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Vacations

Many of the French take their vacations in August. As a result, outside of touristic areas, many of the smaller stores (butcher shops, bakeries...) will be closed in parts of August. This also applies to many corporations as well as physicians. Obviously, in touristy areas, stores will tend to be open when the tourists come, especially July and August. In contrast, many attractions will be awfully crowded during those months, and during Easter week-end.

Some attractions, especially in rural areas, close or have reduced opening hours outside the touristic season.

Mountain areas tend to have two touristic seasons: in the winter, for skiing, snowshoeing and other snow-related activities, and in the summer for sightseeing and hiking.

Money

France is part of the Eurozone, so as in many other European Union countries the currency used is the euro (symbol: ). Some foreign currencies such as the US dollar and the British Pound are occasionally accepted, especially in touristic areas and in higher-end places, but one should not count on it; furthermore, the merchant may apply some unfavourable rate. In general, shops will refuse transactions in foreign currency.

It is compulsory, for the large majority of businesses, to post prices in windows. Hotels and restaurants must have their rates visible from outside (note, however, that many hotels propose lower prices than the posted ones if they feel they will have a hard time filling up their rooms; the posted price is only a maximum).

Almost all stores, restaurants and hotels take the CB French debit card, and its foreign affiliations, Visa and Mastercard. American Express tends to be accepted only in high-end shops. Check with your bank for applicable fees (typically, banks apply the wholesale inter-bank exchange rate, which is the best available, but may slap a proportional and/or a fixed fee).

French CB cards (and CB/Visa and CB/Mastercard cards) have a "smart chip" on them allowing PIN authentication of transactions. This system, initiated in France, has now evolved to an international standard and newer British cards are compatible. Some automatic retail machines (such as those vending tickets) may be compatible only with cards with the microchip. In addition, cashiers unaccustomed to foreign cards possibly do not know that foreign Visa or Mastercard cards have to be swiped and a signature obtained, while French customers systematically use PIN and don't sign the transactions.

There is (virtually) no way to get a cash advance from a credit card without a PIN in France.

Automatic teller machines (ATM) all take CB, Visa, Mastercard, Cirrus and Plus and are plentiful throughout France. They may accept other kinds of card; check for the logos on the ATM and on your card (on the back, generally) if at least one matches. It is possible that some machines do not handle 6-digit PIN codes (only 4-digit ones), or that they do not offer the choice between different accounts (defaulting on the checking account). They are by far the best way to get money in France. Check with your bank about applicable fees, which may vary greatly (typically, banks apply the wholesale inter-bank exchange rate, which is the best available, but may slap a proportional and/or a fixed fee; because of the fixed fee it is generally better to withdraw money in big chunks rather than 20€ at a time). Also, check about applicable maximal withdrawal limits.

Traveller's cheques are difficult to use — most merchants will not accept them, and exchanging them may involve finding a bank that accepts to exchange them and possibly paying a fee.

Note that the postal service doubles as a bank, so often post offices will have an ATM. As a result, even minor towns will have ATMs usable with foreign cards.

Exchange offices (bureaux de change) are now rarer with the advent of the Euro - they will in general only be found in towns with a significant foreign tourist presence, such as Paris. Some banks exchange money, often with high fees. The Bank of France no longer does foreign exchange.

Do's Put money into your checking account, carry an ATM card with a Cirrus or Plus logo on it and a 4-digit pin and withdraw cash from ATMs. Pay larger transactions (hotel, restaurants...) with Visa or Mastercard. Always carry some € cash for emergencies.

Don't's Carry foreign currency ($, £...) or traveller's cheques, and exchange them on the go, or expect them to be accepted by shops.

Stores

Inside city centers, you will find smaller stores, chain grocery stores (Casino) as well as, occasionally, department stores and small shopping malls. Residential areas will often have small supermarkets (Champion, Intermarché). Large supermarkets (hypermarchés such as Géant Casino or Carrefour) are mostly located on the outskirts of towns and are probably not useful unless you have a car.

Eat

With its international reputation for fine dining, few people would be surprised to hear that French cuisine can certainly be very good. Unfortunately, it can also be quite disappointing; many restaurants serve very ordinary fare, and some in touristy areas are rip-offs. Finding the right restaurant is therefore very important - try asking locals, hotel staff or even browsing restaurant guides for recommendations as simply walking in off the street can be a hit and miss affair.

There are many places to try French food in France, from three-star Michelin restaurants to French "brasseries" or "bistros" that you can find at almost every corner, especially in big cities. These usually offer a relatively consistent and virtually standardised menu of relatively inexpensive cuisine. To obtain a greater variety of dishes, a larger outlay of money is often necessary. In general, one should try to eat where the locals do for the best chance of a memorable meal. Most small cities or even villages have local restaurants which are sometimes listed in the most reliable guides. There are also specific local restaurants, like "bouchons lyonnais" in Lyons, "crêperies" in Brittany (or in the Montparnasse area of Paris), etc.

Chinese, Vietnamese, even Thai eateries are readily available in Paris, either as regular restaurants or "traiteurs" (fast-food). They are not so common, and are more expensive, in smaller French cities. Many places have "Italian" restaurants though these are often little more than unimaginative pizza and pasta parlors. You will also find North African (Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian) as well as Greek and Lebanese food. The ubiquitous hamburger eateries (US original or their French copies) are also available; note that McDonalds is more upmarket in France than in the US.

In France, taxes (19.6 per cent of the total) and service (usually 15 per cent) are always included in the bill ; so anything patrons add to the bill amount is an "extra-tip". French people usually leave one or two coins if they were happy with the service.

Menu fixed price seldom include beverages. If you want water, waiters will often try to sell you mineral water (Évian, Thonon) or fizzy water (Badoit, Perrier), at a premium; ask for a carafe d'eau for tap water, which is free and safe to drink. Water never comes with ice in it unless so requested (and water with ice may not be available).

