From 10 June to 10 July, France plays host to the year’s biggest sporting event: Euro 2016.
With England, Wales and Northern Ireland all competing in the tournament, thousands of Brits will be crossing the Channel to get closer to the action.
But France’s attraction isn’t restricted to the action on the football pitch. It is a country rich in culture, steeped in history and blessed with natural beauty, and once the final whistle has blown there’ll be no shortage of things to do, see and (perhaps most importantly) eat. We’ve taken a closer look at three of the host cities to see exactly they have to offer visitors. Allons-y!
The largest city on France’s Mediterranean coast, Marseille has been many things throughout its long history: Greek colony, free city, Roman outpost, bustling port and, in 2013, European Capital of Culture.
As befits that title, the Provençal city is home to several world class art galleries and museums, including the new Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations, a dazzling collection of architecturally adventurous buildings perched alongside the famous waterfront Fort Saint-Jean in the Panier district. The Panier, whose narrow streets were once regarded as ratty and rundown, is now a lively, hip and colourful neighbourhood, home to dozens of trendy cafés, bars, restaurants and shops.
If history or classic French literature is more your bag, why not hop on a boat and visit the Castle of If, an island fortress later turned into a prison, and most famous as the setting for Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo (and, in more recent fictional works, a location in The French Connection). You can wander the island at your own pace, exploring the walking trails and the interior of the well-preserved castle, or take a tour that’ll delve into the chateau’s storied history – both real and fictional. And as a bonus, the 20-minute boat ride there and back offers spectacular views of both the island and Marseille.
Finally, if you want to experience Provence’s natural beauty, take a short trip to the nearby Parc National des Calanques, France’s newest national park and the site of stunning coastal scenery – jagged limestone rocks that plunge into the Med’s crystal blue waters.
Marseille’s Stade Velodrome is the venue for England’s first match of Euro 2016. They play Group B rivals Russia there on 11 June.
Regarded as one of the gastronomic capitals of the world, the news that Lyon will play host to Northern Ireland’s second Group C match versus Ukraine has doubtless brought delight to thousands of footie-following foodies. The city has 14 restaurants with a Michelin star, three restaurants with two stars, and one with three (chef Paul Bocuse’s L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges), so if you’re visiting we’d advise you to bring an appetite – and a fair bit of spending money.
Once you’ve filled your belly with fine food and wine, you should take a trip to the Confluence, Lyon’s newest arrondissement. Until recently an industrial wasteland, this area – where the rivers Rhône and Saône converge – it’s been the subject of a multimillion-euro renewal project that has seen an explosion of architecturally ambitious, environmentally friendly buildings, including the Musée des Confluences. This striking monument of metal and glass, opened in 2014, houses exhibits dedicated to science and anthropology.
Fans of cinema will also know Lyon as the home of the brothers Lumière, who shot the first reels of the world’s first movie there in 1895. The brothers and cinema’s origins are celebrated at the Musée Lumière, the art-nouveau home of their father.
Known primarily for its wine industry, Bordeaux has been cultivating grapes for winemaking for almost 2,000 years – another thing to thank the Romans for – and 960 million bottles of the stuff are produced locally each year.
One way to show your appreciation for the glorious grape is, of course, to drink some of the produce at a local bistro. Another is to visit the vineyards and wineries where it’s created, and learn a little bit more about the difference between a Margaux and a Latour. Bordovino runs a selection of excellent full and half-day wine-tasting tours in the region, including one that incorporates a bike tour (perhaps best avoided if you’re the type of taster who swallows all the samples).
Following a programme of pedestrianisation and the cleanup of its grand 18th century architecture in recent years, almost half of the city is now designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Place des Quinconces is Europe’s largest square, and nearby you’ll find no shortage of medieval churches sitting alongside more modern edifices. The neoclassical Grande Theatre de Bordeaux is the very height of late 18th-century French elegance, but if you prefer your nights out a little more racy and a little less buttoned-down, head for the bars and clubs of Saint-Pierre or the Quai Paludate, where you can celebrate your team’s victory (or commiserate yourself after their defeat) by drinking until dawn.
Wales will begin their championship in Bordeaux, taking on Slovakia on 11 June, while the Republic of Ireland will be taking on Belgium in the city on 18th June.