Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Final travel tips for France

It has been an interesting trip, full of history, new sights and good food.  We both agree that the Dordogne area has been our favorite because of the deep history, amazing caves, scenic beauty and gorgeous towns. Our recommendation for other travelers would be to day trip or overnight to Mt. St. Michel from Paris by train or bus. Spend a few days in the Loire Valley and 5 in the Dordogne (rent a car for a few days in Sarlat) then take a train to Chamonix and hike the alps. The south of France is far to get to and unless you enjoy the coastal areas, may not be worth the time.  It is probably better combined with a trip to Italy.

Take time to visit the caves in the Dordogne area. They are worth seeing and truly amazing.  One might think that cave art is simply what is seen in books but being there is an awe inspiring experience.  Not to mention, that the caves are spectacular places and beautiful>

Do spend time reading restaurant reviews as there is a big difference in quality; you can pay the same and get a totally different experience.  We found dining to be better in northern and central France; it may just be a function of the area and towns we were in, but we enjoyed more exquisite cuisine in those areas. Mot places had reasonable fixed price menus for around $20 euro and up.

If renting a car, go for small. Rental cars tend to be stick shift and use diesel, making them very gas efficient. Gas stations are easy to find but we were told that unless you have a credit card with chip and PIN, you will not be able to pay at the auto credit card stations and will need to find one with an attendant. Leave nothing in your car as theft is common, even in the rural areas. We were told that because there are video surveillance cameras in the towns, thieves are now targeting cars in more remote areas where they know tourists are. Avoid driving in big cities and try to stay out of old city alleys. Park outside of town when possible and go for lodging with access to parking. Be sure to have gps or nav system in the car; it can be a lifesaver! Train travel though, is a wonderful alternative to driving.  You can get to most cities by rail and it is much faster than driving.  The trains are on time, very comfortable and have large windows for viewing the scenery.  Rail stations in France are large with all the amenities of an airport, and in some cases, nicer than their airports!

We have always found bed and breakfasts to be preferable to hotels. It gives you an opportunity to meet other travelers, and the hosts are usually eager to offer recommendations.  Staying in a b&b gives you a totally different experience, one that is more personal and cultural.  Trip Advisor has been our best resource for finding lodging.  We found this time, that traveling in May, you don't necessarily need to reserve ahead of time, which gives you more flexibility.  Some come with breakfast, others have an add on option.  In most cases, breakfasts are much more expensive than going to the nearby patisserie and buying your own, unless a cooked breakfast is offered; however you do lose the
special experience of chatting with other travelers if you eat breakfast on your own.  

Confirm access to wifi as it is handy for finding sights and restaurants. We found all lodging to have wifi but if not, McDonalds is always a trusty place, offering 24/7 access, and always, a decent sized good cup of coffee.

Weather is totally unpredictable throughout France; the southern part of the country warmer than the north, but sudden rain showers are normal.

We found that English is not the language of choice in any part of France, except maybe Paris.  Expect that no one will speak English and try to learn at least a few words, which works wonders in trying to communicate.  Menus are generally in French, unless you are in a tourist cafe, so go with a offline based translator.  I had downloaded the Laroussse English French dictionary after the translate off line version didn't work; offline because restaurants don't have wifi.

Dress is pretty casual these days and there was no expectation to dress up for dining.  Tourists were there in gym shoes and hiking clothes.  We brought "dressy clothes" and never used them so unless you are planning to go to a 5 star place, leave dressy clothes at home.  Walking shoes are a necessity, as walking on cobblestones is hard on the feet.

Travel light - having multiple sets of luggage is difficult.  Many times, rail stations, hotels etc do not have elevators or escalators and maneuvering up and down narrow stairs is much easier with a backpack and small suitcase.  Besides, the French rooms are much smaller and having all that luggage will become a burden. Bring enough power convertors for charging all your electronic gear.

Most of all, enjoy. The French are delightfully friendly and relaxed people. They seem to enjoy life and the people that have come to visit.  We found them to be patient in trying to communicate and eager to help.  It is quite modern and you will find all the conveniences of home everywhere you go.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Au revoir

A field of red poppies and a fitting way to end our sty in Provence. We have seen bright red poppies lining the roads but a field of red has escaped us until now. This is the last photo op for now as we head for our afternoon train from Avignon to Geneva. 

Armed with our last crunchy baguette and with the last few fresh cherries, we drive through a thoroughly modern town of Apt. Rick Steve calls it a market town. It is actually a town of big box discount retailers. Seeing this town answers my question from yesterday. It makes me realize that local rural life in this area of Provence is changing with people moving to towns like Apt and adopting a very different lifestyle. The infusion of big box stores, malls and fast food joints is changing habits and diet. Slowly, the culture in these small villages is there for tourists' sake and resides in gift shops and cafes that serve food with no  resemblance to what we as tourists hope to find. Fortunately, the history has been preserved as have many of the old buildings, though many are not museums but have commercial signs on them.  Gradually, town life resembles life in any western town.  We see this in China and other countries where neon signs and high rises define the landscape. Lessons here, visit while you can, to those countries that are open.  Time passes quickly and seems to be changing our world at an increasingly more rapid pace.  The France we visited 20 years ago is far different from the France of today.  Every visit to China amazes us with the level of modernity, even in the most remote rural villages. Global mobility results in diversity and homogeneity, and often diminishing cultural traditions.  Apt could very well be Champaign Illinois with only language being the distinguishing factor.  

