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Unusual France

France has a great wealth of world-class tourist attractions. But sometimes, whether you've somehow managed to see them all, or just a handful, you want something more quirky.

But sometimes, whether you've somehow managed to see them all, or just a handful, you want something more quirky. You've visited Pont du Gard, the Caves of Lascaux, Père Lachaise Cemetery and Monet's Gardens; what now?

We've put together a few lesser attractions (in the sense that they're not headline attractions known the world over) that have a certain je ne sais quoi. Broadly taken from all corners of France, these unusual attractions offer something for those jaded with glitz and glamour and searching for the niche and the novel.

National Botanical Conservatory of Brest

The aim here at the conservation centre is to save plants threatened with extinction. It's no small objective. The site was previously a quarry and rubbish dump before being acquired by the council, reimagined as a conservation centre, and eventually opened in 1977.

Jardin du Conservatoire botanique national de Brest (Photo credit: Brittany Tourism)
Jardin du Conservatoire botanique national de Brest (📸 Brittany Tourism)

The gardens are laid out meticulously, with plants grouped geographically. There are 1700 species here, including familiar specimens from Europe, as well as euphorbia from Morocco, hibiscus from China, Cypress trees from Kashmir and eucalyptus from Australia. There are large glass houses with cacti and more delicate plants in four zones designated as tropical mountains, dry tropics, humid tropics and subtropical islands. Follow the easygoing marked trails and feel like you're doing a brief tour of the world! The centre is popular for school educational visits but is a great alternative for holidaymakers, especially on a wet day when the beach is not an option.

Argonaute Submarine

In the Parc de la Villette, opposite the Cité des Sciences in the 19th Arrondissement of Paris, is a small surprise for unsuspecting visitors: a 50-metre-long submarine. It's been there, well out of any water, since 1991, receiving curious visitors and providing real insight into the lives of submariners and the claustrophobic conditions they endure.

Argonaute Submarine
Argonaute Submarine

The Argonaute was launched in 1958 and served for 24 years before being decommissioned and, eventually, saved from being scrapped. Although adapted for tourists, the crew quarters, torpedo launch areas, periscope, and radar detectors can all still be seen. Adjacent is a visitor centre which illustrates the history of submarines and the technology that makes them so valuable to any navy. A fascinating visit that offers something genuinely different and a great alternative to all the crowded tourist magnets of Paris.

Les Machines de l'Île

This is something wholly unique: an eclectic jumble of art, science, culture and plain whacky fun that defies categorisation and yet is a hit with everyone. It's futuristic yet also on-point retro at the same time. The old former shipyards of Nantes are home to this project which has captured imaginations around the world over the last few years.

Les Machines de l'Île
Les Machines de l'Île

Star attractions are the 12m tall elephant, capable of carrying 49 passengers for a short walk, and the Carrousel des Mondes Marins. This is a multi-dimensional 25-metre-high marvel with 35 mechanical creatures that move on three levels: the ocean floor, the depths and the surface. Giant Crab, Giant Squid, Deep Sea Lantern Fish, Pirate Fish and Jellyfish… they're all here and moving around in this mesmerising carousel. Visitors can move around and clamber on-board to control the creatures' mechanical actions and go round and round in the fashion of a traditional fairground ride.

Fosse Dionne

Burgundy is famed for its world-class wines. Some of the finest bottles ever created originate here. The Fosse Dionne spring is less well-known. It has been gushing out water at 311 litres per second for millennia. The Romans drank here, the Celts imbued it with religious significance, and the French built an attractive collonaded structure around it and made it into a washhouse.

La fosse Dionne - the spring in the center of Tonnerre
La fosse Dionne

The spring is in the town of Tonnerre, and little is known about it. The water's colour can change between blue, turquoise and off-brown, but no one knows how deep it is or where the water's source lies. On three occasions since the 1970s, divers have explored the twisting passages of its depths, and on two occasions, they have never returned to the surface. It seems the spring may be generous with its water but is reluctant to give up its secrets.

Musée du Château des Rohan

Alsace is a region with a turbulent past, fought over many times. In the town of Saverne, a historically strategic point northwest of Strasbourg, Rohan Castle was a thoroughfare for military, merchants, artists, thinkers and the shapers of Europe. It's a magnificent structure set in an imposing location and offers magnificent views. Today it preserves the cultural heritage of Saverne and the wider region.

Musée du Château des Rohan (image credit: visitstrasbourg.fr)
Musée du Château des Rohan (📸 visitstrasbourg.fr)

Founded in 1858, the museum has various spaces: in the vaulted cellars, a large Gallo-Roman and medieval archaeology collection sheds light on the region's evolution. The art and history section is varied and includes paintings, artworks, traditional Alsatian costumes and an excellent area dedicated to the castle's history. Lastly, the Louise Weiss section is named after an influential political journalist of the 20th century who gifted her archive and collections of art in the 1980s.

Oradour-sur-Glane

On 10th June 1944, the Waffen-SS rolled into Oradour-sur-Glane and destroyed it, massacring 643 men, women and children. The shattered village has been left as it was, with no rebuilding, no renovation, just a slowly decaying memorial to those murdered. Today it's an eerie experience to walk along the empty streets, past derelict houses, with no windows and mostly without doors and roofs. Plaques are mounted in various spots, indicating places where inhabitants were killed. Famously there are a couple of cars (including the doctor's), gradually rusting away, occasional bed frames, sewing machines and domestic bric-a-brac, all left as it fell. And the church, where many women and children were corralled and then shot in cold blood, is especially haunting.

