landings. Touring the surrounding sites in an army jeep, she discovers the history of St Mere Eglise, the town at the centre of the behind-the-lines parachute drop the night before D-day and achieved notoriety in the film The Longest Day.
Nearby is the world famous thousand-year old pilgrimage site Mont Saint Michel, an abbey perched on a small rocky island in the middle of a shallow bay. Justine tackles the abbey on foot – a trip that’s claimed a fair few pilgrims through the centuries because of its sudden tidal turns and deep pits of quick sand.
Justine jumps on a high-speed train and travels back in time to prehistoric Brittany. All along its southern region there are mysterious megaliths; especially striking are the formations found in Carnac – older, larger and more numerous than the more famous Stonehenge in England.
Brittany stands out of the French cultural landscape with its individual history and language. The Fete de Broduese celebrates Brittany’s uniqueness. At this festival women sport coifs – largeembroidered hats typical of the region. Justine meets the queen of the festival and even gets a coiff of her own.Passing through the coastal resorts of Le Touquet, Boulogne-sur-merand Calais, Justine continues inland to discover French Flanders, probably the least known part of France. The people in Flanders have much in common with the Flemish of neighbouring Belgium. Justine chances upon the Festival of Giants, taking place just outside Flanders in Douai. She eats lunch with a family of medieval giants and takes part in the town’s festivities.
Battlefield Tourism is big business in the north and the hardships and heroism of World War One soldiers is of enduring interest to thousands of visitors every year. Justine joins World War fanatics for a night in a farmhouse that served as a front line hospital for the British – a good place to mentally prepare for a morning trip through the haunting trenches of the Somme Valley. Finally, Justine moves northeast for a scenic bike ride -and ends up in the Champagne region where she toasts her discovery of this often overlooked yet equally fascinating region of France.
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