As in other countries, restaurants tend to make a large profit off beverages. Expect wine to cost much more than it would in a supermarket.

Ordering is made either from fixed price menus (prix fixe) or à la carte. A typical fixed price menu will comprise:

  • appetizer, called entrées or hors d'œuvres
  • main dish, called plat
  • dessert (dessert) or cheese (fromage)

Sometimes, restaurants offer the option to take only two of three steps, at a reduced price.

Coffee is always served as a final step (though it may be followed by liquors). A request for coffee during the meal will be considered strange.

Not all restaurants are open for lunch and dinner, nor are they open all year around. It is therefore advisable to check carefully the opening times and days. A restaurant open for lunch will usually start service at noon and accept patrons until 13:30. Dinner begins at around 19:30 and patrons are accepted until 21:30. Restaurants with longer service hours are usually found only in the larger cities and in the downtown area. Finding a restaurant open on Saturday and especially Sunday can be a challenge unless you stay close to the tourist areas.

In a reasonable number of restaurants, especially outside tourist areas, a booking is compulsory and people may be turned away without one, even if the restaurant is clearly not filled to capacity. For this reason, it can be worthwhile to research potential eateries in advance and make the necessary reservations in order to avoid disappointment, especially if the restaurant you're considering is specially advised in guide books.

A lunch or dinner for two on the "menu" including wine and coffee will cost you (as of 2004) €70 to €100 in a listed restaurant in Paris. The same with beer in a local "bistro" or a "crêperie" around €50. A lunch or dinner for one person in a decent Chinese restaurant in Paris can cost as little as €6 if one looks carefully.

Outside of Paris and the main cities, prices are not always lower but the menu will include a fourth course, usually cheese. As everywhere beware of the tourist traps which are numerous around the heavy travelled spots and may offer a nice view but not much to remember in your plate.

Bread

All white bread variants keep for only a short time - must be eaten the same day. Hence bakers bake at least twice a day!

  • The famous baguette: a long, thin loaf
  • Variants of the baguette : la ficelle (even thinner), la flûte
  • Pain de campagne or Pain complet: made from whole grain which keeps relatively well.

Pastries

Pastries are a large part of French cooking. Hotel breakfasts tend to be light, consisting of tartines (pieces of bread with butter or jam) or the famous croissants and pains au chocolat, not dissimilar to a chocolate filled croissant (but square rather than crescent shaped).

Pastries can be found in a pâtisserie but also in most boulangeries.

Regional dishes

Every French region has dishes all its own. These dishes follow the resources (game, fish, agriculture, etc) of the region, the vegetables (cabbage, turnip, endives, etc) which they grow there. Here is a small list of regional dishes which you can find easily in France. Generally each region has a unique and widespread dish (usually because it was poor people's food):

  • Cassoulet (in south west) : Beans, duck, pork & sausages
  • Choucroute, or sauerkraut (in Alsace) : stripped fermented cabbage + pork
  • Fondue Savoyarde (central Alps) : Melted/hot cheese with alcohol
  • Fondue Bourguignonne (in Burgundy) : Pieces of beef (in boiled oil), usually served with a selection of various sauces.
  • Raclette (central Alps) : melted cheese & potatoes/meat
  • Pot-au-feu boiled beef with vegetables
  • Boeuf Bourguignon (Burgundy) : slow cooked beef with gravy
  • Gratin dauphinois (Rhone-Alpes) : oven roasted slices of potatoes
  • Aligot (Auvergne) : melted cheese mixed with a puree of potatoes
  • Bouillabaisse (fish + saffron) (Marseille and French Riviera). Don't be fooled. A real bouillabaisse is a really expensive dish due to the amount of fresh fish it requires. Be prepared to pay at least 30€/persons. If you find restaurants claiming serving bouillabaisse for something like 15€/persons, you'll get a very poor quality.
  • Tartiflette (Savoie) Reblochon cheese, potatoes and pork or bacon.
  • Confit de Canard (Landes) : Duck Confit, consists of legs and wings bathing in grease. That grease is actually very healthy and, with red wine, is one of the identified sources of the so-called "French Paradox" (eat richly, live long).
  • Foie Gras (Landes) : The liver of a duck or goose. Although usually quite expensive, foie gras can be found in supermarkets for a lower price (because of their purchasing power) around the holiday season. It is the time of year when most of foie gras is consumed in France. It goes very well with Champagne.

Cooking and drinking is a notable part of the French culture, take time to eat and discover new dishes...

Unusual foods

Contrary to stereotype, snails and frog legs are quite infrequent foods in France, with many French people enjoying neither, or sometimes having never even tasted them. Quality restaurants sometimes have them on their menu: if you're curious about trying new foods, go ahead.

  • Frogs' legs have a very fine and delicate taste with flesh that is not unlike chicken. They are often served in a garlic dressing and are no weirder to eat than, say, crab.
  • Most of the taste of Bourgogne snails (escargots de bourgogne) comes from the generous amount of butter, garlic and parsley in which they are cooked. They have a very particular spongy-leathery texture that is what is liked by people who like snails. Catalan style snails ("cargols") are made a completely different way, and taste much weirder.

