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1st time to France, man do i have questions......

OK, im planning a trip to France next May and am starting to get a rough idea on the itenerary (Normandy, backpacking, castles, WWII battlefields, etc).
We plan to stick with smaller cities/areas and will eschew alot of the traditional touristy type destinations (paris, riviera, etc) for more local flavor and off-the-beaten-path exploring (suggestions would be incredible and greatly appreciated).
My concern is the timing of this trip coincides with the Cannes film festival. Is this a big deal?
I dont want to be caught up in the crowds, celebs and pomp but dont know how much this festival permiates the rest of France.
Is this a valid concern?
Thanks guys!

Posted by
283 posts

First word of advice: don't do too much. AND second: DON"T MISS PARIS!

That said:
Castles are great and easy to see in the Loire Valley.

France is about the size of Texas, so traveling from the south to the north is along trip.

Normandy is fantastic and well worth the trip. If you go north, you could see Dinan, Mont St Michel, Cannes, Rouen, etc. We were in Normandy for a week and just did that and Rouen. World World Two other battlefields are harder to find, because most of the designated spots are WW I: Verdun, Somme, Marne, etc. We sis that last year and it was very interesting--took two weeks to do Verdun, Battle of the Bulge, etc. Major and Mrs. Holt guidebooks are great for battlefield trips--check amazon.

We also love the south of France: Provence, etc. It is less touristy, if you stay away from the Riviera, and there is a ton to see. Lots of beautiful, small quaint towns.

Also, be aware that gas prices are very high right now. Before their raise, my hysband and I drove around Verdun for two weeks and it cost a fortune!

Posted by
12040 posts

Just stay away from Cannes, and you'll never know there's a film festival going on. I've been to France twice in May and I didn't even realize the film festival was at that time of year until reading your post.

Posted by
26 posts

Great info, thanks all!

Cant wait for the trip, but planning can be fun too.

Posted by
689 posts

I agree, if you aren't in Cannes there will be no problem! Do pay attention to French holidays, if there are any during your trip, and plan accordingly.

I know you didn't ask about this, but one thought pertaining to a comment you made: I've taken a number of trips around the French countryside, including Normandy, and for "local flavor", you can't beat Paris. So many of the little towns you'll visit are swarmed with tourists, populated mostly by people who work in the tourist industry, etc etc. That doesn't mean they aren't charming or worth visiting, but I've actually come to prefer visiting Paris over Provencal or Dordogne hill towns, Normandy beach towns and battle sites, or really any town in any touristed area (which is most of France!)--I find Paris, with it's 2.2 million residents, much more authentic. If you really want to get off the beaten path you have to look pretty hard--France is the most touristed country in the world.

Posted by
12040 posts

"If you really want to get off the beaten path you have to look pretty hard--France is the most touristed country in the world."

I'm going to disagree here. Finding local flavor, devoid of any touristic influence, is pretty easy in France, if you look in the right places and if you let a certain amount of spontaneity guide your trip. The best way to discover these little delights is to drive along secondary roads between your destinations. You will find yourself driving through scenic little towns and villages that aren't listed in any travel guide. There may be a local market, an outdoor charcuterie roast, or side-walk sale of local craft works. Look for signs that read "Patisserie". You may stumble upon a 1000 year old church. You'll find small cafes and bistros that offer great local food and no English menu. You'll see wine caves offering samples of the local viniculture. In case you haven't guessed, these are all things I have experienced by stopping in random towns across France (and Europe) for no better reason than to see what lies beyond the travel guides. You really can't plan these experiences, you just have to remain flexible in your itinerary and keep your eyes (and mind) open. And here's a secret- even though this may be a "hidden world" for many travelers, you'll see a great window on how most Europeans actually live and work. So yes, I completely disagree that you have to stay in Paris to find local flavor. I mean, come on, France is a country with 60 million people the size of Texas, they're not all putting on a show for tourists!

Posted by
8293 posts

Having criss-crossed France by car and by train, but most often by car, over the last 24 years, I agree entirely with Tom's post. His description of his discoveries reminds me vividly of ours and I want to go back to France this very minute.

Posted by
135 posts

Christie is right, pay attention to French holidays! There are several in May, the 1st and 8th for sure and probably a couple or 3 religious holidays that fall on different dates each year (Ascension Day, Pentecost/Sunday and Monday and, I think, one more). This will affect store closings etc. and will also bring in hordes of European tour buses, especially over the long weekends. Also, I agree with the other posters: don't miss Paris! You can't come all the way across the big water and be so near and not go there. Just get a taste of it, you wont be sorry.

Posted by
3618 posts

I'll add my voice to those of Tom, Norma, and Brianna. Regarding the fim festival: about 10 years ago, while planning our trip, I discovered we were going to be in the Riviera area during that time. Since we were coming by train from Italy and picking up a car in Nice, we wouldn't have time to drive very much farther. I found us a b&b in the hills above Grasse. No one spoke English except some Dutch guests. We had a delightful time our 2 nights there. Other less touristy areas I recommend are the Lot valley, French Catalonia, southern Burgundy, many parts of Brittany and Normandy, and Lyon. In fact, almost anywhere you go in May, a short distance from the blockbuster destinations, you will find charming towns and villages set in beautiful countryside.

