28 June 2010

Getting around in France with ease

Tips for Traveling in France

Today in the French Pyrenees I had a partial work day and an organization day. This might seem like an odd thing to do when so much fun abounds (riding, hiking, picnicking, watching the world cup), but sometimes it is worth it.

I checked out of the cycling lodge and drove back to the farm (I love it here!). I stopped by a bike shop in Lourdes (it was closed on Monday, darn). Stopped into E.Leclerc for food and wine. Filled up on gasoline. Searched for a free wi-fi hot spot. Got some cash from the ATM. Planned my upcoming travels and organized my gear after week 1 (of 5) in France. I also sorted my collection of trash into the recycling bins. Unloaded my car, made lunch. Bought a fresh baguette from the bakery, and generally tried to act like a local.

If you are planning (or dreaming) about a trip to France to ride your bike, here are some random tips on traveling in France:

Hotels & B&Bs: large to medium sized hotels accept credit cards. Small B&B and lodges would much prefer cash so they do not have to pay the extra credit card service fees. I prefer lodges & Bed and Breakfasts in France because the service is more personal and the experience seems more french. Also it is wonderful to have a breakfast available to start your day. You may expect coffee, juice, a croissant or pan au chocolat with butter and jam. Sometimes you will be served yogurt or muesli/cereal. Special full breakfasts may include cheese or ham or hard boiled eggs. Do not expect a typical American full breakfast of bacon, eggs, potatoes, pancakes and toast. You will enjoy a typical french breakfast far more if you intend to ride a bike after your morning meal.

Bike Shops: there are a number in the area plus many sports stores. My favorite is located just NE above the center of the town of Lourdes. I have a list of some local bike shop addresses on the Cycling in France Page on this website. You will want to buy the entire shop! They are a good source for replacement drinks, goos, tubes, cartridges, clothing and helmets. (I was also wondering if a second set of wheels would fit in my bike box).

Super Markets in France: Remember to take your 1euro coin and a bag with you. There will be shopping carts as you enter the store. Place the 1E in the coin slot on the top of the cart, and unhook the key/chain that connects one cart to the next. You now have a handy holding cart for all your goods. Commas are periods and periods are commas. E2,80 is 2.80 euros. When buying vegetables you must weigh them first and collect a sticker while you are still in the vegetable section. The checkout person will not do this for you. We generally buy small portions of cheese, dried meats, prepared salads, olives (in a pouch), nuts, cookies, crackers, nutella, water, and wine. (Remember to bring a wine opener with you from home!).

We also buy a couple of glasses, a knife, napkins, and small baggies to store and transport food. I also buy shampoo, soap, toothpaste here in France to avoid carrying the weight on the plane, (I bring travel size sundries for the first night). Markets and bookstores also have great magazines (and cycling magazines!) buy one, and have fun trying to read it. Markets do not give out plastic bags, so bring your own, or simply place all your groceries back in your cart again after check-out and unload them individually into your car or backpack. Return the cart to the cart rack. Slide the key/chain back in place and your 1euro coin will pop out, ready for your next use.

Buying fresh fruit in the morning market or in small towns is quite fun (melon, cherries, peaches), also try the local cheese (goat or sheep!). Buying real baguettes and real butter (buerre) croissants from the corner bakeries (Boulangeries) is preferred. Charcuteries sell cuts of dried meats, it can be challenging but rewarding to try out some local meats.>

Operating Hours: Shops open around 9:00am. Bakeries and small markets are closed during lunch (12-2), cafes are open for lunch (12-2), but closed between lunch and dinner. You will likely be refused if you show up for lunch at 2:30 after a ride. Shops close around 5:00pm, very large stores close between 6-8pm. Bars open after work hours for drinks, but dinner is generally served 7-9. Large boulangeries might stay open until 8:00pm as workers pick up their bread on their way home. Cafes in small towns often close Sundays around 6:00, if they are open at all. Get used to this timing, you won't be disappointed if you know what to expect.

