24 Days in France- Report

We just completed a 24 day trip to France ending on June 17th. I did a lot of research before leaving using mostly Rick's book and Trip Advisor. Both were great resources. I am happy to say all went well. Great weather, food, sights and all accommodations were excellent. We stayed at the following mixture of Hotels and B&Bs in this order and highly recommend them all.....Hotel Relais Bosquet in Paris, Manoir les Minimes in Amboise, Le Petite Versailles in Beynac (Dordogne), Carcassonne Guesthouse in Carcassonne, Hotel Le Calendal in Arles, L'Ecole Bussionniere near Vaison La Romaine, Hotel de L'Arve in Chamonix, Hotel La Fiancee' du Pirate in Villefranche and the Park Inn at Nice Airport the night before flying home. Each place had it's own character reflecting the local area. All were clean, convenient and comfortable with helpful staff and excellent breakfasts. I recommend them all.
Going in late May to mid June turned out great. Weather was mostly sunny and mild with cool nights and there were literally no crowds anywhere. We walked right into the Louvre and every other place we went to. No lines anywhere. It was a pleasure.
I rented an Octavia sedan from Sixt, who had great rates, when leaving Paris and dropped it off in Nice 18 days later. The total was less than $500. It was a midsize automatic (free upgrade) car that performed very well and was very comfortable for a 2400 mile trip. It has the beeping sensors that alert you when you are close to anything else and that was a nice feature when maneuvering in the many cramped spaces and areas.
I used an inexpensive Garmin 1370T North American and Europe GPS and it performed well about 95% of the time. We had our disagreements and I hated it sometimes but it always seemed to do the job. Roundabouts,(there are a million of them) quick lane changes and steep buildings or mountains would keep it recalculating but it always snapped back. It took patience and some getting used to but it was invaluable in getting around. It looks for the shortest route and sometimes takes you off the beaten path onto small back roads but always gets you there. We saw a lot of great scenery due to this. Gas stations and road tolls (lots of them) also take some getting used to but once again you learn fast.
The food everywhere was exceptional. They take pride and care in the simplest of dishes. Breads and desserts are unreal!!
Eating in France is expensive for Americans but there is value for this. Portions were large, except for meat on baguettes, and we ended up splitting a lot of lunches. Did I mention the bread!!! Food is generally about 30 to 40% more but that always includes gratuity and tax so it probably comes out to about 15 to 20% more. You only tip for something exceptional and it is not expected. Cokes and beer are way, way overpriced but wine is reasonable if you stick to the local wines in a carafe. Un pichet de blanc si vous plais!!!! It was always very good too as they take pride in their local wines. Tap water in a bottle is always free and available at restaurants.
Market Days were amazing. Food, antiques, souvenirs and clothing. No bargains for Americans but interesting local crafts and foods. We went to Nimes just to see the Roman Arena and stumbled upon a 5 day Feria festival and ended up at the Bullfights in that Arena that night. Gory but interesting.
Pont du Gard, Carcassonne, The Chateau of the Loire, The Calanques of Cassis, The castles and caves of the Dordogne, Mount Blanc, Paris, Annecy, The Riviera, The spectacular beauty of Provence, The miles of Vineyards and the beginning of the lavender blooming!!!!! The people were uniformly very friendly and helpful. The trip was amazing and France may well be the most beautiful country in Europe. We absolutely loved it. Feel free to contact me for specific questions. bwdlinks@yahoo.com

Posted by andi
franktown, colorado
161 posts

Thank you for this wonderful and comprehensive trip report. It sounds as if you had a wonderful time! I can relate to the GPS.....

Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
10743 posts

Thanks, Brian, that's really helpful. Thanks for the details.

