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Engineers Traveling in France - Part 1: Overview

Overview

I’ve traveled to France forty times over the preceding fifty-plus years, more than anywhere else that I’ve visited on the planet (other than the United States, of course). From 1997-2002 I spent five consecutive summers in Sceaux, a suburb of Paris teaching study abroad courses, and I also went on sabbatical to the same area in 2000. In 2003-2011 I taught eight additional study abroad programs in Rouen, and in 2012 I taught my final France study abroad program in Dijon.

Of course, I have also visited France on numerous other occasions, so that I estimate that I have spent a total of nearly three years of my life in France. I have been to virtually every part of France, except for extreme western Brittany and Corsica. France is my second favorite place on Earth, and as a result, quite a few of my travel suggestions lie within L’Hexagone (The Hexagon). At least in part this is due to the facts that I am both fluent in French and I have spent more time there than any other place outside the U.S. Nonetheless, France is an absolutely fabulous country with much to offer for the curious traveler.

Regions of France

Let’s start with regions. There are thirteen of them in France, and they are divided into two groups, roughly distinguished by a horizontal line separating the northern and southern halves of the country. In the northern half, the buildings can be identified by their slate roofs, whereas in the southern half the buildings have clay tile roofs. History tells us that this is due in part to the fact that in Roman times the southern half of the country was dominated by Roman rule after the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar in 58-50 BCE. The interested traveler will also find that the climate in the southern half of the country is considerably more hospitable than in the northern half. After all, Paris lies on the same latitude as Seattle, and the climate therein is quite similar to that in Seattle. By contrast, the southern coast of France has a climate not unlike that of Los Angeles (minus the attendant pollution!).

My favorite French regions are (in descending order) as follows: Ile-de-France; Val de Loire; Pays de la Loire; Normandy; Provence; Auvergne; Bourgogne; Aquitania; Occitania; and Grand Est. Unlike Italy, France does not lie on a geologic faultline, so that it does not have as much variation in altitude as does Italy, but because of this, France does not experience frequent earthquakes, as does Italy. What Italy lacks (lots of green rolling farmland), France possesses in abundance. Indeed, for much of the past two thousand years France has been the primary breadbasket of Western Europe, producing not only some of the finest wines in the world, but a veritable cornucopia of unique foodstuffs including cheese, lavender, seafood, goose liver (called fois gras), and other items unlike anywhere else in Europe. The French have managed to assemble all of these products into a rather unique cuisine that is a part of the attraction, at least for my wife Claudia and me.

Traveling in France

Unlike my travels to Italy, I have only flown into three airports in France: DeGaulle, Orly and Beauvais. All three service Paris, and although these three airports were at one time among the best in the world, they are now considerably dated, not unlike many major airports within the U.S. But take heart – DeGaulle Airport, the best of the three, is undergoing major renovations that promise to return it to its former grandeur. But for those who wish to avoid the French airports, I offer two alternatives. The first (and my favorite) is to fly to London and take the Chunnel, which is a technological treat in its own right. The second option is to fly to a neighboring country on the continent and take a high-speed train to France. Excellent choices include Belgium, The Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and Germany, and by beginning your travels in one of these countries, you will be adding value for your well-earned dollars.

Unlike Italy, renting a car in France is an excellent way to get around, especially if you are planning to travel widely across the country. There is plenty to see in the French countryside, and if you travel by rail you will miss many of these opportunities. True, gas is expensive in Europe, but travel is easy and worth the investment on the French Autoroutes. A warning though – make sure you get a toll card (http://drive-france.com) in advance to avoid the long lines at pay stations.

