How to Get Around in France

 

Stop sign in France
Unmistakable in Any Language

Planning Your French Getaway

If you’re planning a trip to France, you’re probably overwhelmed with the number of decisions that you have to make.  Unless you can spend at least a year there, you won’t be able to see or experience a fraction of all that France, the most visited country in the world, has to offer.

One of the biggest decisions is how to get around once you arrive. And, like most of the decisions involved in planning a trip to France, it won’t necessarily be an easy one.

There is one obvious decision to make, though:  If you’re planning to stay in Paris for all or part of your trip, don’t even briefly consider renting a car while you’re there. The public transportation system in Paris is exceptional, while the driving and traffic conditions are a nightmare for non-Parisians.  Parking is expensive and nearly impossible to find anywhere near where you’ll want to park.

Using public transportation in Paris is a snap with the Citymapper, an app for Android and iPhones.  Citymapper is the app that Parisians use to navigate the City of Lights.  Citymapper shows you how to get where you want to go on foot, by the ubiquitous rental bikes  (Velib’),  by Metro, bus, or taxi.  It’s easy to use, and won’t take up any room or weigh an extra ounce in your luggage.

The Pont du Gard near Nimes

When to Rent a Car in France

For travel outside of Paris, a rental car can open many opportunities to experience France in ways that you’ll miss if you travel by train, plane, bus, or some combination of them.

For instance, I took the train from Antibes to Nimes last year. The train ride was great: lots to see, very comfortable, and remarkably fast. Nimes is an intriguing city with lots of remnants that are at least a couple thousand years old, a town artisan and farmer’s market that stretches for blocks, and an ancient town center that is lovingly maintained for countless centuries by the Nimois.

The train ride made the trip stress free and gave me an opportunity to watch Provenance flash by as we sped to our destination.  But the Pont du Gard, a nearby Roman aqueduct built around 2,000 years ago, is one of the most photographed sights in the region, and one that I didn’t want to miss.  But there was no easy way to visit without a car. Not only did we miss the Pont, but we also missed market day in the Place aux Herbes in Uzès.  Rats.  All because I didn’t rent a car.

At the same time, I didn’t have to worry about parking on the narrow streets of Nimes, or getting sideswiped in a tight parking space by a careless driver.   There are trade-offs to car rental, but there are also times when it’s imminently sensible.

Autoroute in Provence
Highway along the Cote d’Azur

If you’re traveling with children, even teenagers, renting a car in France is almost a necessity.  I’ve traveled in France with my two daughters from the time they were toddlers through their late teens.  The extra luggage they needed as they got older and their restless energy as teens would have made public transportation a nightmare.  And balanced against the expense of purchasing four train tickets for multiple destinations, the difficulty of shepherding children on foot through busy towns and cities, and the sometimes long hikes to get to and from a train station and a point of interest, renting a car can save time, money, and many headaches.

Things to Consider

Shop before you reserve.  Rental fees vary considerably.   I use favorite travel websites, including Expedia and Travelocity and then compare on the websites of the big name rental car companies.  My favorites are Alamo and Avis.  They’re not always the cheapest, but they’re usually within a few bucks, and I’ve never been scammed by hidden fees or charges when I’ve used them.  I can’t say the same for some of their competitors.

The displayed prices that some companies use to are a fraction of what they charge you when you show up at the rental counter.  Damage waivers are expensive, and you will almost certainly need one.   They’ll add at least $15 to your daily rate, depending on the coverage and the company.   But they also add a lot of peace of mind.

Choose the right size rental car.   The number of people traveling with you is not the only criteria.  A subcompact may have an inviting rental fee, but if you’re planning to use the auto routes (France’s network of toll freeways) where the maximum speed can range up to 80 mph (130 kph), you may live to regret not choosing a mid- or full-sized car.

Do you need a damage waiver? My auto insurance is with State Farm in the US, and they’ve assured me that they do not extend insurance coverage to rental cars outside of the continental United States.  Your insurance company may be different, particularly if you live in the UK, so definitely check with them before you pay for the waiver.  Also, some credit card companies offer rental car coverage, but there are caveats.  If you decide to rely on your credit card for insurance coverage, make sure you understand what the restrictions and benefits are by contacting your card company and asking them directly.

In general, you plan on buying the damage waiver.  During my last trip to France in October 2016, I rented a car through Sixt to travel from Annecy in the Alps back to Charles de Gaulle near Paris.  I was stunned to find that the actual rental fee was double the price that I’d found online when I reserved it.  The new price did include the damage waiver.  After I had returned to the US, Sixt contacted me to claim that the car had a scratch sustained during my rental.  I had not caused any damage to the car, but there were some stressful exchanges with Sixt as I explained this to them repeatedly.  In any case, the damage waiver paid for the repair.

One more anecdote: We have friends that often travel to France and always lease a car through either Europe by Car or Renault Eurodrive.  The fee includes liability and physical damage insurance.  During one of their stays in Nice, their beautiful new Renault was sideswiped while it was parked on the street overnight.   The accident was hit and run, so our friends were stuck with the damages.  The leasing company honored their insurance policy, though, so they weren’t required to pay anything for the extensive repairs.   Hit and run accidents are not uncommon in France or anywhere else, so make sure you have adequate insurance coverage before you drive off in your rental.

Should you rent a gasoline or diesel car?  I’ve rented some turbo diesels, some Peugeots, some Renaults.   I recommend a turbo diesel, with Peugeots 3008s near the top of my list.  They get excellent gas mileage, and they’re fun to drive.  The proximity sensors are very helpful in tight parking areas.

Petroleum, both gasoline and diesel, are expensive in France, typically well over 6 U.S. dollars per gallon.   A mid-size turbo diesel Peugeot will get between 30 and 40 miles per gallon, which takes some of the stings out of the high prices.

My personal favorite is a Peugeot TDI.  The newer models, like the 3008, are impressive.  Lots of electronic bells and whistles, including proximity sensors and backup cameras to help with tight parking spaces (which most of them are).  Also, the adaptive cruise control has some great features that make driving the auto routes less stressful and much safer.