Posted by Dee
Laguna, CA
101 posts

Brian, I really enjoyed reading your wonderful report. Thank you for taking the time to include so much detail. We are thinking of going to France this October and this really helps with our planning. We were thinking of just taking trains, but now we are considering driving like you did. I think France's Board of Tourism should send you a bottle of their finest champagne - anyone reading your report would certainly be encouraged to visit their country. I assumed you spent your first 6 days in/around Paris seeing all the famous sites including Versailles? Dee

Posted by Brian
Fort Lauderdale, FL, USA
205 posts

Thank you all. We spent the first 5 days in Paris without a car and picked it up in town the morning we left. 4 or 5 days is fine for seeing the best of Paris. The GPS took some getting used to getting out of the city so I would probably recommend that anyone getting a car take the train or taxi to Orly Airport and drive from there. We had both been to Versailles before so we skipped it this trip. Third trip to France but first really touring extensively. Driving for me was fun as I have driven in Europe a lot but may not be for everyone. The roads are narrow, signs are confusing sometimes, parking can be a real challenge near sights and getting gas and dealing with toll booths takes some getting used too. But all is manageable. I suggest using a GPS that you practiced with at home, have some decent maps or Google Map printouts, always have a lot of change and small bills, and do your homework on the routing before you go. The rewards of driving far outweigh these challenges if you are comfortable doing so. Outside of a few major cities France is a very rural country. There were times when an hour would go by with maybe us seeing another car or two. The scenery in every region is spectacular and you can't really get that traveling by train or bus. Some of the best and prettiest things we saw were when I was fighting with the GPS and got lost for a bit on some remote back road. It may get you lost but it always gets you back on track.
I always plan my trips simply when driving. Determine the amount of time you have, pick the general areas you want to cover, book your accommodations in advance and then fill in the rest with travel times and what you can see while en route and leave time for cool things you may encounter along the way. ie; we left Carcassonne at 10 am, saw sights along the way, had planned to get to Arles by 4:00 pm but ran into the Feria and Bullfights in Nimes and ended up checking into our Arles Hotel at 11:00 pm after calling and alerting them. We lost the evening in Arles but the bullfights and huge street fair were awesome and a cultural experience we could not pass up . You give yourself the freedom to make those choices when you drive.
Contact me as your plans firm up and maybe I can help.

Posted by Diana
Michigan, United States
252 posts

Wonderful report. Sounds like you 'went through the back door' beautifully. Makes me want to do the same. Thanks for sharing.

Posted by Lori
Chicago, IL, USA
57 posts

Wonderful read! I noticed you mentioned Villefranche. I still think of it lovingly, even though in the last 13 years I've been to so many places in Europe I love. It was so peaceful, just as you describe most of your trip. Thanks for your report.

Posted by Leia
Ankeny
31 posts

I enjoyed reading your trip report. I just started planning our trip to France for spring 2015 and your information is very helpful.

We are headed to Normandy, Dordogne, and Paris and I was happy to see that you recommend Le Petite Versailles in Beynac as this is the lodging I plan to book for this area.

Also appreciate the positive driving experience. I haven't got this far yet, but will look into Sixt.

Thanks again!

Posted by leonrex47
17 posts

Thank you Brian for this detailed report on your trip to France. Sounds like you had a marvelous time. Your trip sounded eerily like the trip my wife and I just recently took in Provence. We also started with a 5-day visit of Paris, did the usual tourist areas like the Notre Dame cathedral, the Louvre, and taking the lift to the second level of the Eifel Tower. Gorgeous view of Paris, by the way. Then followed that with a 21-day stay in the heart of Provence in the Var region, in the village of La Verdiere, a hilltop town of about 650 people. We did not drive but we wanted to experience the French high speed from Paris to Aix. We rented a maison de ville away from the more touristic areas of Provence, and it was magnificent. We lived like the locals, shopped at their local stores for our daily supplies. We made a list of market days of all the hilltop villages within a 20-km from our village, and it was the highlights of our day to day stay, mostly for the fresh veggies and fruits, especially the figs and apricots. There's nothing like having fresh croissants and baguettes everyday, as our villa was only a 5-minute walk from the village boulangerie. We rented a car for our 20 day stay from EuropCar and also had a very good rate, $645.00 (rental plus full insurance). We actually enjoyed driving the auto route when we had to since the highways were smooth, and we didn't mind paying the tolls, about 3.40euros per 35 km. Like Brian said, make sure you carry lots of coins(1 or 2 euros). The best part is, after we paid the tolls, a french female voice would say "merci". Just loved that. On our drives on the countryside roads, it really impressed me how polite the French drivers were, they never honk their horns as they followed our car in those twisting winding (but scenic ) roads, they just wait until we pulled over on the next safe area of the road and passed. Of course, we got lost on several occasions (as RS had guaranteed on his "Provence" book), but that was how we found a village with a hidden gem…a Roman ruin and a chateau with an impressive 360 deg panorama of hills and valleys.

