10 Tips for a Successful Trip to France

Every vacation has its ups and downs.

But travelers can improve their odds of a good time with a little care, the right frame of mind, a modest pace and just enough (but not too much) planning.

Here are a few things that have worked for us as we tour around France:

1. Pace yourself
Today, the 17th of our 32-day adventure, Kathy and I sat by the pool of our lovely mountain chalet, Les Skieurs in the Chartreuse Mountains above Grenoble, and read. Then we took an hour walk, stopped at an outdoor cafe for a glass of wine, had a light dinner on the deck downstairs and called it a day. It was rejuvenating after a week of too much driving and too fast a pace: two nights in the village of Sarlat in the Dordorgne, two nights in the city Montpellier and two in Ansouis in Provence’s Luberon Mountains.

As a rule, we find it’s best to stay three nights at each stop — the first day to arrive and get our bearings, the second to unwind and take in a sight or two, the third to poke around and map out our next day’s travels. Two-night stays can work, but it’s best not to bunch them as we did this week.

A series of one night stays means too much tension, too much driving and too little time to explore. As a rule, see less and stay a little longer at each stop.

2. Use maps, not a GPS
A GPS can get you from here to there, but it doesn’t tell you what you’re missing along the way. Michelin maps are the best and, of these, the yellow maps give the most detail.

3. Be open to diversions
The best moments on any vacation invariably are those that are unplanned. We spent more than an hour at Rocamadour Fermier, a lovely goat farm in the Lot countryside we didn’t know existed. Had we been hellbent on getting to the hillside town of Rocamadour, just a few miles further down the road, we’d have missed it. And despite its dramatic cliffs and photo ops, Rocamadour was a bit disappointing because of its crowds of tourists. The only crowd on the farm was the goats and geese.

4. Try your hand at the language
The French may correct you or answer your most carefully crafted French question in English. But trying to speak their language opens doors, especially outside of Paris. Here at Les Skieurs, after we had a brief chat in French with Madame Jail, the owner, she offered suggestions on where we might eat and stay in Chamonix, two stops down the road on our trip. (She also promised that next time we visit, we’ll rate a room with a balcony.) At Un Patio en Luberon, our B&B in Ansouis, conversation came out in a melange of English, French, German and Italian as guests from four countries found a way to share stories as well as a three-hour meal. On this trip, my 10th or 11th to France, we’re finding many more intermingled French and English conversations than ever before, perhaps because English increasingly is the international language, but the French remain enormously proud of their own. We keep speaking French, even when the answer comes back in English and even though we’re far from fluent.

5. Don’t overeat
This is easier said than done in this country of gastronomy. But eating full meals at lunch and dinner is tantamount to divine death (I’ll spare you the digestive details). Often we skip hotel breakfasts, saving money at a local bakery by grabbing a croissant and an espresso (these cost half of an American coffee with milk). Or on getaway days we’ll pay the $10 or $12 each for a hotel breakfast while Kathy saves enough rolls to carry us through lunch. We eat one big meal a day, either dinner or lunch, depending on where our travels are taking us. Which leads me to No. 6.

6. Walk every day
It’s not just a guilt thing for eating so much rich food. On days that we take a substantial walk, we feel better. On days when we go from a long car ride to a big dinner, as we did our first night at Skieurs, we feel like blobs. After three types of cheese and three desserts — part of the evening meal that followed a foie gras entree and duck in orange sauce, we kept walking in circles around the hotel — to the amusement of one of the waiters who had stepped out for a cigarette.

7. Don’t walk and read
OK. So you think you’re smart enough to read maps or guide books and make your way down the street? Think again. I’ve had to spare Kathy more than once from taking a header because she inhales all reading material. This is not wise while walking in towns and cities with cobblestone streets, steep hills, dogs that pretty much crap as they please and all kinds of other obstacles. If you want to read about something, stand still.

