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The Belle France guide to the best cultural holidays in France

Where to mix a little light activity with some cultural treasures 

A holiday should be about relaxing, enjoying a different pace of life, enjoying new experiences. Treating yourself. Indulging. Resting. 

All of the above can be found on a Belle France holiday, along with a little gentle activity for good measure of course. Some walking or cycling between hotels - nothing too strenuous, nothing too challenging.

But there is another dimension that many people enjoy while on holiday: some culture. Not necessarily highbrow or cerebral, it might not even be pre-planned (the most rewarding ‘moments’ are often the most spontaneous).  

On a holiday, a spot of culture might include mooching around an old church, wandering the cobbled streets of a sleepy village or enjoying a performance of Madame Butterfly in an unfamiliar venue. It could involve popping into an interesting looking museum, stopping by for a roadside wine tasting or pausing to listen to the jazz wafting up over the battlements of some hidden gem of a châteaux.

But France is stuffed with a vast array of cultural highlights and in every region there are myriad ways to satisfy your inner culture vulture. We list here just a few suggestions for cultural enlightenment during your Belle France holiday.

Lascaux IV - the newly opened Lascaux International Centre for Cave Art

Dordogne Prehistoric cave paintings

Witnessing Man’s earliest artworks deep in the Vézère valley is a humbling moment for any visitor. Most strikingly, these are not crude daubings but sophisticated and controlled interpretations of animals that Neolithic man shared the land with some 17,000 years ago. Yes, Lascaux is a copy (a highly detailed, precisely replicated one) but it is no less an experience for that. The UNESCO World Heritage original, discovered in 1940 by young boys, was being damaged by humidity and carbon dioxide from troops of visitors, so now the images of bison, horses and ibex are recreated nearby.

If you like this, we think you'll like our Périgord Prestige à Pied holiday. 

Palais Garnier - known as "probably the most famous opera house in the world, a symbol of Paris like Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, or the Sacré Coeur Basilica"

Paris The City of Light 

Paris needs no introduction when it comes to culture. With venues like the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Opéra Bastille and the Palais Garnier, the grand and the historic are always on hand. But Paris also excels at the lesser known, boutique venues, perhaps in the Latin Quarter of the 5th and 6th arrondissements or the Marais where you can readily stumble across a tempting event or performance.   Then there are world class galleries and museums: Musée D’Orsay, Louvre, Musée Rodin, Musée de l’Orangerie. Not to mention iconic structures like the Pompidou centre, Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe.  

That said, you can absorb a lot of culture just people watching outside the 17th century Saint Sulpice, then popping in to admire its elegant dome and perhaps seek out its Da Vinci Code links, before settling down to listen to an evening concerto.

If you like this, we think you'll like our Véloscenie - Paris to Alençon holiday. 

Pays Cathare

Languedoc Cathar Castles

Of all the bloody eras in France’s history, one of the bloodiest was the 12th-13th century. This was the time of the Cathars who turned their backs on Catholicism and all its pomp, hierarchy and splendour. As a result they were branded heretics and persecuted mercilessly.

Today the fortified hilltop forts and castles, often in the remotest and most inaccessible spots, serve as stark reminders of a brutal past. 

The city of Carcassonne is perhaps the most famous enclave, housing a UNESCO World Heritage castle within its dramatic walls. This is still today one of Europe’s best preserved medieval cities and the largest with its walls intact.

Others at Béziers, Toulouse and Castelnaudary are well worth a visit while the likes of Peyrepertuse, Montségur, Lastours and Puilaurens are spectacularly perched on craggy cliffs. 

The sheer number is striking, reflecting the vast numbers who huddled in these remote structures, seeking refuge from the ever-vengeful Catholics.  

If you like this, we think you'll like our Cathar Castles - Stage 1 holiday. 

Historic city of Avignon with its famous Pont Saint-Bénézet or Pont d'Avignon as its commonly known

Provence Medieval popes and modern jazz

Avignon has much to recommend it. For starters there’s the epic ecclesiastical architecture: this was home to the medieval popes, complete with the massive, imposing palace which still dominates the city. 

Then in July it is the arts which dominate: the vast, sprawling festival transforms Avignon into a huge open air theatre, with music, dance and performance of every description. One of the largest and most diverse festivals in the world, this is far more than ‘Edinburgh in the sun’.

Performances range from the set piece in established venues with ticket sales and pre-booking, to the smallest spaces and corners, both impromptu and pre-planned. Just strolling around the city centre of an evening you will come across any number of shows, and if one is not to your liking, amble on to the next.

If you like this, we think you'll like our Provence Prestige à Pied holiday. 

Musée Jean Cocteau in Menton

Côte d’Azur Iconic Art of the 20th century 

The roll call of illustrious artists who called the south of France home in the 20th century is long: Renoir, Picasso, Matisse and Chagall spring to mind. And Cocteau and Miró were dab hands at the easel and no stranger to the Hawaiian Tropic.

The lure of the azure waters, tall swaying palms and elegant promenades helps explain the irresistible attraction, though for artists it was, and still is, the special shimmering light that is the key. Anyone who can capture it on canvas is a true master. 

Nice is home to no less than three top notch museum galleries: Musée des Beaux-Arts, the Musée Matisse and the Musée Marc Chagall. Along the coast others are sprinkled in Antibes, Cagnes-sur-Mer, St Tropez and Villefranche, with stunning works by Picasso, Renoir, Matisse and Cocteau.

If you like this, we think you'll like our Mountains to Med holiday. 

The Gothic style cathedral of Dijon

Burgundy Abbeys and pinot noir 

The rolling bucolic countryside of Burgundy may be famous for its world class wines, but the sleepy villages and market towns house some of the most majestic medieval structures to be found anywhere in Europe.

Visitors travel from afar to see the dramatic basilica of Autun and Vézelay, not to mention Cluny Abbey whose tumbled ruins are so evocative. Venture deep into the bowels of the 5th century Benedictine Abbey of St Germain in Auxerre and you’ll find the 9th century Carolingian crypt adorned with the oldest known frescoes in France.

Dijon is a Gothic marvel, bursting with elegant medieval and Renaissance gems, including the cathedral, the Musée des Beaux Arts and the palace of the dukes of Burgundy. As capital of the Côte d’Or wine producing region it is also surrounded by

famous vineyards, particularly to the south where signposts to Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny, Vougeot, Vosne-Romanée and Nuits-Saint-Georges pop up as you head south. It’s like driving through the best wine list in the world. 

If you like this, we think you'll like our Burgundy Prestige à Pied holiday.


Header image: Jardins de Marqueyssac http://www.clairegothie.com/do...

Lascaux Caves: http://www.ambroisetezenas.com...

Palais Garnier: http://www.lovemoxieblog.com/w...

Cathar Castles: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/...

Musée Jean Cocteau: https://www.mark-magazine.com/news/musee-jean-cocteau

Dijon Cathedral: https://www.expedia.com/pictur...

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