10 Cultural Vacations in France in 2015

Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy, France // Photo by Mike Cattell via Flickr 

The Daily Telegraph, December 17, 2015 

1. Mont St Michel, Normandy

The biggest news in Normandy for 2015 is the “Restoration of the Maritime Character” of Mont St Michel. The world-famous island abbey has not been a genuine island for many years; because the access road was never submerged, vast deposits of silt formed a permanent link with the mainland. Now a futuristic wooden-decked bridge allows the sea to swirl around the entire island, private vehicles are banned, and visitors can approach on foot, like medieval pilgrims, once again. Elsewhere, the city of Rouen, where Joan of Arc was condemned to death and burned at the stake in 1431, is unveiling a new interactive Joan of Arc History Centre, housed in the 15th-century archbishop’s palace where her trial took place.

More information: mont-saint-michel.monuments-nationaux.fr ; rouentourisme.com Greg Ward

2. Festival time in Brittany

Summer is festival season in Brittany, with little Carhaix staging France’s biggest rock festival, and Lorient hosting a massive Celtic jamboree. Smaller-scale events elsewhere, however, tend to have a more local flavour, spotlighting the region’s unique traditions and culture. During the last week of July, for example, Temps Fête takes over the port of Douarnenez to celebrate matters maritime and musical. Hundreds of boats crowd into the harbour each evening, after a hard day’s racing and sightseeing, while quayside stages feature everything from sea shanties to symphony orchestras. Breton beer and cider flow freely, there’s dancing on the cobbled streets, and a firework display rounds the whole thing off.

More information vieillescharrues.asso.fr ; festival-interceltique.com ; tempsfete.comGW

3. Castles of the Languedoc

To understand Languedoc, you need to know the Cathars. The 12th- and 13th-century dualist heretics were not only vital to regional history (they flourished in Languedoc as nowhere else) but still inform its identity. Every time they take on outsiders - whether at politics, rugby or simple bloody-mindedness - Languedociens invoke the spirit of their massacred forebears. In the hands of the history-tour specialists Andante, the learning process turns into a treat. Its seven-day, six-night trip swirls from Béziers - where 20,000 Cathars were slaughtered in the Pope’s 1208 crusade - by way of Cathar redoubts to the vertiginous mountain-topping châteaux of Peyrepertuse, Quéribus and Montségur where Cathars holed up and, these days, only eagles dare. It’s a journey through landscapes as dramatic as their stories.

£2,225pp, including flights, local travel, hotels, all meals, expert lecturer, entries and tips (01722 713800; andantetravels.co.uk ). Anthony Peregrine

4. The Avignon fringe, Provence

Oh yes - the Avignon fringe festival: now there’s a reason to travel. In normal times, Avignon comes pre-hallowed. The place hosted the 14th-century Popes. With the thumping great papal palace at its centre, the city was the hub of the world. It’s taken itself very seriously ever since, as the official Avignon festival indicates. The programme for what is Edinburgh-on-Rhône generally ways a ton. But, like Edinburgh, Avignon has its fringe (“le off,” they call it). And, with that, the dignified old spot explodes.

Players invade all spaces, drumming up audiences for more than 1,100 shows in some 120 venues every day. Flyers announce “Godot est arrivé”. Music and dance enliven every corner. Theatre comes at you persistently, offering everything from Flemish absurdism through musicals, magic, jazz and slapstick to Shakespeare reviewed (“Romeo Hates Juliet”). Never was a city so invigorated. Kirker goes there for three nights’ b &  b in a town-centre three-star.

From £732pp, including return flight and transfers (020 7593 2283; kirkerholidays.com ). AP

5. Art tours in Provence

Artists have long lusted after the Côte-d’Azur for the light - and heat, it is said. The slippery grip on morality has also doubtless played a part. At any event, they’re all over: Cocteau in Menton, Signac in St Tropez, Chagall with his towering Biblical Message canvases in Nice, the Matisse museum just up the road and Picasso pretty much everywhere – not least in Antibes, where the Picasso Museum shows him at his perkiest. Painted in summer 1946, his Joie de Vivre has an almost innocent exuberance. The culture specialists Martin Randall will get you round all these, and much more, with departures in March and September.

