Author Antony Mason shares his reasons to love France and though there are many, the culture, Paris and Ile de Re have a special place in his heart…
Where was your first visit to France?
Paris, or Maisons-Lafitte to be more precise. I was born in the UK but christened in the Anglican Church of Maisons-Lafitte. OK, so I don’t remember anything about it, but my parents retained a special admiration for France from that time, I think, and passed it on to me. When I was aged about 10, we went caravanning in Brittany. Baguettes seemed fabulously exotic back then. To walk into a boulangerie before breakfast was to enter a different world of smells and skills and quality. We went to the Fête des Filets Bleus at Concarneau where I was enchanted by the Breton hats and sensed the sustaining power of living folklore tradition. I still treasure the pottery that we bought at Quimper.
What are your two favourite places in France and why?
Paris. What it is about Paris? I immediately feel more alive there. Maybe it’s because Parisians live life on the streets – they have to because their apartments are all so tiny. My Parisian friends are endlessly challenging: art, music, food, literature. They like to take me to out-of-the-way places – such as the Maison de Balzac, or the room where Van Gogh died in Auvers-sur-Oise.
Ile de Ré. My family have had a holiday house there since 1998. It is of course, famously beautiful, with its little white villages garlanded with hollyhocks and their wonderful markets, the cycle paths, the salt marshes and the oyster farms, and the silvery Atlantic light and the beaches. Simple timeless pleasures – almost the France of my childhood memories…
What do you think makes France a great place to visit?
Since my childhood, the whole world has become rather more homogenised – but France still does enough that is different to bring back that old excitement of being abroad. The food is excellent: the quality of produce in the supermarkets alone is astonishing, but the best fun is to be had in seeking out the little, artisan producers and the restaurants where the great traditions of la cuisine Française still hold firm. In wine, they have clung on to the concept of terroir, so every region has is own, unique expression, usually at little cost. There is such variety in France, and just about every place has historic, cultural depth waiting to be unearthed.
Do you have a secret place to share?
On the cycle route coming into St-Martin-de-Ré from the west, along the coast (from the direction of La Couarde, Loix, and Ars-en-Ré) a series enterprising oyster farms have set up open-air pop-up restaurants where you can eat fresh seafood with a glass or two of Ile de Ré wine overlooking the sea – perfect for a long and lazy and very informal lunch.
Where would you live in France if it could be anywhere and what sort of house would you choose?
Laon, in the department of Aisne, fascinates me. Recently, as I wandered the streets filled with grand and beautiful 18th and 19th-century townhouse mansions, I fantasized that this is the sort of spot I’d like to hole up in for a few years. I’d like to absorbe its history as a former bishop’s seat and a military town, and its views out over the landscape of Picardy from its high ramparts, and contemplating what role this kind of proud historic place can play in modern France.
Antony Mason is the author of some 80 books on travel, history, art and… well, basically whatever people ask him to do. In travel writing he is a specialist in Belgium and has written about it for Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Travel, Bradt Guides, Cadogan Guides and the Daily Telegraph.
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