A friend emailed me to help plan a trip to France... Wow! Realized an excellent subject for my blog. Starting with geography: France is shaped like a Texas-sized hexagon:
No, Paris is not an island on the west coast, this map (from Wikipedia) shows an enlarged portrayal of Paris off the left side. We are in a small town bordering Poitou-Charentes and Pays de-la-Loire Valley, in west-central France. Two and 1/2 hours by TGV (high speed train) from Angers to Paris (CDG) Charles Degaulle Airport. Preparing for 110 days in France we read/brought several books: Good over-all description of southern France ? "A Year in Provence" by Peter Mayle. We love "Lonely Planet Phrasebooks - France" for simple, clear communication. Michelin (online), offers road maps of specific regions - but not necessary unless planning a lot of driving. (Got one for Poitou-Charentes, and the map is taller than I am...). Check out "Culture Shock - France" guide; good tips about traditions, customs and getting along in France; including tipping, proper etiquette, facial and hand gestures used (and not used), and minor things that can get confusing; like how to request "2 bottles of wine" by holding up proper fingers, to what to wear - or not, and how not to look like a tourist.
Some areas are more tourist-centered than others, and French fluency helps, but is not always necessary. The simple ability to initiate conversations in French will mellow recipients to be much more polite and helpful. Enroll in community language courses, converse with someone who speaks French, or find language tapes or CD's to practice French.
Fun things to do, where to stay, and what to eat: Had (brilliant) idea of checking past issues of larger newspaper travel sections for European restaurant and lodging reviews (so they are good, but not crazy-busy, as from recent reviews...), found our cozy boarding house in Florence from a 2004 online issue of a "New York Times" travel article.
Have had excellent luck with both www.kayak.com and www.orbitz.com for affordable plane tickets, and out-of-the ordinary lodging; found (monastary) hotel in Pisa through Orbitz, most sites list attractions within walking/close driving distances, and directions for train or bus stations. Train tickets: Those in USA should purchase train tickets while in USA, (much cheaper and easier), we utilized the site; www.raileurope.com, but found several good online sources. Purchased our "set-date" train tickets from Paris to this region for May, when first arriving, as well as some "open-date" rail passes for three days during our final two weeks off. France has an amazing rail service; rode super-fast TGV trains (100+ mph) back and forth to Paris, and every car is clean and comfortable.
Other transportation issues: You can rent a car, (USA or while here, once again, cheaper if renting in USA), do not need an International Driver's License, but can pick one up at most AAA offices, is good for another excellent photo ID in several different languages... Bus stations seem to be centrally located in every town and city of France, so bus tickets can wait. Other fun things to do: Complete a Google search for "house rentals" or "lodging at working farms" for true regional taste. And if you fly in or out of Paris, we highly recommend a few days to visit some major museums. Tickets to major museums, in any city can sometimes be pre-purchased at home, or through a central ticket-sales office or French internet cafe when you arrive.
The dollar is weak when compared to Euro (1 Euro = .75 US), but getting simple cafe food or stopping at grocery stores will lessen sticker shock at restaurants. When purchasing plane tickets, check each specific airline's baggage restrictions; may not be able to carry as much luggage as in USA. Finally, and MOST IMPORTANT: Have passports! In USA passports are taking longer to process than usual (more than 8 weeks), so if traveling soon; get passport first, plan second.
Good luck - and have a great trip. M
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