Sure, it's a cliché, but there is a reason why a visit to France is a must if you're planning to do a European tour. In the political sphere, France remains a major world power but let's forget about politics - French food is where the heart of interests lies! It's not about the fries (which is Belgian to start with), but of excellent meals accompanied by excellent wines at excellent prices and you're starting to get the picture. Compound that with amazing architecture, breathtaking natural landscape, and varying regional customs and traditions, a trip to France makes a truly memorable journey.
France is one of the western world's most important centres of cultured folks: names like Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Hector Berlioz, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Victor Hugo and Claude Monet are but a handful of the many world-renowned composers, writers and artists that France has produced. It is little wonder the French are so proud of their culture, and sensational monuments such as the Eiffel Tower only emphasize French pride. But proud or not, you will be inclined to agree with the locals after exploring France's unlimited possibilities.
Of course, the capital Paris is travellers' favourite destination, particularly for a first-timer in France. Nonetheless, it pays to check out some other regions of the country too, such as Bretagne (Brittany) in the north and Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur in the south.
Main article: History of France
The early traces of human life in France date back by tens of thousands of year, as evident through archaeological finds including the Lascaux cave paintings and the stone alignments of Carnac. Known as Gaul, it came under Roman power, initially annexed in the southern part of the country and eventually under the lead of Julius Caesar, Gaul fell into Roman hands. The Celtic culture was gradually displaced by Gallo-Roman culture. However, by the 3rd century AD, the Goths and later the Huns asserted their presence. After the fall of the Roman Empire the Franks moved in and settled throughout Gaul. The collapse of the Roman Empire marked the start of a period of instability and invasions in Gaul. Both the Frankish dynasties of the Merovingians (486-751) and the Carolingians (751-987) ruled the country for over 500 years, but failed to bring stability, leaving the country divided into smaller kingdoms.
By the 12th century, the monarchy was becoming increasingly dominant. During the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453) between England and France, the country was devastated from war damages, frequent famines and ravaging plagues. The renewal of power in France was soon followed with the invasion of Italy, and in this period, the ideals of Italian Renaissance spread to France. This marked the beginning of early modern France. France was embroiled in war once again, this time over religion. When the turmoil eventually subsided, the country entered a new period of exceptional power and influence, with the King having absolute power.
A period of stability enabled intellectual engagements in France, drawing it into the era of Enlightenment. Philosophers, through their ideas, challenged the aristocratic power that was increasingly unpopular for the excessive spending by the royals and decadent living in Versailles while the rest of the country struggled through financial hardship. It eventually triggered the French Revolution in 1789, culminating in the execution of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette.
The period of transition and self-rule did not last long. In 1799, Napoleon staged a coup and declared himself Emperor Napoleon I. He extended his empire by going to war with other countries, conquering most of western Europe. The invasion of Russia however became his downfall war and for a short period the French monarchy was restored. The restored monarchy was relatively short-lived as a Napoleonic clan mounted their comeback in 1848 and Napoleon's nephew came to power. He subsequently crowned himself as emperor and named himself Napoleon III. His reign ended with the French-German war of 1870-1871 in which France lost the Alsace region to Prussia.
In the decade before World War I, the Belle Époque (Beautiful Era) took place and pushed forward a new height in cultural innovations and artistic transformations. The movement of Art Nouveau reached its peak in this period. France was drawn into World War I, when Germany invaded the country in an attempt to get access to the north sea. The trench war lasted until 1918 in mainly the north of France, and Belgium. During World War II, France was partly occupied by Germany and partly under the regime of the collaborating regime of Vichy France. France was finally liberated with help by allied forces in 1944, which started the liberation on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.
After the war France was one of the founding members of European Economic Community (EEC) which eventually evolved into the European Union (EU), it introduced the Euro in 2002.
France, nicknamed l'Hexagone for its hexagonal shape, shares international borders with Spain, Andorra, Monaco, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium. There is also a train link with England via an underwater tunnel called the Channel Tunnel, or the "Chunnel". France is situated mostly between latitudes 41° and 51° N (Dunkirk is just north of 51°), and longitudes 6° W and 10° E, on the western edge of Europe, and thus lies within the northern temperate zone. The European territory of France covers 547,030 square kilometres, having the largest area among European Union members. France possesses a wide variety of landscapes, from coastal plains in the north and west to mountain ranges of the Alps in the southeast, the Massif Central in the south-central and Pyrenees in the southwest.