Do you need to rent a car with GPS?  If you have an iPhone another smart phone with GPS built in, you don’t necessarily need to pay extra for GPS.  There are a few things to consider, though:

  • If you choose to rely on your phone for GPS, you could rack up big roaming charges if you have a U.S.- based carrier. Make sure your phone is GSM (global system for mobiles) and not CDMA (code division for mobile access).  AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM, which is the standard in Europe.  If your phone is CDMA, it won’t work in France, or anywhere other than the US.
  • If you do have a GSM smartphone, make sure that it’s “carrier unlocked.”  If you have an iPhone, check the settings to see if you have a category named “Mobile Data Network” or “Cellular Data Network.”  If you have one listed in Settings, your phone is unlocked.  Otherwise,  contact your carrier to find out.
  • If you have a smart phone that’s carrier unlocked, or an iPad or another tablet with GPS and GSM cellular data, you can get a prepaid mobile data SIM card when you get to France.   Orange, SFR, and Bouygues are the big providers; you can get a SIM card at any of their thousands of retail stores.
  • Using a French prepaid SIM card will lower your cost of phone and data service while you’re traveling, but your cell phone won’t receive calls to your U.S. number, and it’s not exactly convenient to sway SIM cards frequently.  If you’re traveling for two weeks or less, check with your service provider to see what kinds of roaming phone, text, and data plans they offer.  My carrier is AT&T, they had an unlimited texting plan with 3 GB of data and reduced calling rates for a flat fee.   Once you exceed the 3 GB, the price of data is extremely high, so be very cautious if you use this option because GPS services use lots of data.

Bottom line: in my experience, most newer rental cars in France have built-in GPS for no extra charge.  It’s usually easier than hassling with mobile phone plans, but if you’re not fluent in French, make sure you have the rental agent set the unit’s language to English before you drive away.

Will you be able to read French traffic signs?  The short answer is yes, for the most part.  Even if you don’t speak or read French,  road signs are pretty universal.  Stop signs in France are just like stop signs in Ohio, and traffic lights are red, yellow, and green with each color meaning the same thing it means in Seattle and Kennebunkport.

Speed limits are round with red borders, like this one for Meursault:

Meursault Speed Limit Sign

The end of a speed zone is denoted with the same round sign in gray, with a slash through the designated speed limit.

No Parking

The No Parking symbol is shown above, in this case with the stipulation that the area is reserved for buses.

Do Not Enter – Detourstr

The Do Not Enter sign is universal.   The above sign instructs drivers not to enter, and to detour to the right.   You don’t need to know that “contrôle routier” means “road control,” the symbols and colors are sufficient.

Rappel – Falling Rock

No need to ask Siri for a translation of this one, it just means “Caution, Falling Rock.”

Most of the road signs you’ll see in France are this easy to interpret, whatever your native tongue. Thanks to the EU, standards for traffic control and road signs are pretty universal throughout Europe.  Between smart phones and GPS units with voice prompts, navigating French highways and byways is remarkably easy.

The Bottom Line

Traveling through France by car is one of the best ways to see more.  In places like Brittany, where the coastline is a geologic marvel and the biggest Kodak Moment on planet earth.  Without a car, you’ll see a fraction of Brittany.  With a car, you can explore at leisure.

France has countless nooks and crannies full of serene beauty.  You can see lots of them whether you bike, take trains, cabs, or buses.  A rental car will usually let you see and do far more than any other mode of travel.

Driving in France is a snap if a little on the expensive side by North American standards.  Don’t let your fear of driving in an unknown place hold you back.  France is purely fantastic, and a rental car will help you discover it.

Brittany’s Mysteries: Carnac Stones, Megaliths, and Other Puzzles of the Past

Megalithic Structures of Brittany
Carnac Stones – Megaliths, Menhirs, and Weird Rocks Near Carnac

The Megaliths of Carnac

I’m a geologist.  So I’m predisposed to like rocks, and anything ancient.  A visit to the Carnac Stones was at the top of my list when I traveled around Brittany this fall, and it stands out among my many outstanding memories of the trip.  If you’re not familiar with them, or if you’re not a lover of rocks or things ancienne, don’t stop reading just yet.  Not only is Lorrie (my wife and traveling companion) not a geologist, she’s pretty ambivalent about rocks generally, and old things particularly.  And while I sometimes think she takes me for granite, she was nearly as enthralled with the megaliths at Carnac as I was.

When we look into the night sky,  astronomers tell us that we’re looking backwards in time.   When we look at the megaliths in Brittany, we’re also peering backwards in time, literally thousands of years, into a mysterious part of human history.

Megaliths are ancient stone monuments.  The most familiar examples are at Stonehenge and Easter Island.   Megaliths are found around the globe in various shapes and sizes, but all of them speak of an age of human history about which we know little.

The megaliths in the Carnac area were dubbed “menhirs” (meaning “long stones”)  by the French archaeologists that originally studied them.  At first glance, the stones in question may not seem very strange.  They’re just a bunch of shapeless, gray rocks sticking out of fields and numbering over 3,000 in total.  A closer look shows that they’re not  shapeless.   As the name menhir suggests, they’re roughly rectangular, or at least longer than they are wide.  The stones were shaped by human hands, not very precisely but with enormous effort.

The stones are standing upright, with their long axis perpendicular to the ground’s surface.   They’re mostly arranged in rows, some extending for several hundred meters, and including, in at least one “alignment“, over 900 individual stones, some of which weigh over 30 tons.

Carnac Stones
Carnac Tumulus

Archeologists and anthropologists know almost nothing about the people that erected these stones, aside from the fact that they were numbered among the Neolithic people of Northern Europe.  From archaeological studies, it’s safe to say that the people of the Neolithic period were characterized by the technological developments of stone tools, domestication of animals, and  settlement in agricultural communities.    It followed the Paleolithic Period, or the Old Stone Age.  I know only enough about all of this to know that it’s interesting and intriguing.  Maybe I should have been an archeologist.

The information that archeologists have assembled does suggests that the oldest megaliths in the Carnac area were erected around 6,000 years ago, at least 1,000 years before the pyramids of Egypt.  Archeologists believe that the stones had to have been transported to their current locations over distances not less than 6 miles, since outcrops of the type of granite from which they were hewn don’t exist any closer.

