FRANCE - Travel and Country Information
The French wrote the book on la vie en rose and gave the world champagne and camembert, de Beauvoir and Debussy, the Tour de France and the Tour Eiffel. There's a term for their seductive lifestyle - Douce France (Sweet France) and you'll find yourself using it often.
Although the ubiquity of Levis and Le Big Mac flusters the country's cultural purists, anything from a year in Provence to a weekend in Paris will explain why half the world grows dreamy over stalking Cyrano's streets or picnicking Manet-style sur l'herbe.
Central European Time: GMT +1 hours
Area (sq km) : 547030
Quick Money Comparison
Small bottle of water: £0.35
Filled baguette: £4.00
Litre of petrol: £1.10
Rental of small canal boat per week: £1200
Hostel bed in Paris with breakfast: £18.00
Develop 36 exposure film: £18.00
Ten-minute taxi ride: £10.00
Bottle of cheap wine: £4.00
Croissant & café au lait: £2.50
Public Holidays In France
1 January - New Year's Day
Late March/April - Easter Sunday & Monday
1 May - May Day
8 May - Victoire 1945
Ascension Day - mid-May-mid-June
7th Sunday after Easter - Pentecost/Whit Sunday & Whit Monday
14 July - Bastille Day/National Day
15 August - Assumption Day
1 November - All Saints' Day
11 November - Remembrance Day
25 December - Christmas
When Best To Visit France
Spring offers the best weather to visitors, with beach tourism picking up in May. Temperatures aren't too bad in autumn, although the short days mean limited sunlight and the cold starts to make itself felt towards the end of the season, even along the Côte d'Azur.
Winter means playing in the snow in France's Alps and Pyrenees, though the Christmas school holidays send hordes of tadpoles in uniform scurrying for the slopes.
Mid-July through to the end of August is when most city dwellers take their annual five weeks' vacation to the coasts and mountains, and the half-desolate cities tend to shut down a bit accordingly. The same happens during February and March.
Activities In France
From the snowy peaks, rivers, lakes and canyons of the Alps to the striking mountains and volcanic peaks of the Massif Central – not to mention 3,000km (1864mi) of coastline from the Mediterranean to the Straits of Dover – France's stunning scenery lends itself to adventure sports and exhilarating outdoor activities of all kinds.
The French are a festive bunch, with many cities hosting music, dance, theatre, cinema or art events each year. Rural villages hold fairs and fetes, which celebrate everything from local saints to agricultural progress.
Prominent national days off in France are May Day (1 May), when people trade gifts of muguet (lily of the valley) for good luck; and Bastille Day (14 July), which is celebrated by throwing firecrackers at friends.
Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in Provence is the venue for a colourful gypsy festival in late May honouring Sarah, patron saint of the gypsies. Enthusiastic singing and dancing characterise this extravaganza.
Regional events include the primping and preening prêt à porter fashion show in Paris (early February); the glittering and often-canned Cannes Film Festival (mid-May); the International Music Festival in Strasbourg (first three weeks of June); the mainstream and fringe theatre of the Festival d'Avignon (mid-July to mid-August) and the Jazz Festival in Nancy (mid-Oct).
The most popular regional events that will be of interest to visitors and tourists in France are:-
Fêtes de Bayonne July: Bullfighting, cow-chasing and Basque music are the order of the day at Bayonne's biggest event.
May Day 01 May: Across France, the workers' day is celebrated with trade union parades, and diverse protests. People give each other muguet (lilies of the valley) for good luck. No one works – except waiters and muguet sellers.
International Film Festival: Mid MayThe international film festival, held in Cannes each year, attracts the cream of the film-making world.
Braderie de Lille: SepThree days of madness and mussel-munching as this colossal flea market engulfs Lille with antiques, handicrafts and bric-a-brac.
Festival Interceltique July: This massive event pulls hundreds of thousands of Celts to Lorient from all over Brittany and the UK for a massive celebration of their shared Celtic culture. For more info see www.festival-interceltique.com.
Fête de la Musique 21 June: Bands, orchestras, crooners, buskers and spectators take to the streets for this national celebration of music. Visit www.fetedelamusique.culture.fr for local details.
