Category Archives: Authentic France Travel Tips

Authentic France Travel Tip #45: Take Part in The Harvest

You heard it here first! I Skyped my dear amie Charlotte B. this morning and she told me that the 2009 grape harvest (known in France as “les vendanges“) is slated to start next Thursday, September 10th.

It is hard to time a vacation in Burgundy, or any of France’s other wonderful wine regions, to coincide with les vendanges because the date is almost impossible to predict until a week or two before it actually starts. It all depends on what Mother Nature has up her sleeve – the amount of rain, of sun, and of heat.

If you luck out and happen to be in Burgundy during the vendanges, however, take time to bike or walk through the vineyards and winemaking villages to soak up this effervescent atmosphere (not to mention the fumes of macerating grapes which hang, redolent, over the stone streets). Sometimes I felt drunk just wandering the streets of PernandVergelesses or Villers-la-Faye during harvest.

So breathe deep – Les vendanges is what the soul of Burgundy is all about.

Authentic France Travel Tip #44: Bring Your Babe

This is Clem as a newborn, before evolving into a hair-raising, hell-bent-for-election toddler.

Babies seem to be abounding at the moment. Not only are all of us Bradbury / Germain / Beaudry’s enthralled about the arrival of Mademoiselle Anna Sophia, but one of my favorite readers softinthehead also welcomed a gorgeous petite-fille, Annika.

So I will not even attempt to fight the baby theme for this week’s “Authentic France Travel Tip“. If your life (lucky you!) includes a new baby, this does not, as many people believe, preclude adventures in France.

I travelled back and forth between France and Canada with all my girls as babies, and I personally think the 0-10 month stage is a great time for family travel, especially to France.

Here’s why;

1. The French LOVE babies. If you travel with a baby you will instantly become the most popular person in the room (well, second to your baby, that is). You will make friends and experience extraordinary gestures of hospitality that are truly very touching and special.

2. If you stay in a vacation rental you can accommodate baby’s sleep and eating schedules just as if you were at home. Also, if baby has a little or big cry, you are not bothering anyone like you would be in a hotel.

3. Babies are generally great companions on flights. You feed them a bottle (or boob), pop them in the travel cot on the airplane, and then go on to enjoy your movie and meal. Caveat – the same CANNOT be said for toddlers!!! Clem’s 7 hour trans-Atlantic scream-a-thon is seared in my memory.

4. Babies force you to go at a slower pace, which we often otherwise don’t allow ourselves to do – even on vacation. The entire family might find that by travelling at baby’s pace, going home to have afternoon “naps”, etc. they are enjoying themselves and relaxing far more than if they were racing around trying to see every chateaux listed in the Eyewitness Guide. Babies force you to slow down and enjoy the little, humble pleasures in life, which is really what France is all about.

Please note that I cannot dispense the same advice in regards to toddlers. My girls were (and are) all particularly independent, obstreperous, danger seeking toddlers. I found travelling with them during the learning-to-walk to comprehension period (which runs roughly, in my experience, between 10 months to 2 and a a half) really, REALLY hard.

Other people may have had very different experiences travelling with their toddlers, but I think it is wise to cram in any trips when the babies are still in that lovely “potted plant” stage of life.

So to all you babies out there – bienvenu en France!

Authentic France Travel Tip #43: Watch Julie & Julia

Nora Ephron’s movie Julie & Julia is a chocolate-mousse of a treat; utterly decadent, thoroughly pleasurable, and surprisingly profound.

I went to see this film last night and Meryl Streep’s astounding incarnation of La Julia as the French would refer to a grande dame (in every sense of the word) such as Mrs. Child is just loaded with Frenchitude.

With me were my sister Suzanne – who has a solid claim to Frenchitude for her name alone, my Mom, and my beloved aunt Sharon (who told me over dinner that reflecting repeatedly on the phrase “budgie smuggler” from last week’s Frenchitude helped her finally recover from a terrible dental abscess – how could one not love such a kindred spirit?).

The absolutely packed movie theatre audience actually clapped when Julie & Julia was over. When can you last remember that happening? For me, it is lost in the mists of time.

Where do I start?

Firstly, as my sister wisely pointed out it was so unbelievably refreshing to see a movie about marriages that dealt with the life of a couple – two couples here, in fact – with the marriage ceremony well behind them. So often these days movies are all about the ensnaring-and-getting-to-the-alter part. One can almost be excused for forgetting that life, and love, can continue beyond the Honeymoon.

