The French wrote the book on la vie en rose and gave the world champagne and camembert, de Beauvoir and Debussy, the Tour de France and the Tour Eiffel. There's a term for their seductive lifestyle - Douce France (Sweet France) and you'll find yourself using it often.
Although the ubiquity of Levis and Le Big Mac flusters the country's cultural purists, anything from a year in Provence to a weekend in Paris will explain why half the world grows dreamy over stalking Cyrano's streets or picnicking Manet-style sur l'herbe.
This country has been synonymous with romance for longer than your grandmother cares to remember, so whether you visit Paris or the Pyrenees, the Côte d'Azur or an auberge de jeunesse, be sure to keep your fantasies in check, your expectations in line and your joie in your vivre.
Full country name: French Republic
Area: 547,030 sq km
Population: 60.4 million
Capital City: Paris
People: 92% French, 3% North African, 2% German, 1% Breton, 2% other (including Provençal, Catalan & Basque)
Language: French, Catalan, Basque, Breton, Corsican
Religion: 86% Roman Catholic, 8% Muslim, 2% Protestant 1% Jewish, 3% unaffiliated
Head of State: President Jacques Chirac
Head of Government: Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin
GDP: US$1.6 trillion
GDP per capita: US$27,600
Annual Growth: 4%
Major Industries: Oil refining, steel, cement, aluminium, agricultural products & foodstuffs (wheat, barley, maize, cheese), luxury goods, chemicals, motor manufacturing, energy products, tourism.
Major Trading Partners: EU (especially Germany, Italy, UK), USA
Member of EU: Yes
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Visas: Nationals of the EU, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Israel do not need visas to visit France as tourists for up to three months. Except for the citizens of a handful of other European countries, everyone else must have a visa. To apply, you'll need a passport (valid for a period of three months beyond your departure date from France), a ticket in and out of France, proof of money and possibly of accommodations, two passport-sized photos and the visa fee in cash. Tourist visas cannot be extended except in emergencies (eg medical problems). You might try calling the Préfecture de Police (tel 01 53 71 51 68; www.prefecture-police-paris.interieur.gouv.fr) for guidance. If you don't need a visa to visit France, you'll almost certainly qualify for another automatic three-month stay if you take the train to Geneva or Brussels and then re-enter France.
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +1 (Central European Time)
Dialling Code: 33
Electricity: 230V ,50Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
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Paris stimulates the senses, demanding to be seen, heard, touched, tasted and smelt. From romance along the Seine to landscapes on bus-sized canvases to the pick-an-ism types in cafes monologuing on the use of garlic or the finer points of Jerry Lewis, Paris is the essence of all things French.
Many of Paris' significant sights are strung along its river, and its quartiers each have their own distinct personalities, so you can experience a lot without covering much ground. The museums, monuments and the two islands are a magnet for visitors but it can be just as rewarding to wander.
On summer days, watch the waves of heat rise from the plains, just as Van Gogh did a century ago; olive groves and vineyards still cover the surrounding limestone hills. Central Arles is a relaxed place of intimate squares, terraced brasseries perfect for sipping pastis and men with long moustaches playing pétanque.
The charming city of Arles is renowned for its Roman remains, its houses with their striking red barrel-tiled roofs, and its shady, twisting alleys so narrow you'd be hard pressed to swing a cat there.
The high-toned coastal town of Biarritz, 8km (5mi) west of Bayonne, started as a resort in the mid-19th century when Napoleon III and his Spanish-born wife, Eugénie, began coming here. These days, Biarritz is known for its beaches and some of Europe's best surfing.
These days Biarritz is best known for its fine beaches and world-class surfing. Its sights are compactly arranged; if you're in Bayonne, it's easy to come over for a day-trip and see everything of interest.
During the Film Festival in May, Cannes is crammed with more money, more champagne, more mobile phones and more cleavage than anywhere else in the world. Apart from posturing boutiques, hotels and restaurants, Cannes has a few pleasant beaches and oodles of poo... dles.
Cannes has just one museum and, since its speciality is ethnography, the only art you are likely to come across is in the many pretty galleries scattered around town. Still, the harbour, the bay, the hill west of the port called Le Suquet, the beachside promenade, the beaches and the people sunning themselves provide more than enough natural beauty.
Chamonix lies in one of the most spectacular valleys of the French Alps. Reminiscent of the Himalayas, the area is dominated by deeply crevassed glaciers and the cloud-diademed peak of Mont Blanc. The Aigulle du Midi, a solitary spire of rock near Mont Blanc's summit, has postcard-perfect views.
In late spring and summer, the glaciers and high-altitude snow and ice serve as a backdrop for meadows and hillsides carpeted with wildflowers, shrubbery and trees. This is the best time for hiking; in winter, travellers can take advantage of lengthy downhill and cross-country skiing trails.
Château de Chambord
The Loire Valley was the playground of French nobility, who used the nation's wealth to transform the area with many earnestly extravagant chateaux. The largest and most lavish is the Château de Chambord (1519). It was built by King François I, a rapacious lunatic who was fanatically dishonest with his subjects' money.
Begun in 1519, its Renaissance flourishes may have been inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, who lived nearby from 1516 until his death three years later. Construction of the chateau, during which François unsuccessfully suggested the rerouting of the Loire River so it would be nearer to his new abode, took 15 years and several thousand workers, although the king died wizened and drooly before the building's completion.
Inside is a famed double-helix staircase that buxom mistresses and priapic princes chased each other up and down, when not assembled on the rooftop terrace to watch military exercises, tournaments and hounds and hunters returning from a day's deerstalking. From the terrace you can see the towers, cupolas, chimneys, mosaic slate roofs and lightning rods that comprise the chateau's imposing skyline.
Saint Malo and the North Coast
The Côte d'Émeraude (Emerald Coast) stretches west from the oyster beds of Cancale to the broad beaches of Pléneuf-Val-André, a tempting coastline of rocky reefs and islets fringed with golden sand, vividly green shallows and aquamarine deeps.
The port of St-Malo is one of the most popular tourist destinations on the Emerald Coast. It is famed for its walled city, acessible beaches and one of the highest tidal ranges in the world. However, it is not the region's only gem; the Coast is studded with small towns that tempt their own share of eager visitors.
Known simply as Sarlat, this lovely Renaissance town in Périgord grew up around a Benedictine abbey founded in the 9th century. Caught between French and English territory, it was almost left in ruins during the Hundred Years' War and again during the Wars of Religion.
Despite this, Sarlat retains a distinctive medieval flavour with its ochre-coloured sandstone buildings and enticing streets. The town's bustling Saturday market shines with an abundance of seasonal goodies. To avoid the crowds, plan a visit outside high summer, when the town is overrun by tourists.
Located between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic coast, Toulouse is a city of students, a centre of cutting-edge European technology, and the capital of the good life; its taste for celebrations and fine food is attracting a growing number of new inhabitants.
Toulouse rewards the wanderer. Its small, 18-century Old Quarter is a maze of narrow lanes and plazas in which to get happily lost. Its River Garonne is peaceful by day and romantic by night, when the Pont Neuf is floodlit. Stumble across grand churches, fine art and handsome 16th-century mansions.
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