Bonjour! and a Big Welcome to our ‘France 101’
A significant and highly valued section of our world-wide readership comes from your part of the world, North America. There’s a huge amount of interest in France and her canals and rivers from both the USA and Canada (and not just from les Canadiens francais!) and we know that what France has to offer is very much desired.
We’ve prepared these notes based on our own deep experience of France and also in response to the questions our many North American friends over here have asked us. We hope you find them useful, but we’re pleased to receive your questions too. For expert friendly advice just contact us.
Culture and History
” . . every man has two countries; his own – and France . . “ (Thomas Jefferson, paraphrased)
Speaking French, Acting French
French children, like most other Europeans, are taught English at school, so many of the people you’ll meet will have basic, school-level, spoken English. They’ll probably understand you and what you want. Not only that, most French people are friendly and approachable and will want to help you as a guest in their country.
Naturally, some won’t be so overtly friendly – Parisians are often given as examples of this – but our own experience is fairly positive even in the Capital. There is no ‘prejudice’ against English speakers, or nationalities. Generally, even though an individual French person might not agree with American domestic or foreign policy, or be very impressed with McDonalds (there are 2,000 McDonalds in France alone), they won’t hold you personally responsible!
Try out your French
France is an historic and culturally rich nation, proud of its heritage and its language. Making even the slightest effort to learn and speak a bit of French is much appreciated. Considering that at least 50% of the English language is nearly the same as French and many words have simply been adopted (eg le week-end, stop, information, table, picnic, chauffeur…) it’s not too difficult to master the basics.
Don’t be shy – pucker up
The same goes for manners (‘la politesse‘), which are important too, and include shaking hands when meeting practically anyone (including friends), cheek kissing (each side) and saying ‘bonjour’ on entering a shop, a post-office and many other spaces that may ‘belong’ to someone (even a narrow street). These courtesies are expected and go a long way towards good communication (another bi-lingual word) and making friends.
Passing Through History
In times past, towns, villages and cities were founded near water, upon rivers and on the hills next to rivers, for reasons of trade, communication and defence. So travelling along the waterways not only takes you through beautiful countryside but also directly into the heart of French culture and history. Forget about being bussed around or chivied by tour guides – on a boat, you’ve got the ringside seat!
French History – with an American spotlight!
2,000 Years Ago
- From about 100 BC the Romans overpowered a land populated by Gauls – the original French people. After the Romans left it was the Franks (from the east side of the River Rhine) who stepped in to occupy the power vacuum. Hence ‘France’.
1,000 Years Ago
- The Normans who invaded Britain in 1066 under William the Conqueror would not have considered themselves French – neither the nation nor the identity existed then. Up until Louis 9th (‘Saint Louis’) France was a fractured collection of mutually antagonistic states.
- A significant development occurred in the context of the Hundred Years War (1328 – 1453) between an increasingly unified France and an England whose royal territory included Aquitaine in the south-west of France. In spite of famous victories such as Agincourt the English eventually lost all the territory of France, except for Calais and the Channel Islands.
500 Years Ago
- The Protestant Reformation spread through France from about 1550 but was ruthlessly suppressed in the ’Wars of Religion’. By 1630 the Protestant Huguenots had been defeated and many dispersed throughout Europe, including England.
- Up until the Revolution (1792) most of the population was impoverished peasantry working on the land. The King’s authority was dispersed through the Aristocracy, each of whom had their own lands and military forces; the equally rich Catholic Church exercised huge power. Most ordinary people only spoke their local dialect and most never ventured beyond neighbouring villages, if at all. Brittany was considered a Celtic backwater and most Bretons did not consider themselves French.
- An understanding of the geographical nature of France as a whole, the regions, their features and their differences, was almost non-existent. Maps were similarly sketchy.
300 Years Ago
- By 1770 France had effectively lost much of its first colonial empire but was equally capable of inspiring and encouraging American independence from the British. France also became a center of ‘Enlightenment’ thought, culture and scientific application.
- At the same time the kingdom was near-bankrupt, with the peasantry enduring starvation conditions. King Louis 16th sought to impose taxation on both the Church and the Nobility for the first time, but this was rejected and the discontented ‘Third Estate’ (the bourgeoisie) made moves to improve their situation. Stability started to unravel and Paris erupted in chaos, with the hated symbol of the Bastille stormed by the mob on 14th July 1789. Over the course of the next ten years some order was recreated; along the way the King was beheaded but so also were key revolutionary leaders, such as Robespierre. Both the Church and the nobility were removed from any effective role in French society.
- French social and philosophical initiatives, such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man, meant that France was as admired for her freedoms as she was reviled for her persecutions.