* ALWAYS greet a store owner, worker, waitstaff, cashier, cyclist, hiker, (any person you see) with eye contact and a warm "Bonjour Madame/Monsieur". ALWAYS say "Au revoir Madame/Monsieur" upon leaving. Take a moment and truly pause over eye contact with this person who is working to make your vacation even more special. I can't emphasize this enough. I have friends in the USA who will hardly greet me with a hello, as if they are too self-conscious or have not been taught proper manners. I come to France and everyone, even cyclists on a bike, drivers, pedestrians, every individual treats me with the courtesy to at least regard me. I am fascinated with this word in France - regarder in french means 'to look'. And the French truly see and regard me. It is lovely (and I may never go back to the USA again for this reason alone!).

Gasoline: please don't rely on 24hr gas stations. Our USA credit cards do not have the chips required to use these stations. You must try to find a station with an attendant or a booth. Look for Total gas stations within normal working hours (9-12, 2-5/6). Also look for E.Leclerc, Carrefour, InterMarche super, or other large supermarket chains (open during lunchtime, closed on Sundays). Upon arrival, stand by the pump, pull out the hose, wait, the meter should be cleared to 00.000 for you. Pump your gas. Walk into the attendant, or drive to the booth, (Greet them!), tell them what number pump you were at "numero quatre", hand them your credit card for payment, sign, say thank you and goodbye.

Wi-fi Hot Spots (internet in France): check this link out before you leave home (or use your iphone for a quick research (to locate only), then rely of wi-fi ("wee-fee"). You can search this site anywhere around France for both free and paid wi-fi hotspots. http://v4.jiwire.com/search-wifi-hotspots.htm?city_id=3502270&result_display=map you can also download an iphone app from them http://www.jiwire.com/iphone

ATMs: be sure to call your credit cards and local ATM bank before leaving home to let them know you will be traveling with your cards. This will keep them from shutting down service on your card in fear of fraud. Remember your pin numbers by heart, bring the phone numbers for your credit card companies with you in case of loss, and be sure to find out in advance which cards charge what for fees in Europe. I generally use my ATM card for cash, and my Capital One World MC (no individual transaction fees) for all other purchases.

Recycling: France recycles! I do too, I respect this since I am in their country. I separate out my plastics and find the marked recycling bins. If I stop in a town for a coke, after sitting outside for a drink, (or pouring it into my bike water bottle), I ask the shop owner if they could recycle my can please.>

I had fun today with all my errands. I came back to the farm to unload and made a quick delicious lunch and sat out on the patio in the garden. Now I will do some hand-washing and run back to the free wi-fi hot spot I found in town to try and get some real work done on my laptop. Below I have some pictures from my day in France (off the bike) - including my self-made lunch today, and my newly purchased Official Guide to the Tour de France magazine (in french!), and my view of the Pyrenees from my lunch table.

Another picture of our favorite hand soap for washing our cycling kits and clothes. (Oh bring a hanger with clips, or a small laundry line with wooden clothes-pins for drying. Electricity is VERY expensive in France, so try to avoid using a dryer if at all possible (more likely not available). If you need to do a big load and have a couple of hours to sit around, you can find a laundry station (it looks like a small portable building) attached, but outside, of some of the large markets. Drive around in the parking lot to see if you can find one first. A load will cost you 8-12 euros. I try to bring clothes that can be hand-washed only.

And my car! A Renault Scenic. I love this car. It easily holds 2 people, 2 bikes, 2 bike cases, and 4 bags. Or 3 people, 3 bikes, bags, but no bike cases. (pesky bike cases).

Thanks for all the great comments about how much fun the Cycling Lodge of La Lanterne Rouge in Saint Savin, France looked. I received lots of comments regarding "could it get any better than that?!" I am honestly not sure, it was truly a fantastic place to spend 6 days. Thanks again Paddy and Olive (and Sean). I hope you have room for me on my next visit. Also Paddy is an endless resource for advice on cycling routes, and cycling facts & trivia, Olive is a great cook, wonderful company, and talented with languages. Sean is just plain cute.

There you have it - "more than you would ever dream to know" about getting around in France. That is my friend Jean Paul's term for when we seek to know far more than is really necessary.

Images from my day in France: (I should have included a picture of the 6 bottles of Rose wine I bought today - not all for me, of course!)