France has been celebrated through the ages as one of the most romantic destinations in the world. For every candlelight dinner overlooking the Seine and leisurely stroll down the Champs Elysees, there is a shadowy side street or quirky museum that is waiting to be explored. If you’re a fan of all that is eccentric, eerie, and offbeat—France has much more to offer than fresh baguettes and a stunning view of the Eiffel Tower.
THE GRAVESTONE COURTYARD, PARIS
No one is entirely sure how the Gravestone Courtyard in Paris came to be. Historians do know that a segment of Rue Chanoinesse not far from the Notre Dame Cathedral was formerly the domain of austere monks who spent many hours in prayer and mediation. Those who take the time to scrutinize the sidewalk below their feet will notice faint traces of ornate lettering which once marked the final resting place of several people. Why said gravestones ended up lining a Paris street, and where the bodies of those deceased souls ended up remains a mystery. Rue Chanoinesse will surely leave you with more questions than answers, but it is still certainly worth a visit.
MEMORIAL DES MARTYRS DE LA DEPORTATION, PARIS
In the shadow of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, there is a cramped subterranean memorial to those who stood up against the Axis powers during World War II and defied France’s Nazi-friendly Vichy regime. After the Vichy regime gained power, over 200,000 French citizens were deported and sent to languish and die in concentration camps. Memorial des Martyrs de la Deportation features a staircase that descends into a narrow hallway lined with 200,000 shining crystals which represent each life that was lost during World War II. The memorial also features a stark iron gate that is designed to foster a sense of imprisonment. Memorial des Martyrs de la Deportation isn’t for the faint of heart because it certainly leaves a lasting impression.
CHATEAU MENNECHET, CHIRY-OURSCAMP
Chateau Mennechet has been abandoned since World War II, but the exterior of the castle is so impressive that it was placed on a list of protected historical buildings in the 21st century. Chateau Mennechet was originally built in the 19th century to house the art collection of an esteemed art collector named Alphonse Mennechet. Unfortunately, two world wars, dicey health, and advanced age prevented Mennechet from realizing his dream of showcasing his extensive art collection in his sprawling castle. Today, onlookers can gaze in wonder at the remnants of a gilded art museum that never was.
LES MUSEE DES MOULAGES, PARIS
If you’re wondering what that mysterious rash on your arm might be, Les Musee des Moulages can help. Since the mid-1800s, one of France’s most unsightly museums has been helping medical students and tourists alike learn all there is to know about skin diseases with the aid of wax figures. Row after row of wax figures covered in bumps, boils, and lesions will help you determine if that red mark on your arm is an allergic reaction that simply needs a little ointment, or a resurgence of some sort of long dormant plague that requires urgent medical care.
PALAIS IDEAL, HAUTERIVES
When most people trip over a rock, it ruins their day. When French postman Ferdinand Cheval tripped over a curiously shaped rock in 1879, it was the beginning of one of France’s most distinctive and unique architectural projects. Ferdinand Cheval became obsessed with collecting unusual rocks along his mail route and fashioning them into a towering castle that looks as though it was constructed by gnomes who live in a dream world. Cheval’s eccentric stone palace—which features several prominent architectural styles melded together—was initially reviled and dismissed as a gaudy monstrosity. Over time, Palais Ideal has been embraced as a wholly unique and visionary work of architecture.
THE CHURCH OF SAINT JOAN OF ARC, ROUEN
The Church of Saint Joan of Arc is undeniably one of the most controversial buildings in France. The church was constructed near the spot where French heroine Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431 for upsetting the powers that be. The Church of Saint Joan of Arc is a modern, geometric building which was constructed in the 1970s. Enthusiasts applaud the church’s unusual contemporary lines, which are meant to mimic burning flames. Naysayers complain that the church is an eyesore that looks like a garish overturned boat. Visitors are encouraged to judge the aesthetic merits of the Church of Joan of Arc for themselves. If nothing else, Rouen is worth a visit so that you can honor the spirit and celebrate the legendary heroism of one of France’s most revered saints.