Oradour-sur-Glane
Oradour-sur-Glane

The tactical reasons behind the crime are hazy, if any exist, but possibly were retaliation for the killing of German troops. Tucked away in rural Haute-Vienne, this is not on the main tourist route, but well worth a visit.

Clermont-Ferrand Cathedral

Clermont-Ferrand in the Auvergne is known as a university city and an industrial centre, bordered by the volcanic Chaîne des Puys mountains, notably the Puy-de-Dôme. Perched on a high point in the centre of the city, the cathedral was built in the mid-13th century, set on the site of former religious buildings, and took seven centuries to complete. After many years of inactivity, the finishing touches were made in 1902.

Clermont-Ferrand Cathedral
Clermont-Ferrand Cathedral

It's notable for its use of black lava stone, the first time this was attempted on such a grand scale. This rock was sourced from the region's dormant volcanoes and explains the cathedral's dark, sometimes brooding, appearance as it towers over the countless terracotta roof tiles of the rest of the city. The interior, too, soaring up 108 metres, is dark and shadowy, with light coming through the 14th-century stained glass windows.

Gorges du Fier

These gorges are one of the most spectacular natural sites in the French Alps. About 10 km west of Annecy in the Haute-Savoie, it's a dramatic but narrow canyon carved through the rock by the tumbling waters of the River Fier. A path (originally designed and installed in 1869!) leads visitors through the gorge, clinging to the cliff face and 25 metres above the water. Being so narrow and so deep, the mossy green walls and the noise of the relentless waters below create quite an atmosphere.

Gorges du Fier
Gorges du Fier

The whole experience is fascinating but also educational, with informative panels along the way and a display zone at the end, which explains the evolution of the gorge. Highlights include the Mer des Rochers (Sea of Rocks), where the torrent widens and eases – it's great for photos, but best arrive early morning or at the end of the day before closing.

Étang d'Aureilhan – Churchill

Tucked away in the Landes, a vast forested area in the southwest of France, between Bordeaux and the Pyrenees, is a peaceful lake, the Etang d'Aureilhan. On the shore sits the impressive Château Woolsack, built-in 1911 by the Duke of Westminster as a hunting lodge. The name was given as a humorous nod to the duke's similar property in South Africa, called Woolsack.

Étang d'Aureilhan (image credit: mimizan-tourisme.com)
Étang d'Aureilhan (📸 mimizan-tourisme.com)

With the only access being via boat (there was no road access to the house) and a succession of colourful guests, the property epitomised the spirit of the Belle Epoque. Several notable visitors came and went during its heyday, including Charlie Chaplin, Salvador Dalí, Coco Chanel, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, who painted the scenic lake and the surroundings of Mimizan. Today Woolsack is a private residence and not open to visitors, but the lake is public, and the beaches are free.

Le Petit-Paris, Miniature

East of Montauban, to the north of Toulouse, is an extraordinary creation. A miniature version of Paris, complete with all the major landmarks, busy boulevards and huge goldfish swimming along the Seine.

The proprietor Gérard Brion (also Mayor of Paris!), was 12 years old when he began his vision. Some 14 years later, it is open to the public and operates without state subsidy or grants. It's undoubtedly a real curiosity, eccentric too, but also has a touch of genius. It's an extraordinary achievement that is a must-visit for anyone who has done all the tick box tourist attractions.

Le Petit-Paris, Miniature (image credit: guide-tarn-aveyron.com)
Le Petit-Paris, Miniature (📸 guide-tarn-aveyron.com)

Drop in here and see the Champs-Elysées, Arc de Triomphe (complete with masses of traffic!), Sacré Coeur, Les Invalides, and of course, the Eiffel Tower, all within a couple of hours. You can even take in Château Chambord, Carcassonne and Mont St Michel while you're there!

Château de Montségur

Take a 20-minute climb up to this ruined hilltop fortress; you won't regret it. Perched precariously on the pinnacle of a rocky outcrop and lying 30 km east of Foix, it's one of a string of Cathar castles sprinkled across Languedoc. It was a primary refuge for the Cathars and became something of a symbol of resistance. After a punishing siege, the Cathars were heavily defeated here in 1242, with all inhabitants burnt alive for refusing to renounce their faith. Adding mystery to the brutal facts of the event, local legend has it that the Holy Grail itself was smuggled out of the castle just before it was taken.

Ruins of Montsegur
Ruins of Montsegur

The castle's altitude is over 1200 metres at its highest point, so views over the surrounding mountains and the Pays d'Olmes are truly spectacular. Unusual among French medieval castles, Montségur was the title of a song by heavy metal band Iron Maiden, released in 2003.

St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral

Surprisingly perhaps, the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Nice is one of the city's top attractions. At first glance, it may appear like a Disney fairytale castle, but this is the largest Russian orthodox place of worship outside Russia.

Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Nice
Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Nice

Commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II to support the growing Russian ex-pat community on the Côte d'Azur, it was consecrated in 1912 and features many religious artefacts and carved icons transferred here for safekeeping during the Russian Revolution. For several decades wealthy Russians had been flocking to the Riviera, especially during winter, in search of a milder climate. The design is traditional orthodox but with a layout based on a Greek cross. A bell tower covered in gold leaf and several 'onion' domes create a distinctive and different silhouette on the Nice skyline. All the more striking when the typical Nice architecture is of the Haussmann style that is so prevalent in cities like Paris and Bordeaux.

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