Best Places To go Visit In France
- Pont d'Avignon
Boulevard de la Ligne Call for info: 04 90 27 51 16Apr-May, Oct-Nov 09:00-19:00, Jul-Sep 09:00-16:00, Nov-Mar 09:30-17:45
Admission: full €3.50 concession €3.00
- Musée Claude Monet
84 rue Claude Monet Call for info: 02 32 51 28 21Apr-Oct: Tue-Sun 09:30-18:00
The Musée Claude Monet was Monet’s home and studio. The hectare of land that Monet owned has become two distinct areas. The northern part is the Clos Normand where Monet’s famous pastel pink and green house and the Water Lily studio stand, surrounded by the symmetrically laid-out gardens. Through the tunnel is the resplendent Jardin d’Eau (Water Garden).
Admission: full €5.50 child €3
- Musée National Message Biblique Marc-Chagall
36 ave de Dr Menard Call for info: 04 93 53 87 20Jul-Sep: Wed-Mon 10:00-18:00
Housing the largest public collection of works by the Russian painter Marc Chagall (1887-1985), the museum was built in 1972 to hold the Biblical Message Cycle, a collection of 17 enormous canvases inspired by the Old Testament. Chagall's style is nothing short of magical; brightly coloured goats, violins and floating humans.
Admission: full €6.70 concession €5.20
- Cathédrale de Notre Dame de Paris
place du Parvis Notre Dame Call for info: (01) 42 34 56 10Mon-Fri 08:00-18:45, Sat-Sun 08:00-19:45
This is the heart of the city, a French Gothic masterpiece and the focus of Catholic Paris for seven centuries. Built on a site occupied by earlier churches – and, a millennium before, a Gallo-Roman temple – it was begun in 1163 and completed in the 14th century. Distances from Paris to every part of France are measured from place du Parvis Notre Dame.
- Château de Versailles
Call for info: 01 30 83 78 00Nov-Mar: Tue-Sun 09:00-17:30, Apr-Oct: Tue-Sun 09:00-18:30
Paris' leafy and trés bourgeois suburb of Versailles is home to the grandest and most famous chateau in Europe. It's the site of the most important treaty in the history of the modern Western world and its corridors also witnessed Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette being ignominously dragged back to Paris for a spot of head-lopping.
- Château de Chambord
Call for info: 02 54 20 34 6902 54 50 50 02Apr-Sep: 09:00-18:15; Oct-Mar: 09:00-17:15
The Loire Valley was the playground of French nobility, who used the nation's wealth to transform the area with many earnestly extravagant chateaux. The largest and most lavish is the Château de Chambord (1519). It was built by King François I, a rapacious lunatic who was fanatically dishonest with his subjects' money.
Admission: full €7.00 concession €4.50 child €free
- Chateau d'If
Call for info: 04 91 59 02 30Sep-Mar: 09:00-18:00, Jun-Aug: 09:00-18:30
A 20-minute ferry ride from Vieux Port, this 16th-century fortress-turned-prison was made infamous by Alexandre Dumas' classic work of fiction, The Count of Monte Cristo. Among the people incarcerated here were all sorts of political prisoners, the Revolutionary hero Mirabeau, the rebels of 1848 and the Communards of 1871.
Admission: full €5.00 concession €3.50
- Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux
rue de Nesmond Call for info: 02 31 51 25 50May-Aug: 09:00-19:00; mid-Mar-Apr, Sep-Oct: 09:00-18:30; Nov-mid-May: 09:30-12:30, 14:00-18:00
Every schoolchild dreams of seeing, in real life, the world-famous Bayeux Tapestry recounting the dramatic story of the Norman invasion and the events that led up to it (from the Norman perspective). It is housed in the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux along with other treasures of the region.
Admission: full €6.40 concession €2.60
- Abbaye du Mont St-Michel
Call for info: 02 33 89 80 00May-Sep 09:00-19:00, Oct-Apr 09:30-18:00
It’s difficult not to be impressed with your first sighting of the massive abbey, a soaring ensemble of buildings in a hotchpotch of architectural styles. The abbey (80m/262ft above the sea) is topped by a slender spire with a gilded copper statue of Michael the Archangel slaying a dragon. At night the whole structure is brilliantly illuminated.
Admission: full €7 concession €4.50
- Eiffel Tower
Champ de Mars 76 Call for info: 01 44 11 23 23
The Tour Eiffel faced massive opposition from Paris' artistic and literary elite when it was built for the 1889 Exposition Universelle (World Fair), marking the centenary of the Revolution. It was almost torn down in 1909 but was spared because it proved an ideal platform for the transmitting antennas needed for the new science of radiotelegraphy
Tours of France, both country and city, including to all of the above attractions are able to be booked online in advance at greatly reduced prices.