8. Stay in smaller towns and smaller places
Many French hotels and bed and breakfasts that carry a two-star rating are superb. The rooms are small but clean and the beds good. These are the places where you will meet French travelers instead of hordes of Americans. And with the dollar relatively strong versus the euro right now, these smaller hotels and B&Bs often cost less than $100 a night, breakfast included. By staying largely in places off the big tourist routes — towns such as Ansouis in the Luberon and Le-Sappey-en-Chartreuse in the Chartreuse Mountains, we’ve yet to run into another American tourist at a place we’ve stayed. No offense to my countrymen, but I like foreign travel better that way.

9. Carry eight days of clothing
Most vacations last one to three weeks. By bringing an extra day of clothing, you’ll save one round of pouring coins into the machines of hot, crowded and expensive French laundromats.

10. Be prepared for something to go wrong
It always does. As the French might say, “La vie n’est pas parfait.” And they would be right. Life is never perfect. Neither is travel.

This blog appeared first in the Huffington Post

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The Friendliest Cab Driver in Paris

We never did get his name.

He was compact, stocky, mid-40s and a man who loved to talk. He drove a newer-model Mercedes taxi with a big crack on the driver’s side windshield.

He started talking to us just as we drove away from the Mercure hotel, a half-mile from Charles de Gaulle Airport, where we had dropped off our rental car the night before. He didn’t stop conversing until he dropped us off in the St-Germain-des-Presneighborhood 55 minutes later.

In between, he drove, mostly with his knees, as his hands were busy with mid-air exclamations. And as we crawled through Paris’ streets, he borrowed Kathy’s map to zero in on the location of our little hotel.

Interacting with us, his passengers, however, he was always attentive. He spoke slowly and only in French, gently correcting our mistakes. After he learned that we loved Paris, he was a font of information.

“When you retire you should buy an apartment in Paris,” he said. “A little one. A studio.” We could rent it when we are away, he said, and always have a place to stay for free on our visits.

We might consider buying in the 17th arrondissement, he suggested as we drove through it, a lovely neighborhood but not quite as expensive as some. And we should use the Internet, he counseled, not the realtors who surely would take too large a cut.

He encouraged us to rent boats on the Seine at Pont Neuf rather than the Eiffel Tower, where they are more expensive. And, he said, we must spend an evening inMontmartre and another along the Seine, where the right-bank summer “plage,” or beach, attracts families and lovers who picnic and enjoy free music there.

As we passed a chic district near the Place de la Concorde he told us that this was the place to buy unique watches — at a very high price.

“My wife said she wanted one,” he joked. “I told her sure. All I have to do is sell my car.”

He drove 11 hours each day, he said, but the time passed quickly because he loved to talk to passengers. We surely loved talking to him. Our €51 fare wasn’t cheap. But then, neither is an hour of conversational French in the States, and on this drive we got that thrown in for free.

For those who rag against Parisians as rude and impatient people, remember this lovely cab driver. I grew up in and around New York City, a place for which the same stereotypes persist.

My advice: Regardless of where you are traveling, show an interest in the place and the people with whom you are talking. They will often surprise you by responding in kind.

This blog appeared first in the Huffington Post

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In France, Finding Relief Can Be a Delicate Matter

Five years ago, when my wife Kathy and I visited the chapel that Pablo Picasso painted in the hillside town of Vallauris, overlooking the sparkling French Riviera, the guard in the adjoining museum wore beautiful, hand-tooled leather boots.

She exemplified what seemed to be the elegance of this clean, well-lighted place, Le Musee National Picasso — until nature called and we discovered the toilets in the museum’s bathrooms had no seats.

Please forgive me for talking toilets, or, more precisely, their design in the public places of France. But in the next millennium, when anthropologists look back at globalization in the 21st century, the study of French toilets and bathrooms likely will make for fascinating discussion about the evolution of a culture.

Certainly contemporary France, which we visited again this July, has come a long way from the post-World War II pissoirs I remember as a nine-year-old boy on my first visit to Paris. The year was 1958, and for a boy who had to relieve himself, little fascinated more than these stand-up, banged-up metal hideouts in the middle of major streets, where men only could aim at a trough that ran off somewhere into the gutters. (For those waiting outside, the view was of a row of legs from the mid-calf down.)

