You could spend a lifetime’s worth of holidays in France and still not feel as though you’d done the country justice. It remains the planet’s most visited tourist destination, meriting this lofty standing with an almost overwhelming mass of historical treasures, storybook landscapes and cultural idiosyncrasies.
The teeming glam of Paris makes for one hell of a centrepiece, matching any city on the planet for ambiance, individuality and set-piece sights. But the real beauty of France, in many ways, lies in the seemingly endless list of travel treats elsewhere. The country’s natural gifts are striking, with white sands, hulking mountains and fecund swathes of rolling countryside. It’s a land that has inspired dreamers and drinkers, revolutionaries and artists, gastronomes and geniuses. Little wonder that Francophiles (and it’s telling that even the country’s devotees have a given word to describe them) are found the world over.
In terms of where to go and what to see, it's all about the dramatic juxtapositions. You can soak up the A-list beaches of the Cote d’Azur, drowse in the timeless greenery of the Loire Valley or gaze up at the monumental peaks of the Alps. Wander the lavender fields of Provence, eat your way round the legendary bistros of Lyon or sample the rugged charm of Corsica. Lose yourself in megaliths, linger in ancient walled cities and hike dizzying cliff tops. France’s cities, coastline and countryside all have their own ooh-la-la rewards, and when taken as a whole, they present a near-perfect visitor package.
But naturally, there’s more to the destination than its guidebook hits. Today’s France is a nation defined by a whole host of other characteristics, among them politics, language, multiculturalism and a still-fierce sense of identity. And when seen in the context of the country’s dramatic, romping history – a timeline stretching from Joan of Arc to the Eurozone crisis via Louis XIV, Napoleon and De Gaulle – it makes any visit a fascinating one.
That’s not to say, of course, that it’s somewhere which can be easily bracketed. The wider territory of France is far-reaching, incorporating parts of the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean, but even seeing Metropolitan France itself as one distinct nation can often be a stretch of the imagination. When you’re walking the moody portside backstreets of Marseille or delving among the sprawling flea markets of Paris, it can be a job to remember that they’re a part of the same country as the vineyards of Alsace or the sand dunes of the Atlantic coast.
This diversity, in many ways, is the magic of France. It’s why it has endless magazines, books and texts dedicated to the joys of its lifestyle. It’s why the national spirit remains such a bold, many-hued thing. And it’s one reason why, in a continent full of historical wonder and natural beauty, France still draws more tourist attention than anywhere else.
"How can one describe a country which has 365 kinds of cheese?" once asked former French president Charles De Gaulle. Even today, it's a very good question.