In the fall of 1998, my wife and I traveled to the south of France and we were thrown back in time. Way back in time. Our travels took us to Arles and Avignon in Provence, Nice on the Cote d'Azur, Vernet-les-Bain and Villefranche-de-Conflent of Catalan and Paris. For those of you who are interested only in the pictures, follow the hot-links of the regions above. I apologize that the links are not complete as of yet, but they are in work. Each of the (eventually, five) segments will talk specifically about the areas and their historical past with the exception of Paris. For those who are interested in how the trip was planned and some hints along the way, read on for a while.
Links to subjects on this page for a quick look:
TrainsBooks and GuidesPackingHotelsAutomobile
Book links in the text below will take you to the travel shelf of this site's bookstore. From there, if you choose, you will be linked to Amazon.com. To get back to this page from the book shelf, use the "Back" button on your browser. Or you can do it the way I do. Right mouse click on teh link and select "Open in New Window". All books are also listed at the bottom of this page.
This was the first trip we had undertaken using the web as a primary source of information and reservations. Since this was also our first major trip to the continent, using the web (along with printed guide books) fostered a great deal of uncertainty with regard to what truly would be in store for us as we journeyed from town to town.
The trip was scheduled for approximately three weeks in September and October centered around an oceanographic conference in Nice. Where to go and what to see? The Rough Guide for France describes 15 different regions in France alone (not counting Corsica). Guide books provided us with a lot of choices and recommendations (often, somewhat contradictory). We are naturalists at heart and photographers by inclination. I was hesitant to spend a great deal of time in the cities at museums and churches. I wanted to be out in the natural surroundings. My wife shared that feeling, but was also drawn by the architecture and the arts.
We started by using Rick Steve's Europe Through the Back Door. In the early stages, we had grand thoughts of several countries and this guide seemed to point us to those little places that no one goes (unless they, too, were Rick Steve fans). We added the Michelin Green Guide to France and Rick Steves' France, Belgium & the Netherlands. But after studying train schedules and the time involved in travel, we came to realize that France had more than enough for us to see and, after all, we had definitely seen enough information on Italy's Cinque Terre to know that spot was definitely on the list. Paris and Nice were on The List as well. I had spent a couple of days in Paris on an earlier trip to Europe and I was not very amenable to spending a lot of time there. But this was her first trip to Europe and Paris was very high on her list. We compromised and scheduled it for end of the trip.
Shopping at Amazon.com, we added France, The Rough Guide, On the Road Around the South of France by Thomas Cook and Wild France by The Sierra Club. Now we had more information than we could possibly use. Each guide had its own agenda as to what was important or significant. Definite on our list was Paris, Cinque Terre and Nice. The other options we considered were the Camargue (for the wildlife), Colmar (easy access to some of the wine country), the Parc Naturel Regional des Volcans d'Auvergne in Central France and Nancy in the Alsace-Lorraine. Digging in for a night on the web, I found that a great deal of time was being wasted on the train. We needed an itinerary that required a reasonable amount of time riding the trains.
We started the process by selecting Arles in the Provence region. This was as close as we could get to the Camargue without spending big dollars at Ste Marie. It also provided us with quick train access to Avignon. Avignon is more popular with tourists than Arles, but the access to the Camargue was more important to us. From there, we would head to Nice for the conference. From Nice, we intended to travel further east to Cinque Terre. Now it was a choice of several quick stops or a longer stay at a central base of operations for the remainder of the trip. We discarded Colmar. Rick Steves was high on it, but the other guides weren't as kind. Central France was a double-back on the train tracks from Cinque Terre through Nice, so we chose Nancy as our destination after we left the Cinque Terre. We soon discovered that Cinque Terre is in the process of being "discovered" thanks to all the web sites touting its praises. Steves suggests that you head to one of the five towns and find a place. We were a bit more conservative minded than that. E-mails flew and no place in the villages was to be found who would commit to a room. We tried La Spezia knowing that it was a short train ride back to Cinque Terre for the walks, but were not enthused about some of the responses. We were addressing lodging in Nancy at the same time. Seems that it was getting to be a bit beyond the tourist season and rooms were not in great supply! Then the wonder of the web!. As we surfed looking for rooms, we stumbled across an ad for rental units in the Pyrennes mountains. The cost was reasonable, the accommodations sounded more than satisfactory, and they were renting by the week. Back to the train schedules. Okay, it was a complete back track through Arles. We had a night to kill between leaving Nice and the Pyrennes, so why not stop back through Avignon? The train schedules were harsh for a through transit, so a stopover was a logical decision. Goodbye, Cinque Terre. Goodbye, Nancy. A few more quick e-mails, a couple of phone calls and our lodging was set for the trip.
