Most interesting wonders of France
Below are listed the most amazing natural and man made landmarks of France.
- Gouffre de la Pierre Saint Martin – Gouffre des Partages – Aquitaine. Part of the cave is located also in Spain. Very long cave system, length of explored passages – 80,200 m. Up to 1,408 m deep (18th in the world). 7 entrances in French side, 4 – in Spanish side. One of the entrances starts with very impressive 320 m deep abyss. Contains enormous underground voids including Salle de la Verna (the 22nd largest in the world) and Salle de l’Eclipse (the 19th largest in the world). In the Wind tunnel there is constant wind with a speed 11 m/s.
- Réseau Félix Trombe – Henne Morte – Midi-Pyrénées. The longest known cave system in France. Length of explored passages – 105,767 m, depth – up to 975 m. Waterfalls, beautiful cave formations.
Other natural landmarks
- Fontaine-de-Vaucluse – Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. Very powerful spring at the foot of 230 m high cliff. Average discharge – 22,000 l/s, at snow melts – 110,000 l/s – thus it is one of the most powerful springs in the world. Dived up to 308 m depth. Source of Sorgue river.
- Grande Cascade de Gavarnie – Midi-Pyrénées. 422 m tall waterfall, the tallest in France. Tallest single drop – 281 m. Located in the impressive Cirque de Gavarnie.
- Cirque de Gavarnie – Midi-Pyrénées. One of most impressive glacial cirques in Europe – 800 m deep and up to 3,000 m wide.
- Verdon Gorge – Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. Up to 700 m deep canyon, about 25 km long. Verdon here has unusual green-blue color, thus together with the white limestone it creates a beautiful landscape.
Man made landmarks
- Alignements of Carnac – Brittany. Groups of standing stones, consisting of approximately 4,000 such stones. The main groups are – Ménec, Toul-Chigan, Kermario and Manio, Kerlescan Ménec. Ménec is the largest – 1,165 m long, with 1,099 menhirs in 11 lines. Kermario and Manio contains 982 menhirs in 10 lines. Kerlescan Ménec is the best preserved and has 540 menhirs in 13 lines.
- Gavrinis cairn – Brittany. Enormous megalithic cairn – passage grave on the small Gavrinis island, built sometimes around 3500 BC. Grave has 14 m long corridor and single chamber. Adorned with very interesting engraved stone slabs.
Petroglyphs and rock art
- Chauvet, Grotte ornée – Rhône-Alpes. Cave with some of the best examples of prehistoric painting. Contains 420 drawings (paintings and engravings) of animals which have been created since 35,000 BP, Aurignacian period. These drawings belong to the oldest artworks in the world. The quality of the drawings shows that ancient humans already very long ago professed high quality art. Paintings and engravings are done in different techniques but always in very high quality.
- Grotte Cosquer – Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. Unique cave with prehistoric paintings. Entrance of this cave is located 37 m below the sea level – it was inhabited when the sea level was considerably lower than now. Most of paintings have been destroyed by sea water, the remaining ones are made in two periods – 27,000 years BC and 19,000 years BC.
- Grotte de Font-De-Gaume – Aquitaine. Cave with beautiful prehistoric paintings and engravings – in total 230 figures. Cave was inhabited since 25,000 BC. Paintings have been made sometimes around 17,000 BC. Beautiful frieze with five bisons.
- Grotte de Lascaux – Aquitaine. Group of caves with some of the best known Palaeolithic polychrome paintings in the world. Paintings were made sometimes around 15,300 BC. Here are depicted mostly large animals.
- Grotte de Rouffignac – Aquitaine. 8,000 m long cave system in chalk. Contains paintings and engravings of Magdalenian period, more than 13,000 years old. One of the largest painted caves in Europe, also one of the longest caves in sandstone worldwide. Electric train inside the caves.
- Roc-aux-Sorciers – Poitou-Charentes. Rock shelter from Upper Paleolithic. Very interesting wall carvings from the mid-Magdalenian period, some 14,000 years old. Excavated bas-reliefs of bisons and other animals as well as people. Realistic artwork of high quality.
