Gography and climate

Sea, plains, forests, mountains – a natural paradise.

Aquitaine

France’s third largest region, Aquitaine, in the southwest of France, is made up of five départements: Dordogne, Gironde, Landes, Lot-et-Garonne and Pyrénées Atlantiques. It is a land of vast, protected, natural spaces – towns occupy only 17 percent of the territory and 70 percent of the inhabitants live in them.

The regional capital is Bordeaux – a name that immediately tells any wine lover that Aquitaine is also a land of plenty! Bordered to the west by the Atlantic Ocean, the region is warmed by the Gulf Stream, so temperatures are mild all year round. With 2,200 hours of sunshine a year, the territory is “ripe”, so to speak, for vine-growing.

With more than 165 miles of coastline, Aquitaine boasts a vast beach of fine sand (Europe’s biggest, in fact), with some seriously dramatic dunes. And that’s not counting the 300-odd miles of sandy shores alongside the regions many lakes and estuaries.

Heading east from the sea, a huge pine forest runs from the Médoc down to the Landes and the Basque Country, forming a triangle of land some 100 miles wide and 130 miles long.

Another verdant area, the Dordogne forestland, is home to a plethora of tree species, including oak, the preferred home of the famous (and delicious!) Périgord truffle. In the north of this département, Périgord Vert (Green Périgord) is home to a part of the beautiful Périgord-Limousin Regional Nature Park.

In the far south, the Pyrenees form a dramatic natural border with Spain. From the Rhune, in the west of the Basque Country (nearly 3,000 ft) to the Col du Pourtalet, at the foot of the Pic d’Ossau (over 9,500 ft), the Pyrenees in Aquitaine stretch for over 70 miles.

Both the Pyrenees and Périgord are famous for natural underground caves. The most famous of these are the Lascaux Caves, near the Périgord village of Montignac, with their incredible Upper Palaeolithic cave paintings.

Culture

Aquitaine

If it’s architecture you’re after, Aquitaine is a wonder, with amazingly well-preserved fortified towns and castles, old towns and villages and any number of ancient abbeys, sanctuaries, churches and chapels. The seaside resorts retain much of their turn-of-the-century look and Bordeaux still has its 18th-century elegance.

Of course, the region boasts numerous culinary specialities. The Béarn area, for example, is the home of poule au pot – a warming chicken stew. It’s claimed that France’s King Henri IV (1553-1610), born in Pau, said “God willing, every working man in my kingdom will have a chicken in the pot every Sunday, at the very least!” Understandably, he was known as “Good King Henry”.

Another great Béarn speciality is garbure – a thick, satisfying soup with cabbage, beans, salted meats and goose conserve.

Breast of duck (the famous magret de canard) is a mainstay of Périgordian cuisine. This often comes from special, large, “fattened” ducks that you get in the area. And, of course, we mustn’t forget the regional foie gras.

Basque Country specialities not to be missed include veal axoa and piperade (both made with local peppers), while residents of the Gironde know just how to cook a nice freshly-caught lamprey – in the Bordeaux style.

Bayonne is renowned for great ham, the Dordogne and Gironde for exceptional caviar, the Bay of Arcachon for incomparable oysters and the Pyrenees area is justifiably proud of its ewe’s cheeses.

Finally, to prove that Aquitaine really is wine lover’s heaven, one need only mention a few of the fourteen wine-growing areas, such as Bordeaux, Entre-deux-Mers, Graves Sauternes, Médoc… Paradise on earth for some!

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Aquitaine

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Geography and climate

Normandy

Dramatic coastline, apple orchards, rolling farmland, rich food, history…

Normandy, in the northwest of France, is home to 5 percent of the French population. It consists of two administrative regions and five départments: Upper Normandy (the Seine-Maritime and Eure departments) and Lower Normandy (Calvados, Manche and Orme).

Normandy’s coastal and inland scenery is very varied. The 370-odd miles of coastline include towering cliffs, sloping, pastoral coastline, extensive beaches (notably WW2’s “Normandy Landings” beaches) and, of course, the amazing Mont St. Michel.

