France Travel Guide

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Visiting France

Over eighty million people visit France each year making it the most popular tourist destination on the planet. You’re obviously making an excellent choice by joining them.

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The largest country in Europe, France is bordered to the north by the English Channel, by Belgium and Luxembourg in the northeast, Germany, Switzerland and Italy in the east, the Mediterranean in the south, Spain and Andorra in the southwest and the Atlantic Ocean in the west. So, while quite a large part of it is bordered by water – it has just under three thousand kilometres of coastline – there are more than enough land borders to make travelling into France very easy for all you fortunate enough to be ‘doing Europe’ at the moment.

Because the country is so vast it is helpful to know what the major regions are and the principal town or city in that region is before visiting. And, as we aim to make your trip as straightforward as possible, here you are!

In the north you will find the Nord Pas de Calais (Lille) and Picardie (Amiens). The Ile de France with Paris as its capital is also located in the north of the country. Moving westwards you will find Normandy (Caen and Rouen), Brittany (Rennes), Western Loire (Nantes), Poitou-Charentes (La Rochelle) and the Loire Valley (Orleans). Aquitaine (Bordeaux) and Midi-Pyrenées (Toulouse) are in the southwest and in the southeast you will find Languedoc-Roussilon (Montpellier), the Riviera (Nice), Provence (Marseille) and the Rhône Alps (Lyon). Corsica is also regarded as being in the southeast and its capital is Ajaccio. In the centre of the country the regions are Limousin (Limoges) and Auvergne (Clermont Ferrand). And, finally in the northeast are Burgundy (Dijon), Franche-Comte (Besancon), Champagne (Reims), Alsace (Strasbourg) and Lorraine (Metz and Nancy).

Of course, each region and city has a large variety of diverse natural attractions to be explored. The mountain ranges of the Alps and the Pyrenées, the river valleys of the Loire, Rhône and Dordogne, the beaches along the Mediterranean and the Atlantic and the vineyards of Burgundy and Champagne ensure that it doesn’t matter which part of the country you visit – you are always guaranteed to find something to fill your days.

But, as well as the natural appeal of the country as a destination, there are also a host of man made attractions on offer. From majestic palaces to gothic cathedrals and ancient chateaux to some of the most famous museums in the world you are certainly spoiled for choice. And, as if all of that wasn’t enough, you have the wonderful French gastronomy with its four hundred different types of cheese, its extensive variety of wines and the rest. So, for things to see, to do and of course to eat, France certainly isn’t lacking. All you have to do is decide on an itinerary so you get to sample a little of everything.

Culinary traditions which have been developed and perfected over the centuries ensure that French cuisine is now a highly refined art, renowned all over the world. And, while a combination of careful preparation, fresh ingredients and various cooking methods have all contributed to its reputation, it is the wealth of regional differences which have helped make French food and drink so unique.

As with most large countries, the main reason for the different regional variation is the fact that the local produce found from one are to the next is so diverse. For example, in Marseille, the seafood capital of Provence, the most famous dish is bouillabaisse. There are two principal types, Bouillabaisse du Ravi or Bouillabaisse du Pêcheur. The former contains six different types of fish while the latter is smaller and lighter containing only three types of fish. Both are equally popular, ‘Ravi’ for dinner or ‘Pêcheur’ for lunch.

Vegetarian dishes are also excellent in the Provence region and ‘ratatouille’, a combination of eggplant, peppers and herbs which is stewed in olive oil, is particularly appetising. A final specialty in this region, and in the southwest of the country in particular, is ‘foie gras’. A type of duck pâté, this particular dish is regarded as somewhat of a delicacy in the rest of the country although you could never tell why by looking at it.

In and around the Pyrénées in the Basque and Catalán regions, some of the specialties include tune grilled with herbs found in the local area over a wood fire. Periwinkles and fish stews are also popular as is ‘Pipérade Basque’, which is a unique variation on your every day scrambled eggs. By adding tomatoes, onions, green peppers and black pepper, these natives have come up with their very own and very simple local dish which goes down a treat.