Let us also cite:

  • Rillettes sarthoise. A sort of potted meat, made from finely shredded and spiced pork. A delicious speciality of the Sarthe area in the north of the Pays de la Loire and not to be confused with rillettes from other areas, which are more like a rough pate.
  • Beef bone marrow (os a moelle). Generally served in small quantities, with a large side. So go ahead: If you don't like it, you'll have something else to eat in your plate.
  • Veal sweetbread (ris de Veau), is a very fine (and generally expensive) delicacy, often served with morels, or in more elaborates dishes like "bouchees a la reine".
  • Beef stomach (tripes) is served either "A la mode de caen" (with a white wine sauce) or "A la catalane" (with a slightly spiced tomato sauce)
  • Andouillettes are sausages made from tripe is a specialty of Lyon
  • Beef tongue (langue de bœuf) and beef nose(museau) and Veal head (tete de veau) are generally eaten cold (but thoroughly cooked!) as an appetizer.
  • Oysters are most commonly served raw in a half shell.
  • Oursins (sea urchins) For those who like concentrated iodine.
  • Steak tartare a big patty of ground beef cured in acid as opposed to cooked, frequently served with a raw egg.
  • Cervelle, pronounced (ser-VAY) lamb brain.

Cheese

France is certainly THE country of cheese, with nearly 400 different kinds. Indeed, former president General Charles De Gaulle was quoted as saying something along the lines of, nobody could govern a country with more than 265 different cheeses.

Here is a far from exhaustive list of what one can find:

Bleu des Causses Livarot Roquefort
Bleu du Vercors Morbier Saint Nectaire
Boulette d'Avesnes Maroilles Salers
Brie de Meaux Munster Sainte Maure de Touraine
Brie de Melun Murol Selles-sur-Cher
Broccio Neufchâtel Saint Marcellin
Camembert Ossau-Iraty Sainte Maure de Touraine
Cantal Pelardon Tomme de chèvre
Chaource Pérail Tomme des Cévennes
Comté Picodon Tomme des Cévennes
... Valençay

Here you read about the cheeses of France in greater detail.

Dietary restrictions

Vegetarianism is not as uncommon as it used to be, especially in larger cities. Still, very few restaurants offer vegetarian menus, thus if you ask for something vegetarian the only things they may have available are salad and vegetable side dishes.

There may still be confusions between vegetarianism and pesce/pollotarianism. Vegetarian/organic food restaurants are starting to appear. However, "traditional" French restaurants may not have anything vegetarian on the menu, so you may have to pick something "à la carte", which is usually more expensive. Veganism is still very uncommon and it may be difficult to find vegan eateries.

Breakfast

Breakfast in France isn't the most important meal of the day and is usually very light. A cafe and a brioche, a croissant, or a pain au chocolat is the norm. Cold meats such as salami or ham, and a variety of cheeses may accompany the meal, but this is usual only on weekends and holidays.

Drink

Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone, the Loire Valley... France is the home of wine. It can be found cheaply just about anywhere. Beer (lager) is also extremely popular, in particular in northern France, where "[Biere de Garde]" can be found. Note that in France, the minimum age to buy alcohol at cafés is 16 (for beer) and 18 for all others alcohol, but this is not always strictly enforced; however, laws against drunk driving are strictly enforced, with stiff penalties.

Wine and liquors may be purchased from supermarkets, or from specialized stores such as the Nicolas chain. Nicolas offers good advice on what to buy (specify the kind of wine and the price range you desire). In general, only French wines are available unless a foreign wine is a "specialty" with no equivalent in France (such as port), and they are classified by region of origin, not by grape.

Never drink alcoholic beverages (especially red wine or strong alcohol such as cognac) directly from a 75 cl bottle. Such behaviour is generally associated with bums and drunkards. Drinking beer from a 25 to 50cl can or bottle is ok.

Café prices depend heavily on location. Remember, you're not paying so much for the beverage as for the table spot; and accordingly, in general, it is cheaper to drink at the bar than seated at a table. Cafés in touristic areas, especially in Paris, are very expensive. If your intent is simply to have a drink, you'll be better off buying beverages from a grocery store and drinking them in a park.

There are a couple of mixed drinks which seem to be more or less unique to France, and nearby francophone countries.

  • Panaché is a mix of beer and lemonade, basically a beer shandy.
  • Monaco is a Panaché with some grenadine syrup added.
  • Kir is a pleasant aperitif of white wine (in theory, Bourgogne Aligoté) or, less frequently, of champagne (then named kir royal and about twice the price of regular kir) and cassis (blackcurrant liqueur), or peche (peach), or mûre (blackberry).
  • Pastis is an anise-based (licorice-flavored) spirit that is more popular in the South, but is also available everywhere else. Served with a small pitcher of iced water that is used to dilute the drink and turns the yellow colored liquid cloudy.

Tap water is safe to drink apart from exceptional cases (remote farms, remote rest areas), in which case it will be labeled eau non potable. Tap water may be obtained in restaurants by asking for a carafe d'eau; it will not come with ice. In some cities, it may have a taste such as that of chlorine.

There is a variety of bottled water, including:

  • Évian, Thonon, Contrex: mineral water
  • Perrier: fizzy water
  • Badoit: slightly fizzy and salty water.

Stay safe

Crimes

Crime-related emergencies can be reported to the toll-free number 17. Law enforcement forces are the National Police (Police Nationale) in urban area and the Gendarmerie in rural area, though for limited issues such as parking and traffic offenses some towns and villages also have a municipal police.

France is not a high crime area but large cities are plagued with the usual woes. Violent crime against tourists or strangers is rather rare, but there is a significant amount of pickpocketing and purse-snatching.

The inner city areas and a few select suburbs are usually safe at all hours. In large cities, especially Paris, there are a few areas which are better to avoid. Parts of the suburban are sometimes grounds for youth gang violent activities and drug dealing; however these are almost always far from touristic points and you should have no reason to visit them. Common sense applies: it is very easy to spot derelict areas.

The subject of crime in the poorer suburbs is very touchy as it may easily have racist overtones, since many people associate it with working-class youth of North African origin. You should probably not express any opinion on the issue.

If you are traveling alone, especially if you are a woman, you should avoid using public transportation during the nights (e.g. Noctambus in Paris) especially on links between the city center and the suburbs.

Usual caution apply for tourists flocking around sights as they may become targets for pickpockets.

