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France

A profile of France: From vineyards and ski slopes to the bustling streets of Paris

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France is an often romanticized but truly amazing country, and the sheer volume of activities it has for visitors is nearly unparalleled. From skiing and snowboarding on fresh white snow, visits through the wine country, shopping, eating and drinking, and learning more about the long and interesting history of this beautiful country, you will not be disappointed you decided to make the trip.

Paris

You almost have to start in Paris. You’ll most likely by flying into the French capital anyway, so why not spend some time exploring this interesting and beautiful city? History appeals to those of us from relatively new countries, and you won’t be disappointed here. Not only is Paris the backdrop to some of history’s most important events, but it’s also home to some of the most unique and famous art in the world. The Eiffel Tower, Louvre and Moulin Rouge must be on your list, but do some research and you’ll find some amazing off-the-beaten-path activities that you’ll remember forever. Although it’s a bit of a cliché, Paris truly has something for everyone.

paris sacre coeur
Sacre Coeur Church in Paris

Central France

Make your way towards the South East of Paris and you’ll find yourself in beautiful Burgundy, or Bourgogne, home of delicious red wine and Dijon mustard. Between Dijon, Beaune, and Auxerre you’ll find a range of wine related activities, great shopping, and some stunning, old French architecture. The Hospices de Beaune is probably the most stunning example of Burgundian roofing, which is really distinct as it uses a number of different colors in tiles geometrically arranged. This region is fairly expensive, though, so I’d make sure that you’re very keen on wine and architecture if you’re going to visit.

Lyon

A bit further south is Lyon, a beautiful city full of culture and things to do. This is a must-see if you’re fond of eating your way through a place as it’s considered the capital of French gastronomy. They also have a leading football team if you enjoy a bit of sports, and this combined with a stunning Basilica, some beautiful winding lanes and the remains of a Roman amphitheater.

Lyon
Lyon by Guerrin on Flickr.com

South of France

I probably don’t need to convince you to visit the south of France. The epicenter of glamor, movie stars, and quintessential continental luxury! Again, there are parts of this region that are very expensive, like Cannes and Antibes, but you’ll be able to enjoy the beaches, heat and culture of this area in some neighboring towns, like Nice or a bit further west in Aix-en-Provence.

North of France

Although quite sleepy, in the North of France you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the charm of the region as a whole. As the site of the D-Day invasions, you’ll find numerous Second World War graveyards and monuments. This area is fairly inexpensive and does have a large number of markets, old buildings and small museums tucked away, and it’s one of my favorite parts of the country. Rouen, Caen, and Dieppe are particularly nice, and if you take the train, they’re all really easy to get to. Don’t forget to make a stop at Mont Saint-Michel, which is a giant fortified monastery on an Island.

Mont Saint Michel
Mont Saint Michel by Jesper Krogh on Flickr.com

Skiing

If you love skiing, you absolutely must visit the French Alps once in your life, at least! Hugely popular with Brits and other Europeans, as well as other world travelers keen to experience the slopes in another part of the world, the range (no pun intended) of locations and mountains to explore means that whether you’re just starting to ski or you’re at an advanced level there is resort that will be just what you need. Look for a ticket to the Rhône-Alpes region in South East France, near the borders of Switzerland to the North and Italy to the East. Val d’Isère offers a range of on and off piste skiing and is well suited for advanced skiers, but will be a great experience for new or intermediate skiers as well. Another classic example of a French skiing wonderland for the experienced is Chamonix, a brilliant (but expensive) example of a French ski town. For beginners, heading for Courchevel or Morzine is a good idea as both offer intermediate terrain.

When to Go:

Depending on which cities and towns you plan to visit, some times of the year are better than others. For instance, Paris is lovely all year round but visit in the spring for a particularly special time. The summer is when they have an influx of tourists and this can make popular destinations like museums and sights really crowded. Tours of wine country are beautiful in the fall when the leaves are changing, and skiing is best in winter of course. The summer is a great time to explore the legendary beaches of Cannes, Marseille and Nice, or island of Corsica.

Getting Around:

It is so easy to get around France. The train system operates in what seems like two parts, with the TGV and the TER operating throughout the country. The TGV is the high-speed service operating all over the country, meaning you can get from one place to the next fairly quickly and easily. The TER is rail service run by the regional councils, and offers shorter services between towns. This is a cheap and brilliant way to get from one small town to another, and one of my favorite ways to discover the charm and character of the small towns and cities of France.

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Dani & Jess with a high-speed train in France

Safety:

When I was in France, I didn’t feel unsafe. I was extremely careful, however, and didn’t venture out too far into the suburbs or away from main streets after dark. Like any other large, tourist friendly city, there are pick pockets in popular areas and on public transport, so stay vigilant and keep your things close to you. The French police are a visible presence in most locations like train stations, which does make you feel a bit more comfortable, but again, particularly if you’re traveling alone, avoid small lanes and dark areas at night or take a taxi, which you can find at a ‘station de taxi’, or hail.

This article was written by Rachel Gardner, a travel writer who spent six months living in France.

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How to experience the true romance of Paris

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We’ve been to Paris several times and every time we went, we fell more in love with the City Of Lights (La Ville Lumière). There is something so incredibly romantic about this city, but truth be told it isn’t the Paris you see depicted in so many romance movies; it is the Paris beyond the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and Notre Dame. We’re not saying that Paris’ main attractions aren’t breathtaking – they sure are – but it is only when venturing off the beaten path that the city’s true essence shines through.

