France has already been rated the number-one tourist destination in the world by the UN World Tourism Association in 2018. While Paris certainly pulls in the crowds, the UNESCO sites have also brought in their share of visitors to l’hexagone, as the French refer to their hexagonally-shaped country.
Some basics about UNESCO world heritage sites in France
UNESCO defines world heritage sites as being “of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria.” These criteria often maintain the words “outstanding” and “exceptional” to highly-ambitious levels. Potential national monuments looking for UNESCO status shouldn’t be too confident in passing the grade.
Having moved to rural southwest France in 2008, it wasn’t until my father (an “old stones” and church architecture obsessive) instilled a greater curiosity in the French history in me that I subconsciously started ticking off visits to UNESCO sites in my newly-adopted country. So far, I’ve managed 11 sites out of the 45. Here’s a guide to help you visit them, too.
The Episcopal City of Albi (UNESCO-listed 2010)
My children go to school in the shadow of the world’s biggest brick-built cathedral, Sainte-Cécile. Over 800,000 people visit this goliath of a building each year. I have visited countless times, but am still awestruck by its vast size (370 feet long, 114 feet wide, and an included tower rising to 255 feet) and the manpower involved in its construction– begun in 1282, and finished 200 years later.
The interior is kaleidoscopic – it also holds a record for being the largest painted cathedral in Europe with stunning frescos and decorative work. It is unquestionably a work of art. My children sang here with 800 other pupils from local schools in a joint concert several years ago, and even that number of voices didn’t seem to fill the space within its massive walls.
Works by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi’s most famous artist, can be found next door in the old bishop’s palace, the Palais de la Berbie. The castle itself is one of France’s oldest and the museum holds the largest collection of the diminutive artists’ paintings in the world. The castle’s vaulted ceilings and Renaissance gallery inside are spectacular!
The Loire Valley (UNESCO-listed 2000)
This is a châteaux-lover’s paradise! A stretch of France’s longest river, the Loire, is dotted with fairytale castles such as Chambord and Chenonceau. The listed section runs from Sully-sur-Loire to Chalonnes, the Valley of the Kings.
Construction of the châteaux largely took place during the French Renaissance from the 15th to 16th centuries when the royal court established itself along the arterial route of the river. The spot was geographically ideal for the trade routes through France.
Visitors will be grateful for the French aristocracy’s need to out-do each other architecturally– these châteaux range from being vaguely pretentious to fully fantastical. Once the royal court abandoned their castles to return north to Paris, many fell to ruin.
Key stop-off points are the towns along the Loire River: Orléans, which Joan of Arc freed from the English, Blois, which was the seat of seven French kings and ten French queens. You might want to take a stop at Tours, Saumur, or Chinon, which are famous for their wines. For wine-tasting purposes, cycling can be a useful form of transportation!
Jurisdiction of Saint-Émilion (UNESCO-listed 1999)
This captivating village is snuggled between some of the most famous vineyards in the world. Just up the road from Bordeaux, there have been vines growing here since the second century. This territory, with its perfect soil conditions and microclimate, covers over 270 square miles and devotes every foot to viticulture.
After at least a dozen visits, I never tire of coming back. Running in the annual half-marathon here was a very enjoyable (if a wine-less) way of seeing the rolling countryside and the many, many vineyards. At the end, every runner was rewarded with a bottle as they crossed the finish line!
The area itself has changed little for centuries. Vineyard owners wave passing visitors through their doors for a tasting session. Never appearing to lose their passion for their craft, they happily explain the process that goes into the production and the tasting of their wines. Meandering through the steep, cobbled streets, this is wine utopia. Whether you find the shops selling bottles ranging the lowest prices to the price of a small car, or restaurants offering a dégustation menu where each course is matched with wine in order to complement the dish, it’s clear that this town has wine in every stony pore.
The best way to see the streets is to climb the 196 steps up Europe’s largest bell tower at the Monolithic Church. This 12th-century building was dug out of the nearby limestone rock and includes underground galleries and catacombs–it’s a good visit to avoid the afternoon heat outside!
Fortifications of Vauban (UNESCO-listed 2005)
There are 12 groups of fortifications in this UNESCO listing, all designed in the 17th century by King Louis XIV’s military engineer, Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban. The 160 buildings he designed are spread throughout France. I also recommend visiting one of the 12, the Citadelle de Blaye on the Gironde Estuary. Vauban’s three-point defense system prevented Bordeaux, the jewel of the Gironde, from being invaded. It consists of the citadel, Fort Paté, and Fort Médoc on the opposite bank of the river.
It was completed in 1689 with its chief aim of working as an intimidating fortress, which is well-achieved. Entering the local village through the Porte Dauphine gates feels like stepping into a different time period. Layer upon layer of history is revealed in each building as you stroll the area.
The prison is now the Archaeological Museum, but it once held priests behind its bars during the French Revolution. Two prison cells were converted into a bread oven in the 19th century to create a bakery. Less than a century later, German prisoners baked bread here during the First World War.
Its peacefulness now hides a once-violent past, an observation made as we ate our picnic on top of a grassy mound. We sat where a cannon would once have been positioned with an ammunition and gunpowder store beneath our feet, contemplating the history below.
Historic Fortified City of Carcassonne (UNESCO-listed in 1997)
There can’t be a much better experience than watching one of the world’s greatest guitarists in concert at one of the world’s largest fortresses! With a backdrop of turrets and stone walls, we listened to Mark Knopfler’s timeless music while the sun went down at Carcassonne’s annual music festival.
On a site which has been in existence since Roman times, it is known by UNESCO for its status as “an outstanding example of a medieval fortified town.” The architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc became involved in restoring the old city in the 19th century, adding to the site’s prestige. He also worked on Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris and Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy.
Entering through the Narbonne gate, the cobbled streets lead through the nearby town where local artisans sell everything from beautiful, handmade jewelry to outrageously delicious confiserie. The mile of double city walls, crenellated ramparts, and 52 towers keep the imagination stirring about the many battles waged here including the Cathar Crusade (1209-1229). It’s another way to enjoy an area that has been the location of so much history–and UNESCO thinks so, too.
What has been your favorite country to travel to for UNESCO World Heritage Sites?
Header image by David Kohler.