France and America : Revolution, Independence and The Rights of Man
In 1776 the U.S Congress declared independence and in 1778 France became the first U.S ally when she signed a Treaty of commerce and support for the newly emerging country. A number of French fought alongside Americans in the revolutionary war of which the most noteworthy were Admiral Rochambaud and the Comte de Grasse, who were at Yorktown, and the Marquis de Lafayette who supported George Washington at Valley Forge. Significantly, the end of the conflict and the confirmation of independence from Britain were marked by the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Lafayette remained in America for the next four years, a close friend of Washington, Hamilton and Jefferson. When Lafayette died in 1834 he was buried in Paris under soil from Bunker Hill as the ‘Hero of the Two Worlds’.
Thomas Jefferson represented the United States in France from 1784 to 1789. During his time he travelled throughout the country and became an enthusiast for the French canal network, visiting and writing about the Canal du Midi in 1787. He and Lafayette were closely aligned during the revolutionary year of 1789 and he collaborated with Lafayette in composing the Declaration of the Rights of Man. This unique statement was to be reformulated by Eleanor Roosevelt and Nobel Prize Winner Jules Cassin 160 years later and the world signed the U.N Declaration of Rights in 1948.
- A successful Corsican general, Napoleon Bonaparte was permitted to seize power in 1799 and his reign saw both military success (Austerlitz) and failure (Moscow), ultimately to end at Waterloo in 1815 by British and Prussian forces. Napoleon’s social legacy is more enduring, with the French state centralised and her law and taxation system comprehensively codified.
200 Years Ago
- The nineteenth century saw instability and change in France, as throughout Europe, but the country gradually became more modern in appearance, with a network of canals then being replaced by railways and roads and increasing industrialisation. France was still an overwhelmingly agricultural nation however, although fast changing.
- The first of a calamitous succession of wars happened in 1870 when Prussia (Germany) invaded and reached the outskirts of Paris. France surrendered and lost Alsace. However the following forty plus years up until 1914 (the ‘Belle Epoque’) were a time of French resurgence, confidence and prosperity.
France and America : Louisiana and the Statue of Liberty
In 1803 the United States agreed the 828,000 square mile Louisiana Purchase from France thereby doubling the country’s land area.
The strength of the bond between America and France was signalled in 1886 when one of the world’s most recognised symbols of justice and freedom – the Statue of Liberty – was created in France by sculptor Bartholdi and engineer Eiffel and presented to the people of the United States.
The US returned the gesture with a more modest-sized copy, positioned on an island in the Seine by the Eiffel Tower, three years later.
100 Years Ago
- France became the chief but almost unwitting victim of European dynastic aggression, sparked in the Balkans, when Germany invaded in 1914. The First World War was fought in the most unimaginable conditions in Northern France by millions of German, French, British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealander, Indian and, from 1917, American soldiers. The consequences were catastrophic; France lost 1.4 million (dead), five times that number were injured and the country’s economy was devastated.
France and America : The Jazz Age, Hungry Thirties and The Warring Forties
Fine artists from America had moved to work in Paris from the late 1800s onwards but the inter-war years – the 1920s and 1930s – saw an immense flowering of American talent there, including the very popular black dancer Josephine Baker and writers Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner.
The inter-war years were years of Depression, as elsewhere in the world, and once again France was the primary object of German aggression when she was overwhelmed by Nazi forces in 1940. ‘Vichy’ French collaboration with the invaders was matched by French resistance at home, led by Jean Moulin and organisation abroad under General de Gaulle. Summer 1944 saw both the Allied Normandy landings and the Provençal landings that included Free French troops.
American and Canadian soldiers played as critical a role in ending the Second World War as they did the First. Many French towns and city roads are named after Wilson, Roosevelt and Eisenhower (and Churchill and of course, de Gaulle) – as well as Franklin and Jefferson.
French Cuisine, French Wine – Bon Appetit!
Good food and good wine can be found everywhere in France.
- The very highest level of international cuisine at 5 star hotels and Michelin star restaurants, with the most innovative international celebrity chefs and the finest wines. France is where haute cuisine was developed by Carème and Escoffier and they have a reputation to maintain.
- Excellent simple, inexpensive food and wine at the local level, using locally grown ingredients, ‘plat du jour’ dishes and delicious local wines. Gorgeous fresh baked bread in abundance is just an everyday basic thing, from any boulangerie, just round the corner. Sometimes you’ll find a separate patisserie in town to tempt you an astonishing selection of pastries, tartes and gateaux for afternoon tea.
A passion for fresh produce
France is rich in countryside and is still an agrarian economy, taking pride in producing fresh produce for its culinary traditions. Its climate provides a long growing season, its waterways sufficient irrigation and its sunshine a bountiful harvest for its global trade in early fruit and vegetables, and for its famous brands of prunes (Agen), mustard (Maille) and wines (Chateauneuf du Pape, for example). Local markets take place every day of the week in cities, towns and villages across the country.