- Arena of Nîmes – Languedoc-Roussillon. The best preserved Roman amphitheater in France, built sometimes around 70 AD. Remodelled in 1863 to serve as a bullring. 103 by 101 m large building, suited for 16,300 visitors. For a while the interior was filled with medieval housing.
- Maison Carrée, Nîmes – Languedoc-Roussillon. One of the best preserved Roman temples worldwide. Built in 16 BC. Turned into Christian church in the 4th century AD, used for diverse purposes, since 1823 – museum.
- Pont du Gard – Languedoc-Roussillon. One of most impressive existing Ancient Roman structures – an aqueduct bridge across Gard River. It represents a part of 50 km long aqueduct – a 48.8 m high and 274 m long bridge with three stacks of arches. Built in the 1st century AD and used for its original purpose until the 9th century. Used as a bridge in medieval times and up to 2000. Built with extreme precision – f.e. it descends 2.5 cm over its 456 m length. Built without mortar – stones are fitting that well that no water is lost.
Urban planning monuments
- Aigues-Mortes – Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. Fortified medieval town with very impressive, well preserved walls. These 1,650 m long walls were built mostly in the 13th century.
- Avignon walled city – Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. Medieval center of once very important city which is surrounded by well preserved city walls. Walls were built in papal times – in 1349 – 1368, are 4,330 m long, 8 m high and have 35 large towers and 50 smaller towers. In this time period Avignon was one of main cities in Europe and underwent fast development.
- Cité de Carcassonne – Languedoc-Roussillon. Medieval walled city, surrounded by 3 km long double wall with 53 towers. Walls built by Romans in the 3rd century AD and further fortified by French in Romanesque style.
- Collonges-la-Rouge – Limousin. Interesting medieval village which is built of red sandstone blocks. Developed since the 8th century. Much of the medieval fortification wall is present.
- Mont Saint-Michel – Lower Normandy. Unique monument of urban planning – a fortified monastery with surrounding small town, built on a rocky tidal island. The island has been used as a stronghold since at least the 6th century AD. Monastery was established here in the early 8th century. Monastic buildings constructed in heavy Romanesque style, mainly in the 10th – 11th century AD. Abbey was closed in the late 18th century. Island is topped with the massive, Romanesque Mont-Saint-Michel church (11th century).
- Moustiers-Sainte-Marie – Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. Very interesting small town, located among giant cliffs. Preserved fortifications of the town from the 15th century. Large Romanesque church. Above the village is hanging a star, connected to two cliffs in both sides of the village.
- Rocamadour – Midi-Pyrénées. Beautiful medieval city in dramatic natural setting, perched on cliffs. Part of buildings are hewn in the cliffs. Pilgrimage site. Especially interesting is Le Sanctuaire – the shrine with several churches one above another.
- Saint-Malo – Brittany. Medieval port city with walls. Saint-Malo developed as a city of well-organized privateers and seafarers making discoveries and settlements in distant areas of the world.
- Château d’Angers – Pays de la Loire. Large, well preserved castle with 17 towers. It encloses 25,000 m² large area. Earlier each of the towers was 40 m high. Originally a fortress was built here by Romans. New fortifications were built mainly in the 9th and 13th centuries.
- Château de Gisors – Upper Normandy. Motte and bailey castle in an excellent state of preservation. Built in the 11th – 12th centuries. Prison of the Grand Master of the Knights Templars Jacques de Molay in 1314. He left here mysterious graffiti.
- Château de Langeais – Centre. Enormous castle. Construction started in the 10th century, extended in the 11th century. Rebuilt in the late 15th century. Located high above Loire. Richly ornamented interiors.
- Château de Pierrefonds – Picardy. Magnificent castle, restored in the 19th century.
- Château de Vincennes – Île-de-France. Royal castle built in the 14th – 17th centuries. Very impressive building. In the centre stands 52 m tall keep, surrounded by a wall. Later surrounded with numerous buildings, forming a large complex.
- Château de Vitré – Brittany. Large, well preserved medieval castle. Built in the site of an earlier castle in the 13th century and enlarged later.
