10 of the best UNESCO world heritage sites in France

France boasts a staggering number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites – 43 of them, which is more than almost any other country in Europe (only Italy and Spain have more)

Loire Valley - Image (c) Shutterstock / Vladimir Sazonov

 

Fascinating, diverse and staggeringly beautiful, they range from masterpieces of Romanesque, Gothic and modern architecture, to outstanding examples of civil engineering and prehistoric cave art. Here, Lyndsey McKinnell, of French family holiday specialist Siblu Villages, lists ten of the best.

Canal du Midi

Built in the 17th century to link the Mediterranean with the Atlantic, the Canal du Midi is a miracle of civil engineering which stretches some 240km, and includes no fewer than 328 locks, aqueducts, bridges, tunnels and other structures. The course of the Canal du Midi runs from to Toulouse (where it connects with the Canal de Garonne, thus linking it to the Atlantic) to Séte on the Mediterranean, through Unesco-listed Carcassonne as well as historic Béziers. Beside the sheer technical feat of building the canal, one of its most endearing features is the way its creator, Bézier-born engineer Pierre-Paul Riquet, blended it so beautifully into the surrounding landscape.

Carcassonne

Roughly midway along the Canal-du-Midi, on the right bank of the Aude, is the astonishing medieval citadel of Carcassonne. Surrounded by massive walls and bristling with pointy turrets, Carcassonne’s citadel is an outstanding example of a medieval fortified town, its centre a maze of cobbled streets surrounding an impressive Gothic cathedral. The painstaking restoration work carried out on the citadel during the 19th century was undertaken by Viollet-le-Duc, whose other restorations include Notre Dame in Paris.

Loire Valley

The beautiful landscape of the Loire Valley between Sully-sur-Loire and Chalonnes includes vast, fabulously imposing châteaux (among them Chambord and the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud), along with many historic towns (such as Orléans and Tours). Its history of cultivation stretches back centuries, and its wines are outstanding. Leonardo da Vinci spent the final years of his life here, at the Château of Clos Lucé in Amboise. Covering an area of 280km², the designated area of the Loire Valley this is the largest Unesco site in France.

Bordeaux, Port of the Moon

The outstanding urban and architectural ensemble of this port city has more protected buildings than any other city in France except Paris.

Vauban fortifications

This group of 12 fortifications along France’s western, northern and eastern borders represent the finest work of King Louis XIV’s military engineer, Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633–1707). The impregnable citadels, forts, towers and walls he created, represent the pinnacle of military architecture in 17th century France, and were hugely influential. They include the town of Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue on the Normandy coast, the star-shaped city of Neuf-Brisach on the Alsace plain, and the mountain fastness of Villefranche-de-Conflent in Languedoc-Roussillon. Vauban made extensive use of bastioned fortifications, as developed by Italian and Dutch military engineers in the preceding century, and he carefully adapted his plans to the geography of a particular site.

Chartres Cathedral

Built between the late 12th and early 13th century, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Chartres is an architectural masterpiece which marks the high point of French Gothic art. The cathedral is particularly notable for its fantastically rich sculptural decoration, especially on its three portals, and its exquisitely beautiful stained glass windows. There are no fewer than 176 stained glass windows at Chartres, most of them dating from the early 13th century and incredibly rich in detail. The number and size of the windows was made possible by the extensive use of flying buttresses on the exterior, which carry the lateral thrust caused by the ambitiously high stone vaults (the tallest ever attempted in France at the time). Chartres Cathedral has long been an important pilgrimage site, its most venerated relic being the Sancta Camisa (the veil believed to have been worn by the Virgin Mary at the time of Christ’s birth).

Abbey Church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe

Perhaps less well known than Chartres Cathedral but no less impressive, is the Abbey Church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe in Poitou-Charentes. Set beside the River Gartempe, this 11th century church of a Benedictine abbey is sometimes called the Romanesque Sistine Chapel because of its incredibly well-preserved murals, which date from the 11th and 12th century. The murals cover a huge area (the vault is around 460m²) and depict various scenes from the Bible, including episodes from the Book of Genesis, the Apocalypse and the Passion of Christ, as well as saints Savin and Cyprien’s martyrdom.

Le Havre

Lying on the Normandy coast, Le Havre is France’s second largest seaport, and its city centre was almost completely destroyed by Allied bombing raids in the Second World War. Reconstruction of the city began in the second half of the 1940s and continued into the early ‘50s, and was undertaken by the outstanding French architect Auguste Perret, a pioneer in the use of reinforced concrete as a building material. The result is one of the finest and most cohesive ensembles of modern concrete architecture anywhere in the world.

Mont Saint-Michel

This beautiful Benedictine abbey, built in the Gothic style on a small rocky island amid the vast tidal flats on the western edge of Normandy, is one of the most iconic landmarks anywhere in France. Benedictine monks were invited to settle on the island in the 10th century, and construction of the abbey and church began in the 11th century, in Romanesque style. However the chancel was destroyed in a siege during the 15th century, and was rebuilt a century later in its current, Gothic style. A medieval village grew up clustered at the foot of the island below the abbey, to which defensive walls were added during the 100 Years War.

Prehistoric caves of the Vézère Valley

The prehistoric art in the caves of the Vézère Valley includes the paintings of the world-famous Lascaux Cave, where the hunting scenes show no fewer than 100 remarkably lifelike animal figures. There are no fewer than 147 prehistoric sites in this valley in the Dordogne, and 25 decorated caves.

Useful information

Where to stay: Siblu Villages owns 17 holiday villages across France.

Links:
Siblu Villages: http://www.siblu.com/
Canal du Midi: http://www.replantonslecanaldumidi.fr/en
Carcassonne: http://www.tourism-carcassonne.co.uk/
Loire Valley: https://www.loirevalley-france.co.uk/outings/nature-strolls/wealth-flourishing-natural-spaces/loire-valley-unesco-world-heritage-site
Bordeaux, Port of the Moon: https://www.bordeaux-tourism.co.uk/Discover-Bordeaux/Must-See/Bordeaux-a-World-Heritage-Site
Vauban fortifications: http://www.sites-vauban.org/?lang=en
Chartres Cathedral: http://www.cathedrale-chartres.org/en/,143.html
Abbey Church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe: http://www.abbaye-saint-savin.fr/en
Le Havre: https://www.lehavretourisme.com/en/discover/most-famous/unesco-world-heritage-site
Mont Saint-Michel: http://www.abbaye-mont-saint-michel.fr/en/
Prehistoric caves of the Vézère Valley: http://www.lascaux-dordogne.com/en/welcome-vezere-valley

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