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Off the beaten track
France - Traveling across the Country
all data refer to year 2000

Traveller's Memories: index

  This page is dedicated
    to my wife Maria Edvige.
 

A travel across France:
through South-East border-line up to Brittany, in the North-West.

(Text and photos from: French Memories, on-board diary)

Map of France The French wrote the book on la vie en rose and gave the world crème brûlée and camembert (a special kind of cheese), De Beauvoir and Debussy, the Tour de France and the Tour Eiffel. The other European say Franch have a finely tuned sense of national pride, but is sufficient spend some time in Provence or a weekend in Paris to understand why half the world grows dreamy over stalking the streets of Cyrano or picnicking Manet-style sur l'herbe (on the grass). France has always been synonymous with Romance, so whether you visit Paris or Mont Saint Michel, the Côte d'Azur or the Auberge de Jeunesse, be sure to keep your fantasies in check, your expectations in line and your joie in your vivre.
France is an heterogeneous set of people coming from many countries; expecially in Paris, Nice and Marseille, one can meet a very colorfull crowd at the rush hour. Althought the majority of the population is French (about 90%), there is a large amount of Italian, Vietnamese, Korean, North and Centre African, German, Breton, Provençal, Catalan & Basque.
The official Language: is French, but there are also a lot of minorities who speak Flemish, Alsacian, Breton, Basque, Catalan, Provençal & Corsican
Since France is a very liberal Country, there is no official Religion, the large amount of population belong to Roman Catholic, but after the immigration, now one can also find Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, Theravada Buddhist and several unaffiliated (New Age movements). Roman Catholicism is the dominant Religion in France, although church life is practically moribund and attendance - especially among the middle classes - is extremely low. Beliefs have generally been secularised ever since the Church and state were separated in 1905. Muslims are the second largest religious group followed by Protestants (Huguenots) and a substantial Jewish population in the country.

South-West of France. Villefranche-de-Conflent, fortress of 1450
South-West of France. La Cerdagne, Sejourne Bridge (postcard)
Middle-West of France. Fougeres, the Castle (12th-13th century)

France is the largest country in Europe after Russia and the Ukraine. The English Channel lies to the north-west and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Spain broils across the Pyrenees to the south, the Mediterranean is to the south-east and over the eastern Alps and Jura ranges lie Switzerland and Italy. France's relatively flat north-eastern borders abut Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium.
France has been divided into administrative units of about 6100 square km called départements. There are 96 départements in France and a further five overseas. The départements d'outre-mer (overseas departments) are the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique; the Pacific island groups of New Caledonia, Tahiti and French Polynesia; French Guiana, in South America; Réunion, in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar; and Saint Pierre and Miquelon, in the Atlantic Ocean just south of Newfoundland.
The most spectacular of France's ancient ranges is the Massif Central, a huge region in the middle of France that covers one-sixth of the country. The country's longest river is the Loire (1020km from the Massif Central to the Atlantic Ocean). The Seine, Rhône, Garonne and Rhine are France's other major waterways.
France has a predominantly temperate climate, with mild winters, except in mountain areas and the north-east. Near the Atlantic, on the north-west, where the weather is characterised by high humidity, often violent westerly winds and lots of rain. North-east has a classic continental climate, with hot summers and cold winters. The Paris basin boasts the nation's lowest annual precipitation, but rainfall patterns are erratic. Paris' average annual temperature is 12°C, but the sometimes drops below zero in January and can climb to 30s°C or higher in August. The southern coast is subject to a pleasant Mediterranean climate: frost is rare, spring and autumn downpours are sudden but brief and summer is virtually without rain. The south is also the region of the mistral, a cold, dry wind that blows down the Rhône Valley for about 100 days a year... The most loved place by the windsurfers! Relentless and unforgiving in spring.
Stange to say, but the most admired national literature is the humor comic strip Astérix, a Gallic hero always fighting agains Roman legions with a very large friend Obelix always carring a bif menhir on his back.
The influence of the Celtic culture is well visible in the North-West of the Country, expecially in Brittany (see pictures below!!!)