France is geographically diverse, with large parts of the country being gently rolling green pastures but there are rougher areas as well, including mountain ranges of Pyrénées in the south on the border with Spain and Andorra, The Alps on the border with Switzerland in the east and smaller mountain ranges like the Vosges and Massif Central. In the south and southeast there are rugged areas with cliffs, rocks and steep and deep gorges, for example the ones near Verdun. The main rivers in France are the Garonne, Saonne, Loire, Seine and Rhône. At 4,810.45 metres above sea level, the highest point in Western Europe, Mont Blanc, is situated in the Alps on the border between France and Italy. France also has extensive river systems such as the Seine, the Loire, the Garonne, and the Rhone, which divides the Massif Central from the Alps and flows into the Mediterranean Sea at the Camargue. Corsica lies off the Mediterranean coast.
While Metropolitan France is located in Western Europe, the French Republic also has a number of territories in North America, the Caribbean, South America, the southern Indian Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, and Antarctica. These territories have varying forms of government ranging from overseas department to overseas collectivity. France's overseas departments and collectivities share land borders with Brazil, and Suriname (bordering French Guiana), and Sint Maarten (bordering Saint Martin).
For the purpose of this guide, the information to follow pertains to Metropolitan France. For details of the overseas regions, please refer to the relevant article links above.
France is divided into 26 administrative regions, of which 21 are in continental metropolitan France, one is the island of Corsica, and four overseas regions.
|North||Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Picardie, Haute-Normandie and Basse-Normandie (covered together as Normandie), Île-de-France, Champagne-Ardenne, Lorraine, Alsace|
|West||Bretagne, Pays de la Loire, Poitou-Charentes|
|South||Aquitaine, Midi-Pyrénées, Languedoc-Roussillon, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, Corsica (Corse)|
|Centre||Centre, Bourgogne, Auvergne, Limousin|
|Overseas Regions||Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana, Réunion|
The largest cities in France are as follow:
- Paris is the nation's capital and it is also known as the "City of Light" and "City of Love".
- Marseille is the oldest city in France, founded by Greeks from Phocaea.
- Lyon is known as the culinary capital of France.
- Toulouse is the most important city in southwest France.
- Nice is a major tourist centre of the Côte d'Azur (French Riviera).
- Nantes is at the heart of historical Brittany.
- Strasbourg is a city of Franco-German fusion.
- Montpellier is one of the few large French cities without Gallo-Roman background.
- Bordeaux is a major centre of world wine industry.
- Lille is a city with strong (textile) industrial background.
Sights and Activities
The Avenue des Champs-Élysées, or just Champs-Élysées, is the most prestigious road in Paris. It is one of the most famous roads in the world and also one of the world most expensive ones regarding the renting and buying of real estate. The name is French for Elysian Fields, the place of the blessed dead in Greek mythology, and is sometiems voted as one of the most beautiful avenues in the world. The road is lined with luxury shops, restaurants, small cafés and other interesting places. The avenue is about 2 kilometers long and goes through the 8th arrondissement in the northwest of Paris, running from the Place de la Concorde in the east, with the Obelisk of Luxor, to the Place Charles de Gaulle in the west, the location of the Arc de Triomphe. The Champs-Élysées forms part of the Axe historique and since 1975 also is the traditional finish place of the last stage of the Tour de France.
There is nowhere to observe Gothic architecture at its best but where it originated, and dominated from 12th to 16th century. Originally known as Opus Francigenum (the French Style), it is associated to many a great cathedrals and basilicas in Northern France.
Some that are most revered include Notre-Dame de Paris, Notre-Dame de Chartres, Notre-Dame d'Amiens, Notre-Dame de Reims, Notre-Dame de Laon, Saint-Pierre de Beauvais and Basilique Saint-Denis. Basilique Saint-Denis is also unique, in that it was built in transitional style between Gothic architecture and its predecessor, Romanesque architecture.
Along the valley of the Loire, extending from Centre to western France towards the Atlantic, are hundreds of magnificent châteaux and fortresses. Today, many of these châteaux are private residences, some are hotels and guest houses, while a handful are owned and managed by the (local) government authority as major tourist sites. Among the best known worldwide are Château de Villandry, Châteaux d'Azay-le-Rideau, Châteaux de Chenonceau, Château de Chambord and Châteaux d'Amboise. The valley from Sully-sur-Loire, in the Loiret, to Chalonnes-sur-Loire, in Anjou is now classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Massif des Calanques
A calanque refers to deep and steep limestone valley that is partily submerged by the sea. Les Calanques that stretch from Marseille to Cassis form an amazing rugged coastline, with the valleys offering great hiking and rock climbing opportunities. The coastline can be toured as a half-day trip, usually with a stopover at Château d'If (of the famed Count de Monte Cristo) on the way back towards Marseille. The walls of the spectacular Cave Cosquer in the Calanque de Morgiou are covered with prehistoric paintings and engravings, and this grotto is worth a visit.
