Category Archives: Authentic France Travel Tips

Authentic France Travel Tip#35: French Money Matters – Part 1

I often have my vacation rental guests ask me about the best way to manage their vacation money while they are travelling in France. Over the years I have boiled down my advice to three easy-to-remember points, and I will be explaining one per week over the next three Tuesdays.

Seeing as Clem has already woken up from an insanely short nap (just for the record, arghhhhhh sounds the same in French), here is French Money Matters Point #1 without any further ado:

1. Forget about traveller’s cheques and bring your ATM card instead

Traveller’s cheques are becoming obsolete. Why deal with the hassle when you can simply bring the ATM card you use at home and withdraw money out of your bank account from almost any bank machine here in France?

Keep in mind these guidelines for successfully using your ATM card over here in France:

a) Make sure that you have a 4 digit pin code that consists only of numbers. This is the only type that the French ATM’s accept.

b) Check with your bank to make sure they use a fair exchange rate on foreign withdrawals. I find in general most banks use a very competitive rate.

c) Check with your bank in regards to your daily and weekly withdrawal limits so as not to have any bad surprises. Most of us never bump against these limits (and hence, don’t even realize they exist) except under unusual circumstances, such as International Travel. Find out before you go to avoid nasty ATM surprises.

d) If you are withdrawing money out using a credit card (rather than a debit card) be aware that the credit card companies generally start charging interest on the funds withdrawn from the moment they are withdrawn (and NOT from the moment your bill is due). A solution for this is to top up your credit card account before leaving home.

e) Lastly, French ATM’s, just like French pizzaiolos, are mysterious creatures. Sometimes for no reason whatsoever a machine won’t work, but then you can go down the street and try the next ATM, or try the same machine five minutes later, and it works just fine. With ATMs. just like so many things in France, tenacity is richly rewarded.

Authentic France Travel Tip #: Stop and Sentir Les Roses

Back home in Victoria, Canada, growing roses is a very tricky business. There is not only the salt air from the ocean to contend with, but all manner of aphids, mildew, and general anti-rose pestilence. Coaxing a healthy rose from a rose bush in my garden back in Canada takes just about the same amount of dedication and worry as living with a 16 month old toddler (and I just happen to be a specialist at the latter at the moment).

And then there’s Burgundy.

Gorgeous, healthy roses have burst into bloom all around us over the past two weeks. They cling to rock walls and often grow in what looks like nothing more than a few specks of gravel. They seem to be by and large neglected by their owners, yet thrive all the same.

They really want to make me buy a super-dooper camera like A Novel Woman’s. Just have a look – these photos are just a sample of the roses at or around La Maison des Deux Clochers and La Maison de la Vieille Vigne.

So if you are enjoying a trip to France in June, stop and take a sniff. They just so happen to smell vraiment bon too.

***”Authentic France Travel Tips” are posted every Tuesday and give ideas for savvy travellers who want to experience the authentic side of France.

Authentic France Travel Tip #33: Get Thee to A "Portes-Ouvertes"

This is the time of year where small family run wine domaines all over France host “PortesOuvertes” or literally “open doors.” It is the perfect opportunity to taste wine and sample local food in a very sympatique atmosphere.

Here in MagnylesVillers (where La Maison des Deux Clochers is located) our wonderful neighbourhood wine Domaine, Domaine NaudinFerrand puts on a legendary Portes Ouvertes every May – this year it will be next weekend (May 16 &17th).

Select winemakers from around France are invited, bands play, merguez cook on the BBQ, and everyone has a wonderful time. My parents got such an earful about it that they actually planned their trip this year in order to be able to join in the fun.

To read more about it, just click here.

Franck’s really hoping this fetching winemaker will be there again. As for me, I really doubt that Clem will be in her stroller sleeping this year. She’ll probably be dancing or eating corks off the floor instead.

So if you see a sign for a “PortesOuvertes” as you are travel the wine roads of France, arrêtezvous!

***”Authentic France Travel Tips” are posted every Tuesday and give ideas for savvy travellers who want to experience the authentic side of France.

Authentic France Travel Tip #32: Visit a Monastery

On our recent visit to Normandy we jumped at the chance to visit a nearby monastery – L’Abbaye de la Trappe. Like the huge majority of monasteries in France L’Abbaye de la Trappe is a real live monastery inhabited by real live Trappist monks wearing honest to goodness monk’s habits and huarache sandals.

For the children I sometimes wonder if this isn’t better than Disneyland.

In Normandy we took all seven of them to the monastery and three of them spotted the monk manning the cash register in the monastery shop and, complete with finger pointing, yelled out at various times, “Regardez! There’s a MONK!!!”

