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Great Food

Forget the Louvre or the Château de Chenonceau—the real reason for a visit to France is to dine at its famous temples of gastronomy. Once you dive into Taillevent's lobster soufflé, you'll quickly realize that food in France is far more than fuel. The French regard gastronomy as essential to the art of living, so don't feel guilty if your meal at Paris's Grand Véfour takes as long as your visit to the Musée d'Orsay: two hours for a three-course menu is par, and you may, after relaxing into the routine, feel pressured at less than three. Gastronomads—those who travel to eat—won't want to miss a pilgrimage out to Juan-les-Pins to witness the culinary fireworks of chef Alain Llorca, whose name reveals his Basque roots. These days, la haute cuisine in the States and England is nearly as rare as Tibetan food, so plan on treating dining as religiously as the French do—at least once.

Alain Llorca Restaurant-Hôtel, La Colle sur Loup, near St-Paul-de-Vence, the Riviera. Master chef Alain Llorca marries grand cuisine with humble Provençal touches—don't be surprised to find octopus in your bouillabaisse.

Le Grand Véfour, Paris. Guy Martin's Savoyard creations are extraordinaire, but the 18th-century decor is almost more delicious.

Le Louis XV, Monaco. If you're going to feast like a king, this Alain Ducasse outpost is the place to do it.

L'Auberge de L'Ill, Illhaeusern, near Ribeauville, Alsace. Gourmands worship at this culinary temple where the Haeberline family create a brave nouvelle world by fusing Alsatian and Asian fixings to the hautest cuisine.

La Vie de Châteaux

From the humblest feudal ruin to the most delicate Loire Valley spires to the grandest of Sun King spreads, the châteaux of France evoke the history of Europe as no museum can. It is easy to slip into the role of a feudal lord standing on his castellated ramparts and scrambling to protect his patchwork of holdings from kings and dukes. The lovely landscape takes on a strategic air and you find yourself role-playing thus, whether swanning aristocratically over Chenonceau's bridgelike galerie de bal spanning the River Cher or curling a revolutionary lip at the splendid excesses of Versailles. These are, after all, the castles that inspired Charles Perrault's "Sleeping Beauty" and "Beauty and the Beast," and their fairy-tale magic—rich with history and Disney-free—still holds true. Better yet, enjoy a "queen-for-a-stay" night at one of France's many châteaux-hotels. Many are surprisingly affordable—even though some bathrooms look like they should be on a postcard.

Chambord, Loire Valley. This French Renaissance extravaganza—all 440 rooms and 365 chimneys—will take your breath away. Be sure to go up the down staircase designed by da Vinci.

Château de la Bourdaisière, Loire Valley. Not one but two princes de Broglie welcome you to this idyllic and elegant neo-Renaissance hotel.

Château d'Ussé, Loire Valley. Step into a fairy tale at Sleeping Beauty's legendary home.

Vaux-le-Vicomte, Ile-de-France. Louis XIV was so jealous when he saw this 17th-century Xanadu that he commissioned Versailles.

Beautiful Villages

Nearly everyone has a mind's-eye view of the perfect French village. Oozing half-timber houses and roses, these once-upon-a-time-ified villages have a sense of tranquillity not even tour buses can ruin. The Loire Valley's prettiest village, Saché, is so small it seems your own personal property—an eyebrow of cottages, a Romanesque church, a 17th-century auberge (inn), and a modest château. Little wonder Honoré de Balzac came here to write some of his greatest novels. Auvers-sur-Oise, the pretty riverside village in the Ile-de-France, inspired some of Van Gogh's finest landscapes. In the Dordogne region, hamlets have a Disney-like quality, right down to Rapunzel windows, flocks of geese, and storks'-nest towers. Along the Côte d'Azur you'll find the sky-kissing, hilltop villages perchés, like Èze. All in all, France has an embarras de richesses of nestled-away treasures—so just throw away the map. After all, no penciled itinerary is half as fun as stumbling upon some half-hidden Brigadoon.

Haut-de-Cagnes, French Riviera. This perfect example of the eagle's-nest village near the coast is nearly boutique-free, was once adored by Renoir, and remains ancient in atmosphere.

La Roque-Gageac, Dordogne. Lorded over by its immense rock cliff, this centuries-old riverside village is the perfect backdrop for a beautiful pique-nique.

Riquewihr, Alsace. Full of storybook buildings, cul-de-sac courtyards, and stone gargoyles, this is the showpiece of the Alsatian Wine Route.

Monet, Manet, and Matisse

It is through the eyes of its artists that many first get to know France. No wonder people from across the globe come to search for Gauguin's bobbing boats at Pont-Aven, Monet's bridge at Giverny, and the gaslit Moulin Rouge of Toulouse-Lautrec—not hung in a museum but alive in all their three-dimensional glory. In Arles you can stand on the spot where Van Gogh painted and compare his perspective to a placard with his finished work; in Paris you can climb into the garret-atelier where Delacroix created his epic canvases, or wander the redolent streets of Montmartre, once haunted by Renoir, Utrillo, and Modigliani. Of course, an actual trip to France is not necessary to savor this country: a short visit to any major museum will probably just as effectively transport the viewer—by way of the paintings of Pisarro, Millet, Poussin, Sisley, and Matisse—to its legendary landscapes. But go beyond museums and discover the actual towns that once harbored these famed artists.

Céret, Languedoc-Roussillon. Pack your crayons for a trip to Matisse Country, for this is where the artist fell in love with the fauve (savage) hues found only in Mother Nature.