Inland, golden fields, wooded valleys and beech and pine forests are protected from climatic extremes by the sea. There’s relatively little frost and snow in winter and summers are slightly warmer than in southern Britain, averaging 6 to 8 sunshine hours a day.

The Calvados départment includes much of the “D-Day” beach area, historic towns such as Caen, Bayeux and Honfleur and the resorts of Deauville and Trouville.

Eure lies south of the Seine and between the Auge Valley and the western outskirts of Paris. Its valley-crossed landscape is “typical” Normandy, with sleepy villages and thatched and timber-fronted cottages.

Manche, stretches from Utah Beach via the cliffs, moors and marshes of the Cotentin Peninsula to Mont St. Michel, forming Normandy’s western coastline. The varied inland landscape includes typically Norman hedged farmlands.

Orne, in the south, is Normandy in its most natural state, with green fields, deep valleys and huge forests.

Seine Maritime, between the Seine Valley and the Channel Coast has dramatic cliffs, rolling countryside and the snaking Seine river.

Culture

Normandy

Normandy is particularly known for its rich culinary tradition. To start with, the region is famous for butter, milk and cream and a huge variety of cheeses – including a famous one from the village of Camembert!

Regional specialities include such delights as Canard à la Rouennaise (Rouen-style duck) and various veal or pork dishes – frequently cooked with cream or cider. “Pre-salted” lamb, reared on the Mont St. Michel salt marshes (agneau pré-salé) simply has to be sampled. Otherwise, you’ll find tripe in Caen, andouillette (chitterling sausage) in Vire and boudin (black pudding) in Perche.

In terms of seafood, there’s no shortage of shellfish, clams, whelks, scallops, mussels and oysters. Marmite Dieppoise, Dieppe’s creamy fish stew, is especially satisfying. Fish dishes are often cooked with a cream or camembert sauce.

Normandy is also famous for apples. Tarte normande apple tart is justly renowned, but maybe you’re more interested in the strong Normandy cider or the seriously potent calvados liqueur –made with apples. The locals put it in their morning coffee!

Abounding with ancient castles, chateaux, manors, churches and abbeys, the region boasts architectural treasures from the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Classical periods. Its location and coastal frontiers have led to Normandy being a focal point, over the centuries, for pilgrimages, battles, invasions and, at the same time, artistic influence on painters, writers and architects.

The quality of light and the region’s proximity to Paris made it an accessible haven, in the 19th century, for the impressionists. Monet lived in Giverny and painted in his garden.

World War II brought the 1944 Normandy landings. The region still bears the evidence of this terrible period, in the form of concrete bunkers, defences and nearly thirty war cemeteries. Saint-Lô, Caen and Le Havre were virtually destroyed in the War and have been rebuilt.

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Normandy

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Geography and climate

Burgundy

Great food, great wines, great countryside, great history, great architecture...

The land of Burgundy (Bourgogne), in central-eastern France, rolls eastward from the Loire and stretches south to the vineyards of Beaujolais. Put another way, it starts to the southeast of Paris and goes down to north of Lyon. With a surface area of over 19,500 square miles, Burgundy is larger than Belgium and has a low population density. Its capital is Dijon.

In medieval times respectively a kingdom and a duchy, later a province of France (until 1789), Burgundy is now made up of the départements of Nièvre, Saône-et-Loire, Côte-d’Or, and Yonne. The area is famous for its varied scenery, rich wines, rivers and canals, varied industries, mineral wealth and prosperous cities.

The landscape is one of gentle rolling hills, made of limestone and granite and covered in forest of oak, maple and pine. The rivers Saone, Yonne and Loire have smoothed the lowlands, whilst in the Morvan area the hills climb to almost 3,000 feet. Morvan is a beautiful natural park of half a million acres, with hills, lakes and extensive forests.

The climate is excellent, with long hot summers and cold, dry, short winters.

