An Offbeat Guide to France
When people think of France, they typically dream of a trip to Paris. Home to the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and spectacular museums, the city is truly one of the most romantic places on earth.
But don't let social media fool you: There is so much more to France than its star city and the historic attractions it holds.
If you want to see more than the average traveler, and avoid those millions of lemmings, head instead to the country's offbeat, off-the-beaten-path attractions.
Here are 20 of the best — beginning with (yes) a French clown compound.
Le Moulin Jaune
While many travel an hour outside of Paris to see Claude Monet's home, they are missing another impressive artist's home at Le Moulin Jaune.
The home of Slava Plunin, an avant-garde performance artist who calls himself "the world's supreme clown," this is essentially a clown commune. The property serves as a working lab for Plunin's traveling clown troupe, the Academy of Fools, and is every bit as weird and wonderful as that description suggests.
The property encompasses themed rooms (including one modeled after "Jack and the Beanstalk"), performance spaces and five uniquely designed kaleidoscopic gardens of color, sculpture, art and plants. The gardens are open during the summer months and are used to host playful performances and festivals sans the crowds of Paris.
You'd be a fool not to pay a visit.
Le Musée des Vampires
As the name implies, the Vampire Museum in Paris features a small collection of vampire-related paintings, arts, books, movie props and treasures. Artifacts include a mummified cat, a crowssbow used to ward off blood-suckers and the autographs of every actor who's ever starred as Dracula in a Hollywood film. The museum's proprietor, naturally, identifies as a "vampirologist."
Located in the commune of Lilas (in Zone 1), it takes some work to find this spooky haunt, but making the journey is part of the fun. Plus, it's only available by appointment, meaning you won't have any lines or crowds to deal with.
La Tete Carree
It is hard to miss this incredible library (!) in the south of France. It is, after all, a looming sculpture of a square-headed man.
Designed by artist Sacha Sosno to inspire citizens to "think inside the box," French people pretty much hate it, but the oddity does attract attention.
The library is considered the first inhabited monumental sculpture in the world and can be found in Nice's Promenade des Arts overlooking the gardens.
La Maison Picassiette
More famous for its cathedral, Chartres (to the southwest of Paris) is also where you'll find a home made of junk.
The "House of Millions of Pieces" is the work of former homeowner Raymond Isidore, who would gather pieces of glass, trinkets and pottery while walking. He originally kept his collection in his garden, and he was given the nickname Picassiette (pique means to steal and assiette means plate).
Later, he began to use his findings to decorate his home, covering the walls, floor, ceiling and eventually furniture. It took Isidore 30 years to complete his project, and after his death, the home became a city monument. Today, it's available for touring during the summer months.
Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval
The "House of Millions of Pieces" isn't the only regular-Joe-inspired home art. Joseph Ferdinand Cheval, a postman in Hauterives, spent 33 years building his dream palace. Using stones he found along his daily 18-mile carrier route, Cheval created what he called his "Ideal Palace" in his garden.
Completing his palace in 1912, Cheval went on to build himself his own majestic tomb, as well: the Tomb of Silence and Endless Rest. The work eventually became a Historical Monument. You can visit this dream come true in southeastern France.
Musee Robert Tatin
When you are an architect and painter, of course you cannot have just any old house. Robert Tatin took his home in Cossé-le-Vivien and turned it into a work of, uh, different art.
Enter the home via the dragon's mouth to see the inside of the mind of an artist, as the home is now a museum, left completely intact and filled with sculptures of famous people throughout history. The Walk of the Greats (Allée des Géants) features such notable figures as Pablo Picasso, Joan of Arc and Charlemagne.
You'll find the home in northern France, northwest of Tours.
Fete de l'Ours
In Prats de Mollo, in the Pyrénées near the Spanish border, the Festival of the Bears feature soot-, oil- and sweat-covered "bears" (aka men wearing bear skins) who come down from the mountain on the second Sunday of February in an attempt to take the virtue of a virginal shepherdess.
The ceremony is rooted in the legend of a shepherdess and bear, actually a devil in disguise, and the men who saved her from being eaten. In addition to the men in bear costumes, other performers play hunters, shooting blanks into the air as they chase down the beasts.
If this all sounds weird to you, don't worry; the festival is really just a big party and largely a reason to drink!
Catacombes de Paris
If you want to get a more macabre taste of Paris, head deep underground into the famous catacombs. Here, the remains of more than 6 million people are stacked into bone piles in an oddly artistic fashion.
The bones were relocated from other cemeteries in the city as Paris grew and began overflowing with, shall we say, bodies that were not smelling so fresh? In the 1700s, the bodies were moved to the city's underground tunnels. Lives lost to the guillotine and the French Revolution were also placed in these tunnels, until they were officially sealed from any additions in 1860.
Although there are miles upon miles of catacombs, visitors only walk through a little more than a mile in what is now one of Paris' most popular attractions for those seeking something less dreamy and more nightmarish.
Musée des égouts de Paris
You can head underground again in Paris (without seeing bones) if you visit the Paris Sewer System Museum. Yes, there is such a thing.
Under Napoléon Bonaparte's rule, architect Baron Haussmann not only redesigned the city of Paris to create its grand boulevards, but installed a modern sewer system. It was introduced to the world at the 1867 World's Fair and changed the course of history — illness and mortality rates dropped significantly in the French capital.
