France  is a country located in Western Europe. Clockwise from the north, France borders Belgium and Luxembourg and Germany to the northeast, Switzerland to the east, Italy to the south-east and Spain to the south-west, across the Pyrenees mountain range (the small country of Andorra lies in between the two countries). The Mediterranean Sea lies to the south of France, with the Principality of Monaco forming a small enclave. To the west, France has a long Atlantic Ocean coastline, while to the north lies the English Channel, across which lies the last of France's neighbours, England (part of the United Kingdom).
France is the world's most popular tourist destination (77.6 million in 2003) boasting dozens of major tourist attractions, like Paris, Côte d'Azur (the French Riviera), The Atlantic beaches, The winter sport resorts of the Alps, The Castles of Loire Valley, Brittany: Mont Saint Michel. The country is renowned for its gastronomy (particularly wines and cheeses), history, culture and fashion. France will be hosting the Rugby World Cup 2007 next year during October and November.
France is divided into 22 administrative regions, which themselves can be grouped into 7 main "cultural regions", which share common points.
The world-famous Loire Valley - best known for its wines and chateaux - extends across two regions in west and central France.
The French Republic also includes several overseas departments namely:
French overseas territories include:
The following overseas territories are remote possessions kept as natural reservations:
A very limited form of tourism is available in the TAAF islands.
France has numerous cities and towns of interest to travelers. Below is a list of nine of the most notable:
Cities with the largest number of visible Roman monuments:
Cities with an outstanding Gothic cathedral :
Cities with an outstanding castle :
A lot of variety, but temperate. Cool winters and mild summers on most of the territory, and especially in Paris. Mild winters and hot summers along the Mediterranean and in the south west. Mild winters and cool summers in the north west (Brittany). Cool to cold winters and hot summer along the German border (Alsace). Along the Rhône Valley, occasional strong, cold, dry, north-to-northwesterly wind known as the mistral.
Mostly flat plains or gently rolling hills in north and west; remainder is mountainous, especially Pyrenees in south west, Vosges and Alps in east, Massif Central in the south
Rise and fall of the Roman empire
Written History began in France with the invasion of the territory by the Romans, between 118 and 50 BC. Starting then, the territory which is today called France was part of the roman empire, and the Gauls, who lived there before Roman invasions, became accultured "Gallo-romans".
With the fall of the Roman empire, what was left were areas inhabited by descendants of intermarriages between gallo-romans and "barbaric" easterners (Mainly the Franks, but also other tribes like the "burgondes").
The legacy of the Roman presence is still visible particularly in the southern 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 (especially Paris). The other main legacy was the Catholic Church which can be, arguably, considered as the only remnant of the civilization of that time.
Clovis, who died in 511, is considered as the first French king although his realm was not much more than the area of the present Ile de France, around Paris. Charlemagne, who was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 800, was the first strong ruler. He united under his rule territories which extend today in Belgium, Germany and Italy. His capital was Aix-la-Chapelle (now in Germany, known as Aachen).
The country was under attack by the Vikings who came from the north and navigated upstream the rivers to plunder the cities and abbeys, it was also under attack from the south by the Muslim Saracens who where established in Spain. The vikings were given a part of the territory (today's Normandy) in 911 and melted fast in the Feudal system. The Saracens were stopped in 732 in Poitiers by Charles Martel, grand father of Charlemagne, a rather rough warrior who was later painted as a national hero.
Starting with Charlemange, a new society starts to settle, based on the personal links of feudalism. This era is named middle age. Although generally seen as an era of stagnation, it can more be described as a very complex mix of periods of economic and cultural developments (Music and poems of the Troubadours and Trouveres, building of the Romantic, then gothic cathedrals), and recessions due to pandemic disease and wars.
In 987, Hughes Capet was crowned as king of France ; he is the root of the royal families who later governed France. In 1154 much of the western part of France went under English rule with the wedding of Alienor d'Aquitaine to Henry II. Some kings of the Plantagenet dynasty are still buried in France, the most famous being Richard I, of Walter Scott's fame, who lies in the Abbaye de Fontevraud. The struggle between the English and French kings between 1337 and 1435 is known as the Hundred Years War and the most famous figure, considered as a national heroin, is Joan of Arc.
The making of a modern state nation
The beginning of the XVIIth century saw the end of the feudal system and the emergence of France as a "modern" state with its border close to the present ones. Louis XIV who was king from 1643 to 1715 (72 years) was probably the most powerful monarch of his time. French influence extended deep in western Europe, its language was used in the European courts and its culture was exported all over Europe.
That era and the following century also saw the expansion of France on the other continents. This started a whole series of wars with the other colonial empires, mainly England and Spain over the control of North America.
1789 saw the start of the French Revolution which led to the creation of the Republic. Although this period was also fertile in bloody excesses it was, and still is, a reference for many other liberation struggles.
