Disembarking from the ferry, the fresh sea air of coastal Calais welcomes us to France, and the Grand Tour begins in earnest.
What doesn't France have to offer? With rugged seascapes, rolling pastures, the Alps and the Mediterranean, its geographical diversity is sure to please. But, its real appeal lies in the cultural diversity to be found across the country. This diversity allows for a truly pleasing range of cultures, traditions, dialects and of course, gastronomic delights - this after all being the country of more than 400 cheeses, and an equally impressive number of wines! - all adding up to one veritable feast for the senses. Little wonder that the French have such joie de vivre.
Let's begin our tour today in elegant Paris: the City of Lights.
In Paris, there is no shortage of sites: from le Tour Eiffel, to the Grand and Petite Palais'; to the stained glass of Notre Dame and Ste Chappelle, and the dome of Sacre Couer. Expand your artistic knowledge at the Louvre, or the Musee d'Orsay, or the countless other museums and galleries, each home to a impressive and enviable collection of masterpieces. Indulge your inner artist in the Montmarte, and your literary side at Shakespeare & Co. Be saucy at Moulin Rouge.
Do not however, forget to take time to soak up the Parisian atmosphere, and where better to do this than a street side cafe, where the chairs all face out so that the greatest Parisian past-time can occur: people watching. Remember too, that all those people who are busy watching, will also be watching you, and if therefore, you wish not to look like the lost tourist, do your best to blend in and adapt the elegant and chic attitude of the French. To do so, stop in perhaps at the shop of malam. Here the perfect little frock awaits, such as this keyhole swallowtail dress.
Paris has long been a base for influential artists and burgeoning art movements, and being the home to the École des Beaux-Arts, this is sure to continue. Paris, therefore seems a natural place to search out a new favorite artist, such as SibylleD.
I love this modern, digital print in wonderful charcoal and sepia tones, with a distinct nod to the French passion for fashion.
Regrettably, it is time to leave the glamour of Paris behind us. The whole rest of this beautiful country, though, is still left to explore. After the excitement of Paris, maybe a trip to a more relaxed locale is in order. First stop, then, Mirepoix in the Midi-Pyrenees region of France.
This small, but beautiful medieval town boasts wonderful oak arcades surrounding the market square. Every autumn the town hosts the Fetes des Pommes. A suitable souvenir then might just be these whimsically printed cotton tapes by resident, lillalotta.
Off now to the Dordogne, where the valley is awash with vineyards and chateaux, and the truffle is king. This region is home too, to the famous Lascaux caves, which house extraordinary examples of prehistoric art, namely depictions of animal life, that have been carbon dated to 15-13,000 BC. This region is also the home of feltwear designer, jannio. Myself, I am partial to this pretty chapeau, reminiscent as it is of the traditional French beret.
Finally, to the Auvergne, where the humble haricot is tres important. Not only is it the main ingredient in regional speciality, cassoulet, it is also finds its fashioned into these wonderful decorative objects, created by makalewakan.
Our travels in France draw to a close, as we breathe a final, appreciative sigh over a glass of Medoc. Then we board the train and travel to neighbouring Belgium.
Maintaining the best of both the French and Flemish culture, Belgium is a vibrant country. It is a country of bike lanes and canals; bell towers and market squares; trappist beers and frites. For a small country, she has produced an impressive number of artistic masters, from VanEyk to Rubens, and; boasts what might easily be some of Europe's most stunning examples of Baroque architecture.
The artistic tradition remains alive and well, in fact, and here we meet ArtMind, creator of wonderfully unique and playful art sculptures.
What a whirlwind adventure today has been. Tomorrow we will begin a new leg in our journey as we continue on to Holland and Germany.