While it is not compulsory for French citizens to carry identification they usually do so. Foreigners are advised to carry some kind of official identity document. Although random checks are not the norm you may be asked for an ID in some kinds of situations, for example if you cannot show a valid ticket when using public transportation; not having one in such cases will result in your being taken to a police station for further checks. Even if you feel that law enforcement forces have no right to check your identity (they can only do so in certain circumstances), it is a bad idea to enter a legal discussion with officers; better put up and show ID. Again the subject is touchy as the police has been often accused of targeting people according to criteria of ethnicity : délit de sale gueule = "odd face misdemeanor".

Due to the terrorist factor, police, with the help of military units, are patrolling monuments, the Paris subway, train stations and airports. Depending on the status of the "Vigipirate" plan (anti terrorist units) it is not uncommon to see armed patrols in those areas. This presence of police is a help for tourists, as it also deters pickpockets and the like; however, suspicious behaviour, public disturbances etc. may result in policemen asking to see an ID.

In France, failing to offer assistance to 'a person in danger' is illegal. This means that if you fail to stop upon witnessing a motor accident, fail to report such an accident to emergency services, or ignore appeals for help or urgent assistance, you may be charged. Penalties include suspended prison sentence and fines. The law does not apply in situations where to answer an appeal for help might endanger your life or the lives of others.

 

 

France

France is a country located in Western Europe. Clockwise from the north, France borders Belgium and Luxembourg to the northeast, Germany and Switzerland to the east, Italy to the south-east and Spain to the south-west, across the Pyrenees mountain range (the small country of Andorra lies in between the two countries). The Mediterranean Sea lies to the south of France, with the Principality of Monaco forming a small enclave. To the west, France has a long Atlantic Ocean coastline, while to the north lies the English Channel, across which lies the last of France's neighbours, England (part of the United Kingdom).

France is the world's most popular tourist destination (78 million in 2006) boasting dozens of major tourist attractions, like Paris, Côte d'Azur (the French Riviera), the Atlantic beaches, the winter sport resorts of the Alps, the Castles of Loire Valley, Brittany, Normandy: Mont Saint Michel. The country is renowned for its gastronomy (particularly wines and cheeses), history, culture and fashion.

Regions

France is divided into 22 administrative regions, which themselves can be grouped into 7 main "cultural regions", which share common points.

  • Map of France

    The Ile de France is the region surrounding the French capital, Paris.

  • Northern France is one region where the world wars have left many scars. It includes Nord-Pas de Calais, Picardie, and Haute-Normandie.

  • Northeast France is a region where wider European culture (and especially German culture) has merged with the French, giving interesting results. It includes Alsace, Lorraine, Champagne-Ardenne and Franche-Comté.

  • The Great West is an oceanic region, with a culture greatly influenced by the ancient Celtic peoples. It includes Brittany (French: Bretagne), Basse-Normandie, and Pays de la Loire.

  • Central France is a largely agricultural and vinicultural region, featuring river valleys, chateaux and historic towns. It includes Centre-Val de Loire, Poitou-Charentes, Burgundy (French: Bourgogne), Limousin, and Auvergne.

  • Southwestern France is a region of sea and wine, with nice beaches over the Atlantic ocean, as well as young, high mountains close to Spain. It includes Aquitaine and Midi-Pyrenees.

  • Southeastern France is the primary tourist region of the country outside of Paris, with a warm climate and azure sea, contrasting with the mountainous French Alps. It includes Rhône-Alpes, Languedoc-Roussillon, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur and the Mediterranean island of Corsica (French: Corse).

The world-famous Loire Valley - best known for its wines and chateaux - extends across two regions in west and central France.

Corsica is a large French island located to the south-east of mainland France in the west Mediterranean Sea (close to Nice on one side and Livorno, Italy).

Overseas departments
  • Guadeloupe
  • Martinique
  • French Guiana (Guyane Française)
  • Réunion.

Overseas territories

  • French Polynesia (Tahiti)
  • New Caledonia (Nouvelle Caledonie)
  • Saint-Pierre and Miquelon (Saint Pierre et Miquelon)
  • Mayotte
  • Wallis and Futuna

The following overseas territories are remote possessions kept as natural reservations:

  • French Southern and Antarctic territories (Terres Antarctiques et Australes Françaises, or TAAF), consisting of Terre Adélie in Antarctica and some islands in the Indian Ocean
  • Scattered Islands of the Indian Ocean (Iles Eparses): Europa Island, Bassas da India, Juan de Nova Island, Glorioso Islands (Glorieuses)
  • Clipperton Island

A very limited form of tourism is available in the TAAF islands.

Cities

France has numerous cities and towns of interest to travelers. Below is a list of nine of the most notable:

  • Paris -- the "City of Light", the capital of France
  • Bordeaux - city of wine, capital of South-West
  • Bourges -- a middle aged city, capital of central France.
  • Cannes -- host of the annual Cannes Film Festival
  • Lille - France's fourth city, capital of the north of France. Dynamic flemish city with nice architecture.
  • Lyon - France's second city, with a history from Roman times to the Resistance, restaurants (Beaujolais and delicatessen)
  • Marseille - big harbor, heart of Provence
  • Nice - a major resort on the French Riviera and the gateway to Monaco.
  • Strasbourg -- a historic city on the Ill Rhine and home to, among other institutions, the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights, the European Ombudsman, the European Parliament
  • Nantes -- the "Greenest City", the "Best Place to Live" in Europe

Other destinations

The Canal du Midi

One of the most remarkable inland waterways in the world, The Canal du Midi was built in the 17th century to link the Atlantic with the Mediterranean, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Canal itself, which starts in Toulouse and finishes in the Thau Lagoon near Sète, has 240 km of navigable waterway, making it ideal for boat holidays. The Canal is extremely picturesque, often serene, and shaded for much of its length by trees. There are some impressive engineering feats along its course, including the series of locks at Fonseranes, near Béziers, which was the birthplace of the Canal's founder, Pierre-Paul Riquet.

