France travel questions

Mr. Athena and I are going to be in France for about 3 weeks in late September/early October.

We’ve mapped out the basic region where we want to go - pretty much northeast France. Paris/Champagne/Alsace/Burgundy.

We’re trying to decide whether it makes more sense to rent a car in Paris and drive everywhere, or to take the train from one major town to the next and rent a car for use while we’re there. From the research I’ve done so far, I don’t think we can go everywhere we want using public transportation - there’s a lot of little wineries and such that we’d like to go to that require a car.

From what I can tell, train travel between the smaller cities that are not serviced by the TGV aren’t really that much faster than driving. Given that we’d have to turn in the car, get on the train, get off the train at our destination and rent a car again, I’m thinking the trains don’t make sense. Or am I wrong?

Another related question for those of you who know France: we’re getting conflicting information about having to reserve hotel rooms beforehand. Certainly in Paris it’s necessary, but when we’re out in the country we’d love a bit of flexiblity as far as how long we stay in each place. On the other hand, flexibility isn’t fun if it’s difficult or impossible to find a room. Does anyone have any direct experience with this? In the US/Canada, we wouldn’t hesitate to zip around from town to town and easily find places to stay… on the other hand, neither of us speak French well (but we both speak it badly! and we’re practicing to try to get better) and I’m not sure it’s smart to assume it will be easy.

Also… any general advice about those areas? Any particular towns/sights we should see? We’ve pretty much put the trip together around the wines we want to check out, so we know about the chateaux and such. Unfortunately we can’t spend ALL our time drinking wine, so any other info would be nice.

I think that in the end you’d be better off hiring a car, especially if you’re not going to be travelling further than the Burgundy region. Also as soon as you need to get off the beaten track to check out a winery or something you’ll find that smaller public transport (buses and such) isn’t always easy to work out.

It’d be a lot easier if I had a list of the towns you want to visit. It may be cheaper to hire in each town and take the train instead (and less boring for the driver) but it doesn’t look like you’ll be in the car for anymore than 4 hours to go from one region to the next. IMHO taking the train and hiring in each town would only apply if you were going to Nice or Bordeaux or somewhere else far from Paris.

There should be no real need to book anything in advance outside of Paris unless you’re hoping to stay in a castle or someother popular location.
A Burgandy canal trip would allow both of you to enjoy the odd glass together :slight_smile:

If you are stuck for somewhere to stay, Formule1 provides a very cheap ‘n’ easy option (you can even book online, a rarity in France).

It sounds like renting a car would be the way to go. But be sure you rent the car as you’re LEAVING Paris (no need/sense to having the car while in Paris - there’s no where to park ! And the Metro is the way to go in Paris).

I don’t know about travelling in the country in France, but I have travelled around Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and england and did not have a problem finding places to stay. You will be going in more of the off season, so I don’t think that you will have to worry about places being all booked up.
I did want to pass along this tidbit, though. If all else fails (looking for places while driving around), most cities of any size (any that have a train stop) will have a “big I”. This is a universal “information” booth. They will always have someone who can speak english. And in particular, are the most convenient means to find a room. You simply tell them how much you’re willing to pay, and they’ll set you up. So if you ever find yourself having a tough time, start heading toward a bigger town, and either at the train station or nearby, look for the big “I” sign.

The last tidbit is that the big freeways in France are toll roads, and are NOT cheap. So make sure you have euro’s on hand to pay the tolls.

All good info! Thanks!

I think we’ll end up renting a car on the way out of Paris (you bet we don’t want on IN Paris!) and driving.

Thanks for the info on the toll roads. We’ll keep that in mind.

Also thanks on the “big I” sign. We’ve used these kinds of booking services before and have been happy.

For what it’s worth, we’re particularly looking for hotels in the city or village centers, with a good feel of an area. It’s nice to know places like Formula 1 exist - it makes me feel more confident about not having reservations when I know that I can probably find one of these type hotels in a pinch - but what we’d really like are smaller hotels in good locations. We want to wake up in the morning and have a nice view out our window and be able to walk next door to the bakery and pick up fresh croissants, if you know what I mean. It’s also nice to be within walking distance to the major sights/museums/whatevers.