Cheese please Louise
There are over 350 types of cheese made in France, many of them very local indeed, and others, like Roquefort and Brie are world renowned. The cheese platter, offering a variety of local and well-known cheeses, is always a menu item but cooked dishes using cheese as an ingredient are plentiful.
Meat and poultry, fish and sea-food and good beer, cider, champagne, brandy and liqueurs….all have their origins in certain quite distinct regions of France.
[You’ll notice in the map below that Chablis is a wine growing region in the northern part of Burgundy. Far from being known as an ordinary everyday white wine in the USA, it’s an outstanding region and its particular mineral rich soils produce fine Premier Cru wines.]
Each region of France has its own traditional cuisine based around what is best grown on its pastures, hillsides or coastlines. One of the great joys on visiting France is to take your time in discovering the local dishes and visiting the locations where the ingredients are grown, harvested and created into delicious produce to buy at the markets or order in restaurants. You won’t go far wrong if you eat where the locals eat.
Well-being :: Safety and Personal Care
Personal Safety in France
The world has experienced troubled times recently and France, like America, Australia and Germany, has not been immune to some shocking acts of violence. And, as in any other country that attracts huge numbers of tourists every year, it’s possible to become the victim of petty crime such as pick-pocketing.
All that said, we would offer these very relevant comments:
- Although they hit the headlines because of their appalling nature, violent acts are very rare (one is more likely to be injured by falling furniture, apparently). One now sees armed French police studiously patrolling obvious locations like airports and train stations.
- France is a country that has immense pride in its tolerance and civilised conduct. Politeness and good manners are something all children are actively taught and expected to show to each other and to outsiders. For example, angry French guys (‘mecs‘) might well shout at one another but they hardly ever land a punch; it is just ‘not done’ and is punished severely.
- Because of France’s history you might well see people of Algerian or North African descent from time to time; for example Muslim ladies with head scarves and maybe caftans. They are a small, accepted and stable ingredient in French society.
- Paris, along with some of the other bigger French cities, are natural honey pots for visitors and inevitably those that see tourists as easy targets. However, it is easy to take some simple common sense precautions and become more discreet, careful and street-wise about things.
Outside of the cities, on and around the waterways, France is quiet, safe and very welcoming, especially to overseas visitors. Try to speak just a little basic French – the effort is recognised and appreciated. France is also a very safe place for single and LGBT travellers.
Drinking The Water in France
Bottled water is sold in huge quantities throughout France but we never buy it and over the last 15 years we can cheerfully attest to the complete safety of just plain ordinary tap water. Private companies like Veolia and Suez Water are major municipal water providers in France, and also in the USA!
Rest-rooms (‘toilettes’ or ‘sanitaires‘) are easily found, either as well-kept public facilities or within cafes and restaurants. They are, as one might expect, separately available for men (‘hommes’) and women (‘femmes’) but it is not unusual for each to open off a common washbasin lobby. French plumbing, despite some very ancient jokes, is easily the equal in style and modernity to any in the world.
Healthcare in France
Like other countries, France uses taxation to fund health care for residents but unlike Britain, for example, France incorporates an insurance system. The system is complex, with allowances that vary depending on a person’s status, and procedures that can be overly bureaucratic, but the benefits are outstanding in delivery and quality.
This is a mixed system with the bulk of cover coming from State assurance, and top-up cover coming from mutuelles or private health care insurance companies. All medical facilities are part of the State system but the patient is free to choose their own doctors, dentists, specialists, medical facility or hospital. All residents in France are accordingly obliged by law to have health insurance. Most qualify for the state health insurance (sécurité sociale); in local terms, this means affiliating to the CPAM or Caisse Primaire d’Assurance Maladie.
If you need a doctor when you visit France you’ll probably find that his/her services and any treatment you need is much cheaper that it would be in the USA and elsewhere. Check your medical and travel insurances before you leave so that you know precisely what’s covered.
Distances in France
France (known informally as the ‘the Hexagon’) is about the size of Texas.
Regions of France
One of the great delights of France is her rich variety –
- Variety of geography and environment (including variety of canal and river scenery).
- Variety of history, custom and culture.
- Variety of produce, cuisine and wine.
Seine Region – Paris, Champagne and Marne
There are many reasons for choosing a vacation in northern France. Visitors may want to retrace history at the World War I battlefields and museums of the Somme; others prefer the charm of Picardy, known for its Flemish architecture, Gothic art and magnificent religious monuments and abbeys.
Further south, the River Seine links the departments of the Ile-de-France around Paris, passing former royal palaces, nursery-rhyme cottages and picturesque gardens. Visitors might choose to combine a river cruise with a hotel stay in Paris to enjoy shopping and exploring the city sights before returning to the tranquillity of these rural waterways.