There is just something about watching Parisians go about their day, or soaking up the bohemian atmosphere unique to the Montparnasse neighborhood, or sitting in a café and watching the world go by for a couple hours at a time, just like Parisians do. These all sound simple, but there is a spirit, an energy, that you only have in Paris and in order to soak it up, you have to spend more than a couple of days here after ticking off those main attractions to feel it for yourself.

paris maraisIf you want to experience the authentic Paris that the locals love so much, here are our tips for how you can get a true feel for the city:

1 Stay in an apartment

Parisian apartments are a big part of the experience. Sure, they can be tiny and cramped, but they are also enchanting, gorgeous even, in a way that you just don’t have in equally tiny Manhattan apartments, for example. The neoclassical buildings, the history of each one, the unique design touches, the balconies and windows that run floor to ceiling and overlook your own little neighborhood street.

With so many vacation apartment websites competing these days, rates for an apartment in a central location can be as low as $80 per night. You’ll save money compared to a hotel, plus you can stop in to your local bakery, market or grocery store to pick up yummy local food to prepare at home. Walking home with a baguette under your arm just as the Parisians do will make you feel right at home.

I personally recommend using AirBnb, and if you haven’t signed up yet – sign up through this referral link and get $20 off your first booking!

Avalon Hotel Paris France2 Just wander

The best way to see the real Paris is to just wander. The Metro is great to get from point A to point B, but to soak in the city, avoid dark tunnels and sweaty armpits and get lost on a walk through the city instead.

If the idea of leaving it all to fate is a problem you can plan your trip to Paris with little effort by using CityTripPlanner. This is a website that helps you make the most of your stay in Paris or any other European city by offering totally free personalized itineraries. So you just choose what you’re most interested in seeing (top attractions, nature, churches, museums, or streets and squares) and the website creates an itinerary for you based on your preferences and the amount of days you’re going to spend in the city.

When I used the site to see which places it would recommend to me (setting my preferences on ‘streets and squares’), I was impressed with the itinerary CityTripPlanner put together for me. Not only did it suggest some great routes, but also some places that we haven’t even been to yet. The best part was that it then sent me an email with the itinerary, detailed directions, travel times, maps and a suggested amount of time for each place to print out and take along with me.

City Trip PlannerThis led me to want to book a trip to Paris immediately.

But even just getting lost, you’ll pass by many of those must-see iconic sights and also get a feel for other neighborhoods outside of your apartment or hotel.

You’ll be surprised how many unexpected but beautiful things you will see, from hidden plazas and parks to charming little churches and magnificent cemeteries. One of our favorite days in Paris was following Canal St Martin and stumbling upon fruit & vegetable markets, artsy cafés and picnic areas along the water.paris chez marie cafe3 Explore your neighborhood

No matter if you’re staying in an apartment or a hotel, and no matter how limited your time is to just wander, definitely take the time to explore your own neighborhood at least.

Stop in to have a coffee and croissant at the nearest café, look out for a local restaurant for dinner instead of tourist traps around the main sights. After two or three days, the vegetable vendor on the corner will recognize you for sure, and if you’re confident enough, you can even practice your French and strike up a conversation.

Better still, go for a run in the mornings – that way you can soak up a lot of the city at once and not feel guilty for all that delicious cheese and wine you’ll consume later on.

ParisHave you explored Paris off-the-beaten path? Share the hidden gems you have found with everyone in the comments below! 

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Boulogne-Sur-Mer: The perfect French weekend getaway from London

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One of my favorite things about living in London was how easy it was to go on weekend getaways 0 not only in Britain, but also in mainland Europe. And not only easy, but it is also extremely cheap! Being home to four major airports means that London is served by just about any European budget airline, affordable train tickets are available as long as you book your travels a few weeks in advance and getting from London to France is made super easy thanks to the frequent ferry services. You drive onto the ferry in Dover and 90 minutes later you drive your car off the ferry in Calais. Once we noticed that there were ferry sales all the time and Enterprise had its fantastic weekend rates for car rentals, we started to look into the French coast to find the best places for a weekend getaway that would involve cheese, wine and fresh baguettes. Our list grew quickly: the Cap de la Hague and Cherbourg in Normandy, Mont St Michel, St Germain-sur-ay, Villers-sur-Mer – to name just a few places on our seemingly endless France travel wish list.

boulogne-sur-mer townsquareOne of our trips brought us to the coastal town of Boulogne-Sur-Mer, an over 2,000 year-old city that seemed just perfect for a weekend in France. Elegant French architecture, beaches and good food!

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We got to Boulogne-Sur-Mer in no time – we still had breakfast in our London apartment, and reached the city just in time for a lovely seaside lunch.

We fell in love with the town instantly: a charming fishing port, plenty of restaurants that serve fresh sea food, and an 11th century Belfry that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

boulogne-sur-mer castleThe Old Town is eye candy with its beautiful architecture and the quirky town square makes this a town like no other. Old cars and car parts stick out of the ground throughout the square and show once again that junk can actually be pretty cool, if you know how to present it!

boulogne-sur-mer flowerpotOn Wednesdays and Saturdays there is a morning market with fresh French wines, cheeses and other produce – the perfect place to stock up before you return to England.

boulogne-sur-mer town squareWhat Boulogne-Sur-Mer is most famous for  is its Medieval Castle, whose foundations date back to Roman times. We also found ourselves marveling at several stunning churches, including the basilica of Notre Dame with its 100m high dome and one of the largest crypts in France, and the Gothic church of St Nicholas which still houses several original statues from the 15 century.

boulogne-sur-mer medieval gateAfter exploring the town and indulging in too many French pastries, we decided to head to the beach to walk off some calories before a cheese-rich French dinner. It was too cold already for a swim, the summer season had just ended, but we decided to come back during the summer season one day.
boulogne-sur-mer beachThe countryside around Boulogne is also stunning – lush green rolling hills, grazing horses, impressive white cliffs and sweeping views over the Atlantic – a welcome change from our usual city escapes to Paris!

northern france

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