Napoléon reunited the country but his militaristic ambition which, at first, made him the ruler of most of western Europe were finally his downfall. In 1815 he was defeated in Waterloo (Belgium) by an alliance of English and Prussian forces. He is still revered in some Eastern European countries as its armies and its government brought with them the thinkings of the French philosophers.
France went back to monarchy and another revolution in 1848 which allowed a nephew of Napoleon to be elected president and then become emperor under the name of Napoléon III. The end of the XIX century was the start of the industrialization of the country, the development of the railways but also the start of the bitter wars with Prussia and later Germany.
XXth and XXIst centuries
World War I (1914 -18) was a disaster for France, even though the country was ultimately a victor. A significant part of the male workforce had been killed and disabled and a large part of the country and industry destroyed. World War II (1939 - 45) also destroyed a number of areas.
Since the end of WWII France went through a period of reconstruction and prosperity came back with the development of industry. France and Germany were at the start of the Treaties which eventually became the European Union. One of the most visible consequence being the introduction in 2002 of the Euro (€), the common currency of twelve European countries.
In 2004, France is a Republic with a President elected for a 5-year term. One of the main issue is the further integration of the country into the EU and the adoption of common standards for the economy, the defense etc.
Passport and Visa
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.
Australian, Malaysian or Indonesian citizens visiting France for holiday will not need a Visa.
The main international airport, Roissy - Charles de Gaulle (CDG) near Paris, is likely to be your port of entry if you fly into France from outside Europe. CDG is the home of Air France (AF), the national company, for most intercontinental flights. AF and the companies forming the Skyteam Alliance (Dutch KLM, AeroMexico, Alitalia, US Continental, NorthWest and Delta Airlines, Korean Air) use Terminal 2 while most other foreign airlines use Terminal 1. A third terminal is used for charter flights. If transferring through CDG (especially between the various terminals) it is important to leave substantial time between flights. Ensure you have no less than one hour between transfers. Add more if you have to change terminals as you will need to clear through security.
Transfers to another flight in France : AF operates domestic flights from CDG too, but a lot of domestic flights, and also some internal European flights, use Orly, the second Paris airport. For transfers within CDG you can use the free bus shuttle linking all terminals, train station, parking lots and hotels on the platform. For transfers to Orly there is a (free for AF passengers) bus link operated by AF. The two airports are also linked by a local train (RER) which is slightly less expensive, runs faster but is much more cumbersome to use with heavy luggage. AF has agreements with the SNCF, the national rail company, which operates TGV's (see below) out of CDG airports (some trains carry flight numbers). The TGV station is located in Terminal 2 and is on the route of the free shuttle. For transfer to Paris see Paris.
Other airports have international destinations : Paris - Orly, Bordeaux, Clermont-Ferrand, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Nantes, Nice, Toulouse have flights to cities in western Europe and North-Africa ; those airports are hubs to smaller airports in France and may be useful to avoid the transfer between the two Paris airports. Two airports, Bâle-Mulhouse and Geneva, are shared by France and Switzerland and can allow entry into either country.
Some low-cost airlines, including 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 rail company, SNCF, provides direct service from most European countries using regular trains. French train tickets can be purchased directly in the US from RailEurope a subsidiary of the SNCF. The Eurostar service uses high-speed 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.
Eurolines connects over 500 destinations, covering the whole of the continent and Morocco. Eurolines allows travelling from Sicily to Helsinki and from Casablanca to Moscow.
easyCruise offers weekly stops in southern French cities. It also goes to Monaco and the Italian Riviera.
See also: Driving in France
France has a well-developed system of highways. Most of the freeway (autoroute) links are toll roads. Some have toll station giving you access to a section, others have entrance and exit toll stations. Don't lose your entrance ticket or you will be charged for the longest distance. All toll stations accept major credit cards, or you can use the automatic booth, but only if your card is equipped with a chip.
Roads range from the narrow single-lane roads in the countryside to major highways. Most towns and cities were built before the general availability of the automobile and thus city centers tend to be unwieldy for cars. Keep this in mind when renting: large cars can be very unwieldy. It often makes sense to just park and then use public transportation.
France drives on the right.
France is a good country for hitchhiking. Be patient, prepare yourself for a long wait or walk and in the meantime enjoy the landscape. A ride will come along. People who stop are usually friendly and not dangerous. They never expect any money for the ride.
Remember that getting out of Paris by thumb is almost impossible. You can try your luck at the portes, but heavy traffic and limited areas for stopping will try your patience. It's a good idea to take the local train to a nearby suburb as your chance of being picked up will increase dramatically.
Outside Paris, it's advisable to try your luck after roundabouts. As it's illegal to hitchhike on the motorways (autoroutes) and they are well observed by the police, you may try on a motorway entry. The greatest chance is at toll plazas (stations de péage), some of which require all cars to stop and are thus great places to catch a lift. Some tollbooths are really good, some not so good. If you've been waiting for a while with an indication of where to go, drop it and try with your thumb only. And also, you can try to get a ride to the next good spot in the wrong direction.