Water is a dominant element in Burgundy, due to the presence of the Yonne, Seine, Loire and Saône rivers- which are actually connected by a canal network. The 150-mile-long Canal de Bourgogne, for example, joins the Yonne and Saône, allowing navigation from the north to south of France. Dijon is on this canal.

Culture

Burgundy

The role of religion in Burgundy’s history can be seen everywhere, in the Romanesque churches and abbeys of the great Benedictine and Cistercian orders and the great cathedrals in the cities. Winemaking in Burgundy was actually developed by the Cistercians, who got it from the Roman invaders. The Cistercians also gave us wonderful Fontenay Abbey, some 50 miles north of Dijon.

The region is dotted with castles from various eras and with medieval towns and villages of incredible interest and beauty, with many original features still intact. The fascinating Burgundy tradition (derived from Eastern Europe) of using coloured tiles on roofs can be seen in many places, even in small villages. Beaune’s 15th century Hôtel-Dieu is the most famous example of this.
Burgundy, of course, is wine paradise. To be officially authentic, Burgundy wines must be made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Gamay or Pinot Blanc varietals. Chablis, Nuit-Saint-Georges, Beaune, Mercurey, Pouilly-Fuissé, Mâcon-Villages… the roll of honour is endless. Mercifully, wine growing in Burgundy is still mainly a family-business affair.

Kir was invented in Burgundy – actually by Canon Kir (of Dijon). This aperitif is a blend of blends white wine and Crème de Cassis – the local blackcurrant liqueur.

Food, too, is high on the list of local values! Even the French designate the area a “gastronomic region”, suggesting it’s got something the others don’t have. No prizes for guessing where Boeuf Bourgignon (beef cooked with red wine) originated. Coq au vin (chicken cooked with white wine) originated here too. The region also gave us escargots (snails), moutarde (mustard – again pinched from the Romans), pain d’épices (gingerbread cake), jambon persillé (ham cooked with parsley) and oeufs en meurette (poached eggs in red wine).

The region’s Charolais cattle (enormous white beasts) produce the best beef in France, poultry from Bresse is considered incomparable and freshwater fish from the Saône and Doubs rivers go into La Pôchouse (a sort of Bouillabaisse). And if you’re a cheese buff, mature Epoisses has to be one of the all-time greats!

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Geography and climate

Brittany

Celtic legends, dramatic coastline, varied landscapes, pancakes, cider, seafood...

Brittany (Bretagne), occupies a large peninsula in the northwest of France, with the English Channel to the north and the Bay of Biscay to the south. The region is divided into the Finistère, Côtes-d’Armor, Ille-et-Vilaine and Morbihan départements.

The climate is temperate. It sometimes rains there but sunny days are just as common. Summer temperatures can reach 28°C.

The nearly 1,700 miles of coastline offers a succession of dramatic, rocky outcrops, cliffs, dunes, estuaries mud flats and marshlands.

Originally, Brittany was covered by forest. Today’s forests are small but woodland is preserved by the quilted pattern of Brittany’s Bocage – a network of small, hedged fields and medieval embankments.

The region also has plateaux and mountains, notably the Black Mountains (from Menez Hom to the east of Gourin, Finistère) and the Monts d’Arrée (separating Finistère’s Léon and Cornouaille). The wild landscape of the Parc naturel regional d’Armorique is mostly heath and peat bog.

Culture

Brittany

Brittany is a proudly Celtic region. Until the 1960s, Breton, a Celtic language related to Cornish, was spoken or understood by most people in western Brittany. There is currently a revival of interest in Breton, as there is in the other regional language, Gallo, from the east of the region.

Brittany is a land of legend. It’s said that the Knights of the Round Table found the Forest of Paimpont (southwest of Rennes) a worthy setting for their Grail mission. The forest’s mythical name is Brocéliande.