Both on-screen couples were touching, but the Childs, brilliantly acted by Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci, were so understated and pitch-perfect that their interactions made me cry at regular intervals. They portrayed such complicity and deep, deep love for one another.

Secondly, Julia Child’s love of France is contagious. She is a perfect example of how people from any country can, and should, adopt France as their spiritual home.

Thirdly, the movie illustrates how home cooking and taking unabashed pleasure in divine food has the power to elevate and transform people’s lives for the better.

Granted, Julie Powell and Julia Child are extreme examples of this. However, they both embody the simple truth that every single moment of pleasure in life is one moment that nobody can ever take away from you, and that delicious, authentic food (and wine) is one of the richest sources of such moments.

Julie & Julia shows us that, contrary to what society often tells us, we should banish guilt entirely and embrace the opportunity to feast on food, and consequently feast on life.

In my not-so-humble opinion, watching this movie is essential preparation for any trip to France, or just for your next trip to the grocery store.

And, bien sûr, Bon Appétit!

Authentic France Travel Tip #43: Enjoy Paris in August

We have all heard about the wonders of “Paris in the Springtime” and, true, it is a pretty nice place to visit in April, May and June.

But I’m not here to tell you things you already know! Instead, I’ll let you in on a little secret…my friend Joelle, owner of the très wonderful l’Atelier de Beaux-Arts right beside the Jardin de Luxembourg, always tries to take her summer holidays in July.

Pourquoi? This long-time Parisienne has discovered a secret that most tourists haven’t figured out yet – there is no better month than August for enjoying Paris.

Travel lore has it that Paris is hot, polluted, and over crowded in August. We spent a week there two summers ago and I can personally attest that this is just not so.

True – there are a fair number of tourists visiting Paris in August. However, their number cannot come close to compensating for the mass exodus of native Parisiens in search of the seaside for at least four out of their five weeks of annual holidays.

The upshot? Paris is practically a ghost town in August, which is largely why Joelle (and yours truly) love it so much.

Here are some more good arguments for taking a little Parisian escapade in August:

1) Fewer Parisiens = fewer cars & motos = hugely reduced air pollution.

2) Fewer Parisiens = less crowded museums, restaurants, and shops.

3) There is free parking all over Paris during August, and traffic is hugely reduced.

4) The much-loved left-wing mayor Bertrand Delanoë began a tradition in 2002 where several areas along the banks of the Seine are transformed into “beaches” with free events, music, and even sand! This phenomenon is called “Paris Plage” and has become hugely popular with locals. Why shouldn’t the savvy tourist also join in the free festivities?

5) Those sultry August nights are perfect for taking bateauxmouche trips along the Seine, or playing around the Louvre’s pyramids into the wee hours.

6) The warmth of August constrasts perfectly with the cool of a legendary Berthillon ice cream (take my word on this one).

Pleasure is all about contrasts, after all.

Authentic France Travel Tip #41: Remember That Where You’re From Is Pretty Cool To French People

It is pretty easy to feel intimidated as a visitor to France. There is just so much history, and culture, and people act so nonchalant about eating snails. It is all just a bit much, sometimes.

I have to admit that I too experience what I have come to term “bumpkinitis” when I am in France.

I also have to admit that this condition strikes me most forcibly and frequently when I am visiting my chic Parisian friend Joelle – as much as I adore her – in her Paris abode and all I have been able to scrounge up for walking shoes is (mon dieu) a pair of skanky sneakers.

However, I have come up with a really effective remedy for bumpkinitis. All I have to do is remind myself how utterly exotic and cool some aspects of my very non-French life is to French people.

Take my family’s cabin at Shawnigan Lake for example, where us Germains are hanging out this week, recovering from our epic trans-Atlantic move…

When I was growing up, I didn’t take kindly to spending much time up here. There were spiders as big as your palm in the shower (still are) and my grandparents, who built the cottage, ran the place like a boot camp.

Then I brought Franck up here the summer after he moved to Montreal so that we could continue our love affair over poutine instead of baguette and Camembert.

His eyes almost spun around from excitment when he took in our little slice of Canadiana; the funky little 1950s stucco cabin, the wharf, the aluminum boathouses, the ubiquitous speedboat, the row of red Adirondack chairs.

C’est fantastique!” he breathed. Over the years his love of this place has slowly won over my aversion and led me to appreciate it in a way I never did in my younger years.

So when you think of how sophisticated French children are as they accompany their parents to chic cafe’s, just remember the glee of the kids on their tube being pulled behind the speedboat.

Or their joy at catching a trout (even a VERY small one).