Dishes specific to the Catalán region usually use lots of olive oil and garlic and a special dish called a ouillade which is never emptied, washed or cleaned. Now that definitely sounds unhygienic but apparently nobody has ever caught anything by eating something prepared in the dish. Not yet!

In the Alscace region, that good old pâte features on the menu again, but this time there are over forty different varieties including the aforementioned ‘foie gras’ so if you feel brave enough to try some check out the local charcuterie. Other Alsatian treats include ‘kouglof’ which is made of almonds, raisins, sugar, milk, flour and eggs – sounds a little more appetizing. But, the regions most famous produce, and one which you will all be familiar with after a spell in the country, is Kronenberg lager.

The Massif Central is probably the simplest of all the regional cuisines, and while some culinary critiques might find it a little too plain, most agree that it is traditional and realistic. Specialties in the region include several cheeses, one of which is made from goat’s milk, ‘le cabecou’ and its wonderful cherry pies.

And of course no meal in any part of France would be complete if you didn’t wash it down with one of the many world famous wines which are produced in the country. There are numerous long established rules which pertain to wine drinking in France but these days nobody seems to take them too seriously. When you have budget travellers buying plonk for as little as 5francs in a local supermarket it’s easy to see why. I don’t think you’re going to be too concerned with what the correct wine for the correct food.

But, for those of you who are, here is a very rough guide to the different types of wines available and where they come from. Burgundy is renowned for its red wines which include Chablis produced in the north of the region and Beaujolais in the south. In Provence, rosés are most popular around the Côtes de Provence while the famous red known as Châteauneuf du Pape is produced around the Côtes du Rhône. And, when it comes to sparkling wines, although many regions produce them, only those produced in Champagne can legally bear the name. And, if you’re wondering which type should accompany your meal, those in the know tell us that if you’re having steak or game, burgundy is favoured; for chicken, lamb or veal you should choose a Bordeaux red and rosé goes with anything, or so say the experts. Cheers!

Getting There
While the majority of flights arriving in France do so to either Charles de Gaulle or Orly in Paris, there are also several other international airports throughout the country. These include Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Nice, Nantes, Strasbourg and Toulouse. France’s national airline is Air France but several. Furthermore, some of the smaller airports such as Biarritz, Caen, Dueaville, Le Havre, Montpellier, Morlaix and Reens also have some international flights.

The country’s national airline is Air France, but most international airlines from destinations including all the major European, US, Asian and Australian cities also fly to France, again usually flying into one of the two Parisian airports.

As well as air connections there are numerous ferry sailings which will take you to the various French ports. The most popular sea crossings are with P&O Stena Line between Dover and Calais, P&O European Ferries between Portsmouth and Le Havre and Cherbourg, Seafrance between Dover and Calais, Brittany Ferries between Plymouth and Roscoff, Portsmouth and St Malo and Poole and Cherbourg, Condor Ferries between Poole and Weymouth and St Malo, Guernsey and Jersey to St Malo and Irish Ferries between Rosslare and Cherbourg and Roscoff. Other sailings operate between Marseille and Porto Torres on Sardinina, Corsica and Genoa and between Marseille and Algiers and Tunis.

Your final option for travel to France is by rail. Eurostar travel from London to Paris in three hours with between 18 and 23 daily departures. You also have the option of stopping off in Calais or Lille if you don’t want to travel directly to Paris. Le Shuttle also operates between the two capitals with between one and three departures per hour.

Getting Around
Most internal travel by visitors to France is carried by train as the country runs one of the most efficient and comprehensive services on the continent. The SNCF(Sociéte Nationale de Chemins de Fer) who run the service have come up with various colour coded periods to indicate peak times (white or red) and low traffic periods (blue). Travelling during blue periods will entitle you to a discounted fare which can often be worth up to twenty five per cent off the full fare. If you wish to economise even further and have time on your side you can also opt for the Rapide service which runs the slower trains around the country and is called the Express service when referring to local trains. Strange! The TGV is the faster service – fastest in the world in fact – and travels from Paris to all the major French cities as well as to Geneva and Lausanne in Switzerland. It is considerably more expensive, however, and reservations are essential.