Carnac (Morbihan). Menéc alignement #1 (1089 menhirs on 11 lines)
Carnac (Morbihan). Menéc alignement #2 (1169 menhirs on 11 lines)
Carnac (Morbihan). The Sacrifice Stone
Carnac (Morbihan). The Kermario Stones, row and passage grave
Carnac (Morbihan). The Manio Quadrilateral, rectangular enclosure

The French are obsessioned with soccer, rugby, basketball and cycling, especially the Tour de France. Traditional games such as pétanque and boules (similar to lawn bowling but played on a hard surface) are also popular.
The French are a festive bunch with many cities hosting music, dance, theatre, cinema or art events each year. Rural villages hold fairs and fêtes honouring everything from local saints to the year's garlic crop. Saintes Maries de la Mer in Provence is the venue for a colourful gypsy festival in late May honouring Sarah, patron saint of the gypsies. Frenzied singing and dancing characterise this extravaganza. Prominent national days off are May Day (1 May), when many people buy muguet (lily of the valley) - believed to bring good luck - to give to friends and lovers; and Bastille Day (14 July), which is celebrated by throwing firecrackers at friends. Regional events include the primping and preening prêt à porter fashion show in Paris (early February); the glittering and often canned Cannes Film Festival (mid-May); the International Music Festival in Strasbourg (first three weeks of June); the mainstream and fringe theatre of the Festival d'Avignon (mid-July to mid-August) and the Jazz Festival in Nancy (9-24 October).

Food is a subject of endless rumination. Consider just some of the country's epicurean delights - foie gras, truffles, Roquefort cheese, well-built crustaceans, succulent snails plucked off grape vines, sharp-tasting fruit tarts - and you begin to appreciate the Frankish culinary zeal. But one cannot live on escargot and vin de table alone. France's North African and Asian populations have contributed to the pot, bringing spice and colour to many dishes.
A typical day's eating begins with a bowl of café au lait, a croissant and a thin loaf of bread smeared with butter and jam. Lunch and dinner are virtually indistinguishable and can include a first course of fromage de tête pâté (made with pig's head set in jelly) or bouillabaisse (fish soup), followed by a main course of blanquette de veau or d' agneau (veal or lamb stew with white sauce) and rounded off with a plateau de fromage (cheese platter) or tarte aux pommes (apple tart). An appetite-stirring apéritif such as kir (white wine sweetened with syrup) is often served before a meal, while a digestif (cognac or Armagnac brandy) may be served at the end of a meal. Other beverages designed to aid digestion and stimulate conversation include espresso, beer, liqueurs such as pastis (a 90-proof, anise-flavoured cousin of the long-outlawed absinthe) and some of the best wine in the world.

South-East of France. Marittime Alps, Granile Village (1051 m.)
South-East of France. Marittime Alps, Sante Agnès and the Maginot Line

Visas:

Nationals of the EU, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Israel do not require visas to visit France as tourists for up to three months. Except for people from a handful of other European countries, everyone else must have a visa. France is part of Schengen space.

In France as well as all over Europe, there are no health risks. Your main risks are likely to be sunburn, foot blisters, insect bites and upset stomachs from overeating and drinking.

Money and Costs

Currency: EURO (before Jan. 1st2002 French Franc (FF) was the old currency. 1 E = 6.56 FF).

Some Costs:

The land of the US$5 café au lait (Milk and coffee) is not exactly Europe's cheapest destination, but that doesn't mean you have to break the bank to visit. Devoted scrimpers can get by on around US$40 per day, though it means a whole lot of brie-and-baguettings in the park. For a more well-rounded culinary experience and a comfy bed or two, a minimum of US$80 is in order. Of course, for the Dom Perignon crowd, those figures might not cover even the day's pourboires - count on dropping US$200 and up if you're really living large. Student and senior citizen discounts are common.
Traveller's cheques are the safest, most convenient way to carry funds in France and are almost universally accepted, especially in larger towns and tourist centres. Banks and exchange bureaux give better exchange rates for traveller's cheques than for cash; Banque de France offers the best rates in the country. France's ATMs accept all the major international credit and bank cards, and credit cars also get a better exchange rate on purchases. Leaving a pourboire (tipping) is done at your discretion - restaurants and accommodations add 10-15% to every bill, but most people leave a few coins if the service was satisfactory.