What has struck me is that few young adults throughout our travels in France, speak English.  These are people working in some facet of the tourism industry, be it food service, gift shops, hotels, information booths etc.  It is astonishing to me that their educational system has not mandated English language learning for growth opportunities in our increasingly global world. 

We return our Europcar in Avignon, and Ray is relieved that he has not been photographed and given any tickets- there were a few questionable flashes at stop lights when he ended up too far forward. Our tgv high speed train from Avignon is smooth and comfortable.  A family was tilting in our seats, so we took empty ones in first class. I managed to communicate this to the ticket agent who let us stay. the scenery becomes more and more rugged and mountainous as we approach Geneva. A young man gets on in Lyon with a bike.  He has been biking from Spain to Lyon in 5 days. 

Our little adventure begins when the train stops at the city center.  The ticket says our final stop is the airport.  A friendly Swiss guy tells us we have to catch the airport train.  He shows us how to find the correct track.  Arriving at the station, we walk to the airport and wait for the Ibis Hotel shuttle bus.  About 20 minutes later we are on our way, only to arrive and be told that we are t the wrong Ibis! 
The budget Ibis I had booked is further own the street, a 20 minute walk away!  The room has a bunk bed over a double bed and a little toilet room separate from the shower room, which we have seen more than once here.  It is not for the claustrophobic!


Monday, June 02, 2014

Hill Towns

As we drive out on the country roads leading to hill towns of this area, I spot several fields of lavender.  This is what I am hoping to see but thinking perhaps we are too far west and that the lavender won't be in bloom until July.  The undulating rows form such wonderful geometric shapes, and the young flower buds are purplish gray and seemingly soft like velvet in the distance.  I think we have created a tourist stop as after I am there for a few minutes, we soon have a crowd of 6 cars, Australian, Japanese and Chinese tourists standing in the field taking pictures! The iphone doesn't do it justice so you will have to wait for real photos to be posted to get the real effect. Ray patiently waits while I shoot from all angles. 

It is cherry season here,and we stop at a roadside stand. The cherries are firm and sweet. They last us the rest of the day.

Onward to Gordes, which is so packed with tourists that there is nowhere to park and we move on. The hill towns are similar to those in Italy, but sit higher on cliffs and have high walls at the top surrounding forts, churches or castles. They dot the countryside and at night from the top of the town walls, you can see small clusters of lights  in all directions. In Italy though, there is more of a sense of small town residents having been there for generations, small local eateries, simple and real life.  Here the towns are tourist meccas, flowing in during the day and leaving by afternoon. The restaurants are there to serve tourists. We are not sure where the local families are, or if they even live there as we don't see children.  Perhaps everyone hides out inside shuttered windows?  Or maybe they live in towns we don't see because there is no reason for tourists to go there?  

Fontaine, our next stop, is the source of a clear spring and the one street town of small gift shacks and cafes is built on the edge of the small river. There do not seem to be residents living here. We hike up to a deep pool hidden below the vast limestone gorge and look up to see a few karsts much like in China. The water is crystal clear and  the shallow river bottom has bright green seaweed and rocks, so clear and bright, it almost looks like the bottom of a Disneyland pool!  

Our way back takes us through Isle de la Sorgue, surprising to us, it is a commercial center with big supermarkets and discount stores. Perhaps this is where locals live? II notice that cars are bigger, people live in subdivisions and people coming out of the big grocery stores are not the slender French we have been seeing in places like Sarlat and Amboise.  No local patisseries here, or small charcuteries, or local fresh food market days. Could there be some correlation between a diet of local food vs processed food, and of local people who walk everywhere vs modern cities where people travel in cars?  hmmmm

At night we find a tripadvisor recommended restaurant Le Piquebaure and enter an empty restaurant. I think lunch time is the busy time for restaurants.  I have whitefish; Ray's duck breast is divine; no Provencal dishes on any of the restaurant menus  in town unfortunately, perhaps we need to be in Avignon or Aix en Provence, or maybe at a local place in a modern city like Isle de la Sorgue? We walk up to the top of the city and do a last walk before our departure tomorrow. 

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Pont du Gard

In the morning, we locate our car, grateful it has not been broken into yet, and head out to Provence. Our first stop is the Pont du Gard, an incredible feat of engineering and construction.  In ancient times, aqueducts heralded the greatness of Rome and carried water to cities for luxurious baths, fountains and sanitation. This Roman aqueduct was built around 19bc as the link of a 30 mile canal, carrying 9 million gallons of water each day for 150 years to Nimes, one of ancient Europe's largest cities. It is a massive bridge spanning a canyon, now one of the most impressive surviving Roman ruins. We walk from the left bank up to the top, then down and across the bridge to the right bank. Families are below, on the small sandy beaches, sunbathing, swimming and kayaking. At the other end, teenagers jump of the cliff into a deep pool below. The bridge is 160 ft high with 3 tiers of arches and columns,  originally 1,100 ft long, with stones weighing 6 tons each forming the arches which were constructed without mortar. There is an excellent museum that provides us with a lot of information about its construction and leaves us in awe of the magnitude of the project. We spend about 3 hours there.

We wind our way through small towns and decide to have a quick meal at McDonalds as we are not sure restaurants will be open for dinner; it is sunday again. Our destination is a tiny town about a half an hour east of Avignon, called Roussillon, which sits atop ocre cliffs. Our hotel, Hotel Sable D'ocres is set on lovely grounds surrounding a pool. The town has a few meandering streets, lined with buildings of ocre and other pastel  colors.  I spend the evening photographing the sunset and the evening light; the colors are magical.