Topics include Transportation, Things to Do, Dining Scene & more!
A Self drive experience from Paris to Strasbourg via Normandy, Loire Valley & Lorraine in October 2014 - 2 adults, 1 car, 4 weeks.
Car Hire - Best to hire a car from home well in advance. Most hire companies have early bird rates for 30 days or more inadvance. If you're not used to driving on the other side of the road its worth paying a little extra for an automatic.Choose from the compact range rather than the economy range for the added space (I.E. renault megane) however note that the economy range cars are smaller which are easier to manoeurve on the tight French country roads. French roads (except for the major highways) are quite narrow by Australian standards so be prepared to drive with very little clearance to the car travelling in the opposite direction. If you plan to drive in Paris - don't, you're just asking for heart ache. Public transport is quick, easy and pain free most of the time. If picking up the car at the airport on arrival, book into a hotel on the outskirts of Paris, park the car at the hotel and comute to see the sights of Paris before heading off to see the sights of the French country side.
A GPS is a great aide, bring your own from home but if not, be aware that most new European cars come with a GPS as standard so it's not necessary to pay the extra GPS hire at the time of reserving the car, it can be added later when collecting the car if needed. GPS is great for avoiding Toll roads however be aware that there are many minor roads between towns and checking for alternative routes is worthwhile when time is a factor. Be aware that most GPS's don't have the resolution needed to navigate the older, historic parts of towns, so its quite possible to get completely lost in a large historic town when relying solely on the GPS. Its always worth getting a local street map if you plan to sightsee for longer than a day - pick up at any hotel or Info centre or use on-line maps.
Weather - in October the temperature can vary from hot (27C) to cold (10C) during the day, rainy, windy and sunny days in one week were experienced during this trip. The average was around 18C and overcast. A scarf and coat were a must for most days. Umbrellas are cheap, pick one up at any supermarket if needed.
Clothes - For 4 weeks, a decision was made to limit clothing to 12 pieces each including shoes but not counting underwear & coats. This worked well since laudromats were easy to find in the larger towns. It's worth buying a small packet of laundry powder or liquid since not all laundromats (Laverie) provide the option to buy powder on site. Costs were pretty standard - 3.00 E for 7Kg machine cycle and 2.00 E for 10 min drying cycle. Layer your clothes because when it's cold outside it's usually hot inside and sweating under jumpers is mighty uncomfortable. Also if you're a little chunky and heat intolerant you'll appreciate the ability to peel off a layer to cool down quickly. For this reason cotton and cotton blends work best and stay fresher longer. Make sure all your clothes are machine washable and dryable if you wish to avoid dry-cleaning and hotel laundry costs.
Hotels - no need to book in advance when travelling in the first 2 weeks in Oct however French school holidays in the second week may mean popular spots are booked out, so some planning ahead might be needed. Invest in a Michelin hotel guide ahead of time or pick up a Logis guide at an Information centre as soon as possible - avoid large name brand hotels instead go for the small French owned hotels or gites. Be aware that the star rating system does not reflect the quality of the experience. i.e the small 2 star hotels were far superior in 'staying experience' and quality of breakfasts than the 3 star plus hotels. Many hotel owners/manager will be more than happy to show you a room before deciding to stay. Note that most hotels have showers over a bath tub so you will need to be able bodied enough to climb in & out of a tub to use the shower. Most small hotels do not have lifts so be prepared to haul your own luggage up and down steps that are often narrow and winding.
Breakfasts are standard and terrific French fare - croissant, pastries, bread, yoghurts, fruit, cereals, juices, coffee/tea, ham / cheese and very very cheap 5 - 6 E for help yourself or table service. If you're paying over 6 E person you're either in a large town or being ripped off if you're paying over 10 E. Hot breakfasts are not standard so don't expect bacon & eggs. Also don't expect coffee making facilities or bar fridge in-room, these are an exception rather than the rule.
Staying in the historic centre - most towns in France have a historical centre - this is where the roads are cobble stones and are more paths than roads and everythings is old and seductive and attractive. If you are tempted to stay in a hotel in these areas be aware that you will most likely not be able to drive or be driven to the front door of the hotel or gite or apartment. So pack as many bags as you're willing to carry to these lodgings. Many tourists have been caught out - expect to walk 500m or more in some places carrying your luggage.Cobble stones are tough on luggage rollers.
Wifi is free in all hotels - even the 1 & 2 star hotels. On this trip the worst wifi was experienced in a large 3 star hotel due to the many business travellers using the service. Wifi USB dongles are no longer available in France, instead you'll need to buy a mobile hotspot which can be expensive 69 E plus charges but may be worth it if you're a heavy user and want internet or email access 24/7. Otherwise there are many free Wifi hot spots throughout France (cafes, restaurants, shopping centres, McDonalds) these have no security so make sure you don't have any thing valuable on your device when using these. Telco outlets are in all the major towns Orange is very well priced over SFR for wifi. Sim cards can be picked up at Tabac's or supermarkets and are great for making cheap local calls for booking hotels etc.
Food -arguably the best place in the world for quality, cheap fantastic food. Restaurants are competitively priced and offer something for everyone. Always check out the 'formula' meals which offer, entree, main & desert for between 9 - 20 E depending on the town. Remember the main meal is at lunch time so do as the French do and have your main meal between 12 & 2pm. Meals b/w 2 & 6 pm are usually not available unless you're in a major tourist spot. Super markets are far far superior to anything remotely 'gourmet' in Australia. A great variety of food and wine can be bought cheaply. So think about buying bread, cheese, terrines & pate for your evening meal. A couple of sets of cutlery, picnic plates and a travelling kettle from home meant we could indulge in our passion for cheeses and terrines most nights.
Don't expect 'cafes' to resemble those in Australia - afternoon or morning coffee is served in bars and then its just coffee or tea and not cakes etc, the closest you'll come to an aussie cafe is the 'salon de the' or tea salon. These are terrific but vary from locality to locality, for instance they were hard to find in the Loire but were everywhere in Alsace. Patisseries and boulangeries are everywhere and filled with wonderful breads and cakes and pastries, it's not common for them to be sit-in though.
Tourist Attractions - Major attractions are opened all year except for French public holidays. Theatre and musical events usually stop at the end of September so check ahead. Plays & re-enactments put on at various Chateaus also stop at the end of September. Avoid travelling in August if possible, this is when the French go on holiday and travelling can be a nightmare, plus its hot and restaurants, shops etc can be closed.
Tourist Traps - the biggest has to be Place
du Tertre, Montmartre in Paris - go there by all means but don't get conned into an over priced portrait sketch by the street artists. No Parisian has coffee here! expect to pay 5 E for a 1E espresso! So unless you're prepared to pay steeply for the experience of sitting in the square and watching the world go by - which is very seductive - have coffee at the base of the basilica steps instead.
Bar & restaurant service can be lightening fast in Paris and other major towns - so don't be afraid to ask the waiter to slow down or to repeat themselves when taking your order since it can mean the difference between getting what you want or getting what they want to give you. some will grumble but its not the norm, most service is speedy but good.
have a good trip!