- Palais des Papes, Avignon – Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. Enormous castle which is towering above Avignon. The largest Gothic palace in Europe. Residence of Popes in the time when they were located here, in Avignon. Walls are up to 5.5 m thick. Palace basically consists of many linked towers. This building was almost prohibitely expensive and here was used most of the income of papacy in this period. Adorned with valuable frescoes.
- Château de Chaumont – Centre. Late medieval – Renaissance castle, built in 1465 – 1510. Very well preserved.
- Château de Chambord – Centre. One of the most iconic Renaissance buildings in the world, melting in its design the French medieval architecture and Italian classical architecture. Built in 1519 – 1547. This castle still has fortifications, including a keep and a moat, but it primarily functions as an luxuriant residence. Palace has 440 rooms.
- Château de Chenonceau and park – Centre. One of the most impressive Renaissance palaces in the world, built over the water in 1515 – 1521. Beautiful interiors and valuable collections of art. Very interesting and scenic park around the castle, including a labyrinth of yew trees.
- Château de Maisons – Île-de-France. Large palace, built in 1630 – 1651. This building and its harmony with the surrounding gardens left much impact on French architecture.
- Château de Vaux-le-Vicomt – Île-de-France. Beautiful Baroque palace, built in 1658 – 1661 and surrounded by large garden. Palace is surrounded by a moat from three sides.
- Palace of Fontainebleu – Île-de-France. One of the most impressive palaces in France, developed by Francis I in the first half of the 16th century in Renaissance – Mannerist style. One of the architects is Leonardo da Vinci. Architecture of palace and its interiors has left much influence on European art.
- Palace of Versailles – Île-de-France. The best known and possibly most magnificent palace in the world. Developed in suburbs of Paris since 1661 and served as a royal palace until 1789. With the development of Versailles there was developed a new style in many areas of life – architecture, planning, arts, governance, etiquette – thus the palace represents one of most important monuments of culture in Europe. Considered to be the largest palace in the world, with 700 rooms, facade is some 680 m long.
Romanesque churches and monasteries
- Abbey Church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe – Poitou-Charentes. Large Romanesque church, built in the 11th century. Main value is rich collection of murals from the end of the 11th – early 12th century, representing one of high achievements of Romanesque art. These are the best preserved Romanesque frescoes in Europe.
- Angoulême Cathedral – Poitou-Charentes. Grand church in Byzantine – Romanesque style. First cathedral was built here in the 4th century AD. Current cathedral was built in 1110 – 1128 and modified in later centuries. Important detail is facade decoration with more than 70 sculptures. The spacious interior has been created with a help of four large domes arranged in a row.
- Cluny Abbey – Burgundy. Building of extreme importance to Western European history. This was the leading Western European monastery since the 10th century and was actively shaping the development of European christian society. Development started in 910, highest influence was gained in the 11th – early 12th centuries. Over the time was developed enormous complex of buildings. Only small part of the monastery remains today.
- Notre-Dame la Grande, Poitiers – Poitou-Charentes. Large and beautiful Romanesque church, rebuilt from an earlier structure in the second half of the 11th century. Portals of the church are very ornate.
- Vézelay Basilica of St. Mary Magdalene – Burgundy. One of most beautiful Romanesque churches in the world. Its history starts in 1050 with the claims of Vézelay monks that they possess relics – bones of Mary Magdalene. There started influx of pilgrims and in 1104 – 1165 was built the present church. As the relics of Mary Magdalene were found in one more place in France, in 1279 the fame of Vézelay declined. Church is carefully oriented so that in the John the Baptist’s day it is illuminated by the Sun. Multiple legends about the symbols of this church.
- Albi Cathedral – Midi-Pyrénées. Possibly the largest brick building in the world. Construction of this giant, fortified Gothic church was started in 1287 and for most part completed in 1480. Bell tower is 78 m high, nave is 18 m wide. While the exterior of cathedral is rather grim, interior is sumptuous.
- Amiens Cathedral – Picardy. One of the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe. It has the second tallest nave in France (42,30 m) and a very large interior hall – the largest in medieval Europe. Built in 1220 – 1270. Contains excellent set of Gothic sculptures from the early 13th century. Contains labyrinth which was installed in 1288. The facade originally was polychrome.