Theme parks

  • Disneyland Paris
  • Parc Astérix
  • Futuroscope

Most of the cities in France would have an "Office du tourisme". These can help at making itineraries, getting a map, get information about accommodation, visit chateaux, organise wine testing and so on. Bordeaux for example has Bordeaux Tourisme , Place Libération 33710 Bourg, France. Tel+33 5 57 68 31 76. But also web link:

Understand

Climate

A lot of variety, but temperate. Cool winters and mild summers on most of the territory, and especially in Paris. Mild winters and hot summers along the Mediterranean and in the south west (the latter has lots of rain in winter). Mild winters (with lots of rain) and cool summers in the north west (Brittany). Cool to cold winters and hot summer along the German border (Alsace). Along the Rhône Valley, occasional strong, cold, dry, north-to-northwesterly wind known as the mistral. Cold winters with lots of snow in the Mountainous regions: Alps, Pyrenees, Auvergne

Terrain

Mostly flat plains or gently rolling hills in north and west; remainder is mountainous, especially Pyrenees in south west, Vosges and Alps in east, Massif Central in the south.

History

France has been populated since the Neolithic period. the Dordogne region is especially rich in prehistoric caves, some used as habitation, others presumed to be temples with remarkable paintings of animals and hunters, like those found at Lascaux.

Rise and fall of the Roman empire

Written History began in France with the invasion of the territory by the Romans, between 118 and 50 BC. Starting then, the territory which is today called France was part of the Roman Empire, and the Gauls (name given to local Celts by the Romans), who lived there before Roman invasions, became accultured "Gallo-romans".

With the fall of the Roman empire, what was left were areas inhabited by descendants of intermarriages between gallo-romans and "barbaric" easterners (Mainly the Franks, but also other tribes like the "burgondes").

The legacy of the Roman presence is still visible, particularly in the southern part of the country where Roman circuses are still used for bullfights and rock and roll shows. Some of the main roads still follow the routes originally traced 2,000 years ago, and the urban organisation of many old town centers still transcript the cardo and the decumanus of the former Roman camp (especially Paris). The other main legacy was the Catholic Church which can be, arguably, considered as the only remnant of the civilization of that time.

Middle-Ages

Clovis, who died in 511, is considered as the first French king although his realm was not much more than the area of the present Ile de France, around Paris. Charlemagne, who was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 800, was the first strong ruler. He united under his rule territories which extend today in Belgium, Germany and Italy. His capital was Aix-la-Chapelle (now in Germany, known as Aachen).

The country was under attack by the Vikings who came from the north and navigated upstream the rivers to plunder the cities and abbeys, it was also under attack from the south by the Muslim Saracens who were established in Spain. The Vikings were given a part of the territory (today's Normandy) in 911 and melted fast in the Feudal system. The Saracens were stopped in 732 in Poitiers by Charles Martel, grand father of Charlemagne, a rather rough warrior who was later painted as a national hero.

Starting with Charlemange, a new society starts to settle, based on the personal links of feudalism. This era is named middle age. Although generally seen as an era of stagnation, it can more be described as a very complex mix of periods of economic and cultural developments (Music and poems of the Troubadours and Trouveres, building of the Romanantic, then Gothic cathedrals), and recessions due to pandemic disease and wars.

In 987, Hughes Capet was crowned as king of France ; he is the root of the royal families who later governed France. In 1154 much of the western part of France went under English rule with the wedding of Alienor d'Aquitaine to Henry II (Count of Anjou, born in the town of Le Mans). Some kings of the Plantagenet dynasty are still buried in France, the most famous being Richard I, of Walter Scott's fame, and his father Henry II, who lies in the Abbaye de Fontevraud. The struggle between the English and French kings between 1337 and 1435 is known as the Hundred Years War and the most famous figure, considered as a national heroine, is Joan of Arc.

The making of a modern state nation

The beginning of the XVIth century saw the end of the feudal system and the emergence of France as a "modern" state with its border relatively close to the present ones (Alsace, Corsica, Savoy, the Nice region weren't yet French). Louis XIV who was king from 1643 to 1715 (72 years) was probably the most powerful monarch of his time. French influence extended deep in western Europe, its language was used in the European courts and its culture was exported all over Europe.

That era and the following century also saw the expansion of France on the other continents. This started a whole series of wars with the other colonial empires, mainly England (later Britain) and Spain over the control of North America.

1789 saw the start of the French Revolution which led to the creation of the Republic. Although this period was also fertile in bloody excesses it was, and still is, a reference for many other liberation struggles.

Napoléon reunited the country but his militaristic ambition which, at first, made him the ruler of most of western Europe were finally his downfall. In 1815 he was defeated in Waterloo (Belgium) by an alliance of British and Prussian forces. He is still revered in some Eastern European countries as its armies and its government brought with them the thinkings of the French philosophers.

France went back to monarchy and another revolution in 1848 which allowed a nephew of Napoleon to be elected president and then become emperor under the name of Napoléon III. The end of the XIX century was the start of the industrialization of the country, the development of the railways but also the start of the bitter wars with Prussia and later Germany.

XXth and XXIst centuries

1905 saw the separation of the Church from the State, a traumatic process specially in rural areas. The French state carefully avoids any religious recognition. Under a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy it is forbidden for French students and civil servants to display any sign showing explicitely their religion. This policy applies famously to the Muslim veil (and has been copied in countries like Tunisia and Turkey) but, for instance, to the Christian cross as well. In the early XXIst century, statistics for Church going and belief in God are among the lowest in Europe.

