Stuff I found out the hard way!
What the travel agents won’t tell you…
By Paul Byrnes
Among the many wonders of France – the Cathedral at Chartres, the Tarn Gorge, the wines of Bordeaux – many remain unlisted. Like the fact that France still holds the title for longest traffic jam ever. On February 16, 1980, as thousands of skiers headed back to Paris via Lyon in bad weather, the ‘embouteillage’ of traffic ran for 176 kms. People wrote novels before that one cleared.
Things have improved. The jams now run only 100 kms and only on certain days. The travel brochures never warn you of this, lest they frighten the customers. So every year, unsuspecting tourists head out from Paris in their rental cars in July and August thinking they’ll whizz down the toll road to Cannes or Nice in a few hours. Should have that first rosé lined up by early evening, you tell yourself, not realising that no sane foreigner heads onto the big French highways on the first and last Saturday of July, or the first and last Sunday of August. These days are reserved for mad dogs and Frenchmen.
A few years ago in Bordeaux, I had to take a car full of English friends to the airport. The major circle road around Bordeaux was at a standstill. Just before the airport, there is a turnoff to Arcachon, one of the most popular resorts on the southern French Atlantic coast. It was the first Saturday after school broke for the summer and every family from northern France was on that road, spreading across all lanes, thus ensuring that no-one moved – even those not going to Arcachon. A journey that should take 15 minutes took two hours. It remains mysterious why the French, who know about these traffic jams, persist in setting off every year on the same day into the same horror traffic, but that’s France. One must uphold les traditions.
So that’s number one on my list of what not to do in France: do not arrive in July and August without checking when school holidays start. You can guarantee that the first Saturday and Sunday following will be a nightmare. The second wave hits in the last week of July, then they all start going home in August – and you guessed it, all on the same days.
While we’re on traffic, it is worth filling your pockets with small notes and coins before you set out on a French toll road. You will need the cash for the ‘Péage’ booths, most of which do not accept foreign credit cards. Look for the green arrow and ‘T’ symbol, or you’ll end up in a lane that only takes cards – French ones! Most petrol bowsers require a credit card before filling up and they too refuse foreign cards. You have to find a station with an attendant. Good luck with that. The large highway stops have attendants, but most suburban and town gas stations do not, even though half the people on the roads in summer are not French. One solution is a Travel Card, where you deposit funds in whatever currencies you need before you leave home. These do work in the petrol bowsers, at least some places.
French drivers are unfailingly polite – if you are on a bicycle. Everyone else is fair game. When someone cuts you off or runs into the back of you (because there seems to be a national competition for the best tailgater), never ever offer a rude finger gesture. That will result in a punch-up, especially in the south, where they take those insults very personally.
Number two: Monet’s Garden at Giverny – don’t go. Even in early May, the crowds are so bad that you will become much more intimate with the stranger in front (or back) than you might want. The garden is wonderful, the lily pond magnificent, but the paintings are better. See the paintings instead. If you must go, book ahead and print your ticket. Then you can walk to the front of the 250-metre long line and go straight in, to join the 5000 others ahead of you.
Number 3: If you wish to cross the Millau Viaduct, one of the modern wonders of the world, be careful how you set your GPS. Mine took me to the Information Centre below the bridge, looking up at the underbelly of the world’s tallest bridge. Something of an anti-climax.
Number 4: Get up early and carry a watch. Most offices, museums, art galleries and shops close at noon or 12.30 for a two-hour lunch. If it’s Tuesday, a cultural site like a museum might be closed all day. Don’t expect to go to the supermarket on Sunday, unless it’s high summer in a tourist area. Supermarkets are nearly all closed on Sundays. France is still a Catholic country, which means everyone regards Sunday lunch as sacred. There is a big ongoing debate about the morality of Sunday shopping. France rates very highly on indices of work-life balance and the Sunday lunch is one reason why.
Number 5: The obverse of the strict closure rule is the strict opening rule. It’s 11.55 and you want a table for 12 for lunch. Can we come in, you ask? “Non, on est fermé!’. At midday, ‘on est ouvert’, and not before. My local bank brings the door shutter halfway down about seven minutes before midday, so no new customer can arrive and delay the start of lunch for the staff. The French work 35 hours a week and they mean it – unless you are a train driver. They work less than 35 hours a week and they find that onerous – which brings me to the touchy topic of strikes.
Number 6: Summer is the season for ‘les greves’, particularly rail strikes. Even though less than 8 per cent of French workers are in a union, they can get very cranky. Many unions were communist-led until recently. The summer of 2016 has been particularly bad because the Socialist government of Francois Hollande is trying to make hiring and firing easier in the private sector, in an attempt to ease France’s 10.5 per cent unemployment rate. The workers in the public sector, who already have jobs and would barely be affected, are outraged. That has meant that on some days this summer, most flights were grounded, most trains did not run and the petrol refineries were blockaded. Then the heavens opened and half the country flooded. The summer is both the best and the worst of times, sometimes.
Number 7 – Do look down when you walk. Almost no-one picks up their dog poo, even though bags are provided in many places. Someone gets paid to do that, often with a mobile vacuum on wheels. It’s a shit job but someone’s got to do it. This is part of the liberté the French have held dear since the Revolution.
Number 8 – Do not take a pedestrian crossing as anything more than a suggestion. You will die. You can shame drivers into stopping but you have to eyeball them and risk your life to do so. This is another part of the liberté.
Number 9 – Do not be afraid of the cheese. The worse they smell, the better they taste. But not all: some taste as bad as they smell. You won’t know until you try. Cheese is one of the glories of France, and a defining characteristic of its culture and diversity. Charles De Gaulle famously said ‘How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?’. I am almost certain the real number is far more. My local shop sells at least 30 types of goat’s cheese – nearly all locally made. The Cheese Shop sketch from Monty Python does not work in France.
Number 10 – Rent a small car, not a big one. French towns were mostly laid out before or during the Middle Ages. The streets are narrow and people park anywhere. Wing mirrors are a liability. Always take the full insurance because you will damage the car. It’s almost impossible not to, when you have 3cms of clearance on either side and a kid on a motorbike up your derriere.
Aside from all that, France is fabulous. Being the biggest country in Europe, it also has the most diverse terrain. You can hike in near desert in the south, or climb the snowy heights of Mont Blanc, or ride your bike up Mont Ventoux in the wake of Le Tour de France. It still has the best food and wine on the planet – although the food in tourist holes can be a worry. Here’s another tip: never tip on a French food bill unless you want to reward the service – service is ‘compris’, meaning included, in every bill. It’s the law, even in Cannes, where they try to tell you it’s not. The bill is the bill. C’est tout.
The old idea that the French do not and will not speak English is also untrue. Even Parisians are less rude than they once were. French schoolchildren now learn English from an early age – not just in high school. If you learn some French, they will mostly respond with generosity and warmth. No-one tells you that bit either.
The author has lived half the year in France – the warm half – since 2011.
This piece was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald Travel section in late January 2017.
Postscript: Since the recent atrocities in Paris and Nice in 2016, French tourism numbers are down about 20 per cent. If you want to show support, visit France and show the bastards they will not win. Travelling anywhere involves risk, especially lately, but France is the biggest country in Europe. It repays the effort.
If you are looking for accommodation in Languedoc, specifically Narbonne, get in touch. We can probably help. Use the contact form on the top strap line. Cheers.
Photo credit: copyright 2016, Paul Byrnes. The waterfront at Collioure.