Giverny, Ile-de-France. Replacing paint and water with earth and water, Monet transformed his 5-acre garden into a veritable live-in Impressionist painting.

St-Paul-de-Vence, Côte d'Azur. Pose oh-so-casually under the Picassos at the famed Colombe d'Or inn, once favored by Signac, Modigliani, and Bonnard.

Le Shopping

Although it's somewhat disconcerting to see Gap stores gracing almost every major street corner in Paris and other urban areas in France, if you take the time to peruse smaller specialty shops, you can find rare original gifts—be it an antique brooch from the 1930s or a modern vase crafted from Parisian rooftop-tile zinc. It's true that the traditional gifts of silk scarves, perfume, and wine can often be purchased for less in the shopping mall back home, but you can make an interesting twist by purchasing a vintage Hermès scarf, or a unique perfume from an artisan perfumer. Bargaining is traditional in outdoor and flea markets, antiques stores, small jewelry shops, and craft galleries, for example. If you're thinking of buying several items, or if you're simply in love with something a little bit too expensive, you've nothing to lose by cheerfully suggesting to the proprietor, "Vous me faites un prix?" ("How about a discount?") The small businessperson will immediately size you up, and you'll have some good-natured fun.

Colette, Paris. Wiggle into the ultimate little black dress at this fashionista shrine.

Grain de Vanille, Cancale. These sublime tastes of Brittany—salted butter caramels, rare honeys, and malouine cookies—make great gifts, non?

L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Provence. This canal-laced town becomes a Marrakech of marketeers on Sunday, when dazzling brocante (collectibles) dealers set up shop.

Gothic Churches and Cathedrals

Their extraordinary permanence, their everlasting relevance even in a secular world, and their transcendent beauty make the Gothic churches and cathedrals of France a lightning rod if you are in search of the essence of French culture. The product of a peculiarly Gallic mix of mysticism, exquisite taste, and high technology, France's 13th- and 14th-century "heavenly mansions" provide a thorough grounding in the history of architecture (some say there was nothing new in the art of building between France's Gothic arch and Frank Lloyd Wright's cantilevered slab). Each cathedral imparts its own monumental experience—knee-weakening grandeur, a mighty resonance that touches a chord of awe, and humility in the unbeliever. Even cynics will find satisfaction in these edifices' social history—the anonymity of the architects, the solidarity of the artisans, and the astonishing bravery of experiments in suspended stone.

Chartres, Ile-de-France. Get enlightened with France's most beautiful stained-glass windows.

Mont-St-Michel, Normandy. From its silhouette against the horizon to the abbey and gardens at the peak of the rock, you'll never forget this awe-inspiring sight.

Notre-Dame, Paris. Make a face back at the gargoyles high atop Quasimodo's home.

Reims, Champagne. Tally up the 34 VIPs crowned at this magnificent edifice, the age-old setting for the coronations of French kings.

L'Esprit Sportif

Though the physically inclined would consider walking across Scotland or bicycling across Holland, they often misconstrue France as a sedentary country where one plods from museum to château to restaurant. But it's possible to take a more active approach: imagine pedaling past barges on the Saône River or along slender poplars on a route départementale (provincial road); hiking over Alpine meadows near Megéve; or sailing the historic ports of Honfleur or Antibes. Experiencing this side of France will take you off the beaten path and into the countryside. As you bike along French country roads or along the extensive network of Grandes Randonnées (Lengthy Trails) crisscrossing the country, you will have time to tune into the landscape—to study crumbling garden walls, smell the honeysuckle, and chat with a farmer in his potager (vegetable garden).

Sentier des Cascades, Haute-Pyrénées. Near Cauterets is the GR10 walk, which features stunning views of the famous waterfalls and abundant marmottes (Pyrenean groundhogs).

Tracking the Camargue Reserve, Provence. Take an unforgettable promenade équestre (horseback tour) of this amazing nature park, home to bulls and birds—50,000 flamingos, that is.

The VBT Loire Biking Tour. Stunning châteaux-hotels, Pissarro-worthy riverside trails, and 20 new best friends make this a fantastique way to go "around the whirl."

Clos Encounters

Bordeaux or Burgundy, Sauternes or Sancerre, Romanée-Conti or Côte du Rhône—wherever you turn in France, you'll find famous Gallic wine regions and vineyards, born of the country's curvaceous landscape. Speckled unevenly with hills, canals, forests, vineyards, châteaux, and the occasional cow clinging to 30-degree inclines, the great wine regions of France attract hordes of travelers more interested in shoving their noses deep into wine glasses than staring high into the stratosphere of French cathedral naves. Fact is, you can buy the bottles of the fabled regions—the Côte d'Or, the Rhône Valley, or that oenophile's nirvana, Bordeaux—anywhere, so why not taste the lesser-known local crus from, say, the lovely vineyards in the Loire Valley. Explore the various clos (enclosures) and côtes (hillsides) that grow golden by October, study the vendangeur (grape pickers), then drive along the wine routes looking for those "Dégustation" signs, promising free sips from the local vintner. Pretty soon you'll be an expert on judging any wine's aroma, body, and backwash.

The Alsace Route de Vin. Between Mulhouse and Strasbourg, many picture-book villages entice with top vintners.

Clos de Vougeot, Burgundy. A historic wine-making barn, 13th-century grape presses, and its verdant vineyard make this a must-do.

Mouton-Rothschild, Route de Médoc. Baron Philippe perfected one of the great five premiers crus here—and there's an excellent visitor center.

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