Mont Blanc and the Alps
Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in the Alps, and sometimes mistakenly named as the highest mountain in Europe (which is the Elbrus). It is the highest mountain of the Mont Blanc Massif, which is popular for mountaineering, skiing, snowboarding and hiking. Other outdoor activities on offer include glacier hiking, ice climbing, paragliding, canyoning and mountain-biking. From Elbrus). It is the highest mountain of the Mont Blanc Massif, which is popular for mountaineering, skiing, snowboarding and hiking. Other outdoor activities on offer include glacier hiking, ice climbing, paragliding, canyoning and mountain-biking. From Chamonix, a spectacular cable car transports its visitor up to the Aiguille du Midi.
While Gothic architecture remains prevalent in Northern France, scattered all over the country are medieval Romanesque abbeys and churches, no less interesting in their own rights. Mont Saint-Michel, Saint-Etienne de Caen, Saint-Front de Périgueux, Abbaye de Fontenay, Saint-Sernin de Toulouse, Saint-Pierre de Moissac and Sainte-Madeleine de Vézelay are but some of them. The Romanesque period flourished between 10th to 12th century.
Palace of Versailles
The Palace of Versailles is a royal castle in Versailles. When the château was built, Versailles was a small village, today it is a suburb of Paris, 20 kilometres southwest of the French capital. The court of Versailles was the centre of political power in France from 1682, when Louis XIV moved to Versailles from Paris, until late 1789 when the royal family was forced to return to Paris after the beginning of the French Revolution. Today it is one of the biggest tourist attractions in France, and a popular daytrip from Paris. The castle itself houses 2,300 rooms, and the gardens cover a huge area on the westside of the palace, and is largely unchanged for the last 300 years when it was designed. The palace and gardens are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Other Sights and Activities
- The Eiffel Tower is the most recognisable landmark of Paris, dating from the 19th century.
- French Riviera is just the spot to enjoy the sun and sea on some of the best beaches in Europe in towns like Nice, Antibes and Cannes.
- Pays Basque is a region inhabited by Basque people, a fascinating minority group, with distinct language and culture. Located in the Pyrénées, its customs are shared by the Basque of the Basque Country in Northern Spain.
- Wine and champagne trails can be found in various regions, including Bordeaux, Loire Valley, Burgundy and Reims.
- Excellent French eatable which should not be missed, particularly the amazing selection of cheese, the beautifully baked bread and pastries, and other local delicacies and regional signature dishes.
Events and Festivals
- The Six Nations Rugby Tournament sees the French rugby team competes against Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales and Italy in February and March, with matches played either home at Stade de France or away at opponent's field, in hope to win the title as Six Nations Champion.
- La Nuit des Musées (Night of Museums) is an European initiative which takes place in mid-May, when national museums are open from about 6:00pm until midnight for all to visit free of charge.
- Every year in May, the best tennis players in the world perform at Paris' Roland Garros tournament. For tickets and schedules, check the Roland Garros official website.
- Fête de la Musique on 21 June is an annual all day and night summer solstice celebrations with free music.
- The Tour De France is the most popular and famous cycling race in the whole world. Originally started in 1903, this 23-days 21-stages bicycle road race can run over 3,500 kilometres (2,200 miles) in distance. The race usually has a first week of flat stages, after which the riders either enter the Alps or the Pyrénées, depending on the schedule of that year. The race is held in July and always ends in Paris on the Champs-Élysées.
- Fête Nationale (14 Juillet) is celebrated on 14 July to commemorate the storming of the Bastille prison, during the French Revolution, with festivities on the Champs-Élysées attended by the President of France and other dignitaries. There are fireworks displays in many cities, with the largest display in Paris against the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower. This holiday is informally known as Bastille Day.
- Journées du Patrimoine (Heritage Day) is organised one weekend sometime in mid to late September where monuments and sites are open for free visits, with special events, open days and various entertainments.