The monk in questions must have been very used to this, or perhaps very holy, because he didn’t bat an eyelid.

Here are my reasons for visiting monasteries whenever possible in France:

1. French monks are gifted at making wonderful products such as the world famous Fromage de Cîteaux here in Burgundy, or the wonderful homemade confiture de lait made by the monks at L’Abbaye de la Trappe. Often you can only buy these products in the monastery itself, and in my opinion they really need to be tasted.

2. The monastery shops are amazing spots for picking up wonderful gifts for people back home – especially Catholic people back home. Our Irish friend Patrick couldn’t believe his luck when we took him to the shop at our local monastery (Cîteaux) on his visit just before Christmas. “It’s all my Chrsitmas shopping sorted!” he cried in delight. Indeed, he bought miraculous medals for all of his Catholic aunts (Auntie Colleen, Auntie Maisie, etc.) which I am sure they are now sporting with pride over on the Emeralde Isle.

3. Since Roman times monks have been experts at finding wonderful sources of pure water. At L’Abbaye de la Trappe, as with many monasteries in France, you can fill up your water bottles with “miraculous” water that boasts many health and spiritual benefits. At Charlotte’s family house in Normandy water from the Fontaine Saint Bernard just in front of L’Abbaye de la Trappe (photos above and below) is all they drink. I actually did enjoy fine health in Normandy, but then again it could have been the cider.

4. If they are open to the public it is really worth going to one of the services at a French monastery. Most of the services at Cîteaux are open to the public, and the monks’ chanting is beyond sublime. Because we almost always go with The Bevy, we favour the shorter evening Vespers service that is a wonderful example of austerity and beauty (not to mention mind-blowing acoustics). Franck and I particularly love going in the wintertime – the atmosphere suits Burgundy and the monastery perfectly.
5. Learning about the history of French monasteries is essential to understanding the history of France. Take Burgundy for example: monks from Cîteaux (which is where the Cistercian order was founded) were among the first to cultivate vines in Burgundy, and certainly the first to bring the resulting wine to such amazing levels of quality. Their savoir-faire is the basis of the winemaking tradition in Burgundy today. They also built the Chateau Clos de Vougeot which was the linchpin for wine production in Burgundy and suffered martyrdom during the French revolution. The history of French monks is a fascinating angle on the overall history of France.

I found this wonderful site which indexes monasteries all over France, so you can check and see if there is one in the region you are visiting.

Authentic France Travel Tip #31: Mondays

I found myself in Beaune with my bevy yesterday morning. It was of course a Monday, or lundi as it is better known here in France.

Franck had some tradesmen over working so I figured it was wise to get the girls out from underfoot and enjoy a nice morning in town. We started off with pain au chocolat and chocolat chaud all round in the Café Carnot, then a browse at the Atheneaum on the Place Carnot, and lastly a visit with the ducks and swans at Beaune’s lovely Parc de la Bouzaise.

While we were sitting on the café terrace I noticed several tourists wandering forlornly around with their cameras poised but a bewildered look on their faces. No wonder – the normally bustling Beaune looked like a ghost town, with closed shops and hardly anyone besides my bevy and I out in the streets.

The answer to this is that it was Monday morning, or lundi matin.

Sunday and Monday has always been the traditional “weekend off” for store keepers all over France. As a consequence, for years no French person ever expected to go out and buy anything on those two days of the week.

This phenomenon is currently in a state of flux over here in France. Although for the time being the Sunday closure has remained sacrosanct, you’ll find that most big grocery stores are now open all day on Mondays.

However, the smaller boutiques that you will find in most French towns such as Beaune are still by and large closed on Monday mornings. They used to be closed on Monday afternoons as well, but now the huge majority open around 2:00-2:30pm.

Luckily, the cafés are still open, so in my opinion Monday mornings in France are a great opportunity to have a good lie-in and / or session on a café terrace practicing that venerable French tradition of fainéanter (lazing around doing nothing).

Authentic France Travel Tip #29: Accept An Invitation to a Maison de Famille

Many French people have a strong emotional connection to a Maison de Famille or a “family house” that is usually in the countryside and almost always been handed down from generation to generation.

These maisons de famille almost always bear the mark of a family’s history. They often have a soul of their own.

So if you ever have the luck of having a French person invite you to share in their maison de famille, acceptez!

I’ve taken my own advice, as I am staying this week at my friend Charlotte’s maison de famille in Normandy. I’ve been hearing about it for years, and I can’t wait to see it for myself.

A Bientôt!