Today, the remaining pissoirs are more discreet and don’t run off into the street. But full-fledged toilets in France still comes in three varieties, and, depending on the time of day, choosing the right one can be, shall we say, a significant decision.

Let me pause to assure that many public French toilets are spiffy and modern, equipped, in some cases, with double flushers that leave the visitor feeling environmentally virtuous. (We found that Chamonix, high in the alps, had the best public toilets of just about any city we’ve visited in the States or abroad.) But then there are those unfortunate moments of surprise: the elegant restaurant or bar with toilet seats pried off and discarded. Or, worst of all, what I will call “le squateur,” a hole in the porcelain floor with two metal steps, one on each side. (I’ll leave the rest to the imagination, thank you.) Such toilets are found most frequently at toll road picnic stops, but the unsuspecting tourist can still stumble upon them in some bars and cafes, particularly in the countryside.

And even when the toilets themselves come up aces, the amenities don’t always follow suit. Inside Paris’ prefecture of police compound, which tourists must enter to tour Sainte Chapelle, the 13th-century chapel with its remarkable stained-glass windows and summer evening concerts, the bathrooms had seats, but no soap, no towels and no toilet paper, despite the chapel’s $10 per person entry fee.

Other remnants of France’s not-always-so-glorious bathroom décor can be found in older hotels around the country. At the otherwise lovely Hotel du Parc, a “hotel of charm” in the city of Montpelier, our room came equipped with one of the once-widespread “wash the whole room” showers. The shower head, stuck on the wall, slicked the entire expanse of the bathroom floor before draining through a hole in the middle. We managed to build a towel dike around the wettest area, keeping most of the room navigable without rain boots.

No visitor to France can escape the familiar snake, that shower nozzle attached to a flexible, hand-held hose that one uses to wash while taking a bath. The snake can work surprisingly well, though the odds of a stray spray of, say, the ceiling or walls can be soberingly high. Alas, the tubs themselves in some older places are so narrow that wedging my not so slim hips into them made all other movement difficult (and washing underarms nearly impossible).

But then, it is the idiosyncratic nature of France, its people and its places that makes the adventure of coming here fulfilling. Probably the most elegant and beautiful place we stayed on our month-long journey was the chambre d’hote, or bed & breakfast, La Vallombreuse. Perched above the town of Menthon-Saint-Bernard on Lake Annecy, its lawns look out over the lake and up, directly behind, to an enchanting, privately-owned castle. Our room had a wide-beamed, wood floor; a vaulted ceiling, and original artwork on the walls. Breakfast was sumptuous. And our bathtub seemed big enough to float the entire Spanish Armada.

However, in this B&B, where the maid volunteered to wash our laundry free of charge, the bathroom came equipped with no bar of soap. We mentioned this to our hostess, assuming it simply to be an oversight. Her solution was to give us two tiny additional packets of shampoo/body gel.

This was not a problem. The toilet had a seat.

This blog appeared first at the Huffington Post.

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More Odds & Ends from France

ANSOUIS, France — We’ve settled in the Provence countryside in a B&B, Un Patio en Luberon, set in a house dating back to the 1600s. It’s hot outside, but the thick walls and a fan help.  Only today we had one small setback, nonetheless. This village is home to our favorite restaurant in France, La Closerie, a place the writer Peter Mayle himself recommended to us. That’s why we sought out a B&B here.

Alas, in France restaurants open and close all sorts of odd times, we’re learning. La Closerie, it turns out is closed Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday. And we are in Ansouis on Wednesday and Thursday only. Pity.  But then we forgot the first lesson of all travel: Always check to see whether something will be open. Assuming so is a bad idea.

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In every sizable square in any self-respecting French town or village, tables and chairs from cafes, restaurants and bars sprawl onto the cobblestones and patios, inviting passersby to sit for a drink, an ice cream, a meal.  Just whose space you are sitting in often takes a bit of detective work. Each competing cafe carves its boundaries with a unique set of tables or chairs. So after reading the menus, also posted in public spaces, it’s important to match menu to seats and tables or that plat du jour of canard (duck) you’ve pined for may turn out to be lasagna instead.

