Discover a different France

WINSOR DOBBIN
Last updated 14:58 23/05/2013
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FISHING PORT: Honfleur has strong claims to be regarded as the most picturesque town in France

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You've shopped in Paris, visited the Louvre and walked the bridges of the Seine.

You've partied with the chic set on the Cote d'Azur, done the obligatory tour of Provencal villages and visited the vineyards of Champagne and Bordeaux.

Spread your wings a little wider, however, and there is a very different France waiting to be discovered; a France in which the menus are not printed in six languages and the museums are not full.

Exploring further afield in France from Paris takes a bit more time and effort but there are amazing towns and cities, and great wine and food, to be savoured, and most of them can be reached by the very efficient French rail network - meaning you don't have to worry about driving on the other side of the road.

Here are five very different towns that offer a tasty slice of France in the slow lane, which are all accessible by rail from Paris.

 Albi

Just a short drive from the major city of Toulouse in the Midi-Pyrenees region, Albi is one of France's last remaining secret treasures.

The birthplace of the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and explorer Jean-Francois de la Perouse, it is home to a remarkable cathedral, superb museums and historic buildings.

The city centre was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites in 2010.

Even better, Albi is surrounded by vineyards (think names including Gaillac and Cotes du Frontonnais), and is also home to one of France's hottest chefs.

Albi's history dates back to the Bronze Age, but it blossomed after 51BC following the Roman conquest of Gaul.

The building of the Pont Vieux (Old Bridge) in 1040 saw the city expand and construction of Sainte-Cecile Cathedral began in 1282 (although it was not completed until the 16th century). It is the largest brick cathedral in the world.

Unlike many French cities, Albi's rich architectural heritage has been retained and a walk around town is a step back in time, with the bridge still in use after almost a millennium.

Older than the much better known Palais des Papes in Avignon, the Palais de la Berbie, which was once the bishop's palace, was completed in the 13th century.

One of the best preserved castles in the country, it is now the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, home to more than 1000 works of art.

Albi is a town that lends itself to leisurely exploration. You can easily cover most of the attractions on foot or on the petit train, (a small tourist train on wheels that is ubiquitous throughout France).

There are also several river cruises on offer on the Tarn, using gabarres, flat-bottomed barges once used by local merchants.

There are more than 20 hotels in and around the town, including the Hotel La Reserve, a luxury Relais & Chateaux property on the road to Cordes, the Grand Hotel d'Orleans and Les Pasteliers.

There are also several chain options, including a Mercure and a couple of budget Ibis lodgings.

When it comes to dining, it is impossible to go past L'Esprit du Vin - where rising star David Enjalran has earned a Michelin star for dishes such as pigeon stuffed with pig's trotter and oysters.

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How to get there by train: Albi is served by two train stations on the line from Toulouse to Rodez, with Gare d'Albi Ville the most central. Reach Toulouse via Paris-Austerlitz.

Cahors

Pretty Cahors in the Quercy district is famous for the "black" malbec wines that have been grown in the region since the Middle Ages.

It dubs itself the global "Capital of Malbec", and Chateau de Haute-Serre and Chateau de Lagrezette are two local producers that welcome visitors.

The mediaeval quarter of Cahors, with its many narrow streets and alleyways and the unique 14th-century fortified Pont Valentre bridge, make it popular with history buffs and it hosts a major blues music festival each July.

Surrounded on three sides by the River Lot, Cahors was founded in the 1st century BC and was once home to a large Roman amphitheatre.

The Valentre bridge, the symbol of the town, was completed in 1378 after 70 years of work and the Tourist Office offers several walking tours that take it in, along with the Saint-Etienne Cathedral, a national monument that dates back to the 12th century and is surrounded by several attractive gardens.

There is a petit train (May to September), while street markets are held on Wednesdays and Saturdays in the shadows of the cathedral - and are considered one of the best country markets in France.

The Hotel Grand Terminus, near the railway station, is also home to the upmarket Le Balandre, regarded as Cahors' finest dining room.

