France might be famed for its impressive man-made landmarks – think the Eiffel Tower, the Palace of Versailles and the Pont du Gard – but the landscape has just as much to offer. From the towering Alps to the otherworldly salt flats of Camargue, France is a bounty of natural wonders just waiting to be discovered.
This striking granite mountain, in the French Alps’ Mont Blanc massif, is named Aiguille (or “needle”) for its piercing pyramidal form. While it might look like a monolith, there are actually two peaks – the 3,733m (12,247ft) Petit Dru and the 3,754m (12,316ft) Grand Dru – and the mountain is also commonly known as Les Drus. With a number of severe and icy routes, the mountain is legendary amongst climbers, and it has a long history of mountaineering. Famously, in 1913, a party of climbers attempted to place an aluminium statue of Our Lady of Lourdes at the peak. Due to bad weather, however, the statue was abandoned in a rocky crevice until 1919 when it was finally hoisted to the summit where it remains today.
The Camargue area to the east of Montpellier is home to one of the largest wetlands in Europe – and is most famous for its otherworldly pink salt flats. This magical landscape is also home to white Camargue horses, wild black bulls and flocks of flamboyant pink flamingos. The salt water is tinged pink thanks to a microscopic algae, which also gives the flamingos their distinctive pink colour. The salt lakes are generally open from March to November, and you can book a guided tour by train, bicycle or foot, or you can explore the area on your own by bike.
These seven needle-like peaks of red granite are found in the Regional Nature Park of Corsica on the southern tip of the island, an hour and 45 minutes from the clifftop town of Bonifacio. Surrounded by a forest of dramatic windswept black pine trees, the mountains offer a wide variety of routes for hikers and rock climbers of all levels of experience. The well-known GR 20 (Grande Randonnée) hiking trail passes by foot of the mountains, through the Asinao Valley and past the towering Notre-Dame des Neiges (Our Lady of the Snow) statue.
Europe’s tallest sand dune, known as Pyla by locals, is an awe-inspiring form that stretches 500m (1,640ft) from east to west and nearly 3km (1.9mi) from north to south. Located between the Atlantic Ocean, Arcachon Bay and a pine forest in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region near Bordeaux, it’s one of the world’s most unique landscapes. Its exposed seafront location and steep slopes also make it a paragliding paradise, and colourful gliders can often be seen dotting the skies above. The dramatic landmark is open to visitors throughout the year, and it’s possible to climb to the top, which is over 100m (330ft) above sea level, for sweeping views.
This valley glacier, located on the northern slopes of the Mont Blanc massif, stands at 7.5km (4.7mi) long and 200m (655ft) deep, with a network of tributary glaciers, making it the largest glacier in France. It was once described by British historian William Coxe as looking like “waves instantaneously frozen in the midst of a violent storm,” and is one of the most popular attractions in the Chamonix Valley. You can take a cable car to a man-made “ice grotto” carved into the glacier and filled with ice sculptures; learn more about glaciers at the Glaciarium; and enjoy fine dining 1,200m (3,950ft) above sea level at Restaurant Le Panoramique Mer de Glace – think fondue or mountain beef carpaccio followed by choux au praliné (praline buns).
This pond blanketed in nymphéas (water lilies), surrounded by weeping willows and bamboo and crossed by a Japanese bridge dripping with wisteria, is one of the most famous gardens in the world – that of French painter Claude Monet. Today, the gardens in Giverny are maintained by the Fondation Claude Monet, with the option to either explore the gardens on your own or join a guided tour. Alongside the famous Japanese-inspired water garden, you can discover Clos Normand, a flower garden enclosed by high stone walls and planted with an orchard and wildly colourful flower beds.
The majestic Mont Blanc, at the border between Italy and France, is the highest mountain in Western Europe and the tallest in the Alps with a height of 4,810m (15,780ft). Technically, the height of the mountain varies by year depending on the depth of snow at its summit. It is a popular site for climbers, and the first successful summit attempt was recorded in 1786. On a more morbid note, Mont Blanc has also been host to a number of accidents including plane crashes, skiing incidents and tunnel fires; these occurrences make it one of the deadliest mountains on the planet.
Côte de Granit Rose is the pink granite cost of northern Brittany; its enormous granite boulders emerge from the sea throughout the entire area. One of the most special places to view them is on the northern coast of Tréguier, where the pink rocks have been eroded into unique shapes. It is not uncommon to find quaint coastal cottages dispersed between the boulders, something that undeniably adds to this beautiful and memorable scenery. Take the time to see the tiny house wedged between two boulders near Le Gouffre.
The Étretat Cliffs, in a farming town in Normandy, tower over a resort beach that has attracted many notable painters, writers and artists to its shores throughout the years including Monet, Boudin, Maupassant, Lupin and Courbet. Some of the most iconic features of the cliffs include their three natural arches and the jagged “needle” that emerges separately out of the Atlantic Ocean. The cliffs are made of white chalk, and they are covered in a blanket of green grass and mosses. In the summertime, you can also swim and sunbathe on the white pebble beaches adjacent to the cliffs.
This natural stone archway, in southern France, is aptly named: in French, the word pont means bridge, and this is exactly what Pont d’Arc resembles. The Ardèche River eroded the stone over many years to create a hollow archway, and nowadays, this is a popular spot for canoeing and kayaking. Some refer to the Pont d’Arc as the gateway to the Ardèche Canyon, which lies on the other side of the arch. Here, you will find the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, the site of some of the oldest Paleolithic cave paintings in the world; archaeologists estimate that they were created around 30,000 years ago.
Pic du Midi d’Ossau, within the French Pyrenees mountain range, is a striking peak that rises from between the lakes of the Ossau Valley. The mountain is known for its jagged, angular shape rather than for its size or height, and its reflection is cast in the serene waters beneath it. There are several possible hiking routes on the mountain, which you can get a great view of from the Boulevard des Pyrénées.
This is an updated version of an article originally by Lily Cichanowicz.
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