Top 5 things to would recommend when traveling to France
or areas in Europe around France –
Bring a damn umbrella it drizzled on and off the whole time.
Bring a warm coat/trench coat (for the rain) – it’s really really cold! France is across the ocean from Nova Scotia to give you and idea of how far north it is. Dress like you’re going to Vermont.
Wear sneakers – I don’t wear sneakers anywhere except working in the yard and then that’s only when I have to use a shovel otherwise I’m barefoot or I wear them when I’m at the gym. Otherwise I have a butt load of cute sandals and flats. They are all comfortable, I wear them walking around Disney all day. But they are not good enough for walking in cold damp weather on cobbled stone streets. You walk all day long and when you do get to your location it’s usually a museum etc where you stand on your feet. So wear something with cushion for the cobbled stones and the standing and something that doesn’t rub in the wrong places like ballet flats. By the time we got to Loches the first thing I did was go to a shoe store and by sneakers and I loved how much better my feet felt in socks and sneakers! Wear sneakers trust me! They don’t have to be ugly gym shoes they can be cute sneakers there are lots of them out there. Take your time and find a pair that look good with your outfits and feel good.
The trains are a headache. Take a train as far as you can then rent a car for the rest of the way. We changed trains twice and then took a bus – the station signs are all in French of course and so are the announcements so you never really know what’s going on. The bus stops at every stop so it’s not very quick and our ticket didn’t allow enough time to get to the train station so we missed our train and had to take a taxi to the next stop. A lot of stress. Next time I’ll take whatever train goes the closest to my destination then rent a car at the train station. So much easier.
Get a travel book from Rick Steves. He had really great time saving tips on everything we went to and you can download his tours for everything from Versailles to the Louvre to driving day trips in Provence.
Ok so that’s done. Here’s how I planned this trip. First I have to say – travel agents definitely earn their money because this took a lot of time. I like to have a plan. It should be very flexible but there should still be a plan. From my experience when you just wing it you end up not really doing anything and missing a lot.
Once you know where you want to go buy or download a travel book for that country I really like Rick Steves or the DK Eyewitness Travel books. Read about the country, it’s history, all it’s different regions. Make a list of stuff that looks interesting in each region or city you want to visit. If there’s enough stuff in the region to warrant visiting there then keep it on your list. Eventually you’ll have a list of a few areas you want to go to. Then buy or download the specific travel book for that area. For instance first I bought the France travel book. Then when I figured out we would be going to Paris, Loire Valle, and Provence I bought travel books for those regions. Then read about each region and write down what you want to do. Organize the list by days. Like if you see there are 3 towns a few miles from each other with chateaus you want to see obviously you can do those 3 in one day. This way you can figure out how many days you need for each region. Once you have figured out how many days in each region you’ll know how long your trip will be.
Now that you know the length of time you’ll be there look in the travel books and online for any festivals for special events that will be happening around the time you’d like to visit. It would suck to go all the way to France and miss your favorite artist’s temporary exhibit by one day. Once you have your dates nailed down. Book your flight. A lot of airlines do a Economy Plus type deal where you pay $60 or so and get a seat with extra leg room. I highly recommend this. Riding for 8 hours on a plane squished into those little seats suck. If you can fly first class – do it! they have their own little cubby and their seats fold down into real beds. But our flight would have been $2,000 more per person for first class and I could think of a lot of other stuff I could spend that $2,000 on.
Housing – once I started looking into hotels in Paris I quickly realized I was either going to stay in a dump or pay a crazy amount $750 – $1,000 a night for a decent hotel. So I looked at AirBNB and found amazing apartments for about $74 per person per night. Other sites are HouseTrip and VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner). A couple of tips – you have to sign up and get approved before you can request to stay at any of the places. They want to make sure you aren’t a crazy person. When you type in the location you can zoom in on the map or select specific areas of town so the options are narrowed down. You can also choose a price range, number of bedrooms etc. Skip how the outside or living room looks and go right to the bedrooms. This is where you will spend most of your time while you’re in the apartment anyways. Make sure the bedroom and bathroom are nice. The rest is just gravy. Usually there’s a street view too. Look to make sure the neighborhood is ok. You don’t want to be staying over a XXX theater – or maybe you do? Look for a place that’s centrally located to the areas or cities you want to visit as well. Location is really important. You don’t want to waste time driving for 2 hours every day. Or having to walk halfway across the city because you picked an apartment in the wrong place. Here’s the apartments we rented. We had the whole apartment but you can choose to rent just a room from someone.
