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15 sites to visit in France before tourists find out
Photo: AFP

15 sites to visit in France before tourists find out

The Local · 11 Jan 2016, 13:19

Published: 11 Jan 2016 13:19 GMT+01:00

Each year Unesco's list of World Heritage sites around the world expands, with France now up to a grand total of 41.

But there are scores of attractions across the country on Unesco's waiting list, with only a certain number from each country able to be added each year. Some may not make the cut at all because the competition is so stiff.

We've narrowed down a selection of 15 from the full waiting list of sites in France (which is available here) that we think you have to check out now, before treasured World Heritage status brings in floods of tourists.

Although it's fair to say that tourists have already discovered a fair few of the sites below, but still, better to go sooner rather than later.

1. Mercantour National Park

Photo: Mercantour Tourism

One of ten of national parks in France, this protected land area in the Alps in southeastern France is a haven for nature lovers and history buffs. A wide variety of rare plant species, mammals, and birds make this park a prime example of France’s biodiversity. (Keep an ear out for the whistling marmots.)

Hiking is a popular way to take in the views of alpine lakes, valleys, and perched villages. You can traverse medieval salt routes and visit a valley containing the greatest number of open-air Bronze Age petroglyphs (rock engravings) in Europe.

Find out more here.

2. The city of Metz

Photo: Metz Tourism

Situated near the junction of France, Germany, and Luxembourg, the capital of the Lorraine region has a rich history. In its more than 3,000 years of existence, Metz has been a Celtic settlement, a principal town of Gaul within the Roman Empire, the residence of the Merovingian kings of Austrasia, and has passed back and forth between German and French rule.

Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, an example of Gothic architecture dating from the 13th century, houses the largest expanse of stained glass windows in the world. Metz is also the home of a modern art museum called Centre Pompidou-Metz, a branch of the Pompidou museum in Paris.

This branch holds the largest European collection of 20th and 21st century arts. The architecture of the building itself is impressive, apparently inspired by a Chinese hat.

Find out more here.

3. Chaine des Puys

Photo: Mickael Weiss Photography

The Auvergne region in central France, named Lonely Planet’s top ten regions to visit in 2016, is home to this chain of cinder cones, lava domes, and volcanic craters that stretches from north to south.

But don’t worry — the last eruption was at least 7,000 years ago. Apart from its geological history, this mountainous area stands out for its outdoor activities such as hiking and paragliding, especially on the highest summit of the Puy de Dome. Despite its stunning scenery, Auvergne remains relatively unknown to tourists, making it appealing to travellers who like to avoid the crowds.

See also: Ten reasons why you need to visit Auvergne

4. Vichy

Photo: Vichy Tourism

Vichy, infamous for its dark WWII history, is on the list of potential Unesco sites as part of an entry for the "Great Spas of Europe" - a selected group of spa towns from around Europe.

It was the Emperor Napoleon III who helped usher in the town’s best years. After spending some time there in the 1860s, Napoleon brought about a slew of reconstructions of hotels, parks, boulevards, the opera, and chalets along the river, helping to modernize the city.

The reputation of the city was somewhat tarnished when it became the seat of the collaborationist regime during World War II, but these days Vichy is once again an elegant spa and resort town, certainly worth a visit if you’re in need of some therapeutic bathing.

Find out more here.

5. Basilica of Saint Denis

Photo: Flickr/Elf-8

Situated in a northern suburb of Paris, this church has the honor of being one of the first major examples of Gothic architecture, signalling the change from Romanesque style.

Legend says that Saint Denis, a patron saint of France, was decapitated on the hill of Montmartre in Paris, picked up his own head and carried it six kilometers to Saint Denis where he wanted to be buried.

The basilica holds the tombs of French kings and other important figures, including Dagobert, Pépin le Bref, and Catherine de Médicis, dating back to the 12th century. Its interior is illuminated by the tall stained glass windows which were unusually large for their time. 

Find out more here.

6. Menier Chocolate Factory

Photo: Flickr/Pixoeil

After founding a hardware company in Paris in 1816, Antoine Menier began to sell some pharmaceutical products as well, despite the fact that he was not a trained pharmacist.

He used cocoa powder as a medicinal powder and to coat bitter-tasting pills. The company expanded to a factory in the village of Noisiel, just outside of Paris, and after a modernization a few years later, became the first mechanized mass production factory for cocoa powder in France.

At the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, the Menier Chocolat Company was dubbed the leading chocolate makers in the world. The Menier factory is now headquarters for Nestlé. Along with surrounding buildings, the site is now a museum that offers guided tours.

Find out more here.

7. Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte

Photo: Flickr/Mark B. Schlemmer

Everyone’s heard of the Chateau de Versailles, but this lesser-known chateau on the outskirts of south-eastern Paris is worthy of a visit. Transformed in 1661 from a small estate to a grandiose chateau with beautiful gardens, Vaux-le-Vicomte is seen as the beginning of the Louis XIV style combining architecture and landscaping.