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The French joie de vivre is no myth.  Parents take their children and dogs with them just about everywhere (we saw one couple enter the Sarlat Cathedral with their dog in tow).  This was no more evident than on the Bastille Day weekend in Sarlat, where street performers entertained hordes of happy children and hordes of dogs entertained each other in street corner sniff-offs or “slept” strategically beneath the dinner tables at all the cafes.

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In Provence in mid-July, the art of poking around collides, it seems, with the reality of the touring crowds. The Luberon mountains are so booked this coming weekend that almost every hotel was sold out by tonight (Wednesday). As much as we love Provence, we’ve decided to stay just two nights and head Friday to a hiking region called the Chartreuse mountains above Grenoble, where the weather will be cooler, the crowds thinner and the chef, at Les Skieurs, where we stayed two years ago, most definitely on duty, cooking up some excellent meals. (I checked; the restaurant is closed Sundays
.)

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Driving in France in July? Stick to the Back Roads

PAYZAC, France — We spent our first day on French soil in motorists’ purgatory, but quickly found our way through the pearly gates.

As usual, I’d managed just a couple of 20-minute naps on our seven-hour, cross-Atlantic night flight, jammed sideways into one of American Airlines sandwich-sized seats. No matter. This was the start of a month in France. La cuisine. Le vin. Les fleurs. Le style. Les dames … Mais oui.

But wait. The second week in July, we discovered, was ground zero for the “July-istas,” as the news called them (in French, of course) — the first wave of end-of-school vacationers disgorging from Paris onto the highways just in time for our arrival.

As we left the airport, nothing moved, and in my hallucinatory, sleep-deprived state, all I could do was mutter to myself and mouth the words of James Taylor’s lament: “Damn, this traffic jam.” (And, after awhile, wonder where on earth I’d find a place to pee in the middle of a four-lane parking lot.)

Five hours and 10 minutes later we pulled into a sumptuous and expensive Novotel on the outskirts of Chartres, home of one of the world’s great cathedrals, and practically pleaded for a room. Distance traveled: 70 miles. Some super marathoners could have almost matched our pace.

The next morning, over coffee and croissants, Kathy and I noticed that news anchors were predicting an even worse exodus than the day before. The TV screen showed a reporter behind the wheel, crawling down one of the nation’s toll roads. With a 240-mile drive south to the Dordogne region ahead of us, it was time to drive below the radar — or at least away from the masses. We started on a secondary highway, but soon veered off onto one of the two-lane tertiary roads that crisscross France. Marked yellow on the map, they wind through every village, routing drivers through a maze of roundabouts.

This is France in the slow lane, an approach not unfamiliar to me after nearly 41 years married to a map nut. This time, though, I did hope to arrive at our cottage in Payzac, a village of 350 tucked on a hillside in this farming region, before nightfall. It was going to be close.

A little background. We have never owned or rented a GPS. Kathy considers them an affront to her intelligence. So instead of consulting electronics, when things go wrong, while she figures out which direction to follow, I simply drive in circles around those roundabouts at the entrance and exit of any self-respecting French village. It’s a trick my cousin Stephen taught us five years ago.

Reading French road maps is sort of like reading clues on a treasure hunt. The numbering on road signs rarely conform to the road numbers on the maps. Nor do the roundabout signs typically tell the traveler the next town en route. So, for example, if you, as we were, are headed toward the village of Oucques, the road sign will suggest you are heading in the direction of Blois, twenty miles further up the road. Go figure.

Route numbers seem to change every few years here, too, so trying to follow them is a lost cause. Kathy really is awfully good with maps. But in budgeting for French car trips, I’ve taken to calculating a few extra dollars here and there for gasoline burned driving in circles. (If you are a Peter Sellers fan, think of the car scene in the Pink Panther, linked here on YouTube.)

