French Geography

France has a varied landscape, which includes low-lying plains, plateaus, older mountain blocks called massifs, the higher Alps and Pyrenées mountain ranges, and 4,853 kilometers of coastline. These geographic features provide excellent opportunities to try different outdoor activities or to simply enjoy the sights that France has to offer. In addition to these features of Metropolitan France, there are the geographic features of la France d’outre-mer, French-administered territories that include the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, Guyane, located on the northern coast of South America and, in the Indian Ocean, the island of Réunion and the archipelago Mayotte. This varied geography brings with it different topographies, weather patterns, and plant and animal life.

Once I was on a train traveling from Barcelona to Bordeaux and somewhere near the border between Spain and France I looked out the window and saw a flamboyance of flamingoes. Some were wading in the marshy waters and others were flying low overhead. It was quite a spectacle and a pleasant surprise – even better than watching National Geographic specials, the Nature Channel, or flamingo videos on YouTube – and there were no interruptions of my viewing by advertisements for fitness devices, watermelon oreos, and electronic socks.

Interesting Facts About French Geography

Here are ten interesting facts about French geography:

1- Metropolitan France is called l’Héxagone because its land mass looks roughly like a hexagon. The French frequently use the term as an efficient way of referring to things that are going on within France’s European borders.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

2. The Massif central is a highland formation in the southern part of France that forms a v shape. Consisting of mountains and plateaus, it was formed by collision between African and European tectonic plates 60 million years ago and is the resting place of dormant volcanoes of all types – Hawaiian, Pelean, and Strombolian.

Source: Wikipedia

3. As winter transitions into spring, violent north winds arise in southern areas of France, sweeping the Provence, Languedoc, and Rhône regions, and extending as far as Corsica and Sardinia. These winds, called le Mistral, from the Occitan word mæstral, come from an anticyclone caused by the flow of air between high pressure occurring in the Bay of Biscay and low pressure occurring in the Gulf of Genoa. The resulting cold currents of air can accelerate up to 185 kilometers per hour. Although these winds are credited with leaving the skies cloudless and sunny, you can forget wearing a hat.

Source: Wikipedia

4. The Massif des Calanques is an area extending almost 20 kilometers from Marseille to Cassis, which is protected as a national park and consists of calanques, limestone, dolomite, and other carbonite formations partially submerged in water that form inlets along the Mediterranean coast. Although soil is scarce on these formations, they still host a diverse array of plants, including broom, heath, lavender, and juniper, which grow directly on the bare rocks.  

5. La mer Méditerranée is a body of water that is almost completely enclosed by land, extending on a west-east axis from the Strait of Gibraltar, which at its narrowest measures 14 kilometers wide and connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, to the Gulf of Iskenderun on the southwestern coast of Turkey. On its north-south axis it extends from southern Croatia to northern Libya. Historically seen as a gateway between Europe, Africa, and Asia Minor, its name denotes its position as the center of the earth, as illustrated by its Latin name mediterraneus, from medius, meaning middle, and terra, meaning land. In addition to its central role in trade and cultural exchange, it is well-known as a vacation destination for those seeking its sunny, pleasant climate and beach activities. Just don’t plan on surfing there, as the waters are calm – when locals in Marseille ask if you are going for a bain, they really mean a bathe.

6. Instead you can try surfing in the area between Biarritz and Arcachon, in southwestern France, on the Atlantic coast, where the waves are a lot higher. France is surrounded by quite a few bodies of water, in addition to having many rivers and tributaries running within its borders, all doubtlessly contributing to its Mediterranean climate. France is generally considered to be under the effect of oceanic influences, moderated by the North Atlantic drift on the west and the Mediterranean Sea on the south. This causes France’s climate to be generally mild.

7. Le mont Blanc – the mountain, not the pen – is located in the Alps and is the highest peak in Europe west of the Caucasus range, rising to 4,810 meters. Located at the Franco-Italian border, it is the object of a certain amount of international litigation. It is one of the most visited sites in the world, providing spectacular views and a wide range of activities, from hiking up its precipitous paths to skiing down its steep slopes. For serious mountaineers, a climb to the summit presents a nice challenge, as it requires ten to twelve hours of strenuous effort.

8. Le Mont-Saint-Michel is a small island located on the coast of Normandy, rising above a sandy plain at an altitude of 92 meters. The abbey constructed upon it dates from the tenth century and has been a site of pilgrimage ever since, although it did serve as a prison during the French Revolution. It is accessible on foot during low tide, but high tides may sweep into the Bay of Mont-Saint-Michel, encircling the island with waters that rise up to 15 meters, the highest in continental Europe. Due to its unique position, it remained unconquered during the Hundred Years’ War, staving off attacks by the English during the fifteenth century.

9. La Manche, or the English Channel, is another body of water that surrounds France. The name Manche is said to come from its resemblance to a sleeve, une manche. The shortest distance across the channel is 33.3 kilometers, while the depth averages 120 meters. These dimensions have encouraged attempts to cross the channel by enthusiastic swimmers who doubtlessly would not be deterred by the waters surrounding Mont-Saint-Michel.  The number of swimmers who have completed this trajectory numbers 1,832 as of August 2018, according to The Telegraph. Rules for a recognized swim include using no artificial aids, only a cap, a nose clip, ear plugs, and a sleeveless, legless costume. The sight of these serious swimmers must be an interesting spectacle for marine animals, who are naturally equipped with fins and flippers, as well as for waterfowl flying above.

10.  There are many different types of fowl found in France. Aside from the aforementioned flamingoes, there are other waterfowl, as well as terrestrial, aerial, nocturnal, and diurnal birds. According to oiseaux.net, there are 578 known species in France. Flamingoes, or phœnicopteridæ, constitute their own category and are described as gregarious wading birds, measuring three to five feet, that filter-feed on shellfish and algae. No wonder I felt an affinity for them as I looked out the window of the train I was riding from Barcelona to Bordeaux. The largest ones are almost my height, I also enjoy seafood and nori, and I get quite gregarious after a glass or two of Muscadet. This may occur even whilst standing on one leg, in the manner of flamingoes, which I do quite often.


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