When to Go

Weather-wise, France is at its best in spring, with the beach resorts beginning to pick up in May. Autumn is pleasant, too, but the days are fairly short and the temperatures get chilly toward the end, even along the Côte d'Azur. Winter is great for snow sports in the Alps, Pyrenees and other mountain areas, though the Christmas school holidays send hordes of tadpoles in uniform scurrying for the slopes. Mid-July through the end of August is when most city dwellers take their annual five weeks' vacation to the coasts and mountains, and the half-desolate cities tend to shut down a bit accordingly. Likewise during February and March.

Eze Village and Cap Ferrat, South of France
Nice, South of France

Paris Is the capital and gem in France's tourist crown, Paris is a glutton for superlatives and travel clichés. There, one can usually find whatever he expects or hopes to discover. But another approach is to set aside one's preconceptions of Paris and simply explore the city's avenues and backstreets as if the tip of the Eiffel Tower or the spire of Notre Dame weren't about to pop into view.
I have been there when I was child and just spent about a week in this town, so I haven't got any photo or images.

The Channel port of Saint Malo on the north coast of Brittany is renowned for its piratical past, walled city and nearby beaches. During the 17th and 18th centuries, it was one of France's most important ports, serving both merchant ships and privateers alike. It was at this time that a system of walls and fortifications were built - largely to offset the menace of English marauders - but these defences remained weak, and the pickings rich. Flattened by the Germans in WWII, the port was faithfully reconstructed and is today one of the most popular tourist destinations in the region.
Within the parameters of the Old City (intramuros) stands the Cathédrale Saint Vincent. Begun in the 11th century, the cathedral is the repository of an excellent collection of medieval and modern stained-glass windows. During July and August, it is also host to a number of classical concerts. Video-burdened tourists are a common sight strolling around the ramparts, which afford wonderful views of Saint Malo.
Squatting south of the Old City is the 18th-century Fort de la Cité, once a German stronghold during Word War II. Flanking the bulwark's walls are steel pillboxes heavily pimpled by Allied shells while the interior, now used by caravanners, is theoretically off-limits to visitors but no-one will stop you if you walk in via the main entrance.
Saint Malo's other attractions include beaches to the south of the Old City and further along the coast to the north-east. The area has some of the highest tidal variations in the world, so expect a hefty jaunt to reach the aqua at low tide: the high-water mark is often 13m above the low-water mark.

Saint Malo intramuros, a bird's eye view
Saint Malo, a closed view
Saint Malo, along the city walls
Saint Malo, the castle
Saint Malo, Le Fort Nationale
Saint Malo, Le Fort Nationale at the sunset
Saint Malo, seaside fortress

Saint Malo is an excellent base from which to explore the Côte d'Émeraude, Dol de Bretagne and the famous abbey at Mont Saint Michel can be visited as a day trip.

Mont Saint Michel, bird's eye view #1
Mont Saint Michel, bird's eye view #2
Mont Saint Michel, seaside view
A closed view of Mont Saint Michel
Dol de Bretagne, the town
Dol de Bretagne, Le Grand Menhir... And ME!

The charming city of Arles, on the Grand Rhône River in Provence, rose to prominence in 49-46 BC when a triumphal Julius Caesar captured and despoiled nearby Marseille. It soon became the region's commercial hub and an important Roman provincial centre with enormous public spaces that are still in use today. Vincent Van Gogh settled here in the late 19th century, fashioning hundreds of drawings and paintings when he took a break from pestering his ear. On hot summer days you can watch the waves of heat rising from the plains, just as Van Gogh did a century ago; olive groves and vineyards - often featured in his work - still cover the surrounding limestone hills. Arles is also noted for its houses with striking red barrel-tiled roofs and shady, twisting alleys too narrow to swing a cat (trust me).
Arles' attractions include the Les Arènes, an enormous Roman ampitheatre built towards the end of the 1st century AD. Tens of thousands of men and animals were sacrificed here to that most noble of pursuits - sport. Chariot races and hand-to-hand battles were staged with slaughter emphasised over tactics, but the public seemed happy. The Arènes was later transformed into a fortress, then a residential area but its sanguinary origins have been reawakened in the full houses drawn to bullfights. Another of the city's Roman relics is the Théâtre Antique, which provides an ideal setting for open-air dance, film and music festivals in the summer.
Central Arles is a relaxed place of intimate squares, terraced brasseries perfect for sipping pastis and men with long pomaded moustaches playing pétanque.