This drive south worked splendidly, however. We got lost briefly just twice. And our route, through the less well-known chateau country south of the Loire River took us through one sweet town after another, though most were not mentioned at all in Lonely Planet’s France. On D956, we drove through Chemery, with flowerpots hanging from its street lights and a chateau where a weekend B&B package goes for a mere $1,000. We rattled through Selles-sur-Cher, with flowers cascading off its bridge and, of course, its own chateau. In Valencay, we passed a winery and paused to photograph its majestic chateau.

The traffic? No problem. The scenery? Lovely.

As we drove through the countryside, wheat, windmills and corn gave way to sun-warmed vineyards. In some places plane trees lined the two-lane road. In others, we wound our way through forests.

Pull-offs with picnic tables dotted the route. Though most were sans toilette (without bathrooms), a row of bushes served as an appropriate “visual break.”

“This is the busiest day of the year and we’re having a blast,” Kathy said triumphantly.

As we pulled up to our rental cottage at 6 p.m., hours before sunset, nothing stirred.
The landlord had left the key in the door. No wonder in that our nearest neighbor here is a hooting owl (a night visitor) and an aging donkey across the road. (Other guests have named him, first Derek, then Bo. But in respect to the real Bo Derek and a sign of our cultural competency, we have changed his name to Bergerac.)

As for our car, Pierre, it sat in the driveway most of the next two days while we stretched out on the deck, caught up on sleep and walked — back and forth to the village.

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“All a GPS can do is get you from one town to the next,” Kathy said disdainfully.

All she is doing is getting me from one car to the next — and they’re all heading straight toward me.

Today we took a white road, one with no number, no center divide, no shoulder and a diameter about the width of my car.  The only problem is that traffic moved in both directions.

I am developing an etiquette for driving on such roads: Drive as far to the right as possible, stop as any car approaches, close my eyes,  pray.

I am not driving any more white roads.

———————-

Some aspects of modernity should never have intruded in France. Others are well overdue.

We’re noticing a lot more of the big-box Intermarches this time around. These are super large grocery stores. I’ll take the open-air markets any day. The food is fresher, and they serve a cultural purpose. They are occasions to see and be seen.  I hope the Intermarches are not their death knell.

Toilets, on the other hand, should be part of any 21st century restaurant. Or more specifically, toilet seats. Go into a French brasserie, even a beautiful one overlooking the Dordogne River, for example, and the odds are perhaps 50/50 that the toilet won’t have a seat.  It’s time for France to abandon its tradition as the country of squat.

——

We met the mayor of our little village, Payzac, yesterday. We walked into city hall in search of directions to the evening’s traveling festival.  We turned to our left and an earnest-looking man sprang to his feet and solemnly shook hand with both of us. We were impressed. He was less so upon learning our purpose. He turned us over to his secretary who drew us a map.

 

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Odds & Ends from France

“All a GPS can do is get you from one town to the next,” Kathy said disdainfully.

All she is doing is getting me from one car to the next — and they’re all heading straight toward me.

Today we took a white road, one with no number, no center divide, no shoulder and a diameter about the width of my car.  The only problem is that traffic moved in both directions.

I am developing an etiquette for driving on such roads: Drive as far to the right as possible, stop as any car approaches, close my eyes,  pray.

I am not driving any more white roads.

———————-

Some aspects of modernity should never have intruded in France. Others are well overdue.

We’re noticing a lot more of the big-box Intermarches this time around. These are super large grocery stores. I’ll take the open-air markets any day. The food is fresher, and they serve a cultural purpose. They are occasions to see and be seen.  I hope the Intermarches are not their death knell.

Toilets, on the other hand, should be part of any 21st century restaurant. Or more specifically, toilet seats. Go into a French brasserie, even a beautiful one overlooking the Dordogne River, for example, and the odds are perhaps 50/50 that the toilet won’t have a seat.  It’s time for France to abandon its tradition as the country of squat.

——

We met the mayor of our little village, Payzac, yesterday. We walked into city hall in search of directions to the evening’s traveling festival.  We turned to our left and an earnest-looking man sprang to his feet and solemnly shook hand with both of us. We were impressed. He was less so upon learning our purpose. He turned us over to his secretary who drew us a map.

 

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