I’ve driven just about everywhere you can go in France, and I’ve never had any problems, other than speeding tickets. Just so you will know, France has radar-controlled speed limits, and the French all know where the radar units are located, so they simply slow down when they come to a speed trap. The unsuspecting tourist (who thinks he/she is following the rules) will encounter far too many instantaneous and dramatic speed limit changes (due to things like tunnels) to completely avoid receiving a speeding ticket. And don’t assume that you will avoid a ticket by leaving the country shortly thereafter – they will find you anywhere in the world. I’ve received a couple of these over the past twenty years, and I simply pay them (they are normally less than $100). Also, I’ve never been involved in a traffic accident in France, and I have found the French to be for the most part very careful and generous drivers. Finally, perhaps in large part due to my past driving experiences in Italy, I stick to Avis (http://www.avis.com). You will find that it is worth your trouble to sign up for Avis Preferred. Oh, and do NOT drive a car around in Paris proper! The Paris Metro is among the best in the world.

Touring in France

First question - should you learn some French before traveling in France? Absolutely NOT – French is an extremely difficult language that takes years to learn. Fortunately, these days plenty of French people speak English fluently virtually anywhere you might travel that has tourism sites. The only issue you might encounter is adjusting to English spoken with a French accent, but honestly, you could run into the same problem right here within the United States. Just persevere, and you will discover within a couple of days that you can understand French accented English quite well.

Next question – is it a good idea to take organized tours in France? I’ve taken a few, all of which originated in Paris, but my advice once again is to limit your commercially run tours to a couple of days at a time. And believe it or not, the biggest challenges I’ve faced on this type of tour in France was due to rowdy American tourists. Still, one place that I would highly recommend an organized tour is to Mont St. Michel (Fig. 1). This is my absolute favorite thing to see in all of France, but it is quite a distance from Paris (about five hours by car). Thus, if you want to see this site, and you’re not up to some serious driving, take a tour (that overnights on the Mont!). I recommend Cityrama (https://www.pariscityrama.fr).


Fig. 1 Mont Saint Michel


Another area where you may want to participate in an organized tour is Normandy Beach (Fig. 2). Plenty of Americans want to see the sites where the Allies landed on June 6, 1944, and it is well worth the effort. I for one prefer to drive this particular stretch of coast, but if this is your first trip there, it might be best to plan a tour, and again, Cityrama is a good place to start.


Fig. 2 The American Cemetery at Normandy Beach

There is one additional part of France where you may want to plan an organized tour, and that is in the Loire Valley, where you will find quite a few fabulous French chateaus, including Chambord (Fig. 3) and Chenonceau (Fig. 4). This area of France is close enough to Paris to drive on your own, but if you’ve never been there before, an organized tour might be preferrable. The above three areas, together with Paris proper, will require an absolute minimum of ten days to see.


Fig. 3 Chateau Chambord

Fig. 4 Chateau Chenonceau

Small Towns in France

Now we come to the second level of things to see in France. Much like Italy, there are quite a few absolutely charming small towns dotting the countryside in France. If you have at least three weeks to visit, or you are now on a return visit after saturating your senses on a previous visit to Paris, now is the time to get out of the City of Light and see these fabulous villages and towns. Many can be reached by train, but I nonetheless recommend travel by car because there are plenty of amazing things to see between towns.

Here then is my list of favorite small towns and cities in France, in more-or-less descending order: Mt. St. Michel, Chamonix, Rouen, Arles, Avignon, St. Malo, Amboise, Arromanches, Bourges, Beaune, Dijon, Poitiers, Honfleur, Carcassonne, Monte Carlo (actually within the Principality of Monaco), Chinon, La Rochelle, Caen, Nice, Biarritz, St. Emilion, Dinan, Lyon (not really small!), Albi, and Montignac.

And if this isn’t enough for you, there are plenty more fabulous destinations across the entire country of France. As I am from Texas, I’ve often compared my home state to France geographically. Surprisingly, Texas and France are very nearly the same size, and they have very similar geographic regions (excepting Mt. Blanc). But they differ in that about 50% of the land mass in Texas is desolate, whereas virtually the entire land mass of France is just plain gorgeous! So get out there, because it matters not too much where you go in France, there will be something worth seeing around the very next curve.


Note: All photos included in this blog were taken by me.


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