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Travel Tips for France
France is a nation of superlatives: great art, architecture, food, wine, fashion, shopping and history—not to mention huge armies of tourists. But don't let the sensory overload intimidate you before your trip: a little planning ahead will shrink the Gallic behemoth to a workable size.
Weather and Climate
France is the largest country in Europe and so naturally it has a variety of climatic zones. In the north and west the weather is generally devoid of extremes, being cool in winter and pleasant in summer, thanks to the winds blowing in from the Atlantic. The central and eastern regions have cold, snowy winters and hot summers. The south has a hot, dry Mediterranean climate, though the mistral winds that blow through in the winter are bitterly cold.
Tourists descend on France by the millions in summer, but be warned—August is the month most French people go on vacation, so if you visit then you may well find that some of the sites and shops you wanted to visit are closed, the roads are full of traffic and the resort and vacation spots are crowded. You might consider visiting in the months before or after summer, say, April to May or September, when the rates for hotels are somewhat cheaper. If you don't plan to spend time on a beach you should think about going in winter: the rates are the lowest you'll find during the year and the lines to get into museums and other attractions are non-existent.
Obviously you should pack the sort of clothes that suit the places you'll go and the weather you can expect to face. But bear in mind that the French are a well-dressed people. If you're going to be in Paris or one of the chic resort cities of the Riviera, you should dress as nicely as you can or you'll likely feel ashamed in the presence of all those stylish people. Naturally you shouldn't wear high heels if you're going to spend the day in the Louvre, but conversely, you don't want to be wearing your hiking boots if you're having dinner at Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée. Just exercise some common sense and, as the French say, savoir faire.
Food and Drink
France is the heaven where good foodies go when they die. There is so much wonderful food and drink from which the traveler can choose. Each region has its own specialties. Cuisine from the northeast has a Germanic influence, with lots of beer, white wine and such sausage-based dishes as choucroute garnie. The west is noted for seafood dishes and such beverages as Benedictine and Calvados. The stew boeuf bourguignon is the signature dish of the east, while cassoulet is popular in the southwest. Bouillabaisse, Niçoise salad and ratatouille take pride of place on southern tables. Of course, in Paris you get to try a little of everything from all over the country.
Space does not permit a discussion of the glories of French wine, but while you're in France do try to visit a vineyard or two, have a tasting and buy a few bottles.
Shopping for food is a delight in France. There are of course supermarkets in most places and open-air markets in many town and city squares several days of the week. Most towns and urban neighborhoods have a great many food specialty shops (bakeries, butchers, cheese shops, pastry shops) which you can visit to assemble the elements of a picnic.
There are a variety of establishments where you can eat in France. Cafes are neighborhood hang-outs, open from early in the morning until about 10pm, where you can get drinks and light meals. Brasseries tend to serve Alsatian-influenced food and beer. The menus aren't extensive. Restaurants offer detailed, multi-course meals and are usually just open for lunch and dinner. All eating establishments should have their menus posted outside by the entrance.
The French eat light breakfasts—usually coffee in a bowl and a croissant or other piece of bread. Lunch is the main meal of the day, and can last two hours. Dinner might not be served until 8 or 10pm. A full French meal normally includes an aperitif, an appetizer, the main course, salad, cheese, dessert, fruit, coffee and an after-dinner drink—not to mention the wine or wines served. But if you see how much the average French person walks you'll understand why meals of this size don't normally lead to obesity.
The French have a reputation for rudeness that is really undeserved. They are justifiably proud of their country and their culture and they don't take well to pushy, boorish tourists. A little politeness and civility goes a long way with the French.
Learn a few French words and phrases. No one expects you to be a linguistic expert (though that would help), but it pleases the French when you make an effort. Whenever you enter a shop, step into a cab, or get into any face-to-face encounter with a French person, make sure you offer a full greeting. Don't just say “Bonjour” or “Bonsoir”--say, “Bonjour Monsieur/Madame/Mademoiselle.” This may seem like a minor point, but it may mean the difference between you getting an icy or pleasant reception.
In social or business gatherings you should shake everyone's hand upon meeting and departing. Wait for an older person to extend his hand first.
The French love to talk and are very well informed on a variety of issues. But steer clear of discussing issues you know little or nothing about or that may give offense, such as racial matters, the Algerian War, the Second World War, or how much money someone makes.
Health and Safety Concerns
Due to its large size, central location in Europe, its position as one of the most powerful nations in the world, its tradition for strikes and its growing population of poor and dissatisfied immigrants, France is occasionally the site of political unrest. So it would be wise that prior to your trip to France, you visit the US State Department website for travel alerts, warnings and general information.
Though France is well-developed and you're not likely to catch any weird diseases there, you'd do well to take out some insurance before you leave home. Unless you're a member of the French state health system you'll find medical care there very expensive.
If you have a minor health malady, look for a pharmacy—marked by a green cross. French pharmacists don't just fill prescriptions—they can make diagnoses as well.
Beware of pickpockets and scams aimed at tourists. Naturally these dangers are found more in large cities, in the spots most frequented by tourists. If a stranger approaches you with a dicey or confusing offer, especially if he prefaces it by asking if you speak English, reply loudly and ideally in a language other than English, and keep moving. Even scruffy street children can be hardened thieves and scam artists.
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