Six Sides of the Hexagone

By on January 20, 2014

The world’s most visited country, France proves irresistible to 82 million foreign holidaymakers every year. Part of the nation’s appeal is its astonishing variety. Fleur Kinson explores the many facets of France.

The French are a proud bunch, justifiably pleased with their homeland and its manifold achievements. They have many terms of endearment for la belle France, but one that often needs a quick explanation to outsiders is ‘L’Hexagone’. Just look at a map, imagine a simplified outline of the nation (forgetting islands such as Corsica and all the overseas départements in Africa, the Caribbean and South America), and you’ll grasp the name straightaway.

L’Hexagone is a big place. Physically, it’s the largest country in the EU. It has about twice the land area of the UK, but roughly the same population – giving every citizen a bit more space to call their own. Being so large, it pulls off some nifty geographic and cultural tricks – it’s the only nation, for example, to be both a Northern European country and a Mediterranean country. It meets the chilly English Channel, the pounding Atlantic and the sunny Med. Its neighbours include Spaniards, Germans, Italians, Swiss and Belgians. Clearly, with such diverse edges, France can’t help but be a nation of distinct parts, encompassing a range of climates, cuisines, landscapes and architectures. It’s almost a continent in miniature.

Such a varied country could be divided up in any number of ways. But with a nickname like L’Hexagone, who could resist trying to sum up the place in six little chunks?


un – Northern France: cathedrals and cities
Prone to UK-style weather, France’s north doesn’t attract quite as many delirious devotees as certain other parts of the country, but discerning visitors know that there’s an abundance of lovely stuff up here. Chief among the delights are the grand, exquisitely-wrought cathedrals of Normandy. There’s giddy fun to be had wheeling through the vineyards and cellars of Champagne, or hiking through the handsome woodlands of the Ardennes. You might ogle the Loire’s majestic châteaux, or sample the exotic Franco-German melange of Alsace and Lorraine – where Hansel-and-Gretel architecture gazes onto distinctly French savoir-vivre. And oh yeah, the north also contains a little city called Paris that you might have heard of. Quite worth a visit, one hears.

deux – Atlantic France: breakers and oysters
Colourful Brittany feels like a little world unto itself, with its mystical Celtic traditions and dramatic, Cornwall-style coast. But all of France’s long Atlantic seaboard has a special atmosphere all its own. The French themselves love to holiday here, relishing the miles of sand, the intriguing islands, sleepy coastal villages, stately port-towns, old Roman cities and stunning seafood. The glittering water isn’t the Med, but the culture grows steadily more southern, more sunflowers-and-siesta, the further down you go. Particularly lovely are the pine-fringed sands south of Bordeaux, where curiosities such as warm saltwater lagoons and Europe’s biggest sand dune await you.

trois – The Southwest Corner: vines and castles
From the corduroy-looking hills of endless vineyards to the pointy turrets of fairytale castles, from festive beach-towns to celestial mountainscapes, France’s southwest has much to enchant. And it’s a lot less crowded than other places with similar delights. The grape-growing expanses of Languedoc see far fewer tourists than rural Provence, for example; and the snow-capped Pyrenees are much less developed than the Alps. Local towns and cities are very appealing, with buzzy Montpellier and wonderful Toulouse especially memorable. There’s cultural kaleidoscopic fun where the southwest abuts the Basque country on the Atlantic, and also where it meets Catalonia on the Mediterranean. Then there’s the engineering marvel of the magnificent Canal du Midi, slicing across 150 miles to unite that mighty ocean with that peerless sea.


quatre – The Southeast Playground: yachts and bikinis
The southeast is France’s biggest visitor area. Here Provençal villages send seekers of rustic idyll into swoons, while Côte d’Azur beaches fuel a thousand fantasies of jet-set glamour. It’s all deliciously beautiful – pretty plantlife, vivid seawater, sensuous temperatures. Fragrant fields of lavender and languid olive groves cede to plunging white rocks with their feet in a turquoise Med. No wonder the area has attracted so many artists over the years, not to mention hedonists of every kind. For all its arguable overcrowding today, the southeast still yields enough space and beauty to make it utterly worth the trip. There are plenty of unspoilt landscapes and gorgeous beaches to explore. Plus gem-like islands, ranging from intimate dots to gigantic Corsica – a clean, unspoilt and geographically radiant place.

cinq – The Alps: hiking and skiing
Formed by an almighty collision of tectonic plates millions of years ago, the Alps are deemed one of the world’s most beautiful mountain ranges. Intricate networks of well-signposted paths give walkers endless opportunity to sigh over spectacular views, while super-chic ski resorts and world-class pistes delight millions in the winter. The French Alps are further blessed with some exceptionally charming towns and villages – not to mention the stunning gastro-capital, Lyon. Various picturesque lakes complete the area’s perfection.

six – The Interior: calm and comfort
France is predominantly a rural country, and its vast interior holds fertile hills, spacious fields, winding rivers, and highly contented towns and villages. British visitors are particularly enamoured of the Dordogne, with its delightful verdant landscapes. Further off, Burgundy unfurls its magnificent vineyards – a prosperous and gastro-minded region full of handsome towns and pretty churches. And then there’s the mystical Auvergne, with its grassy domes of long-dead volcanoes and its quiet, old-fashioned way of life. The Auvergne is one of France’s least visited regions, despite sitting at the very centre of the country. It’s a great place for that getting-away-from-it-all feeling.

So, which of the many faces of France are you going to explore next?

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