Note, though, that hitching from a péage, while a common practice, isn't legal and French police or highway security, who are normally very tolerant of hitchhikers, may stop and force you to leave. You can get free maps in the toll offices - these also indicate where you can find the "all-stop-Péage".
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 French national railway network is managed by the SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français). For interregional trains you can get schedules and book tickets online at voyages-sncf.com. For regional trains, schedules can be found at ter-sncf.com (choose your region, then "Carte and horaires" for maps and timetables). Booking is available in two classes: première classe (First Class) is less crowded and more comfortable but can also be about 50% more expensive than deuxième classe (Second Class). Note that if your TGV is fully-booked, step aboard seconds before the doors close, and look for the guard ("contrôleur"). He will find you a seat somewhere.
If you'll be doing more than about 2 return journeys in France, and are younger than 26, getting a "Carte 12-25" will save you money. They cost about 50€ but last a year and generally give a 50% reduction on ticket prices.
If you've booked online on Voyages SNCF, you can pick up your ticket when you get to the train station. Contrary to a common misunderstanding, this web site allows you to order even if you live in the US; it is not concerned where you live, but where you will pick up the tickets or have them sent; thus if you wish to pick up the tickets at a SNCF train station or office, answer "France". When at the station, just go to the counter ("Guichet") and ask to have your ticket issued ("retirer votre billet"). You can ask "Je voudrais retirer mon billet, s'il vous plait", or 'zhe voo dray ruh teer ay mon bee yay, sill voo play' and then hand them the paper with the reference number.
To find your train, locate your train number and the departure time on the departures board. There will be a track ("Voie") number next to the train and departure time. Follow signs to that track to board the train. You will have a reserved seat on TGV trains, but you can pick any seat on other trains. To find your reserved seat, first look for the train car number ("Voit. No"). Pay attention to the possible confusion between track number (Voie) and car (voiture) number (abbreviated Voit) As you go down the track, the car number will be displayed on an LCD screen on the car, or maybe just written in the window or right next to the doors.
If you are early, there is often a map somewhere on the track that will show how the train and car numbers will be lined up on the track according to letters that appear either on the ground or on signs above. That way, you can go stand by the letter corresponding with your car number and wait to board the train closest to your car number. You can easily go from one car to another, so if you are very late, jump in any car of the same class before the train starts, wait until most people are seated then walk to your car and place number.
Beware: To avoid any form of fraud, your ticket MUST be punched by an automatic machine ("composteur", older machines are bright orange, newer machines are yellow and gray) situated at the entrance of all platforms to be valid. Failure to do so may entitle you to a fine even if you are a foreigner with a limited French vocabulary, depending on how the conductor feels. 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.
French information booths, especially in larger train stations, can be quite ineffective especially if you do not understand much french. If something does not seem to make sense, just say "excusez-moi" or ex qu say mwa, and they should repeat it.
There exist night train services. These include couchettes second class (6 bunk beds in a compartment), first class (4 bunks) and wagon-lit (real bedding with linen; have to specify sex when booking or travel in couple). Night trains have occasionally be targeted by criminals, though this is not a widespread problem.
There is no single national bus service. Furthermore, buses are limited to local mass transit or departmental/regional service. You must therefore check for the peculiarities of bus service in the actual region you are in. However, bus tickets in the region of Ile De France generally cost about Euro 1.40
In Alsace and part of Lorraine, a kind of German, called "Alsacian", is spoken. In the south, some still speak dialects of the Langue d'Oc (because the word for "yes" is oc): Languedocien, Limousin, Auvergnat, or Provençal. Langue d'Oc is a Romance language, a very close relative of Italian, Spanish, or Catalan. In the west part of Brittany, a few people, mainly old or scholars, speak Breton; this Celtic language is closer to Welsh than to French. In parts of Aquitaine Basque is spoken, but not as much as on the Spanish side of the border. In Corsica a kind of Italian is spoken. However, almost everyone speaks French and tourists are unlikely to ever come across regional languages, except in order to give a "folkloric" flair to things.
The French are generally attached to politeness and will react coolly to strangers that forget it. You might be surprised to see that you are greeted by other customers when you walk into a restaurant or shop. Return the courtesy and address your hellos/goodbyes to everyone when you enter or leave small shops and cafes. It is, for the French, very impolite to start a conversation with a stranger (even a shopkeeper or client) without at least a polite word like "bonjour". For this reason, starting the conversation with at least a few basic French phrases, or some equivalent polite form in English, goes a long way to convince them to try and help you.
Note that French spoken with an English or American accent can be very difficult for the average French person to understand. In such circumstances, it may be best to write down what you are trying to say. But tales of waiters refusing to serve tourists because their pronunciation doesn't meet French standards are highly exaggerated. A good-faith effort will usually be appreciated, but don't be offended if a waiter responds to your fractured French in English.
Please note that some parts of France (such as Paris) are at times overrun by tourists. The locals there may have some blasé feelings about helping for the umpteenth time foreign tourists who speak in an unintelligible language and ask for directions to the other side of the city. Be courteous and understanding.