As well as the above ways of saving money, there are also numerous rail passes which you can avail of. SNCF’s France Railpass allows three days of unlimited travel over thirty days or four days for those under twenty six. If you feel like hiring a car it also provides a Rail ‘n’ Drive pass which combines three days of rail travel with tow days of car rental. And for those of you travelling the continent with a Eurail pass, the good news is that you can also use this in France.

Because the rail service in the country is so efficient and covers almost all the same routes as the bus service for a marginally more expensive price, it is unusual to avail of this particular type of public transport to get around the country. Nevertheless, there are times when using the bus service is unavoidable if you wish to travel to more remote areas which the trains do not travel to. So, if you do wish or need to take a bus, it is useful to know that SNCF operated services accept the aforementioned rail passes too.

Sights of Paris
The Eiffel Tower, the Musée du Louvre and Musée d’Orsay, Sacre Cour, Notre Dame, the Parthenon, the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs Elysées, Place de la Concorde, the Catacombs, Place des Invalides, Pompidou Centre, the Latin Quarter, Trocadéro, Bastille etc. etc. It doesn’t matter how many times you visit the city, there is always a host of attractions which you will have yet to see. The aforementioned are just a sample of the more popular ones but Paris is a truly amazing sightseeing experience which you will never forget so savour every second of your stay in the city.

Palace at Versailles
Although the palace is only a train ride from Paris, it really deserves its own slot. Built by Louis XIV in an attempt to get away from city life, the construction took from 1664 until 1715 to complete. Currently one of the most visited tourist attractions in the country, you should really allow at least one full day to see the whole site. And while the palace and the numerous buildings are amazing, it is really the gardens which cover several kilometres in length and width which will amaze you most, particularly in summer. And, if you’re fortunate enough to be in the area any Sunday afternoon from mid-spring to mid-autumn be sure to check out the ‘Grandes Eaux Mucisales’ where every single fountain comes to life.

Mont St. Michel, Normandie
Situated on the north coast of the country, near the border of Brittany and Normandy, Mont St. Michel is a small quasi-island. Separated from the mainland by about one kilometre of waves at high tide, it is about one kilometre in diameter and eighty metres high jutting up from the ocean. And, at the top of the island is a magnificent abbey, parts of which date from the tenth century. While there is a causeway which connects the mainland and the island which can be crossed by car, you should note that the water around Mont St. Michel can rise to fourteen metres at high tide and with such a dramatic rise between tides, there are also a lot of quicksand areas which makes the area treacherous if you’re not careful. Other than that, the sight is one of the most impressive you will ever witness.

Lourdes
The most visited pilgrimage shrine in the Christian World, Lourdes is located in the extreme south of the country. The origins of the pilgrimage began when a fourteen-year old local peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, saw apparitions of Our Lady eighteen times between February 11th and July 16th, 1858. In the apparition she told Bernadette to tell the village priest to build a chapel on the site where she was appearing and that many people would visit. During the sixteenth apparition Mary revealed her identity to the girl who proceeded to fall to the ground and dig frantically until a small puddle of water appeared. Over the next few days the puddle grew and formed a pool which is now the sacred spring where so many miracles have been reported. And, while many might find all of this difficult to take in, the atmosphere in Lourdes is one well worth experiencing if you are in the region.

Palais des Papes, Avignon
Over seven hundred years ago the city of Avignon was responsible for taking the papacy away from Rome and becoming the capital of the Christian world. And, the residence of the pope during this time remains one of Europe’s most impressive medieval structures – the Palais des papes. Situated on a hilltop overlooking the walled city, the palace is home to the Chapelle St. Jean and the Chapelle St. Martial where you will see some magnificent frescoes from the school of Matteo Giovanetti. The banquet hall, also known as the Grand Tinel, the pope’s bedroom, the Stag Room and the Great Audience Hall are also worth seeing but most of the rooms are now a lot less impressive than they were back in the fourteenth century, having been stripped of their riches. Nevertheless, the palace should still be visited and Avignon itself is a fascinating location attracting artists and painters from all over the world.