On Saturday evenings in the summer, visitors can explore the chateau and wander the grounds by the light of 2,000 candles. Along with a range of dining options and picnic spots, the chateau also offers water shows, exhibitions, and other events. Keep in mind that your visit will have to wait until March as the chateau is currently closed for the winter. 

Find out more here.

8. Sarlat historic center

Photo: Flickr/Nick Olejniczak

In the Dordogne region in southwestern France, the medieval city of Sarlat is a stunningly-preserved representation of 14th century France. Its medieval architecture has made it a favorite for film directors, with only Paris and Nice beating it out for the most film shoots.

Many French films as well as the American-British romantic drama Chocolat were shot here; it’s not hard to see why. Strolling the streets feels like stepping into another era. One event not to be missed in Sarlat is an annual goose festival in March. Live, honking geese fill the streets and top local chefs whip up local specialties for an outdoor banquet. 

Find out more here.

9. Carnac megalithic stones

Photo: Flickr/Totor300

Move aside, Stonehenge. This collection of more than 3,000 standing stones in Brittany makes up the largest concentration of megalithic monuments in the world.

Like Stonehenge, the actual purpose of these stones is debated. It's possibly they were burial or territorial markers, or according to the legend of Saint Cornely, a transformed Roman army who had tried to attack the saint. The stones are fenced off to the public but you can take a guided tour. 

Find out more here.

10. Cordouan lighthouse

Photo: Flickr/ec-jpr

Since ancient times, the Gironde estuary in southwestern France has had a bad reputation, nicknamed a sailor’s graveyard. Its dangerous waters prompted the first beacon tower to be built around 1360. 

Today’s version, built between 1584 and 1611, makes it the oldest lighthouse in France as well as the tenth tallest traditional lighthouse in the world. It was made to be a “royal work”, with its own chapel and intricate decoration such as marble, carved wood panelling, and sculptures.

Visits to the lighthouse depend on the tide pattern and have strict rules for safety. Visitors must be in good physical shape to climb the 301 lighthouse steps and to potentially briefly wade through thigh-deep water.

Find out more here.

11. Sainte-Victoire Mountain

Photo: Flickr/Axel Brocke

This limestone ridge in the south of France was a muse to famous painter Paul Cézanne. He lived nearby in Aix-en-Provence. The mountain also inspired other artists such as Pablo Picasso and André Masson.

The area is ideal for leisurely hikes, during which you can check out the scattering of religious heritage sites such as the Sainte-Victoire Priory and the tiny Saint-Ser Hermitage chapel built in a cave. Climbing, mountain bike riding, and paragliding are also popular activities.  

Find out more here.

12. Strait of Bonifacio

Photo: Flickr/btitib50

This narrow channel between two islands, France’s Corsica and Italy’s Sardinia, is a site of intense ecological interest because of its rare Mediterranean flora and fauna. Its biodiversity is considered very fragile and at risk, which is why ships passing through with dangerous goods are prohibited.

In the Corsican town of Bonifacio you can take advantage of more than 20 sandy beaches as well as explore some impressive stretches of stark white cliffs. And it’s easy to hop over to Sardinia, as ferries run between the islands a few times each day. 

Find out more here.

13: The Yellow Train (Ligne de Cerdagne)

The Ligne de Cerdagne is a triumph of engineering. Built in 1903 the gauge railway serves some of the high cantons of the Pyrenees in the high Cerdagne valley.

The line usually referred to as the Train Jaune (Yellow Line) is 63 kilometres long and climbs to 1,593 metres at Bolquère-Eyne – the highest railway station in France.

The line serves 22 stations and there are 19 tunnels and two bridges along the way. Take the train while you can as its future is in doubt.

The views aren’t bad either. The train traverses many bridges and viaducts and offers dramatic views of national parks and historic walled cities, best viewed from the open-air carriages. Tickets can be bought on the SNCF website.

Find out more here.

14. Works of Le Corbusier

Photo: Flickr/Richard Weil

This Swiss/French architect is called a pioneer of modern architecture. Some of his most famous designs include the Villa Savoye in the Parisian suburb of Poissy and Maison la Roche in Paris, which is now the Le Corbusier Foundation.

Le Corbusier’s interest in urban planning led to him search for efficient solutions to the housing crisis in Parisian suburbs. He even crafted designs for entire cities. You can check out some of his designs in the Paris area, in Marseille, in the Rhone-Alpes region, and at other sites around the country.

Find out more here.

15. Salt marshes of Guérande

And lastly, the Guérande salt marshes in the Loire-Atlantique département of western France are a sight to be hold and "represent both a natural and a historical heritage."

Even today, over 200 paludiers, or salt harvesters, gather the salt using millenary methods and know-how. Current techniques date from the ninth century.

The fortified wall around the medieval town of Guérande is one of the best preserved and complete in France, so just another reason to visit.

Find out more here.

SEE ALSO: Ten French Unesco sites you won't have heard of 

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