I can't believe a month has passed so quickly, but I have now returned my adorable little black convertible VW Golf and am relaxing on a boat, heading up the Rhine river. I technically have one more stop in France (Strasbourg, tomorrow), but mostly I've left it behind, and before I get into each region I visited in depth, I wanted to attempt a "quick" overview to share my overall thoughts on this wonderful country.
One of the things that struck me is just how agricultural, and seemingly fertile, the whole country is. I knew this going in, but honestly - I doubt I drove more than a half hour without seeing some sort of farming or agriculture. Whether it was wheat, vines, cows, or who knows what - there were farmers working hard in the sun everywhere. Even in the salty marshes of the Camargue! This may go some way to explain why the food is so revered here - nearly every product is incredibly fresh, and grown just nearby. Visiting a farmer's market is easy enough to do, and really should be a "must do" for any visit to France. Not only because they're aesthetically lovely, but also because you get to see what products are local and just how much is available. It probably helps that I was visiting in summer, so products with shorter seasons, like cherries and melons, were in season which gave the markets even more color! That said, the seafood in places like Brittany or Provence was incredible, and of course you've got the fabulous dairy products up in Normandy, and geese products in the southern/central areas. Foie Gras is in no danger here, and apologies to animal rights people, but thank goodness - that is some tasty stuff!
Another thing that really impressed me is the actual natural landscape. Before this trip someone asked me what it was about France that makes me love it so much, and threw out the natural beauty as an option. I immedially dismissed that, thinking it was more the culture, history, and food that I loved, maybe not remembering just how lovely it can be. Well- this trip certainly has changed my mind! It is a spectacularly beautiful country, even taking the lovely Paris out of the conversation. From the rolling green fields & sweeping beaches of Normandy, to the craggy coasts of Brittany, you have a wide array of beauty just a few hours from the capital city. The Loire, too, just an hour or two away, is actually lovely in a subtle way, with all the river valleys surrounded by vines and populated with the gorgeous 17th century chateaux. I didn't see much of the west coast, but Bordeaux is simply lovely, from the town to the countryside absolutely carpeted with vines. The central south of the Perigord and Languedoc-Roussion is filled with cliff-top castles, and rich valleys - both of which hide amazing caves below. Then of course you have Provence and the Riviera, which is well-known for it's beauty, but I can tell you that it doesn't disappoint, and has so much to offer on top of its natural beauty that there's a reason it's so popular! From hill-top villages, to fields of lavendar and sunflowers, to more vines, to amazing gorges and the beautiful bright coast, you really can see it all. I only tasted the alps, but what I saw was impressive enough, with mountains towering up above you seemingly out of nowhere. The east of France, which Lyon rules with it's delicious culinary tradition, was last on my particular route, but it is by FAR not the least beautiful area - more rolling hills with occasional cliffs, all generally complemented by yet more vinyards, almost as far as you can see. I really thought that each day couldn't beat the previous for gorgeous views, and generally it did!
Speaking of "beautiful" - the villages of France. You'll often hear that a village is one of "the most beautiful villages of France", and it's pretty much always true. This is a designation that they compete to receive, but honestly - it must be impossible to judge. No matter where you are, every village is the same - all have a church in the middle with a big steeple (ranging from simple & cute to giant and stunning), a be-flagged town hall, and generally a square with a fountain in front of both of these. The little houses run right up to the side of the little crooked streets, with absolutely no rhyme or reason, all generally with shutters and flowers. Of course the style may vary by region (notably, the kind of stone and the color of shutter), and the phyical setting changes (some are perched on a cliff-side or crown a hilltop, others are nestled in a valley) , but they're all "so cute"!
Another thing that struck me about France is how relatively easy it is to get around. The infrastructure is solid (thanks in part to high taxes & tolls, of course), but that means that the roads are all generally in great condition, most cities have excellent public transportation, and of course the trains are a great option as well, if you don't want to drive yourself. When driving, or using public transportation, the signs are usually clear and easy to follow, assuming you know the cities involved in your route that day. It of course can be tricky with the teeny roads through hillly countryside, and roundabouts are always a challenge at first, but overall it's a completely easy place to drive around. There is very little traffic out in the countryside (and less than we're used to in the cities, except Paris, of course!). If you don't have a GPS, Michelin maps are a must, and are amazingly detailed and helpful, but GPS was a godsend - even if she did take me on some funny detours from time to time.
Finally, I know the French, and especially the Parisians, have a reputation for being rude, but I can't tell you how lovely they are. It is ok if you don't speak French - if you show that you're trying a bit by saying "Bonjour" when you arrive into a shop or restaurant, maybe attempting a "parlez-vous anglais" with a smile, generally everyone will be thrillled to either show off their english or engage in a game of charades to get you what you need. English really is quite common, except in the very out-of-the way places, and believe me, even though I speak pretty fluently, they recognize my accent immediately and try to switch into English with me. The French do have a bit more of a formal culture than ours, with those hellos & goodbyes being quite important to them, along with, of course, a good deal of thank yous (either the common "merci" or something a bit longer & more expressive, depending). Paris is, of course, a big city where your experience can vary quite a bit - I don't think the harried waiters in touristy eateries are every going to win any awards for their friendliness - but again, if you give it a try and avoid the most typical "ugly american" behaviours, you should be treated graciously. At least in my experience!