World War I (1914 -18) was a disaster for France, even though the country was ultimately a victor. A significant part of the male workforce had been killed and disabled and a large part of the country and industry destroyed. World War II (1939 - 45) also destroyed a number of areas.

Since the end of WWII France went through a period of reconstruction and prosperity came back with the development of industry. France and Germany were at the start of the Treaties which eventually became the European Union. One of the most visible consequence being the introduction in 2002 of the Euro (€), the common currency of twelve European countries.

In 2004, France is a republic with a President elected for a 5-year term. Some current main issues are the further integration of the country into the EU and the adoption of common standards for the economy, defense, and so on.

Get in

Passport and Visa

France is a member of the European Union and the Schengen Agreement. European visa policy will be covered in the article about the EU. In brief, a visa to any other signatory state of the Schlengen Agreement is valid in France too.(in most cases) No visa is required for citizens of other EU member states, and those of some selected nations with whom the European Union or France have special treaties. Inquire at your travel agent or call the local consulate or embassy of France.

Also, there are hardly any border controls between France and other Schengen Agreement nations, making travel less complicated. However, sometimes cars and buses are stopped at borders or at the first toll-booth after entering the country.

Australian, Malaysian or Indonesian citizens visiting France for holiday will not need a Visa.

By plane

The main international airport, Roissy - Charles de Gaulle (CDG) , is likely to be your port of entry if you fly into France from outside Europe. CDG is the home of Air France (AF), the national company, for most intercontinental flights. AF and the companies forming the SkyTeam Alliance (Dutch KLM, AeroMexico, Alitalia, US Continental, NorthWest and Delta Airlines, Korean Air) use Terminal 2 while most other foreign airlines use Terminal 1. A third terminal is used for charter flights. If transferring through CDG (especially between the various terminals) it is important to leave substantial time between flights. Ensure you have no less than one hour between transfers. Add more if you have to change terminals as you will need to clear through security.

Transfers to another flight in France: AF operates domestic flights from CDG too, but a lot of domestic flights, and also some internal European flights, use Orly, the second Paris airport. For transfers within CDG you can use the free bus shuttle linking all terminals, train station, parking lots and hotels on the platform. For transfers to Orly there is a (free for AF passengers) bus link operated by AF. The two airports are also linked by a local train (RER) which is slightly less expensive, runs faster but is much more cumbersome to use with heavy luggage. AF has agreements with the SNCF, the national rail company, which operates TGVs (see below) out of CDG airports (some trains carry flight numbers). The TGV station is located in Terminal 2 and is on the route of the free shuttle. For transfer to Paris see Paris.

Other airports have international destinations: Paris - Orly, Bordeaux, Clermont-Ferrand, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Nantes, Nice, Toulouse have flights to cities in western Europe and North-Africa; those airports are hubs to smaller airports in France and may be useful to avoid the transfer between the two Paris airports. Two airports, Bâle-Mulhouse and Geneva, are shared by France and Switzerland and can allow entry into either country.

Some low-cost airlines, including Ryanair and Volare, fly to Beauvais airport situated about 80 km northwest of Paris. Buses to Paris are provided by the airlines. Check schedules and fares on their websites.

Ryanair flies direct from the UK to Montpellier, Perpignan, Nimes, Carcassonne and Béziers in Languedoc Roussillon.

Shuttle service in Paris: Paris Star Shuttle

By train

The French rail company, SNCF, provides direct service from most European countries using regular trains. French train tickets can be purchased directly in the US from RailEurope a subsidiary of the SNCF. The Eurostar service uses high-speed to connect Lille and Paris with London, the later via the Calais-Dover channel tunnel. The Thalys service uses high-speed TGV trains to connect Paris to Brussels and onward to cities in the Netherlands and Germany.

By bus

  • There is no single national bus service. Furthermore, buses are limited to local mass transit or departmental/regional service. You must therefore check for the peculiarities of bus service in the actual region you are in. However, bus tickets in the region of Ile De France generally cost about 1.40€.
  • Eurolines is a private bus service that connects over 500 destinations, covering the whole of the continent and Morocco. Eurolines allows traveling from Sicily to Helsinki and from Casablanca to Moscow.

Get around

By plane

The following carriers offer domestic flights within France:

  1. Air France (Ajaccio (Campo Dell Oro Airport), Annecy-Meythet Airport, Avignon-Caum Airport, Bastia (Poretta Airport), Biarritz Parme Airport, Bordeaux Airport, Brest (Guipavas Airport), Caen (Carpiquet Airport), Calvi (Sainte Catherine Airport), Clermont-Ferrand (Aulnat Airport), Figari (Sud Corse Airport), Lannion (Servel Airport), Le Havre (Octeville Airport), Lille (Lesquin Airport), Limoges (Bellegarde Airport), Lorient (Lann Bihoue Airport), Lyon Satolas Airport, Marseille Airport, Metz/Nancy (Metz-Nancy-Lorraine Airport), Montpellier (Mediterranee Airport), Mulhouse/Basel (EuroAirport French), Nantes Atlantique Airport, Nice (Cote D'Azur Airport), Paris (Charles De Gaulle Airport), Paris (Orly Field), Pau (Uzein Airport), Perpignan (Llabanere Airport), Quimper (Pluguffan Airport), Rennes (St Jacques Airport), Rodez (Marcillac Airport), Rouen (Boos Airport), Strasbourg (Entzheim Airport), Tarbes Ossun Lourdes Airport, Toulon (Hyeres Airport), Toulouse (Blagnac Airport))
  2. Airlinair (Aurillac Airport, Bastia (Poretta Airport), Beziers Vias Airport, Bordeaux Airport, Brest (Guipavas Airport), Brive-La-Gaillarde (Laroche Airport), La Rochelle (Laleu Airport), Lyon Satolas Airport, Mulhouse/Basel (EuroAirport French), Nantes Atlantique Airport, Paris (Orly Field), Poitiers (Biard Airport), Rennes (St Jacques Airport), Saint Nazaire (Montoir Airport), Toulouse (Blagnac Airport))
  3. CCM (Ajaccio (Campo Dell Oro Airport), Bastia (Poretta Airport), Calvi (Sainte Catherine Airport), Figari (Sud Corse Airport), Lyon Satolas Airport, Marseille Airport, Nice (Cote D'Azur Airport))
  4. Twin Jet (Cherbourg (Maupertus Airport), Marseille Airport, Metz/Nancy (Metz-Nancy-Lorraine Airport), Paris (Orly Field), Saint Etienne (Boutheon Airport), Toulouse (Blagnac Airport))
  5. easyJet (Nice (Cote D'Azur Airport), Paris (Charles De Gaulle Airport), Paris (Orly Field), Toulouse (Blagnac Airport))
  6. Hex'Air (Le Puy (Loudes Airport), Lyon Satolas Airport, Paris (Orly Field), Rodez (Marcillac Airport))
  7. Air Austral (Lyon Satolas Airport, Marseille Airport)
  8. Heli Securite (Cannes (Croisette Heliport), Nice (Cote D'Azur Airport))
  9. Nice Helicopteres (Cannes (Croisette Heliport), Nice (Cote D'Azur Airport))