Arles
Arles: its narrow lanes

Castels along the Loire River are the most known sites of the Center of France.
The Loire region is one of the richest in France as regarded as the historic patrimony, with more than 60 castles and umpteen more modest but worthy of interest residences.
The castles building dates back middle-ages as Angers, Loches or Saumur and go through centuries as far as the 18th century for the last additions for Blois or Valençay.
Built on piles on an island in the Indre, Azay-le-Rideau was erected between 1518 and 1527 on the site of an old stronghold. Originally the residence of Gilles Berthelot, royal treasurer, the castle has survived without any major modelling. Its uneventful history contrasts with its brilliant architecture which sums up the aspirations of the Renaissance. The castle belongs to the State. It is composed of a dwellings big body and a square wing. It has a feudal character thanks to its heavy towers. The castle inside is a renaissance museum with its furniture and tapestries.
At the sooth of the Loire, between Blois and Orleans, Chambord is a François Ier creation, it's the biggest castle of the Loire Castles. The surrounding parc measures 5500 hectares (13585 acres odd), ad it is surrounded by a 32 km wall. The castle itself is composed of a 4 towers surrounded by an enclosure.
At South of the Loire, after Blois, Chaumont looks down on the Loire valley and it has been built at the end of the 15th century.
From the outside, the castle looks like a fortress with its drawbridge, its cylindrical towers and its wall-walks. This makes a contrast with the Renaissance inside façades. The rooms of the castle are decorated with furniture and trapestries of very first rate dating from the 15th, 16th and 19th century.
The stable ends the visit. The castle is accessed by an outstanding parc, after a 10 min ascent.
The west façade had a very austere aspect, and it had been breach with little windows. The other façades were affected by the renaissance. Diane de Poithiers did a little passing at Chaumont, Catherine de Medici forced her into renouncing Chenonceaux, when Henri II dies.
Between Chaumont and Loches, on the Cher river, Chenonceau is a big and beautiful castle built from 1513 to 1521. The castle itself is composed of a rectangular dwelling body, and it is surrounded by the Cathenine de Médicis and Diane de Poithiers's gardens.
The castle history had been marqued by 6 women : Catherine Briçonnet, Thomas Bohier's wife, who influenced the building (more than her husband who was always gone away). Diane de Poithiers, who was offered the castle by Henry II. She ommanded a garden and a bridge on the Cher. Catherine de Medici had a parc traced out, and she had a double store gallery built on the bridge. Louise de Lorraine, Henry II's wife, mourned during 12 years in the castle. Madame Dupin, in the 18th century, kept a saloon with great figure of history, and Jean-jacques Rousseau was the private tutor of her children.
To cut a long story short, in 19th century,Madame Pelouze renovated the castle as Thomas Behier had built it.

Azay-le-Rideau Castle
Chambord Castle
Chaumont Castle
Chenonceau Castle
Cheverny Castle
Cheverny - Inside the Castle
Langeais Castle
Sully-sur-Loire Castle

Cannes is an off-limit area for budget travellers, but it worth a visit... This resort, on the world-famous Côte d'Azur, is the perennial favourite of wealthy scions and the shop-til-you-drop set. During the International Film Festival in May, Cannes is crammed with more money, more champagne, more mobile phones and more cleavage than anywhere else in the world. Apart from posturing boutiques, hotels and restaurants, it also has beaches with the equivalent of room service, which the sallow studiously avoid.
I suggest to go there to people-watch. Every possible specimen is on promenade along the famous Boulevard de la Croisette: yesteryear starlets in string bikinis (wow!); vacationing Frenchmen carrying purses; wide Americans with Coppertone skins who wear their jewellery in the pool; and side-whiskered peasants in rough waistcoats and country boots wondering what all the fuss is about. After a walk, settle back at one of the many cafes and restaurants - overflowing with gold-carded patrons - which light up the area with splashy neon signs.
Just offshore is the eucalyptus and pine-covered Île Sainte Marguerite, which was exploited so effectively by Alexander Dumas in his classic novel The Man in the Iron Mask. This small island is vectored by trails and paths while its beaches are considerably less crowded than those on the mainland. Even smaller is the nearby Île Saint Honorat, once the site of a renowned and powerful monastery founded in the 5th century, and today the home of a Cistercian monastic order. Ferries run to both islands.