From £2,540pp, including return flight, b & b accommodation, five dinners, lecturer, admissions and tips (020 8742 3355; martinrandall.com ). AP

6. Prehistoric rock art, Dordogne

Prehistoric art in south-west France is extraordinary stuff, and you can rely on Martin Randall to put together a serious tour. Led by Britain’s top specialist in prehistoric art, the trip begins in Bordeaux . It swiftly moves to the extraordinary Lascaux cave in the Dordogne ’s Vézère Valley. The menagerie of wild bison, horses and ibex you see emblazoned on the rock is a copy – the Unesco World Heritage original is too precious. But the next two stops are the Real McCoy and deeply satisfying: exquisitely decorated Pech Merle in the Lot, and Niaux with its earth-shattering acoustics in the Pyrenees. There are simply no finer prehistoric caves in Europe. Martin Randall has a Cave Art of France tour, taking in these sites, from June 8-15, 2015.

£2,680pp, including return flight, transfers, accommodation and most meals (contact details as above). Nicola Williams

7. Abbeys, churches and ruins of Burgundy

Burgundy boasts some of the most majestic medieval buildings in Europe. The vast basilicas of Autun and Vezelay, the ruins of Cluny Abbey and the Gothic wonder of Dijon are just a few of the highlights. Farther north are the stunning Carolingian crypt in Auxerre with its ninth-century frescoes and the early Gothic cathedral of Sens. All can be visited without a guide, but you’ll get a better sense of the wealth and power of medieval Burgundy if you travel the region with an expert in tow. Martin Randall’s eight-day tour Medieval Burgundy: Abbeys and Churches of the High Middle Ages takes in all the key sites.

£2,360pp, including first-class Eurostar travel, TGV to Macon and four-star accommodation throughout. Giles Milton

8. A brand new castle in Burgundy

Burgundy’s hill-tops are dotted with castles, chateaux and medieval fortifications. But Guedelon Castle, in the north-west of the region, is different from the rest – building work started there in 1997. It sounds like a gimmick, but it’s not. Guedelon is a “medieval” castle that’s being built from scratch, using traditional tools and techniques. An army of masons, carpenters and rope-makers (along with many others) spend a part of each year here, constructing a castle in the same fashion as their medieval forebears. It’s fun and educational, a warts-and-all archaeological theme park and a must-see sight, especially if you’re travelling with children.

Castle open from March to November, £9.50 adults, £8 children over five ( guedelon.fr ). GM

9. 600 years since Agincourt

Despite Henry V’s inspirational heroics on the field at Agincourt exactly 600 years ago, he died before he could inherit the French throne and unite the kingdoms. But it was a glorious moment, and thanks to Shakespeare it has become part of our national psyche. A re-enactment of the famous arrow storm which helped secure victory happens here on July 25 (though the actual anniversary, is October 25). The Cultural Experience (0345 475 1815; theculturalexperience.com ) is running an anniversary tour to the battlefield to coincide with the re-enactment. The six-day itinerary, led by Dr John Sadler, a lecturer in war studies, covers the battles at Agincourt, Crécy (1346) and Poitiers (1356).

The five night tour runs from from July 22-27 £1,795 including train travel. Nick Trend

10. Strasbourg millennium

This year marks the 1,000th anniversary of Strasbourg’s great cathedral. Or at least the laying of the foundation stone. Only parts of the orignal scheme remain - the fabric was much adpated and rebuilt in the centuries afterwards - in fact, its 15th-century spire (only one of a planned two was completed) was the tallest building in the world from 1647 until 1974. It but it has some superb highlights, including wonderful stained glass from the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries. And there is plenty more to see in Strasbourg (including a great fine arts museum, medeival streets and houses, and excellent regional wines and cuisine).

Voyages SNCF (0844 848 5848; uk.voyages-sncf.com ) offers return rail fares from London via Paris from £000. NT

For our other expert holiday selections in France see our top 10 villa holidays in France, beach holidays in France, activity holidays in France and food and drink holidays in France.

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