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France is known for luxury, fashion, perfume, Limoges porcelain, crystal and wine. French culture--art, architecture, literature, music and science--led the world for centuries. There is also industry. Both heavy industry (airplanes, cars, etc.) and localized historical specialties such as silk and other fabrics in Lyon, gloves in Millau (Tarn River valley), copper in Villedieu, and cutlery in Thiers (between Clermont-Ferrand and Lyon). We'll explore all of this including visits to gothic cathedrals, chateaux of the Loire Valley, Eiffel Tower and other monuments of Paris, the Palace of Versailles and, of course, breathtaking scenery.
France today is a political and cultural leader still retaining many of the regional distinctions and food specialties from her rich history and offering more reasons than ever to visit.
French cuisine has long been the standard by which food is judged around the world. French cookbooks were first available in the middle ages, and along with French cooking schools, instruct the greatest chefs everywhere. There are 4 major types of French cuisine: haute cuisine which originated with the feasts prepared for French kings, includes elaborate, rich and beautifully presented multi-course meals; cuisine bourgeoise is home cooking of the best quality; cuisine des provinces is regional or country foods prepared with fresh, local ingredients; and nouvelle cuisine which is a response to heavy or rich dishes, and while it still uses the finest ingredients, it is lighter with precise presentation that is an art form in itself. Usually, the day starts with a light petit déjeuner (breakfast) of juice, croissants or bread and café au lait (coffee with hot milk) small black coffee or hot chocolate. Déjeuner (noon meal) usually served between noon and 2 pm is not taken lightly or rushed which explains the resistance to fast food, although cafés do serve filled croissants and the popular crôque monsieur (grilled ham and cheese sandwich). Dîner (evening meal) is usually eaten at 9pm or later. French cuisine means eating leisurely, a ritual which often takes 2 to 3 hours, and may consist of 6 or more courses including appetizer; entrée (first course); main course of fish or meat and vegetables; salad; cheese; dessert, fruit; and coffee; digestif (Cognac, Armagnac) and always, of course, wine. See: wine, Champagne, kitchen.
French recipes make food almost as good to look at as eat. French cuisine has long been the standard by which food is judged around the world. French cookbooks were first available in the middle ages, and along with French cooking schools, instruct the greatest chefs everywhere. There are 4 major types of French cuisine: haute cuisine which originated with the feasts prepared for French kings, includes elaborate, rich and beautifully presented multi-course meals; cuisine bourgeoise is home cooking of the best quality; cuisine des provinces is regional or country foods prepared with fresh, local ingredients; and nouvelle cuisine which is a response to heavy or rich dishes, and while it still uses the finest ingredients, it is lighter with precise presentation that is an art form in itself. Usually, the day starts with a light petit déjeuner (breakfast) of juice, croissants or bread and café au lait (coffee with hot milk) small black coffee or hot chocolate. Déjeuner (noon meal) usually served between noon and 2 pm is not taken lightly or rushed which explains the resistance to fast food, although cafés do serve filled croissants and the popular crôque monsieur (grilled ham and cheese sandwich). Dîner (evening meal) is usually eaten at 9pm or later. French cuisine means eating leisurely, a ritual which often takes 2 to 3 hours, and may consist of 6 or more courses including appetizer; entrée (first course); main course of fish or meat and vegetables; salad; cheese; dessert, fruit; and coffee; digestif (Cognac, Armagnac) and always, of course, wine.
French Food Gifts: picnics with French cheese, Nicoise olives, and saucissons (sausage); gourmet meals with the finest French ingredients; or coffee with Chocolate Fondue. Special occasion? Add Champagne. Bon appetit! For every occasion: a picnic lunch of Etorki with raw veggies and olives: Morbier with Saucissons (sausage from Campagne) on crusty French bread; Gruyere de Comte for fondue; Buche Chevre with Bordeaux; Bleu de Gex with a strong Burgundy; Brie with Champagne; or Banon and Brillat Savarin (triple cream cheese from Normandy) with ripe fruit and dessert wine--endless options. For serving: olive wood cheese boards, cheese knives and French cheese leaves.
