I wonder sometimes if the world’s love-affair with France will ever end. It’s been going on with the English since most of south-west France belonged to the Crown centuries ago, and will probably continue long after Covid has been and gone too. And yet, so many people ask us why it is – what it is about this enormously varied country that appeals so much to foreigners? Is it the food, the weather, the romance, the culture? I think it’s a mix of all of these things and more, with perhaps a little magic pixie dust thrown in, too.
For so many people, travelling to France is a voyage back in time, to a land that shows how so much history over so many centuries can be adapted to, so successfully. For while it is a modern, technological country, there are parts of France in the distant countryside where people still live by candlelight – not necessarily due to financial circumstances, but because that’s the way it is. This sort of idiosyncrasy can be found throughout France, from the tip of its gilded Eiffel Tower to the muddy shallows of the beauty of the Carmargue, it is part of the extraordinary diversity of this country that not only makes it so attractive, but also so real. Throw in an area big enough to hide 65 million people with ease, along with a tradition of wine and cheese-making that has outlived a thousand battlefields and a dozen conquering civilisations — all of whom have left their mark — and you have a destination that can tug at every heart-string inside a visitor.
For many people, the lure of France lies in the old ancient villages and towns that are scattered across the breadth of a land that has endured almost every historical passage of time known to man. From its palaeolithic past to the Second World War, there are signs and clues to its past everywhere — castles, towers, walled cities, grand chateaux, glorious palaces of sandstone and clustered houses perched along the gorges and cliffs of its limestone regions. And having lived here so long, I secretly think that France is the beating heart of Europe’s past, and the scars it loves to share are part of the enduring character of the country that makes us all love it so much.
So if we can admire the magnificence of Versailles and still love the charm of the ancient traditional fishing carrelets of the Charente Maritime, what else quickens our pulse? Away from the six great cities of France, the countryside stretches out for 600 miles in each direction, with every region having a distinct geography, culture and history. The Calvados-distilling farmers of Normandy are a world away from the lithe sun-tanned fishermen of the Mediterranean, and here where we are in the Charente Maritime the people are a mix of genes, ranging from the salt-producers of the Marais, to the oystermen of the shallow muddy offshore flats.
As everywhere in this country, each region has its own culture, culinary adventures, and wine and beer. Here for example alongside wine we also have Cognac and Pinneau, the two liquid tastes of the west, and moules éclade, a dish of fresh mussels cooked with burning pine needles. That’s before we get to the oysters, in the ‘City of Oysters’, Marennes.
Where we live just above the marsh, amongst the ancient houses that line streets laced with hollyhocks and valerian, all roads lead to a church, often a building started sometime in the 11th or 12th century, and then sometimes embellished with a spire at a later, more financially capable date. These stolid buildings are large stoned, squat and weather-beaten, and curiously ethereal in their monotone standing.
This close to the coast, the farmers’ fields are not yet the agricultural monotone swathes that cover much of France’s western interior. Hedgerows and stone walls still exist, a reason why we have good populations of insects, birds and small mammals compared to our neighbours further east. A half dozen pilgrimage routes snake through the region, and down in the marsh itself it is rumoured that there are small stone jetties and iron rings still lying deep amongst the copses of blackthorn and bramble. A mile from where I sit writing this, a stunning small church lies in the cradle of the land below the escarpment. Once upon a time, the salt barges could tie up a couple of pew lengths from the western door, their crews a congregation from a time when the breeze would carry the Atlantic scum-deep into the salt ponds at high tide, and the precious savoury cargo would leave on the broad flat-bottomed boats, destined for the big cities and markets of France.
So, a brief tour through a dozen photos hardly illustrates why we love France, but we do. As do so many. There is Paris, the city of love, the alpine meadows of the Savoie, the Normandy coastline with its fearful toll of victory, the deep river valleys of the Dordogne, and the sandy scratchy south coast where the wind blows tightly off the Mediterranean — every region and department is a flavour of this wonderful country, where life always mingles with past and where the people work to live, so the weekends can be a long lunch table of memories. For one thing is sure, no war, or battle, or sound of armies on the march has ever dulled a Frenchman’s appetite for la vie en rose .