Time came for us to leave and with information in our packs, we flew to Paris (overnight-as most carriers from the U.S. are wont to do). We arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport, caught the bus to the SNCF station (with a little confusion as to which stop it really was with a lot of non-Europeans yelling at the bus driver in English, of course), checked in at the SNCF ticket agent, browsed a book and waited for our train to Arles.
It is the way to go if you are planning to visit several places of interest. The most useful web site for planning your train itinerary is Deutsche Bahn. Although this is a German web site, this particular link is in English and covers all of Europe. You need to pay attention to the fact that the larger towns and cities may have more than one train station and the site is rather unforgiving in your choices. The one that gave me the most difficulty was Paris. It took me forever to determine the name to use for the SNCF station adjacent to Charles de Gaulle airport. For points to the south of France, the site wants to use the Paris Gare de Lyon station located in Paris. The other fact to keep in mind is the cities and towns are identified by their name in their language. An European map simplifies this for you. Do not be afraid of making train connections at any given station. Train travel is the norm for France and connection/track information is readily available to the traveler. It was our good fortune to be travelling so late in the season. Eurorail passes were being discounted at half price. Note: Eurorail passes (and there are now several options available) must be purchased before you leave. Look at all of the options available as to type of pass (Eurail, Europass, EurailDrive), number of days and whether they are consecutive days or a number of days of travel in a longer time period (Flexipass) and make the choice that is best for you. Rick Steves' books describe all the options, but the descriptions tend to be a bit cumbersome at times as he tries to lay out all of the options. For a quick look, try his website. Lay out where you want to go and how long you want to be there, then choose the pass that is best for you.
Particularly on the long trips, we took advantage of the high speed trains. Using the Eurail Flexipass, there is generally a $10US surcharge for reservations on these trains. But it is not an absolute rule. We went without reservations on other rail service and did not encounter any problem with finding seats. You should be aware, however, that other passengers may have made reservations and seats are marked that are reserved and for what portion of the journey. These markings are not always readily obvious. Compartments are marked on the door or just to the side of the door, but in cars with open seats, check the back of seat for reservation cards. They will tell you which segment(s) of the trip that seat is reserved.
Helpful hint: Planning a flexible trip with potential changes of itinerary? Or want to change your trip schedule? If you are taking your notebook computer along, use the train link listed above and search for all the various point-to-point trips you might want to take. Save the "results" as an .html file to your hard disk. Then if you need to make some quick changes, bring up those files in your computer browser and see all of your options. No computer? Print them out and discard them as you go.
Return to top
These titles are hot-linked to my bookshelves. Once there, if you want to know more about them or to order from Amazon, click on the hot-link title and you will be whisked to Amazon.com where you can order on-line.
If you are travelling to France, no matter what region, you MUST read Culture Shock by Sally Adamson Taylor. The French culture is a lot different from the American culture. You are visiting them and to understand them and to ease your way among them, this is a MUST read. One hint that we found very useful came from this book. When you visit a shop, greet the owner/salesperson with a "bonjour" and an "au revoir" when you leave even if you merely browsed through the shop and asked no questions. You will be amazed at the response from them. They are constantly visited by tourists and very few give the courtesy of an hello or a goodbye. They are warmed by your paying attention to these courteous exchanges of greeting. This is more true in the smaller towns, but we found it to be useful even in 'cold' Paris. Our French was very limited and certainly our pronunciation had to be distasteful to the French ear. In spite of this, our willingness to attempt to communicate in their language seemed to bring out the best in the French people. Very seldom did we run across someone who was unwilling to help. We have several humorous stories about bridging the communication barrier, but in all cases, the humor is directed toward ourselves and our gratefulness is extended to the people of France for their willingness to work with us through those times.
Europe 101 History and Art for the Traveler by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw:
Rough Guide to France:
Europe Through the Back Door:
Michelin Green Guide to France:
Rick Steves' France, Belgium & the Netherlands:
Wild France by The Sierra Club:
Fodor's Exploring Provence: This is the book we have on our shelves. There is a new one coming which is listed next which sounds good.
Fodor's 99 Provence & the Cote D'Azur : The Complete Guide to the Hilltop Villages, Roman Ruins and Resorts (Fodor's Gold Guides)
Provence and the Cote D'Azur : The Rough Guide (Rough Guide) :
To my knowledge, this book is not available from Amazon. We found it in Vernet-les-Bain at a small bookstore. A very good guide if you can find it.