Tristan and Isolde, too, came from Brittany. Tristan was Duke of Léon and, according to one version, he and Isolde (Iseult) are buried on Tristan Island (l’île Tristan), off Douarnenez, Finistère. Then there’s the legend of Ys – a lost city, sunk beneath the waves of Douarnenez Bay.

According to legend, Ankou – shown on tombs as a skeleton holding a scythe – wanders at night in a creaking chariot. If you hear or meet him, you’re doomed! The door to Ankou’s hell is somewhere in Yeun Ellez heights, in the Monts dArrée.

The region is also famous for megalithic monuments. Dolmens, tumulus and menhirs are scattered all over the peninsula, the largest alignments being near Karnac.

Brittany has 4,000 chateaux, manors and stately homes, from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance or later. For a long time ravaged by feudal struggles in the Middle Ages, Brittany was the site of many battles to repulse French and English invaders. Over the centuries, a defensive ring of impressive, granite castles was constructed, on the coast and along the border between the old Duchy of Brittany and France.

In terms of food, Brittany is best known for pancakes (galettes or crèpes). Other specialities include a “butter cake” called kouign amann (bread dough, butter and sugar), far Breton (a sort of sweet Yorkshire pudding!) and clafoutis (prune flan).

Kig ha farz is a classic example of a local savoury dish, from the Léon area. Basically meat and dumplings, it’s a warming stew made using buckwheat flour. The Breton andouille (a chitterling sausage, from Guémené sur Scorff) is another notable speciality.

Surrounded by sea, Brittany is particularly strong on seafood. Clams, cockles, whelks, ormers, prawns, shrimps, mussels, oysters, Coquille Saint Jacques, lobsters, crabs… the list goes on! The “seafood platter” is a veritable institution.

Local drinks are primarily cider, chouchen (mead, made with honey), lambig (apple brandy) and Pommeau de Bretagne (a blend of apple brandy and apple juice). Kir Breton (crème de cassis and cider) is also popular. The region also produces some fine whiskies.

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Geography and climate

Languedoc-Roussillon

Sea, sun, beaches, mountains, foothills, valleys, fruit, vines, Cathar castles...

Languedoc-Roussillon, in the South of France, is bounded by the Mediterranean, the Pyrenees and Spain, the Midi-Pyrénées region and the Massif Central. It consists of five départements: Aude, Gard, Hérault, Lozère and Pyrénées-Orientales.

The climate is Mediterranean, with hot, dry summers, rainy winters and moderate springs and autumns. There are an average 300 sunny days a year, but weather varies greatly from place to place, due to the diversity of the terrain. High winds can blow through the region – the Mistral and Tramontane and, briefly, the Sirocco (from Africa).

The rugged, mountainous regions have a colder, wetter climate than the plains or coast and are more sparsely populated. In Lozere, you’ll find European Bison roaming the high plains!

The picturesque foothills have warm temperatures and endless patchworks of vineyards undulating under hills of pines. Plants are mostly garrigue – a mix of scrub, herbs, rosemary, thyme fennel and wild mint.

The coastline is straight and flat and the coastal plain, which stretches far inland, covered with vines. A remarkable coastal feature is the Camargue – a sandy nature reserve, famous for wild horses and flamingos.

Beyond Carcassonne, the landscape gets more undulating, with vines giving way to cereals and sunflowers. This area is less rugged than the Mediterranean strip and the climate cooler and slightly wetter than on the coast.

Culture

Languedoc-Roussillon

The diverse terrain and history of the five départements of Languedoc-Roussillon has forged five different cultures and economies.

Aude is gentle, with vines and farmland and ruined Cathar castles perched dramatically on high peaks. Then there’s the fairytale, hilltop, walled town of Carcassonne cité. If this medieval wonder looks too good too be true, it is – it was heavily restored in the 19th century. The amazing, 17th century Canal du Midi goes through Aude on its way to the sea. Aude’s best-known wine regions are Minervois and Corbières.

