France, our glorious neighbour, is the world’s fifth largest economy and is a major power in the modern world. It is also the world’s most visited country, with lo less than 80 million visitors per year.
The country gets its name from the Latin word Francia, or “country of the Franks”. It was indeed the Romans that dragged France into civilisation, as they did with Britain, but the city of Marseilles (then called Massalia) was founded by the Ionian Greeks around 600BC, making it the oldest city in France. The dominant ethnic group however, were the Gauls who had an adversarial relationship with the Romans for several centuries, caricatured by the adventures of Asterix.
Gaul, as France was then called, slowly became a Christian country from around the 4th century under the influence of the Romans, and it was around this period that it became “Francia”. Clovis I established Paris as the capital and created his Merovingian Dynasty which failed to survive his death. Instead the lands were split up into four regions, Paris, Orleans, Soissons and Rheims. Pepin “the short” eventually took over and created a Carolingian Dyanasty, his son Charlemagne went on to unite the rest of France and create a wider empire. Again, the empire broke up after the death of Louis I, Charlemagne’s son. Constantly under threat from the Vikings, France was largely ruled by feudal lords, like the Duke of Normandy, who then went on to add the title “King of England” to his repertoire after the battle of Hastings.
Wars would ensue for many years between France and England. Most notably the 100 Years War which gave rise to legends like Joan d’Arc. Eventually all the French lands were won back from the Plantagenet kings of England. France was at the same time ravaged by the Black Death, which cut its population in half.
The French Renaissance gave rise to another set of wars with the Holy Roman Empire, at the same time French became the main language of France and of the European aristocracy. French explorers captured foreign lands to establish the French Empire. The reformation caused more suffering, especially for the Huguenots who were expelled for their Protestant beliefs and settled in England.
The French Revolution in 1789 led to yet more bloodshed, the Reign of Terror, and eventually the first republic of France. Napoleon Bonaparte came onto the scene in 1799, eventually making himself Emporer of the 1st Empire in 1804. He went on to defeat the armies of large parts of Europe, but was defeated in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. There then came the second Republic under Napoleon III and the third republic that we know today.
France claims the most visited country status with the help of its huge cultural and historical influence, it has pristine beaches on all corners, the French Alps and Pyrenees for skiers, the Mediterranean, and an abundance of UNESCO Heritage sites.
When to visit? Anytime.