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Interview with a Francophile Travel writer and author Antony Mason reveals his favourite French towns and places to visit... 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, because my father was in the navy and was stationed at NATO, when its headquarters were just outside Paris. 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 (i.e. in about 1964), we went caravanning in Brittany. Baguettes seemed fabulously exotic back then – and I am convinced they really were much better than they are today: fatter, more crusty, more oily and luscious. 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 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…
Above left: Quimper, Brittany; above Paris; above right: Ile de Re; below: wine from St Emilion 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.
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Our Contributors Karen Booth-Burns
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