A BACKPACKER’S GUIDE TO A BACKPACKER’S GUIDE TO FRANCE
Ooh la la, c’est la France, the land of love and cheese that has long held the imagination of romantic travellers the world over. France is a land of almost unbearable beauty, of high alpine mountains, and the sun-soaked pebbles of the southern riviera, of big cities filled with art and culture and a vast countryside that produces some of the best produce in the world. It’s a land of lazy afternoons spent drinking wine on terraces, of naked beaches and an almost national approach to extramarital affairs.
For backpackers France might be a little more expensive than other destinations in Europe, but how can one visit the continent without dabbling in baguettes and berets, escargot and the Eiffel Tower? France is where people come to live well, to treat themselves, to while the days away pursuing the things that make them truly happy on a physical level. Viva la France, as they say, stay for as long as you can afford it and really enjoy yourself.
FACTS ABOUT FRANCE
France’s Population: 66.9 million
Tourists to France in a year: 85.7 million, making it the most visited country in the world
France’s biggest cities: Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Lille, Bordeaux, Nice, Nante, Strasbourg
Languages spoken in France: overwhelmingly French, and it’s the only official language, with some people also speaking Alsatian near the German border, and Breton along the Brittany Coast. Small number of Basque speakers in the south west and speakers of Catalan near that Spanish provence.
Average wage in France: €3000
Price of things in France: lunch for two with wine €30, packet of Gauloise cigarettes €7, a glass of beer €6, une baguette €0.45, huge lump of cheese €6.50
Times things happen in France: breakfast is kind of nonexistent, lunch is strictly between 12-2 and dinner from 7-9. If you’re coming from Spain, expect a return to almost-normal eating times.
Average summer high temperature in France: Paris 25°C, Biarritz 24°C, Marseille 30°C, Chamonix 24°C
Average winter low temperature in France: Paris 3°C, Biarritz 5°C, Marseille 3°C, Chamonix -8°C.
FESTIVALS IN FRANCE
There are plenty of festivals all over France, but for us the best are the Fetes de Bayonne, that take place every August in the southwest of France. For five days this ancient Basque city sees its streets filled with revellers dressed in white and red, drinking wine and dancing, and basically just going nuts. It’s France’s version of a Spanish street fiesta, and while they don’t quite get it right, they do do it in a very particular French style.
TRANSPORTATION IN FRANCE
Car rental in France: hiring a car is awesome in France as there are so many villages and national parks, rural areas and hidden beaches. There are a lot of tolls in France, so give yourself plenty of time and still to the national highways, not the toll roads, or prepare to cough up some euros. The process of hiring a car is the same in France as it is in the rest of Europe, and we recommend you use a service like rentalcars.com to get the best prices across all hire car companies.
Flying in France: there are airports all over France, particularly in the bigger cities and around the tourists hubs in the south. The main budget airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet service most, if not all of these airports. Flying is convenient, but you will miss out on many of the hidden gems that you’d find on a more land-based method of travel. Make sure you weigh up the options to determine if flying is the best method of transport for you.
Train travel in France: the French are famous for their super-fast rail system that runs out from Paris and across the country and beyond into Europe and even the UK. The train is far superior to flying in France, especially with trains that hit speeds of up to 320 kms/h, before dropping you off right in the middle of town. The train system in France is called the SNCF and the super fast trains are the TGVs. You can use French trains with a Eurail pass, but there are fees for most intercity lines. Make sure that a Eurail pass is the best option for your trip before you buy one.
Campervan hire France: this is a great option to see the country with some friends. There are plenty of places you can park and sleep for free in France, and also many where it has become a problem and the authorities have cracked down on it. Most popular beaches, particularly on the wilder west coast, will have entire carparks dedicated to camper cars, complete with power and water, toilets and basic showers, all for a nominal fee, great if you’re surfing. There’s a company called Van-it that seem to have reasonable deals on normal-sized camping cars (meaning you can park in places that have height and length restrictions), available from some major French cities. Hiring a campervan isn’t just a good idea for France, but for your Europe trip in general.
Bus travel in France: France is really proud of their train network and so they focus on them to the detriment of their bus options. The usual suspects, like Eurolines and Busabout go to plenty of cities and regions, but buses in France are a worse option than trains and hiring cars.