- The Festival de Cannes, better known as the Filmfestival of Cannes, is one of the oldest and most prestigious filmfestivals anywhere in the world. The private festival is held annually (usually in May) at the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès, in the resort town of Cannes, in the south of France. The first festival started in 1930 and in 2012, the 65th edition will be a fact.
As France stretches from Belgium in the north to Spain in the south, the weather also differs accordingly. The north and parts of the west have a maritime climate with mild winters and cool to warm summers. During winter, it is mostly above 0 °C with some frost at night possible. Summer temperatures are between 20 °C and 25 °C. Temperatures close to 40 °C have been previously recorded, but this is rare. The central parts of France are warmer in summer, but colder in winters, and The Alps are a favorite ski resort area during the months of December to March when snow is almost certain.
Further south, the climate becomes Mediterranean with warm summers, around 30 °C, even a bit more inland, and generally mild winters, between 10 °C and 15 °C. That said, even this warm coastline has some frost and snow, especially in the western part of the Mediterranean coastline, for example near Marseille. Further east, around Nice, frost and snow are less common. This also applies to Corsica, where warm summers and mild winters are the norm and frost is uncommon, though even here, a few degrees below 0 °C at sea level has been recorded in the past. The southwest of France is a bit cooler in summer, and comparable in winter.
Precipitation is possible in all months, though spring is one of the driest periods of the year. Many higher areas have snow in winter, while parts of France can be very dry for months in the summer season of May to October. The west and northwest are probably the wettest parts of the country, especially in Brittany and Normandy during the winter months.
If you're travelling from outside Europe, Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) in Paris will most likely be your point of entry. There are other international airports in Bordeaux, Clermont-Ferrand, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Nantes, Nice and Toulouse, which serve flights to destinations throughout Europe. Paris' second major airport, Paris Orly Airport (ORY), also has flights to European destinations. Paris Beauvais-Tillé Airport (BVA) and Marseille MP2 (MRS) are hubs for budget airlines like Ryanair. There are quite a few more international airports in the country, for example:
- Bordeaux-Mérignac Airport
- EuroAirport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg - Mulhouse
- Lyon-Saint Exupéry Airport
- Marseille Provence Airport
- Nice Côte d'Azur Airport
- Toulouse-Blagnac Airport
There are many possibilities of travelling from neighbouring countries to France. Listed below are several options of direct cross-border train routes, with Paris as the hub. Note that many more long distance options are available, either directly or via a combination of train connections, from Paris and other cities in France.
- Eurostar connects London directly to cities of Lille and Paris in just 1.5 hours and 2.5 hours respectively.
- TGV (Trains à Grande Vitesse) connects Paris to Luxembourg (Luxembourg City, 2 hours), Switzerland (Geneva, 3 hours), and parts of Germany (Stuttgart, 3.5 hours).
- Thalys connects Paris to Belgium (Brussels, 1.5 hours), Netherlands (Amsterdam, 4 hours) and parts of Germany (Cologne, 4 hours).
- Artesia connects Paris to Italy (Turin, 5 hours).
- Elipsos train-hotel connects Paris to Spain (Madrid, 14 hours).
Many very good toll roads lead out of and into the country, with good connections to Luxembourg, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Germany, Monaco and Switzerland. Be sure to have your personal documentation and that of the car in order, like insurance and driving permit. Driving in France, like its neighbouring countries in continental Europe, is on the right hand side of the road. Travel by car to/fro UK and Ireland is also possible, with either a connection using ferries or by crossing the Channel Tunnel on a train (possible for England, Scotland and Wales).
There are a couple of main options to travel by bus between France and other countries.
- Eurolines has many services throughout Europe as well, including lots of French cities connected with neighbouring countries and further beyond, even towards Morocco.
- From May to October Bus About (a British bus company) offers bus connections between dozens of destinations throughout Europe, including Paris, Nice, Bordeaux, Tours and Avignon in France.