By car

See also: Driving in France

France has a well-developed system of highways. Most of the freeway (autoroute) links are toll roads. Some have toll station giving you access to a section, others have entrance and exit toll stations. Don't lose your entrance ticket or you will be charged for the longest distance. All toll stations accept major credit cards, or you can use the automatic booth, but only if your card is equipped with a chip.

Roads range from the narrow single-lane roads in the countryside to major highways. Most towns and cities were built before the general availability of the automobile and thus city centers tend to be unwieldy for cars. Keep this in mind when renting: large cars can be very unwieldy. It often makes sense to just park and then use public transportation.

France drives on the right.

By thumb

France is a good country for hitchhiking. Be patient, prepare yourself for a long wait or walk and in the meantime enjoy the landscape. A ride will come along. People who stop are usually friendly and not dangerous. They will like you more if you speak a little French. They never expect any money for the ride.

Remember that getting out of Paris by thumb is almost impossible. You can try your luck at the portes, but heavy traffic and limited areas for stopping will try your patience. It's a good idea to take the local train to a nearby suburb as your chance of being picked up will increase dramatically.

Outside Paris, it's advisable to try your luck after roundabouts. As it's illegal to hitchhike on the motorways (autoroutes) and they are well observed by the police, you may try on a motorway entry. The greatest chance is at toll plazas (stations de péage), some of which require all cars to stop and are thus great places to catch a lift. Some tollbooths are really good, some not so good. If you've been waiting for a while with an indication of where to go, drop it and try with your thumb only. And also, you can try to get a ride to the next good spot in the wrong direction.

Note, though, that hitching from a péage, while a common practice, isn't legal and French police or highway security, who are normally very tolerant of hitchhikers, may stop and force you to leave. You can get free maps in the toll offices - these also indicate where you can find the "all-stop-Péage".

By train

Trains are a great way to get around in France. You can get pretty much from anywhere to anywhere else by train. For long distances, use the TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse - High-Speed Train). Reservations are obligatory. But, if you have time, take the slow train and enjoy the scenery. The landscape is part of what makes France one of the top tourist destinations in the world.

The French national railway network is managed by Réseaux Ferrés de France, and most of the trains are run by the SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français). For interregional trains you can get schedules and book tickets online at voyages-sncf.com. For regional trains, schedules can be found at ter-sncf.com (choose your region, then "Carte and horaires" for maps and timetables). Booking is available in two classes: première classe (First Class) is less crowded and more comfortable but can also be about 50% more expensive than deuxième classe (Second Class). Note that if your TGV is fully-booked, step aboard seconds before the doors close, and look for the guard ("contrôleur"). He will find you a seat somewhere.

There are a number of different kinds of high speed and normal trains:

  • Corail Intercité. normal day (no special name) operate to and from most cities in France and are usually your best bet for destinations all over France. These are the trains you'll find yourself on if you have a Eurail pass, and don't want to pay extra for reservations.

  • Corail Téoz. As Corail Intercité but you need a reservation.

  • Corail Lunéa. night trains (no special name) operate to and from most cities in France and are usually your best bet for destinations all over France. These are the trains you'll find yourself on if you have a Eurail pass, and don't want to pay extra for reservations.

  • TGV, [5]. The world-famous French high-speed trains (Trains à Grande Vitesse) run several times a day to the Southeast Nice(5-6h), Marseille (3h) and Avignon (2.5 h), the East Geneva (3h) or Lausanne, Switzerland and Dijon (1h15) , the Southwest Bordeaux (3h), the West Rennes (3h) and the North Lille (less than 1h). Eurostar to London (2h15) and Thalys to Brussels (1h20) use almost identical trains.

  • Thalys, [6]. A high-speed train service running daily to/from the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany - it can be a bit expensive compared to normal trains.

  • Intercity. Intercity trains leave for all parts of Europe, including overnight trains to San Sebastian in Spain, Porto and Lisbon in Portugal.

  • Eurostar, [7]. The Eurostar service connects Paris with London directly and Brussels indirectly, as well many other destinations indirectly through the various west European rail services. Travel time between Paris and London St Pancras International currently averages at 2 hours 15 minutes, following the opening of a new rail link in late 2007.

If you'll be doing more than about 2 return journeys in France, and are younger than 26, getting a "Carte 12-25" will save you money. They cost €49, last a year and generally give a 50% reduction on ticket prices.

