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Insider's View

Tour de France? More to Discover On Your French Vacation with Bertrand Collignon

As the most popular tourist destination on Earth, it’s not surprising that there are 1.3 billion travel articles devoted to France on the Internet. However, our French Insider Bertrand Collignon offers the keys to his home, with a few of France’s coveted locales, cultural excursions and curiosities loved by its residents.

“France, officially the French Republic, is home to a little over sixty-five million people, but draws nearly eighty-two million more people each year as tourists, attracted to its lifestyle, lovely countryside and local wines and cheeses… and its romance.”

It’s a land perceived as taking great pride in national identity, but it actually has distinct regional differences in culture, cuisine, dialect and local traditions.

When and where to go?

Your France Insider, Bertrand Collignon
Photo: Bertrand Collignon

That depends. Do you want to forage for winter black truffles in the Dordogne region’s Perigord, or stroll dozens of Christmas markets in Alsace’s villages in December?

Have you decided to catch the Monte Carlo Grand Prix or a glimpse of stardom at Festival de Cannes, scheduled back-to-back in May?

Is it Paris’s pret-a-porter fashion collections in February or July’s haute couture that inspires?

Will you pick lavender in Provence’s luxuriant Plateau de Sault in August, or wander Bordeaux’s 120,000 hectares of vineyards during harvest season in September?

Note: August is “vacation month” so most French, particularly Parisians, flee to the countryside, leaving shops and restaurants closed.

Paris in your pocket

Bistro in Paris
Photo: iStockphoto

Twelve million people live in France’s romantic epicenter, creating a distinct, thriving culture. The arts are important in everyday Parisian life. Unlike tourists, they may forgo the majestic Louvre in favour of the modern Centre Georges Pompidou, Musee d’art Moderne, Musee Jacquesmart-Andre, or Cluny Museum. They walk, and walk. They stride across the city’s many historic bridges (the oldest is actually called “new bridge,” Pont Neuf), four being pedestrian only, and pass by the fixture most identified with Paris, the Eiffel Tower, originally intended to be dismantled and sold as scrap after its construction. They’re often in a hurry to get to a café – le Petit Château d'Eau, Café des 2 Moulins', Merce & The Muse, Cafés Verlet, Coutume Café – where they sit leisurely nursing a petit noir (espresso).

At night, underground cabaret and burlesque is booming in Paris at spots like Raspoutine and Pink Paradise. Parisians may also retrace the footsteps of the great writers in literary haunts like Hôtel d'Alsace, Oscar Wilde's final home, or Hôtel Pont Royal, where F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller bantered at the bar.

Favourite tourist sites

Mont Saint Michel
Photo: iStockphoto

Don’t miss: Le Mont St. Michel – the storybook island village that was a prison during the French Revolution; the Marais Poitevin – marshland nicknamed “The Green Venice” because of its islets crisscrossed by canals, used for row boating; the Machines of the Isle of Nantes – Jules Verne-meets-Leonardo da Vinci massive metal creations made of artists that include a Great Elephant and a Marine Carousel; and the Paris Catacombs – 300 kilometers (186 miles) of underground tunnels and rooms stacked with Parisians' skeletons, a 1700’s solution to Paris' overcrowded cemeteries.

French culture up close

“French people are usually quite gregarious, and like to party, have fun and meet new people. However, in some small villages, they can be very cold to newcomers, and one would need time to fit in.”

They’re affectionate; even male French people cheek-kiss to greet friends and family. The number of kisses varies according to the region, from one (in the tip of Brittany) to four (in Paris and most of the North), and occasionally up to five in Corsica.

Sixty-six percent of the population speaks English. “Even if the younger generations engage easily with tourists by speaking English, the older population doesn’t even try to engage in English. As in most countries, it is best to know a little of the language to show interest.”

Villages are the charms in France’s bracelet.

On Bertrand’s time off, where does he head? To the time-worn and tucked-away towns of Moustiers-Ste-Marie, Roussillon, Gordes and Les Beaux de Provence.

Moustiers-Ste-Marie sits below picturesque rocky cliffs in Provence. Above the village, the Notre-Dame de Beauvoir chapel sits high on a cliff, behind the ruins of ancient defensive walls. Stroll the village, with its numerous fountains and vaulted passages, in search of beautiful "faïence" ceramics.