Geant du Manio Near Carnac

What would motivate a group of people to hack huge blocks of granite out of the ground with crummy stone tools,  then haul over 15,000 tons of them more than 6 miles, dig deep holes in hard, stony ground, and set the massive stones upright in rows and columns?

The pyramids of Egypt were mostly built by slave labor.  No one knows whether slaves were used in Carnac, but there was some extraordinarily powerful motivation for a people that must have struggled to grow, hunt, and gather enough food to survive winters, and to build shelters to keep them out of the harsh Brittany winter weather and safe from predators.

The work would have taken generations to complete, and was likely done over a span of hundreds of years.  And by a relatively small group of people that probably had short life spans, meager sustenance, and almost no technology.

Since there probably weren’t enough of them to control a large group of slaves over several generations, the work must have been somewhat voluntary.  Religion may be the best explanation, but there are literally no clues to as to what these industrious folks might have worshipped.  There is speculation that the stones are aligned with some astronomical precision, but I haven’t found an ironclad case supporting this.

Some of the stones are arranged as tumuli, which are tombs or burial sites, but most them them are simply big stones standing upright.

Carnac stones video

Putting all of this together, I’ve so far come up with far more questions than answers.  But they’re intriguing questions, and while the answers may never be found, it’s great fun to imagine what the Carnac area was like 6,000 years ago, and what the people were like that spent so much time and effort to create these strange monuments.

Carnac and the megaliths are just one of the many really good reasons to visit Brittany.  The whole peninsula is a photo gallery of stunning seascapes, rugged coastlines,  ancient villages,  sand geologic wonders.  Throw in some great seafood, excellent restaurants, town markets filled with the bounty of the region, and a friendly, eclectic mix of independent Bretons, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a better place in the world to explore.

Geology of Brittany
An Unconformity Near Crozon, Brittany

 

Crevettes in Brittany
Brittany’s Cuisine
Brittany Escargot
The secret to escargot is the garlic butter. Don’t tell anyone – it’s a secret.
Crozon, Brittany

 

 

 

Buying Chateaus in France | buying a castle in France

Castle Hunters

If you’ve dreamed of buying a castle in France,  you won’t want to miss this episode of Castle Hunters.  If you haven’t dreamed of buying a castle in France, you’re either not getting enough sleep, or you’re holding yourself back.

At any given time, there are over 2,000 chateaus for sale in France.  They can range in price from a couple hundred thousand Euro to several million.  Every region has these beautiful buildings either tucked away in small villages, like the lovely stone edifice in Nadaillac de Rouge in the Dordogne, below:

Nadaillac de Rouge chateau
Privately Owned Chateau in Nadaillac de Rouge

The one percent in France may have had an inordinate share of wealth in the days before the Revolution, but they also had very good taste.  Many of these lovely old complexes inspired what we’ve come to know as fairy tales.  It’s not hard to imagine royals, and fair maidens, and knights in shining armor cavorting on the grounds and in the great halls and hallways of an ancient French castle.  Because the French take such pride in their heritage, many of chateaus have been lovingly restored like the one in Nadaillac de Rouge and are still occupied.  But because the costs of restoration and maintenance are so daunting, many are in ruins, and are abandoned and decaying, like the Vielle Forge, a Napoleonic era chateau near Nadaillac:

Old Forge Near Souillac
The Old Forge

The French bureaucracy has created many obstacles to non-French citizens wanting to purchase and either restore or maintain old chateaus.  They’ve also created some incentives, so don’t give up on the dream!  I haven’t.  I’ll let you know as soon as I buy my first chateau.  And if you’d like to be part of an investment group dedicated to buying a castle in France, let me know.  We’re planning to make our first purchase in 2016.

Beynac-et-Cazenac on the Dordogne

Beynac France
Beynac – Town and Cathedral

One of the biggest challenges facing the 80 million visitors arriving in France each year is  deciding where to go and what to see.  The country is big, nearly the size of Oregon, Washington, and most of Idaho, combined, but with a far higher density of population, historic and prehistoric sites, cities, villages, and natural wonders.

As challenges go, though, this particular challenge is not as daunting as it might seem because, as I’ve noted elsewhere, it’s hard to go wrong when you’re in France.  Not that there aren’t seedy and dangerous neighborhoods in the cities.  But they’re hard to stumble into, and as the world’s number one tourist destination, the French do a great job of keeping their visitors safe, supremely satisfied, and very well fed.

 

Overlooking the Dordogne
Overlooking the Dordogne

If your French journey should take you to the Dordogne Valley, bring lots of memory cards, because there is almost nothing to see there that’s not postcard-perfect.  The ancient city of Beynac-et-Cazenac is one of many small villages built between the towering  limestone cliffs of the valley walls and the meandering river.  Saying that Beynac is a picturesque  village is an unjust understatement.

Beynac preserves the look and feel of the medieval era that gave it birth.  For those of us that grew up reading Sir Walter Sclott, Tolkien, T.H. White, and so many others,  Beynac brings childhood fantasies to life.

Fountain
Fountain

Beynac has been the backdrop for films, including Luc Besson’s  Joan of Arc.  I’m sure the real Joan would have felt quite at home in modern Beynac.  If much has changed there since she was busy flummoxing the English, it’s not obvious to a casual visitor.

Finding Chateau Beynac
Finding Chateau Beynac

One of the highlights of my recent visit to Beynac was finding a trail on the cliff top near the chateau that wound its way along the limestone ridge above the Dordogne river.  The trailhead was not well marked, but the trail is well maintained and easy to follow down through an oak forest back to the valley floor on the east side of the town.

Not far from the cliff top, the trail passed by some caves in the sheer limestone wall of the cliff face.  I ducked into a couple of them, but with no light I couldn’t tell how deep they were.  Later, I met a young man from the village that told us the caves had been used by the villagers in the late thirties to hide from German soldiers that had occupied the town.  The caves were apparently deep enough to keep them hidden and safe for the duration of the occupation.

If you visit Beynac, head east from the main entrance to the chateau.  There are posts with yellow bands that indicate where the trail begins.  Follow these to the view point (point de view), and you’ll see the trail descending to an eclectic wooden house.  The trail appears to lead only to the private entrance to the house, but it continues past and into the woods beyond, winding downward for about a mile until it meets an narrow paved road that descends back to Beynac village.

