France has returned to the holiday table, with British travellers able to visit again from January 14. Here, our expert selects his 20 favourite départements, from elegant Hérault to boozy Calvados. The département numbers are listed alongside each entry. These are vital identifying factors, featuring on car registration plates, in postal codes and much else besides. To see his verdict on all 96 départements, follow this link.
1. Hérault, Languedoc (34)
In Montpellier, the Hérault has the most elegant of French provincial cities, plus first-rate rugby and soccer teams. It furthermore has a coast for Everyman, more wine than any similar stretch in the world, the Canal-du-Midi, inland hills, bull-running festivals and me. It’s nourished my family for 30 years. We both take badly to criticism.
2. Drôme, Rhône-Alpes (26)
Montélimar is nougat HQ. That’s enough about that. Otherwise, the Drôme is Provence, but not quite, the Alps but not quite, combining the best of both (lavender, wine, mountains) with fewer queues. In Valence it has the small-town gastro-capital of France. Try Flaveurs, La Cachette, Pierrre Sève’s L’Epicerie and Anne-Sophie Pic, in that order.
3. Pyrenees-Atlantique, Aquitaine (64)
Paradise. Basque country rolls beautifully from mountains to a muscular coast punctuated by pristine seaside towns; St-Jean-de-Luz may be the most appealing in all of France. The absurdly pretty village of Ainho, Europe’s pepper/piment HQ, Espelette, and Biarritz, all Belle Époque glamour and inimitable coastal culture, mustn’t be missed.
4. Haut-Rhin, Alsace (68)
France’s loveliest wine route hems the hinge of the Vosges mountains and Alsacien plain. Tailored vines roll down to the gates of villages where historical squalor has been vanquished, leaving only the picturesque aftermath. Riquewihr, say, is so wonkily perfect that you long to wind it up and see how it works, to accordion accompaniment.
5. Vaucluse, Provence (84)
Rough stories are folded into the soft-focus Luberon hills. Way up, Mérindol castle ruins bear a plaque recalling the 1545 slaughter of the Vaudois. The rustic Vaudois (“Waldensians”) were early Protestants, thus a threat to Catholic authority. Some 2,000 of them were massacred, their villages wiped out. Hard-rock roots, then, to Provence’s sunny present.
6. Lozère, Massif Central (48)
You drive up the Cévennes hills, on whose forested slopes protestant Camisards invented guerrilla warfare. Or perhaps through the majestic Tarn gorges. You cross the pint-sized country county town of Mende, and climb again to the granite Margeride uplands. You tread warily. This is where my wife’s family farms. They don’t take prisoners.
7. Pas-de-Calais, North (62)
If you can drive the rocking, rolling Opal coast (careful: the wind will blow the bloody doors off) before turning to walled Montreuil, the Crequoise valley and Great War sites like Arras and Vimy – if you can do all that and not be moved and cheered, well, you should have come with me.
8. Var, Provence (83)
The Var satisfies everyone. There is St Tropez, not invariably angelic. Upcountry, the land grows wild, its perched villages ever running to the rhythms of farming, festivals, feuds and family. In between, Thoronet Abbey provides evidence that Provençal faith could be sublime. Guides sometimes sing Salve Regina in the main church. Wrap-around beauty ensues.
9. Gers, Midi-Pyrenees (32)
I’ve never been here without meeting friends I didn’t know I had and singing a little on leaving the table. The hills are way more welcoming than the Pyrenees just south. There’s wine, foie gras, Armagnac, villages with arcaded squares and festivals you never expected: jazz in Marciac, country in Mirande and latino rhythms in Vic-Fezensac.
10. Gard, Languedoc (30)
County capital Nîmes is twinned with Preston, Lancashire on the basis of textile histories: Preston had cotton, Nîmes denim (de-Nîmes). There’s more. Nîmes is near the Med, Preston has the Irish Sea; Nîmes the Cévennes hills, Preston the Pennines, Nîmes the greatest Roman arena outside Italy, Preston Deepdale. The two towns are practically indistinguishable.