Clinging to the slopes of the Pre-Alpes 17 km north of Cannes, Grasse has been one of the country's most important centres of perfume production for centuries. It is here that master perfumers - or nez (noses), as they're often called - combine their natural gift with years of study to identify, with no more than a whiff, 6000 scents. The town, with its distinctive orange roofs sheltering densely packed cottages, also produces some of France's finest flowers, including jasmine, Centifolia rose, lavender, mimosa, orange blossom and narcotic narcissus.
Of the 40 perfumeries, only three are open to the public. The conveniently placed Fragonard is housed in a 17th-century former tannery. A tour will take you through cellars filled with stacks of soaps, bales of scented leather, and chests and crates stuffed with spices. Every stage of perfume production is evidenced here, from extraction and distillation to the work of the nez, as well as the vast number of flowers needed to make one litre of essence. At the end you'll be squirted with a few house scents, invited to purchase as many as you'd like and will leave the scene reeking.

Getting there, moving around

Air France, France's national carrier, and scores of other airlines link Paris with every part of the globe. Other French cities with direct international air links include Bordeaux, Lyon, Marseille, Nice, Strasbourg and Toulouse.
Paris is the country's main bus and rail hub, with services to/from every part of Europe. Buses are slower and less comfortable than trains, but they are cheaper, especially if you qualify for the 10% discount available to people under 26 or over 60 or hunt around for discount fares. The completion of the Channel Tunnel in 1994 has meant travel between England and France - on the silent, ultra-modern Eurostar rail service - is now quick and hassle-free. The Chunnel also has high-speed shuttle trains that whisk cars, motorbikes and coaches from England to France.
By sea, the quickest passenger ferries and hovercrafts to England run between Calais and Dover, and Boulogne and Folkestone. There are numerous routes linking Brittany and Normandy with England; Saint Malo is linked by car ferry and hydrofoil with Weymouth, Poole and Portsmouth, while Roscoff has ferry links to Plymouth. Ferries also ply the waters between France and Ireland (Cherbourg-Cork), the Channel Islands, Sardinia (Marseille-Porto Torres), Italy (Corsica-Genoa) and North Africa (Marseille-Algiers, Marseille-Tunis, Sète-Tangier).
France's domestic airlines link most urban centres, but flights can be quite expensive. Occasionally discount tickets will work out cheaper than overland travel so it can be worth scouting around if you've got a big hop in mind. France has an excellent rail network, operated by the state-owned SCNF (Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer), which reaches almost every part of the country. Thanks to the high-speed TGV (train à grande vitesse), travel between some cities (eg Paris and Lyon) is faster and easier by rail than by air.
Inter-regional bus services are limited but buses are used extensively for short-distance travel within regions, especially in rural areas with relatively few train lines (eg Brittany and Normandy). On longer trips, buses tend to be much slower but slightly cheaper than trains; on short runs, buses are generally slower and more expensive.

Cancale, the incredible low tide
Cancale, the oyster's homeland
Oyster vendors at Cancale seaside

Having your own vehicle can be expensive, and is sure to be inconvenient in city centres where parking and traffic are problematic. Be warned that most driving in France is done with the horn, or 'French Brake Pedal', as it is often called. As a rule of thumb, don't be timid or overly respectful once on the road as this technique will often confuse the natives. Renting a car is expensive if you walk into an office and hire a car on the spot, but prebooked and prepaid promotional rates are reasonable.
France is a superb country for motorcycle touring, with winding roads of good quality and lots of stunning scenery. It's also an eminently cyclable country, due largely to its extensive network of secondary and tertiary roads that are relatively lightly trafficked. Another relaxing way of seeing France is to cruise its canals and navigable rivers by houseboat. These usually accommodate four to 12 passengers and can be rented for a weekend or several weeks.
Local transport includes the cheap and efficient Metro and RER underground networks in Paris (there are also metro lines in other cities), trams, buses, téléphériques in the French Alps, expensive taxis (especially outside the major cities) and river shuttles.


Traveller's Memories: index
© Paolo Botton