Like all countries, France is divided up: it has broad regions, smaller départements, or counties, and finally, cities, towns and villages (and a few other small subdivisions).
Each region has its speciality, and often, even towns and villages have things that make them stand out. As I discover them, I'll be listing them below.
Understanding my country's structure will help you uncover what we are like as a people and will show you just how diverse and large we actually are.
France is, in fact, more than twice the size of the United Kingdom and 1.5 times the size of Germany. Of course size comparisons pale when the US comes into play although we are roughly the same size as Texas (and similarly modest).
How many regions in France? 18 administrative regions, 13 of them in mainland France and the rest, products of colonial adventures, scattered around the Caribbean or Indian Ocean. A region would be, say, like a grouping of US states, for example, the Southwest, or the South, except that ours are formal – in other words, we have similar rules about certain things across regions, like school dates or railway systems. A department would be a bit more like a state.
Perhaps these maps will give you a better idea, and if not, we'll be exploring my country in a lot more detail on the following pages.
Our 18 regions are broken down into 101 departments, which we are supposed to know by heart but which we don't, except for those that are near where we either live or spend our summer vacations.
These departments have evolved over time and every so often, a politician decides to leave his mark by changing the boundaries, confusing everyone.
For example, in 1964, the area around Paris was made up of three departments: Seine, Seine-et-Marne, and Seine-et-Oise. For a variety of reasons, the Seine and Seine-et-Oise were replaced by SEVEN NEW departments and France went from 94 departments to 99. Not content to leave well enough alone, in 1996 Corsica was split in two, raising the number of departments to 100. Then all sorts of complicated things happened to our overseas departments and we ended up with 101, which is what we have now.
Wait a while before getting that map tattoo. Things will change again, I promise.
There are 101 départements, including overseas, but the number changes once in a while as new sub-divisions are decided.
It's always good to have an idea of these départements (you don't have to memorize them – I certainly don't know them all!) but you might want to know the numbers of your favourite ones.
Also, in France we tend to use the numbers to refer to them sometimes... for example, you're going skiing in the village of St Bumpkin? A friend might ask you, "Is that in the 74?" What they really mean is: "Is that in the département of the Haute-Savoie?"
There is no hard and fast rule. Sometimes we use numbers, sometimes names, but if you're at least familiar with the system, you won't be shocked if someone uses the number to tell you where they live or ask you where you do!
The map and list below should help make sense of it all.
That's all well and good but, let's face it: would you ever Search for, say, "what to do in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes"? No? Of course not. Neither would I.
I'd search by FAMILIAR region. Burgundy. Provence. Paris.
Problem is, these don't cover all of France, and frankly, they don't make much sense either.
So after hours of mulling and drawing squiggly lines on paper (I still do that) I've decided to stick to the official regions and simply accept that France, bless her, is nothing if not confusing.
So what follows is a list of stories slotted into their départments, each of which fits nicely into its region. I'll keep adding them here until I come up with a better way to keep track of it all...
As I travel in France and write my stories, I'll add them below as they happen, or you can click on What's New on the menu bar at the top of the page to find the latest.
Even better, join me by subscribing to my free monthly newsletter, Offbeat France Insider, where I tell you all sorts of interesting things and point you to the latest posts on this site.
And now, here's France, in all its illogical glory: regions, and each department within it.
These regions are not in Metropolitan France (meaning they are on other continents) but they are fully integrated politically into France (they pay taxes, send representatives to the Legislative Assembly and so on):
Because of history, France has an additional set of overseas possessions of various categories which you might not know 'belong' to us. These include...
The idea of départments has a long history.
We first floated the idea to our then king, Louis XIV, in 1655, but it took until the French Revolution to sort things out. At that time, France was a mish-mash of administrative, military, religious, legal or fiscal territories that overlapped one another.
Finally, in 1789, the French Revolution brought some order to the confusion and 83 departments were created. Their sizes were determined so that one could ride from anywhere in the department to its capital on horseback in less than a day.
Today, some departments are urban, some are rural, and their size varies wildly. In densely populated ones, you can cross the entire department in half an hour on a bus or tram. In the more rural areas, like mine, you'll have to drive a full hour-and-a-half to reach the capital. Given France's excessive bureaucracy, you will have to do this more often than you think, since much interaction with the government involves gathering tons of paperwork to be presented in person at a given time and date. If you don't have a car, well... you can spend up to half a day on public transport just getting there.
Most departments are named after rivers and mountains (with a few exceptions such as Savoy, which always likes to go its own way and sometimes doesn't believe it is part of France at all). Each department has a two-digit number, except Corsica, which has one digit and one letter (2A and 2B) and the overseas departments, which have three digits. Making the numbering system uniform would perhaps have been simpler...