Since 1889, visitors have had the opportunity to tour the sewers and visit the museum. The 1,200+ miles of tunnels running beneath the city's streets are even marked with the same street signs, so you know exactly where you are beneath Paris.
Cité Souterraine de Naours
The French really do love taking things down a level, and in the northern town of Naours, life was lived 72 feet underground in this city. Here, a couple of miles of pathways encompass 300 chambers, once used by locals seeking refuge during invasions.
The below-ground complex, which actually began as a limestone quarry during Roman times, was rediscovered in 1887. Its walls definitely talk, sharing a long and storied history.
Plage de Saleccia
Head to the French island of Corsica, which can be accessed via ferry or a flight, and enjoy some time on a Mediterranean Sea beach. Just know that if you are on the northern part of the island, at Saleccia, you may have to share the sand with some cows.
This half-mile stretch of white sand sometimes includes cow patties along with the cattle enjoying their sunbathing, so be extra careful where you lay your towel!
Fourviere Nights Festival
Lyon has a rich history with the Roman Empire, and evidence of this relationship remains at the aptly named Great Theatre. Built in 15 BC by Augustus Caeser, the theater has withheld the sands of time and includes seating stands that could originally accommodate 4,700. By 120 AD, the theater was expanded to seat 10,700.
These days, the UNESCO Heritage Site is available to tour year-round. But the best time to go is undoubtedly in the summer for the Fourviere Nights Festival (Festival Les Nuits de Fourvière). In a return to its theatrical roots, the venue hosts daring theater, dance, music and film presentations, as well as circus performances, melding history with modernity to memorable effect.
La Valée des Saints
England has Stonehenge. Easter Island has its Moai statues. And Brittany, France, has the Valley of the Saints.
Here, the saints of Breton are memorialized in towering statues alongside a 16th-century chapel. The brainchild of Philippe Abjean, the area currently features 50 statues — 13 feet high and carved from Breton granite — representing monks from Cornwall, Wales and Ireland who brought Christianity to the area. But there are plans for there to be an incredible 1,000 statues within 50 years.
Odeillo Solar Furnace
In the Pyrénées-Orientales, located in the south of France, you can find the world's largest solar furnace, still in use since it was erected in 1968. Scientists rely on the solar furnace and its 9,600 mirrors to study heat and solar rays. The furnace is said to possess energy equivalent to that of "10,000 suns," helping to power the area.
Visitors can learn more about the structure by exploring the on-site information center.
Gorges de l'Aude
If harrowing drives are your thing — or you just want to take in exalted mountain scenery — rent a car and follow the road in Aude gorge, located in the Pyrénées.
The Aude River carved deep gorges in these mountains, where the kayaking and hiking are amazing. But the real fun is following the road through the Pierre-Lys cliffs from Quillan to Axat, France.
This cliff-flanked drive features tight curves and small barriers separating drivers from the edge. The narrow road is a tough squeeze for two cars, but the views of the Saint-Georges and l'Aude gorges are to die for. (No pun intended.)
The famous Seine, which carves Paris into two, begins in central France in Dijon, flowing through the City of Light to the English Channel at Le Havre. The river is of great significance to France, as it gave Paris a distinct historical advantage in trade and currently welcomes a lot of commercial traffic.
Today, at the point of the river's start, France celebrates its beloved river with a grotto flanked, randomly but memorably, by statues of a nymph, a dog and a dragon.
Troglodyte de Jonas
In Central France, to the west of Lyon, one can find remarkable caves deep within Saint-Pierre-Colamine. An ancient eruption of a volcano named Johah left behind these cinder cones that once housed nearly 600 people.
The five-story cave complex is comprised of more than 70 rooms with frescoes from the 10th and 11th centuries, when Catholic monks transformed the mountain into the Royal Chateau of Saint Saturnin monastery, complete with chapels, kitchens and more.
Plan de Phazy
In the ski resort town of Risoul, part of the White Forest near the border of Italy, are saltwater hot springs connected to an active fault line with depths of nearly 3,300 feet.
Records of the springs pre-date the Roman Empire, and over the centuries, its waters have been considered both spiritually and medically significant. By the 1800s, stone baths were built over the springs, turning the area into essentially a thermal spa with waters at 82 degrees.
Bathing pools and changing facilities are available for anyone looking to take to these natural baths filled with minerals and salts known to be healthy for the skin and body.
Velorails Pays Chartrain
Hitch a ride on a unique "bike train" to traverse the tracks of an abandoned railroad near Chartres. The nearly 8-mile roundtrip ride promises a truly original way to take in the sights of the Norman countryside.
Pro tip: Bring a picnic, as this combination bike and wagon has a couple of seats and room for your basket and drinks as you cruise at your own pace.
Eglise Rupestre de Vals
This church literally built into the land on which it sits can be found south of Toulouse.
The Church of Our Lady of Vals is a historic monument of France with an original foundation that dates back to the early Middle Ages. Built directly into rock, it features staircases and passageways carved into stone, creating a sort of deep Earth maze. Romanesque frescoes were uncovered in the 1950s in stunningly preserved shape.
The church is situated along the Santiago de Compestela pilgrimage trail, which begins in France and ends in northern Spain.