I know these types of places will be more pricy, but that’s OK. We know this isn’t going to be a cheap trip.

> I know these types of places will be more pricy, but that’s OK.

Not a huge lot more pricey. The ‘Formule1’ type motels tend to be as cheap as €30 for a room for 2 for the night (TV/shower) but depending on the size of the town/village, you should easily find locations for around than €60 per night, depending on the time of year you’re visiting.

www.mappy.com will give you road maps, trip planners including tool charges and fuel costs.

I’d also suggest that you consider returning the car at one of the Paris airports, and then taking the train into Paris. It will be much easier to find the rental return at the airport. You don’t want to try to find it when driving around Paris. One day I sat on a Paris sidewalk drinking coffee and counted the cars with body damage driving by. About 75% had some sort of damage, usually scraped paint/sideswipe damage. It looks like a brutal city to drive in.

Driving in the countryside is very nice. I’ve only driven in the south of France, but I found the road signs very easy to follow. You’ll see much more if you stay on the D roads and off the big highways. It’s fun to wander around.

There are a couple of different grades of gas, plus diesel, at the gas stations. Ask what type you need when you pick up the car.

If you want to stray away from the vineyards in Alcase, there are some interesting places a little further North. If you’re a fan of the Hitler Channel, you could visit what’s left of the Maginot Line. I’ll bet you never knew that the Alcase was once a hotbed of the oil industry, but the Petroleum Museum should fill the gaps in your knowledge. It’s next to a pretty good hotel with a fantastic restaurant. (Top left on this page).

I’ve rented a car in Paris and driven around the country-side.

I’ve also just popped into towns and found a place to stay the day we got there.

Everyone travels differently, but to me, that’s a good time. IMO, the hassles associated with a “seat of the pants” approach are only a deal-breaker for those who like to travel entirely within a comfort zone.

My last time in France, we stayed in Beaune (in the burgundy region) on the way to Switzerland. I recommend it.

I rented a wonderful Peugeot 607 (diesel, but you’d never guess from the quiet ride and great zipiness) in Lille a couple of years ago, and puttered around north-west France and Belgium; great fun!

A couple of things to remember: The Autoroutes are excellent roads, some of the best I’ve ever driven on–beautifully engineered and maintained, with breakdown phones avery 2 kms and very clean rest areas every 15 km or so; I didn’t find the tolls that bad. For the love of all that is good, stay out of the middle lane, where the big trucks fly past at apparently insane speeds (I was doing 150 km/hr in the slower right lane).

But the biggest thing to remember is that for some bizarre reason, traffic joining the road from the right has the right-of-way (I’m talking in towns, on smaller roads, etc–not the main roads or the Autoroute). This means that in little villages, you must be constantly on the alert for Francois coming out from that blind side road and cutting in front of you; likewise on some country roads with tall hedgerows. It’s a mad rule, but there it is.

French drivers will flash their lights at you to indicate that they have the right-of-way on narrow lanes, country roads, or coming up behind you on the autoroute–pretty much the opposite of what it means in the UK and parts of North America.

Get an International Driving Licence. As I told friends at the time, I had all the qualifications: $13 and a face. (Actually, you’ll need to hold a current licence in your jurisdiction as well).

We had prearranged accomodations in France (stayed with a friend in their house on the Somme battlefield!) and Belgium; here is a very good reference for hotels in all parts of France: http://www.cybevasion.com/

We just returned from a trip to France, and we stayed in Alsace and the Champagne region. We did not stay in Paris at all - we rented at the airport and drove straight out to Troyes. We then proceeded to Strasbourg, a small, elegant, prosperous city that we really enjoyed. The Holiday Inn there is very pleasant indeed, as it has A/C and large comfortable rooms, and is right on the electric trolley route so that you can go downtown without having to take your car. The cathedral in that city is spectacular. It’s the second highest in France (or is it Europe?), and is built of a rosy pink sandstone that catches the last rays of the sunset full on its front.