Gard shares a border with Provence and the Camargue. Nîmes has the amazing Les Arènes Roman amphitheatre and the Maison Carrée, a 1st century Roman temple – both in incredible condition, as is the amazing Pont du Gard Roman aqueduct, nearby.

Herault is the most “dynamic” département, with fast-growing Montpellier and the busy Sete and Grande Motte seaside resorts. Inland the countryside is quiet and attractive with especially lovely rivers, big vineyards and pretty villages.

Mountainous Lozere has no coast, no big cities and a small population. The foothills have cows on them, not vines, and local produce is mostly dairy products, notably cheese – such as Roquefort and Tomme de Lozere. Aligot, a dish made with cheese and mashed potato, typifies the rich local cooking.

Pyrenées-Orientales once belonged to Spain and still has a Catalan flavour. The Catalan language is still spoken, local food includes chorizo and paella and there are bullfights! The foothills are covered in vines or fruit trees. Villefranche de Conflent is an incredible medieval fortified town and there are plenty of Cathar ruins.

Languedoc-Rousillon food is very varied. By the sea, seafood and dishes with Mediterranean fish (tuna, bream and bass) predominate. Olives and aromatic herbs permeate the cooking style. Towards the mountains, chestnuts, wild mushrooms and cheeses come into play. Famous dishes from the region include brandade (from Nîmes), cassoulet (from Castelnaudary).

The area produces more wine than any other region in France. An emphasis on quality in recent decades has raised its wines (once not that highly prized) to the highest levels.

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Geography and climate

Midi-Pyrénées

Mountains, valleys, sun, cheeses, mushrooms, pretty villages, space rockets...

France’s largest region, Midi-Pyrénées consists of eight départements: Ariège, Aveyron, Gers, Haute Garonne, Haute Pyrénéas, Lot, Tarn and Tarn et Garonne.

The region was defined and created in the 20th century, as a zone of influence for Toulouse, its capital. “Midi” means “south” and “Pyrénées refers, of course, to the mountains bordering Spain.

The climate varies from area to area, with long, hot summers (heatwave temperatures!) and mild winters, except on the uplands. It’s is one of France’s sunniest regions, with temperatures reaching over 25°C, for 60-80 days a year.

Rainfall depends on proximity to the mountains or the sea. The lush, green countryside of Gers, for example, has a more Atlantic climate. The further east you go, the drier the terrain becomes.

The highest point in the French Pyrénées is the Vignemale (nearly 11,000 ft.). In the north and east are the Massif Central and the Quercy plateaux. Between these areas, on either side of the Garonne valley, hills harbouring the valleys hewn out by the rivers flowing down from the mountains, constitute the region’s only real plains.

Midi-Pyrénées has lots of caves. Those at Padirac, in the Lot, are amongst Europe’s greatest geological wonders. Ariège has caves whose amazing prehistoric wall paintings and artefacts tell us volumes about the life of cave-dwelling man.

Toulouse is very densely populated but the rest of the region has one of the lowest population densities in Europe.

Culture

Midi-Pyrénées

The region includes part of the Basque country (Pays Basque) and part of the historical province of Gascony. It has two traditional languages: Languedocian Occitan and Gascon Occitan. Few today speak either but the strongly-accented local French includes some Occitan words and expressions.

The region has many Cathar hilltop castles, including the Cathar’s final refuge: Montségur. The last 200 of the ill-fated “heretics” were burned alive here, on a spot now known as “the field of the burned” (le Prat des Crémats).

There are also lots of Romanesque chapels, abbeys and cathedrals. The Saint-Sernin basilica, in Toulouse is the largest Romanesque building in Europe.

Toulouse was on a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, three of which go through Midi-Pyrénées. Numerous heritage sites, historic buildings, statuaries, gateways and symbolic objects are arranged along the footpaths. Lourdes, of course, is a stopping point, just before Spain.

Midi-Pyrénées also has 300 bastides – medieval “new towns”, sometimes fortified, from the 13th and 14th centuries. They have grid-pattern street layouts and a central market square with arcades. Fascinating!