Posted by
26 posts

heartfelt thanks on the great advice, tips and recomendations.
I have re-evaluted the itin and have added 2 days for Paris.
Also, will be spending at least 2 days/nights in Bayeux at chateau de Lignerolles and will take Roels victorytour.
I am very excited for this trip, even more so now that I have Ricks amazing France travel guide. Even signed up for some free EU travel seminars @ Ricks office, which is only a few miles from where I live (viva western washington!)

Fast forward to May 09.....Obama in office, Seahawks getting ready for their first training camp as defending super bowl champs, Mariners mathematically eliminated from playoffs 4 weeks into the season, and Im heading to France!

Posted by
3313 posts

No, the Mariners will have been bought and moved to Tulsa...

Just to add to the several comments above to emphasize that huge swaths of France are untouristed yet great destinations. I have never been to Brittany, for example and have never seen a mention of it on this board. I wasin the Tarn region last year and never saw another American. Some Brits, but that's all. France is huge and amazingly unexplored by 99.9 percent of tourists.

Also agree on paying attention to holidays. May 1 is taken very seriously. So is Asencion Day. Everything closes. In untouristed areas most everything is shut down on Sundays and Monday mornings.

Cannes only impacts the immediate area but watch out for the Monaco Gran Priz at the same time. But, again, that's still just the Riviera.

Posted by
178 posts

James, we did Roels' tour and would suggest that you mark a map of your journey as you go. Just today, I thought of our excellent whirlwind tour and wish I would have done so. Now, I could look back and understand better my exact route of the war area.

Posted by
135 posts

James, one more thing to look forward to: in May the fruit and veggie shops are crammed full with fresh strawberries, tomatoes and other luscious stuff, all very reasonably priced and beautifully displayed outside. My hotel said "no food in the rooms" but nobody ever objected to the plate full of fruit I kept. (Brought a few disposables from home, ditto heavy duty plastic fork/knife/spoon.)

Posted by
26 posts

Re: maps. Great point, but I have something planned which I think will be cool. I'm bringing 2 gps units; 1 for nav (I'm renting a car) and one will be left on the whole time to plot our every movement. When I get home, I can upload the data file on google earth and get a very cool map of everywhere I went in europe. There will be literally thousands and thousands of coordinates stored as the unit updates your location every minute. I tried this recently while offroading and was impressed with the ease in which this can be done (and excluding the cost of the gps, totally free). You can also waypoint hotels, sites, etc and add comments or geotag and layer the pics you took in the area over the satellite view. It only adds a few ounces to the weight, and except for checking the batteries, you can just clip it to your pack, leave in car, and forget about it.

Posted by
531 posts

I suggest Amboise in the Loire Valley. It is small and my husband just had a ball driving around and exploring. He wants to go back and spend more time there. You can see where Leonardo DiVinci lived in his last days and his supposed grave. The chateaus are amazing. We felt more off the beaten path there but maybe thats because we just left Paris.

Yes, avoid Cannes and St. Tropez - places like Nice and Monaco will probably be busier but I doubt so busy that you couldn't still enjoy it.

I went against what i read and selected Avignon over Arles. I was pumped up with the idea of seeing where the French Pope lived when the papacy was in France. It wasn't that interesting. Also, I was wanting to tour the Chaneneuf du Pape wineries...very nice, but I should have opted for Arles.

Posted by
61 posts

France is amazing! You will love it!

As for castles, if you could only go to one, I would recommend Chateau de Chenonceau. It is a more highly visited chateau, but there is a reason for it! It is simply the most beautiful building ever! Plus, they have a vineyard and you can do wine tasting. The wine was good and cheap too!

Although Versailles is kind of a must see, if you're looking for a less touristy option, I would suggest Vaux-le-Vicomte. I enjoyed it a lot more than Versailles. It has the opulence and beauty of Versailles with MUCH smaller crowds. Plus the building is smaller so you can actually see most of it. Vaux-le-Vicomte was the inspiration for Versailles and done by the same architect, interior designer, and garden designer, so the feel is very similar.

If you want a completely non-touristy, authentic French town, visit Rambouillet. I haven't seen it in any guide books, but it's between Versailles and Chartres, southwest of Paris. The only sight is the chateau, which is actually one of the official residences of the French President. But the town itself is the main sight. There is an AMAZING Italian restaurant with the best pizza ever called Le San Lazzaro. Its located at 103 rue George Lenotre.

My final recommendation is that you allow more than 2 days for Paris. One of the things I love so much about it is that you can feel like you're in a small town in certain areas, but a metro stop over and its the big city! There is soooooo much to see and do there. And its so easy to have fun just wandering around with no destination.

Have a great time!

Posted by
206 posts

After spending your time in Normandy you could head toward Brittany. It's beautiful and not too American touristed, as opposed to British touristed, so don't tell anyone. It has a lot of beautiful little towns (i.e., Dinan, Dinard); St. Malo, where you can walk the wall; lovely little churches (11th C? well they're old) with the most beautiful stained glass you'll ever see anywhere; Carnac, if you are into prehistoric sites, chateaux, and the coast.

Note the secondary roads in France will take longer, but they are the best way to get off the beaten path to see France.

Posted by
15651 posts

Is your travelling companion a significant other or a pal? If SO, definitely add days to Paris, the city of lovers.