France Starter Kit
Gyl Johnson's Tips for Preparing for Your Journey
Welcome to France
This starter kit is designed to help you prepare for your trip to France as well as to motivate you to research further by internet and of course by guide books. When doing your research wanderings by internet, don’t underestimate the usefulness of the Office de Tourisme websites for every city and/or town. While some are better than others they are, in general, a good resource for determining the best time to visit in relation to upcoming events.
Albeit a small country, France offers a wide diversity of things to see, do, taste and enjoy. Each of its 22 regions offers a different culture, cuisine, tradition, climate and mentality. Hopefully, by the time you’ve finished reading, you will have a better idea of what is actually possible when visiting France outside of the typical three days in Paris to visit the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and the Sacre Coeur. Yes, of course visit Paris, but please do venture out and give this country the time it deserves for real exploration.
Best Times to Visit
Choosing the right time to visit should not be under-considered, as depending on the type of traveler you are, when you go could make or break your trip. First and foremost, unless you have friends or relatives who live in France, who have arranged special plans for you, I suggest you try to avoid most holiday periods in France except for Christmas time and the May holidays mentioned below.
Below, I have listed all public holidays in France. As a rule, wherever there is a holiday, assume that there is about a week or more that is holiday time. For example, November 1st is All Saints Day, even though it is just one day, there are between 7 to 10 vacation days surrounding this day that many people take off resulting in shops being closed. For summer time, typically after July 14th, people gradually begin to leave the cities and head for the shore in droves. August is absolutely dead in major cities and many monuments and tourist sites are closed as well, leaving August to be the worse time to visit France (and many of its neighboring countries) if you want to see famous sites, shop, avoid the heat or enjoy a relaxed beach scene.
1 January New Year's Day (Jour de l'an)
1 May Labor Day (Fête du premier mai)
8 May WWII Victory Day (Fête de la Victoire 1945; Fête du huitième mai)
14 July Bastille Day (Fête nationale)
15 August Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Assomption)
1 November All Saints Day (La Toussaint)
11 November Armistice Day (Jour d'armistice)
25 December Christmas Day (Noël)
26 December 2nd Day of Christmas (in Alsace and Lorraine only)
Traveling within France by train is very efficient but can be hectic if you are unprepared. The best rule of thumb is to take just one medium size bag that rolls or backpack and a small bag for tickets, medication and personal items. Travel as light as possible as anything you could possible need can be bought here.
You must buy train tickets in advance and right before boarding your train, you must validate your tickets before getting on board. If not when your ticket is checked on board, you may be fined extra. Visit www.sncf.fr for schedules and rates throughout France.
Train strikes occur often in France and when one occurs, there is nothing you can do but wait. If you want to avoid serious mishaps, like missing a flight, plan in some space between travel transitions.
When considering the purchase of a rail pass, think of how much you are actually going to be using the pass as well as how far you will be traveling. The rail pass is only an advantage if you will be going long distances over a short period of time. If this is not the case for you, I suggest you purchase tickets as you go. If you are under 26, you can enjoy discounted tickets for both train and bus.
Renting a car is reasonably easy and convenient as well as economic. The possible problems you could encounter are parking in general. In small villages where it is all pedestrian, this means you will have to park outside of the city whereas in major cities, parking is super expensive. The other pitfall, which is not expensive but you should know, is that is there are a lot of road tolls to pay for using the highway. If you prefer taking the scenic route, most tolls can be avoided. And lastly, gasoline prices are high at the moment and that could potentially offset any savings you had planned to gain.
The least expensive form of transport is by bus. France has a reasonably well connected bus system which is cost effective. However to access bus schedules, you must do an internet search for the region in which you are in. I don’t think there is a national bus service website to consult for France. However, for leaving France to go to other European countries or vice versa, you can consult www.eurolines.com.
If you plan to stay in France for a reasonable amount of time, purchasing a bike could be a good investment. France is a highly cycle-friendly country (Hence, the Tour de France) and purchasing a bike should not hit the pocketbook too hard. You can also easily rent bikes in a lot of cities where you would possibly want to visit.
France has a wide range of housing options. There are plenty of hotels, hostels and pensions to suit any budget. Camping is a popular housing alternative as there are camp grounds all over France. However, I thought I’d discuss some of the lesser talked about housing options available.
Staying in a Gîte, pronounced “jeet” offers the authentic experience of staying in a house which is traditional to the region. This option is good for those who want to spend time in the country side and who have a vehicle. I should mention that this option is also helpful for folks looking to save money; especially if there are three or more of you traveling together. Visit www.gites-de-france.fr.
The B&B is increasing in popularity, called a “Chambre d’hôte”, and of course includes breakfast as well as special touches to add to any trip. There is a wide range of prices. Visit www.bbfrance.com.