- Cork - Roscoff: Transmanche Ferries
- Rosslare - Roscoff: Irish Ferries
- Rosslare - Cherbourg: Irish Ferries and Celtic Link Ferries
- Rosslare - Le Havre: Brittany Ferries
- Dover - Calais: My Ferry Link (formerly Sea France), P&O Ferries
- Dover - Dieppe: Transmanche Ferries
- Dover - Dunkerque: Norfolk Line
- Dover - Boulogne-sur-Mer: Transmanche Ferries
- Newhaven - Dieppe: Transmanche Ferries
- Plymouth - Roscoff: Brittany Ferries
- Poole - Cherbourg: Brittany Ferries
- Poole - Saint-Malo: Condor Ferries
- Portsmouth - Caen: P&O Ferries, Brittany Ferries
- Portsmouth - Cherbourg: P&O Ferries, Condor Ferries
- Portsmouth - Le Havre: Transmanche Ferries, P&O Ferries, LD Lines
- Portsmouth - Saint-Malo: Brittany Ferries
- Weymouth - Saint-Malo: Condor Ferries
Guernsey and Jersey
- Civitavecchia - Toulon: Transmanche Ferries
- Livorno - Bastia (Corsica): SNCM, Corsica Ferries
- Portaferrao (Elba) - Bastia (Corsica): Corsica Ferries
- Porto Torres (Sardinia) - Ajaccio (Corsica): SNCM
- Porto Torres (Sardinia) - Propriano (Corsica): SNCM
- Porto Torres (Sardinia) - Marseille: SNCM
- Savona - Bastia (Corsica): Corsica Ferries
- Savona - Calvi (Corsica): Corsica Ferries
- Savona - Ile Rouse (Corsica): Corsica Ferries
- Algiers - Marseille: SNCM, Algerie Ferries, Cnan Maghreb Lines (website under construction)
- Annaba - Marseille: Algerie Ferries
- Bejaia - Marseille: Algerie Ferries
- Oran - Marseille: Algerie Ferries, Cnan Maghreb Lines
- Skikda - Marseille: Algerie Ferries
Air France is the main carrier which has domestic flights to many cities in the country. Most flights originate or terminate at one of the two airports in Paris:
The only internal flight served at the Beauvais-Tillé Airport(BVA) is the service between Paris and Marseille by Ryanair. Ryanair however also operates a number of other domestic routes from Marseille MP2 Airport (MRS), namely to Biarritz, Brest, Lille, Nantes and Tours. A better budget airline with more domestic flight options is Easyjet. It operates on the following routes: Paris-Biarritz, Paris-Corsica, Paris-Nice, Paris-Toulouse, Lyon-Biarritz, Lyon-Bordeaux, Lyon-Corsica, Lyon-Nantes and Lyon-Toulouse.
It is also often possible to fly directly from a major French city to another (for example Nantes to Bordeaux) without going through Paris.
The French Railways, SNCF has an extensive network with frequent, fast and comfortable connections to almost any of the major towns and cities in France. The main hub for the rail network is Paris.
- TGV runs north to Lille (1 hour), east to Strasbourg (2 hours), west to Rennes (3 hours), southwest to Bordeaux (3 hours), south to Lyon (2 hours) and Marseille (3 hours), and southeast to Nice (5-6 hours) at speeds of approximately 300 km/hour.
- iDTGV is a new service similar to TGV, geared towards young travellers. The tickets are available at a lower cost, and ticket reservations and purchases are conducted strictly online. Most of their routes are between Paris and the south of France.
- The Corail Intercité and Corail Téoz both connect main French cities not serviced by the TGV, and note that reservations are required for Corail Téoz.
- Corail Lunéa are night trains operating similar routes to the other Corail services.
- TER[ (Train Express Regional) is slower, regional rail service that stops at almost all stations along its operating routes.
- In Corsica, Chemins de fer de Corse operates a couple of train lines. The main train route travels between Bastia and Ajaccio and a branch line runs from Ponte-Leccia to Calvi.
Train tickets may be purchased 3 months ahead of travel, from either Voyages-SNCF (in French) or TGV-Europe (English and other European languages) and the tickets will be delivered to the country of order accordingly. However, online purchase and reservation for TER is not possible. Tickets for iDTGV are available 6 months ahead of travel.
There are also sleeping cars with the option of taking your own car that run from the north (Calais) to the southern coastline.
Travelling around by car in France is safe, fast and economical when travelling with at least two persons. There are many international and local companies to choose from for car hire at most airports and cities. A national driver's licence is required and you need to be at least 21 years old, although some might require you to be 25. The main highways are all toll roads and well maintained. Although slower, the routes nationales are much more beautiful and you don't have to pay toll.
There is no single bus operator in France, and intercity buses are rather limited as the train network is pretty extensive and getting around by car is much more popular. Check Eurolines for some connections, especially from north to south.
Within local departments though, there are usually bus operators that connect between the cities/towns/villages, such as TAM (Transport Alpes-Maritimes) which connects the towns in eastern French Riviera between Nice and Menton. Larger cities will also normally boast a relatively comprehensive bus network, such as the bus services run by RATP (Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens) in Paris and its environs. In many rural areas, the SNCF (French railways) run regional bus services where there is no railway; but don't expect cut price travel. SNCF bus services are priced at the same rate as trains.
