After our first extended visit (we have spent a total of 9 days in France) it is time to share some general observations:
1. Most Americans hear the negative comments about the bad treatment of tourists by French people. Well, we can barely say hello in their language yet we asked if they spoke english, always smiled and were patient. We were always well respected and treated kindly. Well, except for the aggressive driving, crazed and maniacal postal van driver in Rouen.
2. French drivers are more controlled, cautious and courteous on the their roadways. Driving in France was a breeze after weathering the gauntlet in Sicily.
3. French people smoke a lot of cigarettes. Seriously, they inhale more tar than the dinosaurs did in La Brea. Unfortunately they start at a young age. At least 3/4 of every young person we saw was smoking. If you want a romantic table outside a restaurant just understand you will be surrounded by more smoke than a vintage Yugo produces. Which brings to mind a question, are there any vintage Yugos out there?
4. If possible, try to travel to France in the off season. Shoulder seasons are best. Hotel rates are cheaper (except in Paris – nothing is cheap in paris). We were in Normandy virtually by ourselves. We always were able to park the first row of parking spaces, no crowds to be seen anywhere. On some of the roads to major sights we wondered if we were lost. There were no cars on the roads and only an occasional tourist bus. Based on the size of the parking lots it apparently isn’t always this way.
5. Eat like the locals. Most of the time we would ask what the local specialties were. We always were rewarded with a fresh and tasty meal. The local cheese is amazing. Normandy is one of the few areas in France that doesn’t have a local wine. However, they have lots of apples. So they make a unique apple based alcoholic drinks. They were very tasty.
6. Make an effort to spend a day out of the touristy areas and get into the country. See the real, everyday France. Even if you cannot communicate well, you will have some great experiences and memories.
7. Walk. Hike. Run. You will be eating some great foods and lots of desserts. Exercise whenever you can to burn off some of those extra calories. We averaged more than 8 miles a day. We saw some neat sights hidden from the everyday tourists.
8. Do not be hesitant to ask questions. Be open to suggestions. If traveling with a friend or spouse work together toward solving the daily issues which traveling in a foreign country can present. I must say that Sandy and I have really complemented one another on this trip. I look at things in black and white and usually make a decision then charge forward. Sandy takes her time and looks at the big picture. I rush and she slows me down. By working together we are able to find things and solve problems much more effectively. For example, do we take the 1222 train from Paris to Bordeaux or the 1222 train to Irun? I was ready to just hop on the Bordeaux train. Where the heck is Irun anyway? Iwalk. Irun. Iran? Heck no – Let’s go But Sandy said let’s check on the Irun train. Well, come to find out they are both the same train, leaving from the same bin. At a certain town, which I cannot pronounce or spell, the train stops and separates. One train runs one way and the other train heads toward the Spanish border town of Irun, stopping at Bayonne along the way. So she was right. I hate it when she is right. note to self: I need to work on this while trekking the Camino.
9. Avoid renting a car at all costs. It adds unnecessary stress to your trip. Use public transportation. If you must have a car, like you do in Normandy, ensure that you understand how it runs before shooting out of the rental lot. Check to ensure your hotel has parking on site or a secure lot nearby. Avoid situations like we had in Rennes. A young man fell off a curb onto our rental car when we were parked downtown. He excused himself and walked away. We wondered if he was drunk. Later, down the block we drove past him while he was peeing on a wall. About 15 minutes later (while we were continuing to hunt for the rental return location for the next morning drop off) the same guy was about 500 yards further down the road barfing into the gutter. Ah, some vacation memories will last a lifetime.
10. France is beautiful. Really beautiful. The food is fantastic. Really fantastic. The language is difficult, REALLY difficult. Add all the above to the neat people, museums, sights, and history and you come up with a place that everybody should try to visit at least once in a lifetime.