Liberté, égalité, fraternité (freedom, equality, fraternity). With this motto French Revolution started in 1789, bringing a new wind of change throughout Europe. France is today the typical emblem of Republic, despite having actually changed nine times its form of government since the popular revolution of the XVIII century against monarchy. France even ruled over the second largest colonial empire in the world after Britain until the 1960’s, controlling nearly 9% of the globe’s land area.
French territory covers a large extension of mainland Europe, but nearly 20% of it lies actually outside the European continent and includes the French Guyana, French Polynesia and several other islands and archipelagos in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans.
Though popular for the rootedness of its peasant people, France has always been a cultural melting pot and French history has actually been full of a multitude of episodes other than the French Revolution. Romans, led by Julius Caesar, arrived in the south of France around the II century BC and progressively conquered the rest of Gaul. Numerous cities and flourishing villages were then built. An example is Lugdunum (present-day Lyon). However, from the 4th and 5th centuries AD, Germanic tribes invaded Roman possessions and destroyed big part of their cultural and civil legacy. Then the Franks provided some stability and peace to the region in the following years but when their line died out at the end of the 10th century, France fell in chaos and fragmentation. Following the Hundred Years’ War fought from 1337 and 1453 between the House of Plantagenet and the House of Valois for the succession to the throne, in the Renaissance period Francois I ruled for 32 years regaining some of the prosperity lost. France had to wait till the 17th century though to rise again to dominate Europe both militarily and economically. During the Age of Enlightenment, the ideas of Rousseau and Voltaire undermined the authority of the establishment leading to the popular revolution of 1789 and plunging the country again in a period of chaos and instability. Few years later, Napoleon rose to power and French Empire began its expansion. Rivalry with Germany dominated French political scenario for most of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. WWI (1915-1918) was very painful for both France’s population and economy, while for most of the WWII the country was occupied by the German army (1940-1944) and set free by the Allies just toward the end of the global conflict. After the constitution of 1958, the country became a unitary semi-presidential representative democratic republican system.
France today is a fully developed country where traditional agriculture has been progressively overtaken by industrial production of cars, telecommunication systems and aircrafts. It is the world’s leader in luxury goods, including haute couture, fashion accessories, perfumes and cosmetics and the world’s first producer of wine and liquors.
Paris, the capital, is a city of over two millions people and has been the economic, cultural and political hub of France since Roman times. However, the city was founded even before the arrival of Romans by a Celtic tribe called the Parisii, who gave the city its name. Chic cafes, top class museums, fashion shops and haute-cuisine restaurants are the main attractions for tourists.
Other major urban centres include Marseille, Lyon, Lille, Nice, Toulouse, Bordeaux and Montpellier. Northern France shows a variety that is very hard to beat: the landscape here is rich of wild beaches, dunes and estuaries on the coast and fairy-tale castles surrounded by huge green valleys in the inner side. The south is radically different, with its typical Mediterranean lifestyle that is particularly visible in Provence and on the French Riviera (Cote d’Azur). Some of the most astonishing beaches in the world have been immortalized by many famous painters visiting this side of France over the years.
France is not just about city sightseeing. The country offers a splendid range of leisure activities, from cider and wine tours to outdoor sports and cruises. A big number of tour operators also organise cycle touring holidays. France corrals about 15% of its land into 45 regional natural parks. In addition, there are something like 40,000 different châteaux (castles, manors, palaces…) in France. The region of Bordeaux alone has over 9,000 of them.