Before I really begin I should say that I will be attempting to keep my own prejudices out of the advice I'll be giving. This will be hard for me as after living in various parts of Europe (UK, France, Belgium, Germany & Spain) for over 20 years I do have a few opinions. As I read through eGullet and many of the European travel sites and personal blogs I am often amazed at the superficiality and just plain wrong information that passes for 'inside knowledge'. Still, its not my place to criticise or to try to set the world to rights. I'm just going to try to give some sound, accurate information based upon my experience.
First decide roughly where you want to go. I say roughly because the detailed planning comes later. Deciding where you want to go can be assisted by the Michelin Green guides, Fodors or any of a host of paper & on-line guides to France. This is such a personal thing that its difficult to give anyone very specific advice. Fortunately, there are few bad places to travel to in France.
One strong recommendation I will give. Pick a few bases and plan on staying around them for 3-5 days. Longer is even better. Thus for a two week holiday I'd recommend no more than 3 or 4 bases. Far better to see fewer places, but enjoy them than too try to squeeze in too many and end up tired and overwhelmed. Give yourself time to settle in, unpack, relax and explore the locality before moving on. That's far more fun than whizzing around in the car.
I am assuming that you are arriving in France from either North America or the United Kingdom. If you are already on the continent then your task is easier whether by car, plane, train or bus.
From North America most of you will fly (cruising over is great if you have both the time & money) and I'm not going to give you advice about how to get the cheapest tickets. There are plenty of websites where you can get that. Normally, you will enter France via Paris. Charles de Gaulle airport to be precise. Here are a couple of tips about that:
- Take the bus into town. Cheap, fast & efficient. You can take the train, but you see less & usually getting a taxi at the other end is a pain. Taxi's from the airport are fine, but relatively expensive & won't save you much if any time.
- If you are heading onward, to the South for example, check the fares from you departure point to wherever is nearest (Nice or Toulouse for instance.) Many times the extra leg of your flight from Paris onwards will be virtually free or at a very low cost. The drawback may be that you'll have to start your homeward journey from the end airport to get the full savings. Its worth checking though.
- If you are planning on spending time in Paris as part of your holiday then consider doing it at the start of the trip. This makes the transfers easy and starts you into your immersion into French culture in a place that caters for tourists. The excitement of the city sort of eases the jet lag.
Now, if you are renting a car for the rest of your trip and heading South (as most people will) arrange to pick it up at Orly airport. This avoids having to drive in Paris. You can just head South on the Autoroutes without much difficulty. By the way the last thing you want in Paris is a car. If you have one either turn it in or find good safe parking and leave it there for the duration of your stay.
If you are coming from the UK then you have a choice of ferries or the chunnel. (I'm assuming that you are not flying even though Ryanair, EasyJet, BMI Baby or the other cheap airlines can be a good alternative and just as inexpensive as bringing your own car, after the ferry, autoroute tolls, petrol getting to the South and cost of the trip it may be cheaper just to fly & rent a car.) Again, no specific recommendation. The chunnel is convenient, but expensive. The ferries are cheap, but take longer. Speed Ferries seems to offer a good deal.
- Tip. If you come across the channel & land in Calais, Dunkirk or Boulogne take the A16 autoroute to Paris. Avoid Lille & the A1. As you near Paris & shortly after the A16 stops being an autoroute take the D102 East. This is dual carriageway all the way over to the A1 & Charles de Gaulle. From there its a straight run into or around Paris.
Pre Trip Planning II
You have figured our how you are going to get here and you have a good idea of the areas you want to visit. The next thing you do is go to www.viamichelin.fr. Once you are there; register. It costs nothing and opens up your access to the restaurant, hotel & sightseeing guides. Michelin is without question your most valuable resource; spend a bit of time finding your way around it.
