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.
The Channel port of Saint Malo on the north coast of Brittany is renowned for its piratical past, walled city and nearby beaches. During the 17th and 18th centuries, it was one of France's most important ports, serving both merchant ships and privateers alike. It was at this time that a system of walls and fortifications were built - largely to offset the menace of English marauders - but these defences remained weak, and the pickings rich. Flattened by the Germans in WWII, the port was faithfully reconstructed and is today one of the most popular tourist destinations in the region.
Within the parameters of the Old City stands the Cathédrale Saint Vincent. Begun in the 11th century, the cathedral is the repository of an excellent collection of medieval and modern stained-glass windows. During July and August, it is also host to a number of classical concerts. Video-burdened tourists are a common sight strolling around the ramparts, which afford wonderful views of Saint Malo.
Squatting south of the Old City is the 18th-century Fort de la Cité, once a German stronghold during WWII. Flanking the bulwark's walls are steel pillboxes heavily pimpled by Allied shells while the interior, now used by caravanners, is theoretically off-limits to visitors but no-one will stop you if you walk in via the main entrance.
Saint Malo's other attractions include placid beaches to the south of the Old City and further along the coast to the north-east. The area has some of the highest tidal variations in the world, so expect a hefty jaunt to reach the aqua at low tide: the high-water mark is often 13m (43ft) above the low-water mark. Saint Malo is an excellent base from which to explore the Côte d'Émeraude, and the famous abbey at Mont Saint Michel can be visited as a day trip.
From the 15th to the 18th century, the Loire Valley was the playground of French nobility, who used the nation's wealth to transform the area with a multitude of earnestly extravagant chateaux. Formerly built as defensive structures, they gradually metamorphosed into whimsical pleasure palaces situated to make the most of their natural surroundings.
The largest and most lavish chateau in the Loire Valley is the Château de Chambord. Begun in 1519, its Renaissance flourishes may have been inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, who lived nearby from 1516 until his death three years later. In any event, the chateau is the creation of King François I, a rapacious lunatic who left his two sons unransomed in Spain and was fanatically dishonest with his subjects' money. Construction of the chateau, during which François unsuccessfully suggested the rerouting of the Loire River so it would be nearer to his new abode, took 15 years and several thousand workers, although the king died wizened and drooly before the building's completion - no doubt his sons thought this richly deserved.
Inside is a famed double-helix staircase that buxom mistresses and priapic princes chased each other up and down, when not assembled on the rooftop terrace to watch military exercises, tournaments and hounds and hunters returning from a day's deerstalking. From the terrace you can see the towers, cupolas, chimneys, mosaic slate roofs and lightning rods that comprise the chateau's imposing skyline.
The number of people in this popular coastal resort in French Basque Country swells dramatically over summer. Once favoured by European aristocracy and later by money-laden Britons, Biarritz now draws an international crowd to its fine beaches, casinos and surfing spots, which have lent it the name la Californie de l'Europe.
The town's cultural sights are not likely to keep you out of the sun too long. They include a blue-domed Russian Orthodox church, hotels with lobbies the size of skating rinks and the Musée de la Mer. The latter - recently refurbished - has an aquarium with numerous tanks of sea life and a museum documenting the area's involvement in commercial fishing and whaling. Outside pools contain seals and sharks.
Biarritz's fashionable beaches are lined with brightly striped bathing tents and packed with people during summer. After a busy day's frying you can play golf or cesta punta, the world's fastest game, played with a ball and scoop-like racquet; be entertained by nightly folklore performances; or trawl through displays of Basque music and handicrafts.
Known simply as Sarlat, this lovely Renaissance town in Périgord (better known in English-speaking countries as the Dordogne) grew up around a Benedictine abbey founded in the 9th century. Caught between French and English territory, it was almost left in ruins during the Hundred Years' War and again during the Wars of Religion. Despite this, Sarlat retains a distinctive medieval flavour with its ochre-coloured sandstone buildings and enticing streets. If you want to avoid the crowds, plan a visit outside high summer, when the town is overrun by tourists.
Among Sarlat's architectural treasures is the Cathédrale Saint Sacerdos, originally part of the Benedictine abbey. Higgledy-piggledy in style, most of the present structure dates from the 17th century. Behind the cathedral is the town's first cemetery containing the Lantern of the Dead, a 12th-century tower built to commemorate St Bernard, who visited in 1147 and whose relics were given to the abbey. The town's other main focus is the Saturday market. Depending on the season, foie gras, mushrooms, truffles, trussed-up geese and sheep's heads with rheumy eyes are traded among a racket of vendors and spectators.