We also much enjoyed the atmospheric Auberge de Vieux Cahors, while Le Marche comes highly recommended and Le Vinois is surrounded by vines.

How to get there by train: Cahors is served by trains linking it with both Toulouse and Paris-Austerlitz.

 Vannes

The delightful pre-Roman town of Vannes, founded more than 2000 years ago, is far enough off the beaten track in Brittany to ensure it has retained all of its charm.

Stroll its shaded laneways with half-timbered houses and shops built in mediaeval times, or enjoy a coffee overlooking the lively marina quarter with its many waterfront bars and eateries.

Located on the Gulf of Morbihan at the mouth of the rivers Marle and Vincin, Vannes is 100 kilometres north-west of bustling Nantes and 450 kilometres south-west of Paris. Many of the locals speak a Breton dialect.

The Gothic cathedral of Saint Peter and the old city fortified walls are among the major attractions, while the gardens overlooking the port are a popular place to relax.

Try the local galettes, a style of pancake served both savoury and sweet, and the famous Breton ciders.

The nearby Gulf of Morbihan is home to several spa hotels but the best in town include the Quality Hotel La Marebaudiere, the Hotel de France and the Villa Kerasy Hotel Spa. L'Eden and Roscanvec are considered among the better restaurants in town.

How to get there by train: Vannes has connections to Paris-Montparnasse via Rennes, Nantes and several regional destinations.

 Honfleur

A small fishing port in Normandy, Honfleur has strong claims to be regarded as the most picturesque town in France.

On the southern bank of the estuary of the River Seine, the downtown area is notable for its old but handsome terraced houses with slate-covered frontages, which look onto the pretty fishing port and fleet.

These ancient houses have been painted by the likes of Claude Monet, and many artists have been based in the town.

Cafe terraces, sailing boats returning to the marina, painters immortalising the scene under the watchful eye of curious onlookers, make for an enjoyable leisurely stroll.

The Sainte-Catherine church is the largest wooden church in France and was built in the 15th century, while Maisons Satie is a quirky museum.

Home to fewer than 10,000 people, Honfleur is nonetheless popular with gourmets, who flock here at weekends to enjoy fresh local seafood (shrimps and scallops especially) along with Normandy ciders and the local apple brandy, known as Calvados after the local region.

You'll eat well just about anywhere here but favourites include L'Endroit, Les Assiette des Mondes and Au Bouillon Normand, while there's a huge range of hotels, many traditional in style, with La Maison de Lucie a good high-end choice and Hotel L'Ecrin and Hotel Monet more affordable.

How to get there by train: Travel from Paris Gare-Saint-Lazare to Deauville or Lisieux and then take a 15-minute bus ride.

 Vichy

Slightly faded in comparison to its glory days in the 1950s and '60s, the pretty Auvergne town of Vichy in central France remains a fascinating destination that is popular with both history buffs and spa aficionados.

This grand spa town with its many old buildings was the de facto capital of France from 1940 to '44 during World War II, when the country was under occupation by Nazi Germany.

The town's inhabitants are called Vichyssois - the name of a famous soup - and the town was a favourite of Emperor Napoleon, who visited regularly in the 1860s.

A huge casino was built in 1865, attracting the European elite of the day.

The Belle Epoque period after the fall of the second French Empire saw the construction of an opera house and the Hall of Springs and large bathhouse.

In the 1960s, Vichy was the playground of the likes of Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco.

Today, the city's history, many mansions and plentiful parks make it one of the most interesting destinations in the country for those on foot.

The Vichy Spa Hotel Les Celestins is perfectly situated right across the road from the spa centre, where you can choose from a baffling range of Vichy treatments, including being showered in Vichy water.

The on-site N3 restaurant is excellent, with the Logis Midland a good mid-price hotel option.

How to get there by train: Vichy has rail links to both Paris-Gare de Lyon and Lyons via Clermont-Ferrand.

Wnsor Dobbin was a guest of Rail Europe.

Trip notes

Touring there

Regular France Rail passes start at $315 for a three-day pass and $408 for a five-day pass. raileurope.com.au.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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