From DNA #197
Last year, France was twice subjected to horrific attacks by religious terrorists. Yet, the French people responded to the crisis in a stoic, dignified manner, unwilling to let it threaten their way or life or shake their belief in liberté, égalité, fraternité. This month, we celebrate their spirit and pick our 20 top reasons to love and visit France. Feature by Xav Judd.
1. THE NOUVELLE VAGUE
If the essence of true art is to breathe new life into what existed before, then no movement succeeded more than the Nouvelle Vague. This bunch of film directors, many of whom had formerly been critics for the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma (Chabrol, Godard, Truffaut et al), started their careers in the 1950s and 1960s. Their personal, experimental, stylistic movies shattered convention, partly because they often displayed a high degree of realism, and tackled serious contemporaneous political and social issues. In order to achieve such an aesthetic, these New Wave auteurs utilised numerous techniques: improvised dialogue, long takes, shooting with non-professional actors, and using outdoor locations.
2. THE ‘FOUR MUSKETEERS’ OF TENNIS
Named after the characters from an Alexandre Dumas novel, the four musketeers – Henri Cochet, Jacques Brugnon, Jean Borotra and René Lacoste – reinvented what it was to be a tennis player in the 1920s and 1930s. Always ultra-determined, but with impeccable manners, these sartorially sophisticated amateur sportsmen volleyed, sliced and smashed their way to a heap of Grand Slam singles and doubles titles. Their unrivalled domination extended to forming the team that won the Davis Cup six years in a row (1927-1932), and all were ranked in the world’s top ten for two seasons running.
3. ARTHUR RIMBAUD
The original enfant terrible, this precocious poet started composing verse in his early teens. Born in Charleville-Mézières (northern France) in 1854, Rimbaud believed that in order to develop his oeuvre, what was required was a “long, intimidating, immense and rational derangement of all the senses”. In other words, he got off his tits on absinthe and hashish, revelled in disorderliness, and indulged in copious amounts of sex, often with his lover, the taciturn, abusive fellow scribe, Paul Verlaine. Such behaviour scandalised contemporary society and probably took its toll on this restless soul, as he quit writing when barely 21. Yet, despite this fact and his death from cancer just 16 years later (1891), seminal works A Season In Hell and The Drunken Boat mean his reputation remains undiminished.
4. ÉDITH PIAF
Abandoned by her mother shortly after her birth in Paris (1915) and for a time brought up by a brothel-owning grandma, this singer-songwriter rose from such humble origins to become France’s most popular entertainer. In 1935 she was discovered by Louis Leplée, who got the 20-year-old a slot in his Champs Élysées-based nightclub (Le Gerny’s). Initially, Piaf was nervous during performances, but over the next two decades the diminutive (142cm) starlet’s unique raspy vocals and colossal talent led to a string of record deals, cabaret and concert appearances, and some movie roles. Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien and La Vie En Rose became her signature tunes.
5. VICTOR HUGO
Although Hugo first seeped into the public consciousness by means of his moving poetry, he is best remembered for two novels. The Hunchback Of Notre-Dame, a poignant tale about the titular deformed bell-ringer and his unrequited love for the kind-hearted teen, Esméralda; and Les Misérables, where the peasant Jean Valjean ends up spending 19 years in prison after stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving children. Born in Besançon in 1802 and one of the greatest exponents of the Romantic movement, what made this author’s works especially important is that they reflected his steadfast desire for social justice.
6. THE DORDOGNE
Imposing chateaux perched on clifftops surrounded by a tsunami of woodland and butterfly-wing pretty villages astride deep blue snaking rivers – what’s not to love about the Dordogne? Situated in southwestern France between the Loire Valley and the Pyrenees, it was one of the original 83 departments constituted during the French Revolution. Holidaymakers flock to this delightful region not only to glimpse charming architecture (castles, churches, bridges et al) from that and older epochs, but also to bask in average summer temperatures of 27.5 degrees Celsius.
7. PÈRE LACHAISE
It may seem a little bit odd to visit a cemetery if one doesn’t have a relative or close friend buried there, but then you’d be missing out on Père Lachaise. Founded in 1804 in the capital’s 20th arrondissement, a profusion of bright blooms, patina-coated statutes and ornate headstones give this site an appropriately ethereal quality. Among the one million-plus graves are the last resting places of several notable individuals: The Doors enigmatic frontman, Jim Morrison; Polish-born composer and virtuoso pianist, Frédéric Chopin; and the aforementioned Édith Piaf, to name but a few. Literary genius Oscar Wilde is also interred here in an enchanting, Jacob Epstein-designed Art Deco tomb.
8. THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
In 1789, inspired by the Enlightenment ideal that all men are created equal, the masses rose up against the political and social system of government (ancien regime) that existed in their nation. Hitherto, chiefly royalty, and the nobility and church, had dominated state power. Nevertheless, the Third Estate (the other 98 per cent of the French populace) upset with a “natural order” where an egotistical, greedy, bumbling elite ruled dictatorially including the imposition of excessive taxes, orchestrated a series of violent actions that led to the establishment of a Republic (1799). During this period of upheaval the monarchy were swept away, with Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, not being able to eat any more cake, because they lost their heads to the guillotine.
Humans have always been fascinated by questions about our existence. What are we, why are we, and where are we, are just a few of the ones that individuals have tried to answer. Various Gallic philosophers have been at the forefront of such metaphysical quandaries by expounding upon the cosmos and the intrinsic nature of the human condition. René Descartes observed, “I think, therefore I am”. Jean-Paul Sartre opined, “Hell is other people”; Voltaire suggested, “Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do”; and according to the devilish Marquis de Sade, “It is always by way of pain that one arrives at pleasure.” Sacré bleu!