And when you admire those gorgeous French baby clothes, think of how effortlessly nature-girl-ish Clem looks like in her life vest and plastic beach shoes.

Aspects of our North American lives, and especially our North American childhoods, are pretty darn cool to French people.

And although we may grow up into adults who feel like bumpkins when we tour Paris in our sneakers, we should remember that we, unlike our French friends, know our way around an inner tube.

Authentic France Travel Tip #40: Consider Flying In / Out of Lyon

I will go to almost any lengths to avoid flying in or out of Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, which commonly goes by the moniker Roissy.

Granted, there were two things I used to like about it. The first was watching how the French passengers all lit up cigarettes about 30 seconds after disembarking from the airplane in calm defiance of the non-stop “no smoking” announcements that accompanied the click and churn of the baggage carousel (when it was actually working, that is). Nothing to me signified Bienvenue en France quite like it.

The second thing were, of course, those glass tubes that ferried plane passengers through the airport like extras in an episode of “The Jetsons“, or “les Jetson” I suppose I should say.

However, the ultra strict (many French would say “oppressive, pseudo-American, and unlibertarian) smoking fines have now finally all but eliminated the defiant smokers of Roissy, and the fact that parts of the terminals have begun to collapse has made riding the glass tubes a little more dangerous than I am comfortable with as a mother of three.

Otherwise, Roissy does not have much to recommend it.

It is filthy, constantly overcrowded, singularly lacking in amenities (notably toilets – especially clean, free ones). It also boasts one of the most depressing, impossible-to-use underground parking lots that I have ever witnessed. I sometimes wonder if among the many homeless people one sees wandering about down there, there is not a handful of travellers who have been lost in the disorienting rabbit warren parkades of Roissy for years, unable to find their voitures.

For several years now we book our flights in and out of Lyon’s Saint Éxupery airport, which believe me, is a VAST improvement.

Not only is Lyon’s airport named a very cool name – Saint Éxupery after the author of the iconic “Le Petit Prince” – but it is also very clean. Moreover, it has lovely toilets. This is always a big selling point for me – mother of two big girls with small bladders. They are going to kill me for writing that when they are older.

Saint Éxupery is all but located in the middle of the fields on the outskirts of Lyon, so driving to and from the airport is an easy and traffic free dream. There are also a lot of sunflower fields to admire en route, which is an edifying change from the graffiti around the péripherique in Paris.

I have never experienced any air traffic bottlenecks flying into Lyon. In Paris, it was the rule rather than the exception. I loath holding patterns; all that going up and down invariably makes my head feel like it’s going to explode, so this is a big selling point for me as well.

The only tip I would have is to make sure you have lots of 1 Euro coins or jétons in your pocket for the luggage carts (but unlike Roissy, you can at least find a luggage cart in Lyon’s airport). Although Lyon has a very progressive airport, we are still in France, after all.

I mean, free luggage carts?!? N’importe quoi

Authentic France Travel Tips #39: French Addresses (or Lack Thereof)

Speaking of addresses, things at #1 route des chaumes are actually coming together. I’ll post some photos in a few days, but the colour red is turning out to be a common thread throughout the decor of La Maison des Chaumes.

Like much of my decorating, it just sort of happened that way. I went along with the flow (maybe because I don’t have the energy to do much else these days). I figure red ensures not only good feng shui, but also provides a clin d’oeil to Burgundy’s wonderful wine.

Anyway, back to the issue of French addresses and the fact that they are not always very precise.

When we bought La Maison es Chaumes five years ago we were not at all flummoxed by the fact that all of the legal documents stated its address as #1 rue des chaumes, whereas the street sign at the bottom of the street clearly states the road as being called “route des chaumes“.

This was, in fact, a huge improvement compared to La Maison des Deux Clochers which boasts at last count, 5 different addresses:

Route de Ladoix

Place de l’Eglise
Passage Saint Martin
Place de la Mairie
and, last but not least, Route de Villers

None of these street names had a street number associated with it.

MagnylesVillers, like so many small villages and hamlets in France, dispensed with street numbers entirely. The mailman just knows where everybody lives.

With the advent of Google Earth I am increasingly getting guests ask me for the exact address for our properties so they can locate them on their computer. For La Maison des Deux Clochers I am at a loss.

My advice to people staying in one of the multitude of no-street-number villages throughout France is to ask for directions in relation to the village church. There almost always is one, the steeple can generally be seen from far away, and it is a landmark that, like the Roman-built church across from La Maison des Deux Clochers, isn’t going to be moving anytime soon.

