Lesser Known French CitiesWhen it comes to city breaks, France offers the lot: great shopping, fantastic restaurants, fascinating galleries and a wonderful café culture. But once you’ve ticked off the best, namely Paris, Toulouse, Lille and Marseille, where do you head for next?
One of my favourite French cities is Troyes, just an hour and a half by train from Paris in Champagne-Ardennes. Fittingly, the old town is the shape of the champagne cork and the restaurants are a great place to sample those famous bubbles and its other regional delicacy, andouillette – a special kind of sausage.
Shoppers will find themselves in seventh heaven as Troyes offers several discount stores on its outskirts, and if you’re planning on taking your car to fill with bargains (it’s a four-hour drive from Calais), then it’s only a short drive onwards to the area’s wine producers along the route de champagne.
If too much indulgence of the retail or alcoholic variety leaves you needing forgiveness, then a trip to see the city’s churches and cathedral will be rewarded by the sight of the magnificent stained glass and gothic architecture.
Le Mans is perhaps more famous among petrol-heads than culture vultures, but beyond the 24-hour sports car race and its related museum, there’s a medieval city that is best explored on foot. Its cobbled streets and alleyways weave between ancient timber-framed houses that have starred as the backdrop to many a period feature film, the most famous of which is Cyrano de Bergerac.
The city also boasts strong links to the Plantagenet dynasty which is wonderfully illustrated by their nocturnal spectacular – Les Nuits des Chimères a series of colourful projections on the exterior of the city’s grandest buildings. Sadly the summer series is now over, but they resume during the Christmas holidays.
If you’re in search of historical hijinks before that, head down to Le-Puy-en-Velay in Auvergne where the whole town comes together mid-September for its Bird King festival. This Renaissance carnival sees 6,000 people don period costumes and masks to celebrate an ancient tradition with street theatre, concerts and parades.
As if that wasn’t exciting enough, the town (which can be reached via Lyon or Clermont-Ferrand airports) is perched on and around three giant basalt pillars and rocky outcrops and is a truly amazing sight.
Further south, Avignon makes a great short break destination for both history lovers and foodies alike. The city is easily reached by plane or TGV and enjoys a wonderful setting on the River Rhone. It also boasts several Michelin-starred restaurants, giving you the chance to enjoy the good life in a way the city’s 14th-century popes would undoubtedly have approved. You can walk off the calories with a trip around the splendid Unesco-listed Palais des Papes or by dancing - as the song suggests - on that famous bridge.
Just a short train ride from Toulouse, the town of Cahors in the Lot Valley also boasts a famous bridge that was also built in the 14th century. It spans the river Lot on a tight meander that surrounds the town. It’s a great destination for shopping, wandering the narrow streets and just soaking up the atmosphere in its cafes. Oenophiles can also indulge themselves with the area’s famous ‘black wine’ – a very dark and highly tannic red wine that is perfect for sipping alongside the region’s duck dishes.
A little closer to home and just an hour’s drive from Calais, Arras makes an interesting weekend getaway, especially for those interested in World War I history. Not far from the town is Vimy Ridge where the huge Vimy Memorial pays tribute to the 60,000 Canadian soldiers who lost their lives in World War I, 11,000 of whom are named here.
The Wellington Quarry is also worth a visit; this series of underground tunnels were built by New Zealand forces in 1916. Visitors can access 350m of the tunnels and see graffiti, signs and memorabilia from the time. If you’re heading over the Channel for the festive season, you shouldn’t miss the Christmas market with around 60 different stalls.