– [below] In the region: Paris, Reims, Epernay, La Ferte-sous-Jouarre, Meaux, the Marne –
North East Region – Alsace
Tucked away in the north-east corner of France, the waterways in these regions enjoy a backdrop of the Vosges Mountains. A network of rivers including the River Meuse with its breathtaking cliffs and the broad River Moselle are complemented by scenic canals. The Canal Marne au Rhin with its castles and windmills offers a pleasant cruise between historic Nancy and Hockfelden, famous for its gastronomy and beer.
This area retains its German influences, clearly evidenced in the architecture and hearty regional cuisine. Delicious meals are sure to include tasty Ardennes hams, German sauerkraut and local sugar cakes.
Burgundy Region – The Ouche Valley and Dijon
The historic Burgundian region brings together everything that a waterborne holiday should have: historic towns with distinctive architecture, attractive countryside teeming with wildlife and Michelin starred restaurants which are a gastronomic delight. Charolais beef, freshwater fish, snails, local cheese and Bresse poultry all feature high in local dishes. Burgundy gave its name to world famous wines and the Cote d’Or is particularly well-known for its vineyards, offering the chance to sample and buy delectable wines at source.
– [below] In the region: Vandenesse-en-Auxois, Canal de Bourgogne, Longecourt, Burgundy Route des Vins, Dijon –
Central Region – Loire Valley – Nivernais – North Burgundy
The Loire region was where French kings chose to build their most sumptuous chateaux, and visitors will quickly appreciate why. Castles, gardens, follies and monuments grace this area of stunning natural beauty. Historic waterfront towns, red-roofed churches, lush meadows and productive vineyards add to the pleasure of any cruising holiday, along with delicious gastronomy and excellent Sancerre wines.
What better way to experience Loire-Centre than by barge or riverboat, cruising between historic sights? The Nivernais Canal is said to be one of the most beautiful canals in France while the River Yonne has its own delights. The towns of Sens, Joigny, Clamency and Auxerre with its Gothic Cathedral are just some of the attractions of this scenic region, each with their own character and history.
– [below] In the region: Ancy-le-Franc, the Burgundy Canal, Fontainebleau, Tanlay, Vezelay –
– [below] In the region: Auxerre, the Canal du Nivernais, Bazoches –
– [below] In the region: Briare, Moret-sur-Loing (Alfred Sisley),, Sully –
South-East Region – The Saone and Rhone
The Saone is one of the most attractive rivers in France: wide, sleepy and unhurried, it wends its way from the mountains of the Vosges to the Rhone, linking up with the Burgundy Canal, the River Doubs and the Rhone au Rhine Canal and passing through delightful countryside replete with wildlife – herons, kites and the pale Charolais cattle that come down to the waterside to drink. Macon offers an ideal base for discovering the Beaujolais – a rolling crest of hills famous for the production of light red wine, or if you prefer fuller Burgundy reds then a rendezvous at Clos Vougeot will provide ample opportunity for tasting.
The River Rhone rises in the Swiss Alps and is joined by the Saone at Lyon becoming one of Europe’s major waterways, heading due South for the Mediterranean Sea. Voyagers along the river pass by the vineyards of the Cotes du Rhone and Chateauneuf du Pape, visiting memorable and famous towns such as Valence, Viviers (a beautiful hilltop medieval village overlooking the river), Avignon (the Bridge and the Pope’s Palace) and finally Arles (where Van Gogh created his most iconic sun-drenched paintings).
– [below] In the region: Chalon-sur-Saone, Macon, Beaune, Van Gogh/Arles, Avignon, Pont du Gard –
South Region – Camargue and Mediterranean Coast
Cruising is the natural way to explore this area between land and sea, from the Camargue Delta northwards along the Rhone and Lez rivers. This beautiful area combines a sunny Mediterranean climate with culture, history and an abundance of nature.
Cut off from the sea by sandbars, the reed-covered marshes of the Camargue natural park are teeming with over 350 species of waterbirds. Greater flamingos, wild black bulls and Camargue horses are just some of the wildlife which the area is famous for. Further inland, the reed marshes give way to river-fed plains, cultivated farmland and historical towns with pleasing medieval architecture.
– [below] In the region: Sete, Mediterranean, Camargue, Van Gogh/Arles, Avignon, Pont du Gard, Aigues-Mortes –
South Region – Midi-Languedoc
Bordering the western Mediterranean coast, Languedoc-Roussillon and the Midi-Pyrenees offer a sunny climate, a variety of landscapes, beautiful cities and traces of ancient civilisations from the Greeks to the Cathars. This is France’s most productive wine-producing region and is perfect when teamed with the local oysters and seafood. Wine tours, fortified cities, canalside restaurants and old port towns can all be appreciated at this slower pace of life. The Canal de Midi is ideal for both experienced and novice cruisers with a range of sights, historic attractions and superb wildlife along the way.