See also: French phrasebook
France is part of the Eurozone, so as in many other European Union countries the currency used is the euro (symbol: €). Some foreign currencies such as the US dollar and the British Pound are occasionally accepted, especially in touristic areas and in higher-end places, but one should not count on it; furthermore, the merchant may apply some unfavourable rate. In general, shops will refuse transactions in foreign currency.
It is compulsory, for the large majority of businesses, to post prices in windows. Hotels and restaurants must have their rates visible from outside.
Almost all stores, restaurants and hotels take the CB French debit card, and its foreign affiliations, Visa and Mastercard. American Express tends to be accepted only in high-end shops. Check with your bank for applicable fees (typically, banks apply the wholesale inter-bank exchange rate, which is the best available, but may slap a proportional and/or a fixed fee).
French CB cards (and CB/Visa and CB/Mastercard cards) have a "smart chip" on them allowing PIN authentication of transactions. This system, initiated in France, has now evolved to an international standard and newer British cards are compatible. Some automatic retail machines (such as those vending tickets) may be compatible only with cards with the microchip. In addition, cashiers unaccustomed to foreign cards possibly do not know that foreign Visa or Mastercard cards have to be swiped and a signature obtained, while French customers systematically use PIN and don't sign the transactions.
There is (virtually) no way to get a cash advance from a credit card without a PIN in France.
Automatic teller machines (ATM) all take CB, Visa, Mastercard, Cirrus and Plus and are plentiful throughout France. They may accept other kinds of card; check for the logos on the ATM and on your card (on the back, generally) if at least one matches. It is possible that some machines do not handle 6-digit PIN codes (only 4-digit ones), or that they do not offer the choice between different accounts (defaulting on the checking account). They are by far the best way to get money in France. Check with your bank about applicable fees, which may vary greatly (typically, banks apply the wholesale inter-bank exchange rate, which is the best available, but may slap a proportional and/or a fixed fee; because of the fixed fee it is generally better to withdraw money in big chunks rather than 20€ at a time). Also, check about applicable maximal withdrawal limits.
Traveller's cheques are difficult to use — most merchants will not accept them, and exchanging them may involve finding a bank that accepts to exchange them and possibly paying a fee.
Note that the postal service doubles as a bank, so often post offices will have an ATM. As a result, even minor towns will have ATMs usable with foreign cards.
Exchange offices (bureaux de change) are now rarer with the advent of the Euro - they will in general only be found in towns with a significant foreign tourist presence, such as Paris. Some banks exchange money, often with high fees.
Do's Carry an ATM card with a Cirrus or Plus logo on it and withdraw cash from ATMs. Pay larger transactions (hotel, restaurants...) with Visa or Mastercard. Always carry some € cash for emergencies.
Don't's Carry foreign currency ($, £...) or traveller's cheques, and exchange them on the go, or expect them to be accepted by shops. It is a sorry sight to see American travellers trying to pay a supermarket in $ and then asking for an exchange office...
With its international reputation for fine dining, few people would be surprised to hear that French cuisine can certainly be very good. Unfortunately, it can also be quite disappointing. Finding the right restaurant is therefore very important - try asking locals, hotel staff or even browsing restaurant guides for recommendations as simply walking in off the street can be a hit and miss affair.
There are many places to try 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. These usually offer a relatively consistent and virtually standardised menu of relatively inexpensive cuisine. To obtain a greater variety of dishes, a larger outlay of money is often necessary. In general, one should try to eat where the locals do for the best chance of a memorable meal. 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 French copies) is also available.
Menu fixed price seldom include beverages. If you want water, waiters will often try to sell you mineral water (Évian, Thonon) or fizzy water (Badoit, Perrier), at a premium; ask for a carafe d'eau for tap water, which is free and safe to drink. Water never comes with ice in it unless so requested (and water with ice may not be available).
Ordering is made either from fixed price menus (prix fixe) or à la carte. A typical fixed price menu will comprise:
Sometimes, restaurants offer the option to take only two of three steps, at a reduced price.
Coffee is always served as a final step (though it may be followed by liquors). A request for coffee during the meal will be considered weird.
Not all restaurants are open for lunch and dinner, nor are they open all year around. It is therefore advisable to check carefully the opening times and days. A restaurant open for lunch will usually start service at noon and accept patrons until 13:30. Dinner begins at around 19:30 and patrons are accepted until 21:30. Restaurants with longer service hours are usually found only in the larger cities and in the downtown area. Finding a restaurant open on Saturday and especially Sunday can be a challenge unless you stay close to the tourist areas.
In a reasonable number of restaurants, especially outside tourist areas, a booking is compulsory and people may be turned away without one, even if the restaurant is clearly not filled to capacity. For this reason, it can be worthwhile to research potential eateries in advance and make the necessary reservations in order to avoid disappointment, especially if the restaurant you're considering is specially advised in guide books.
A 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. A lunch or dinner for one person in a decent Chinese restaurant in Paris can cost as little as €6 if one looks carefully.