The Société Nationale Maritime Corse-Mediterranée has a number of daily services between mainland France and the islands of the coast, most notably Corsica. Services run from Marseille, Toulon and Nice to Ajaccio, Propriano, Porto Vecchio and Bastia on Corsica. In the west, SMN Navigation offers ferries between the mainland and the islands off the coast west of Brittany.
Apart from these regular public ferries, there are loads of option of getting around one of the many rivers in France. But usually this involves renting a yacht or joining a cruise or other sort of tour. The main rivers include the Rhone, Garonne, Saone, Seine and the Loire. Canal transportations are also available in relevant cities (e.g. Canal-Saint-Martin in Paris).
If you are a European Union (EU) citizen, you are in luck. You may travel without any restriction as per your EU citizenship rights. If you are not an EU citizen and France is the first stop on your visit, you will need to obtain a Schengen Visa. This visa is usually valid for any country in the Schengen zone. See the French Governmental website for more (official) information on French visa and immigration policy.
See also: Money Matters
France has adopted the Euro (ISO code: EUR, symbol: €) as its official currency. One Euro is divided into 100 cents, which is sometimes referred to as eurocents, especially when distinguishing them with the US cents.
Euro banknotes come in denominations of €5, €10, €20, €50, €100, €200, €500. The highest three denominations are rarely used in everyday transactions. All Euro banknotes have a common design for each denomination on both sides throughout the Eurozone.
The Euro coins are 1 cent, 2 cents, 5 cents, 10 cents, 20 cents, 50 cents, €1 and €2. Some countries in the Eurozone have law which requires cash transactions to be rounded to the nearest 5 cents. All Euro coins have a common design on the denomination (value) side, while the opposite side may have a different image from one country to another. Although the image side may be different, all Euro coins remain legal tender throughout the Eurozone.
Citizens of EU and EEA countries (save from some Eastern European countries, for a temporary period) and Switzerland can work in France without having to secure a work permit. Most non-EU citizens will need a work permit - however, some non-EU citizens (such as Canadians, Croatians, New Zealanders etc.) do not require a visa or work permit to work during their 90 day visa-free period of stay in France.
There are plenty of opportunities for studying in France, either to learn the language, or to spend a semester or year in France under one of the various international student mobility schemes, such as Erasmus or ISEP. Students wishing to enrol in a French university to follow a full course should contact the French Embassy in their country, if outside the European Union, or contact the university directly if they are EU citizens. The Study in France website has details on the opportunities available, and how to choose where to study in France.
French is the official language of the country, and by far is the most widely spoken in France despite the varying regional accents which may confuse non-native speakers into wondering if a regional dialect is being spoken. The use of French is governed by the Académie Française, which is the official authority on the usage, vocabulary and the grammar of the French language. However, their recommendations do not carry legal power and remain just that, recommendations. Some other languages used in France include Breton, Basque, Catalan, Alsatian and Corsican.
The teaching of a second and/or a third language is common nowadays, and English is the most commonly studied foreign language in French schools. Other languages often taught include Spanish, Italian and German. The immigrant populations also speak languages from their countries of origin, including Arabic, Mandarin, Russian and Vietnamese.
The most commonly used form of argot (slang) is verlan, which features inversion of syllables in a word. The word verlan itself originated from l'envers, which in French means "the reverse". Verlan in general is not obvious nor easily understood by non-native speakers.
La Gastronomie is as much a passion as a past-time in France. Each region has developed its own unique dishes and flavors through hundreds of years of tradition. Even today, the concept of eating main meals in courses is still used on a daily basis. In larger city restaurants, it is common to find different 'menus' that will include a bread course, one or two main dishes and a choice of a cheese course or dessert for under €20. To decide where to eat, the french consult the world-renowned Michelin Guide. This is the most used and prestigious restaurant guide, using a system of stars to rate establishments.
The french eat their main meal of the day at noon, followed by a lighter dinner later in the evening. In smaller cities especially, many businesses will close for lunch (usually between 12 noon and 2:00pm). This supports the culture that lunch is to be shared with friends and family. Four o' clock in the after noon is a widely recognized time to eat a small snack. This practice is known as to faire quatre-heures.