Midi-Pyrénées is an treasure house of medieval and Renaissance architecture, in its often amazingly beautiful villages and towns. Toulouse itself, called “the pink city” for its pink brick buildings, has some great architecture – especially Renaissance, from the time it was a centre of the woad trade. Today, it’s the centre for the European aerospace industry!

Besides Airbus, Toulouse is the city of rugby and Saucisse de Toulouse (a herb sausage) and a particularly rich cassoulet.

Other regional specialities include, foie gras (duck or goose), aligot (puréed tomato, tomme cheese, cream and garlic), estofinado (dried haddock and spuds), tripoux (tripe, ham and garlic cooked in white wine) and delicious lamb roasts. Wild mushrooms are important, as are cheeses, including Roquefort or Bleu des Causses.

The best known wines are Cahors, Fronton, Gaillac, Madiran, Pacherenc and Saint-Mont. Last but not least, from Gers, there’s Armagnac!

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Midi-Pyrénées

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Geography and climate

Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur

Wine, olives, sun, sea, film stars, winter sports, lavender, Roman remains...

The Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA) region, in the South East of France, encompasses six départements: Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Alpes-Maritimes, Bouches-du-Rhône, Hautes-Alpes, Var and Vaucluse. It is bounded to the east by Italy, to the south by the Mediterranean and Monaco, to the north by Rhône-Alpes and to the west by the Rhône and Languedoc-Roussillon.

Economically the region is France’s most important. It ranks three in terms of population, with around 4.8 million people. Some 90% of them live in Marseilles (the capital), Nice and Toulon and in various medium-size towns.

The region’s Mediterranean coast stretches 500 miles. From Camargue to the Côte d’Azur, this is a succession of low shorelines, tall cliffs and rocky inlets, narrowing as it runs towards Italy. Between the southern coastal areas and the mountains are the hills and vineyards of inland Provence. To the North and East lie the mountains.

There are really two climates: Mediterranean and mountain. With 2,800 sunshine hours per year along the coast and in a few areas of the Haute-Provence Alpes, vines, lavender and olive trees abound in much of the region. Rice is grown in the Camargue.

Almost a quarter of the region is national parks, reserves and conservation areas.

Culture

Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur

Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur is a huge tourist area – and it’s not hard to see why. The place has everything: sun, seaside, glamorous coastal hotspots, mountain skiing, rural beauty, historic towns and villages, arts festivals, etc.

Marseilles is France’s oldest town, biggest port and second largest city. Nice is France’s second biggest tourist destination and the region’s most affluent spot.

Avignon is important, historically and culturally. In its 14th century heyday, seven Popes lived there. The city actually belonged to the Papacy until the French Revolution. Today, of course, it’s a place of great arts festivals. Cannes, of course, hosts the worlds most important film festival.

Indeed, the arts are an huge aspect of the region’s cultural identity. Paul Cézanne was born in Aix-en-Provence and his canvasses of the region magically capture the feeling of the place and the light. Van Gogh lived and painted in Arles and was hospitalised not far away.

Arles, Orange and Fréjus are crammed with vestiges of Roman imperialism: amphitheatres, theatres, aqueducts, thermal baths, forums, triumphal arches, villas, etc. In general, the whole region is an architectural and historical treasure trove.

Local cooking is heavy on garlic, olive oil, olives and herbs (herbes de Provence). Aïoli, for example, is a garlic sauce put on a variety of things, including potatoes, fish, cold lamb, etc. Olives are used all the time.

The Mediterranean influence brings spicy dishes and seafood or fish dishes, especially on the coast. Classics include bouillabaisse (fish stew) or brandade de morue (codfish paste).

The popularity of anchovies will come as no surprise to anyone who knows salade niçoise. Anchovies also crop up in Nice’s curiously-named pissaladière – which is actually onion tart, made using pissala (a salt-fish paste). Tapenade is a traditional caper and anchovy paste.