- Basilica of St. Denis – Île-de-France. One of the earliest true Gothic buildings in world. Constructed in 1137 – 1141. Nave rebuilt in 1231 – and this rebuilding was one of the first examples of Flamboyant Gothic style. Built in the site of earlier cathedrals which have existed here since the 7th century AD. Burial site of most French monarchs from the 10th century to 1789.
- Beauvais Cathedral – Picardy. Unusual, enormous Gothic cathedral, left unfinished. Construction started in 1225 and continued in many stages, as the financing was available. The vault of cathedral is 48 m high – unsurpassed by Gothic churches. Has 153 m tall tower, which collapsed. The technologies used in the construction were innovative and in a way were testing the limits of known construction methods. Now the church is in constant danger of collapse and is reinforced, while is ongoing a search for the solution to preserve it. Beautiful stained glass.
- Bourges Cathedral – Centre. One of the great Gothic cathedrals of France and also one of the earliest. Construction started sometimes around 1194 and mostly completed in 1324. The dimensions are impressive – nave is 37 m high. Cathedral is supported by flying buttresses. Very ornate is the west portal. Much of stained glass is preserved since 1215.
- Chartres Cathedral – Centre. This church belong to the most impressive Gothic cathedrals of world and it is also one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Medieval Europe. Current cathedral is mostly built between 1193 and 1250, but a cathedral has been here since the 9th century at least. Preserved in exceptionally good condition, with all the original stained glass. Two spires – 113 and 105 m high. Adorned with hundreds of sculptures.
- Laon Cathedral – Picardy. One of the most important early Gothic cathedrals in France, built around 1160 – 1174 and 1180 – 1205, with later additions. West front with its rose window belong to most beautiful details of this church.
- Metz Saint Etienne Cathedral – Lorraine. Large, ornate Gothic cathedral with the largest expanses of stained glass in the world – 6,500 m². Stained glass is created by great artisans since the 14th century. Nave of church is 41.41 m high – the 10th highest in the world. Present Gothic cathedral is constructed from 1220 to 1520.
- Notre Dame de Paris – Île-de-France. Built in 1163 – the late 14th century. One of the most significant Gothic cathedrals and one of best known monuments of architecture in world. Especially beautiful is the stained glass and sculptures. One of the first buildings in the world where flying buttresses were used.
- Reims Cathedral – Champagne – Ardenne. One of the best examples of Gothic architecture, built in the end of the 13th century. Towers are 81 m tall, interior hall is 138.75 m long. Excellent stained glass and sculptures. Original cathedral was here already in the 4th century AD. The kings of France were crowned here.
- Rouen Cathedral – Upper Normandy. Magnificent Gothic – Renaissance cathedral, one of the great architecture monuments of the world. Constructed in 1202 – 1880. The remarkable tower is 151 m tall and was the tallest structure in the world in 1876 – 1880. Church is 136.86 m long, with 28 m high nave.
- Strasbourg Cathedral – Alsace. Gorgeous, giant Gothic cathedral. World’s tallest building in 1647 – 1874, with 142 m tall spire. Started as a Romanesque building in 1015, completed in 1439. Very ornate portal. Stained glass windows made mainly in the 14th century, but some are even from the 12th century. Very interesting is the enormous astronomical clock.
- Tours Cathedral – Centre. One of the great French Gothic cathedrals, built in 1170 – 1547. Very ornate facade. Small cloister in Renaissance style.
Parks and gardens
- Gardens of Versailles – Île-de-France. Possibly the finest example of French Garden design – a Baroque style representation in landscape architecture. Includes a complicated hydraulics system. Contains also approximately 1,400 fountains and 300 statues.
- Garden of Villandry palace – Centre. One of the most beautiful palace gardens in Europe. Developed since 1906, includes earlier Renaissance gardens.
- Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon – Rhône-Alpes. One of the most important art museums in Europe, located in the rebuilt abbey of Dames de Saint-Pierre. Very rich collection of European paintings from the 14th to 20th century, including many works of world importance. Great collection of antiquities.
