Wherever you choose to begin or end a sojourn in Europe's largest country, and however long you spend exploring you'll simply be scratching the surface of this vast and varied land. France's geography stretches from rugged coastline to seemingly infinite beaches, from bustling cities to quaint countryside villages and from a sun-drenched isle to luxury mountain ski resorts.
Good, bad or ugly, everyone has something to say about France and the French: chic, smart, sexy, rude, racist, bureaucratic, bitchy as hell, pavements studded with dog poo, baguettes that dry out by lunchtime and a penchant for torching cars is some of the chitchat on the street. Spice up the cauldron with the odd urban riot, political scandal and a 35-hour working week - not to mention a massive box-office hit like The Da Vinci Code taking over Paris or superstar Angelina Jolie allegedly plumping for a chateau in Normandy to raise her kids - and the international media is all ears too.
Full county name: French Republic
Area: 551,000 sq Km
Population: 62,7 million
People: 92% French, 3% North African, 2% German, 1% Breton, 2% Other (including Provencal, Catalan & Basque)
Language: French (also Flemish, Alsacian, Breton, Basque, Catalan, Provençal & Corsican)
Religion: 90% Roman Catholic, 2% Protestant, 1% Muslim, 1% Jewish, 6% unaffiliated
President: Nicolas SARKOZY
GDP: €1689 billion
GDP per Capita: €27,000
GDP growth: 1,4%
Major industries: Oil refining, steel, cement, aluminium, agricultural products & foodstuffs (wheat, barley, maize, cheese), luxury goods, chemicals, motor manufacturing, energy products
Major trading parteners: EU (Germany, Italy, UK), USA
Visas: Nationals of the EU, the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Israel do not require visas to visit France as tourists for up to three months. Except for people from a handful of other European countries, everyone else must have a visa.
Health risks: Your main risks are likely to be sunburn, foot blisters, insect bites and upset stomachs from overeating and drinking.
Time: GMT/UTC +1
Electricity: 220V, 50Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
When to go
French pleasures can be indulged in any time, although many Francophiles swear spring is best. In the hot south sun-worshippers bake from June to early September (summer) while winter-sports enthusiasts soar down snow-covered mountains mid-December to late March (winter). Festivals and gastronomic temptations around which to plan a trip abound year-round.
School holidays – Christmas and New Year, mid-February to mid-March, Easter, July and August – see millions of French families descend on the coasts, mountains and other touristy areas. Traffic-clogged roads, sky-high accommodation prices and sardine-packed beaches and ski slopes are downside factors of these high-season periods. Many shops take their congé annuel (annual closure) in August; Sundays and public holidays are dead everywhere.
The French climate is temperate, although it gets nippy in mountainous areas and in Alsace and Lorraine. The northwest suffers from high humidity, rain and biting westerly winds, while the Mediterranean south enjoys hot summers and mild winters.
France s varied geography and climate allow for a wide ride range of outdoor pursuits. The French have taken to hiking with gusto, and there are walking paths through every imaginable kind of terrain. Probably the best-known trails are the sentiers de grande randonnée, long-distance footpaths designated by the letters GR.
The GR 5 winds through the Alps, the GR 4 is in the Massif Central and the popular GR 10 runs along the Pyrenees from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Cycling is another mania in France. La Margeride in Languedoc is a particularly inviting area for mountain biking, as are the Alps, Brittany and the Pyrenees. Skiing is also popular with some of Europe s finest - and most expensive - facilities in the Alps (at Chamonix, for example), though prices tend to be much cheaper in the Pyrenees around Cauterets and the Massif Central, which is good for cross-country skiing.
The best swimming spots are found along the Atlantic coast (near La Rochelle), the Channel coast of Normandy, southern Brittany, the Mediterranean (including the coast of Corsica) as well as on lakes such as Lac d Annecy and Lake Geneva. The French are at ease with their bodies, and this is reflected in a number of venues for naturism (walking around bollock naked), mostly in Langedoc-Rousillon and the Côte d Azur.
Other activities include: rock climbing in the Alps and the Pyrenees; horse riding in Burgundy and the French Basque Country; surfing in Biarritz; rafting down the Gorge du Verdon in Provence; and hang-gliding in Languedoc. If your interests are more cerebral, you can take French language courses or learn the ins and outs of the soufflé at regional cooking classes.
Attractions - Paris
The capital and gem in France s tourist crown, Paris is a glutton for superlatives and travel clichés. As a result, visitors often arrive all moist and runny with giddy expectations of grand vistas and romance along the Seine, of landscapes painted on bus-sized canvases, of phenomenally haughty people, of pick-an-ist types in cafés monologuing on the use of garlic or the finer points of Jerry Lewis. True, you can usually find whatever you expect or hope to discover. But an equally effective way of enjoying your stay in the city is to leave your expectations in the hotel, wander aimlessly around the backstreets and avenues, and just see what you see.