If you've booked online on Voyages SNCF, you can pick up your ticket when you get to the train station. Contrary to a common misunderstanding, this web site allows you to order even if you live in the US; it is not concerned where you live, but where you will pick up the tickets or have them sent; thus if you wish to pick up the tickets at a SNCF train station or office, answer "France". When at the station, just go to the counter ("Guichet") and ask to have your ticket issued ("retirer votre billet"). You can ask "Je voudrais retirer mon billet, s'il vous plait", or 'zhe voo dray ruh teer ay mon bee yay, sill voo play' and then hand them the paper with the reference number.

To find your train, locate your train number and the departure time on the departures board. There will be a track ("Voie") number next to the train and departure time. Follow signs to that track to board the train. You will have a reserved seat on TGV trains. On other long-distance trains, you can optionally make reservations (at least one day in advance); if you do not have one you may use any unused seat not marked as reserved. To find your reserved seat, first look for the train coach number ("Voit. No"). Pay attention to the possible confusion between track number (Voie) and coach (voiture) number (abbreviated Voit) As you go down the track, the coach number will be displayed on an LCD screen on the car, or maybe just written in the window or right next to the doors.

The reserved seat rules are lax; you'll not be fined if you switch seats or use another seat if it is empty because the TGV is not fully booked, or if the other person agrees to switch with you. The only requirement is not to continue using a reserved seat if the person holding the reservation claims it.

On the main lines, TGVs often run in twos. There are two possibilities: either the two TGVs are considered as one train with one train number (in this case each coach has a different number); or the two TGVs are considered as separate trains which run together during a part of their journey, with two different train numbers (in this case, the two trains may have two close numbers such as 1527 and 1537), and each train will have its own coach numbering. So be sure you are in the right train (the train number is shown on the LCD screen, with the coach number).

If you are early, there is often a map somewhere on the track that will show how the train and car numbers will line up on the track according to letters that appear either on the ground or on signs above. That way, you can stand by the letter corresponding with your coach number and wait to board the train closest to your coach. You can easily go from one coach to another, so if you are very late, jump in any coach of the same class before the train starts, wait until most people are seated, then walk to your coach and seat number.

Beware: To avoid any form of fraud, your ticket must be punched by an automatic machine ("composteur") to be valid. Older machines are bright orange, newer machines are yellow and gray. The machines are situated at the entrance of all platforms. Failure to punch the ticket may entitle you to a fine even if you are a foreigner with a limited French vocabulary, depending on how the conductor feels. Likewise if you step aboard a train without a ticket you MUST find the conductor ("contrôleur") and tell him about your situation before he finds you.

French information booths, especially in larger train stations, can be quite unhelpful, especially if you do not understand much French. If something does not seem to make sense, just say "excusez-moi" or ex qu say mwa, and they should repeat it.

Night train services also exist. These include couchettes second class (6 bunk beds in a compartment), first class (4 bunks) and wagon-lit (real bedding with linen; you have to specify your sex when booking or travel as a couple). Night trains have occasionally been targeted by criminals, though this is not a widespread problem.

Talk

French is the official language of France, although there are regional variations in pronunciation and local words. For example, thoughout France the word for yes, oui, said "we" is pronounced "waay." It's similiar to the English language usage of "Yeah" instead of "Yes".

In Alsace and part of Lorraine, a kind of German, called "Alsacian", is spoken. In the south, some still speak dialects of the Langue d'Oc (because the word for "yes" is oc): Languedocien, Limousin, Auvergnat, or Provençal. Langue d'Oc is a Romance language, a very close relative of Italian, Spanish, or Catalan. In the west part of Brittany, a few people, mainly old or scholars, speak Breton; this Celtic language is closer to Welsh than to French. In parts of Aquitaine Basque is spoken, but not as much as on the Spanish side of the border. In Corsica a kind of Italian is spoken.In Provence, Provençal is most likely to be spoken, especially along the Riviera.

However, almost everyone speaks French and tourists are unlikely to ever come across regional languages, except in order to give a "folkloric" flair to things.

Hardly anybody understands British or US units such as gallons or degrees Fahrenheit. Stick to metric units.

The French are generally attached to politeness and will react coolly to strangers that forget it. You might be surprised to see that you are greeted by other customers when you walk into a restaurant or shop. Return the courtesy and address your hellos/goodbyes to everyone when you enter or leave small shops and cafes. It is, for the French, very impolite to start a conversation with a stranger (even a shopkeeper or client) without at least a polite word like "bonjour". For this reason, starting the conversation with at least a few basic French phrases, or some equivalent polite form in English, goes a long way to convince them to try and help you.

  • "Excusez-moi Monsieur/Madame": Excuse me (ex-CUE-zeh-mwah mih-SYOOR/muh-DAM)
  • "S'il vous plait Monsieur/Madame" : Please (SEEL-voo-PLAY)
  • "Merci Monsieur/Madame" : Thank you (mare-SEE)
  • "Au revoir Monsieur/Madame" : Good Bye (Ore-vwar)

Note that French spoken with an English or American accent can be very difficult for the average French person to understand. In such circumstances, it may be best to write down what you are trying to say. But tales of waiters refusing to serve tourists because their pronunciation doesn't meet French standards are highly exaggerated. A good-faith effort will usually be appreciated, but don't be offended if a waiter responds to your fractured French, or even fluent but accented, in English (If you are a fluent French speaker and the waiter speaks to you in English when you'd prefer to speak French, continue to respond in French and the waiter will usually switch back - this is a common occurrence in touristy areas, especially in Paris).

Please note that some parts of France (such as Paris) are at times overrun by tourists. The locals there may have some blasé feelings about helping for the umpteenth time foreign tourists who speak in an unintelligible language and ask for directions to the other side of the city. Be courteous and understanding.

As France is a very multicultural society, many african languages, Arabic, Chinese dialects, Vietnamese or Cambodian could be spoken. The French tend to think that they can speak and understand Spanish because of the resemblance of the two languages.

 
             
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