For an unusual starter to a gastronomic Tour de France, begin in the Charente region. In an area that is renowned for its oysters, the mussels from France's west coast are often overlooked. While other areas of the country serve up the traditional moules marinière, here the dish is known as mouclade des Charentes, and has been adapted into a richer concoction. The mussels are simmered in the local fortified wine, pineau des Charentes, with egg yolk and a dash of cream added at the last minute to thicken the sauce.
This area in the middle of the Atlantic region sits either side of the river Charente. Its main towns are La Rochelle on the coast and, some 120km inland, Angoulême - renowned for the stunning façade of its 12th-century cathedral. This is located in the heart of an old town which sits on a promontory overlooking the river.
Pineau des Charentes was the result of a happy accident. Legend has it that some crushed grapes, tipped accidentally into a barrel of cognac, resulted in a very drinkable fortified wine. It is now made commercially, a mixture of year-old brandy added to the skins and pulp of crushed grapes and left in the cask for a few months. Try a glass chilled as an aperitif, or as an accompaniment to your first course.
Some chefs insist that a glass of cognac, added to the beef as it is being browned, and set alight, is an essential part of one of the most traditional of French main courses, boeuf bourguignon. But the original Burgundian recipe calls for onions and bacon or fatty pork as the essential ingredients, added to cubes of beef which are marinated and left to simmer in local red wine.
To drive through the Côte d'Or, as the villages that stretch from Dijon to Beaune and beyond are known, is like exploring the catalogue of a reputable wine supplier: Gevrey-Chambertin, Nuits Saint-Georges and Meursault are stops along the route. A well-marked trail called the Route des Grands Crus starts in Dijon and meanders for 80km down to Santenay in the Côte de Beaune. Being a wine connoisseur is not a prerequisite, although many producers offer tastings and the opportunity to buy a case or two direct from the cellar.
The Château de Pommard (00 33 3 80 22 07 99; www.chateau-de-pommard.tm.fr), just south of Beaune, offers daily tours from the end of March until the third Sunday in November, 9am-6.30pm.
Beaune itself is a highlight of the journey - and a distraction from the vineyards. A fortified town, it was once the residence of the Dukes of Burgundy. Most striking of its buildings is the Hôtel-Dieu, with its brightly tiled roof in geometric patterns of red, green, black and yellow. Established in the 16th century, it operated as a charity hospital until 1971. The foundation set up to run it owns several hectares of vineyards, and the wine produced there is auctioned in November every year to raise money for medical research. The Hôtel-Dieu (00 33 3 80 24 45 00; www.hospices-de-beaune.tm.fr) is now open to the public, 9am-11.30am and 2pm-5.30pm from mid-November until mid-March, and then from 9am-6.30pm for the rest of the year. Entrance costs €5.40 (£3.75).
The Dukes of Burgundy soon moved north to Dijon - home of France's finest mustards - and installed themselves in the Palais des Ducs et des Etats de Bourgogne, remodelled in the 17th century into the classical style. It is dominated by the tower of Philippe le Bon, which can only be visited on a 20-minute guided tour, which ends with a panoramic view over the city. The tower (00 33 3 80 74 52 71; www.ville-dijon.fr) is open Wednesday afternoons and weekends in winter, 9am-11am and 1.30pm-3.30pm. It opens daily the rest of the year, 9am-12pm and 1.45pm-5.30pm. Tickets cost €2.30 (£1.60). The Palace also houses the Fine Arts Museum (00 33 3 80 74 52 09; www.ville-dijon.fr), which contains several ducal tombs, as well as a collection of paintings dating from the 16th century. It opens 10am-5pm daily except Tuesday from November to April, and 9.30am-6pm during the summer. Entrance costs €3.40 (£2.40).
PLAT DE FROMAGES
Many of France's finest cheeses come from the mountains of the Auvergne, lush farming country where the food is hearty rather than delicate. Besides celebrated local cheeses such as Cantal, Saint-Nectaire and Fourme d'Ambert, look out for the blues, made from cow's milk and labelled Bleu d'Auvergne, de Cantal or de Laqueuille.
Don't drink anything too sophisticated with these cheeses: a glass of one of the local red wines, like Chanturgues, is enough to enhance the flavours. But, historically, many visitors to the Auvergne have gone there to take the water at the spas of Vichy, a small town in the valley of the Allier river.
The water has been attracting visitors since Roman times. Vichy enjoyed a surge in popularity during the 19th century. Since then, there was little modernisation until the 1990s. Vichy has three spa centres (00 33 4 70 97 39 59; www.vichy-thermes.tm.fr), all operated by the same company. They offer "cures": treatment programmes lasting from a week to 18 days, rather than single therapies.
This is a region of volcanic peaks and rolling hills rather than historical monuments. More than 100 extinct volcanoes cover an area which stretches south and west of the city of Clermont-Ferrand, the best-known of which is the Puy de Dôme. Celtic and Roman inhabitants of the region worshipped their gods from its summit, and the relics of a Roman temple can still be seen at the top. There are well-marked grandes randonnées (GRs), as walking trails are known, including one that goes up the Puy de Dôme itself.
Many walkers base themselves in the picturesque village of Orcival, between the Puy de Dôme and the spa town of Le Mont Dore, a starting point for many attractive walks.
Finish the meal with a simple wedge of pinkish melon, confusingly often known as a charentais, but grown in one of the market gardens of Cavaillon, a Roman town in Provence.
Apart from its fruit farms, Cavaillon is known for the arch which was moved from its original location in the 19th century and now stands in the Place Francois Tourel. The new location is on the edge of the square where a bustling market is held every Monday. It is one of the few remaining triumphal arches of Roman France and is in remarkable condition, its exquisite carvings still clearly visible.
Yet Cavaillon's Roman heritage is eclipsed by other Roman remains in the area. The most impressive of these is the Pont du Gard, which crosses the river Gard near the village of Remoulins and whose three-tiered structure is one of the most recognisable of French landmarks. But you should also try to visit the Theatre on Rue Madeleine Roche in Orange (00 33 4 90 51 17 60; www.theatre-antique.com/orange), remarkable because most of the back wall of the stage is still intact. It opens 9am-5pm daily in winter; hours increase as the season progresses. In July and August the theatre is open 9am-8pm. Entrance costs €7.50 (£5.20).
One of the most impressive features of Provence is the prevalence of small villages: Roussillon, carved out of rocks that display a range of earthy colours, from pale yellow to deepest red; and L'Isle sur la Sorgue, an island created by the five branches of the river Sorgue that flow around it. The Sunday antiques market sprawls along the river front, while some of the stalls float on the water itself.
The most charming of all the provencal hill villages is Gordes, high above the Luberon National Park: there are breathtaking views as you approach from below. The heart of the village is the Place du Marché, which huddles beneath the walls of the 11th-century château, around which cobbled streets meander up and down.
The Charente region's strongest suit is Cognac - from a river town that has given its name to one of France's most celebrated drinks. Most of the attractions of this pleasant small town are connected in some way with the cognac industry, including the old château (00 33 5 45 82 40 00), where the future king Francois I was born, and whose cellars are used to house the casks belonging to Otard.
All the main brandy houses have their headquarters here, and several are open to visitors. These include the oldest, Martell in Place Edouard Martell (00 33 5 45 36 33 18; www.martell.com), and Rémy-Martin (00 33 5 45 35 76 66; www.remy.com), where visitors are taken through the vineyards and cellars on a small train. Rémy-Martin is about 5km outside Cognac on the route de Pons at Domaine de Merpins.Reuse content