One of Europe’s greatest sporting traditions is racing towards the finish line. As fans watch 22 teams cycle over 2000 miles in 23 days, it’s fair to ask: What would summer in Europe be like without the Tour de France?
The world’s most prestigious bicycle race has been going strong for 111 years. Since 1903 it has been held every July – with the exceptions being World Wars I and II. The aim? Back in 1903 it was to sell newspapers.
Today male riders from all over the world travel to France to undertake the grueling 21 stages held in France’s most beautiful (and challenging!) scenery. The USA has three teams participating in this year’s Tour de France. They, along with the remaining 19 teams, are shown every day for three weeks on almost 200 television channels to an estimated 3.5 billion people! The Tour de France is the most popular, annual sporting event on the planet. While millions are glued to their TV screens to watch the final hour of the daily stages, millions also line the route in France – often camping out for days at a time just to get a good spot.
While the route varies every year, it always features the (extremely difficult) Alps and the Pyrenees mountains, and despite being the Tour de France, the route can also take riders into neighboring countries; this year England and Belgium were included. (The tour actually kicked off in Yorkshire. It then continued into Southern England, with riders traveling from Cambridge down to London.) Each day the rider with the best overall time dons the yellow jersey, which can change many times during the competition, and Paris always hosts the show-stopping finish on the Champs-Élysées. The riders are currently heading for the Pla d’Adet mountain resort near Saint-Lary-Soulan, which brings us to the question: Why do so many people across the world love this French bicycle race?!
This year riders will cycle past Bergerac's vineyards.
Besides witnessing some of the world’s finest athletes push themselves to their absolute limits, the main attraction is obvious: France.
Watching the race gives one an outstanding view of France’s picturesque countryside. As the peloton cycles past vineyards, fields of lavender, medieval hill towns, castles and soaring mountains, at times we feel that we too are there.
And if you’ve always dreamt of visiting France on vacation, the Tour de France can serve as a handy roadmap of beautiful spots.
Where does this year’s route take the cyclists over the 3-week race? Excluding Paris and the featured English and Belgian cities, below is a list of Our 10 Favorite Cities to Visit Along The 2014 Tour de France Route!
#1 Reims: (also spelled “Rheims”)
Notre-Dame de Reims Cathedral
Known as the Champagne capital of France, the ancient city of Reims is over 2000 years old. Despite the fact that Reims was heavily bombed during World War I, the city still houses very interesting ancient Gallo-Roman monuments and medieval architecture. Reims’ history is crucially linked with the history of the French monarchy, as 29 kings of France were crowned inside its Gothic crown jewel: Notre-Dame de Reims Cathedral.
Before their coronations, the kings traditionally crashed in the archbishop’s beautiful Palace of Tau. The cathedral, palace and the former Abbey of Saint-Rémi (which is located next to the 11th-century Basilica of Saint Rémi) form a joint World Heritage Site.
Located just 90 miles northeast of Paris, Reims is a popular day trip from Paris, particularly for those in search of Champagne tastings. The best Champagne houses in France have cellars in Reims. Most offer tours and tastings. Particularly popular are Moet & Chandon, Pommery, Mumms and Taittinger. On Stage 7 riders traveled a half-hour south of Reims to the very pretty town of Epernay, another Champagne mecca included on this year’s Tour de France route.
#2 and #3: Nîmes and Carcassonne
Stages 15 and 16
The Roman Arena of Nîmes
This region of France is all too frequently overlooked by those traveling to France on vacation. For those who do come, Nîmes and Carcassonne are two of the region’s biggest draws.
The South of France is home to some of the world’s most important Roman architecture. (It’s often in better condition than what you’ll find in Italy.) Nîmes is one such case. During the Roman era, this was a happening place! It was prosperous and very populated.
Though it began as a mere colony, Nîmes became an important city in Rome’s province of Gallia Narbonensis. Today visitors travel to Nîmes to see the city’s outstanding historical monuments including the Maison Carrée; at over 2000-years-old, it is one of the best-preserved Roman Temples in the world. The city’s Roman arena is generally considered the best-preserved Roman amphitheater in all of France. It is still used today for bullfights. And a short drive northeast from Nîmes will take you to one of the most famous Roman aqueducts in the world: the magnificent Pont du Gard, a World Heritage Site.
La Porte d'Aude, Cité de Carcassonne
Languedoc-Roussillon is home to two other important World Heritage Sites: the Canal du Midi and the historic fortified city of Carcassonne.
Carcassonne is one of France’s most storybook towns. When exploring this beautiful, tower-adorned, walled town – you’re likely to ask yourself, “Where are all the damsels, knights, peasants and court jesters hiding?”
It’s touristy – for good reason! Carcassonne’s thick walls have seen a lot of action: Romans, Visigoths, Franks (Charlemagne), Saracens, Crusaders. If you want to base yourself in one city and visit Nîmes and Carcassonne on day trips, try Montpellier! Also located in between Nîmes and Carcassonne, the pretty port town of Sète merits a day trip.
The market town of Lourdes
Before the final stage of the Tour de France – which will finish on Sunday in Paris – riders will spend this last week tackling southwestern France.
Several of the most challenging stages will take place there in the Pyrenees, a mountain chain that largely follows the border between France and Spain.
The mountainous scenery is spectacular – national treasures for Spain, France and the tiny nation of Andorra.
