An irresistible mix of bustling cities, mediaeval towns, mountains, sea and history entrances the Howells partner on a voyage of discovery
Seeking a real French experience, from the rustic and winding streets of small French towns to the organised chaos of cities, my partner and I made a road trip in our little red 2001 Toyota MR2. We visited many cities, towns and villages across the country, but I have to single a few out for this short postcard.
At Lille, we swapped the car for some bikes to explore the varying architecture from bygone eras and made our way to Lens to see the Louvre. The food was fantastically local, with a vast choice tucked away in the old town. This would turn out to be a recurring theme for the trip.
Next stop was Paris. My first experience of this famous city was the intensity of the traffic, buzzing mopeds everywhere, and so much to look at. A real attack to the senses after the tranquil streets of Lille. We stayed near the Pompidou Centre and enjoyed this marvel before cycling to the Eiffel Tower and seeing it from within and afar. Its dazzling light show and the reflections in the Seine really caught our imagination and made me realise why this old city is one of the most visited on Earth.
In Lyon, we loved the old town part of the city. The densely packed footprint, cobbled streets and rendered buildings of various colours – not to mention that feeling of not knowing where you’re going as you wander round a maze of small streets – was such a memorable part of the trip. The medieval grain is something you try to apply in design. We try to convince local authorities that this type of density (not in height but in proximity) is a good thing and people don’t mind being close – sharing streets with cyclists, pedestrians and cafés – it works so well when it’s done right.
In Marseille, we loved being next to the sea and this again reminded me how being close to some form of water is important for us all. The infiniteness of the blue was reassuring, and the distant clang of boats, bells, laughter and waves added to the calmness. After Marseille we followed locals’ recommendations as we wanted to avoid any major seaside conurbations, instead opting for smaller harbour and port towns.
Toulon, a port town with a naval history, was tourist-free and was just what we needed. At the end of every street or road was another beautiful view of the Alps. The mountains were calling us but first we visited Menton. A small coastal town 10 minutes from Italy, the grain and density were so French. The streets felt like they were carved out of the buildings and coupled with the colours, the topography and Roman history, it is a stand-out place.
We bid farewell to the coast and ascended the Alps towards Grenoble. We stopped at little villages for dips in the turquoise lakes and bites to eat, then headed back to Calais. Oh France, please don’t change.