Apartment in Loches (Loire Valley) was tiny but homey and the lady who rented it to us lived upstairs. This was the beautiful garden. The tower was had a staircase that took you down to the lower street. The last picture is the view from the garden of the lower street.
Our apartment in Apt was more like a villa. It had it’s own walled garden. It was a full sized house. Just amazing.
Our second apartment in Paris was small but they all are. It had plenty of room for us. 2 bedrooms and a nice bathroom. More then a hotel room would have. But keep in mind with these amazing old buildings – there’s no elevator.
Each place was different with how we “checked in” they text and email you reminders and you can contact the owners directly. They all spoke English and were very prompt answering any of my questions. The 2 Paris apartments had key boxes. The owners emailed or texted me the door code and the key box code. The Loches apartment she actually picked us up from the bus station and was there to say good-bye when we left. The Apt apartment the owner met us there to give us the key and show us the place and then she was there when we left so we could give her the keys back.
Booking special tours etc. If you’re going to go to museum’s and various tourist places you probably should look into a museum pass for the town. Not only is it cheaper but we were able to go through a special door and avoid the longs lines because we had a pass. Usually the city’s website will have a link for a pass like this. Order it ahead of time so it’s one less thing to do when you get there. If you want to see a show or ride a hot air balloon that kind of stuff you should book in advance. The travel books will give you ideas and so will the city’s website.
The hot air balloon was really cool. I’m a huge wuss (just realized I have no idea how to spell that and spell check doesn’t either) I don’t like roller coasters or sky diving and white water rafting. But this was so calm and not scary at all. It just feels like you are floating. It’s really quiet and there’s no wind I guess because we’re moving with the wind you don’t feel it. The basket is high so you don’t feel like you’re going to fall out. I would love to do it again on a clearer day.
Other transportation like rental cars and trains. Book those ahead of time again so you don’t have to deal with it when you get there. Most of the travel books will have guidelines for this stuff.
Once you have all this done then keep reading about your areas to learn more about what to see and to better understand where you are going. It’s a lot more fun if you understand what you are looking at. Rick Steves was really good at letting you know which museum’s or attractions were worth it and he gave us great tips to avoid long lines. Most travel books though will just list the most visited places and those aren’t always the best places. Sometimes they are just really touristy. Look online at places and people’s reviews. After reading several things you’ll get a better idea if the touristy place is worth it. Like the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre – very touristy but of course you have to see them. And they were totally worth it. Standing next to the Eiffel Tower is kind of surreal.
As far as rudeness goes – because people always say how rude the French are. We didn’t really see that. We would say bonjour and then immediately say Parles-tu Anglais and just about everyone was happy to speak English. Occasionally there was a rude person – but there are rude people in America too. We had 2 taxi drivers that sucked. One acted like he had no idea what I was saying when I asked him to take us to the Eiffel Tower and one drove us out of the way on purpose. And a guy at the train station said he didn’t speak English then looked over my shoulder at the French people behind me and made fun of me in French. But those assholes aside everyone else was really great!
As far as restaurants go most of the places in Paris wanted you to have reservations. But that’s really hard to do because no matter how planned out your day is it won’t go according to plan. Things always take a lot longer then expected. So we figured out that the first seating about 8pm needed reservations but then the second seating about 9:30-10pm you could just come and give them your name and wait for a table. Even in the small places that worked. Don’t go to the obvious restaurants where the tourist go. They will suck. They know you are a tourist so the service will be poor the food mediocre and expensive. Look at Open Table to see what restaurants are on there those are usually good restaurants and you can see the menus and pictures. Ask your Airbnb host where their favorite places are. I don’t really ask the concierges at hotels anymore because they just direct me to the obvious tourist places. For Paris I found a book about the best restaurants in Paris – Food Lover’s Guide to Paris and there’s a Cooking Channel show called Little Paris Kitchen: Cooking with Rachel Khoo that I love. She has a website and a page on her website lists her favorite restaurants in different cities. Both the book and Rachel’s website were so helpful to find really good local places. Watch travel shows or look up the show online and look for restaurant suggestions. Bon Appetite is also a good place to look.
