France is a country in Western Europe. Clockwise from north, it borders with Belgium, then Luxembourg to the northeast, Germany and Switzerland to the east, Italy to the southeast. The Mediterranean Sea is on the south, with Monaco as a small inlet. It borders with Spain in the south, Andorra is sitting on a small part of the border between the two countries, and finally the whole western coast is the Atlantic Ocean and the Channel with England lying across.
France can boast dozens of major tourist attractions and is renowned for its gastronomy which includes wines and cheeses.
Map of France
France is divided into 22 administrative regions, which themselves can be grouped into 7 main "cultural regions", which share common points.
Listed below are the biggest cities in France, and the cities which cannot be missed if you wish to thoroughly explore the country.
Cities with the most of Roman monuments:
Generally cool winters and mild summers, but mild winters and hot summers along the Mediterranean; occasional strong, cold, dry, north-to-northwesterly wind known as mistral.
Mostly flat plains or gently rolling hills in north and west; remainder is mountainous, especially Pyrenees in south, Alps in east
France is a very old country. Until the Roman invasion, it was pretty much uncivilized. The Romans brought culture, roads, technology, and order. A lot of Roman artifacts are still visible, particularly in the south part of the country. 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.
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 Schengen Agreement is valid in France too. 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.
Most overseas travellers will arrive via Roissy - Charles de Gaulle airport situated about 25 km northeast of Paris. CDG Airport has a high-speed TGV train station with direct links to France's main cities. Links to Paris are provided through local trains (RER B gives you direct access in 30 mn to Paris subway lines for €7,75), local buses (Roissybus goes to Paris center in 60 mn for €8,20), Air France operated buses (€10). Transit between terminals and train stations is provided by a free shuttle bus.
If you fly from another French city, some European cities and a few overseas countries you will arrive in Orly airport situated about 10 km south of Paris. Links to Paris are provided through the same means as CDG. The fare is slightly lower.
Some low-cost airlines, including easyJet, 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.
The French company, SNCF, provides direct service to most European countries using regular trains. The Eurostar service uses high-speed TGV trains 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.
Driving from surrounding countries is easy as the border controls have been eliminated with most of them, the exceptions being Switzerland and Andorra. The main (toll) highways are listed below. Roads can also be used but they are usually much slower.
Entrance from Belgium is through highways A1, or A2 from Brussels to Paris.
Entrance from Luxembourg is through highway A31 to Metz and then A4 to Paris or Strasbourg.
Entrance from Germany is through highway A4 from Strasbourg to Paris.
Entrance from Switzerland is through Geneva and highway A40 to Lyon and then A6 to Paris.
Entrance from Italy is via Torino and the Mont-Blanc tunnel using A43 to Lyon and then A6 to Paris or along the Mediterranean coast on A8.
Monaco is reached by A8 between Nice and Italy.
Entrance from Eastern Spain via Barcelona is through A7 continuing on A75 to Paris. Entrance from Western Spain via San Sebastian is through A10 to Paris.
Andorra is reached through Toulouse by A66.
Entrance from the United-Kingdom is via Calais either using the train shuttle through the Channel tunnel or by ferry across the Channel. From there highway A28 goes to Paris.
France has a well-developed system of highways. Most of the links are toll roads. Some have toll station giving you access to a section, others have entrance and exit toll stations. All toll stations accept major credit cards but you can use the automatic booth only if your card is equipped with a chip.
Policemen sometimes read your ticket at the toll station to see how long you took since joining the autoroute: (as of 2004) they are not allowed to use that info to give you a speeding ticket. On the other hand, be aware that there is a new (as of 2004) automatic photo-radar system that is being implemented throughout France. For the moment, this system is most commonly found along major highways, and near major cities. Large brown rectangular signs warn when you are entering a photo-radar area.
France is a good country for hitchhiking.
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 national railway network is managed by the SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français). You can get schedules and book a ticket from their website. Booking is available in two classes: première classe (First Class) is less crowded but also 50% more expensive than deuxième classe (Second Class). If your TGV is fully-booked, step aboard seconds before the doors close: the guard will find you a seat somewhere.
Beware : your valid ticket MUST be punched by an automatic orange machine ("composteur") situated at the entrance of all platforms. Failure to do so may entitle you to a fine even if you are a foreigner with a limited French vocabulary. 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. The French railways are famous for their punctuality not for their service to travellers ; the situation is better on the Eurostar and the Thalys which are operated by private companies.
French is the official language of France, although there are regional variations.
In Alsace and part of Lorraine a kind of German is spoken. In the south, the language is closer to Catalan than to French, and is called Langue d'Oc (because the word for "yes" is oc) or Provençal. In Brittany, Breton is spoken; this Celtic language sounds like French, but is incomprehensible unless you also know Welsh. In parts of Aquitaine they speak Basque, but not as much as on the Spanish side of the border. In Corsica a kind of Italian is spoken.
Overall, though, everyone speaks French. The regional languages are (sadly) disappearing, despite some valiant efforts to keep them alive. This is due to the laws in France trying to unify the nation: 1 nation = 1 language.