You may imagine how stunned we were last week when we found an enamel street number (#2, just in case you were wondering) in our mailbox at MagnylesVillers. We followed the instructions and installed it just above our mailbox on the cellar door at La Maison des Deux Clochers.

So we are now #2, but we nevertheless just have one last question – we are #2 on what street exactly?

Nobody seems to know.

Authentic France Travel Tip #38: Drink The Water

I have many, many guests ask me if the tap water here in Burgundy is okay to drink.

Rest assured, all tap water in France is very strictly regulated and subject to weekly testing and analysis. As a general rule, it is just as safe to drink as tap water back home.

The taste, however, can be very different from what you are used to, especially where we are around Beaune where the ground is unbelievably rich in limestone.

I know the water here in Villers-la-Faye tastes completely different from that back home in Victoria, which runs through granite before coming out our taps.

One gets used to the taste pretty quickly though. Besides, I go by the rule of thumb that if the limestone is good for Romanée-Conti grape vines, it is good enough for me.

Authentic France Travel Tips: French Money Matters – Part 3

This week ties up my French Money Matters advice, and basically consists of three last miscellaneous points that…er…don’t really fit anywhere else.

I suppose if I was more organised I could figure out a way to MAKE them fit, but with the painters here at La Maison des Chaumes Clem has been averaging about 40 minutes per nap. Gives me a huge chunk of time to get everything done, as I’m sure you can imagine…

Seeing as one of the painters just dropped his ladder and that as a result she will certainly be up again any second, here goes;

1. Leave your $100 dollar US bills at home

The counterfeiters have gone out and spoiled the fun for the rest of us! The $100 US bill is so frequently and convincingly faked that they are all but useless over here in France. Even the banks won’t accept or exchange them. Leave them at home and bring your ATM and Visa or MasterCard instead.

2. Vendors at the Market generally only accept cash

Don’t try paying for that artichoke with your Visa card if you don’t want to become the butt of the jokes constantly being flung around between the market vendors. Bring a fistful of euros instead.

3. Realize that Money is as Close as it Comes to a Taboo Subject in France

I have found that North Americans talk about money much more freely and casually than the French. It is not uncommon to have people spin off the price they paid for a new home, or the price they sold their condominium for within the first few minutes of meeting them.

Keep in mind that the French are generally very closed-mouthed about finances, and consider money matters as first and foremost private matters.

If a French person confides in you the details of their personal finances they are either very atypical, or they trust you very much. In the latter case, you should feel flattered.

Authentic France Travel Tip # 36: French Money Matters – Part II

I just want to preface this second part of my French Money Matters with an excellent point made by Dale last week. I am going to put it in bold, because it is THAT IMPORTANT!

Call both your bank and your credit card company to let them know that you will be taking a trip. This will (hopefully) prevent the delightful situation of having your credit or ATM card eaten and / or blocked for security reasons.

Merci Dale!

This week I will be dealing with financial transactions in stores and restaurants (coq au vin! Yum!) while you are in France.

Here are my three tips for this week:

1. Bring your Visa and / or MasterCard, but consider leaving your AMEX and Diner’s Club at home

We have many American guests who come over here equipped almost exclusively with their Amex, only to find out that it is hardly accepted anywhere in France. Same goes for Diner’s Club.

Contrary to North America and even the UK the only widely accepted credit cards here are Visa and MasterCardpretty much equally accepted across the board, by the way.

So unless you need to bring either your AMEX or Diner’s Club to benefit from the built-in traveller’s insurance and other special benefits, consider leaving them at home and bringing just a Visa or MasterCard.

2. In smaller French stores neither credit cards nor debit cards are accepted for transactions under 15 Euros

Here is an excellent reason to always keep a few Euros in your pocket!

The charges for merchants to accept credit card transactions in France is so high that using them for transactions under 15 Euros just doesn’t make sense for many smaller merchants (notably tabacs, librairies, and boulangeries). Rest assured, this rule isn’t just for tourists, it is equally enforced with the locals.

3. Prices in stores / restaurants in France: what you see is what you pay!

Contrary to Canada, where a whack of taxes is added at the cash register every time you make a purchase (you thought that T-Shirt only cost $10.00??? Psyche!), the prices you see on price tags in French stores, as well as at the bottom of a restaurant bill, include all taxes and charges. Voilà, what you see is what you pay.

The service charge is even included on the bill at all restaurants and cafés, making tipping completely optional. Unless, that is, you’re trying to pick up that cute garçon