Now since this is a gastronomic tour start your restaurant search as follows. (this assumes that you don't already have one or more restaurants in mind. If you do just type in the name and as much of the address as you have. Normally Michelin will find it for you.) Pick one of your tentative destination towns, enter it's name in the Maps section. Once the map loads you will see on the left a section labelled Michelin Guides; click on this & then the Restaurant entry on the drop down list. Depending upon the town you will get a selection of up to 30 restaurants in the area. Note that you can refine your search criteria; for instance you can search for only starred restaurants. Browsing through the list will give you a good idea of the gastronomic potential of the area. The other best restaurant resource is http://www.guides-gaultmillau.fr. Unfortunately, you can't access it on-line, you have to buy it. After these two there are a host of restaurant resources, but none as comprehensive or as easy to use. Your best bet is to go back to the eGullet France forum and peruse the pinned topic http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?showtopic=98026&view=findpost&p=1342160 about essentials you need to know.
Another decent source ( in French only) is: http://lefooding.com/actualite-103.htm This has restaurant reviews around the country, not graded but you can find some interesting places.
After some toing & froing you should now know your destinations. Its time to pick places to stay. I'm going to assume that you will be staying in hotels. B&B or Chambre hotel's are good alternatives as are camping grounds if you are so inclined. Gites can be a lot of fun, but they normally want a one week minimum stay. In any case, if when you start looking for hotels your first stop is good old viaMichelin. They have the largest list by far. Another excellent source is: www.logis-de-france.fr. These tend to be medium to low priced. Many are fairly basic rooms, but always spotlessly clean. Most have restaurants which will be commented upon on the website. If they say the food is good you can pretty much bet that it is. Another of our favourite hotel guides is: http://www.silencehotel.com/EN/index.html. Silence Hotels is an unfortunate name in English, but don't be put off. We've been using this guide for over 15 years & have never been disappointed. The coverage is somewhat spotty, but normally the hotels are charming & the food excellent.
http://www.innsoffrance.com/hotels.aspx is yet another good site for hotels that are out of the ordinary.
Between all of these you should be able to find somewhere good. I have deliberately not mentioned the famous Relais et Chateaus (http://www.chateauxhotels.com/public/accueil/index.php?langue=en. ) site as they tend to be both expensive & stuffy. Try if you like.
By now you should know at least the highlights of where you are going to eat, where you are going to stay and how you are going to get there. Now I'll give you a few general tips about travelling in France.
- Watch out for Sunday's, Monday's and the lunch hour. Outside the cities & the auto routes most things are closed on Sunday (except restaurants which will normally be open for lunch, but not dinner.) This includes petrol (gas) stations. Best to fill up on Saturday. The credit card pumps found at hyper markets normally ONLY take debit cards from a French bank.
- Outside the cities & larger towns you will not find many places to eat outside the lunch hour. (12:00 to 14:00) Lots of cafes, but they don't normally serve food. If you like a mid-morning or afternoon snack its best have bought the ingredients yourself.
- Again, be aware that many small shops close over the lunch hour. Buy your charcuterie and bread either before or after the lunch hours. An exception to this are the large super & hyper markets which stay open all day.
- The auto routes are good, fast and uncrowded (except on French holidays - check the dates), but are expensive. When you do route planning on viamichelin it will give you the toll costs. The 'A' roads are good as well, but tend to be slow due to truck traffic. Our strategy is normally to use the auto routes for the long hops and avoid both them & the A roads when touring around.
Some More Useful Sources of Information
Knowing these may help as you do your planning.
- The French Yellow pages are great. Easy to use and the English version is terrific. www.pagesjaunes.fr Here you'll find all of the restaurants and hotels complete with maps & in most cases pictures.
- Here are some on-line travel guides. Use with caution.
- You can find a host of maps at all scales at the official French map making agency, IGN.
- If you are interested in hiking (a very popular activity in France) you might want to check out the walkers association.
- The weather. http://www.meteofrance.com/FR/mameteo/prevReg.jsp?LIEUID=REG09
- Nice translation site:
That's pretty much it. Probably more information than you need, but one never knows.
Questions & comments welcomed.