France is a popular destination for travellers and Paris is even the most visited city in the world! But France is not only about its chic capital and the French Riviera. Inside the country, there are so many places which have a unique charm and are very different one from another so much so that you can learn about French culture something new at every place. Here is the list of lesser-known places in France that I frequently visit in the South of the country. These are much less visited by international tourists but are favourite of the French people. The best way to visit them is by car which will give you the freedom to be flexible with your program.
Go out of the beaten path and find the little known France
1 – Barcelonette
Barcelonette is a beautiful mountain town in the Alps, department of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. Situated not far from the Italian border (120 km to Torino), this town has an atmosphere that is difficult to be explained. The uniqueness maybe comes from the perfect mixture of French alpine culture and Mexican colourful culture. Why this strange mixture? The story is that for 100 years (between 1850 and 1950) many people immigrated to Mexico where they created significant wealth. As a result, they brought back to Barcelonette part of this wealth by constructing beautiful villas in various architectural styles. Each of these ‘nouveau riche’ wanted to make their familial house more luxurious and impressive than the others. So, this competition created the architectural jewellery pieces that can be seen today in Barcelonette.
2 – Aix-en-Provence
Its name already speaks a lot and comes from the thermal springs that the Romans found here. Aix’s landmarks are its numerous fountains. The central city part is so beautiful and walking around is a real pleasure. You should not miss spending some time at Cours Mirabeau. It’s a street covered by plane-trees (that offer life-giving shade during the hot summer) and populated with youngsters. Both sides are shaped by the beautiful architecture in Mediterranean styles – bold doors, soft façade colours and fine metal railings. Enjoy your stay and take the time to walk in the small streets behind and open your eyes wide while wandering the streets of this city with a bustling culture.
3 – Mirepoix
Mirepoix is not very popular among international tourists. For the French people, it is known as a place where in the past but even now you can find many hippies living here. Yes, hippies. Their children can be seen in the old square. There you will find very special (and lovely colourful) examples of medieval architecture. The central square looks like a movie set and it is hard to believe that it is actually real and standing there for centuries. To visit Mirepoix you should go to the region of Midi-Pyrenees. It is easy to park and very quiet to walk. Just be aware of the weird people that you may encounter, but they are part of the town’s charm. On Mondays, there is a big market that I personally didn’t have the chance to visit but many people recommend it if this is your cup of tea.
4 – Saint-Jean-du-Luz
Saint-Jean-du-Luz is very special French town. Why? Because it is located in the Basque region and Spain is nearby (San Sebastian is 33 km away and takes just 30 minutes to go there and you DEFINITELY SHOULD plan a one-day trip to visit it!). Defined by its French-Basque culture the place is interesting and appetizing with its Basque cuisine (the near San Sebastian is famous gourmet capital). The beaches are gorgeous but the water is cold! Be aware that it is the Atlantic Ocean, not the warm and salty Mediterranean Sea!
5 – Laverq
The mountaineers will be delighted to visit this place. Laverq is a small valley in the French department Alpes-des-Haute-Provence, not far from Barcelonette. At Laverq you can disconnect from the rest of the world, hike in the Alpes for days and make some incredible photos. Places for accommodation are limited. Check and book the place in advance but camping is always an option if you go in the summers.
6 – Le Mees
The gorgeous natural rock formations (“Penitents of Mees”) looks like standing guard over the town. Behind their name, there is an intriguing legend involving a Saracen invasion but today they are just a very interesting natural phenomenon. At the end of the town, where you can approach the rocks there are picnic places arranged which are perfect for a lunch break with a view! The town itself is typical Provencal place with small streets and houses in ochre colours. Just before you reach the “Penitents”, at the right side of the street you will see the restaurant “La Marmite du Pecheur”. This place is one of the preferred by people from the region for having lunch with family and friends accompanied by tasty gourmet food. Not cheap but definitely worth the money.
7 – Corps-la-Sallete
Not far from Grenoble, this small village is surrounded by high mountains that give the place a very picturesque look. The air is crystal clear and life slow and peaceful. The place is famous for pilgrimage since 1846. Stop to take your morning coffee with those mouth-melting croissants at the ‘Hotel de la Poste’ which terraces are abundantly arranged with flower pots.
8 – La Prarie de la Rencontre
On the same route from Corps-la-Salette, passing by Grenoble in the direction of Paris, there is a place which means nothing to the foreigners but for the French people is famous and historically important. It is closely connected with the life and political success of Napoleon Bonaparte. Read more about the place in ‘Say Hello to Napoleon. Apart from the historical side, It is also perfect for a short stop and lunch picnicking.
9 – Bandol
Would you love going to Cote d’Azur? Who doesn’t?! This small town represents everything about the famous French seaside but there are much fewer tourists. The port is crowded with yachts, the quay street filled with restaurants and cafes. At the summer evenings, there is an artisanal market. But the most interesting somehow are the Provencal villas in warm colours all over the places. Here you can smell and feel the real life of southern France and taste its comfy lifestyle. More about the town in BANDOL – Cote d’Azur Charm & Paradise for Wealthy French retirees.
10 – Moustier
Moustier is considered as one of the most beautiful Provencal villages in France. Despite that I consider this exaggerated, it is true that Moustier is a beautiful example of a French village with a strong artisanal past. Here during centuries the famous ceramics with the same name was designed and produced, all by hand. Still, the narrow streets are filled with small shops selling traditional faience in white and it is a pleasure for the eyes to look at the various items covered with beautifully painted details. During the summer, it is a very hot place for a visit, probably because it is built on limestone cliffs.
What’s your favourite place in France? Can you add some more to this list?
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