– [below] In the region: Minervois, Minerve, Canal du Midi, Beziers, Narbonne, Carcassonne –
South-West Region – Aquitaine
The southwest corner of France is a network of scenic rivers and waterways carrying passengers effortlessly from one attractive place to the next. Discover cities rich in history such as Vianne with its colourful glasswork, the Abbey at Moissac and the chateau at Buzet-sur-Baise. All the culture and architecture is enhanced with the region’s rich gourmet cuisine and fine wines.
West Region – Brittany
The western corner of France has kilometres of waterways devoted purely to pleasure cruising. It boasts one of the best-equipped river and canal networks in France with many ports and locks operated by lock-keepers. Rennes is the worthy capital of Brittany, with grand manor houses and imposing government buildings. The 12th century turreted chateau at Josselin, one of the area’s landmarks, overlooks the River Oust. Traditionally costumed locals, half-timbered houses, turreted castles, tasty crepes and Guenrouet cider all showcase the distinctive Breton culture. Many towns and villages display the coveted “ville fleurie” award for their floral displays and gardens.
– [below] In the region: Canal Nantes-Brest, Josselin, Redon, Rennes, Nantes, Rochefort-en-Terre, La Gacilly, Dinan –
Getting to France, Getting around France
Getting to France from the USA and Canada
Many North American cities have direct flights into Paris CDG (Charles de Gaulle) one of the world’s major airports.
|Salt Lake City||Philadelphia||Washington DC|
*There are also direct flights from Montreal to Bordeaux and Toulouse, plus many one-stopover routes (eg at CDG or London Heathrow) reach those cities.
Travelling Within France
France has one the world’s most developed transport infrastructure networks. Railways, roads and airways are all of a very high standard and also – naturally – France has Europe’s biggest network of navigable waterways.
The Airways Network within France
There is a big national airway network, with well over 200 airports of varying sizes. Paris has three airports – le Bourget (the oldest, now used almost exclusively for private planes), Orly (to the south of Paris, mainly continental European flights) and Charles de Gaulle (north east of Paris and one of the world’s biggest and busiest international hubs).
Major cities such as Toulouse and Bordeaux have airports (Toulouse is currently anticipating the arrival of transatlantic services) but more minor cities and large towns like Carcassonne and Bergerac also have airports, usually with budget carriers like RyanAir, EasyJet and Flybe, offering flights from the UK, much in evidence. Within France Volotea offers a good range of provincial city-to-city flights at reasonable prices.
The French Railway Network
There is a total of 31,939 km of railway lines in France, mostly operated by SNCF, the French national railway company. Starting in 1981, 1,800 km of high speed services have been developed, connecting France’s major cities and 1994 saw the opening of the Channel Tunnel rail link between France and Great Britain. The French high speed train, the TGV (train a grand vitesse) has set many world speed records, the most recent in 2007, when a new version of the TGV dubbed the V150 broke the world speed record for conventional railway trains, reaching 575 km/h (357 mph).
A slight step down from the impressive sophistication of the TGV, Corail trains serve as the basic ‘trunk railway’ service between towns, divided into Corail Teoz (daytime) and Corail Lunea (night-time). Corail carriages represented a major improvement, unmatched in Europe, when they were first introduced in 1975 and (having been modernised starting in 1995) they still provide pretty good air-conditioned comfort.
Buying tickets on whichever network is straightforward, whether in person at a station (using a ticket machine or at a ticket desk) or online.
After rail tickets have been issued they must be validated for the journey by ‘composting‘ them – outside each platform is a small yellow box into which the ticket is inserted and which then punches a code. An onboard conductor may check your ticket and will not be pleased if you’ve forgotten to do this. TGV and Corail tickets are issued with seat reservations – a digital display diagram of the train will appear before the train arrives indicating the carriage numbering, making it easy to find one’s own seat.
In general, French trains are outstandingly quiet and comfortable, especially the TGV trains, even if you don’t elect to travel first-class. Naturally, the Metro is a slightly different case . .
Paris has a world-famous Metro system that not only includes 14 electric underground train lines and 300 stations, but also the Parisian RER city-suburban express train network (5 lines, 246 stations) (< left) that interlinks with it and which was constructed between 1962 and 1977.
A significant number of French cities also have their own underground, light rail, or overground tram systems, including Lyon, Marseilles, Montpellier, Bordeaux and Rouen.
You can hail a taxi in the street and cab ranks (station de taxi) are usually to be found outside railway stations, at airports and at main junctions in towns and cities. At some a button is provided to call a taxi and you can also summon a taxi by telephone but you must pay for the cab’s journey to the pick-up point.
Parisian taxis are among the cheapest in Europe and are ordinary cars fitted with a meter and a light on top. Although there are around 15,000 taxis in Paris, it’s often difficult to find one, particularly during lunch times and rush hours and when it’s raining. Outside major towns, taxis can be expensive. Note that taxis in rural areas often double as ambulances, so you might see a taxi-driver wearing a white coat.
