In one day, you could drive from Brittany’s windswept coasts and medieval forests, past the verdant, flat pastures either side of the Loire, through the snow-flecked peaks of the Massif Central, the deep gorges of Languedoc-Rousillon and on to the sun-baked beaches of the Mediterranean.
France is also an ideal destination for green holidaymakers. Numerous ferries and a now even quicker Eurostar (just 2h 15m from London to Paris) connect Britain with France – great for those conscious of their carbon footprint. Once you're there, France is home to a wide range of eco-accommodation, from environmentally-friendly ski lodges to mountain retreats. Plus, a wide network of cycle paths and some 60,000km of long distance footpaths (sentiers de grande randonées) make this a rambler’s paradise.
Holly Gurr on the one thing she wished she'd known on her arrival:
"You'll receive a warmer welcome if you make the effort to say basic greetings in French."
Daisy Cropper on what she thinks would have been helpful to know before her trip:
“High season really does mean high season. If you’re travelling in the summer months book your accommodation in advance. Don’t attempt to arrive in a town and look for somewhere to stay – it’s tedious and expensive.”
“Paris is a must-see on many travellers' to do lists. Get out in the suburbs to save money on accommodation and to see a side of the capital few people see. We stayed nearby the Jasmin Metro station. It was quiet, serene and had many restaurants and bars nearby –all without a tourist in sight.”
To avoid the crowds The French tend to stick to their own country when they go on holiday. This means that during the main French holiday periods train fares soar and road travel becomes unbearable unless you like miles-long tailbacks. Avoid August at all costs when the entire country takes its congé annuel and only the tourist industry remains open. For the exact dates of school holidays – by region – see the French Department of Education’s website.
Climate and weather The general rule is that winter is cold, summer hot and spring and autumn pleasant. However on the Atlantic coast and in the north (in Brittany in particular), the weather can be highly changeable at any time of year. As you go further south temperatures tend to get hotter and the weather more predictable. The Mediterranean region gets most of rainfall from late September to early November, when the rains can be torrential. Winter sports enthusiasts can expect good snow on France’s numerous mountain ranges from mid-December to late March.
Festivals in France The summer months see the greatest concentration of festivals in France, ranging from the nation-wide celebrations on Bastille Day (14 July) to the week-long music festivals and bullfighting ferias in the south of France. In December, head to Alsace for its Christmas markets and Lyon for the Fêtes des Lumières, when the entire city becomes a playground of light installations. In February, Nice holds France’s largest street carnival.
Paris-Charles de Gaule (CDG) 23km from the city, Paris-Orly (ORY) 14km, Bordeaux (BOD)12km, Lille (LIL) 12km, Lyon (LYS) 25km, Marseille (MRS) 30km, Nice (NCE) 6km, Strasbourg (SXB) 12km, Toulouse (TLS) 8km.
By air All of France’s major cities and many minor ones have airports. Most internal flights are run by Air France, with some operated by budget carriers such as easyJet and Airlinair.
By train France has an excellent rail network, ranging from the regional TER to the high speed TGV, which will take you between almost any two French cities within three hours. Corail Lunéa are comfortable sleeper trains. Book your train journeys in advance at SNCF to save on the fare. Just don’t forget to composter (stamp your ticket with the special machines provided on platforms before getting on the train – claiming ignorance as a foreign visitor wont always spare you the fine).
By road Buses in France are run by SNCF, Eurolines and the municipal authorities. For local bus timetables, your best bet are the gare routières (bus stations) and local tourist offices. Generally buses are slower and cheaper than the trains. The same rule of composter or face a fine applies.
Outside of the main holiday season, France’s roads can be a real pleasure to cycle or drive. The motorway toll roads are great if you’re in a rush. If you’re planning to take scenic routes, it’s worth investing in a Michelin map, which marks these in green.
Most French cities now have a network of 24-hour bicycle stations, where for a small sum you can rent a bike, picking it up from one station and dropping it off at whichever station is nearest to you are the end of the day.
From delightful chambres d’hôtes (B&Bs) to modish boutique hotels, from châteaux with a view to eco-retreats – and not to mention over ten thousand campsites (www.campingfrance.com), you’ll find rooms all over France to suit any taste and budget. Outside of peak season, you can usually turn up in any town and find rooms still available.
If you’re staying for a while in one place, consider renting an apartment or gîte (www.gite-de-france.fr) (holiday cottage).
Hikers and long distance bicyclists are well-catered for with gîte d’étapes (rustic hostels with basic kitchen and washing facilities). Mountaineers will a find a good network of refuge huts, mostly run by the Fédération Française des Clubs Alpins et de Montagne.
Don’t underestimate how seriously food is taken in France. Where else would you find politicians ransacking McDonald’s with tractors? Leading the anti-fast food revolution is the aptly-name Slow Food France, which lists local tasting events on its website.
Perhaps the most incredible thing about French gastronomy is the variety. Each region fiercely prides itself on its cheeses, wines and specialities such as crepes in Brittany and boeuf bourguignon, a red-wine beef stew from Burgundy. If you want to know where the best restaurants are and what dishes you shouldn’t miss, ask a local.
Vegetarians will be pleased to hear that options have improved in recent years. Most restaurants in main towns serve a range of veggie dishes, although in small villages you might not find much beyond a salade verte. In most towns now you will also find a range of ethnic food. Thanks to large immigrant populations, Moroccan and Vietnamese restaurants are particularly numerous.
There is little to worry about health-wise in France. Under the French health system, you’ll have to pay for all hospital services, doctors’ consultations and prescriptions upfront but EU citizens are entitled to a refund, provided you have a European Health Insurance Card.
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