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.



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