Rates are displayed on the meter inside the taxi, and extra charges are shown on a notice affixed to the rear left window. These include pick-up charges, pick-ups at main railway stations and airports, luggage heavier than 5kg, a fourth adult and pets. Waiting time is charged at over €25 per hour. Taxi drivers cannot claim a return fare, whatever the destination. It’s customary to round fares up to the nearest euro and add a tip of around 10 to 15 per cent (more at night). Note that very few Paris taxi drivers accept credit cards or cheques.
There is also a significant Uber network in France cities and you can also hire chauffeur-driven cars (voiture avec chauffeur) in most towns and cities, either by the hour or for a fixed fee for a particular trip.
French Road Network
France has an excellent road transport network, ranging from the smallest rural C and D class roads, through to the modern national-international autoroute (freeway) system (< map left). Autoroutes are primarily toll roads, except where they go past cities. At the beginning of a toll section a ticket (‘le ticket‘) is collected and this is subsequently fed into a machine reader or scanned by a toll booth operator to determine the charge – which is most easily and very quickly settled by credit card.
In recent decades French drivers have shed their former wild reputation in favour of a more sensible and considered attitude (they remain instinctive overtakers on ordinary roads) but if you dawdle in an outside lane you will experience aggressive tailgating and headlight flashing if not worse; and do not inconvenience big lorries because they too will give you a terrifying ‘lesson’, driving at speed extremely close to your back bumper.
To and From the UK
The Channel Tunnel works very well from both foot passenger and vehicle points of view. For vehicles, the UK ‘Eurotunnel’ departure point is near Folkestone on the M20 motorway (freeway) and there are up to three vehicle shuttle trains per hour to Calais. Having driven onto the shuttle carriage one can get out and walk around, although there is nothing to see and the journey lasts just 35 minutes and with disembarkation also very quick. The French end also connects conveniently and easily direct into the autoroute (freeway) network. The tunnel can officially be used to bring dogs and other pets back into the UK under the PETS scheme, as can the major sea ferries (map below).
Planning a European Itinerary?
A vacation cruising the French waterways could be the ideal starting-point for some further exploration of La Belle France, the Glory That Was Rome, Dublin’s Fair City, Swinging London or any of the other must-see places scattered across Western Europe.
Electricity in France
France (like the rest of Europe) operates on 220-240v. Quite a few modern devices are designed to work at either 110-120v or 220-240v (check the label) but some aren’t and it is dangerous to connect a 120v-only device to the higher voltage.
French electrical socket outlets have two holes and one ground/earth pin. Some low-power-only outlets omit the pin.
French plugs, naturally enough, have two pins and one hole. Similarly, low power items (for example table lights) just have the two pins.
US/CA format adaptors (step-down transformers are also available) are best purchased back home, or at an airport shop.
The Time in France
France is in the Central European time zone (CET) which is one hour ahead (+1 hr) of UK time and adopts a Daylight Saving adjustment (+1 hr) during the summer months (end of March to end of October). Above time differences are approximate only, dependent on FR and US/CA summer time changes. > click for Current time in France <
Cellphones (mobile phones) are correctly called ‘portables‘ in French but ‘mobile‘ is also understood and used by many network operators. There are three main networks – SFR, Orange and Bouygues – of which SFR probably provides the biggest and fastest service. All networks use the pan-European 900-1800 band frequency GSM specification. North American providers have historically not used those frequencies but some are now supplying tri-band phones that work in Europe also.
As you might expect, using a US or CA provider whilst ‘roaming’ in France is likely to be expensive. If your phone is unlocked or you get it unlocked it will not be tied to the one provider and you’ll be able to buy and use a local French network SIM which is much cheaper. PAYG Pay-as-you-go SIMs are readily purchased at bigger French supermarkets, ‘sans abonnement‘ (without contract)
Calling French numbers from the US or Canada
French 10-digit cellphone numbers usually start 06- or 07-, landlines use other 0?- prefixes.
- 011 33 then the French number, but omitting that initial French zero
Calling US or Canadian numbers from France
- 00 1 then the US/ number, but again omitting that initial zero
WiFi and Broadband in France
WiFi (pronounced ‘weefee‘ ) access to internet broadband is available for free at all international airports, within Paris, Lyon, Bordeaux, Marseille and Nice city areas and of course at food outlets such as McDonalds. Naturally, hotels and other places to stay provide WiFi as part of the service.
If you contract with SFR, the provider has an extensive nationwide network of free hotspots, available to subscribers.