French food and eating traditions have been established over centuries. Today many aspects of this gastronomic culture still remain, but the growing influence of western culture is evident. More and more busy families are choosing quicker and simpler meals during the week. Even though France refused to bend to fast food chains in the past, today McDonald's is gaining in popularity, especially with the younger generation.
- Bread - Bread is a staple in the french diet. A typical baguette is usually served with lunch and dinner, while sliced pain americain is sometimes toasted and eaten at breakfast. It is important that bread is always fresh, and the french will often make daily trips to the bakery to pick up bread.
- Meat - Meats commonly eaten include: duck, deer, swan, lamb, rabbit, various types of fowl, and in rural areas, wild boar. Beef, turkey, pork, ham, and chicken are eaten as well. In coastal areas fish and seafood is a dietary staple, in place of other traditional meats. Local butcher shops usually stock most types of meats, sausages and other local products.
- Crêpes - With the possibility to be served sweet or savory, crêpes (small pancakes) are very versatile meals. There are many different bases used for traditional crêpes, buckwheat, plain, savory or sweet. Fillings range from ham and cheese to chocolate or crystallized sugar.
- Sweets - Desserts and pastries are among the most well-known french delicacies. Croissants and other flaky pastries are eaten in the morning or as a snack, while heavier items such a tarts, squares or mousse is reserved for dessert. Chocolate, fruit and custard are some of the most common ingredients used to create various desserts. Typically, french sweets are less sugary than western desserts, but may be richer.
- Cheese - While Camembert, Brie and Roquefort are some of the most popular french cheeses, there are many more varieties. Over one hundred different types of cheese exist in France. Each region has its own specialties, and the best place to find them is at a local market. There you can ask the artisan anything you want to know about the origin and fabrication of the cheese.
- Beer and Cider - Beer is commonly drunk with meals in the north-east of France. In Normandy and Brittany, the slightly fizzy cider is the local drink. They can usually be found either brut (dry), demi-sec (medium) or doux (sweet).
- Champagne - Champagne are produced strictly in the Champagne region of France, largely in the department of Marne. Three varieties of grape are grown for champagne making - Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Some of the grandes marques include Veuve Cliquot, Bollinger, Laurent-Perrier and Moët et Chandon.
- Dessert Wine - These are sweet, usually white, wine served chilled with the dessert course of a meal. France produces some excellent dessesrt wine, including Château d'Yquem (from Sauternes) and Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise.
- Wine - France is famous for its wine industry. Unlike other world wine producers, wine in France is not identified by the type of grape used but of the name of the region and the château/domaine which produces the wine. The Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system is in place, with its rules define the style of the wines allowed in specific growing locations as well as where they are made. Some of the best known wines come from Bordeaux (Château Latour, Château Mouton-Rothschild), Burgundy (Côte d'Or, Côte de Nuits), Loire (Muscadet AOC), Rhône (Châteauneuf-du-Pape) and Provence (Bandol AOC). Check this French wine guide for a more detailed overview.
- Other Alcoholic Beverages - A variety of distilled beverages can be found in France, including Grand Marnier (a mix of cognac and essence of bitter orange), absinthe, brandy (Armagnac, Cognac), and fruit distilled drinks (Calvados, Eau-de-vie). Pastis from the south of France is a anise-flavoured spirit and commonly served as apéritif.
France has a wide selection of accommodation, from budget campings and hostels up to luxurious 5-star+ hotels, mainly along the Cote d'Azur and in the bigger cities like Paris. But there are also some more intimate options like Chambre d'Hôtes and options to rent homes as a family, called Gîtes. Some very romantic options include castles (Chateaux) which mainly stand in the rural areas and give you the option to rent either a room or, in some cases, the whole castle! In winter, renting a chalet in the French Alps is a great way to enjoy the mountainous scenery and go skiing. It also works out cheaper if you are with a group compared to a hotel room.
France is a popular country among people which like to go camping, either with a tent or with a caravan. There are tens of thousands of camping grounds around the country, which are popular from April/May unwards until September or October. Note that some popular areas, mainly near the coast, can be fully booked during the main holiday season in July and, especially, August when the French people themselves have holidays.
Throughout the country, there are some very special sleeping option, called Chambres d'Hôtes and Gîtes. Chambre d'Hôtes is the French version of Bed&Breakfast with rooms available within the homes of people, including breakfast.
The latter are holiday homes which are available for rent and usually come fully furnished and equipped for self-catering.
Gîtes thus are not part of the house where the owner lives, but are free-standing homes, sometimes quite far away, and usually don't include breakfast or any other meal. For an idea of the options throughout the country, check the Chambres d'Hôtes and Gîtes websites for locations and prices.
