For the last two decades, fabulous France has been the world’s favorite tourism destination, seeing no less than 81 million visitors on average every year. Foodies, shopaholics, history buffs, culture vultures, beach bunnies, winter sports lovers, families, and eco-tourists all flock to France for their vacation, knowing they won’t be disappointed with something for everyone. The country is one of Europe’s most geographically diverse, with its cities home to unrivalled cultural treasures and superb architecture. The countryside is dotted with ancient castles and chateaux, set in stunning natural beauty, and the French wines and cuisine are among the finest in the world.
A lifetime wouldn’t be long enough to explore all France has to offer. Most visitors to this iconic land choose a region in which to spend their holiday, topped off with a mandatory few days in the alpha world city of Paris with its landmarks, monuments, museums, art galleries, sophisticated nightlife, and fine dining. The country is divided into six regions, each with its own unique charm, activities, and attractions, but Paris is undoubtedly at its heart in north-central surrounded by the historic Ile de France region. Other favorite destinations are the French Alps and the Pyrenees, the glorious Loire Valley, Provence and the Mediterranean coastline, and Brittany with its ancient Celtic heritage.
The best time to visit France depends entirely on the style of the vacation, as there’s plenty to do and see year-round. Winter sports in the Alps and Pyrenees run from November through April, and for those into natural wonders, spring is a magic time both in the mountains and the valleys and plains. Soaking up the sun in the south is best from June through August, and sightseeing across the entire country is great any time of year. Hotel room rates rise in the high summer season, as well as at Easter and during the Christmas festive season.
Currency: the Euro
Official language: French
Excavations have proved France’s continual occupation since human settlement began, and its recorded history dates way back to the Iron Age. The conquering Romans arrived to find Celtic and other tribes already in occupation of the land, with the Greeks already entrenched along the Mediterranean coastline. After the fall of Rome, Emperor Charlemagne ensured France’s domination by the Frankish powers for several hundred years, and France’s medieval kingdom had emerged by 1000 AD. In 1066, Duke William of Normandy, a vassal of the French king, conquered England and became its ruler.
France was one of the first European countries to move from a feudal state towards a nation state, although for most of the last 1,000 years it has seen wars with neighboring countries. Traditionally, its armies were disciplined and professional with capable leaders, which led to many victories although the financial and manpower costs were high. France’s famous ‘Sun King’, Louis XIV, ascended the throne during the 30 Years’ War from 1618 to 1648, at the same time spending huge amounts of money building up France’s art scene. Expanding Versailles from a simple hunting lodge to a magnificent palace was his most impressive venture.
The dynasty’s extravagance and wars, continued until matters came to a head with the French Revolution in 1789 during a time of extreme hardship for the peasant classes. The revolution began in Paris with looting and riots, and soon descended into anarchy, causing the royal court to abandon the city and the insurgents to storm the Bastille. Conflict ended after five years with Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, during which the royal family and many French aristocrats met their fate at the guillotine.
The culture of France has been influenced over the centuries by the country’s turbulent history, its varied topography, and its long-standing contacts with neighboring countries, as well as its colonies. In the 19th century, Paris became the cultural hub of the world for its decorative Art Nouveau style, and for several centuries before that its upscale furniture makers had dominated Europe’s elite customer base with extravaganzas of inland woods and gilded ormolu decoration.
Until the 18th century, ‘French culture’ as an all-embracing concept didn’t exist, as each region and baronial area had its own distinct local customs and traditions. Even nowadays, the nation is a mass of multiple ethnicities and regional diversities. Social class is still important, as are the regional aspects of cuisine, dialect and language, and tradition. However, the French as a whole are very proud of their national identity.
Central France’s weather is generally continental, but is modified by inland movements of the maritime climate along the Atlantic coastline. The Mediterranean coastal region enjoys dry, hot summers and mild winters, with its total amount of rainfall equaling that of central France, but falling in torrents over a few days in winter. The climate in Paris is equally variable, with May through October seeing the temperature vary between 68°F and 78°F. October sees the most rain, and January is the coldest month around 42°F
France is part of the Schengen Agreement, which means there are no border controls for nationals of EU countries. EU citizens only require a valid national identity card or passport to enter France. Non-EU citizen require a valid passport and possibly a visa if you intend on a longer visit.
In major French cities, taxis can be picked up at stands, ordered by phone, or hailed on the street if the roof-mounted ‘Taxi’ sign is lit, indicating availability. Fares are set by the government and depend on location, time of day, distance and waiting times with Paris having the most expensive rates. Taxis are government-regulated here, and drivers must pass a training course before being licensed. Taxi travel is generally safe and few rip-offs are reported. For Paris taxi travel, try Taxis75 (+33-1-78-416-505) or Alpha Taxis (+33-1-47-394-739)
Train travel is a great way to see the sights in France, with long-distance journeys between the major cities in all six regions served by the reservation-only TGV high-speed express. If time allows, the glorious French scenery is best appreciated on a slow train, of which there’s also an extensive network. Eurail and InterRail passes save money, but can only be used on the slower TER trains. Night train couchette services are a practical way to go if sightseeing time is short.
Unlike many other European countries and the US, France doesn’t have a network of long-distance bus services linking its regions and cities. The services that do exist are run at regional level, with the exception of Eurolines, which links several European cities. Coach and bus service tends to cover destinations which are not served by rail lines, with an exception being in Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur, which has good intercity coach connections throughout. Although coach fares are cheap, rail travel is far more convenient and comparatively inexpensive.
Before you leave on your holiday, there are at least four health-related things you should do. Please check the handbook for specifics, but for now, here’s the short list:
Step 1: Check with the CDC for their recommendations for the countries you’ll be visiting.
Step 2: Have a medical checkup with your doctor.
Step 3: Pick up any necessary medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
Step 4: Have a dental and/or eye checkup. (Recommended, but less important than steps 1-3.)
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