Lyon and many other French towns and cities (Bordeaux, Montpellier, Sainte-Maxime, Arles, Hyères, La Baule and Mende, plus the ski resorts of Tignes, Les 2 Alpes, Morzine, Les Ménuires, St-Martin-de-Belleville, Avoriaz, Les Contamines, Auris-en-Oisans and Pralognan) offer a fee-paying service called HipPocketWiFi. Simply hire a small device from the tourist office, slip it into your pocket and get a fast 4G internet connection around town – even while you’re on a boat on the Rhône or Saône rivers in Lyon. You can connect up to 10 devices simultaneously.
If you need an internet connection without specific city services, Travel WiFi and My Webspot can rent you a mobile hotspot (also known as a ‘MiFi’), accessed through a pocket-sized mobile WiFi router. You’ll be connected from wherever you are in France with no roaming charges, and can support up to 10 devices simultaneously.
‘Snail’ Mail in France
The letter and packet mail provider in France is La Poste.
La Poste has an extensive network of post offices (‘bureaux de poste‘) throughout France, in both urban and rural areas; staff are usually helpful and friendly (but don’t forget to say Bonjour). Available services include postage stamps (current letter rate to US/CA is 1.30€) and tracked package services (‘Colissimo‘). You may need to figure out which counter to queue for.
You can also get letters and packages delivered to a convenient post office – mark them as
- Your Name
- Poste Restante, Bureau de Poste
- Address of the post office
Regional Departments in France
Introduced as an efficiency measure during the Revolution, mainland France is divided into 97 departements each of which has a two-digit number. Department numbers are used extensively as area codes (until recently as part of vehicle license plates) and it’s useful to know which one you’re in. Each town and village also has its number, the equivalent of a zip code.
So for example –
- 47 Lot-et-Garonne
(a Department within the wider Nouvelle Aquitaine region)
- 47260 Castelmoron-sur-Lot
(a village in Lot-et-Garonne)
Money and Banking in France
The unit of currency in France is the Euro. 1 Euro is divided into 100 centimes.
Visa and Mastercard Credit cards with PIN numbers are accepted almost everywhere and can also be used everywhere to obtain cash from cash machines (distributeurs de billet) many of which have an English language option. American Express is less widely recognised.
The less certain situation is at gas stations, many of which are unmanned and most of which are credit card operated outside normal hours. To use those card machines you will almost certainly need a ‘chip and pin‘ type card that has additional security features. Ask your bank if you don’t know if yours is that type.
The key French banks are
- CA Credit Agricole, which is actually a collection of regional banks all owned by CA.
- CA also owns LCL, which used to be known as Credit Lyonnais
- Caisse d’Epargne and Banque Populaire, which merged in 2009
- BNP Paribas
- Societe Generale
There are distinct advantages in opening a French bank account but negotiating the inevitable set of rules is not always straightforward. Like so much else in France, the best way is to obtain a personal introduction to an individual branch manager. A foreigner who is (or is going to be) resident in France for more than three months may open a French bank account (compte bancaire). A foreigner who is not (nor is planning to be) resident in France may open a non-resident’s account (compte non-résident). Documents required to open an account may vary but generally include proof of residential address (a recent utility bill) and proof of identity.
Apart from a French credit card, which you may or may not want, the usual portfolio of bank related items comprise:
- CB – Carte Bancaire / Carte Bleu – the debit card, used everywhere
- Cheques – are accepted as a cash payment. French law makes a cheque equivalent to cash; it is therefore illegal to write a cheque if there are not sufficient funds in the account to cover the payment.
- RIB – Relevé d’Identité Bancaire These are pre-printed tickets with your account details on, that you give to suppliers with whom you are entering a contract (for example a mobile phone network) and/or making regular bank transfer payments. Each ticket contains the numéro de compte (account number) the code de l’établissement (bank code) and the code du guichet (sort code).
Enjoying the French Waterways
If you look at the map, left, you’ll see the spider’s web of navigable rivers and canals that there is in Western Europe. There are 15,000 kilometres (10,000 miles) of navigable waterways in Europe, 8,000 of them in France. At an average leisurely speed of 5 kilometres an hour, maybe 30 kilometres a day allowing for locks and lunches, plus the days spent exploring all the fascinating places along the way and in extended stays in port, that means there’s many years of happy wandering waiting for you in France alone.
And the concentrated richness of scenery, history, culture, leisure and pleasure is such that even just a few weeks spent voyaging the canals and rivers of one small part of France is an experience you’ll never forget.
Taking a boat cruise through France’s inland waterways provides a privileged view of the beautiful countryside, the historic towns and cities – and of course, the people.
You proceed fairly slowly, sliding gently through the resonant green waters, with time to take it all in, to appreciate it. The wild-life, the details on the buildings, the passing scene of village life. People on bikes, cycling along the tow-path, overtake you then you catch up with them at some canal-side cafe or when they pause to watch the lock in operation. It is very unlike travelling by car – limited opportunities to stop, pressured by other traffic, and the outside world just a blur the other side of the window glass.