Authentic France Travel Tips#29: Don’t Hesitate To Go Chez Le Medecin

I have doctors on the brain these days. Clem, Charlotte & I went to see the doctor again this morning which means we are averaging about a visit per day for our family during the past week.

Many visitors to France don’t experience any health problems at all during their trip – lulled by fine wine, delicious food, and the relaxing pace of la campagne they actually enjoy an almost obscene sense of well-being.

Nevertheless, long car and plane trips are often a breeding ground for things like back trouble and airborne viruses.

Yet I have seen it again and again with visitors here – most people prefer to suffer niggling health conditions that compromise enjoyment of their trip rather than venture to the doctor’s office in a foreign country such as France.

Franck and I volunteered in Nepal for several months after I finished my BA, and the Lonely Planet’s advice for visitors to Nepal who suffered health problems was contained in one line: GET ON THE VERY FIRST PLANE OUT OF THE COUNTRY!!!

Luckily for us, France is not only a fine country for feeling well, but it is also one of the best countries in the world in which to get sick. I have been amazed by the promptness, professionalism, and low cost of the health care over here compared to Canada.

If you get sick in France, rest assured that a visit to a local doctor will only set you back 20 Euros (doctors visits are sometimes, but not always, reimbursed by your travel medical insurance). Specialists cost around 40 Euros. We leave recommendations for local doctors in our information binders at our vacation rentals as I know many other vacation rentals managers do as well, and Franck has even been known to accompany visitors down to the doctor to translate for them.

The French doctor (le medecin) will probably give you a prescription which you take to any of the many local pharmacies in France (recognized by their green signs – they are literally everywhere). French Pharmacies are a clean, modern, and much-beloved institution. Medication here in France is very, very inexpensive compared to Canada and the US.

So if you have any health problems at all during your stay in France, don’t hesitate to make a quick visit chez le medecin. You’ll be glad you did, and it may be remembered as a rather pleasant part of your overall Authentic French experience.

Bonne santé a tous!

Authentic France Travel Tips #28: Go To A Brocante

Children and brocantes, otherwise known as antique fairs, are not a great mix. Not only does there tend to be a lot of breakable items at brocantes, but as children generally don’t have a house or apartment of their own to furnish, they find them fist-gnawingly boring.

This is why I don’t go to nearly as many brocantes as I would like. Then again, it is probably a good thing I am reined in by my bevy as my bank balance could never support the extent of my brocante addiction.

Of all my favorite things to do in France, going to brocantes comes pretty darn high up on the loooooooong list.

Not only can you find beautiful, one-of-a-kind stuff at bargain prices, but even if you don’t buy anything you walk away with a whole new appreciation for the way life was lived in France for the past several hundred years.

Besides having more permanent brocante stores per capita than any other town in France, Beaune also has several big brocante fairs ever year in the covered market halles just across the street from the entrance to the famous Hotel-Dieu. These fairs are always extremely popular for both locals and antique aficionados from farther afield.

And guess what? There is one coming this Easter weekend on April 11,12, & 13th.

And if you miss that, here are the dates for the other Beaune antique fairs in 2009:

Beaune Antique Fairs 2009: Sous Les Halles

May 30-June 1st

August 15-16th

September 19-20th

October 31-November 1st

***”Authentic France Travel Tips” are posted every Tuesday and give ideas for savvy travellers who want to experience the authentic side of France.

Authentic France Travel Tip # 27: A Survival Guide to Grocery Shopping in France

Grocery shopping in France can be a sublime experience. I know that as for me I could very happily move into the dairy aisle of our local E.Leclerc in Beaune tomorrow.

Nevertheless, like many things in France grocery shopping is different than back home.

Below I will share the four cardinal rules for grocery shopping in France. After you master these, all that will be left for you to do is drool and enjoy.

Rule #1: Shopping Carts Are Not Free

You will need a euro, 50 centimes coin, or a plastic jeton which are free on request at the grocery stores to plug into the shopping carts. Only then will you be allowed to take one.

At the beginning of your trip go to the customer service desk in any grocery store and ask for five (cinq) jetons. This should do for your trip, unless you are like Franck and keep losing them. You are given them back when you return the shopping cart.

I try to keep a supply of jetons in each of our gites, but like adaptor plugs these items often go AWOL.

Free baskets are available in the store, but they are small and get full and heavy very quickly. Did I mention the dairy aisle???

Rule #2: Weigh Your Fruit and Vegetables

You’re not alone if you forget to do this. I regularly arrive at the cash resister without weighing my fruit and get yelled at by the cashier. This is because when grocery shopping I am very often in a dreamworld of my own, often induced by the the little plastic cups of chocolate liegois I have just ogled in the dairy aisle.