The View from the Castle
The View from the Castle

Beynac chateau was the seat of one of the four baronies of the Perigord region.  It was built in the 12th century.  Much intrigue surrounded the chateau, and the surrounding valley in its early years, since many of the battles of the Hundred Years War between France and England were fought nearby.  Castelnaud, just 2 miles to the south, lies across the river and was the English counterpart to Beynac chateau.

The fortifications and ramparts of both chateaux made them nearly impregnable to enemy attacks, but they were not invulnerable to betrayal and trickery.  Both chateau are open to the public and many of the stories surrounding their long rivalry are told there in French and English.  Any visit to Beynac-et-Casenac must include entry to both chateau, admission is between 6 and 8 Euros for adults.

The Keep and Ramparts
The Keep and Ramparts

Beynac-et-Cazenac is one of many fond memories of the Dordogne Valley.  It’s high on my list of villages where I’d eventually like to own property.  It’s close to many of the most scenic parts of the valley, and has good access to Sarlat-le-Caneda, the nearest town of any size.  Put it near the top of your must-see-in-France list!

Even Babies Love Beynac
Even Babies Love Beynac

 

On Becoming a Francophile

Just One of Thousands...

Just One of Thousands…

Francophilia is not a disease, but it IS contagious.  If you haven’t  caught it, it may seem darkly mysterious, but it’s really not.  And if you’re wondering what it is, here’s a quick definition:  A francophile is one who is fond of or greatly admires France and/or the French.

Strangely, many Americans seem to be “francophobes” – those who despise or are greatly offended by France and/or the French.  This is particularly odd since the French played a vital role in America’s struggle for independence, provided us with a gift that has become a treasured national symbol (you know – that big statue in New York), was an ally in both world wars, continues to be a major trading partner, NATO ally, and the progenitors of such notable American staples as French fries,  croissants,  and faux pas.

More than that, tens of millions of us have French ancestry, and the contributions that the French have made to American culture are enormous.  For example, fully one quarter of the four most American things (baseball, hotdogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet) are of French origin.  If you don’t know which quarter is French, here’s a clue: it’s Chevrolet. While the automaker is lately a government debacle,  it was originally the brilliant product of one Louis Chevrolet, a Swiss-born Frenchman.   Now, if the French had given us hotdogs, I can understand a little hostility.  But they gave us the Corvette, and that should have earned them our undying gratitude.

Thanks, Louis!
Thanks, Louis!

With all of that said, you may be wondering whether a francophobe can become a francophile, which is a very good question because it’s the exact one that I’m about to answer: Mais naturellement!  But of course!  And I speak from personal experience, so you can rest assured that the answer is quite reliable.

My evolution was a step-wise affair, and really began with my first visit to Paris in my mid-twenties.  I was single, a very proud English-speaker, and a bit of a xenophobe, although I’d spent some time in Germany and found it quite appealing.   I had studied German in college, but discovered during my time in Deutchland that most Germans speak English far better than I spoke German.  I wasn’t particularly troubled by this, having concluded that it was unassailable evidence of my cultural and linguistic superiority.    I was too thick to see it at the time, but this brutish arrogance was kindly overlooked by the German people of my acquaintance (as far as I know).  I’m humiliated by it now, but only when I think about it.

Towering Icon
Towering Icon

And speaking of humiliation, I was deservedly treated to a generous helping  when I carried this attitude with me on my first visit to Paris.  It started at the train station, where I had debarked with a good friend who was relying on my travel know-how and linguistic skill to guide us on a Eurail Pass trip through Europe.  Unable to find a train to Cherbourg on the huge reader boards at the Gare du Nord, I boldly approached an information booth and asked the attendant there, in my best English, when the next train left and where to catch it.  To my amazement, he glared at me with disdain, shrugged dismissively, and turned away.  He the refused to say a word, or to look at me, simply kept his face turned away, even though I repeated my question more loudly, and demanded his attention.  I finally stomped off, infuriated by his French impudence.  And although I didn’t realize it at the time, I became a committed francophobe.

Sights of Paris
Sights of Paris

When my European travel ended, and I settled down to pursue my career and family goals, I managed to retain and even nurture my phobia of things French by sharing stories of my experience there, and cultivating friendships with  like-minded people, of which I found no shortage.

They say that hindsight’s 20/20, but the clarity of hindsight really depends on one’s willingness to look in the rear-view mirror of life with objectivity.  If done correctly, hindsight should not only be 20/20, it should be at least a little uncomfortable, and often downright painful.  From my current vantage point, looking back at my petty, immature 20-something self is more painful than uncomfortable.  Downright embarrassing, in fact.  If you haven’t guessed, my arrogant anti-Frenchness isn’t the only issue in my rear-view mirror of which I’m ashamed, but those other things are for a different article.  Or not.

There's no accounting for taste...
There’s no accounting for taste…

A friend once pointed out that he was much more likely to like a song if a friend or relative liked it first.  In other words, music to which he had previously been indifferent, or didn’t like at all, sometimes would become much more appealing after he’d heard a friend’s positive opinion of it.  Once he told me this, I began to notice the principal at work in my own life, and that it applied to many things besides music.  I found that I was more prone to like or dislike foods, sports teams, hobbies, really anything about which you can formulate an opinion based on subjective criteria, solely because of the opinions of close friends, relatives, or people I otherwise admire.   I further observed that the depth of relationship with the person voicing their opinion, the degree to which I liked or admired them, were factors in determining how influential they could be in shaping my own likes and dislikes.  You probably recognize all of this as just an aspect of peer pressure, which it undoubtedly is, but since I’m a bit thick, it was something I’d never noticed or really thought about.  I’d just assumed that my opinions were strictly constructs of my own unique tastes, experiences, and refined sensibilities.

Liking What's Likable
Liking What’s Likable

By now, you may have formed the opinion that I’m shallow, petty, and easily influenced.  So at least we agree on something.  What I can say in my defense that not even my best friend’s  good opinion of rap music, sagging pants, or rocky mountain oysters could dissuade me from reviling these despicable items, anymore than my own mother’s disparaging remarks about a well-prepared lobster could change my opinion that it’s nature’s most perfect food.

