A French Celebration
For us Brits, it can be easy to forget quite what a wonderful neighbour we have in France. This is, let’s remember, the country that still draws more international visitors than any other. It means this 640-mile French drive, from one end of the map to the other, serves as a hugely enjoyable reminder of just how much diversity the nation packs in. This is particularly true if you time your travels for mid-July, when you’ll experience not just Bastille Day but a number of other large-scale regional celebrations too. Allez-y!
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France’s capital is a city apart. The monuments, the boulevards, the romance, the restaurants, the bridges, the cultural swirl, the views, the boutiques – they all combine to create a uniquely Parisian atmosphere. If you’re fortunate enough to be here on July 14, find a spot early to catch the morning military parade along the Champs-Elysées. In the evening, don’t miss the main 11pm fireworks display, launched from the Trocadéro adjacent to the Eiffel Tower – try escaping the crowds by booking onto a Seine dinner cruise. Beginning the journey south, Lyon sits 290 miles away.
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Renowned as France’s gastronomic heart – which is some accolade – Lyon is another of the country’s essential city stop-offs. Start your wanderings in Vieux Lyon, the UNESCO-listed Old Town, exploring the city’s traboules (secret passageways) and stopping for a Franco-Japanese lunch at the remarkable Au 14 Fevrier. In the afternoon, catch the funicular up to the four-towered Basilica Notre Dame (locally nicknamed the “upside-down elephant”) for outstanding panoramas. Close by you’ll find an impressive old Roman theatre, which hosts big-name musicians throughout June and July as part of the “Nuits de Fourvière” festival. Moving on, you’ll follow the Rhone Valley for two hours before reaching Avignon.
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Quite probably the most beautiful city in Provence, graceful Avignon is still circled by medieval walls, a reminder that this was at one time the seat of power of the Catholic Church. Visit the Palais des Papes (Popes’ Palace), stroll across the river on the famous Pont d’Avignon and seek out some of the best French food in town at Fou de Fafa. Being here in July, you’ll see Avignon in all its finery – the widely renowned Festival d’Avignon runs through almost the entire month with a world-class programme of arts events. It’s been staged since the 1940s. Heading west into Languedoc, a 150-mile drive brings you to Carcassonne.
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Another truly spectacular city – and sitting at the heart of a region that will be familiar to any fans of Kate Mosse’s best-selling Labyrinth trilogy – Carcassonne remains a vision of age-old ramparts and bulky towers. The citadel itself holds all sorts of tucked-away treats (look out for Le Grand Puits, the Great Well, where there’s still said to be holy treasure hidden), but take time too for a pleasure cruise along the Canal du Midi. Back in town, the decade-old Festival de Carcassonne runs from early July until August and serves up a vibrant assortment of art, jazz, theatre, dance and rock. Your epic car-hire journey then culminates at Toulouse, an hour away.
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The so-called Pink City, named for the rosy hue of its buildings, sits on the River Garonne and has a through-the-ages spread of different attractions. Soak up the 18th-century grandeur of the Place du Capitole then head out to the aerospace museum at Cité de l’Espace (Toulouse has figured prominently in the stories of Airbus, Concorde and even space travel), returning to town for the obligatory sausage cassoulet – it’s done very well at Le Bon Vivre. And there’s further good news for culture-lovers: the music-focused Festival Toulouse D’Été has a vibrant schedule of concerts until early August, celebrating the diverse talent in the region and further afield.
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