May 2007 issue

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French polish

France is a heady mix of stunning landscapes, characterful cities and charming towns. And history, culture and, of course, gastronomy, each imbues the various regions with a distinctly different character. Gillian Evans reports.

Attracting close to 80 million visitors a year, France is the world’s most popular tourist destination, and there are plenty of reasons why. Paul Wheal at the Department of Languages at ESC in Saint Etienne, situated just north of Lyon, suggests: “The incredibly wide variety of activities France offers must be the main reason for such popularity, from skiing in the Alps to swimming in the Mediterranean; from eating out in great restaurants to dining in with food-obsessed friends; from bustling vibrant cities to remote traditional villages – the choice on offer in France is endless,” he enthuses.

Damien Renaux at BLS, which has centres in Bordeaux and Biarritz, adds that it is the “French way of life, the arts, the rich history, the food, the wine, fashion, the cafés and, more generally, the social ambiance they can find in our country” that draws people from all over the world.

France is a country made up of an assortment of individual regions each with its own character, and Bénédicte Le Marcis at the Aquitaine School of French in Bordeaux, which was launched in March 2006, believes that one of the greatest pleasures for visitors to France is “discovering the different regional peculiarities: nature, geography, cooking, art, architecture, craft and literature”.

Looking at the region in which Bordeaux is situated, Aquitaine, there is certainly a vast range of landscapes as well as unique history and gastronomy. Le Marcis mentions the region’s “diverse and exuberant nature”, including the “Côte d’Argent Atlantic coast, the Bassin d’Arcachon (a bay on the Atlantic), the Pyrenees mountains, the Dordogne and Garonne rivers, and the Landes Forest, which is the largest pine forest in Europe”. In addition, the area has prehistoric sites and medieval castles, and acres of vineyards.

Bordeaux itself is a historic university city with wonderfully preserved 18th-century architecture, set on the banks of the Garonne River. Renaux highlights the cultural side of the city. “Culture is very much sponsored by the local council/government giving access to museums, theatres and festivals at a very low price or for free.” He also mentions the incredible variety of food in Bordeaux and the fact that there are “about 15,000 wine producers around the city”.

Another historic university city is Chambéry, capital of the Savoie region, east of Lyon. With a population of 120,000, it is home to the University of Savoie. Karine Joly-Patrouillault at the university’s Institut Savoisien d’Etudes Françaises pour Etrangers (ISEFE) says that the city, which is framed by the Alps, is en route to the most famous ski resorts in the country.

Just west of Chambéry is St Etienne. The city is surrounded by Le Pilat French National Park, which makes it an ideal base from which to take part in cross-country skiing in the winter, as well as mountain-biking, hiking and horse-riding all year round, as Wheal at ESC relates. ESC is a business school, where around 80 international students study on bachelor- or masters-level courses each year. Despite being 300 kilometres from the Mediterranean Sea, St Etienne has the largest inland pleasure port in France. “Here, it is possible to practice all sorts of water sports, or just to relax on the sandy beach in the summer months,” says Wheal. The city also has a relatively low cost of living. “St Etienne has all the benefits of a medium-sized city in terms of amenities, culture, transport networks and entertainment, but at a fraction of the price of other more fashionable destinations,“ asserts Wheal.

The big tourist draw of France is undoubtedly Paris. “Paris is the capital for tourism, gastronomy and creation,” asserts Sylvie Wormser at Ecole Suisse Internationale, which is located close to the Montmartre district. Another Parisian school, the Institut de Langue et de Culture Francaises (ILCF), welcomes over 2,500 international students each year. “ILCF is located in a beautiful university setting, in the heart of Paris, close to internationally well known areas like St-Sulpice, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Montparnasse – some of the most famous artistic and historical areas of the city,” relates Servane Gandais at ILCF. “Also [our] proximity to the central Jardin du Luxembourg makes the area very pleasant in the summer.”

Yet while Paris’s attractions are famous around the world, there are many other cities that warrant a student’s attention but may be relatively unknown internationally. Patricia Lejeune at CIEL de Strasbourg ventures, “Strasbourg is far enough away from the capital to be truly independent on a cultural level, with its own opera, France’s only national theatre outside Paris, two international music festivals and Europe’s only bi-national TV station, Arte.” She continues, “The city’s international student population of some 50,000 keeps the city vibrant and intellectually alive.”