ACCOMMODATION IN FRANCE
Couchsurfing in France: is like couchsurfing anywhere — cheap, potentially awkward, maybe a whole lot of authentic fun, could be creepy. The French aren’t renowned for being open to foreigners, but that stereotype isn’t really true and less so outside the cities. The only problem is that English isn’t really all that widely spoken, particularly by older generations, and parlez-vous francais?
Sleeping in your car in France: you can do it, and you may be moved along, particularly in swankier seaside resorts like Monaco. Sleeping in your car is a great option to travel France on the cheap, especially if you can find a way to have a good night’s sleep in the small space. We really recommend mixing it up with staying in places that allow you to stretch out, shower, etc.
Camping in France: there are campgrounds all over France, running the gamut from over-the-top family affairs with restaurants and amusement parks and cinemas, to spartan rural campsites that offer little more than a space to pitch a tent and enjoy nature. There are websites that list most campsites across France, like campingfrance.com.
Hostels in France: be aware when booking hostels in France that many may be auberges de jeunesse, which technically are youth hostels, but are more geared towards school groups and other large congregations of dorks. Like always, you want to be prepared for surviving hostel life, and make sure you book the right place for you by using platforms with reviews, like hostelworld.com.
Hotels in France: oh yeah you can get whatever your heart desires in France, so long as you’re willing to pay for it, from huge chateaus, to castles, modern luxury and everything else. Thing is, it’s costly. Expect to spend around €150 for a night in a decent hotel in Paris and €450 for a nice one (they go far more expensive than that). Of course you can find deals, so keep your eyes on the booking websites if you’ve got a hankering for something a little nicer.
Airbnb in France: this is a great way to find authentic places and not necessarily pay exorbitant hotel prices. You can get great farmhouses, surrounded by vineyards, amongst the cheese, and sleep in beds that were once occupied by someone named Pierre. Like everywhere in the world, local governments are cracking down on, regulating and taxing Airbnb apartments across France, so while it’s still an option, the wild days of cheap, unregulated Airbnbs are over.
FOOD AND DRINK IN FRANCE
Food in France
French cuisine is regarded to be among the world’s best, and goes far beyond their wonderfully weird predilection to eat frogs’ legs and garden snails. French food is rich, buttery, defined by great quality produce and plenty of garlic. It’s a cuisine that reflects the climate, with soups and stews predominating in the north and during winter, while seafood and rice dishes dominate the south. The French are also famous for their snacks, like the cheeses that run the gamut from stinky roquefort to brie to camembert, jams and preserves, and the charcuterie family, that includes all kinds of sausages and cured meats, and the pate family of weird, delicious, firm yet soft products derived from animals’ livers, or something. Like anywhere, eating in restaurants is less affordable than buying your food from the supermarket, but it is infinitely nicer. Find a balance and treat yourself at the very least once for lunch and once for dinner, we insist.
Breakfast in France: le petit dejeuner is most definitely not the most important meal of the day in France. It’s a short and sweet affair, literally sweet, with plenty of different jams on bread, and a small, milkless espresso coffee. That’s it. Sometimes they might have a croissant, but the French are too hot to have one of those every single day.
Lunch in France: le dejeuner (yep, breakfast is known in France as the “little lunch”) is the main meal, a three course extravaganza complete with a soup or salad starter, a main based around a meat or fish dish, and then cheese or dessert, all washed down with half a bottle of wine. A good way to really experience lunch like the French do is to sit down for a menu de jour, which is the set menu of the day that will offer you the choice of a few different starters and mains, will include dessert and usually coffee and house wine, which is good enough for the French, so good enough for you too. Just don’t ruin your day by getting too excited with the wine at midday.
Dinner in France: le diner is less a meal than it is a way to spend the night, an affair lasting three hours or so, filled with wine and various, small, plates. Dinner in France starts around seven and is done by nine at the latest, so if you’ve just been travelling Spain you’ll have to readjust your eating habits to suit the local habits. If you’re doing it right you’ll start with an aperitif, and some hors d’oeuvres, before moving into any number of plates, depending on how fancy the restaurant is and how much you’re paying for your meal. You can also order from the menu, a la carte, which isn’t as fun, but won’t tie you into a million courses of things you might not like.