11. Finistère, Brittany (29)
Here, land ends and legends begin. Take the wave-lashed promontory of Pointe Saint-Mathieu. You’ll understand the necessity of Celtic myths for survival. On top, there’s a ruined Benedictine abbey and a lighthouse. By night, the abbey looms, the lighthouse flashes far, the Iroise sea pounds the rocks, and the temptation is to howl.
12. Nord, North (59)
From Dunkirk beaches via hill topping Cassel (France’s favourite village back in 2018) and flat Flanders to Lille’s renewed centre, this is once-industrial, beer-drinking culture with more sense than money and more culture than you’d expect (Roubaix’s Piscine gallery, Matisse’s home-town museum in Château-Cambrésis). You’d think you were in Lancashire, except they eat more mussels.
13. Dordogne, Aquitaine (24)
Pre-history and canoeing: we all know the Dordogne’s headliners. Less-known is Milandes château, once owned by American Josephine Baker who, having gone through two marriages by the age of 15, travelled to France to become the planet’s highest-paid inter-war female entertainer. Best castle visit in the French south.
14. Indre-et-Loire, Loire Valley (37)
The Indre-et-Loir is punctuated with astonishing châteaux. See them in this order of wonderfulness: Chenonceau, Amboise, Chinon, Loches, Azay-le-Rideau and then, for gardens, Villandry plus the smaller but delightful Rivau at Lémeré. No more than two a day and six in all on one trip. Otherwise, you’ll drop dead with château fatigue.
15. Puy-de-Dome, Auvergne (63)
The ex-volcanoes rise all around but if you truly wish to appreciate Clermont-Ferrand, think rugby. It runs like a seam through the place, the stadium being the city’s second cathedral. (The first is a Gothic edifice in black volcanic stone.) Watch a match, then tackle a potée auvergnate. That’s how props gain even more weight.
16. Vendée, Loire Valley (85)
“If I advance, follow me! If I retreat, kill me! If I die, avenge me!” Thus cried Henri de Rochejaquelein as he stirred Vendéen peasants into revolting against the French revolution. The Vendée remains deeply, creditably suspicious of totalitarianism. Get the story, and enormous fun, at Puy-du-Fou, the world’s greatest historical theme park.
17. Lot, Midi-Pyrenees (46)
Figeac is the finest small town in France, its conspiratorial old centre recounting the historic structures of French living. It was birthplace of Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion, who cracked hieroglyphics, and Hollywood Latin lover, chain-smoking Charles Boyer. Beyond, the Célé river flows to Cabrerets, home of the outstanding Pech Merle cave paintings. I’d book now.
18. Vienne, Poitou-Charentes (86)
The Gartempe Valley is a world of stillness, deep greenery and rivers, undiscovered France revealing, at St Savin’s abbey church, the finest Romanesque frescoes anywhere. Meanwhile, Montmorillon is a Hay-on-Wye book village. James Fraser sells English works. “French chaps looking like beggars come in, pull out wodges of notes and buy English poetry,” he says.
19. Marne, Champagne (51)
Champagne is the only wine you can taste all day, from breakfast on, and still hit the right button in the hotel lift at midnight. Believe me. For tasting purposes, get out of main towns Reims and Epernay to villages like Cramant (Champagne Voirin Jumel), Rilly-la-Montagne (Vilmart) and the ideally-named Bouzy (Barnaut).
20. Calvados, Normandy (14)
An old friend of mine survived D-Day landings to fight deeper into Calvados (the county), delighting in calvados (the apple brandy), but only to fuel his camp stove. “Christ, it was rough,” he said. No longer. Seven million apple trees now produce a spirit as pleasing as autumn light. Make for Beuvron-en-Auge or Coudray-Rabut.
Which is your favourite region of France? Please let us know in the comments below.