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Small but lively French city?

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We'll be renting a car for 5 or 6 weeks starting this September and thought we'd break up the trip into two parts and stay in a city (not Paris, though) for several days.

We're looking for a small to mid-sized city north of the Loire with a few days' worth of things to do that don't require a car. Since we're not really city people, we've never done much research on French cities unless it's to find a good restaurant. We usually stay in the countryside so would be looking for a quiet neighborhood to stay in.

Are there cities in the northern half of France that you find especially interesting to visit?

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