Famous French foods: ok, so here’s a list of foods you should try, and if you can try them all. Soupe a l’oignon, onion soup, nicoise salad, lettuce, tomato, boiled eggs, tuna, other stuff (but the dressing, oh the dressing), escargot, garden snails in garlic and butter, croque monsieur, a toasted ham and cheese sandwich, coq au vin, chicken cooked in wine, moules frites, mussels cooked in white wine, or garlic and cream, with fries, steak tartare, raw beef mince served with a raw egg, confit de canard, duck cooked in its own fat, crepes, really thin pancakes filled with sweets or savouries, and ratatouille, which is a movie about mice and a stew of only fresh, Mediterranean vegetables. The French are also infamous for their foie gras, which is the enlarged liver of a goose that has been force-fed grains its entire life. It’s an unbelievably rich and cruel food.
Vegetarian eating in France: it’s not easy. Pretty much everything in France contains meat, especially trace amounts. Strict vegetarians and vegans will find themselves unable to even eat the cheese, as it contains rennet. The French don’t really understand vegetarianism, and will offer you fish and seafood when discovering that you don’t eat meat. The safest bet is to cook your own food, or relax your rules a little while you’re travelling.
Drinks in France: oh the drinks in France, how many you’ll find and how delicious they will be. When it comes to the non-alcoholic drinks, well there’s nice milk, and France is famous for its water, like Evian and Perrier, but come on, you’re not reading the drinks section for non-alcoholic French beverages, now are you?
Beers in France: France isn’t renowned for its beers, and the one that you’ll find everywhere is Kronenbourg 1664. It’s alright. There are other beers around, but really this is a good time to ditch the amber ale and start getting into wines.
Wine in France: France is the global standard in wine, the byword for winemaking tradition and quality. In France you don’t necessarily drink grape varieties, but regions, many of which are grape varieties in their own right. The most famous must be Champagne, the region from which the effervescent white wine of the same name only comes from. If someone talks about Spanish, Australian, or Californian champagne you can rightfully tell them that they don’t know what they’re talking about, because champagne can only come from Champagne; the rest is sparkling wine at best. For red wines, you can’t go past a bottle from Bordeaux, a region in the south-west of France, and in Bordeaux the Medoc wines are the best. For other red wines you can’t go past the wines from Bourgogne, or Burgundy, especially the Beaujolais for a delicious younger wine (from the year you’re drinking it, not aged). For rose wines you can’t go past those from Provence in the south of France, not coincidentally also the perfect climate to drink rose, and for whites head to the north, near the German border, for the wines of Alsace.
Stronger drinks in France: there are plenty of stronger drinks in France, often used as a digestif to wash down your dinner, or lunch. Pastis is the most popular and most French, tasting a lot like aniseed and burning a little. The most famous brand is Ricard. Then there are the cogniacs, from the Cognac region, which you would know from rap songs, think Hennessy and Courvoisier. The other French spirit, the one that’ll really send you into the astral realm, is Absinthe, the green fairy, that hallucinogenic liquor that’ll leave you in a major blackout but on autopilot to good times.
GENERAL ADVICE FOR FRANCE
Scams and dangers in France: there are plenty of scammers operating in France, particularly near the tourist traps in the big cities. A common scam in Paris is to have groups of girls approach you asking for donations, or signatures, for their charity, and while you’re preoccupied their friends will fleece you. Also, around the big monuments touts will try and tie a string around your arm, for “good luck”, and then either demand money, or rob you. There are reports of travellers being robbed at ATMs too, so be sure to follow all the techniques to avoid being pickpocketed, while travelling in the country.
There are also protests rather often in France, they’re a part of the political process, and can get quite heated in Paris, Marseilles and other big cities. You will find disruption to transport, with entire highways often blocked by striking truck drivers, or even non-lethal violence during the more unruly protests (rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannons). If it’s looking heated, just move the other way from protests, they don’t move too quickly.
Terrorism in France: this is a problem for France that isn’t going away, and travellers aren’t immune to the often indiscriminate attacks that desperate terrorists often resort to. The thing with this type of attack is that it is both so random, and unlikely, that you can’t really do anything to avoid being a victim, and chances of being one are so low that neither should you. There’s a heightened police and army presence across France, and security agencies are constantly identifying and neutralising threats. If you’re really worried about terrorism, make sure you heed the government’s warnings when they raise a level, but please don’t stop travelling to wonderful countries like France.