However, you will find a handy set of digital scales in the fruit and vegetable section of any decent sized French grocery store. They are not there for entertainment purposes.

You put your fruit and veg – and please don’t mix your Golden and Gala apples – in a plastic bag, press the button with the handy photo of the type of fruit or veg you have in your plastic bag, and the scale spits out an adhesive price ticket. You stick this on your fruit / veg bag. Repeat as necessary. This may actually earn you a smile from the cashier (but not necessarily, see below).

Rule #3: Grocery Stores in France Do Not Supply Grocery Bags, Or Grocery Baggers

To save France from an invasion of discarded plastic grocery bags – as you may have noticed, the French struggle with the “put garbage in a garbage can” concept – all large grocery stores in France do not supply grocery bags. However, they do sell recyclable grocery bags which you can buy and then bring with you every time you do a grocery trip.

Another option is to buy a classic market bag at a local market and use that as your grocery bag.

Of course if you are like me you will have fifty grocery bags in your basement and yet still forget one every time you go grocery shopping. This means driving home with produce rolling around in your trunk. As far as I’m concerned, this is perfectly acceptable.

It is no secret the French have a lot of style, and their grocery bags are no exception. The recyclable grocery bags are often really cool looking, like the Pop Art one above and below I recently bought on yet another grocery trip where I forgot my bags. They make great and seriously inexpensive (under a Euro) souvenirs.

Franck worked as a grocery store bag boy when he was in University, but this concept has gone the way of the dinosaures in France. You are expected to bag your groceries yourself, and très vite!
Rule #4: Don’t Expect Service With A Smile

Grocery store cashiers are poorly paid and saddled with a stressful, repetitive job. As far as the French are concerned, it would be downright inhumane to expect them to act cheerful to boot.

If the grocery store personnel smile at you, consider it sincere (maybe you, unlike me, have remembered to weigh your apples and bring your bags). If they scowl and yell at you, don’t take it personally – it is their right.

***”Authentic France Travel Tips” are posted every Tuesday and give ideas for savvy travellers who want to experience the authentic side of France.

Authentic France Travel Tips #26: Take Part In A Wine-Related Run

Oui. That’s me sucking wind as I near the finish line for the Nuits-Saint-Georges 10k race through some of the most prestigious vineyards and winemaking villages in the world (i.e. RomanéeConti, VosneRomanée, Clos Vougeot).

And here’s my name in the official results in “Le Bien Publique“, our local newspaper. It is probably one of the first times in my life my name has ever graced the pages of the “Sports” section.

I was almost the last person in the 10K, but that’s perfectly okay. I wasn’t carried off and I still got a goody bag. And ask anyone who knows me – I have always liked goody bags.

Check out #913 at the bottom of the second photo.

And here is Franck, who completed his first half-marathon in 1 hour and 55 minutes (of course now he is saying he could have gone much faster…). Check out #807.

Not only did the goody bag contain an emblazoned race T-shirt, but it also included a bottle of local Aligoté. This race, like so many other races in Burgundy is all about celebrating wine which, as far as the French are concerned, is eminently compatible with running.

I ran the 10k with (far behind actually, but no matter) our friends Marc-Olivier and Martial. When we got out of the car in Nuits-Saint-Georges Marc-Olivier slapped his pocket.

Merde!” he cried.I know what I forgot. My cigarettes!”

You just have to love the French, don’t you?

There were many “rest stops” along the beautiful route through the vineyards. True to urban legend two of them served glasses of local white and red wine, as well as little cubes of the Burgundian specialty jambon perseillé, paté, and lots of other yummy treats.

One of the volunteers tending the stand in the gorgeous village of VosneRomanée strongly advised me to pick the wine over the water as it was a “proven anti-inflammatory.”

And of course we had a victor’s feast later on that evening, complete with escargots from a wonderful new specialty store we’ve discovered, and which I’ll be highlighting in the Spring edition of The Grape News.

And of course lots of cheese, and the bottles of wine we had earned.

And *ahem* just a few more.

I highly recommend for anyone who is remotely interested in running to think about taking part in one of these gorgeous and oh-so-very-French races. It is truly an experience not to be missed. Same goes for the celebration afterwards.

Franck is thinking about putting together one or more “Grape Trips” around the Beaune Wine Auction Marathon / Half – Marathon, and 10.6 k race in November, as well as the Nuits-Saint-Georges event in March next year.

If anyone wants any further info. just let us know. The victor’s spoils are well worth it!

Not to mention that Burgundy’s white wine really does seem to have miraculous anti-inflammatory properties…

***”Authentic France Travel Tips” are posted every Tuesday and give ideas for savvy travellers who want to experience the authentic side of France.