France is the birthplace of medieval Gothic architecture. Soaring cathedrals with priceless intricate stained glass windows (such as Chartres Cathedral) dot the country and take you back in time. The island fortress of Mont-St-Michel, exudes an incredible medieval feeling as one winds up the narrow alley through the village to the entrance to the monastery and moss-covered stone walls from centuries of damp sea air. In the beautiful Loire Valley, one finds the grand chateaux of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which became a symbol of the excesses of the royal families, and led to the French Revolution in the late 1700’s. The Dordogne Valley offers the melding of the natural landscape and ancient architecture, such as the holy pilgrimage site of Rocamadour and other villages built right into the rock cliffs. Some of the best-preserved Roman ruins in Western Europe are not in Italy, but rather France (such as the Pont Du Gard aqueduct). It has some of the best prehistoric paintings (Lascaux Caves), and, if these sights weren’t enough, there’s also beauty in the natural landscapes— widely varied from green, fertile lowlands of Brittany in the northwest to the rocky “Massif Central” in the south center and soaring peaks of the French Alps in the southeast.
Shown here are a few pictures of some less-visited sites (and one very overcrowded site!)
When asked, many people might say, “oh yes, I’ve visited France” but in reality they’ve seen a few of the sights in Paris and that is about it. It’s like someone visiting New York City, and saying they’ve seen the U.S. France is a special part of Europe to me. I can’t say enough about the incredible array of sights that France has to offer tourists.
Traveling by Car in France
We love to rent a car when we are in France, which allows us to meander on quiet country roads and visit pristine medieval villages where very few tourists venture.
Keep in mind that many of the main highways in France are “peage” or toll roads. Make sure you have a couple different credit cards that work in Europe, since I have found that some tolls booths accept one card (like a Visa) and another booth may accept another card (like American Express). Cash is also accepted at staffed toll booths. Even with the tolls, renting a car when traveling with 2-4 people is very economical. Get a diesel fuel car if you can, since the mileage tends to be much better. Cars with automatic transmissions are less common, more expensive to rent, and are less fuel efficient. Via Michelin is a great website for calculating distance (in kilometers), as well as cost for fuel and tolls between different cities in Europe.
Take some time to familiarize yourself with the European road signs prior to driving, and when on major highways, do not linger in the left lane, it is for passing only. When coming into a town, usually the key sights are in the center of town, so follow the signs to “Centre” and then look for the big blue “P” signs which indicate parking garages or lots.
Accommodations in France
For the traveler who wants an economical European trip, France can be a great place to go, especially if visiting off-season, and if you are ok with modular, generic and basic hotel rooms. France is the home of many inexpensive roadside hotel chains such as Formule 1 (typically shared bathroom), Etap (private bath), and Ibis (all part of the Accor Group). B&B Hotels are similar to Etap, and offer very basic rooms (a double bed usually with a 3rd single bed). Another option is Hôtel Première Classe, which is even more basic (no carpet), with a tiny bathroom (smaller than most cruise ships!) and double bed with a 3rd single bed. All of these hotels are popular with Europeans on road trips. Many of these rooms are 30-40 Euros per night for 1-3 persons, and they are ubiquitous, usually just outside the towns on an intersection (roundabout) located near roadside restaurants or light industrial buildings. These are not quaint accommodations, but they are functional, cheap and plentiful. They have 24 hour automated check-in, and usually a very limited breakfast service for an additional fee. Most have wireless internet service too. Some of these hotels (such as Ibis and Etap) are also near train stations.
Restaurants in France
In the off season, trying to find restaurants open at convenient times is sometimes a challenge. We found that restaurants often close early (before 5 pm) during the winter or do not open until later (after 8 pm), if at all. Europeans generally eat later than we do in the U.S., but choices seem to be more limited in October-March. A good idea is to eat your main meal before 2 pm, or whenever you find a place open.
As with any country, but especially in France, learning a few words is very helpful. The French are not particularly fond of speaking English. Knowing a few words helps tremendously in navigating by car, asking a price, ordering off a menu, and seeking directions. I find French pronunciation somewhat challenging, but the effort will be appreciated. My family and I played a game as we traveled in France, thinking of all the English words that are French in origin—it was fun to see how many words we kept thinking of! The history of France and England are so closely interwoven it’s not surprising that so much of our vocabulary comes from France.
In future posts on France, we will explore various regions of this magnificent country.