And at last we reach the point where I can tell you how I emerged from my pupal state of francophobia into the brilliant papillon of a francophile that I am today.  My wife, you see, was born a francophile.  Yes, that can happen, even though neither of us was aware of her latent love for all things French until she’d managed to spend a few minutes there.  Because she is in all respects a lovely person, and because her passion for French cuisine, Paris, escargots, lavender fields, Claude Monet, and beurre blanc was so contagious, my transformation was surprisingly rapid.  Not instantaneous, but très rapidement.

When she and I visited France together, many years after my Parisian encounter, I not only held a higher opinion of the French, I held myself in a rather lower one.  And so I took the time to familiarize myself with as much of the French language as my feeble brain could manage, and to learn a little of their culture and customs.  What I found was that the French take both pride and pleasure in their country, it’s food, traditions, language, and culture.  They tend not to be haughty, but protective of the things they hold dear.  I also learned that when greeted in their own language, in accordance with their own customs, they respond warmly.  I must tell you at this point that I am a serial abuser of the French language, and could probably be fined or imprisoned for the degree to which I’ve assaulted it, but I’ve never had a French person hold me accountable for my ineptitude.  Instead, they’ve nearly always accommodated my linguistic incompetence by either speaking to me in English, or by speaking at a level and pace that I can comprehend.

Before I leave you to make your own way into francophilia, I should say that the French are people, just like any other.  They have their own cultural idiosyncrasies, regional distinctions, and individual personalities.  You may have heard or experienced the rudeness of Parisian waiters.  So have all Parisians.  They’ve earned their reputations in the same way that New York taxi drivers and southern California valley girls have.  It’s no more a reflection on the country and it’s culture than a cranky bureaucrat at a US Department of Motor Vehicles reflects on America.

The lens through which you observe France will determine how you define your experiences with the French, just like my myopic and narrow little lens prevented me from seeing how offensive my approach to the Gare du Nord information booth was.  I’m a lot older now, the very tiniest bit wiser, and every inch a francophile eagerly looking forward to my next visit to France.

Bon voyage!

 

 

 

Vouvray: Go for the Scenery, Stay for the Wine

A Glimpse of Vouvray in April
A Glimpse of Vouvray in April

The Loire Valley holds a universal appeal that has spanned  centuries, and drawn the attention of men and women of all ages, classes, cultures and tastes.  It spans over 150 miles of stunning scenery punctuated by sleepy villages, thriving cities, and 21 of the most lovely chateaux in all of France.  But with all of it’s visual appeal, one of the valley’s  main attractions is it’s incredible diversity of wines, including delicious whites, reds, rosés, and sparkling versions.

Near the center of this outstanding Valley lies Vouvray, a village with a population of just over 3,000.  The town has lent it’s name to the uncommonly palatable white wines that are produced by a rare combination of soils, microclimate, and viticultural techniques that only Vouvray and seven small neighboring communities can claim.  The village of Vouvray itself is appealing, but deceptive in that it’s gray limestone cliffs, matching stone manor houses, town hall, cathedral, and ancient shops belie the exceptional talent of it’s inspired vintners and the rare quality of the vines that provide their raw material.

Since Vouvray is a small but very special wine region, it wouldn’t do to write about it without pointing out a few intriguing facts.  First, the primary grape variety used to make Vouvray wines is Chenin Blanc.  According to one of the vintners I met there, the grapes were originally brought to the area by Saint Martin.  This may not be true, though, since Martin arrived in area around 400 AD, probably long before Chenin Blanc was born.  And second, the grapes thrive in this area due to the mysteries of the terroir, that je’n sais quoi of soil, climate, genetics, and other unknown and unreproducible factors that shape only the wines from a given area.

The vines themselves are gnarled and wizened-looking, as if they’ve earned the right to survive and produce their bounty only through long years of desperate struggle.  Looking at the rocky soil that sustains them, it’s hard to imagine how they survive at all.

Gnarled But Productive
Gnarled But Productive

One last bit of Vouvray lore is the fact that the vintners must prune the vines short, as you can see above, and leave only one or at most two spurs per vine.  If this weren’t enough work, each spur can have no more than three buds, so that the vintner, not the vine, chooses how many grapes will be produced.

I should point out here that I’m not a wine connoisseur.  And that may be a serious understatement.  I drink wine, and enjoy drinking wine, but I can’t describe for you it’s fruity bouquet, or tell you whether it’s bright or buttery.  Shameful, I know, but there it is.  What I can say is that the dry (sec) Vouvray wines that I’ve tasted have been among my all time favorites, and that one of my more erudite friends whose palate is far more refined told me with no hesitation that the best bottle of wine in his vast experience was a Vouvray, which was recommended to him by an outstanding sommelier.   So plan accordingly.

Sarlat-le-Canéda: Another Jewel in Perigord

map of Sarlat
In the middle of the center

I’ve spent enough time in France to know that, no matter how high my expectations are when I visit a new area, they’ll be met or exceeded.  Even so, my first glimpse into the ancient city center of Sarlat-le-Canéda was stunning.

Many old towns and cities have experienced most of their population growth in the modern era and so usually have an old town center that’s surrounded by the newer suburbs.  Sarlat-le-Canéda (just Sarlat to her friends) is no different.  When I first visited, I  drove in from the North, and so passed by the Macdonalds restaurant, the large Carrefour shopping center, the hospital, several car dealerships, and a farm implement lot.  Like most French cities, it’s very tidy and well maintained, but in Sarlat’s case, these outskirts are pretty nondescript.  I wasn’t discouraged by the modest fringes, though, and quickly found parking near the periphery of the vielle ville, the old part of town.

Because of the way the town is laid out and the newer buildings are constructed, very little of the old town is visible, even when you’re very near it.  So when my wife and I strolled through  narrow alleyway that opened onto an original street in the old town, we were literally awestruck.  The French colloquial term for “love at first sight” is coup de foudre, literally a bolt of lightning, as in “Quand je l’ai vu, ça a été le coup de foudre.”  Or, “When I saw it, it was the bolt of lightning.”  And that’s how we felt on our first glimpse of the medieval center of Sarlat.

