France is back – here’s why it’s the greatest holiday destination on earth

From tomorrow, Britons will be allowed back into France for non-business, non-vital reasons – for fun, in short – and about time, too. Talk about over-reaction – as, I’m sure, those deprived of the slopes have been doing ever since President Macron slammed the door on December 18. Certainly, potential hosts were irked beyond measure. I was in Val d’Isère when the red light lit. The wailing and gnashing of teeth enveloped the Alps.

So, good news for the skiing milieu, the more so that this year’s snow is apparently spot on in the Alps and Pyrenees but also in the Jura, Vosges and Massif Central.

And then there’s everything else. France did not get to be the planet’s number one tourist destination by skiing alone. A key element is the country’s diversity, by which I don’t mean it contains lots of different peoples and all main sexes (though it does). What I mean is that it contains most of Western Europe within its frontiers, from German and Flemish influence in the north to Spanish and Italian down south, via Celtic in Brittany and the Frenchest of French in the Loire Valley. Great cities – Strasbourg, Nice, Bordeaux – reflect great differences. 

Sunflowers are synonymous with Provence

Credit: Francesco Riccardo Iacomino/Moment RF

Along the way, France offers world class coasts, beaches and mountains, lakes, rivers, châteaux, rugby, cycling, unbeatable cheese and charcuterie. As this implies, the French are a nation of doers rather than watchers. Their landscape proves ideal for climbing, trekking, paragliding, windsurfing, tubing, canyoning, surfing, shooting wild boar or hiking up and down the GR20 in Corsica. They bring to all this a Tiggerish enthusiasm and – always – the correct equipment. Bear this in mind when joining in.

History is a further selling point. France occasionally seems to have more than it can handle, from the astonishing Chauvet cave paintings of 36,000 years ago in the Ardèche to the sites of the 20th century world wars, sites which underline that, despite contemporary tiffs, we have generally been on the same side when fundamental values were threatened. In recent centuries, anyway.

From skiing in winter to hiking in summer, the Alps are an all-season outdoor playground

Credit: yulkapopkova/E+

The result of an abundance of history is an extraordinary amount of culture, whether it be Chenonceau château – the loveliest of the huge Loire Valley collection, the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, the 21st century Millau Viaduct or, most mesmerising of all, Mont Saint Michel in Normandy. “Oh yes,” say the cassandras, “but they also have Disney and McDonalds.” Of course they do. French culture is far too robust to be menaced by Disney. They’ve simply co-opted it into the richest cultural continuum. You can do the Louvre one day, Disneyland the next. Leonardo and Mickey are not mutually exclusive.

Nor are Big Macs and French gastronomy: for the evidence, simply visit the market in whichever town or village you’re in. Then visit a wine-producer or two. Then stick around for the festivals. They bloom everywhere, from the headliners like drama in Avignon, rock at the Vieilles Charrues in Brittany, sacred music at La Chaise-Dieu or jazz at Marciac to the thousands of smaller fêtes, which break out in villages across the land. Ours lasts five days, has bulls careering through the streets, galloping horses, outdoor dancing to semi-pro rock bands and communal meals that occasionally stall at the aperitif stage. You’ll be welcome.