PETITE CEINTURE, PARIS
If you have ever wondered what the bustling city of Paris would look like if it was completely deserted and overtaken by nature, a day trip to explore the abandoned Petite Ceinture railway is an absolute must. The Petite Ceinture was a busy transportation hub until 1934, when the Metro became the predominant railway. Today, many stretches of the Petite Ceinture are covered in green foliage and blooming flowers. Wear sturdy shoes and make sure your cell phone flashlight is in working order if you’re planning on exploring the Petite Ceinture. Some sections of the aging railway are rustic to the point of being dangerous. As with all abandoned structures, please proceed with caution. Scope out the safety of a dark abandoned train tunnel before wandering in.
MUSEE DES ARTS FORAINS, PARIS
Musee des Arts Forains is a museum designed with joy and merriment in mind. Established in 1996, Musee des Arts Forains is dedicated to celebrating the colorful history of amusement parks. Visitors can ride a merry-go-round fashioned after a Venetian gondola, visit a series of vintage fair stalls, and view colorful costumes that date back to the Belle Epoch era. Musee des Arts Forains is fully interactive, which means that guests can ride rides and interact with many of the items on display. The sights and sounds of the Musee des Arts Forains will transport you back in time to a simpler, more escapist era. It is important to note that Musee des Arts Forains does require reservations, so it is vital to call ahead before visiting.
Oradour is a haunting French ghost town with a particularly grisly past. The small French village was the site of a brutal World War II massacre that killed virtually every inhabitant. 642 men, women, and children were mercilessly slaughtered by Nazi soldiers as their quaint village burned. In the wake of World War II, French president Charles de Gaulle was so horrified by the violent attack that took place at Oradour that he opted to suspend the village in time so the French people and the world at large would always have a reminder of one of the worst atrocities of World War II. Today, Oradour is an eerily quiet landscape littered with ruined buildings, rusted cars, and piles of rubble. Oradour certainly isn’t a feel-good destination, but it is undeniably a very important one.
SEASHELL MOSAICS OF L’ILE PENOTTE, LES SABLES-D’OLONNE
Artist Daniele Arnaud-Aubin’s love of seashells transformed a quaint seaside town into a vibrant public art gallery that attracts throngs of visitors each year. Daniele Arnaud-Aubin spearheaded an effort to line the walls of her town with colorful murals constructed out of seashells. Penguins, mermen, and oversized fish line the walls. L’ile Penotte’s seashell murals are forever expanding and evolving. It generally takes visitors more than one trip to spot every work of seashell art. The residents of L’ile Penotte are so enthusiastic about seashells that they create hidden mosaics which take time to find.
VALLEY OF SAINTS, CARNOET
The Valley of Saints is a surreal dreamscape located on a green hilltop in Brittany that celebrates the region’s propensity for embracing a large number of saints—many of whom have not been officially canonized by the Catholic Church. The Valley of Saints features blocky, modern statues that look as though they were culled from a modern art exhibit. The Valley of Saints is a cross between a contemporary art exhibit, and an eerie graveyard where the tombs may spring to life at any moment and start talking to visitors.
THE SCULPTED ROCKS OF ROTHENEUF, NEAR SAINT-MALO
In the late 1800s, a French priest named Adolphe Julien Foure suffered a devastating stroke that left him unable to hear or speak, Foure decided it would be impossible for him to keep serving as a priest, so he set out on his own and decided to create rock sculptures by the sea. Foure spent over a decade crafting an enchanted world of rock creatures, pirates, and visionary explorers. The green water and perpetually overcast skies of Brittany give Foure’s rock creations a gloomy, surreal quality. Over time, erosion has taken its toll on Foure’s creations, but they still appear lifelike enough to move and talk. The Sculpted Rocks of Rotheneuf are best viewed alone, or in a small group for full effect.