Welcome to the Middle Ages
Welcome to the Middle Ages

The contrast between the old and the new was a factor in our delight at as the city revealed itself to us.  But there was much more.  The narrow streets that wind through the honey-and-soot colored stone buildings, the cobblestones, the restaurant-lined open squares, ancient stone architecture, and the many alluring shops together produce an atmosphere that is comforting, tranquil, and wholly agreeable.

Extrêmement Charmant et Bien Préservé
Place du Peyrou

Photos, at least my photos, can’t begin to reveal the essence of Sarlat but they at least give you a sense of what you’re missing by not being there.  But more than just seeing it as it is today, every house, every building, practically every stone has some really intriguing story behind it, and that’s a huge part of Sarlat’s appeal.

The photo above is of the house of Étienne de la Boétie, born in 1530.  Boétie was a scholar, and judge, a man of vision, integrity and rare brilliance who was taken from the world at the age of 32 but not before he penned the essay, “Discourse on Voluntary Servitude”.   This essay was an ingeniously insightful treatise on the relationships between tyrants and their subjects in which Boétie asserts that victims of tyranny can free themselves by an act of their own will without resorting to violence.  And even if you’ve never read it, or even knew that it existed, the Discourse on Voluntary Servitude has been influential since he first wrote it at the unlikely age of 22.      The essay is powerful and timeless, and of worthy of particular note at this juncture in human history.  I strongly recommend that you read it, here.

It wouldn’t be fair to mention Étienne de la Boétie without at least mentioning his friend Michel de Montaigne who was also a judge and scholar.  Montaigne wrote a towering essay on friendship some 25 years after Étienne’s early demise in which he extolled his friend with whom he felt he shared an uncommon bond.  Of their friendship, he wrote, “We loved each other because it was he, because it was I.”

Les Lanterne des Morts
Les Lanterne des Morts

Among countless other historical monuments are the Saint Sacerdos Cathedral, dedicated to Sacerdos of Limoges, who was born in AD 670.  The cathedral itself is intriguing because of it’s strangely discordant architecture.  It’s mainly gothic, and was originally built as part of a Benedictine Abbey in the 12th century, although it was extensively rebuilt in the 1500s.

Behind the cathedral on a slope overlooking the cemetery is Les Lanterne des Morts, supposedly dedicated by St. Bernard in the 12th century to commemorate victims of a plague, but there is a lot of mystery surrounding its origin.  It’s built of limestone blocks, and the upper level includes a series of slotted openings that would allow light to enter and guide the dead.

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Manoir de Gisson

The Manoir de Gisson was built in the 12th century for a noble family, and has survived the centuries with remarkable aplomb.  It’s open to the public, and includes lots of great examples of period architecture, furnishings, and artwork.

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Extrêmement Charmant et Bien Préservé

Sarlat is a popular place, and so it gets lots of visitors, as many as 2 million a year, as shocking as that sounds, since the town’s total population is under 15 thousand.  With such a thriving tourist industry, you won’t be surprised to learn that Sarlat’s old town has lots of restaurants and shops that are loaded with the things that tourists, and even some locals, love to buy.  The local cuisine is superb and some of the artisans that supply the shops are astonishingly talented.

The regional delicacy is foie gras, along with other preparations of duck and goose.  Don’t be put off if  you’re not a fan, and don’t let the stories of animal cruelty keep you from sampling the area’s delectable foie gras.  Yes, I know that PETA and other animal rights groups are disdainful of the feeding practices, but foie gras and the practice of gavage (force feeding) has been around for over 3,000 years.  I had the privilege of staying on a foie gras farm and seeing first hand how the animals were treated.  The process was far more humane than a typical American egg production facility or Confined Animal Feeding Operation.

Routard Recommends
Routard Recommends

Although I don’t have a specific recommendation for a Sarlat restaurant, look for the “Routard” recommendations.  Routard is a French website that’s roughly equivalent to trip advisor.  Since it’s readers are predominantly French, and French palates are quite refined, their recommendations are powerful.  Spend some time on their site, use Google translator, or better yet download a free Google Chrome browser which will translate the site automatically. Routard is a wealth of information for the Francophile.

Sarlat is one of the highlights of my travels in France.  There is much more to tell and see than I have time for now, but I highly recommend a visit.  If you’ve been there and have comments, I’d love to read them, and if you haven’t and have questions, I’d love to answer them.

Bon voyage!

Five Tips for a Great French Holiday

regions of france

France is one of the most appealing, and thus the most visited countries on earth, with over 80 million visitors a year.  It’s more than big enough to accommodate all of us that long to go there, but it helps to have a plan.  And nothing helps the planning process more than insider tips, like these:

Tip 1:  Decide what aspects of France you find most appealing, and pick a theme for your trip.  This can be something like I love Paris, Castles of the Kings,  Bastide Villages, Regional Cuisine, Footsteps of the Impressionists, Best Red Wine, or Geologic Wonders.  Giving your trip a theme has several benefits: First, it helps you to narrow the focus of your itinerary, making planning easier.  Second, it will make your trip more meaningful, because you will gain first hand knowledge about important aspects of this great country in the context of how it fits in to history, or viticulture, or culinary mastery, or geography, or some other larger concept.  And, most importantly, it will give you the incentive to learn more about French culture, art, language, history, religion, and geography than the average hit and run tourist with nothing to show for their trip than a few dozen selfies in front of monuments they can’t even name.

If themes for your trip aren’t jumping out at you just yet, you need to do some homework.  France Magazine online will inspire you, as will any video or guidebook by Rick Steves.

Don’t neglect this part of your planning.  Anyone can enjoy a trip to France even if they know nothing about the country, but you’ll have a much more meaningful and memorable trip if you have a basic understanding of this phenomenal country.

It’s important to note here that while Paris and the rest of France are inseparable, they are distinctly different.  Paris is an incredible city, and if that’s your top theme, don’t be afraid to stay there for a week, or two, or even a month because you’ll never see and experience it all.  But there is so much more to France that if you’re favorite themes involve other provinces, keep reading.

Tip 2: For travel outside of Paris, rent a car.   Biking, tour buses or trains are other options, but they will place tight limits on how much you can see.  Because France is so big, and for many of us so far away, once you get there, you’ll want to give your self every advantage to see as much of it as possible.   And since some of the most enticing sights are only accessible by car, this is a critical component of your French adventure.