Outside of Paris and the main cities, prices are not always lower but the menu will include a fourth course, usually cheese. 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.
All white bread variants keep for only a short time - must be eaten the same day. Hence bakers bake at least twice a day!
Pastries are a large part of French cooking. Hotel breakfasts tend to be light, consisting of tartines (pieces of bread with butter or jam) or the famous croissants and pains au chocolat, not dissimilar to a chocolate filled croissant (but square rather than crescent shaped).
Pastries can be found in a pâtisserie but also in most boulangeries.
Every French region has dishes all its own. These dishes follow the resources (game, fish, agriculture, etc) of the region, the vegetables (cabbage, turnip, endives, etc) which they grow there. Here is a small list of regional dishes which you can find easily in France. Generally each region has a unique and widespread dish (usually because it was poor people's food):
Contrary to stereotype, snails and frog legs are quite infrequent foods in France, with many French people enjoying neither, or sometimes having never even tasted them. Quality restaurants sometimes have them on their menu: if you're curious about trying new foods, go ahead.
Let us also cite:
France is certainly THE country of cheese, with nearly 400 different kinds. Indeed, former president General Charles De Gaulle was quoted as saying something along the lines of, nobody could govern a country with more than 265 different cheeses.
Here is a far from exhaustive list of what one can find:
Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone, the Loire Valley...France is the home of wine. It can be found cheaply just about anywhere. Beer (lager) is also extremely popular, in particular in northern France, where "[Biere de Garde]" can be found. Note that in France, the minimum age to buy alcohol at cafés is 16, but this is not always strictly enforced; however, laws against drunk driving are strictly enforced, with stiff penalties.
Wine and liquors may be purchased from supermarkets, or from specialized stores such as the Nicolas chain. Nicolas offers good advice on what to buy (specify the kind of wine and the price range you desire). In general, only French wines are available unless a foreign wine is a "specialty" with no equivalent in France (such as port), and they are classified by region of origin, not by grape.
Never drink alcoholic beverages (especially wine) directly from a 75 cl bottle. Such behaviour is generally associated with bums and drunkards.
Café prices depend heavily on location. Remember, you're not paying so much for the beverage as for the table spot; and accordingly, in general, it is cheaper to drink at the bar than seated at a table. Cafés in touristic areas, especially in Paris, are very expensive. If your intent is simply to have a drink, you'll be better off buying beverages from a grocery store and drinking them in a park.
There are a couple of mixed drinks which seem to be more or less unique to France, and nearby francophone countries.
Tap water is safe to drink apart from exceptional cases (remote farms, remote rest areas), in which case it will be labeled eau non potable. Tap water may be obtained in restaurants by asking for a carafe d'eau; it will not come with ice. In some cities, it may have a taste such as that of chlorine.
There is a variety of bottled water, including:
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 and Gites
Throughout France, mainly in rural areas but also in towns and cities, you can find B & B's and gîtes. These are not the same. B&B's are known in French as "Chambres d'hôtes", and are generally available on a nightly basis; 'gites' or 'gites ruraux' are holiday cottages, and generally rented out as a complete accommodation unit, on a weekly basis. There are very few near or in the cities. Finding them requires buying a guide or, for greater choice, using the internet, as you will not find a lot of signposts on the road.
Traditonally, gites provided basic good value accommodation, typically adjacent to the owners household or in a nearby outbuilding. More recently the term has been extended, and can now be used to describe most country-based self-catering accommodation in France. Hence it includes accommodation as varied as small cottages and luxury villas with private swimming pools.
During peak summer months most self-catering gites require booking several months in advance.
Gîtes de France
The organisation known as "Gites de France" is the biggest holiday accommodation association in France, but is not an "official" organisation. There are a large number of organisations and websites offering "gites". Literally the French word gite just means a place to spend the night; however it now largely used to describe rental cottages or self-catering holiday homes, usually in rural parts of France. Despite the name, Gites de France offers B&B as well as holiday rental (gite) accommodation. Though the Gites de France site has thousands of properties listed, there is no obligation for owners to register with this organization. There are thousands of B&Bs and gites in France rented out by foreign owners, particularly British and Dutch, and these tend to be listed, sometimes exclusively, with English-language or international organisations and websites that can be found by keying the words "gites" or "gites de france" into any of the major search engines.
The "Gites de France" rating system uses wheat stalks called Epis (equivalent to stars), based on amenities rather than quality - though generally the two go together.
At the Gites de France site you can make reservations at 8500 B&B's and many self-catering gites. The average B&B price for two including breakfast is €45-50.
It can also be possible to rent just for a weekend, and in a group of 4 or more this becomes very cheap, especially outside the summer months. There are many gites that you can rent for under €150 for the whole weekend, that will sleep 5 or more people comfortably.
There are also gîtes d'étape. These are more like overnight stays for hikers, like a mountain hut. They are mostly much cheaper than the Gîtes de France but also much more basic.