- Musée du Louvre – Île-de-France. One of the largest museums in the world with more than 35,000 objects exhibited. Many works are among the most important artworks in the world. Located in a palace, which was started as a castle in the late 12th century. Gradually extended and now it is one of the largest palaces in the world.
Other man made landmarks
- Citadel of Besançon – Franche-Comté. One of masterpieces of military architecture: mountaintop fortress with an area of 11 ha, designed by military architect Vauban. Constructed in 1668 – 1711.
- Eiffel Tower – Île-de-France. One of the best known landmarks in the world, a symbol of Paris and to some extent – whole France. This 324 m tall iron lattice tower was built in 1889 and was the tallest man-made structure on Earth until 1930.
- Les Invalides – Île-de-France. A magnificent complex of buildings, built to house the war veterans. Constructed in Baroque style in 1670 – 1679. Most impressive is the royal chapel – beautiful domed structure.
- Palace of Justice, Rouen – Upper Normandy. Very ornate building in Flamboyant Gothic style. Built in the 14th – 15th century as a parliament of Normandy.
- Palais Garnier (Paris Opéra) – Île-de-France. Very ornate Neo-Baroque building, built in 1862 – 1875. Grandeur and sumptuousness of this building is rarely surpassed in whole world.
Described wonders of France
France is home to many of the best known landmarks in the world. This country is literally crammed with thousands and thousands of the most diverse attractions. Highlights of France are:
- Gothic cathedrals. Most people know Notre Dame de Paris or Amiens cathedral, but there are almost countless other magnificent Gothic cathedrals all over the country.
- Renaissance and Baroque palaces. There are little doubts – most magnificent palaces of the world are in France. The best known is Palace of Versailles.
- Medieval towns and cities. In medieval times diverse urban planning traditions evolved in France – depending on the terrain and available construction materials. Hundreds of very old towns and city centers have been preserved almost unchanged up to this day. Avignon, Mont Saint-Michel, Carcassonne, Aigues-Mortes are among the most interesting.
- Prehistoric cave paintings. Numerous caves in France are adorned with high quality paintings, done… tens of thousands years ago. Paintings in such caves as Lascaux, Chauvet, Cosquer serve as a proof – "caveman" knew a lot about true art.
Administrative regions of France
France is divided into 27 administrative regions, 22 of them are located in metropolitan France (including the territorial collectivity Corsica) and 5 are overseas regions. There are also 6 overseas collectivities, 1 sui generis collectivity, 1 overseas territory and also Clipperton Island.
- Burgundy (Bourgogne)
- Brittany (Bretagne)
- Champagne – Ardenne
- Lower Normandy (Basse Normandie)
- Pays de la Loire
- Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur
- Upper Normandy (Haute Normandie)
Sui generis collectivity
Overseas territory – French Southern and Antarctic Lands
- Adélie Land (reviewed in article about Antarctica)
- Crozet Islands
- Kerguelen Islands
- Saint Paul and Amsterdam Islands
- Scattered Islands
Featured: Notre Dame de Paris
One of the most iconic and best known man made landmarks in the world is Notre Dame de Paris. This cathedral is visited by more than 13 million people per year.
There is no single reason why exactly this building is that popular – Notre Dame does not hold any world records and in every single aspect there is some other building which surpasses the cathedral. Notre Dame though has some special charm, special fame – and special beauty. This great French Gothic cathedral represents the essence of Paris – the most romantic and the most visited city.
Wander the lavender fields of Provence, climb the Eiffel Tower, and bite into a perfect croissant: with Rick Steves on your side, France can be yours!
An insider’s tour of France’s most beloved and beautiful villages uncovers the country’s hidden treasures. The Best Loved Villages of France brings the reader on a tour of forty-four of the country’s most treasured destinations. Always picturesque, but often well-kept secrets, the book offers insight into village life and local history. Take a tour of a crumbling medieval fortress with the mayor of Lavardin or peruse the maritime objects found at sea by a mustached fisherman in Saint-Suliac.