Wine Glossary. Defines most wine terms used to taste, judge and select French wines.
Champagne. A useful guide to understanding Champagne labels.
Cognac. Helpful information about French spirits.
Wine Glasses. Everything you need to evaluate, select and care for the perfect wine glass.
French history goes back to prehistoric times with the Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon man who created the earliest painting known in the Chauvet Cave in southeastern France dating back 30,000 years. Every period of French history has produced great art from the landscapes of the Baroque to the Impressionists and into the 20th century. The archichitectural legacy is as rich--the Gothic and Renaissance cathedrals, the Classical Palace of Versailles, the gardens of Vaux-le-Vicomte, Chateaux of the Loire Valley, the revolutionary work of Le Corbusier. Interior design, furniture and finishes, and decorative arts (Gobelins, Saint-Gobain, Beauvais, Aubusson, Sèvres) of Louis XIV to Louis XVI have never been surpassed. Many of the decorating terms we use originated here (Dictionary of Design terms). French history is rich with the lives and events that inspired them from the great kings to the French Revolution to Napoleon Bonaparte to the Republics.
The earliest discoveries of man in France are the Neanderthals. They hunted with stone and bone tools, and lived in the mouths of caves. Cro-Magnon man arrived about 30,000 years ago. They were intelligent, knew how to make fire, wore animal skins and made fine tools from ivory, bone and stone, and left beautiful paintings on cave walls. This is the first known art. Little else is known until the Celtic Gauls moved in between 1500 and 500 BC. They had iron weapons and wheels. They divided the land and were the first European farmers. In 56 BC the Romans invaded, defeated the Gauls, introduced Christianity and made it a Roman province for 450 years. The remains of their stone building can still be seen in many areas. After Rome fell, new groups including the Franks entered and ruled under the Merovingian and Carolingian reigns from the 5th to 10th centuries. They were attacked by Muslin armies until their defeat by Charles Martel in 732 AD. His grandson Charlemagne (768-814) extended the boundaries and was crowned emperor in 800. The next invaders were the Vikings (Norsemen) who took control of the the area now known as Normandy (10th century). The Capetian dynasty was founded with the election of Hugh Capet in 987. William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, conquered England in 1066. With the marriage of his descendent Henry II to Eleanor of Aquitaine (1154), the wars for control of much of what is now France began and lasted centuries, including the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453) ending with Joan of Arch lifting the siege at Orléans and inspiring the French forces to eventually expel the English. The Renaissance kings Francis I 1515-1547) who followed began the long process of consolidating power and making France the greatest country in Europe.
From the height of the political and cultural power of Louis XIV (1643-1715), France has seen the devastation of the French Revolotion which ended the monarchy, the empire of Napoleon Bonaparte which covered most of Europe until his defeat in 1815, and two world wars fought on her land. Charles de Gaulle, who led the French resistance during WWII, in 1958 became the first president of the Fifth French Republic. The history of France is most easily understood through biography: Capetian 987-1328, Valois 1328-1589, and Bourbon 1589-1792 including Henry IV to Louis XIII, Louis XIV, Louis XV, Louis XVI, plus restoration kings Louis XVIII and Louis-Philip), plus emperors Napoleon Bonaparte and Napoleon III, and the French Republics with French presidents.
French historical biography books are often more compelling than fiction. These men are rarely flawless, although there were pious kings, some prompted to lead crusades, one was even a canonized saint (Louis IX). Marriages were political and while some ended in love, more often it meant love affairs and mistresses (Henri IV, e.g., is thought to have had 56!) who were sometimes powerful and always fascinating in their own right: Diane de Poitiers (Henry II), Madame de Pompadour (Louis XV), Madame du Barry (Louis XV), Marie Walewska (Napoleon Bonaparte). There are also accounts of great sacrifice like Joan of Arc who made Charles VII king; scandal (Marie-Therese); intrigue (Catherine De'Medici) and political power (Cardinal Richelieu, Cardinal Jules Mazerin, Talleyrand). While Salic Law kept women from inheriting the throne, it could not keep them from becoming centers of power (Madames Roland, Staël). There are horrors: the battles of Crecy and Poitiers, the Saint Bartholomew Massacre, the campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the French Revolution.