Camping is very common in France. Most campsite are a little way out of the city centre and virtually all cater not just for tents but for Camper Vans/Caravans also. While all campsites have the basic facilities of Shower/toilet blocks, larger sites tend to offer a range of additional facilities such as bars and restaurants, self-service laundries, swimming pools or bicycle hire. All campsites except for very small "farm camping" establishments must be registered with the authorities, and are officially graded using a system of stars.
In coastal areas, three-star and four-star campgrounds must generally be booked in advance during the months of July and August, and many people book from one year to the next. In rural areas, outside of popular tourist spots, it is usually possible to show up unannounced, and find a place; this is particularly true with the municipal campsites that can be found in most small towns; though even then it may be advisable to ring up or email in advance to make sure. There are always exceptions.
France, of course, is the best place to acquire, maintain and develop your French. A number of institutions offer a variety of courses for travellers:
French language courses are available at Inflexyon
Citizens of EU countries (save from some Eastern European countries, for a temporary period) can work in France without having to secure a work permit. 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 9%.
Note that if you are not from the EU, you cannot work legally in France without a proper work visa or employment permit. Doing so otherwise makes you an illegal alien, potentially subject to possible arrest, prosecution, expulsion, and prohibition from reentering France.
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 McDonald's 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 lessons, 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). However, don't overestimate your chances of finding work; in March 2005 unemployment is back at 10%, and a whopping 22% among under-25's.... many of whom speak or understand English. There are a lot more people looking for jobs than there are jobs - except those unattractive jobs that no-one wants to do.
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.
Crime-related emergencies can be reported to the toll-free number 17. Law enforcement forces are the National Police (Police Nationale) in urban area and the Gendarmerie in rural area, though for limited issues such as parking and traffic offenses some towns and villages also have a municipal police.
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.
While it is not compulsory for French citizens to carry identification they usually do so. Foreigners are advised to carry some kind of official identity document. Although random checks are not the norm you may be asked for an ID in some kinds of situations, for example if you cannot show a valid ticket when using public transportation; not having one in such cases will result in your being taken to a police station for further checks. Again the subject is touchy as the police has been often accused of targeting people according to criteria of ethnicity : 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 (e.g. the Netherlands) are especially targeted.
France has a liberal policy with respect to alcohol; there are no ID checks for purchasing alcohol (if you look older than 18, of course!) However, causing problems due to public drunkenness is a misdemeanor and may result in a night in a police station until the person can behave themselves. Drunk driving is a severe offense and may result in heavy fines and jail sentences.
Pharmacies in France are denoted by a green cross, usually in neon. Contrary to the US habit, they don't double as general stores, and only sell medicine, contraceptives and often beauty and related products. Medicines must be ordered from the counter, even for non-prescription medicines. The pharmacist is able to help you about various medicines and can propose you generic drugs.
Since drug brand names vary across countries even though the effective ingredients stay the same, it is better to carry prescriptions using the international nomenclature in addition to the commercial brand name. Prescription drugs, including oral contraceptives (aka "the pill"), will only be delivered if a doctor's prescription is shown.
In addition, supermarkets sell condoms (préservatifs) and also often personal lubricant, bandages, disinfectant and other minor medical helps. Préservatif machines are often found outside pharmacies and in bar toilets etc.
Medical treatment can be obtained from self-employed physicians, clinics and hospitals. Most general practitioners, specialists (e.g. gynecologists), and dentists are self-employed; look for signs saying Docteur (médicine générale = general practitioner, etc.). The normal price for a consultation with a general practitioner is 21€, though some physicians charge more (this is the full price and not a co-payment). Physicians may also do home calls, but these are more expensive.
Residents of the European Union are covered by the French social security system, which will reimburse or directly pay for 70% of health expenses (30% co-payment) in general. Other travellers are not covered and will be billed the full price, even if at a public hospital; non-EU travellers should thus probably have a travel insurance covering medical costs. Note, however, that, in general, medical fees in France, even when paying the full price, are low compared to those in the United States.
Hospitals will have an emergency room signposted Urgences.
The following numbers are toll-free:
Operators at these numbers can transfer requests to other services if needed (e.g. some medical emergencies may be answered by firefighter groups).
Smoking is prohibited by law in all enclosed spaces accessible to the public (this includes train and subway cars, train and subway station enclosures, workplaces, restaurants and cafés) unless in areas specifically designated for smokers.
Enforcement of this law in restaurants and cafés is lax, and many have token "smoking" and "non-smoking" section that are merely signs on the law without any real significance. If you insist on not risking second-hand smoke, choose the larger restaurants, which can actually afford to have really separated sections. As of 2006, the government is considering tightening this law.
Smoking is prohibited in the Paris métro; some SNCF trains have smoking and non-smoking sections, but it is now common for trains to be fully non-smoking (in particular all high-speed trains). Subway and train conductors do enforce the law and will fine you for smoking in non-designated places; if you encounter problems with a smoker in a non-smoking compartment, you may go find the conductor.
Sometimes, the only seats available on a crowded train are in smoking cars. This may be a difficult experience.