If you have misgivings about driving in France, but you’re generally comfortable behind the wheel of a car, I can assure you that you’ll quickly adjust.  The French autoroutes, highways, and roadways are well maintained, roadsigns are pretty universal, and with GPS for navigation, you’ll be right at home on any French roadway (unless it’s in Paris).

Two planning points to consider if you do rent a car:  1) Fuel prices are high, over $8 per gallon as of June 2014.  I recommend that you rent a vehicle with a TDI diesel engine.  Renault, Citroen, and Volkswagen make some incredibly efficient models that will easily get over 40 miles per gallon. 2) The freeways (autoroutes) are toll roads, and they’ve become very expensive.  I recently paid over 40 euros to drive from Paris to the Loire Valley on the A10.  You can avoid the autoroutes by taking secondary roads, but plan on spending nearly twice as long in your car.  The good news is that you’ll see way more than twice as much of the delightful French countryside.  The autoroute’s speed limits are mostly 130 kmh, while the secondary roads are posted at 90 kmh or less, and are often much slower due to the many villages, curves, farm equipment, Belgians, and bicycles.

Sixt, and Europebycar are good starting points for checking rental rates.  You can also check out Rick Steves tips for car rental in Europe.

Important caveat:  Don’t pick up your car until you leave Paris.  Traffic in Paris is brutal, parking is difficult and enormously expensive, and you can take the Metro or RER anywhere you want to go for next to nothing.

Tip 3:   Plan to stay in B & Bs if you’re traveling alone or as a couple, and gites (privately owned holiday homes) like du Chesny or Les Hirondelles if you’re traveling with family.   You can find many more through sites like Air B&BTripAdvisor, and HomeAway.

There are several benefits to this that you shouldn’t underestimate.  First, you’ll have many more opportunities to interact with with people, including fellow travelers and the facility owners.  Many “holiday rentals” in France are owned by English expats which is great because most of them are bilingual, and every one that I’ve talked are passionate francophiles and extraordinarily knowledgeable about their surroundings.  You can find lots of them in rural areas, which can be a great way to spend quality time in the French countryside.

A word of caution: When selecting a rural location, remember that many French country roads are narrow, winding, and slow so that maps and relative distances can be deceiving.  Unless you want to spend a lot of time driving, choose locations that are central, and close (within 3 km) to stores and restaurants.

Tip 4:  Travel light, by which I mean take reasonably sized luggage, but leave it at least half empty.  One famous world traveler once offered this advice for packing:  “First, lay out all of the clothes you’re planning to take, and all of the money you think you’ll need.  Then take half of the clothes, and twice as much money.”    This is practical advice for three reasons:  One, you’re traveling to FRANCE,  where you’ll be able to buy clothing in styles, colors, and patterns that you won’t find at home.  (Most people make the mistake of buying a new wardrobe BEFORE they go to France.  Don’t.)  Two, instead of buying cheap, Chinese-made souvenirs like plastic Eiffel Towers and other garish baubles, your souvenirs will be clothing items that will remind you of your trip every time you wear them.   And, three, if you buy your new French clothes early in your trip, you’re less likely to stand out as a tourist.

My wardrobe is more or less a product of 15 years in Hawaii, and a rural upbringing.  I’ve prided myself on being underdressed for just about every occasion, but this is not a good strategy in France.  The French take pride in their appearance, even in rural areas.  They tend to be fit, and to dress well.  And although I’m not qualified to offer this opinion, French fashion is very appealing in that it is not typically tawdry or vulgar, but well-cut and elegant.   I highly recommend that you avail yourself of their fashion sense while you’re there.

Tip 5:  Learn at least basic French phrases and cultural courtesies.  The French people are rightfully proud of their language and culture(s), and the more you get to know them, the more sense this makes.  You may want to try Rosetta Stone, which uses images rather than direct word translations.  At the very least, a phrasebook is indispensable.  I’ve added a link, below, to an excellent example by Rick Steves.

Here are some tips-within-a-tip:  Plan on interacting as much as you can with the French people, even if your French is bad.  Discard any stereotypical notions you have about them.   Many French people speak excellent English, but they are often self-conscious about speaking it, just like you will likely be self-conscious about speaking French if you’re not already fluent.  Always greet the counter staff in shops, and the wait staff in restaurants with “bon jour”, use “s’il vous plaît” and “merci” liberally.  If you start every conversation with “bon jour”, and either continue by asking, “Parlez-vous l’anglais?” or by using your best French, however bad it may be, you’ll likely be well received and you’ll undoubtedly have many memorable conversations.

Contrary to popular belief, many French people have either traveled in America, or they’d like to, and they are generally well disposed toward Americans.

You’ve got lots of planning ahead, and you’ll have to make some hard choices because you can’t see it all. But in my experience, if you’re going to France, you can’t go wrong.  Enjoy your travels, and please stop in to share your tips and French experiences!

While you’re planning, be sure to check out Frenchseams.com.  Excellent articles with gorgeous photos that will have you packing your bags and heading for the airport…

Before you head for the airport, check out techtipsfortravelers.com.  This is a great site that will give you some great tips and ideas for traveling in the tech age.  Bon voyage.

The Amazing Gouffre de Padirac (Limestone Cave Complex) in the Dordogne Valley of France

Since I’m a geologist, you won’t be surprised to learn that some of my favorite travel destinations involve geologic features.  Not everyone’s cup of tea, I know, but suspend your skepticism for  a minute and picture the French countryside in the Dordogne Valley:  rolling, green hills occasionally bisected by deep stream valleys framed by sheer limestone cliffs,  often decorated by a dense patchwork of green farm fields,  ancient stone villages and farms.  Altogether tranquil, and every view from hilltop or valley floor is another potential postcard photo.

Wendng your way through networks of sometimes narrow country roads with nothing but the soothing voice of your GPS unit to guide you, there’s so much to see above ground that ducking under it might seem dull and pointless.   But the yawning opening of the Gouffre de Padirac is strangely alluring…IMG_1918

This is a view from the bottom of the 103-meter deep pit that forms the main entrance to the Gouffre.   It’s impossible to appreciate the scale of the crater without seeing it in person.   Because it’s a feature that is so unusual, it takes a few moments to grasp what you’re seeing as you approach it from the top.  A vast, dark hole in an otherwise unbroken landscape that descends deep into the earth…definitely not something most of us see everyday.