More than 200 years after the French Revolution, scholars are still debating the far reaching effects, both costs and benefits, to France and the rest of the world. Ten years, 1789 to 1799, transformed the society and politics of France by moving through a series of governments from absolute monarchy to republic. While none of these individual forms lasted very long, change was permanent. Even though France at this time was hardly the most repressive monarchy in Europe, the movement produced one of the bloodiest and most destructive periods in French history, setting back the economy for a generation. Much more than a bloody tragedy, it abolished slavery and inherited privilege, and led to a new civil code and judicial reform. It left the world with the larger than life images of the storming of the Bastille (July 14 is still celebrated as National Day or Bastille Day although it was largely symbolic with only 7 prisoners being freed, 2 of whom were insane), and the beheading of Louis XVI & Marie Antoinette. It left us with political terms, e.g., "left" and "right" were first used during this period to reference radicals and reactionaries seated on either side of the National Assembly, terror & terrorist, bureaucrat and ancien regime. Outside France, it impacted revolutionaries in Europe and other parts of the world who identified with the same causes. No discussion of liberty, equality of citizens or democracy can exist without reference to the Revolution.
Napoleon Bonaparte has inspired more biographies and histories than nearly anyone else who has ever lived. We continue to search his childhood on Corsica and his early training at the Ecole Royale Militaire in Paris for signs of the general who will conquer most of Europe or the statesman who will establish the Code Napoleon which is still the basis of French law today. We read with amazement not only the military campaigns, but the political insight that positioned him to carry out a coup against the Directory, establish his dictatorship and then empire. We're fascinated by his marriages to Josephine and then Marie Louise, daughter of the Austrian emperor, and his love affairs after Josephine's betrayal. Compelling too are the accounts of Napoleon Bonaparte's exiles and short-lived return to power, and the hypothesis that he was assassinated in St. Helena.
Home and Interior Design and Architecture
The history of France is much more than politics. There are the amazing stories of those who brought France to the heights of glory in the architecture of the great cathedrals, the chateaux of the Loire Valley and Palace of Versailles; the art of Poussin, Claude Lorrain, Ingres, Rodin and the Impressionists; the music of Lully, Saint-Saens, Chopin and Debussy. The standards by which the arts are judged are filled with French masters: the couture of Christian Dior, Chanel, Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent; the leather of Hermes, Louis Vuitton; the decorative arts expressed in furniture (Boulle, Chevigny, Riesener, Jacob); textiles (Gobelins, Savonnerie, Beauvais, Aubusson); porcelain (Sevres, Limoges, Bernardaud), crystal (Baccarat, Saint Louis, Daum, Lalique) and silver (Christofle, Puiforcat).
Dictionary of French design terms. Easy definitions of the terms commonly used in French furniture and design books and conversations.
Home Decorating Chart of French period styles. Includes Commonly used name, dates, characteristics, key furniture pieces, materials and colors. Louis XIII through Art Deco including Regional/Provençal or French Country.
French Cave Painting to Renaissance Art: The earliest painted art known to us is cave painting in Chauvet in southeastern France dating back 30,000 years. These and cave painting in Lascaux depict animals with style, full of color and life. What a fitting beginning for a country that has such a long tradition of world famous art. From there we move to the primarily religious art of the Medieval and Gothic periods including the manuscripts done for Louis IX and Philip the Fair. Renaissance art saw a revolutionary change of focus to the accomplishments of man in classical antiquity. This was, of course, also the time of monumental building from the great gothic cathedrals to the Renaissance chateaux of Francis I at Chambord and Fontainebleau.
French Baroque to Rococo: Art of the Kings. The beginning of the Bourbon reign-Henry IV, Louis XIII and Louis XIV, saw the rise of France to the cultural and political head of Europe. By the end of the 17th century, Versailles and the Style of Louis XIV were the envy of all monarchs and the most copied. At his accession in 1715, Louis XV was only 5, and power moved back to Paris with the Regent, where the nobility built city homes known as hôtels leading to an intimate, less inhibited style. Art also tends toward escapism, the world of love and family.