Some hotels offer smoking vs non-smoking rooms.
Only people over the age 16 may purchase tobacco products. Shopkeepers may request a photo ID.
It is considered very rude to be loud in a crowded place, such as a subway car or restaurant. Keep in mind that, though you may be enjoying your holiday, most people around you in the métro or other places are probably going to or back from work and may be tired and thus will react very coolly to tourists babbling at the top of their lungs.
Dress codes are fast disappearing all over the country but very few French people will wear short pants in the city. Nobody will tell you anything, you will just be labeled as a tourist. Generally speaking, business casual dress code is sufficient in cities and in all but the most formal occasions.
People won't be offended (although they may be surprised, especially in rural areas) if you wear clothing that is unusual in France, such as a sari, a Scottish kilt, or djelabas.
Usual courtesy apply when entering churches, and although you may not be asked to leave, it is better to avoid short pants and halter tops.
Some restaurants will frown if you come in dressed for trekking but very few will insist upon a jacket and tie. At the same time you'll be surprised by the number of French twenty-somethings who show up at a grungy bar in jacket and tie, even if obviously from a thrift-shop.
Beaches and swimming pools (in hotels) are used for getting a tan. Taking off your bra will not usually create a stir if you don't mind a bevy of oglers. Taking off the bottom part is reserved to designated nude beaches. People on beaches are usually not offended by a young boy or girl dressed or undressed without covering. Most resort cities insist on your wearing a shirt when leaving the beach area.
Breast feeding in public is very rare but nobody will mind or call the police if you do.
Talking to people
If you try to use your French to address people be careful about the use of "tu" (informal, friendly, and called tutoyer) and "vous" (formal, respectful, and called vouvoyer) forms. Using tu can be demeaning to people, since this is the form normally used for addressing children.
People who do not know each other well seldom use their first name to introduce themselves. Refrain from using someone's first name unless you are invited to do so or if you are with people used to dealing with foreigners. Actually French people will use the "tu" and the "vous", "first name" or "surname" depending on their relationship and the code is not easy to learn.
If that's confusing (or not confusing enough) the key is that it's all about distance. For example a bartender is vous up until the moment that he or she "comps" you a drink, at which point tu becomes more appropriate, and the use of vous would be a bit off-putting.
For foreigners, the best way to deal with the "tu" and "vous" problem is to address people using "vous" until invited to say "tu", or until addressed by the first name. Doing so will look perhaps a shade old fashioned, but always respectful, while doing otherwise can be pretty rude and embarrassing in some situations. Always use the "vous" form to a law enforcement officer (or other person of authority), even if he may (though he ought not) use the "tu" form to talk to you.
Simplified: Use vous unless:
France is not exactly the same country that one sees portrayed on American television. Its people have a wide variety of opinions about many subjects. Unless you really follow French news closely, you should probably steer clear of discussing internal French politics, especially sensitive issues such as immigration - you probably don't know much about them and will come across as judgmental and uninformed. Reading French newspapers to get a feel for the wide spectrum of political opinions in France – from the revolutionary Communist left to the nationalistic right – would help.
The French seldom advertise their religious feelings, however, and expect you to do so as well. It is also generally considered nosey to inquire about religious or other personal issues.
Anti-French feelings, especially popular amongst the British and Americans, can be fueled by the inadvertent reduction of France to Paris, that is, that all French people act like Parisians, when this is quite far from the truth. Many rural people say that France is a blessed country, the inference drawn that it is cursed by Paris (or the Government. This also included the Germans, but is rare since the 50s). Paris is a fairly unusual city by French standards and life there is, in some respects, closer to life in London or New York City than in the rest of France. A traveler's experiences with French culture in Paris should be treated as one would treat an experience in the traveler's own country's largest cities; that is, the locals are hurried and "have seen it all". No doubt an American would not consider a trip to New York City as a typical American experience. Reserve judgement until having traveled far afield of Paris.
Country code : 33
All numbers within France have 10 digits. The first two digits are 01 for the Paris area, and 02/03/04/05 for the northwest/northeast/southeast/southwest, respectively. Numbers starting with 06 are cellphones. You cannot drop the first two digits even if your call remains within the same area. Some numbers may also start with 08 if they are attached to Voice over IP telephones connected to DSL modems from French DSL providers that integrate such functions (Skype numbers also start with 08).
The initial '0' may be replaced by some other digit or longer code indicating a choice of long-distance operator. Don't use this unless explicitly told to.
When speaking phone numbers, people will usually group the digits by sets of two. For example, 02 47 66 41 18 will be said as "zero-two forty-seven sixty-six forty-one eighteen" (but in French, of course). The two-digit pair 00 is said as "zero zero", not "double zero".
To make an international call from from France, dial: 00 + country code + local number.