Sarlat also makes an excellent base for trips to the nearby Vézère Valley, which is peppered with nearly 200 prehistoric sites including the Lascaux cave, thought to have been the site of a hunting cult where magical rites were performed. Discovered in 1940, this capacious labyrinth holds a number of 15,000-year-old doodles and paintings of bulls, horses and reindeer. There are other painted caves in the area, but Lascaux is sans pareil. Unfortunately, the exhalations of enthusiastic rock-watchers caused a carbon-dioxide fungus to cover the paintings; visitors today are restricted to a precise cement replica of the painted original, sealed off just a few hundred metres away.
The town of Chamonix lies in one of the most spectacular valleys of the French Alps. Reminiscent of the Himalayas, the area is dominated by deeply crevassed glaciers and the cloud-diademed peak of Mont Blanc. In late spring and summer, the glaciers and high-altitude snow and ice serve as a backdrop for meadows and hillsides carpeted with wildflowers, shrubbery and trees. This is the best time for hiking; in winter, travellers can take advantage of over 200km (125 mi) of downhill and cross-country skiing trails.
Not to be missed is the Aigulle du Midi, a solitary spire of rock several kilometres from the summit of Mont Blanc which stretches across glaciers and snow fields. Easily accessible, the views from the top are postcard-perfect. A further treat is a trans-glacial ride on the world's highest téléphérique (cable car), which stops en route at skiing and hiking destinations. The Mer de Glace is the second-largest glacier in the Alps. It measures 14km (9 mi) long, 1800m (5900ft) wide and is up to 400m (1315ft) deep. For a better look at the glacier from the inside, you can tour an ice cave that is carved anew each spring. There is also a train that ascends to an altitude of 1915m (6275ft) and a number of uphill trails, but traversing the glacier is dangerous and should not be done without proper equipment and a guide.
Other activities in and around Chamonix include mountain biking, parasailing, ice-skating and screaming down a spit-shined summer luge track. The Swiss town of Martigny is only 40km (25mi) north of Chamonix, should you wish to border hop for watch repair or chocolate.
The charming city of Arles, on the Grand Rhône River in Provence, rose to prominence in 49-46 BC when a triumphal Julius Caesar captured and despoiled nearby Marseille. It soon became the region's commercial hub and an important Roman provincial centre with enormous public spaces that are still in use today. Vincent Van Gogh settled here in the late 19th century, fashioning hundreds of drawings and paintings when he took a break from pestering his ear. On hot summer days you can watch the waves of heat rising from the plains, just as Van Gogh did a century ago; olive groves and vineyards - often featured in his work - still cover the surrounding limestone hills. Arles is also noted for its houses with striking red barrel-tiled roofs and shady, twisting alleys too narrow to swing a cat (trust us).
Arles' attractions include the Les Arènes, an enormous Roman ampitheatre built towards the end of the 1st century AD. Tens of thousands of men and animals were sacrificed here to that most noble of pursuits - sport. Chariot races and hand-to-hand battles were staged with slaughter emphasised over tactics, but the public seemed happy. The Arènes was later transformed into a fortress, then a residential area but its sanguinary origins have been reawakened in the full houses drawn to bullfights. Another of the city's Roman relics is the Théâtre Antique, which provides an ideal setting for open-air dance, film and music festivals in the summer.
Central Arles is a relaxed place of intimate squares, terraced brasseries perfect for sipping pastis and men with long pomaded moustaches playing pétanque.
This resort, on the world-famous Côte d'Azur, is the perennial favourite of wealthy scions and the shop-til-you-drop set. During the International Film Festival in May, Cannes is crammed with more money, more champagne, more mobile phones and more cleavage than anywhere else in the world. Apart from posturing boutiques, hotels and restaurants, it also has beaches with the equivalent of room service, which the sallow studiously avoid.
If you're not in town discussing the grim phenomena of John Travolta's resurrection or puckering up to the paparazzi, then you're here to people-watch. Every possible specimen is on promenade along the famous Boulevard de la Croisette: yesteryear starlets in string bikinis; vacationing Frenchmen carrying purses; wide Americans with Coppertone skins who wear their jewellery in the pool; and side-whiskered peasants in rough waistcoats and country boots wondering what all the fuss is about. After a walk, settle back at one of the many cafes and restaurants - overflowing with gold-carded patrons - which light up the area with splashy neon signs.
Just offshore is the eucalyptus and pine-covered Île Sainte Marguerite, which was exploited so effectively by Alexander Dumas in his classic novel The Man in the Iron Mask. This small island is vectored by trails and paths while its beaches are considerably less crowded than those on the mainland. Even smaller is the nearby Île Saint Honorat, once the site of a renowned and powerful monastery founded in the 5th century, and today the home of a Cistercian monastic order. Ferries run to both islands.