Top 10 unforgettable French moments

The French capital beckons travellers from around the world, but there's so much more to see beyond the borders of Paris.

The first sight of the Eiffel Tower, that glimpse of the Mona Lisa through the crowded Louvre gallery and those high kicking can-can legs may be what entice you to travel to France, but you’ll need to step outside Paris to find the real heart of the country.

Here are 10 places that stand taller than the Eiffel Tower in my memories.

1. Claude Monet’s home, Giverny

You’ll walk in the footsteps of famed artist Claude Monet, founder of French Impressionist painting, as you stroll through the flower-filled pathways of his home at Giverny.

For the dedicated art lover, it’s fascinating to see in real life the scenes that inspired so many evocative paintings. Cross the Chinese bridge, admire the water lilies and check out the chairs in his yellow kitchen. Art comes to life here.

Claude Monet's home

2. St Paul de Vence, French Riviera

Not only does this village – perched high on the edge of mountain – look like something out of a fairytale, it is also filled with narrow alleys, staircases leading to mysterious destinations and old men playing petanque in the village square.

Apart from interesting shops that you will not be able to resist peeking into, this is the epitome of century-old French village life.

St Paul

3. Vincent Van Gogh’s haunts, Arles

Although his stay here was short (February 1888 to May 1889), it was a productive time for troubled artist Vincent Van Gogh which resulted in about 300 paintings.

You can tread the streets with a map to find the places where he set up his easel, including the bridge where he painted the Staircase of the Trinquetaille Bridge, the Rhone River embankment featured in his Starry Night over the Rhone and the Place du Forum for the Café in the Evening.

Enjoy a drink, rather than a meal, at the café (traveller’s tip) and look at the world through Vincent’s eyes.

Van Gogh

4. Nice’s Cours Saleya market

It’s known as the Flower Market, but the winding laneways are filled with colourful stalls from Tuesday to Sunday morning selling fruit, vegetables and food alongside floral bouquets.

Sample some of the local socca, a chickpea flatbread made in huge flat pans and marvel at the vibrantly-coloured fruits and vegetables. The winding streets around the market are filled with exciting browsing.

Flower market

5. The Castle of Baynac, Dordogne

Picture yourself in a swashbuckling movie where the hero swings through the air on an iron candelabra and fells the villain in a sword fight on the stone stairs.

This vast castle was built in the 12th century and was home to Richard I ‘the Lion Heart’. Walk the parapet and check out a medieval sleeping chamber. Take the staircase down to the kitchen to see where the knights parked their swords amongst the cauldrons while they ate.

The views over five castles in the Dordogne are panoramic.

kitchen

6. Gouffre de Padirac, near Rocamadour

Descend 103 metres below the surface of the French Dordogne to discover an intricate underground river and cave system.

There’s a lift to take you down the cavern and a canoe and walking tour along the river and around the shimmering stalactites and stalemates.

As this is one of Europe’s most-famous caves, it is best to visit in in the shoulder season months.

cave

7. Les Jardins de Marqueyssac, Dordogne

This crazy, formal French garden has more than 150,000 boxwoods clipped into a mass of swirls, whorls and rounds.

Walk the six kilometres of trails over the 22-hectare property to discover different sections and a panorama of the Dordogne.

The terrace restaurant is an excellent place to enjoy lunch with a view. Don’t miss the dinosaur display.

Les Jardins

8. Saint-Emilion, Bordeaux

Expect narrow streets winding down to a market square filled with art galleries and a fascinating Romanesque church.

The medieval town of Saint-Emilion is a place to buy a bottle of wine or six, although you may baulk at paying 6440 euros for a 1945 Cheval like I did and come home with some of their almond macaroons instead.

Streets of St Paul

9. Palace of the Popes, Avignon

Step back into the 14th century with an augmented reality virtual tour of nine rooms via a histopad that shows the Palace of the Popes in its full glory.

Building commenced on this symbol of the church’s influence throughout the western world in 1335.

This UNESCO World Heritage site remains one the of most significant and important European medieval Gothic buildings and one of the top 10 most-visited sites in France.

Papal Palace

10. Roman Amphitheatre, Arles

A bloody battleground for gladiators, the two-tiered Arles Amphitheatre dates from the first century AD.

Inspired by the Colosseum in Rome, it’s a place where men were thrown to bears or lions, and there was no escape. In the fifth century, it was converted into a fortress and filled with houses and chapels which have since been demolished.

Roman amphitheatre

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