To enjoy cheap international calls from France you can use low-cost dial-around services such as appeldiscount, appellemonde or allo2556. Dial-around services are directly available from any landline in France. No contract, no registration is required. Most dial-around services allows you to call USA, Canada, Western Europe and many other countries at local rate (tarif local) so you can easily save on your phone bill. They also work from payphones, though the first minute is surcharged by France Telecom. To know how to order a landline (ligne fixe) in France you can click on landline providers in France. Another method, if you stay long, is to use VoIP over DSL, such as the Livebox or Freebox service (free long distance calls within France and to a number of countries).
To call a number in France from abroad, dial: international prefix + 33 + local number without the leading 0.
There are few companies which provide toll-free numbers (starting with 08 00) but many have numbers starting with 082, for which you pay the cost of a local call regardless of where you are in the country.
Numbers starting with 089 are (heavily) surtaxed. They provide service to some legitimate businesses but the ones you see advertised all over the country are usually for porn services.
Emergency numbers are 15 '(medical aid), 17' (police station) and 18 (fire/rescue). You can also use the European emergency number 112 (perhaps a better choice if you don't speak French). These calls are free, and are accessible from virtually any phone, including locked cellphones. In case of a serious emergency, if you find a code-protected cellphone, enter a random code tree times: the phone will lock, but you will be able to dial emergency numbers.
Phone booths are available in train or subway stations, bus stops, near tourist attractions etc. There is at least one phone booth in every village (look on the main plaza). Due to the widespread use of mobile phones there are now fewer booths than a few years ago. Most use a card (no coins). France Télécom public phones accept CB/Visa/Mastercard cards, but almost always only these with a microchip. Otherwise, post offices, café-tabacs (recognizable by a red sign hanging outside), and stores that sell magazines sell phone cards. Ask for a "carte telephonique"; these come with differing units of credit, so you may want to specify "petit" if you just want to make a short local call or two. If you get the kind with a computer chip in it, you just have to slide it into the phone, listen for the dial tone, and dial. The US-style cards require you to dial a number and then enter a code (but with spoken instructions in French).
France uses the GSM standard of cellular phones (900 MHz and 1800 MHz bands) used in most of the world outside of the U.S. There are 3 companies (Orange, SFR and Bouygues Telecom) offering wireless service. The country is almost totally covered but you may have difficulties using your mobile phone in rural or mountainous areas. However, for emergency numbers, the three companies are required by law to accept your call if they technically can, even if you are not one of their customers, thus maximizing your chance of being helped even in areas with spotty service.
The Minitel is a now obsolete system of text terminals that were deployed in French households from the 1980s. Their main use was the phone directory (thus relieving the need for bulky collections of paper directories), but it also allowed online retailing (extension of mail order), ticket bookings etc., and was also popular for games, chat rooms... and sex-focused services.
This system still exists, companies will list their Minitel code as 36 15 (the dial-up number to get a connection) + the name of the service (to be typed in on the Minitel keyboard).
Posters advertising sex chat services ("36 15 Ulla") were a common sight in French streets and shop windows, and certainly a puzzlement to the visitors unacquainted with the existence of a device which had found its place in the nation's everyday life.
The main advantages of Minitel over the Internet were simplicity (no need for a costly, difficult to operate personal computer) as well as safety (no "phishing" or fears about transmitting sensitive data such as credit cards numbers).
A few Minitels may still be found in some post offices (great for looking free of charge in the White or Yellow Pages), and a few phone booths are still equipped with one - but no, now this is totally unlikely.
Internet access is available in cyber cafes all over large and medium-sized cities. Service is usually around 2 euro per hour.
In all major cities, there are multiple companies offering residential broadband service. Typical prices are 30€ a month for unmetered ADSL (in speeds up to 24 megabits per second), digital HDTV over DSL and free unlimited voice-over-IP phone calls to land lines within France and about twenty other countries (EU,US,...) with external SIP access too (the price includes a modem/routeur/switch with integrated WiFi MiMo access point).
Post offices are found in all cities and villages but their time of operation vary. In the main cities the downtown office may be open during lunchtime, typically 09:00 to 18:00. Most offices are only open on Saturday morning and there is only one office in Paris which is open 24 hours and 365 days (in rue du Louvre).
Letter boxes are colored in yellow.
International delivery services like FedEx, UPS, are available in cities, however you generally have to call them for them to come to you as they have very few physical locations.
Another option is to simply use La Poste with a wide network around the country and the same services as its competitors.
Electricity, water, etc.
Electricity is 220 V, 50 Hz, from either grounded sockets or ungrounded sockets. Plug adaptors for plugs from the US and UK are available from electrical and "do-it-yourself" stores such as Bricorama.
Tap water (Eau du robinet) is potable, except in rare cases such as rural rest areas, in which case it will be clearly signposted as Eau non potable. Eau potable is potable water. (You may, however, not like the taste which may be chlorinated or so, and prefer bottled water.)
Toilets are available in restaurants, cafés; there are also public facilities, which generally charge a fee. Note that American euphemisms such as "restroom", "washroom" etc. will often not be understood; ask for "toilets". In older public facilities, particularly those that do not charge or isolated rest areas, you may encounter squat toilet