Getting There and Away
Air France and scores of other airlines link Paris with every section of the globe. Other French cities with international air links (mainly to places within Europe) include Bordeaux, Lyon, Marseille, Nice, Strasbourg and Toulouse.
In France, Europe and the UK, inexpensive flights offered by discount airlines and charter clearing houses can be booked through many regular travel agents online by clicking here.
If you are doing a lot of travel around Europe, look for discount bus and train passes, which can be combined with discount airfares.Buses are slower and less comfortable than trains, but they are cheaper, especially for people under 26, over 60, teacher and students.
Rail services link France with every country in Europe; schedules are available from major train stations in France and abroad. You can book tickets and get information from Rail Europe up to two months ahead.
Tickets for ferry travel to/from the UK, Channel Islands and Ireland are available from most travel agencies in France or by clicking here. In some cases, return fares cost less than two one-way tickets.
French Trains & Railways
Paris is the country's main rail hub, with services to/from every part of Europe. The completion of the Channel Tunnel in 1994 has meant travel between England and France - on the silent, ultra-modern Eurostar rail service - is now quick and hassle-free.
Bus Travel In France
Paris is the country's main bus hub, with services to/from every part of Europe. Buses are slower and less comfortable than trains, but they are cheaper, especially if you qualify for the 10% discount available to people under 26 or over 60 or hunt around for discount fares. The Chunnel has high-speed shuttle trains that whisk coaches from England to France.
Ferries To France
By sea, the quickest passenger ferries and hovercrafts to England run between Calais and Dover, and Boulogne and Folkestone. There are numerous routes linking Brittany and Normandy with England; Saint Malo is linked by car ferry and hydrofoil with Weymouth, Poole and Portsmouth, while Roscoff has ferry links to Plymouth. Ferries also ply the waters between France and Ireland (Cherbourg-Cork), the Channel Islands, Sardinia (Marseille-Porto Torres), Italy (Corsica-Genoa) and North Africa (Marseille-Algiers, Marseille-Tunis, Sète-Tangier).
The cheapest place to book your ferry tickets to and from France online is here.
Getting Around France
Air France controls the lion's share of France's domestic airline industry although British budget carrier easyJet has flights linking Paris with Marseille, Nice and Toulouse.
France is eminently easy to cycle around. On train timetables, a bicycle symbol indicates that bicycles are allowed on particular trains. The SNCF baggage service Sernam (tel 0825 84 58 45) will transport your bicycle (or any other luggage) door-to-door or station-to-station for a fee.Buses are used quite extensively for short-distance travel within départements, especially in rural areas with relatively few train lines (eg, Brittany and Normandy) – but services are often slow and few and far between.Having your own wheels brings freedom but it's expensive, and city parking and traffic are frequent headaches.
Motorcyclists will find France great for touring: the websites www.viamichelin.com and www.autoroutes.fr both calculate how much you will pay in petrol and tolls for specified journeys.
To hire a car in France you'll generally need to be over 21 years old and hold a valid driver's licence and an international credit card. Your credit card may cover CDW if you use it to pay for the car rental.
France's superb rail network reaches almost every part of the country. Many towns and villages not on the SNCF train and bus network are linked by intra-départmental bus lines. France's most important train lines radiate from Paris like the spokes of a wheel, making train travel between provincial towns situated on different 'spokes' rather slow. In some cases, you have to transit through Paris.
France's domestic airlines link most urban centres, and since the long-protected domestic airline industry has been opened up, discounts have made internal air travel an option even for budget travellers.
Local transport includes the cheap and efficient Metro and RER underground networks in Paris (there are also metro lines in other cities).
France is an eminently cyclable country, due largely to its extensive network of secondary and tertiary roads that are relatively lightly trafficked.
Another relaxing way of seeing France is to cruise its canals and navigable rivers by houseboat. These usually accommodate four to 12 passengers and can be rented for a weekend or several weeks.
France is a superb country for motorcycle touring, with winding roads of good quality and lots of stunning scenery.
Having your own vehicle can be expensive, and is sure to be inconvenient in city centres where parking and traffic are problematic. Be warned that most driving in France is done with the horn, or 'French Brake Pedal', as it is often called. As a rule of thumb, don't be timid or overly respectful once on the road as this technique will often confuse the natives. Renting a car is expensive if you walk into an office and hire a car on the spot, but prebooked and prepaid promotional rates are reasonable.