Luxury Hotel Barging in France
Hotel barges are elegant and supremely comfortable, converted from traditional vessels or created as cruising boutique hotels from new. They are large and stable so you’ll experience the smoothest of relaxing week-long vacations in high style.
- Expert captain and nimble deck matelot
- Professional masterchef creates fabulous cuisine
- Friendly, attentive English-speaking hostess and cabin staff
- Highly knowledgeable excursions and cruising route guide
These beautiful floating hotels are found on all the most desirable French waterways, cruising the most scenic routes. With a wide range of sizes, comfort levels and prices, you can be sure the perfect one is waiting just for you.
Self-drive Canal Boating in France
Whether you’re in your own boat, or on a holiday self-drive hire boat, or on a luxury hotel barge, you have the space and time to enjoy it all, at your own pace. You’re not packaged up with a bunch of other folks, who you may or may not get on with, following their agenda. A boat gives you your own travelling home, complete with fridge, kitchen sink, shower and a lot more, but without the hassle of motorways, tiring journeys, traffic jams, exhaust fumes and finding parking places. You can get up, walk around, pause someplace interesting. Boating gives you the gift of independence. The freedom to explore thousands of miles of waterway, threading through five nations – and more (< click to read our own diary accounts of travelling through France).
Boating on the rivers and canals is easy and comfortable, too. Learning the basics of controlling the boat and following the ‘rules of the road’ is straightforward and soon mastered. The boat is stable and the path smooth. It takes passing a few locks to perfect one’s technique, but thereafter they serve to punctuate the journey in a delightful way. Nearly all of them operate automatically in some way or have a lock-keeper to do the work – you will not need to become a Mr or Mrs Muscle!
In general terms, if you can control a car you can control a boat – on the inland waterways. Unlike setting sail at sea, you will not encounter foul weather, big waves, navigation or tidal calculations, heeling over and other somewhat frightening conditions. The boat will not bounce around or rock and you will not get sea-sick. About an hour’s careful tuition will give you the basics and you can build on this over the next day or so. You will be going relatively slowly and you’ll have time to think. Going through locks provides an interesting challenge but again once you’ve done a couple you’ll get your technique sorted out and your fenders correctly positioned – when you’ve done a few more you’ll be giving the newbies advice!
Cruising the Waterways – Friendships
Boats and waterways are the most amazing places for meeting people and making friends. If you imagine that, like being in a car or coach, you’d be isolated, lonely and cut off from the outside world, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
The first thing is that people seem to be more relaxed, have more time, floating along than they would otherwise. They want to give you a cheery wave, or give you a hand with your ropes, or tell you where the nearest boulangerie is. They’re friendlier.
The second thing is that you actually meet people, all the time. You don’t have to make much of an effort, or concoct excuses – it just happens. You happen to be sitting in your cockpit and someone goes by, walking their dog. A bright ‘good morning’ or ‘bonjour‘is followed by a little chat about the weather and before long it turns out their son is studying dentistry in the US, and they’ve visited him there, and that’s not far from your own home town . . . In France it is expected that one politely says Bonjour to whoever one happens to walk past (not in crowded towns, obviously) and they respond. It even happens in shops and post offices. Open the door, walk in and say Bonjour to everyone else.
The third thing is that everyone you meet actually boating has a boat. It might be a small one or a large one; basic or expensive; motor boat or barge – but the thing is, everyone’s in the ‘same boat’. Everyone knows well what it’s like, how good it is. So there’s an inherent understanding, empathy, fellow-feeling. People will help, unasked.
It’s like traditional small-town life from fifty or more years ago, but without the insularity – and with the opportunity to tie up right next to the Eiffel Tower or a world-renowned champagne house!
www.french-waterways.com is the world’s favorite website about the uniquely wonderful canals and rivers of France. We hope that you will be inspired by it, to come visit and enjoy.
We feature information about self-drive canal boats, hotel barge charters and small ship river cruises. You can be your own skipper and go your own way; – or sit back, relax and be treated like royalty; – or see France from the inside cruising along one of her great rivers in style and comfort.
That’s Quite a Choice
– but we can help you ! –
Every one of our information pages has been carefully crafted and written by us, from our own unique first hand-hand experience gained since 2003 – but we also understand that there’s nothing like speaking to a friendly expert to help see the wood for the trees and make the best possible decision about the vacation cruise of a lifetime.
So please, send us an Enquiry Form (below) or just pick up the phone and give us a call – (we’ll be on either French or UK time and we stay late to talk to our North American clients).
We have been cruising and exploring France aboard our own river boat since 2003. We love France, we love the rivers and canals of France, we love cruising along them – and we love talking about all three!
+33 609 740 064 -or- +44 7590 287 178
. . . friendly advice – expert guidance
Please use the form below as the first step to make a General Enquiry or Other Contact.
We will try to reply quickly – and to assist where we can. A copy of your message is sent to you.