Bastille Day Celebrations
The fourteenth of July celebrates the day the common people of Paris stormed the Bastille, the building which they saw as a symbol of the corruption and suppression being carried out by the Royals. It also marked the beginning of the French Revolution. Today it is France’s national feast day where the entire country becomes involved in the festivities. In every town and city there are spectacular parades, fireworks displays and a general party atmosphere for the duration of the day and more importantly, the night. A new addition to the celebrations is a ‘Pique Nique Géant’ or a giant picnic which takes place at various locations throughout the country, each with their own theme. It is an excellent time to visit France but book early.

Carnaval de Nice
Celebrated at the beginning of Lent every year, the Nice Carnival takes over the town. The streets are transformed into stages where the musicians, comedians, singers and dancers who come from all over the world can display their talents. Lasting five days, this is the premier Mardi Gras festival in Europe and the Brazilian, Caribbean and Latin American traditions of the festivals originators can clearly be seen in their European counterpart. As well as the music and dance, the processions of ‘big heads’ are a huge part of the festival where both national and international artists design huge cardboard caricatures which are paraded through the streets. A fun festival making Nice a prime destination for the five days leading up to Ash Wednesday.

Fête de la Musique
Now the biggest free music event in the world, the Festival of Music takes place in every town and city in the country. Every street, square, and town hall plays host to musicians from all over the world and every resident and visitor in the area gathers to listen throughout the day and night of June 21st. The festival marks the beginning of summer as well as celebrating the magic of music and because all the events are free, it’s the perfect excuse for all you travellers attempting to survive on a shoestring budget to party into the night. Not that you need an excuse of course!

Burgundy Wine Press Festival
On the second Saturday in September the town of Chenove just south of Dijon plays host to the festival of wine, an industry synonymous with the region. Home to the Presses of the Dukes of Burgundy which date from the early thirteenth century, Chenove authorities have recently re-opened one of the presses and it is used once a year as the centre piece of the festival. A fascinating melange of culture and folklore, as well as seeing the wine press in action, you can also see numerous exhibitions of traditional arts and crafts, listen to some authentic New Orleans jazz, visit the numerous tourist attractions in the area, dance the night away at the various parties and of course you get to sample some of the best wine you are ever likely to taste. Sound good?

Fiesta de Suds
Taking place throughout October, this event is where the port city of Marseille makes the most of its location on the Mediterranean. An idyllic location which has become a melting pot for cultures from all over France as well as numerous African and Arabic traditions, Marseille presents a stage for local talent as well as that from around the world. And, as well as music and dance, there are also expositions of various art and crafts and food and drink. Even better is the fact that similar to most festivals, a great deal of the attractions on offer are either free of charge or greatly discounted and if you’ve ever spent any time in France, you will know what an added bonus this is.

Currency
The currency used in France is the Euro which is made up of 100 Cent. Notes come in denominations of €100, €50, €20, €10 and €5 and the coins in use are €2, €1, 0.50C, 0.20C, 0.10C, 0.05C, 0.02C and 0.01C.

Language
The official language in France is French but there are many regional dialects. For example in the southwest, most inhabitants speak Basque as their first language while many of those living in Brittany speak Breton. When it comes to the major tourist areas and attractions, however, most people speak at least a little English as do most of the younger generation nationals.

Climate
The fact that France is the largest country in Europe means that its climate is quite varied. So, while it is generally agreed that it has a temperate climate, regional variations are considerable.

The west of the country, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel, has a temperate oceanic climate with mild winters and cool summers with an average temperature of 16 °C. Further south, however, in areas like Bordeaux and Biarritz the climate becomes more pleasant with warmer summers. Rainfall all along the west coast is high.

As you move inland, rainfall decreases. Strasbourg and the Alsace region enjoy a drier, warmer climate but winters are colder and the Central Massif has a harsh cold climate with snow in winter. The north has a temperate climate while the northeast has a more continental climate.

And finally, the south coast and Corsica are fortunate enough to enjoy a Mediterranean climate making it the warmest region in France where it’s mild all year round and especially hot in summer.

Time Zone
France is one hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time.