The opening is secured by sturdy wire mesh fencing, of course, but you can approach to within a few feet of the sheer lip of the crater to get a view that is literally breathtaking, especially if you’re not fond of heights.

The public entrance and ticket sales building lies just beyond the vast crater opening.  Admission prices in June of 2014 were 10.30 euros for adults, and 6.90 for children between 4 and 12.  Children under 4 are free, but if you decide to take one, keep ’em close!

As you can see from the photo above, there are metal stairs leading to the floor of the crater where you can enter the caverns.  If you didn’t do the math on the 103-meter depth, it’s roughly the equivalent of a 34-story building.  If that doesn’t appeal to you, you can always take the elevator at no additional charge.  But I highly recommend at least descending on the stairs because it allows you to grasp the enormity of the pit, and to see some of the geology that that forms this portion of the French terrain.  It’s classic layer-cake limestone with well-defined bedding planes and lots of groundwater seeps that vary between slow trickles to steady  waterfalls streaming into  the pit.

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The pit is visually stunning, but the caverns are the main attraction.  You enter them from the bottom of the crater through a fairly small opening that follows the rushing course of the stream that is responsible for carving the caverns out of the limestone rock. The first 100 meters or so is a fairly narrow tunnel, with a man-made walkway suspended above the underground stream.  The tunnels are dimly illuminated, but there’s enough light to see smooth cave walls and ceiling, which recedes into deep darkness in many places along the walk.

After trekking along the walkway, you will reach a landing where you’ll board a small aluminum skiff.  The tour guides here will ask for your preferred language  – you may need to wait a little longer for an English-speaking tour guide.  Consider choosing this option even if you’re reasonably proficient in French because some of the descriptive terms may be a little esoteric.  Our boat guide spoke perfect English, which once again made me ashamed of my poor French.  But his descriptions of the cave system were fascinating.

The skiffs themselves are stable, and the journey down the subterranean stream is quiet and surreal.  Dim lighting reveals enormous caverns, with the ceiling stretching to over 90 meters above the stream in the largest rooms.

After about 1 km on the boat, a landing has been constructed to accommodate boats and visitors.  At this point, the cavern is festooned with all the glorious formations of limestone caves: stalactites, stalagmites, curtains, columns, and all the many forms that travertine can take.  It’s stunningly beautiful.

Because the caverns receive over 400,000 visitors a year, I wasn’t able to linger nearly as long as I would have liked to appreciate the supernatural beauty of the grand caverns.  And since the guide that took us on foot from the boat landing through the remainder of the public tour spoke only French, I missed a lot of the specifics of this part of the tour.  I do know that at least some of his talk focused on the dimensions of different caverns, and the ages of the different formations, as well as the sizes of individual columns and stalagmites, along with the time required to form them.  We’d earlier been introduced to a grand stalactite by our English-speaking boat captain near the landing that he claimed had a mass of over five tons, and that, given it’s current rate of growth, would reach the surface of the stream within another 100 years or so.

The portion of the caverns that is available to the public is about 3 km long in total.  The known extent of the system is over 40 km, with only about 20 being fully explored.  Much of the system is either under water, or lies beyond submerged portions of the tunnels.  There is an old iron ladder with a boat tied nearby at the end of the public area, a tantalizing reminder that the caverns go on…and on and on into the blackness beyond.

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My photos are dim, taken with an iPhone 5, sadly.  I had seen signs featuring a camera with a red circle and slash through it, and assumed that photography was forbidden.  But since most of my fellow tourists were frantically snapping flash photos, I took a few of my own.  Visit the official website for some great photos and slide shows, along with details of the cave’s history, and it’s intrepid discoverer Edouard Martel.

The Dordogne Valley has over 1,000 chateaus, countless charming villages, exquisite cuisine, miles of spectacular hiking trails, gorgeous river with scenic tours and kayak rentals, and more charm than a whole pallet of that famous cereal.  But the geologic features are stunning, too, and the Gouffre de Padirac is not to be missed.  Combine your visit to the Gouffre with a stop at Rocamadour,  a lovely medieval village and top pilgrimage destination built into a cliffside.  You’ll have a full day and enough photo opportunities to overwhelm your hard drive.

Skippin’ Over the Ocean…

Loire Valley

Amboise in the Loire Valley

Well, not like a stone, but I did skip across the Atlantic on a Delta Boeing 757.  And now I’m exploring the area around La Rochelle, on the Bay of Biscay in France.

Springtime here is hard to beat.  In fact, in my opinion, it can’t be beaten, or even tied.  Hawkesbay on the North Island of New Zealand comes in at a close second, but France pulls ahead with it’s ancient villages, castles, chateaus, incredible cuisine, and phenomenal wines.

Here’s just a small sample  of what you’re missing if you’re not here:  Brilliant yellow fields of rapeseed (canola) that form a patchwork on the expansive green countryside; lilacs everywhere  (the air is filled with their fragrance);  bright orange poppies dotting roadside greenery; white and yellow daisys punctuating the verdant fields; and stone houses adorned with brilliant flower gardens, window boxes, and trellises festooned with blooming roses, columbine, pansies, and too many colorful drops of floral sunshine to name.

The French coastal cities and towns present a series of Kodak moments that could fill NSA’s Utah server farm with terabytes of  hi res photos.    And the French passion for poisson (fish) and the fruits de mer (the fruits of the sea) make a visit here a culinary adventure as well as a visual one.  The French harvest mussells (moules) by the truckload, and have perfected many ways of preparing the succulent mollusks, including cream sauces, savory wine sauces, and tomato-based broths that are extraordinary.

There’s so much to experience here.  Taken together, the French countryside, the views that look like cinema sets and postcards, the food, the wine, the people,  and the culture put this part of the French coastline near the top of my must-visit list.  If it’s not in a similar position on yours, revise it right now, and start planning for the time of your life!

You should note that while La Rochelle doesn’t make the top spot on my Best Destinations list, the region that does is just a short drive away…