10. PARIS, PARIS
If the number of couples seen smooching along the banks of the River Seine in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower is anything to go by the French capital is still the ultimate destination for lovers. Indeed, a town centre of enchanting boulevards with architecture from a melange of different periods (Art Nouveau, Baroque, Neo-classical, and more), green open spaces and a refined café culture, creates an ambience that’s ideal for romance. When you throw in a smorgasbord of to-die-for attractions – the Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Pompidou Centre et al – it’s easy to see why a metropolis founded in the 3rd Century BC by a Celtic tribe called the Parisii, is simply irresistible.
11. THE IMPRESSIONISTS
Just consider that instead of recreating the most realistic version of something, one decided upon a subtler rendition. It might not seem so revolutionary now, but it was groundbreaking when a group of Gallic painters did it in the mid-19th Century. Led by Bazille, Monet and Renoir, this initially Paris-based school of artists broke the mould in a location sense by producing their masterpieces en plein air (outside), and technique-wise by using short, thick brush strokes to convey the essence of their subject matter, rather than the specifics. Such imagination has furnished us with a plethora of stirring, sublime pictures: Bathers At Asnières, The Floor Scrapers, and Water Lilies, to name but a few.
The pop of a cork, a confusion of delicate bubbles, and then a slurp of the good stuff. Who doesn’t go crazy for this beverage? It’s grown in the eponymous region of France (usually the term “champagne” cannot be used, if not), where some type of wine has been made since before medieval times. This sparkling variety is generally made from a blend of three grapes – the black Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir, and the green-skinned Chardonnay. To make sure the taste is always magnifique, during production the drink is subjected to stringent quality control. Bottoms up!
If ever a country were synonymous with putting on the Ritz, then it would have to be France. Over the years, she’s produced so many cutting-edge designers – Agnès B, Coco Chanel, Jean Paul Gaultier, Yves Saint Laurent, Louis Vuitton – that the essential vocabulary of the fashion industry is practically written in the native language: à la mode, avant-garde, boutique, chic, décolletage, haute couture and even the downmarket pret-a-porter. With such a distinguished heritage, it’s not exactly astonishing that women who wear bikinis would have to walk around in the buff if it wasn’t for the French – because they invented them, as well as coming up with denim clothing and polo shirts.
14. TOUR DE FRANCE
This is a cycling uber-marathon like no other, typically over 3,500km (over 2,200 miles) and lasting three weeks. Initiated in 1903, the race consists of around twenty teams of nine riders with one particular individual as their principle contender for the title. Competitors maintain a blistering pace along the roads, mostly in the idyllic countryside of France (and occasionally other nations), in daily stages. Since the mid-1970s the event has concluded on the Champs-Élysées in Paris. There, the general classification winner, by virtue of having the lowest overall time, is presented with the maillot jaune (the Yellow Jersey).
16. CUISSES DE GRENOUILLE
The idea of doing a runner instead of the meal in front of me hopping into yonder occurred to me the first time this delicacy was plonked on my plate. However, as I savoured the unique taste – mine came with garlic – it was easy to understand why the French have been tucking into cuisses de grenouille regularly for over 500 years. This traditional dish, which is particularly found in the Dombes region of southeastern France, is the cheeky reason why individuals from that country are known as the Frogs.
17. THE PISTE
Nothing beats hurtling down a fluffy powder of entrancing whiteness with the sun at your back and the wind coursing through your hair. That’s what’s in store on the snow-covered, iconic mountain landscapes that define France’s numerous cosmopolitan ski resorts. Luxurious retreats like Chamonix, Méribel and Val d’Isère offer the opportunity to do various invigorating activities (dog sledding, paragliding, snowboarding, tobogganing), which mean even though it’s freeze-the-bollocks-off-an-Eskimo cold, one is always the epitome of cool. Surely that amounts to a “piste de resistance”?
18. CATHERINE DENEUVE
Even though her first appearance on celluloid was as a schoolgirl in Les Collègiennes (1957) when she was only 13, it was Catherine Deneuve’s consummate performance in the musical The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (1964) that made her famous. Born in Paris in 1943, the scion of an acting family (her mother, father and sisters were all in the profession), star turns in Repulsion (1965) and Belle de Jour (1967) resulted in leading-lady status. Since then, this double César Award winner’s understated beauty and air of mystery have been evident in such gems as The Last Metro (1980), Indochine (1992), and 8 Women (2002).
19. THE SOMME
This month marks the centenary of the beginning of one of the bloodiest battles in the Great War, the Somme Offensive (1 July until 18 November 1916). It involved Allied forces – on this occasion, primarily the Brits, French and their colonies’ troops – being camped in trenches on one side of the eponymous river in Picardy (northern France). Their opponents, German Empire combatants, were holed-up in similar defences on the other. Due to a variety of factors – inadequate planning, ineffective shelling, disease – the Allied plan of capturing the enemy positions was a catastrophic failure, leading to over 419,000 United Kingdom and Commonwealth casualties (including 23,000 Australians). Today, if you want to pay tribute to these brave men who, in many cases, had their hearts and souls obliterated by the cold steel of machine gun fire, it’s possible to visit. Expect to be moved, intrigued and horrified in equal measure by cemeteries, monuments, museums, mine craters and trenches.
20. MOULIN ROUGE
Co-founded by Joseph Oller and Charles Zidler in 1889 in the midst of La Belle Époque, this glamorous Parisian nightclub is the perfect spot to see people legs akimbo. Why? Because it’s the spiritual birthplace of the modern version of the frilly knickered can-can. Although most renowned for cabaret, the Moulin Rouge’s programme has extended to kabuki, operettas and galas, and it’s hosted a who’s who of performers: Elton John, Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles. The venue has a red windmill – the literal translation of its name – on its roof, complementing snazzy, colourful interiors.
More: The French Tourist Board