The New Regions Of France: Where To Go & Why?
The redrawn regions of mainland France are now very much in official use – here’s a rundown of each area’s highlights.
When the powers-that-be decided to reduce the number of official regions in mainland France from 21 down to 12, traditionalists baulked. It was au revoir to familiar names such as Midi-Pyrénées and Alsace and bonjour to larger, newly titled administrative areas such as Grand-Est and Hauts-de-France. Just as some regions remain unaffected by the move, however, so too does the country’s superb potential for travel. Below, in alphabetic order, is an overview of the dozen domains that now fill the mainland map.
Travel writer Ben Lerwill hails from the Oxfordshire Cotswolds, and has channelled his wanderlust into creating articles for National Geographic Traveller, The Independent, Wanderlust, Rough Guides, Time Out and BBC Countryfile and more.
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Marrying the green peaks of Auvergne with the mountain topography of Rhône-Alpes, this new region lays forceful claim to being one of France’s biggest draws for outdoor-lovers. But it’s not all quiet slopes and high-altitude ridges – the borders also encompass dynamic Lyon, the third largest city in the country.
Bon appétit: Lyon is, in the eyes of many, the gastronomic capital of France. Call into one of its bouchons for an authentic coq au vin.
On the road: Head onto the scenic minor roads around Clermont-Ferrand to explore the region’s under-visited villages.
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Another plainly titled portmanteau arrangement – pairing the rural borderland of Franche-Comté with the vineyard-swathed countryside of Burgundy – the region finds a natural focal point in Dijon, a city full of history and handsome architecture.
Bon appétit: Boeuf bourguignon is a classic Burgundy speciality, and at its best should be rich, hearty and well seasoned.
On the road: Beginning and ending in Vézelay, take a circular drive through Saulieu, Fontenay Abbey and Avallon to incorporate some of the region’s best medieval sights.
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Untouched by the reworking of the regional map, Brittany remains a magnet for UK travellers. Culturally proud, easily reached and fringed by a wild coastline, it’s a destination of dense forests and ancient megaliths. The driving distance from St Malo to Paris might be just four hours, but the capital feels a world away.
Bon appétit: Brittany means crepes. Opt for a savoury galette complète (with melted cheese, ham and a fried egg), or go all-out with a crème-laden, fruit-packed sweet version.
On the road: Drive along Brittany’s coastal roads to experience the region’s jagged cliffs and wave-bashed coves.
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Centre-Val de Loire
Located close to the heart of the country, as its name suggests, the Centre region is best known for playing host to the grandest and most popular of the Loire Valley chateaux, among them Villandry, Azay le Rideau, Chenonceau and Chambord.
Bon appétit: A local speciality is fouaces, or fouées: pitta-style pockets of bread usually served with shredded pork rillettes.
On the road: The region gives the chance to take a Loire road trip that broadly follows one of Europe’s great rivers, with regular stop-offs at waterside chateaux.
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The name translates literally as “heights of France”, although ironically this is the lowest-lying region in the country. Its title comes from the fact that it occupies the northernmost part of the map, and cultural travellers will find everything from WWI sites to UNESCO-listed belfries, as well as one of France’s most up-and-coming cities: arty Lille.
Bon appétit: Cheese-lovers should make a point of trying mimolette, a hard, tasty cow’s cheese with a distinctive orange colour.
On the road: The drive from Calais to Boulogne serves up coastal towns and plenty of clifftop scenery.
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Home to tourist draws such as Reims, Strasbourg and The Ardennes, the Grand-Est region spans what was until recently three separate entities: Alsace, Lorraine and Champagne-Ardenne. For Gothic cathedrals, fortified castles and one of the best known wine trades in the world, look no further.
Bon appétit: The quiche Lorraine is arguably the archetypal French pastry dish – this is where to try the authentic version.
On the road: The 170-kilometre Alsatian Wine Route threads through various hill villages. Be sure to plan ahead if you want to indulge in tastings.
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This is the smallest of France’s mainland regions, but by far its most visited. The reason? A city by the name of Paris. Away from the dizzying pull of the capital, meanwhile, other cultural highlights include Versailles, the Château de Malmaison and the village of Auvers-sur-Oise.
Bon appétit: Available in a veritable riot of different colours and flavours, the macaron – two delicate almond meringue shells joined with buttercream – is a Paris classic.
On the road: The city centre is emphatically no place for a stress-free pleasure drive, but Charles de Gaulle Airport provides a logical starting point for a wider French road trip.
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Another long-standing favourite with UK travellers – and largely unaffected by the regional re-jigging – Normandy boasts big-name attractions such as the D-Day beaches, Rouen Cathedral, Mont Saint-Michel and, at Giverny, Monet’s house and gardens.
Bon appétit: Cheese is one of the cornerstones of the Normandy food scene, with Camembert, Livarot and Pont l’Eveque among the tastiest (and most pungent) in France.
On the road: A drive that incorporates Giverny, Rouen and Bayeux – home to the famous tapestry – is easily achieved. Continue to the coast for a salty-aired finale.
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Parcelling together Aquitaine, Limousin and Poitou-Charentes, this broad swathe of the southwest now stands as the largest administrative region in France. Its largest city is the wonderful Bordeaux, while other must-sees include La Rochelle, Limoges and the Atlantic resort of Biarritz.
Bon appétit: The Périgord area is renowned for its food, with confit de canard and black truffles among its specialities.
On the road: Delve into the fabled Dordogne, an area of slow-paced hamlets, rolling hills and generous helpings of sunshine.
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The conjoining of Midi-Pyrenees and Languedoc-Roussillon has seen the return of a time-honoured name that still has a distinct cultural identity. The old Occitan way of life is kept alive by, among other things, traditional music and dedicated Occitan language schools. In terms of places to visit, meanwhile, Toulouse, Carcassonne, Albi and Montpellier are all fantastic options for tourists.
Bon appétit: The meaty bean stew known as cassoulet makes an ideal autumn or winter dish.
On the road: Take a drive that includes a trip across the astonishing Millau Viaduct, the vast Norman Foster-designed bridge spanning the Tarn Valley.
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Pays de la Loire
A region since the 1950s, Pays de la Loire combines Atlantic coastline and riverside chateaux with historic towns such as Angers, Saumur and capital city Nantes. The most celebrated Loire attractions might generally be further east in Centre-Val de Loire, but this mellow, unassuming region is no poor second.
Bon appétit: Enjoy locally caught fish, ideally served with the region’s renowned beurre blanc (a butter-based sauce made with white wine).
On the road: Take a break from being behind the wheel and watch others do it instead – the 24 Hours of Le Mans still takes place here each year and stands as the world’s oldest sports car race.
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The name alone gives a good idea of the riches on offer here – this is a region of lavender fields and mountain peaks, golden beaches and artist-seducing sunlight. It also offers some of France’s most celebrated towns and cities, from glamorous Nice and gritty Marseille to sultry St Tropez.
Bon appétit: Forget the pre-packed monstrosities you might find elsewhere in the world – a true salade niçoise, native to Nice, is a thing of beauty.
On the road: Make the most of Provence’s god-given beauty by driving out to the extraordinary Gorges du Verdon, one of Europe’s top natural marvels.
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