We did not make it to Avignon or Pont de Gard, but managed to spend a day at the Calanques, that place was indeed breathtaking. We decided to trade Pont de Gard for a day in and around the Grand Canyon du Verdon. All of RS description of this place was all that and more, much more! And the miles and miles of lavender fields in Valensole was also a sight to behold! We saw some pictures of this place in our "France" magazine before our trip, but actually being there was a great experience.

Ah, of course, the local French wines…in the Var region, we plenty of chances to do wine tastings, and the wineries were always so welcoming, and no snobby touristy wine tasters. On one winery we stopped for wine tasting, it appeared closed, no one was around, but as we headed back to the car, the owner came out from the back and allowed us to taste their wines, along with some tastings of their lamb stew! And we managed to bring home a few of those local French wines, along with some cheeses, and chocolates(yumm).

Before our trip to France, we were both partial to Italy (been there twice), but after this trip, we were both convinced that now France took top choice on our list.
Noel and Elena

Posted by beaconj015
18 posts

Brian,

I enjoyed reading your report. I began doing research for next summers adventure. I'll have 40 days to travel Europe starting in mid May through June. I plan on spending time in France and your report definitely helped. Had you not had a GPS, would it have been difficult navigating through France? I've driven to Paris from Germany once before and I have a lot of experience driving throughout Germany and it's very easy. How so in France? Did you need any additional documentation besides an international drivers permit to rent the car? Sounds like you guys had an awesome time.

Posted by Brian
Fort Lauderdale, FL, USA
205 posts

Beacon. Thanks we did have a great time. Better than we imagined.
I have driven all over Europe many times, using many different agencies, and have never had or been asked for an international license.
If I did not have the GPS I would have put more time into map planning but I have to say the GPS was a great tool. France is very rural outside of the cities and I found the signage to be very confusing and even non existent. Many times at a fork, intersection or roundabout the signs were for villages in the local area rather than a major city or town, afar, that would let you know you were headed in the right direction, like in most other countries. The GPS allowed for a more relaxed trip without continually referring to maps. Also my GF is not a good map reader so for me it worked great. It also directed us to restaurants and gas stations when needed, and back to wherever we were staying after sightseeing. Going forward I will always use the GPS. Good luck with your trip.

Posted by Ann
DR and Atlanta
119 posts

Brian thanks for a great report. I will be in Paris for 2 nights beginning of September. I appreciate your advice about saving money on food. Did you share lunches in Paris and how did that go over? Also any other suggestions on Paris?

Posted by Brian
Fort Lauderdale, FL, USA
205 posts

Ann, actually our hotel in Paris, Hotel Relais Bosquet , had such a varied and plentiful breakfast buffet I don't remember eating lunch in Paris. Maybe just an ice cream, crepe or a soda stop. Maybe a baguette or two.
My main suggestion for 2 nights is to take the two day hop-on, hop off bus tour(approx. 32 Euro). It gives you a great orientation to the city, takes you to all the main sights and neighborhoods, and comes close to paying for itself as it replaces taxis and the Metro. Combine it with a two day museum pass and you can see just about all you want in two busy days. Also, with that short a visit, forget Versailles. That is almost a full day and is likely to be mobbed and a big hassle. The night time Seine cruise, which leaves from the Eiffel Tower was also great.

Posted by Diana
Michigan, United States
252 posts

Ann, my husband and I were in Paris in May and we shared a lunch almost every day, either a savory crepe or baguette with ham and cheese. Plenty of food for two. Enjoy!

Posted by lnnlncstr462
2 posts

After reading everyone's comments on their travels in France, I am really getting excited! We leave next Wednesday for two weeks and will be riverboat cruising through Southern France. We will initially land in Paris and stay for a few days, and after that, start our river cruise with Le Boat. Has anyone traveled this way before?