Driving in France: there are a lot of tolls on the highways, but they do form a great system that links up all of France, big cities and regional centres alike. Running alongside the paid highways there are national roads, that are free to use, but you will pass through towns and that can be annoying particularly at times when school kids are moving around, or people are driving home from work. The speed limit on the highways in France is 130kms/h, which is pretty darn fun. Otherwise it’s a lot like driving in the rest of Europe.
Best way to access and use money in France: the best way is to pull out money from ATMs as you need it. Check with your home bank for the best way to use your money abroad, but on the French end all major banks’ ATMs shouldn’t charge you for the service and will give you competitive rates. Just try and avoid using private machines. Other than that just follow your Europe-wide best practices for using Money.
Mobile plans in France: You can buy prepaid SIMS with data all over France, even in the supermarkets and petrol stations. You will need your passport to buy a SIM card in France. The main operators are Orange, SFR, Bouygues Telecom, and Free Mobile. If France is your first stop, buying a SIM card makes sense, as new European Union regulations mean you can use the service across the continent without roaming charges. Just make sure you do some research and find the best mobile deal for you.
PLACES TO VISIT IN FRANCE
All of it! There is so much to see and do in France, but for the sake of a backpacking trip we’ll just list some of our favourites here.
Biarritz: is the birthplace of surf in Europe and sits down in the southwest of France, near the Spanish border. Biarritz actually forms a larger metropolitan area with Anglet and Bayonne, yep that Bayonne, making the area the capital of the French Basque Country. Biarritz is a shockingly picturesque seaside town, presided over by old mansions and castles, and linked by a series of beaches and bays all full of gorgeous rock formations and often great, crashing waves. It is a bit of a playground of the well-heeled, but as far as surfing and culture is concerned, you can’t go past a trip to Biarritz.
Hossegor: just up the coast from Biarritz you’ll find Hossegor that is now the main hub of surfing in Europe (they see a world championship there every October). Hossegor is one of the world’s great surf destination, and the beach runs almost unimpeded some 200 kilometers from Bayonne in the south to Bordeaux in the north. If you can’t find a good wave here to yourself then you’ve just got to walk a little further. The beach is the result of a Napoleonic engineering project — the planting of vast pine forests these days known as Les Landes, that filled in swampland and prevented the often raucous winter swells from washing away the beach. Along these stretches you’ll find lots of nudity, nudity sunbaking, nudity fishing, nudity emerging sheepishly from the dunes, maybe even nudity surfing, if you’re lucky.
Paris: the capital, in the centre of the country, a huge city that rightfully sits among the world’s greats. Like all huge cities, Paris has beautiful areas and areas that you should never enter. As a rule of thumb, when backpacking, stick near the areas with the monuments, especially on your first visit. Many travellers have a strained relationship with Paris — it can eat you up easily. Paris is notorious for rude waiters and locals who don’t want to speak English, and they are definitely there, but people likely remember the rude experiences rather than the pleasant ones. Paris is the place to make out under the Eiffel Tower, get sore legs walking through the Louvre and the more modern, Musee d’Orsay, stroll along the Seine, marvel at the chaos around the Arc de Triomphe, and basically fulfill all the French and Parisian stereotypes in this fine, often difficult city.
The South of France: this refers to the sprawling Mediterranean coastline that runs from the Spanish border, along the French Riviera to the Italian border, taking in the foothills of the Alps on the way and the French region known as Provence. It’s as nice as a region can be, rolling farms and fields of jasmine and rose vineyards, tiny villages that seem like they were created just for us to appreciate them, hidden coves and busy resorts like Cannes, azure waters, the high life — this is a rather expensive slice of paradise on earth.
The Alps: if you follow the hills up from the Mediterranean you’ll eventually find the French Alps, giant razors of mountains that jut abruptly into the sky, sharp fangs of snow-capped fangs that are filled with ski resorts and mountaineers. The French Alps are the place to indulge your mountain fantasies while still living the French lifestyle, to ski steep and deep, powder-filled mountains by day and spend your nights tonsils deep in glasses of pastis and other cold-climate specific liquors.