WHEN thinking of France, it is often the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre Museum and the Arc de Triomphe that spring to mind as ‘must-see’ attractions. While indulging in cheeses, crusty baguettes and Champagne is a an integral part of the French experience, travellers who step away from the throngs of tourists will be pleasantly surprised by some of the other unique experiences the country has to offer.
Bubbles with a difference
Imagine spending the night under the stars of the sprawling French countryside, with no ceiling or tent to obstruct the view. Attrap’ Rêves (roughly translating to ‘dreamcatcher’) has made this a reality through its chain of ‘bubble’ hotels, which allow dreamers and stargazers alike to sleep under the night sky in complete comfort.
The eco-friendly rooms stand about 10 feet high and 14 feet wide, and resemble large plastic bubbles. They are made from a strong anti-UV material that keeps out the hot sun and, perhaps more importantly, all manner of crawling and flying nocturnal insects.
The bubbles come in two versions – completely transparent and with half-height opaque panels for modesty – and are equipped with silent air-filtering systems to maintain temperature control and ensure constant airflow.
Each bubble has an entrance lobby and luxury features including a king-sized bed, jacuzzi and telescope. A separate, private wooden cabin with an enclosed shower and toilet is assigned to each bubble.
Kitchen facilities are shared and gourmet meals can be pre-ordered.
The bubble hotels are at: Allauch, a commune east of Marseille; La Bouilladisse, a commune in the department of Bouches-du-Rhône; and Puget, a commune in the Vaucluse department. These unique
establishments provide the perfect setting for travellers who want to escape the hustle and bustle of Paris, and offer the chance to see wild rabbits, squirrels and peacocks in their natural surrounds.
Gallic spirit
In the heart of the forest, just 30km from Paris, the pun-filled world of a French comic book series comes to life at Parc Astérix: a place where fun, humour and daring set the tempo for a family-friendly theme park.
The Astérix series, which follows the adventures of a group of Gauls resisting Roman occupation, first appeared in a magazine in 1959 and has delighted readers both young and old ever since.
The park, which has been open since 1989, offers thrills and adventures with a Gallic twist: 32 original, innovative attractions (including Oziris, the inverted rollercoaster) and unique shows (including performing dolphins and sea lions) transport visitors to the heart of the Astérix comic books.
With Astérix himself as a guide, visitors are encouraged to meet a wide range of heroes that made their mark on history: Roman legionaries, the great Caesar, Zeus, Icarus and the Hydra of Lerne, Marcel the intrepid painter in love with the Mona Lisa, the ancient Egyptians and, of course, the Gauls.
The theme park incorporates a hotel and numerous restaurants, making it perfect for both day trips and overnight stays. Visitors can get to the park from the greater Paris region by car, shuttle bus or public transport.
The inside out building
Opinions are often divided when it comes to the architecture of the Centre Georges Pompidou – visitors either love it or hate it. Named after a former President of France and completed between 1971 and 1977, the building appears from the outside as a mishmash of shapes and colours, pipes, cables, boxes and tubes, as if it has literally been turned inside out.
The Centre is home to: the Bibliothèque publique d’information, a public library; the Musée National d’Art Moderne, France’s national collection of modern art from 1905 onwards, featuring displays including surrealist, cubist, contemporary and pop art works; and IRCAM (the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique), a hub for music and acoustic research.
The Centre has a relaxed and casual vibe, especially when compared to some of the classic French museums and galleries, but visits to it are not designed to be quiet and contemplative experiences: the Centre was built to allow for 8000 visitors per day, and by 2011 more than 180 million people had visited it. Last year, the annual attendance increased to 3.6 million (from 3.1 million in 2010).
At the top of the building is a restaurant with large glass windows boasting hard-to-beat views – particularly at night. In fact, reviewers often rate the view even higher than the French-fusion food on offer.
Outside, the Place Georges Pompidou and other nearby pedestrian streets attract buskers including musicians, jugglers and mime artists, and can be a lot of fun to visit.
Most major international airlines offer flight from Australia to France; airfares start from about $1500 and include a stop-over en route that varies depending on the airline chosen.
Some travellers prefer to land at London’s Heathrow airport and catch the Eurostar train to Paris, enjoying the views and a light meal during their cross-country ride.
Once in France, train travel is very comfortable and by far the best way to see the countryside. The system is fairly easy to navigate: train times and fares for any journey within France are available at www. tgv-europe.com.
Bookings for the French train system open 90 days before departure to allow for advance planning, and tickets can be collected at any main French station or, in many cases, can be printed at home following a booking being made. The website will also send tickets to customers in Australia if necessary.