Paris Restaurants we loved
Le Pain Quotidien
Little chain near our apartment on Rue Marie Stuart, but so cute Le Pain Quotidien – rustic tables, fresh bread and jams, and rich hot chocolate.
We found this place in the Food Lover’s guide. Spring serves just one 5+ course meal. No menu they just make you dinner. The service and ambience was amazing. The food was ridiculous. This was our first night in Paris and we really needed a great meal by the end of the day. We arrived at 6:30am (12:30am our time) so we had been up for over 24 hours. We had to check our bags in a city locker because it was too early to check into our apartment. It was raining, cold, and really windy. Then we dragged our luggage 4 blocks in the wrong direction because I was reading google maps wrong. So by the end of the day a really good glass of wine and a great meal was really welcomed.
Verjus Wine Bar
The Wine Bars are small local restaurants that serve wine (a little beer and maybe 3 kinds of liquor) which is hilarious what the French think Americans drink. Every menu had Rum Punch and Mojitos on it. The Wine Bars we went to were like our Dally in the Alley – chef owned, unique and innovative food made with local ingredients fresh every day. Verjus Wine Bar was a Rachel Khoo suggestion. We had a great fried chicken and banh mi type slaw sandwich and the best chocolate chip cookie and brownie I’ve ever eaten. And wine of course.
Another Wine Bar and another Rachel Khoo suggestion – Frenchie was a tiny little place that was worth the 30 min wait for a table. As with everywhere the people and service were great. Burrata with fava bean pesto, pate, pulled pork sliders, pot-de-crème, and custard with a graham cracker crumble.
This place was in Bon Appetite – Buvette was a sweet little out of the way place we would have never run across if we weren’t looking for it. And they were open all day which was really unique – most restaurants if they were open for lunch were open 12-1:30pm and that’s it. You ate lunch during lunch time or you were SOL. They had desserts on the counter with stacks of white plates. The bathroom was the cutest cleanest bathroom ever. Fresh Ricotta with pea pesto and lemon olive oil on toast, salami and olive oil, croquet monsieur, chocolate mousse, upside down apple cake, and waffles with berries.
Yet another Wine Bar – Au Passage was also Rachel Khoo’s suggestion. Little out of the way place the chefs brought the food to your table and loved describing the ingredients and process. Very cool place. fresh burratta cheese with barley, smoked octopus, asparagus egg and cream, rhubarb crumble, and pistachio cake
Rachel Khoo again – she said it’s really touristy but really worth it. She wasn’t kidding. Its a fancy tea room across from the Louvre. Angelina’s has the best hot chocolate in the city. It’s really just melted rich dark chocolate that they serve with whipped cream. Their madeleine’s were really good too. They had a ton of fancy pastries. We stopped there on our way to the Louvre and walked through the Tuileries garden with our hot chocolate and treats. Then we ate at their satellite location in Versailles.
Gelato shop on Isle St Louis – they make the gelato look like flower petals on the cone.
We stopped here just to take a picture because the name was funny and accidentally found a great little place. That served liquor!! Schmucks is this really cool eclectic bar/restaurant in St Germain.
This was one of the places in Food Lovers Guide. Semilla had great food and great people. Lots of activity. The kitchen was open so it was cool to watch the chefs working.
Loire Valley Restaurants
In Loches’ very quaint ancient village. We arrived late in the day on Sunday and not many places were open for dinner. We stopped into Cak’t they had just one meal for the day. Served by a sweet old man who looked as though he prepared it served it and cleaned up after. Fresh veggies, a meat sauce and puff pastry and of course bread and wine.
In Villandry a little farm with a quiet little restaurant. Fire place was burning and after another very chilly day it was so welcomed. Friendly family staff. Rick Steves recommended this place. L’Etape Gourmade
Creperie at Loches Chateau
This little place was part of the Loches Chateau. They had the original Roman keep which was partially in ruins, the royal palace built in the 1200s, a church and in the garden of the church was this little creperie run by two little old men. The view was beautiful and the crepes were delicious. Savory – potato, bacon, and cheese and prosciutto with egg and sweet – banana, hazelnut, and chocolate.