Proximity to Italy means that pasta dishes are common – specialities include pâtes aux coquillages (seafood pasta) or pâtes au pistou (with a garlic basil and pine nut sauce – in other words, pesto). And then there’s daube de sanglier – wild-boar stew!

And wines? Names to conjure with include Côtes du Rhône, Côtes du Luberon, Côtes du Ventoux, etc. The region is particularly strong on rosés.

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Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur

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Geography and climate

Pays de la Loire

Plantagenet relics, thriving towns, sandy beaches, rolling country, fish, beef, Gamay...

The Pays de la Loire region includes the Loire-Atlantique, Maine-et-Loire, Mayenne, Sarthe and Vendée départements. It is bounded to the West by the the Bay of Biscay, to the North West by Brittany, to the North by Normandy, to the East by the Centre region and to the South by Poitou-Charentes.

The three towns of Nantes (the capital), Le Mans and Angers are amongst the 20 largest metropolitan areas in France. The region’s name (“Lands of the Loire”) comes from the Loire river – which actually only traverses two of it’s départements. Most of the Loire chateaux lie upstream, in the Centre region.

The region consists mostly of the ancient hills of the Armorican massif - the Mont des Avaloirs rises to 1,370 feet in northeast Mayenne. The east of the region extends into the alluvial plateaux of the Paris Basin.

The 230-mile-long coast is the site of a number of fishing and shipping ports. Otherwise, it alternates between long, sandy beaches and rocky coastline and has two big islands: Noirmoutier and Île d’Yeu.

There are three marsh areas along the coast: Brière (near Saint-Nazaire), Marais Breton (north Vendée) and Marais Poitevin (to the South).

Landscape is mostly woodland and pasture. The region is France’s biggest producer of beef, rabbit and duck and second biggest for milk, poultry, pork and potatoes. There is also considerable fruit farming.

The climate is sub-Atlantic, with mild temperatures throughout the year. The coast is particularly sunny.

Culture

Pays de la Loire

The ancient houses of Anjou, Maine, Poitou and Plantagenet held sway in this area for many years and the region is rich in chateaux, abbeys and mansions from various eras. For a while, under the Plantagenets, who also held the throne in England, all western France was under the rule of London! Then came the 100 Years War…

Nantes was capital of Brittany until 1941, so not surprisingly retains its Breton flavour. A thriving sea port, it combines high-tech industry and tower blocks with Art Nouveau squares and an important medieval quarter.

More than just a race track and a centre for service industries, Le Mans dates from pre-Roman times and has major Gallo-Roman remains. “Old Le Mans” boasts half-timbered houses, Renaissance mansions, cobbled streets and a superb 11th-13th century cathedral. Here it was that Geoffrey Plantagenet (Count of Maine and Anjou) married Matilda, daughter of Henry 1 of England, in 1129.

Angers was once the second capital of England (the Plantagenets again)! It has an impressive 13th century chateau and a stunning cathedral (early 13th century). The chateau houses the famous 14th century “Apocalypse” tapestry.

The region’s cuisine is related to its geography. The salt marshes of the Loire-Atlantique, for example, have given us recipes such as bar en croûte de sel (bass in sea salt). Pure sel de Guérande (Guérande salt) is even eaten with bread and butter! Good use is also made of the Salicorne (sea asparagus or sea bean), which you can eat raw, cooked or pickled.

There are lots of rivers, so there the locals eat lots of salmon, tench and pike, for example. A spot of beurre blanc (literally, white butter) sauce makes a good accompaniment!

Early vegetables (especially watercress) from Nantes are a delight. Loué is known for grain-fed chicken, Challans for duck. In Sarthe, they eat rillettes (potted pork or goose). Vendée’s ham is memorable. And what about artichauts d’Anjou farcis (stuffed Anjou artichokes), or Muscadet-flavoured sausages? For cheese buffs, there’s Port Salut, to name but one!

Famous wines include Muscadet (the Nantes area), Gamay (Anjou) and Saumur. Cointreau comes from Angers.

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Pays de la Loire

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