See also: Travel Health
No vaccinations are required before entering France and few general diseases occur in the country. The health system in France is good, with both public and private hospitals and good care. It is recommended to have a vaccination against tick borne encephalitis when you go hiking and/or camping for 4 weeks or more in the period of March to November. This only applies to forested areas in the northeastern part of the country, especially around Metz, Nancy, Mulhouse and Strasbourg.
See also: Travel Safety
All in all, France is one of the safest countries to travel around anywhere in the world. The general precautions apply of course, especially if related to the bigger cities. Don't flash your wealth around and keep jewelry at home. Try not to walk around in unlit or deserted streets in cities and if you can, travel by taxi at night to go to suburban areas. Violent crime is relatively rare in France. However, the crime rate has increased a little, requiring travelers to take responsible action in ensuring their security. It is simple a matter of staying alert as to what situations are best avoided. Some basic rules which are good to know include the following:
- Thieves tend to target vehicles with non-local license plates.
- Airports, train stations and trains, beaches, hotels, subways, restaurants, museums, and monuments are popular hang-outs for both tourists and thieves.
- Keep an eye on your bags, luggage and wallets at all times. Pick-pocketing is quite common, especially with distracted tourists. Walk around as if you know the place!
- As always, it is a good idea to keep photocopies of travel documents and credit cards with you, but make sure they are kept separate from the originals. Not only good against crimes, but also in case you accidently loose some of your financial or official documents.
France is one of the best connected countries in the world, with data speed for upload/download ranked among the top 5 in the world. Most hotels and hostels would have in-house facilities to provide free internet access. Many major cities also have initiatives put in place to provide free wi-fi connection in public spaces. Alternatively there are internet cafés available in most cities/towns at a reasonable rate. Some private businesses, such as local cafés (or even the Starbuck's chain), may also provide wi-fi connectivity - keep an eye out for the signs by the shop windows/doors. Also look for the @ symbol prominently displayed, which indicates internet availability. However, with most homes now wired for the internet, cyber cafés are increasingly hard to find, especially outside the major cities.
See also: International Telephone Calls
To dial an international number from France, the IDD is 00, followed by the country code that you wish to dial, the area code and the phone number.
To call France from abroad, start with the international direct dialing (IDD) code from the country you're in, followed by French country code 33, the area code (drop the first zero in front of the area code), and the phone number. French telephone numbers are rarely given without the area code. The telephone number, including the area code, is made up of 10 digits. They are written in a set of 5 pairs of digits (i.e. 01 xx xx xx xx xx).
In France, the area code designations are: 01 - Paris Area ("Région Ile-de-France"), 02 - northwest, 03 - northeast, 04 - southeast, 05 - southwest, 06 - mobile phone providers. From 2010 onwards, 07 will also be assigned to mobile phone providers in order to cater for the surging demands for mobile phones.
Emergency numbers are 15 (medical aid), 17 (police station) and 18 (fire/rescue). You can also use the European emergency number 112 (perhaps a better choice if you don't speak French). These calls are free and accessible from virtually any phone, including locked cellphones.
France uses the GSM standard of cellular phones (900 MHz and 1800 MHz bands) used in most of the world outside of the U.S. There are several companies (Orange, SFR, Free, Bouygues Télécom and some others MVNOs like Virgin Mobile) offering wireless service. The country is almost totally covered but you may have difficulties using your mobile phone in rural or mountainous areas. If you stay for some time, it may be advisable to buy a pre-paid cell phone card that you can use in any phone that supports the GSM standard on the 900/1800 MHz bands. Then incoming calls and SMSes are free.
La Poste in France is also referred to as the PTT (short for postes, télégraphes et téléphones). The mailboxes are painted bright yellow and often there is a slot for local city mail and another slot for "outside mail". Normally there is a queue in the post office, but most of the post offices have the self service machine installed which is quite easy to operate. Nowadays many of the tabac and even some of the souvenir shops also sell postage stamps. Normally an overseas postcard costs almost as much as sending a letter. Mails sent in France also have a zip code. The first two numbers represent the administrative department (e.g. in Paris' case that would be 75).
Post offices are generally open from 8:00am to 7:00pm Monday through Friday, and 8:00am to noon on Saturdays. Apart from the basic job of mailing letters, most of the post offices do some banking activities also and some even have photocopy machines and cyber cafes for internet access.