While most people in France have actually studied English, they are usually unable or unwilling to give it a try. In most cases (for older people) this is due to the emphasis on teaching English literature not normal conversation, in other cases it is just for lack of practice, but some do make a principle out of the matter. Oftentimes, starting the conversation with at least a few basic French phrases goes a long way to convince them to try and help you. Note that this holds also true with many people in the service- and even tourism industries - although these are much more likely to have a co-worker who speaks good English.
See also: French phrasebook
France is part of the Eurozone, so like in many other European Union countries the currency here is the euro (symbol: €).
It is compulsory, for the large majority of businesses, to post prices in windows. Hotels and restaurants must have their rates visible from outside.
The food is reason enough to go to France. Even the most curmudgeonly visitors admit that the food is better there than anywhere else. That is because food is not just food to the French - it's a passion.
There are various places to enjoy 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. 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. Ethnic food is available throughout France, Chinese restaurants and takeaways (actually most of them are Vietnamese) are everywhere, and large cities have North African, Greek, Italian (pizzerias) restaurants and eateries. The ubiquitous hamburger eateries (US original or their even paler French copies) is also, unfortunately, available.
Lunch and dinner in a restaurant is "à la carte" (item by item) or on the "menu". The latter offers usually a 3-course meal ("hors d'oeuvre + plat + dessert") at a set price. Service is included but most of the time beverages are not. In the large cities, especially for lunch, restaurants are offering a "formule" which is a 2-course (either "hors d'oeuvre + plat" or "plat + dessert") meal.
People from the English-speaking world must be aware that, 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.
A quite memorable 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. 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.
Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone, the Loire...France is the home of wine, and it can be found cheaply just about anywhere.
There are a couple of mixed drinks which seem to be more or less unique to France, and nearby francophone countries.
Hotels come in 4 categories from 1 to 4 stars. This is the official rating given by the Ministry of Tourism, and it is posted at the entrance on a blue shield. Rates vary according to accommodation, location and sometimes high or low season or special events.
As of 2004, the rate for a ***Hotel listed in a reliable guidebook falls between 70 euros (cheap) and 110 euros (expensive) for a double without breakfast.
All hotels, by law, must have their rates posted outside (or visible from outside). Bargaining is not the norm but you can always ask for a discount.
Hotels located in city centers or near train stations are often very small (15 to 30 rooms) which means that you should book ahead. The newer hotels, business oriented, are found in the outskirts of cities and are sometimes larger structures (100 rooms or more); they may not be easy to reach with public transportation. Along the highways, at the entrance of cities, you find US-like motels ; they are very often reachable only by car. Some motels have minimal service, if you come in late you find an ATM-like machine, using credit cards, which will deliver a code in order to reach your assigned room. The newer hotels are often part of national or international chains and have high standards. Many older hotels are now part of chains and provide standardized service but they retain their own atmosphere.
B & B's
The phenomenon is quite new and nowhere as widespread as in the UK or Ireland. In rural areas you can find B & B's ; they are called 'gites ruraux'. There are very few near or in the cities. Finding them requires buying a guide or using the internet as you will not find a lot of signposts on the road.
The rating system uses wheat stalks (instead of stars).
For European people coming from an EU country, working in France is allowed without problem, and working in many French cities is possible. If you're from outside the EU, you will probably need a work permit - check with the French Embassy in your country. Depending on your qualifications, you can find a lot of different jobs. Do not forget though that the unemployment rate is around 10%.
If you want to earn money to continue traveling, Interim agencies (e.g. Adecco, Manpower) are a good source of temporary jobs. You can also consider working in bars, restaurants, and/or nightclubs (they are often looking for English-speaking workers, particularly those restaurants in tourist areas - fast-food restaurants such as McDonalds and Quick are also always looking for people).
A lot of "student jobs", if you happen to be in a big city, are also available for younger travelers, and foreigners are often very welcome. Such jobs include, for example, giving private English tuition, taking care of young children or many other things...check out the university buildings, they often have a lot of advertisements.
Don't forget that being an English speaker is a big advantage when you're looking for a job - French employers really have a problem finding English-speaking workers. Do note, however, that it will be much easier for you if you know a bit of French, for the same reason (your colleagues are not likely to speak English).
The French work market tends to operate through personal contacts - if you know someone that works somewhere, you can probably figure out quite an easy way to work at that place too. It always helps to know people living in the area you wish to work.
France is not a high crime area but large cities are plagued with the usual woes.
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 it is better to avoid. The outer ring of most cities and especially suburbs are sometimes grounds for youth gang violent activities and drug dealing. The subject is very touchy as it may easily have racist overtones.
If you are traveling alone, especially if you are a woman, you should avoid using public transportation at late hours 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.
It is compulsory, in France, to carry an ID card. Foreigners should, at all times, carry some kind of official proof of identity. Although random checks are not the norm you may be asked for your ID in all kinds of situation, for example if you cannot show a valid ticket when using public transportation. Again the subject is touchy as the police has been often accused of targeting special people : "délit de sale gueule" = "odd face misdemeanor".
Carrying or using narcotic substances, from marijuana to hard drugs, is illegal whatever the quantity. The penalty can be severe especially if you are suspected of dealing. Trains and cars coming from countries which have a more lenient attitude are especially targeted.
Due to the terrorist factor police, with the help of military units, is 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, but the chance of having a policeman asking you for your ID is high especially if you are not wearing a 3-piece suit and a tie.