6 years ago
5 top World Heritage Sites in France? Where do we begin? Even UNESCO’s shown signs of fatigue over the country’s pretty much endless parade of historic, significant, ancient, important, unique and just plain stunning. How else would you explain a site listed as just ’56 Belfries’? Or ‘The Loire Valley’ – all of it, the whole lot? Or what about ‘The Banks of the Seine’? Yes indeed, it seems that France has more than its fair share of nice stuff to classify. Such a lot in fact, it’s apparently not always possible to separate it, and you just get great big chunks of lumped together loveliness in between the charming, breathtaking and astonishing places that didn’t quite make the cut.
Banks of the Seine – © vonderauvisuals
So, in the spirit of égalité, we’re going North to South for our top five. It’s not a definitive guide but it contains a few all-time favourites, gives you some coast and mountains, covers France from pre-history to round about the time the revolutionaries got a bit tetchy over the lack of food and abundance of gold leaf, mirrors and relentless topiary. There were one or two candidates on UNESCO’s ‘Tentative List’ we’d like to have thrown in, but couldn’t: the Camargue? Tentative? Really? Nothing tentative about flamingoes as far as we’re concerned! And we’ve steered clear of cathedrals because, when you’ve seen one soaring buttress etc.
Winter approaches and since we’ve a fondness for North West France in the colder months of the year, let’s start with Mont Saint Michel.
Mont Saint-Michel © susanna giaccai
To be clear, Mont Saint Michel is definitely an island. It’s reached by a causeway (oh, the romance), surrounded by sea, sand and salt meadows (oh, even more romance) and it’s in Normandy, but just on the border of Brittany. The island’s Abbey is 11th century in origin and has the crypts to prove it, later modifications and additions are responsible for the iconic fairy-tale appearance and it’s all as beautifully preserved as you would expect. Mont Saint Michel is effectively a spiritual hierarchy with God on top (The Abbey) and the cottages of farmers and fisherfolk at the base (outside the walls). In between, the grand halls and stores descend, clinging to the island’s shape so organically that from a distance it’s hard to tell what’s natural and what’s not. The bay surrounding Mont Saint Michel is also a World Heritage Site but please don’t be tempted to walk across the sands to the island, pilgrims didn’t call it ‘St. Michael in peril from the sea’ for nothing. With only 44 permanent residents, Mont Saint Michel today has more sheep than people and the area’s famous for unique and delicious agneau de pré salé (salt meadow lamb). To protect the island and its fragile surroundings from the impact of over 3 million visitors a year, Mont Saint Michel is traffic free and the nearest parking is 2 km away on the mainland – you can walk across the causeway or catch a shuttle. And if you like your drama heightened, vivid late afternoon sunsets and mist-tinged frosty mornings, winter is the most peaceful and (in our opinion) loveliest time to see Mont Saint Michel.
Pious restraint and austere northern beauty not your thing? Then allow us to lead you 55km to the south of Paris and the riotous romp through eight centuries of French Royal excess that is Le Château de Fontainebleau.
Le Château de Fontainebleau © FredArt
The oldest and one of the largest French Royal Palaces, Fontainebleau has 1500 rooms, 130 hectares of parkland and so much gold and tapestry and draping and allegory and ornament that it’s quite probably a verb in Dubai: To Fontainebleau – overwhelm every inch of available space with eye watering vulgarity. But Le Château de Fontainebleau’s interior is the original and you have to look at it without pre-conception – hard to do when faced with 25 acres of frolicking nymphs, but worth it, we promise. And if all that open-minded appreciation of such richness brings out The Very Hungry Caterpillar in you, Fontainebleau’s legendary parkland is hectare after hectare of very nice green leaves and lots of other delightful natural antidotes to cherubs and Chinoserie. Surprisingly the parkland isn’t a World Heritage Site, but it is possibly some of the most magnificent in France and this is not a country short on great landscaping.
Skipping over the 300 or more châteaux that collectively earn The Loire Valley its World Heritage status, we’re instead irresistibly drawn to the Lascaux Caves in South West France.
Lascaux Caves © Adibu456
One of several pre-historic World Heritage Sites in the Dordogne’s Vallée Vézère, Lascaux is famous for its cave paintings which are considered to be the world’s finest and most extensive examples of Paleolithic art. The Lascaux Caves were discovered in 1940, opened to the public in 1948 and finally closed in 1963 because in just 15 years the 17,000 year old art had been almost irreparably damaged by visitors. Today, Lascaux II is an almost exact replica of the caves recreated close to the original. The paintings have been faithfully reproduced and the entire experience is captivating, intelligent and very moving.
When it comes to ‘world’s finest examples’, even the shortest list of French World Heritage Sites has to include the Cité de Carcassonne at the Mediterranean end of the Canal du Midi (another World Heritage Site) in South West France.
The Cité de Carcassonne dominates Carcassonne’s entire skyline with fairy-tale turrets, ramparts and imposing towers, managing to look both mighty and ethereal and well up to holding down a siege or keeping back a Medieval invader or two. The restored Medieval Cité itself is a fairly austere experience going for atmosphere over ornament, but it has a ‘Torture Tower’ if you’re interested in – unexpected – instruments of inquisition. And the commercialised ‘old town’ is more than happy to make up for its fortified counterpart’s minimalism with almost endless opportunities to buy Medieval souvenirs from surly shopkeepers charging exorbitant prices. Trust us, you’ll never regret saying ‘no’ to some curly-toed velvet slippers or a slash-sleeved ankle length robe.
To end on a heritage high note, we had to go for Scandola Nature Reserve on Corsica.
Scandola Nature Reserve © Rox More
Not an island lacking in dramatic landscape, Corsica does rugged and strange as a matter of course and specialises in towns that teeter off cliffs, terrifyingly twisty mountain roads and a fair number of rocky outcrops, sea stacks and grottos. So when we tell you that Scandola beats just about everywhere else on the island for sheer scale and almost unearthly beauty, you know this is one to definitely tick on the World Heritage list. Lying to the west of Corsica, Scandola is primarily a nature reserve and its vast rock pillars, caves and cliffs are home to an astonishing variety of sea birds. The reserve is only accessible by boat so it’s a site less visited which is worth a mention in itself.
Depending on where you stand with Belfries and Cĥateaux, France has 37 or over 300 World Heritage Sites and that’s before you touch the ‘Tentative List’. So even if you aren’t inspired to head out and get yourself some Medieval garb in Carcassonne, cross the causeway to Mont Saint Michel or brave the opulence of Fontainebleau, there are still quite a few alternatives to choose from.