 Roussillon, known for its red-ocre stone buildings and red tile roofs, is set in a green pine forest on the edge of the Plateau de Vaucluse. Its medieval streets lead to a 19th-century clock, bell tower and ancient sundials.

On a hilltop not far away, Gordes is one of the most beautiful villages in France, with its off-white stone buildings, ubiquitous 12th-century castle, and labyrinth of cobblestone streets filled with artists, concerts and exhibitions.

Les Baux de Provence is a tourist site more than an active village, but it has a royal history, and boasts views of incredible rock formations in this part of the Alpilles, best taken in after relaxing at one of its terrace cafés.

Voulez vous coucher…

Accommodation in France ranges from charming Parisian apartments overlooking the Seine to traditional Mont-Blanc chalets with views of the Alps to luxury villas dotting the Riviera. “Villa” doesn’t equate with antiquated; consider one modern villa located in the hills above the Cote d'Azur’s seaside resort of Mandelieu. Originally built in the 19th century, it has been beautifully renovated and set within a 3,000 square meter (32,000 square feet) garden with terraces, olive trees and palms. It boasts a large pool, loungers, parasols, and pool-side kitchen.

More illustrious offerings

Stay in Le Chateau de la Barre, owned by the Count and Countess of Vanssay, situated close to the Loire castles. The count and countess welcome you with homemade cider from their orchards, and host vintage wine tasting and candlelight dinners in their grand rooms lined with portraits of their ancestors. Take tours during the day; try your hand at pétanque, croquet or billiards; have a picnic in the chateau’s garden; or organize archery hunting, guided by a professional hunter on his 2,000 acre estate.

French fare

The French discovered food long before North Americans, so it stands to reason that their palettes are more sophisticated. They’re comfortable with this gastronomic reputation: two new cookbooks are published every day in France.

Try the following dishes:  oeufs en meurette (poached eggs swimming in a stew of red wine, bacon, mushrooms and onions), bouillabaisse (fish stew with vegetables), pot-au-feu (beef stew with “bouquet garni” herbs), cuisses de grenouilles (frog legs), quenelles de Lyon (mousse-like cake dumplings made with fish and egg, served in creamy sauce), magrets de canard (meaty breast of force-fed ducks raised for foie gras), tartiflette (sliced potatoes soaked in wine, and baked with bacon, onion and cheese), and paupiettes de veau (veal, beaten thin and rolled with a stuffing of vegetables, baked in wine).

Not just baguettes and brioche…

Pastries are considered a fifth food group. “I recommend you eat an Opera in Paris, Tarte Tropézienne in St. Tropez, Far Breton in Britanny, Calissons in Aix-en-Provence, Cannelés in Bordeaux, and Trepaïs in the Limousin. And also try Saint-Honoré, Profiterolles, and Paris-Brest.”

Tips for tourists

  1. Know how you like your steak cooked: rare = bleu, medium rare = saignant, medium = a point, medium well = cuit, well done = bien cuit
  2. Tips on tipping? Most restaurants and hotels automatically add a 15 percent service charge; another 2-3 percent is customary if the service was good. Taxi drivers, hairdressers, tour bus drivers and guides expect 5 percent of the bill. Hotel staff receives €2 to €3 in tips a day, and washroom attendants and museum tour guides get €1 to €3.
  3. Sunday service: almost all stores are closed on Sundays, and some might be closed on Mondays.
  4. There is a Victor Hugo street in every town in France. Know who he is – the 19th century novelist who wrote the renowned book “Les Miserables”– or better yet, read the story before you come.
  5. Adapt your shaver. The electrical current is 220 volts, 50Hz. European two-pin plugs are standard.
  6. Restrooms? Public restrooms are not easy to find. Most public parks have restrooms, but you’ll pay a small fee. Don’t expect to enter a restaurant and ask to use “les toilettes” if you are not a paying customer.
  7. If it’s raining, see a movie. French film production is the second largest in the world.
  8. The high speed train is the cheapest way to get around France. The state-run SNCF is user-friendly, and every decent-size town has SNCF train boutiques where you sit to wait in style instead of standing in line. When taking the metro (subway), buy a cost-saving “carnet de 10 tickets.”
  9. There is no such thing as “a cup of coffee” in France. Asking for a “café” is not specific enough; know how you want it prepared.
  10. Three things to go home with: French lingerie, a good bottle of red wine, a French poster from a book store.

Thanks to Bertrand Collignon for providing some great insider information into France.

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