L’Isle Sur-la-Sorgue Restaurant
I didn’t write down the name of this place, we just happened upon it. Lovely friendly lady. An antipasti plate of all kinds of things, toast with cheese and a salad, fish casserole and veggies, grilled fish and veggies, and escargot
The same town had really cute shops. Olive oils, soaps, and candied fruit – it’s a big deal there. We bought an assortment, not really my thing really sticky and sweet. But they are really pretty.
Apt local boulangerie, boucherie, and farmers market
Had a picnic in our garden
Thym te Voila
In Apt our host suggested this place. Once again really nice people the chef came out to talk to us. Delicious fresh food. Thym te Voila
Another little restaurant on L’Isle Sur-la-Sorgue. La Prevote is a hotel and restaurant. The whole city is an island that has tons of little canals running through it so the buildings are built over the canals. Inside they put glass up so you can see the river running through the building. Delicious lunch.
The Chateaus of the Loire Valley
There are so many to see. Pick a couple each day but really after 5 they start to all blend together. Rick Steves has a list of the top ones you should try to see. Here’s the ones we went to.
One of the smallest. This one didn’t take very long to go through. Not a lot of signage to read.
This one had furnished rooms and an amazing garden. Still only took us about 2 hours to do the whole house and the gardens. The village was cute but not a lot there.
This one had an audio tour so it took a little longer while you listened to information about each room. The ones with audio tours provide a lot more information.
This was literally at our front door. we parked at the base of the wall to enter our rental house. There was a small village within the chateau’s walls. An ancient roman keep, a 12th century chateau, a church, a creperie, and homes to walk by. One of my favorite. It took several hours to see everything. I don’t think there was an audio tour but on one of the floors of the keep they had a movie that explained a lot about it.
Amazing. They had a village as well but had a lot of restaurants and shops. This chateau is privately owned and you could really tell. Fresh floral arrangements in each room. All the rooms were furnished. They had restaurants, gift shops, a farm, gardens. It was all very tasteful too not too touristy or cheap. Great audio tour.
The villages we saw in Provence
The amazing villages some built pre-Roman era up the side of a small mountain with a castle at the top. Most of the castles were in ruin but the villages are still there and most survive now on tourism. Some of the little villages have 35 people living there.
This beautiful village started on the hillside – moved down to the valley below during the Roman period when it was safer. Then moved back up to the hillside during the dark ages for protection. They utilized the fields below and thrived agriculturally until World War II then all but about 100 people were left in the village and those were very poor. As tourism flourished did the town and now they have about 300 people living there. It’s amazing how well kept these ancient places are and we can’t even keep a 100 year old home from being torn down for a parking lot.
La Baux en Provence
The town next to Carrieres de Lumieres. Beautiful little streets with a few shops and restaurants with amazing views.
This town was on the list of towns to visit on at winery road trip. Unfortunately we tried to do the road trip on a Sunday – pointless, everything is closed. Plan travel days on Sundays because everything is closed anyways and that way you won’t miss anything. But really pretty little town.
Then there are all the extra things we did…
The hot air balloon – France Montgolfieres
You buy your ticket online then you make a reservation. Then you call them the day before to confirm your reservation. It’s a little tricky but really worth it.
Winery in the Loire Valley
Chevalerie Winery, this winery was built in an 11th century limestone quarry. The family that runs it started the winery in 1640 and the lady who gave us the tour is the 14th generation to run it. We also got the name of this winery from Rick Steves.
Carrieres de Lumieres in Les Baux Provence
This is a limestone quarry that they turned into an art museum the art is projected onto the 5 story walls and it moves and changes and is set to music. Carrieres de Lumieres was near the village of Les Baux in Provence. You can buy tickets at the door.
Locks on the Notre Dame bridge
There are several bridges you can do this on. You attach a lock (you can write someone’s name on if you want) then throw the key into the river for unbroken love. There are people selling locks there at the bridge. I brought my own so I don’t know how much they were. There are several bridges you can do this on. The one that recently started to collapse just had the most on it.