Neoclassicism/Romanticism (1750-1850) followed the Enlightenment with Voltaire and Rousseau calling for reason and common good to replace the authority of tradition. Artists turned away from the ornate and sensuous Rocco with its aristocratic subjects back to nature and morality expressed by Greuze in his paintings of the common people, and by David in his historical masterpieces inspired by Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Revolution. His followers split between Ingres' defense of David, and the others led by Delacroix who turned to Romantic literature for inspiration. Landscape pictures became the most characteristic form. Carot was the first and best. A group of younger artists settled in tiny Barbizon near Fontainebleau and began to paint modern landscape pictures in nature, en plein air (Rousseau, Millet). Their approachable subject matter appealed to the new, more democratic market and was widely collected in America.
Realism : Realism was born in a time of revolutionary upheaval across Europe in the mid-19thcentury. Romanticism gave way to truth and sincerity, and a belief that art should come from direct experience. Courbet said, "I cannot paint an angel because I have never seen one."
French Impressionism: Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Renoir, Pissarro, Morisot--Impressionistic art. Few countries boast an art style or as many artists as immediately recognizable as this. The term was coined after a hostile critic saw Impressionism: Sunrise by Claude Monet in 1874.
French Post Impressionism to Modern Art: Post-impressionism through modern art, encompasses many styles and well known artists: Van Gogh, Matisse, Cézanne, Picasso. Below you will find major French artists arranged chronologically within periods and styles with the books available.
French architecture is some of the most memorable in the world: Romanesque Vezelay and Autun; Gothic cathedrals of St.-Denis, Chartres, Reims and Notre Dame; stained glass windows of Sainte-Chapelle; Renaissance Chateaux of the Loire Valley; Baroque Louvre and Versailles; Eiffel Tower; and revolutionary 20th Century Le Corbusier. Here are French architecture styles arranged chronologically with important examples and books for the ones you want to explore.
Gothic Cathedrals 12-15th C (vaulting on arches/wider and higher/stained glass windows): St.-Denis, Sainte-Chapelle (breath taking stained glass windows cover more than 6,000 square feet), and Notre Dame (Paris), Chartres, Amiens, Reims, St.-Urbain (Troyes), St.-Maclou (Rouen). Gothic Cathedral French architecture is some of the most memorable in the world: Romanesque Vezelay and Autun; Gothic cathedrals of St.-Denis, Chartres, Reims and Notre Dame; stained glass windows of Sainte-Chapelle.
Renaissance 16th C: Renaissance architecture in France represents the shift from castles built as strongholds to symbols of French culture, elegance and ostentation--a love of luxury and the spectacular. Renaissance architecture starts with the Fontainebleau of Francis I and Chambord and includes the beautiful and famous Chateaux of the Loire Valley and the Louvre. The chateaux were originally defensive, first against the Viking invaders in the 9th century, then the English in the Hundred Years' War which ended with Joan of Arc at Chinon in 1429 persuading the Dauphin (soon to be Charles VII) to give her an army to liberate Orléans. By the 16th century warfare had changed and the fortresses were turned into comfortable palaces. Under the influence of the Italians, the walls were opened up, light entered in, and landscape gardening was added with fountains, ornamental waterworks, hedges and flowerbeds. When Louis XIV moved his court to the Palace of Versailles the chateaux of the Loire Valley saw a wealth of art and design not seen before or since.
Baroque architecture in France is known as the Style of Louis XIV. Unquestionably, the greatest achievement of the classic period is Versailles. Although there had been a hunting lodge located here, the great collaboration under Louis XIV to build a royal palace began with Le Vau in 1669. After his death the following year, the work was continued by Jules Hardouin-Mansart. He expanded the Garden Front placing the Salon de la Paix (Peace) and the Salon de la Guerre (War) on either end of the famous Galerie des Glaces or Hall of Mirrors. The gardens were designed by Le Nôtre, the interiors by the head painter, Le Brun.