Lyon, France’s second-largest city after Paris, is another option. “Lyon has a very rich cultural heritage and is famous for its gastronomy and vineyards and, more recently, for its football team,” states Frédérique Di Tullio, Director of Lyon Bleu International. “We don’t have a lot of tourists – like Paris and Nice do for instance. It means that visitors can see a more authentic ‘French way of life’ and feel they are part of a city and not ‘tourists’ anymore.“

Hélène Thoma at the Institut de Langue et de Culture Françaises at the Université Catholique de Lyon dubs the town the “capital of gastronomy” because of the diversity of its food specialities. And food is something that the people of Lyon take very seriously: Thoma says that those staying with host families are often surprised by “the length of the family meals”.

Activities arranged by IS Aix-en-Provence, situated north of Marseille in the south, promise to serve up a good helping of this region’s culinary specialities with patisserie and wine tasting classes as well as barbecues. Anna Diaz at IS Aix-en-Provence says that apart from enjoying these classes, students like “the friendliness of the inhabitants, the vibrant student life in Aix and the warm climate”.

In addition to the many varied inland experiences, France also offers a wide range of coastal adventures. The French Riviera, with its miles of beaches and chic resorts, such as Cannes, is a great draw for many international students. But there is more to this area, as Andreas Schweitzer at the Collège International de Cannes, is keen to point out. “[Cannes] is not only a tourist region with beaches and bars, but offers a rich cultural life, a very specific regional ‘cuisine provençale’ and a friendly population with a Mediterranean mentality,” he says. For a quieter experience of the French Riviera, there is the Centre Méditerranéen D’Etudes Française (CMEF) in Cap d’Ail, situated between Nice and Monaco. “The CMEF is located in a three-hectares park at the doorstep of Monaco, a few minutes walk from the seaside,” elaborates Alessandra Zunino at the school, who adds that Cap d’Ail overlooks a quiet 3.6 kilometre-stretch of coastal walk, studded with exquisite Mediterranean flora and geological features.

In the southwest, the historic town of Béziers enjoys the same mild year-round climate but is off the tourist track. Jacqueline Hobson at Centre Hobson in Béziers lists “horse riding, canoeing, kayaking, hiking in the mountains, sailing and water sports” as some of the students’ favourite pastimes. And on the Atlantic coast, Biarritz provides students with a spectacular coastal setting. Renaux claims it is “one of Europe’s most beautiful seaside resorts” and students are attracted here by the surf and the beauty of the Basque country. BLS offers courses to enable students to make the most of their location, such as French and surf or French with Basque cooking lessons.

Agent viewpoint

“The cultural images associated with large cities such as Paris and Nice definitely act as a travel incentive for our students. In my experience, there are no real consistencies in what surprises our students about studying and travelling in France. Some are suprised by the richness of the culture or the beauty of the architecture. My feeling is that it truly depends on the individual student and their particular experience. For the most part, students really enjoy visiting sites that they’ve read or heard about.”
Jesse Philippe, Languages Abroad International Education, Canada

“Whilst Swiss students could easily study French in the French part of Switzerland, many of them prefer going to France for good reason; the cultural experience, the beaches, the charming villages and exciting cities, not to mention the lower cost of living. The most popular towns and cities we send our students to are Paris, Nice, Montpellier, Aix-en-Provence, Cannes, La Rochelle, Bordeaux and Biarritz. Students enjoy the French way of life, having fun and the multicultural school environment.”
Kurt Krummenacher, Boa Lingua, Switzerland

“Czech students appreciate France as a whole as [their trip] is usually their first opportunity to experience the country on their own. It is only recently that more students are becoming interested in studying in France. They are interested in busy cities and the smaller, quieter places. They find French customs, habits and the way of living different to what they are used to.”
Jana Jikova, BCTT, Czech Republic

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The following language schools, associations and accommodation providers advertised in the latest edition of Language Travel Magazine. If you would like more information on any of these advertisers, tick the relevant boxes, fill out your details and send.





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Bodwell College
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Richmond School
       District # 38
Stewart College
       of Languages