Whether natural or man-made, achieving World Heritage site status is a bit like winning the Oscars—a long process requiring copious documentation and input that results in a guarantee of quality for visitors.
But above all—and that's the point—the designations ensure that the most exceptional examples of our shared human heritage will be around for future generations to gawk at and explore.
France may be fourth in the world (after Italy, China, and Spain) when it comes to having the most UNESCO sites, but many of them fly under the visitors' radar. In an effort to correct that, here’s a peek at five (well, technically six) outstanding World Heritage havens across the country.
A medieval fortress town bordered by an impressive canal, Carcassonne offers two UNESCO World Heritage sites in the space of a few square miles.
Fans of the knights-in-shining-armor era will find their happy place in this bustling city in south-central France. In fact, Carcassone represents one of the biggest and best preserved fortified cities in Europe.
With 53 watchtowers and about 1.5 miles of ramparts open to the public, visitors will want to devote a full day to exploring this real-life Magic Kingdom. Take a stroll behind the high stone walls of Carcassonne's old town for a view of the Languedoc vineyards that skirt the city, or hop on the “Petit Train” to see the sights in retro, open-air comfort.
But there’s more. Winding through Carcassonne, the Canal du Midi—a World Heritage site since 1996, a year before the fortified city was designated—was constructed at the behest of Louis XIV, who dictated that the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea be joined to facilitate the transportation of wheat. Today navigated by river cruises and houseboats, the placid 150-mile waterway was the Three Gorges Dam of the 17th century in terms of engineering.
Crowd-pleasing Carcassonne is a popular destination during school vacations and in the summer (especially during July and August), so best plan accordingly. One strategy: Enjoy the medieval city early in the day, break for lunch on a shady veranda, and continue your visit with an afternoon promenade—on foot or by bike—along one of the well-marked trails between Carcassonne and the shaded banks of the Canal du Midi.
With more than 1.3 million visitors each year, Chartres Cathedral represents, according to UNESCO, "the high point of French Gothic art." On a clear day, the church’s two iconic (and quite distinctive) spires can be seen from more than 10 miles away.
A mere hour's train ride from Paris, Chartres has long been a classic day-trip from the French capital. But over the last decade, the city has built on the cathedral’s reputation as a site of pilgrimage (the church houses the veil the Virgin Mary is said to have worn while giving birth to Jesus).
The grandest addition has been Chartres en Lumières. Each year, from mid-April to early October, more than 20 local monuments and historical attractions are illuminated by spectacular, time-synced lights—an impressive technical arsenal that employs over 300 projectors—and set to music.
Lovely bed-and-breakfasts have ensued, along with local bistros that tempt day-trippers to extend their stay to experience the best of “la France profonde.”
Even without the light show, Chartres Cathedral—dedicated in 1260—enlightens and astounds. In addition to more than 4,000 sculpted statues, the cathedral contains 172 stained glass windows, the storybooks of the Middle Ages. The oldest ones, dating to the 12th century, still awe with their unique saturated blue tint and the expressive rendition of Bible stories and the lives of saints.
The windows are so precious that they were carefully disassembled and stored for safekeeping in 1939, before the Germans invaded France. (The cathedral itself was saved from shelling in 1944, by an American soldier who challenged an order to destroy it.)
Today, Chartres is a world-renowned center for stained glass art and crafts. The International Stained Glass Center, located on Cathedral square, is a must-see for its permanent and temporary exhibits covering the Renaissance to modern times.
Gulf of Porto
World Heritage sites aren’t simply ancient stones and cultural sites. UNESCO's list also includes natural wonders, such as the Gulf of Porto, a stunning expanse of land and sea in Corsica, the island birthplace of Napoleon.
Closer to Italy’s Tuscan shores than to France, Corsica is a true “mountain in the Mediterranean.”
And the Gulf of Porto, found along the island's west coast, is the place to get a feel for the ecological and geological forces that continue to influence this unique landmass.
Home to a diverse array of wildlife—from dolphins and seals to cormorants, ospreys, and peregrine falcons—the 30,000-acre site features stunning red cliffs, striking black volcanic rock stacks, hidden marine caves, and cobalt-blue waters dotted with islets.
The gulf’s rocky Scandola Peninsula—covered with maquis vegetation, scrubland composed of sage, myrtle, rosemary, and other aromatic plants—drops dramatically into the clear waters of the Mediterranean. And calanques—fiord-like inlets with steep stone walls—gnaw into the bay’s southern reaches.
Most travelers discover the Gulf of Porto by boat, but landlubbers can get a real taste for the scenery by walking into the remote sailing village of Girolata(accessible only on foot or via the water) along the well-marked trail that was once used by the postman, who would trek the mail in daily to the isolated enclave. The two-hour hike each way is well worth it, but if you don’t want to walk back, you can return by ferry.
Urbanites, history buffs, and wine-minded bon vivants alike hail Bordeaux, where 18th-century elegance meets modern French chic.
Since the turn of the millennium, this once sleepy port town in southwestern France has undergone a stunning renaissance. In 2007, after nearly a decade of infrastructure upgrades, Bordeaux was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site for its vast Enlightenment-era urban core.
The French city—second only to Paris in its number of protected buildings—now boasts a sleek tramway, a revamped pedestrian-friendly center, and a glorious riverfront park finally freed of rundown warehouses.
Cruise ships and riverboats now ply the River Garonne, docking in front the gleaming neoclassical 18th-century facades—embellished with whimsical gargoyle-like masks called mascarons—that line the Port of the Moon, the crescent shape bend formed by the Garonne.
And in June 2016, a new attraction will draw visitors to the river, in the shadow of the futuristic Jacques Chaban-Delmas drawbridge.
The just-open Cité du Vin, a splashy $90-million wine discovery center, unites the city and the surrounding vineyard-strewn countryside that put the French commune on the world map.
Highlights include a host of multimedia experiences by exhibition design stars Casson Mann, such as a virtual flight over the region's famous wineries and a “boat trip” equipped with a huge screen to allow guests to travel back in time with wine merchants. With several restaurants, wine-tasting stations, and a stunning gift shop, La Cité du Vin is sure to spur even more visitors to “Bordeaux the Beautiful.”
Romantic and remote, Vézelay—with its cobblestone lanes, stone-clad houses, and flower-filled window boxes befitting one of “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France”—will take your breath away. Happily, the commune, which lies about 150 miles southeast of Paris in northern Burgundy, is easily accessed by car or train.
Vézelay is clustered around a Benedictine monastery perched atop a lone hill that rises from the heavily forested Yonne plain in central France like an oasis in the desert.
According to legend, relics of Mary Magdalene were deposited here by an itinerant medieval monk. After the relics—housed in a magnificent Romanesque basilica, a UNESCO site since 1979—were declared authentic by Pope Stephen IX in 1058, Vézelay became an important place of Catholic pilgrimage.
New buildings went up to host the deluge of awestruck spiritual seekers, the growing monastic community, and a who’s who of medieval VIPs such as Richard the Lionheart and Thomas Becket. Crusades were called; journeys launched toward Saint James de Compostela in Spain. Since then, the soaring masterpiece has stood watch atop the “Eternal Hill.”
In Vézelay, today’s visitors can immerse themselves in the peaceful remnants of a very turbulent past—especially in the basilica, where monks sing services three times a day in four-part polyphonic harmony. Close your eyes and you’ll understand why the village is still the beating heart of traditional France.