While the Pyrenees span several French regions, we’re focusing on the Midi-Pyrénées region at the moment. In addition to hiking, mountain climbing and skiing, the area is also home to some important cultural attractions. The most famous is the world-renown pilgrimage site of Lourdes, which is located in the foothills of the Pyrenees. As a result of Marian apparitions that occurred in Lourdes in the 19th century, a sanctuary to Our Lady of Lourdes was constructed. It remains one of the most popular Catholic pilgrimages sites in the world. While Stage 18 won’t take riders through Lourdes itself, they will literally go right around it as they leave Pau and approach the heights of the Pyrenees.
#5, #6 and #7: Pau, Bergerac and Périgueux
Stages 18, 19 and 20
As we just mentioned above, stage 18 will begin tomorrow in Pau – a very pretty city located 25 miles northwest of Lourdes. Pau is located in France’s region of Aquitaine. It has been included on the Tour de France a whopping 65 times!
Pau’s prize cultural monument is its magnificent medieval castle, which is sometimes called the Henry IV Castle. Today the Château de Pau houses an interesting museum.
The capital of Aquitaine is Bordeaux, and as the race this year doesn’t go there, we’re going to tell you all about its little wine cousin located just to its east: Bergerac (yes, like “Cyrano”).
Not that the Tour de France riders will likely have any, but Bergerac produces some truly excellent wines! Bergerac is the final city on stage 19 and the first city on stage 20. Although located within the region of Aquitaine, it forms part of the department of Dordogne, an area that is home to some of France’s most important prehistoric sites like cave paints found in the Vézère Valley. Of all the inclusions of this World Heritage Site, the Lascaux caves are the most famous.
En route from Bergerac to the Lascaux Caves (which cannot be visited but visitors can see an exact replica), you will pass through another great spot on this year’s Tour de France: the market town of Périgueux. Small it may be, but Périgueux is home to some fantastic medieval architecture and interesting ancient attractions like the Gallo Roman Vesunna Museum, which was built amid the ruins of the Roman villa.
The town’s cathedral is also a World Heritage Site, having been on the part of the route of Santiago de Compostela in France. Périgueux is also known throughout France for its food products – particularly truffles and fois gras.
Lyon and the Saône River
On the twelfth stage riders cycled just west of another World Heritage Site in France: the Historic Site of Lyon.
Lyon was an incredibly important city to the Romans. They founded it roughly 2100 years ago as the capital of the Three Gauls. Lyon’s history is absolutely dazzling. Today the city’s different districts tell its fascinating history in storybook fashion, along two scenic rivers.
In the original Roman part of the city, visitors can still see excavations of Roman monuments including a 2000-year-old theatre that could accommodate an audience of 10,000 people!
It’s not just Lyon’s ancient history that is interesting. It was also an important city in the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance. It absolutely thrived in silk production, spice trading, printing, publishing and banking. And Lyon’s prosperity continues, a fact made evident by its beautiful architecture and town planning. The city is famed for its annual Festival of Lights (Fête des Lumières), which is held every December. Having produced many of the country’s top chefs like Paul Bocuse, Lyon is often called the food capital of France because of its rich culinary traditions.
Besançon's Citadel, a World Heritage Site
During the race riders have also traveled over to the eastern fringes of France and cycled south along the country’s border with Switzerland.
Stage 11 began in Besançon,a beautiful riverside city encircled with thick forests in the foothills of the Jura Mountains. The city is known for its impressive, iconic citadel, which is a World Heritage Site.
It was designed by French military engineer extraordinaire to King Louis XIV: Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban.
Quai Vauban, Besançon
Besançon’s historic center is absolutely one of the loveliest in all of France with its beautiful blend of Roman, medieval and Renaissance structures.
The city it also home to one of France’s oldest public museums: the Museum of Fine Arts and Archaeology. Dating back to the late 1600s, its collection arguably contains some of the finest artwork you can see in France outside of Paris.
Several centuries ago, Besançon was also known both as a spa resort town (because of an abundance of nearby salt deposits) and as the watchmaking capital of France.
Besançon is easily visited on a day trip from the Burgundy wine region. Beaune and Dijon (yep, like the mustard) are both roughly an hour away by car.
Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur Region
The ruins of Glanum are located just south of Saint-Rémy.
Our last recommendation from this year’s Tour de France route is one of sunny Provence’s shining stars: Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
The town, which is located a short distance south of Avignon, has been inspiring folks since antiquity.
It is one of the oldest towns in France, having been founded by Celtic tribes before the Greeks and Romans arrived. Visitors traveling to Saint-Rémy who are interested in the town’s ancient history can check out the fantastic Roman archaeological site of Glanum.
Van Gogh spent a year in the Saint-Paul Asylum in Saint-Rémy.
Saint-Rémy has played host to some interesting historical characters. It was the birthplace of Nostradamus. The Provençal town is also often associated with Dutch painter, Vincent Van Gogh, who spent one year in an asylum in Saint-Remy. Many of his most-famous paintings, including The Starry Night, were painted in Saint-Rémy.
We hope you’ve enjoyed reading about our favorite spots along the 2014 Tour de France route! For official information about the Tour de France, please click here. For information on all our vacation packages to France, including Fly and Drive options, Paris and Bordeaux packages, Paris and Burgundy packages and escorted tours, please click here. Also consider checking out our great sightseeing tours in France. Lastly, if you have a group of friends or family members interested in traveling to France, our Groups Department would be happy to customize an itinerary – just for your group.