Lastly, it is possible to have a home-stay arrangement called a “Famille d’Accueil”. Typically, you stay with a French family where two meals per day are included in the rate and you get your own room. This is an excellent option if you are staying in the same city or town for more than two weeks and want to improve your French.
Money and Currency
At the time of writing this, interest rates are fluctuating rather dramatically and I think it would be best to recommend my preferred site for finding the current exchange rates which is www.xe.com.
As far as managing your money, forget about traveler’s checks which are dead in the water and use a debit card and/or credit card. You will get the best exchange rate possible with this method. It’s easy to find automatic tellers in even the most remote towns. I have heard, however, that people have had trouble paying for purchases in some shops or restaurants with foreign credit cards in smaller towns. Therefore I recommend to always have the back-up option of being able to withdraw money.
Staying connected to the rest of the world is neither too difficult nor expensive in France:
Internet Cafes, called Cyber Cafes, are easily available even in smallish towns with the price ranging from 1.50 euros per hour to 3.00 euros per hour in a big city like Paris. In most establishments, it’s possible to have access to USB and CD ports. For laptop travelers, there are an increasing number of cafes and hotels that offer WIFI for free. However, do not assume this as a given. If WIFI access is important for you, confirm with the hotel where you will be staying or the tourist office of the city where you’ll be visiting to get an idea as to how available it actually is.
Making Phone calls
If you will be staying for a short period of time, the best recommendation I can make is using a call shop. This is a place, not unlike an internet café where there are rows of booths in which you make your call and when you come out you pay for the minutes used. I find this option quite economical. Sometimes internet cafes have both internet and phone service.
If you are staying longer, “pay as you go” mobile phones are highly popular in France. In fact, it’s cheaper to buy “a pay as you go” phone with SIM card included than to buy a SIM card for your existing phone. Bouygues is probably the cheapest and most accessible company to use as you can spot this name everywhere in France.
Best Regions for Things to Do
As France is divided into 22 different regions, it’s not possible for me to tell you what you can do in every region. However the aim of this section is to point you in the right direction to start your research depending on how you like to spend your time when traveling.
Before I get started, as a general rule, all regions are good for biking, camping and hiking as there are networks of trails and campsites throughout the country.
Brittany and Normandy are both very traditional regions of France. In these regions, the architectural fabric is composed of half timber construction. The cuisine which is most famous in these regions are the crepe which is sweet and the galette which is savory but mostly looks like a crepe with ham, cheese, tomatoes etc. These regions are great for summer visits as the days are a bit cooler than the rest of the country and as you can see on the map, they are on the water and offer beautiful coastline views. Both produce the most dairy products in the entire country so if you are looking for wine tasting, olives and light Mediterranean cuisine, avoid these regions.
Pays de la Loire, Poitou Charentes and Aquitane where castles and vineyards lie in the west. If chateaux are your interest invest in some time here. Also, as this is home to Bordeaux, there are obviously plenty of opportunities for wine tasting. Down further south, if you are a water rat there is the option for great surfing all along the coast here not to exclude the famous Biarritz.
Languedoc Roussillon and Provence Alpes Cote D’Azur make up the famous South of France. This is where I call home for the moment and the slogan is “Where the sun never sets.” The Cote d’Azur is probably the most expensive region in France and if you plan to visit know that it will be difficult to “cheap anything” here. However, Provence is much less expensive and Languedoc Rousillon, the department where I live, is even better on cost. Here is where you’ll find Mediterranean cuisine, opportunities for wine tasting, olive oil tasting, summer festivals weekly and every possible outdoor sport imaginable. There is bull fighting, car racing, bird watching and truffle hunting. (I haven’t exhausted the list) This is the region most suitable for anytime of year.
Rhone Alpes offer activities all year round but this region is most famous for all Nordic activities. The ski resorts here are some of the most famous in the world. However if you want to be near mountains but you are not actually into mountain sports you can spend time in the pretty mountain towns of Grenoble, Annecy and Chambery.
Auvergne, Limousin and Burgundy located in the center of France, these regions are the least populated. If you want to get away from it all and go hiking, camping or biking, these are great regions to go exploring as there are many dormant volcanoes in the region which create an interesting landscape to spend time in. We can discover hilltop castles, hunting truffles with pigs and the possibility to wander aimlessly in dark forests. I should mention that these are highly agricultural regions so they provide rich regional cuisine that can’t be matched. Most of the French cheeses you have heard of probably come from here.
So you may have noticed that I haven’t even mentioned Paris once. This is not because I don’t think you should go; I want to encourage readers to see many parts of France, not just the capital. Consider the capital of your home country, is it really representative of your country as a nation? Most likely not, so hold the same thought for France and really explore. I’ll get to Paris and its surroundings in the next installment.