Delve into the key events and locations in France’s rich history.
Along with its beautiful landscapes there are many magnificent historical sites to discover in France. From cavemen and royal rulers to the Revolution and World Wars, the stories are rich and many locations lay protected as UNESCO World Heritage sites. Here are just a few of the historic locations in France worth exploring on your holiday.
Perched on a rocky outcrop, Mont Saint-Michel, in Normandy has long been recognised as a place of pilgrimage. As far back as the 6th century, monks have lived on this mystical island and varied life has walked through the abbey's imposing doors. Used as a prison during the French Revolution, since 1969, it's again home to a community of monks. In low tide, you can drive across the causeway and park at the base of the island. Explore the maze of medieval streets and take an audio tour to really get to grips with the rich history of one of France's most popular historic spots.
Getting there: Mont Saint-Michel is a scenic 4 hour 15 minute drive, heading west from Calais, along the north coast. For the quickest route follow the A29.
Châteaux of the Loire Valley
Bursting with historical towns, villages and châteaux, the Loire Valley is the place to come for architectural heritage. In fact, the area between Sully-sur-Loire and Chalonnes, in central France is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is a beautiful area to explore by car. Dotted amongst the vineyards, orchards, fields and river are famed castles, some with their medieval towers and moats still intact.
Amboise is a popular base for discovering nearby Châteaux and you can stand on the terraces of the town's castle to see panoramic views of the valley. Leonardo da Vinci arrived in 1516 and spent the last 3 years of his life living and working in next doors' Château du Clos Lucé (connected by an underground passage) and is buried in the Amboise Château's chapel. It's possible to go behind the scenes by booking a tour through the castle's underground passages and towers. For more information visit the Amboise Château website. Also, pop into the Château du Clos Lucé to see up to 40 models of Da Vinci's historic inventions including a parachute, a helicopter and the first automobile.
Getting there: Amboise town is a 4 hour and 40 minute drive, heading south west along the A1 and A10 from Calais.
The Belfries of Northern France
Fifty-Six belfries across Belgium and France, together, have been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You'll find most of these in the Picardy and North Calais regions of northern France with 23 having significant historical or architectural importance. Many of the medieval belfries were built as watchtowers during the Hundred Years' War between England and France. The bells became a sort of town alarm, marking a community curfew or warning of an emergency.
To hear the bells in action, visit the Gothic-style belfry of Douai with its bells chiming every 15 minutes. Douai is a 1 hour 20 minute drive, heading south along the A26. Along the same route, you can stop off at the 75-metre high belfry of Arras (1 hour from Calais). Destroyed during the First World War, it was raised from the rubble and lovingly reconstructed to its original medieval brilliance.
The Somme Battlefields
The Somme Battlefields saw some of the fiercest fighting of the Great War. In 2014, we approach the centenary of the First World War (1914-1918) and there's no better way to pay your respects to the fallen than at the battlefields of France. Ypres and the Somme are two of the key sites in discovering tragic events of the past. Visit before the anniversary to get ahead of the masses. A self-drive tour lets you explore at your own pace. Find out more at Somme Battlefield Tours.
Getting there: To explore the battlefields, drive 1 hour 40 minutes south from Calais, following the A26 to the town of Albert.
Prehistoric Sites in Dordogne
Go back to the history of prehistoric man by visiting the settlements and complex of caves in the Vézère Valley. Understand how our ancestors lived by viewing the incredible wall paintings in Les Combarelles cave (Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil) and visiting the Neanderthal burials at La Ferrassie (Savignac-de-Miremont).
One of the most popular historic locations in France is Lascaux Cave, in the village of Montignac. A group of teenagers discovered the cave, in 1940, when they were searching for their dog. This became one of the most important moments for the history of prehistoric art. The remarkable detail in the cave paintings and variety of items found here are unmatched anywhere else in the world. When the original Lascaux cave paintings began to deteriorate due to huge visitor numbers, the government built a replica and named it Lascaux II. For a 40-minute guided tour through the caves, pick up your ticket from Montignac tourist information centre, or off season, you can buy them onsite. There's free parking at the site and you can find more at Vézère Valley tourist information.
Get Directions: Lascaux II is a 7 hour 15 minute drive from Calais following the A20 south.
Royal ResidenciesThe Palace & Park of Fontainebleau
Nestled in a vast forest in the Île-de-France region is the grand Palace de Fontainebleau. Used by medieval French Kings in the 12th century as a hunting lodge, this royal residence was enlarged and embellished by François I in the 16th century. Nicknamed 'the house of the centuries', many reigning French kings left their mark on Fontainebleau including Henri IV, Louis XIII and Louis XVI who all splashed out on home developments. Inside, the Imperial Theatre (1853), inspired by Marie Antoinette's small theatre at Versailles is currently being restored, with plans to open to the public in summer 2014.
Getting there: The Palace of Fontainebleau is 55 km from the centre of Paris, and 3 hours 30 minutes' drive from Calais, along the A26 and A1.
Palace & Park of Versailles The Palace of Versailles, with its thousands of rooms and acres of garden, is one of the most lavish palaces ever built in Europe. Originally Louis XIII's hunting lodge, Louis XIV gave orders to expand the Palace in 1682, showcasing his power by moving the court and government of France to Versailles. After the Revolution, Louis-Philippe of Orléans, transformed the Palace from a royal residence into the Museum of France, the country's story and events told through thousands of paintings and sculptures. Glide down the shimmering Hall of Mirrors and during the summer months, see dramatic light effects and jets spouting water to music during the Fountains Night Show in the palace's immaculate gardens.
Getting there: The Palace of Versailles is 3 hours' drive from Calais following the A16.