Rococo to Modern: French architecture is some of the most memorable in the world. Here you will find books that explore the development of modern architecture in France from the last of the royal works to Haussmann who gave Paris the wide boulevards and parks you will see now, continuing on with the Eiffel Tower, the most recognized shape in the skyline, and revolutionary 20th Century Le Corbusier.
Eiffel Tower. History and fun facts plus gifts and home decor.
French garden design as we know it with it's ornamental waterworks, splashing fountains, hedges and flower beds with their formal designs, were introduced in the Loire Valley by artists who accompanied Charles VIII back from Italy. One, Fra' Pacello da Marcogliano, is credited with the introduction of open spaces copied from the Sicilian orange groves of his home. Certainly no visit to France would be complete without a tour of the Chateaux of the Loire Valley and their beautiful gardens: Angers, Chenonceaux gardens of Catherine De'Medici and Diane de Poitiers, and, of course, Villandry with its 3 levels of gardens--the ornamental vegetable gardens, the ornamental flower and hedge gardens, and the orchards crossed by shaded paths.
Probably the best known garden design, thought by many to be the crowning achievement, is Versailles by the French master, André Le Nôtre (1613-1700), who also created the gardens of Les Tuileries in Paris. The famous gardens of Versailles were transformed from marshes to grand terraces along great axes with a series of groves, panoramas and vista points, with statues, vases and fountains designed by Le Brun, all under the direction of the Sun King, Louis XIV. Well worth a trip to Versailles is the sight of the Green Carpet or Royal Avenue (1099 feet long and 210 feet wide) which leads from the Fountain of Latona to the Fountain of Apollo (at sunrise the gold of the god on his chariot drawn by 4 horses and surrounded by dolphins and tritons is almost blinding), and then on to the Grand Canal decorated with 17th century marble statues and vases. Once finished, the Canal was the center of many festivities from skating and sleigh riding in the winter to gondola rides in the summer. Although it has undergone many changes over the years, the rare sight (usually only 1 hour each month) of all the fountains alive with water brings you back to the glory that made France the most copied court in Europe. If you're looking for inspiration, you've found the best!
Garden Design: French Historic Styles & Periods
Luxury Items and Decorative Arts
Crystal. History and key elements of French lead crystal.
Limoges. History of porcelain and Limoges.
Perfume. History and basic tips.
Our close relationship with France dates back to the beginning. Without support from Louis XVI we might not have won our independence. We have fought with them in the great wars and joined with them to create a better peace. Still, some hesitate to visit because they don't know the French language. You don't have to be fluent, but some French language basics will make your trip more enjoyable. "To have another language is to possess a second soul." Charlemagne.
French education is important and starts early. Most children go to écoles maternelles (nursery schools) or classes enfantines (kindergartens) as early as 2 years old. School is mandatory from 6 to 16: at 6 to primary school, at 11 to secondary. Activities such as sports, folk dancing, and games are organized separately and are scheduled for Wednesday afternoons when schools are closed. Normal school days are from 9 am to 4:30 pm including Saturday morning. Technical schools are open to students at age 14. Starting at age 16, French education begins to prepare students for national diplomas. University entrance at 18 requires preparation at a lycée to pass the difficult national baccalauréat exam. Degrees are licenses (bachelor's), maîtrises (master's), agrégation (doctoral).
Geography: France is the largest country in Western Europe with an area of 212,073 square miles of diverse and world famous destinations, varied topography and climate: beaches from the English Channel to Biarritz on the Atlantic to the Côte d'Azur on the Mediterranean; mountains from the Jura on the border with Germany, Pyrénées (8,000 to 10,000 feet) on the Spanish border to the Alps and Mount Blanc, the highest peak in Western Europe at 15,771 feet; plus forests, rivers, vineyards and small fishing villages. At the center is the Massif Central, old volcanic rock up to 6,000 feet high laced with rivers that have carved deep gorges. The area is poor for farming but rich in minerals. Around this area are flat lands and river valleys of the Rhone, Garonne, Loire and, most important for agriculture, the Seine or Paris Basin which leads to Le Havre. The heart of this area is the divide around the Île de la Cité in Paris.
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Last Modified: January 28, 2019