Return to top
Here is the one place that we took Rick Steves to heart. We traveled with one suitcase (a duffel bag type), one hand carry briefcase or purse and one backpack each. We were both encumbered by the need for dress clothes for the conference and its associated dinners and cocktail parties. These clothes were a minor addition to our packing. We had to be prepared for the sunny climes of Nice and the altitude of the Pyrennes mountains. We used 4 basic changes of clothing and selected it with a layering technique in mind. To this, we needed to add our photographic equipment. We ended up with 4 camera bodies, 4 lenses and a tripod - weight. We pared our books to a minimum before we left, but as is our particular habit, more were added along the way. All of it fit. We were able (with little struggle) to stay the 3 weeks and manage out luggage reasonably well. On an earlier trip of ours to California, we watched a young man at a laundry roll up his clothing after taking them from the dryer. We mimicked this idea. We found that it saves space and that the clothes are not adversely affected. Find clothing that is wrinkle resistant and quick drying. One good source that we have found is TravelSmith. They specialize in travel clothing. Take your own clothesline and pins to hang your hand laundry in the bathrooms. On more than one occasion, we witnessed tourist struggling with numerous bags at train stations. There is really no need for this. Pay attention to what Steves has to say and modify it to what you require. One other note. White tennis shoes. Message boards abounded with cautions about how they would easily identify you as an American tourist. In Paris, that may be true. But in the smaller towns we visited, the white shoes did not accompany an American accent. Oh, they were there all right, but not worn by Americans. We were also warned about shoulder bags being a target of thieves. We took the precaution of wearing protective 'hidden' pouches. I wore a waist belt. These are not easily accessible when you need something, so it contained passports and tickets. My wife had a pouch that clipped onto her waist belt, but was hidden underneath the clothing. It was easily accessible for credit cards and cash. In addition, I wore a pouch that hung by string around my neck and under my shirt. It was obvious that I had it, but the idea is to prevent easy theft. Any or all of these 'hidden' pouches will serve you well. She and I used backpacks to transport our cameras on our photographic journeys. We kept the cameras there as often as was practical. When were shooting, we took turns keeping an eye on our surroundings and its people. For this trip, we never encountered any problems. But a cautious eye, is a good eye. Always be aware of the world around you. I use that phrase a lot when I am photographing. It only takes a little bit more to see the rest of the world around you that does not mean you well.
Return to top
Let me first start by listing a few web links we used to find hotels in the France. How did we find these? By using Web Ferret (a free download), a great little web tool. But no matter what search engine or software you use, just enter "france", "hotel" and the "city" (leaving out the quotation marks, of course.
I will list a couple of general French sites for accommodations, but you will do best by searching for what you want. The first is French Hotel Reservations and the other is Hotels and Travel in France. But you will do best with a city search.
Although you can find all types of hotels and inns on the web (and some even let you make reservations on-line), we found that once we had found a hotel that we liked, the best contact was via telephone. Do take the extra effort and have them confirm to you via FAX the dates, the rate and what is included in the room tariff. We did not always do that and seemed to have always ended up a wee bit short of what we expected. Either they rate they charged us was a bit higher or "no, breakfast is not included in your rate". Had we had a FAX copy in our hand, our negotiating standpoint would have been a lot stronger. It is not that they are trying to cadge you out of a few more francs, but, rather, something was lost in the translation or not asked an answered. Paper goes a long way in resolving those misunderstandings.
Return to top
With our scattered itinerary, we made the assumption that a rental vehicle was not necessary. I should note here that French drivers use the same side of the road as we do here in America. This should lessen the fear of taking to the highways. In the main, we were correct in our assumption with the exception of Vernet-les-Bain. There, we had a week long rental and like the rest of the trip, rain dogged our footsteps. It would have been highly advantageous for us to have had a vehicle to explore some of the sights in the area. We did take the opportunity to use the local bus service to broaden our visit to Fort Liberia in Villefrance Conflent. We should have also used train service from Villefrance to explore more of the region, but that only became apparent as we were about to leave. If you plan on staying in the countryside of France, a car is a great convenience to explore the area. Had we stayed in Arles or Avignon longer than we did, we would have found great freedom to explore using an automobile. Before we left, friends of ours suggested utililizing mopeds as a good way to get around and I would endorse that ideas as well. If you plan on renting a car, do so before you leave. Prices are much higher there for walk-in reservations. Also, there are combination train and automobile pass combinations that are very economical. See the train section earlier on this page.
Return to top