Interregional bus services are limited, but buses are used extensively for short-distance travel within regions, especially in rural areas with relatively few train lines (eg, Brittany and Normandy). On longer trips, buses tend to be much slower but slightly cheaper than trains; on short runs, buses are generally slower and more expensive.
French Arts and Architecture
From the top of the tower to the top of the Alps it's all divine!
Some have made seeing France their life's work. There's so much divine art, breathtaking architecture, stirring history, ancient folk festivals, vivid gardens and inspiring churches that you could easily lose yourself for years. It also had some surprisingly wild corners, notably the Camargue delta.
Communications In France
To call French cities from outside France, dial your country's international access code + 33 (France's country code) + local number (minus the initial 0).
A quarter of a century ago, France had one of the worst telephone systems in Western Europe. But thanks to massive investment in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the country now has one of the most modern and sophisticated telecommunications systems in the world.
Telephone Adaptor -
The French jack has a protruding wing on one side shaped like a 'T'. The opposite side has the same shape inverted. A standard RJ-11 socket is found on one end.
Mobile Phones -
France uses the GSM 900/1800 cellular phone system, compatible with phones sold in the UK, Australia and most of Asia, but not those from North America or Japan. To use your cell phone in France, ensure you request 'international roaming' from your provider before you leave home. Alternatively, cellular and satellite phones are available for rent or sale in Paris. France Telecom is among the big players in the industry, and their Itineris GSM cellular phone service works across Europe.
French Culture and
Pre 20c -
Humans have inhabited France for about 90,000 years. The Celtic Gauls arrived between 1500 and 500 BC; after several centuries of conflict with Rome, Gauls lost the territory to Julius Caesar in 52 BC, and by the 2nd century AD the region had been partly Christianised. In the 5th century the Franks (thus 'France') and other Germanic groups overran the country.
The Middle Ages were marked by a succession of power struggles between warring Frankish dynasties. The Capetian Dynasty was a time of prosperity and scholarly revivalism despite continued battles with England over feudal rights. During this period, France was also embroiled in the Crusades, a holy war instigated by the Church against non-Christians. The Capetian Dynasty waned by the early 15th century as France continued to fight England in the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453), which featured 17-year-old firebrand Jeanne d'Arc.
Religious and political persecution, culminating in the Wars of Religion (1562-98), continued to threaten France's stability during the 16th century. In 1572, some 3000 Protestant Huguenots were slaughtered in Paris. The Huguenots were later guaranteed religious, civil and political rights. By the early 17th century the country was held in thrall by Cardinal Richelieu, who moved to establish an absolute monarchy and increase French power in Europe.
Louis XIV (the Sun King) ascended the throne in 1643 at the age of five and ruled until 1715. Throughout his reign, he hounded the Protestant minority, quashed the feuding aristocracy and created the first centralised French state. But as the 18th century progressed, the ancien régime (old order) became dangerously out of sync with the rest of the country, and was further weakened by the Enlightenment's anti-establishment and anticlerical ideas. France's involvement in the Seven Years' War (1756-63) and the American War of Independence (1776-83) was financially ruinous for the monarchy, and the latter provided ammunition for opponents of French absolutism.
When the king tried to neutralise the power of reform-minded economists, the urban masses took to the streets. On 14 July 1789, a Parisian mob attacked the Invalides, seized weapons and stormed the Bastille prison, the ultimate symbol of the despotism of the ancien régime. At first, the Revolution was in the hands of moderates, but from this milieu emerged the radical Jacobins, led by Robespierre, Danton and Marat. They established the First Republic in 1792, holding virtual dictatorial control over the country during the Reign of Terror (1793-94), which saw mass executions and religious persecution. Ultimately the Revolution turned on its own, and many of its leaders, including Robespierre and Danton, were pruned by Madame la Guillotine.
Buoyed by a series of military victories abroad, mercurial Napoleon Bonaparte assumed domestic power in 1799, sparking a series of wars in which France came to control most of Europe. Ultimately, a disastrous campaign against Russia in 1812 led to Bony's downfall - he was banished to the tiny Mediterranean island of Elba. His escape and reinstallation as Emperor lasted 100 days before he was defeated by the English at Waterloo. The English exiled him to the remote South Atlantic island of Saint Helena, where he died in 1821. Napoleon is remembered as a great hero not so much for his military gusto but because he preserved the bulk of changes wrought by the Revolution and promulgated the Napoleonic Code, which remains the basis of the French legal system.
