Explore Secret France
Long-time readers probably know most of the famous tourist spots in France. Ah, but there are places in France most people know nothing about unless they’ve read the new book, Discover France in 100 Destinations published earlier this year. As a preview, we now present some of the secret places in France you might not have heard of.
1. Musée Condé, Hauts-de-France
The Duke of Aumale reportedly traveled all around Europe in search of artworks that were once the property of his ancestors that disappeared during the famous French Revolution. He soon became one of the greatest collectors of the era. Finally, he rebuilt the Condés’ château located in Chantilly to hold the art, thus beginning a museum second only to the more famous Louvre.
2. Château de Breteuil, Île-de-France
Here you can explore the vast gardens, then go inside to see the rather intricate interiors. This place is reportedly inhabited by several infamous ghosts such as Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and the Prince of Wales (a.k.a. The future King Edward VII. Enjoy waxwork figures made by the renowned Musée Grévin’s artisans. Learn of the Breteuil family and the part they played in France’s history. The chateau is a fine example of architecture too.
3. Musée Gustave Moreau, Paris
Veteran visitors of France say this residence/museum is worth repeat visits. The former home was actually designed by the artist, who preferred spacious rooms. See his canvases hanging on the picture rails, in cabinets, and even in drawers. The spirit of the French artist lives on here within this enchanting building.
4. Château Gaillard, Normandy
This imposing structure was erected by the famous English king, Richard the Lionhearted after the Norman Conquest. Situated above the Seine, it was meant to discourage Philip II’s ambition as well as protect access to the river back in 1198. Today it is largely in ruin and yet visitors can still get a sense of its awe-inspiring size.
5. The Pink Granite Coast, Brittany
Some claim these huge, smooth, pink, rounded rocks resemble fruits. The granite’s unique color ranges from a rosy amber to coral which is further offset by the crystal teal of the sea. It certainly shows off a rare natural blend of feldspar and quartz. These formations span 10 kilometers, over six miles, of the coast.
6. The Carnac Stones, Brittany
Visit the battalions that stand in lines for kilometers ‘neath the Brittany sky. Thousands of menhirs in the ground here have guarded the memorable Morbihan coast for over seven millennia. Their regularity, majesty, and proportions indicate they aren’t a natural phenomenon. Nonetheless, to date, only theories exist as to their true purpose.
7. The Oriental Park of Maulévrier, Pays de la Loire
In springtime, the blooming cherry trees here change this 72-acre park’s pathways into a wonderful white carpet. Here you’ll see azaleas, camellias, and rhododendrons mingling with Japanese maples and additional Chinese larches. You might forget you’re in the Loire Valley because it is reportedly “the most significant Japanese garden” in all of Europe.
8. Le Clos Lucé, Centre-Val de Loire
This is where the great Leonardo da Vinci spent the last years of his life. The leaders of both France and Italy have led the way in establishing this elegant home to honor da Vinci. Made of stone and brick, the house is ensconced within large grounds. The ground floor studio was specifically reconstructed so guests can easily imagine the artist at work.
9. Château de Cheverny, Centre-Val de Loire
This charming, popular château may seem familiar to you. Indeed, the building’s facade is used by the well-known cartoonist Hergé as a model for Marlinspike Hall, the fictional residence of the characters Tintin and Captain Haddock. This obviously opulent early château from the 1600s features rich, original interiors, distinctive paneling, wall coverings, and even leather from Córdoba.
10. Château de la Brede, Nouvelle-Aquitaine
Charles-Louis de Secondat de Montesquieu wrote the seminal work, “The Spirit of the Laws” in this chateau built in the 1300s. He also added a pair of new gardens and rearranged more than four centuries of treasures here to suit his liking. In the two centuries since he lived there, nothing has changed.
11. Padirac Cave, Nouvelle-Aquitaine
In 1889, spelunker Édouard-Alfred Martel entered this 103 meter-deep well. Inspired by the works of author Jules Verne he pressed on, discovering a maze of galleries, with an actual river system running through them. The water was initially dark, soon turning cobalt blue in his candlelight. He also found multiple chambers with cathedral-like vaults, complete with iridescent stalactites. Today, you can explore all this for yourself via foot or even an elevator.
12. Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy, Occitanie
For centuries, this church has gathered France’s most significant collection of religious goldsmithery. Indeed, the famous cult of relics was reportedly “fundamental to the Middle Ages.” It made Conques into a significant spiritual center situated on the way to Santiago de Compostela. It was constructed during the 11th century, it is an excellent example of Romanesque architecture too.
13. Albi Cathedral, Occitanie
This cathedral is the world’s official largest religious brick building. It resembles fortified castles or bastions. Its exterior’s austerity and stark lines provide a stark contrast to the building’s ornate interior. Inside it features flamboyant ornamentation and vibrant colors. Gold covers the pillars, vaults, and walls. The organs include lavish woodwork and there’s also the fantastic fresco of the Last Judgment.
14. Tarn Gorge, Occitanie
Local legend has it that the Merovingian princess Énimie, sister of King Dagobert, reportedly had leprosy until the waters of the Burle somehow cured her. The Burle is actually a small tributary of the above-mentioned Tarn River. The little village of Sainte-Énimie and quaint capital of the Tarn Gorge is the starting point to your enchanted journey through this canyon. It runs 53 kilometers east to west, and the iver is lined with a series of memorable sites.
