France’s coastal regions: A mix of seaside and heritage
Ever since my very first visit to France over 20 years ago, the thing that draws me back time and again is the variety of ways in which you can spend your days. I’m not really one for spending endless time lying on a beach, but the great thing about France is that even when visiting the coastal regions there are lots of other activities to tempt you, including an impressive array of heritage sites.
Take the Opal Coast as an example. This pretty region in the north of France is often the route used for travellers heading from the port town of Calais to Amiens and Rouen but it’s definitely worth a visit in its own right. From sandy beaches to Chateaux and art to gastronomy, the region offers something to suit every taste. My camera went into overdrive when I visited the seaside resort town of Hardelot. With a protected forest on its doorstep, Hardelot is a haven for cyclists and hikers but my journey by foot saw me strolling around town to gaze at Hardelot’s multi-storied villas, designed by Marie-Louis Cordonnier in 1908. With their half-timbered facades, multiple windows and balconies and characteristic roofs, the villas add elegance to the town.
Pornic, just west of Nantes on France’s Atlantic shoreline, is another town full of surprises. Situated as it is on the Atlantic coast, I expected the endless fishing, boating and water activities that were available, but to me the crowning glory of the town is Pornic Castle. Dating back to medieval times, Pornic Castle was an important garrison for the town, built as it was on the cliff top, which made it a great place from which to spot invaders. Having undergone numerous restorations over the years, the castle is now privately owned, but a guided tour - organised through the Tourist Office - gave me a potted history of it. I even learnt that it was once owned by the infamous Gilles de Rais (nicknamed ‘Blue Beard’), a companion of Joan of Arc!
On a visit to Languedoc, as well as sinking my toes in the sands of the Mediterranean beaches, I climbed amongst the Cathar ruins and walked the walls of the impressive Cite de Carcassonne - a UNESCO world Heritage site and one of France’s most popular tourist attractions. But a spur of the moment decision to visit Cap d’Agde and the Ephèbe and Underwater Archaeology Museum gave me another glimpse of the diverse range of sites the region has to offer. This fascinating museum showcases the rich underwater heritage of the region with treasures including Greek, Roman and Viking artworks collected over 50 years from the nearby Hérault River, the sea and the Etang de Thau lagoon. The piece de resistance, though, is the Ephèbe statue, the emblem of the city of Agde and
the only Hellenistic bronze to have been found in French waters. As a native of a country that was only settled by Europeans 200 years ago, France’s history never fails to impress me.
The Departmental Museum of Corsican Prehistory and Archeology in Sartene on the island of Corsica is another great place for history buffs to visit, with treasures dating back to the first settlements there about 10,000 years ago.
In Provence, taking one of the themed walks amongst the 1920’s art deco architecture of the old town of Sainte-Maxime is a great way to get your cultural fix, but even amongst the glitz and glamour of the French Riviera you can find heritage sites such as the Jean Cocteau Museum Severin Wunderman Collection in Menton. Featuring almost 1,000 works by Jean Cocteau, the exhibit is the world’s largest collection of works dedicated to the artist. While in Menton you should also take the time to admire its gelati coloured houses perched on the seafront and spend some time wandering the old town where you’ll see both French and Italian influences. If you arrive in the morning, the busy and colourful Marché Couvert (market) is the place to buy the makings for a picnic lunch. I recommend you enjoy it down by the harbour.
As you can see, a coastal holiday in France need not only be about sun and sea. There’s also ample opportunity for plenty of cultural immersion, too, no matter which part of the country you decide to explore.