During the 19th century, France was characterised by inept government, quixotic wars and the founding of the Third Republic (1870). The importance of the army and the church was reduced, and separation of church and state was instituted. Around the same time, the Entente Cordiale ended colonial rivalry between France and Britain in Africa, creating a spirit of cooperation.
Modern History -
France's involvement in WWI came at high cost: over a million troops were killed, large parts of the country were devastated, industrial production dropped and the franc was seriously devalued. The country fared little better during WWII, when it capitulated to Germany and the lackey Vichy government was installed. General Charles de Gaulle, France's under-secretary of war, set up a government-in-exile and underground resistance in London. France was liberated by Allied forces in mid-1944.
De Gaulle returned to Paris and set up a provisional government, but resigned as president in 1946. Emboldened by American aid, the French reasserted colonial control in Indochina, but their forces were defeated by Ho Chi Minh's cadres at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. France also tried to suppress Algerian independence. De Gaulle returned to power in 1958 and negotiated an end to the war in Algeria four years later; in the meantime, almost all of the other French colonies in Africa had achieved independence.
In May 1968, student protesters and striking workers surprised themselves and the world at large by bringing the country to a standstill. Just as anarchy was poised to engulf France, De Gaulle went on national television and told everybody to calm down, go home and leave the running of the country to him. And they did. The government then reformed the higher education system, and De Gaulle resigned as president the following year.
Resilient socialist François Mitterand was France's president from 1981 to 1995. In May 1995 he was succeeded by Jacques Chirac, who defeated the demoralised socialists and Jean-Marie Le Pen's anti-immigrant Front National (FN). A series of bombings in Paris and Lyon from July 1995 by terrorists protesting French support of the Algerian government contributed to anti-foreigner sentiment and lent a false legitimacy to the FN's racist stance.
Chirac strongly endorsed the European Union (EU), which raised his popularity, but his decision to conduct nuclear tests on the Polynesian island of Mururoa towards the end of 1995 was met with a local and international outcry. France's Pacific and Caribbean colonies have beefed up their independence rumblings, with Tahiti a recent site of particular agitation. Domestically, limits which Chirac imposed on the welfare payment system resulted in the country's largest protests since 1968. Strikes throughout the public sector over several weeks in late 1995 brought Paris to a standstill and affected the economy so badly that France's qualifications for joining the EU looked dubious.
Chirac called a snap election early in 1997, under the pretence of seeking a mandate for the final push towards meeting economic monetary union (EMU) controls. However, he did not count on the fickleness of the French people and his RPR party was ousted from government (though Chirac remains president) by an unlikely alliance between the socialists, communists and Greens.
Recent History -
The nation was thrust into the international spotlight with the August 1997 death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in an auto accident in Paris, and the country's first-ever World Cup victory (3-0 over odds-on favourite Brazil) in July 1998.
Presidential elections in 2002 were a shocker. Not only did the first round of voting see left-wing Socialist Party leader Lionel Jospin eliminated. It also saw racist demagogue Jean-Marie Le Pen (1928–) of the FN scoop 17% of the national vote. In the fortnight preceding the subsequent run-off ballot, demonstrators took to the streets with cries of 'Vote for the crook, not the fascist' ('crook' referring to the various party financing scandals floating around Chirac). On the big day itself, left-wing voters – without a candidate of their own – hedged their bets with the 'lesser-of-two-evils' Chirac to give him 82% of votes. Chirac's landslide victory was echoed in parliamentary elections a month later when the president-backed coalition UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) won 354 of the 577 parliamentary seats, ending years of cohabitation and leaving a seatless Le Pen-led FN feeling very sorry for its xenophobic self. Subsequent claims of nepotism in response to Le Pen trying to pass the party leadership automatically to his daughter weakened the party further.
In early 2003 France was once again in the world spotlight when it insisted it would veto any UN security council resolution to go to war with Iraq. The US was rather miffed by this, and relations between France and the US remain cool.
Another round of political buffoonery unfolded in February of 2004, when Alain Juppe, a Chirac loyalist set to take over the Presidential helm, was handed an 18-month suspended jail sentence for his role as Paris deputy mayor in a party funding scam. The scandal - all the more shady given Chirac's job as mayor of Paris at the time - saw Chirac's center-right Union pour un Movement Populaire (UMP) sent to the slaughterhouse by the socialists in countrywide regional elections the following month. European elections in June 2004 were equally disastrous for the UMP.
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