15. Grotte des Demoiselles, Occitanie
Many years ago, a shepherd named Jean watched as his flock grazed on the grassy Thaurac Plateau. He soon noticed he had lost one of his flock. He heard the sheep bleating though so he went looking for it.
Suddenly, he fell into a deep crevasse. When he eventually made his way back to his village, he told everyone he had been caught in Hell’s bowels. It was a mysterious, large cavern. There he met one thousand fairies who danced and sang for him. Today you can see this cavern yourself. It’s 122 meters long, 80 meters wide, and 50 meters deep.
16. Fontfroide Abbey, Occitanie
The Cistercians of France brought back a strict observance of the olden Rule of Saint Benedict. They hoped this would renew the poverty and austerity at the center of Christianity. After the community’s monks had been decimated by the Black Death in the 1300s, Fontifroide lost both its independence and power. Oddly, at the same time, the architectural marvels visitors admire today were actually born of this decline. Modern features and improvements long since denied this sanctuary were finally made.
17. Centre National du Costume de Scène, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes
This museum was opened in 2006. Devoted exclusively to “preserving theatrical heritage”, it is the largest of its kind. It includes nearly 10,000 individual pieces, such as costumes, props, wigs, jewelry, and even stage. Here you will find some of the theatre’s iconic costumes designed by the likes of Coco Chanel, Thierry Mugler, and hristian Lacroix.
18. Royal Monastery of Brou, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes
This religious complex was the first to win a yearly competition for “the French people’s favorite landmark.” (Sorry, Eiffel Tower.) It is an architectural marvel that incorporates the very best of Austrian, Flemish, French, and Spanish styles. Beneath the monastery church’s multicolored roof is the final resting place of Philibert II and Margaret of Austria. Margaret was widowed at 24 and never remarried. She took on the construction of this place to honor her spouse.
19. Ferdinand Cheval’s Ideal Palace, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes
Postman Ferdinand Cheval built this pretty palace. It often confounds art lovers. One travel writer called it a “masterpiece of naïve art, [that is]…unique and distinct from any [other] art movement.” Cheval had envisioned his palace in a vivid dream and came upon a striking stone while making his mail run in 1879. No further inspiration as necessary. It took 33 years to make his artistic architectural dream come true.
20. The Roman Theatre of Orange, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur
This Roman amphitheater was built during the first century AD under the reign of Augustus. It is said to be “the best-preserved” on the European continent and has been praised throughout history. Louis XIV declared the stage wall to be “the most beautiful wall in my kingdom.”
It is 103 meters long and 37 meters high and seats 9000 people. Oddly, it was not until the 1800s that, following an intermission of 1,500 years, that dramatic performances resumed. It was then that the world-famous Chorégies d’Orange, now one of the most prestigious and oldest opera festivals on the planet was launched.
21. Palais des Papes, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur
For over half a century in the 1300s, Avignon was deemed the official center of Christianity. While civil wars were decimating medieval Italy, the famous Holy See reportedly took refuge in the papal properties of Provence. It took decades to erect the Palais des Papes, a stunning structure deemed worthy of the very highest priesthood. It is bigger than four normal cathedrals and includes apartments decorated with frescoes by famous Italian painter Matteo Giovanetti.
22. Calanques of Cassis, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur
Residents are proud of their narrow attractive azure inlets into the alabaster rocks. They refer to them as simply calanques. Here you will discover paradisiacal beaches and steep, sturdy cliffs.
Be sure to visit En-Vau, Port-Miou, and Port-Pi. They go on for 20 kilometers. Experience wild, captivating nature, right on the outskirts of one of the country’s largest cities. There is no traffic as you can only get there by boat or on foot. Veteran visitors say this is the place where the “sun, bright stone and saltwater meet.” Stop and smell the roses, or in this case, the aniseed, rosemary, and thyme.
23. The Exotic Garden of Èze, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur
High atop the craggy cliff called Eze Rock is an imposing fortress from the 1100s. From here, travelers can take in exceptional views of the surrounding area. In fact, during the 1950s the mayor made the decision to further enhance the view by commissioning none other than Jean Gastaud, the renowned designer of the tractive Exotic Garden of Monaco.
At the foot of the rugged ruins, the two of them designed one of the most original gardens on the entire European continent. It features aloes, cacti, and additional succulents. This garden is a magnificent mosaic of greens, yellows, and fluorescent pinks.
24. The Scandola Nature Reserve, Corsica
Travelers in the know can confirm that this reserve features one of the Mediterranean basin’s most magnificent marine landscapes. Some say it is even worthy of a visit from ol’ King Neptune himself. Be sure to visit the volcanic rocks that seem to drop into the clear blue-green water here at this official UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is one of the nation’s most well=preserved and rarest biodiversity sites and also includes many minerals, plants, and animals by the awesome amber-colored cliffs.
25. The Gardens of the Château de Villandry, Centre-Val de Loire
These extraordinarily elegant terraces, man-made mazes, and waterways decorated with statuary offer quite a contrasting view from overhead. A bird’s eye view of this garden spot reveals a positively palatial pattern of geometry and colors. If you somehow notice a more current feel to this place it is probably due to the fact that this superb site was totally transformed in the 1800s and more recently reconstructed by none other than Joachim Carvallo in the early 1900s.