Opening Hours
It is difficult to generalise when talking about opening hours in a country of this size but in the bigger towns and cities most stores open between somewhere between 9.00am and 10.00am and close at 6.00 or 7.00pm. Others open from 8.00am to 9.00pm. And, in smaller stores and more remote areas you should be aware that the lunch break which usually begins at 1.00pm can last up to three hours. Office hours are usually between 9.00am and 5.00pm from Monday to Friday.

Electricity
Electricity in France operates on 220 volts AC.

Tax
As an EU member, France imposes VAT (TVA in French) on most goods and services. The standard for clothing, appliances, alcohol, perfumes etc is 19.6%. For non-EU residents, however, the good news is that you can get the tax back on any item for which you pay over 1,200F. There are no refunds available on services.

In order to avail of this incentive, you need to obtain a Europe Tax-Free Shopping Cheque when you purchase the item. When you are leaving the country, you present both the item and the cheque at customs, the officials will stamp it for you and you can then cash your cheque at any of the booths with the Tax-Free logo and Cash Refund sign. This is only applicable where you are leaving the country within three months.

Visa Requirements
All that Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, US and EU nationals require to enter France is a passport which is valid for at least three months beyond the date on which they are due to depart the country.

For all non EU-citizens who intend staying in the country for a period of longer than ninety days, a visa is necessary. Furthermore, all visitors to the country who intend to stay for longer than three months, including EU citizens, need to apply for a residence permit (carte de séjour) within sixty days of their arrival in the country. This can be carried out at the local prefecture, mairie or commissariat.

South African nationals will require a visa to visit the country and residents from any countries not listed here or those intending to work or study in France should contact the French Embassy in their home country before travelling.

Post Office
The postal service in France is operated by La Poste and you will recognise the offices which are located throughout all French cities, towns and villages by the yellow sign with a blue logo. The larger offices are open between 8.00am and 7.00pm from Monday to Friday and until noon on Saturday. All branches provide banking services as well as the regular postal service. You can also buy stamps in cafés which display a red Tabac sign.

Currency Exchange
When in France you can exchange foreign cash in any branch of any bank. They open from 9.00am until 12.00pm and again from 2.00pm to 4.00pm from Monday to Friday but many major branches also open their exchange facilities from 9.00am until 12.00pm on Saturdays. They generally offer the best rates but you should try to exchange your cash in the bigger banks such as Crédit Lyonnais where the least commission is charged.

All major credit cards are accepted in the bigger hotels, restaurants and shops but in smaller businesses or the more remote areas you may have difficulty using this facility. You can also use bankcards which are members of the bigger international networks such as Plus or Cirrus in the larger towns and cities where the ATM states that they are acceptable.

Telephones
The international country code for France is 33 so if you are calling from abroad you need to dial your international calling code followed by 33, the local area code without the first 0 and the local number. The same instructions apply when you are making an international call from within the country replacing 33 with the destination country’s area code. You should also note that the outgoing code for France is 00.

Pay phones can be found in most public places including post offices, bus and train stations, shopping centres and in the street in towns and villages throughout the country. Most are card phones which you can buy from post offices, tobacconists and railway stations. They come in denominations of fifty units which will cost you 40F or one hundred and twenty units which costs 100F. You can also use your credit card in most public telephones.

Calls within France range from between 0.28F per minute for a local call to 1F per minute to another department. It is worth noting that all calls are half price during off-peak times. These occur between 7.00pm and 8.00am from Monday to Friday, from 7.00pm on Friday until 8.00am on Monday and on public holidays.

Tipping
By law a service charge must be included in all restaurant, café and bar bills in France. If you feel that the service merits a further tip an amount between 5% and 10% is sufficient. In bars or cafés one or two francs is the norm. Taxi drivers are usually given a tip of between 10% and 15%. It is worth noting, however, that at no time is it essential to tip, it is entirely at your discretion.

Public Holidays
It is worth noting what the public holidays are before you travel to a country as the majority of businesses, banks and shops usually shut for the day. In France they take place on January 1st, Easter Monday, May 1st and 8th, Ascension Day, first Monday in June, July 14th, August 15th, November 1st and December 25th. It is a good idea to check the particular area too as certain towns and cities also shut down during special events.

 

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