One nice thing about Alsace is that you can pop over to Germany very easily and get a look at the Black Forest in an easy day trip. Also, German beer is fabulous, whereas the French are not tops in beermaking, IMO.

We drove through Epernay in the Champagne region on our way back to Paris, and it was extremely beautiful. It had a crumbly old elegance and grandeur about it that I did not see in our previous trips to Burgundy.

Myself, I’m haunted by the idea that we might not find a place to stay, so I’m in the “make a reservation” school. I can recommend:

The Holiday Inn in Strasbourg
Relais St. Jean in Troyes

Have a wonderful time, Athena. Who’s going to mind the pugs?

I have been to France many times and driven several times. It isn’t much of a problem driving in France although you will probably get a manual shift diesel. Driving around Paris is almost as bad as Boston though. As to the hotels, some wise person said “They got the same shit over there that we’ve got here only over there is is a little different.” The have every kind of motel that you want and some are just the drive-up and stay kind that we have.

One area that I can’t recommend strongly enough is the Loire Valley or the Valley of Castles (as in many, many drop dead huge gorgeous castles you can explore). I am surrounded by many very frequent European travellers in my personal life and they consider the Loire Valley to be among the best of the best. I was enchanted with it myself.

I’ve not done it myself, but I believe that there is a point where you do better to lease (or buy and then sell back) the car than to actually just rent a car like in the USA. I know that Renault has some innovative programs, although I’d personally prefer a Peugot. Maybe someone can pop in with some further information on that?

Mr. Athena’s mother will be house sitting for us. She claims she doesn’t like dogs, but whenever she’s over here she talks to them pretty much nonstop, so maybe they don’t count as dogs. :smiley:

We are definitely looking forward to Strasbourg. I think we’re going to stay in Colmar instead, as I’ve heard it’s a smaller city but just as nice. Or maybe we’ll do 2 nights in Colmar and 2 in Strasbourg. Who knows? If we can wing it, we will.

What did you think of Champagne versus Alsace, teela? My overall impression is that Champagne isn’t as pretty as Alsace/Burgundy/Loire valley. We are going because we are big fans of Champagne (the drink) and want to visit the wineries.

Any other specific towns you can recommend?

Maybe I need to clarify then: we aren’t looking for the typical chain hotel type place. We’re looking for small hotels with a lot of character. Sometimes this maps to expensive boutique hotels in the city center, sometimes it’s the family-run hotel in a small town.

We really, really don’t want to stay in anything like your typical Marriot or Holiday Inn Express. Not that there’s anything wrong with those, but for this type of trip we want to have something a little less generic.

I did this back in 2001 and it was a blast. Driving around in France was easy. A few of the road signs didn’t make sense but town directions were always clearly marked.

There are signs that look like speed limit signs. These post the lowest possible speed you can go, not the highest. Add about 20 kph to the posted number and you will flow with traffic.
As for a place to stay, stay in a chateau or castle. There are castles that operate as hotels. Staying in one is a blast and not that expensive.
Here is one site.

I am very envious right now…

Used to be our family fall trip. Alsace is awesome - French savoir-vivre meets German attention to detail - and I’d have no problem recommending just going day-by-day and staying at the local places. My parents MO was to drive until we found a pretty city, check out a few of the local inns, pick one and stay. Sometimes you lose and overpay for a surly host and a bumpy grand-lit, sometimes you win hugely and get a great experience at modest cost.

If you’re lucky, you’ll arrive at the end of the late wine harvest, where the little villages all smell like grapes and fermentation. Strasbourg is certainly OK, but it’s a big city. Colmar is better, IMHO - but go seek out the small places. I fondly remember an inn in Husserein-les-Chateaux, but good experiences can be found just about anywhere.

Oh, and the local cuisine is very very good, but also very robust.

Good times ahead…

Champagne’s lovely, but it’s a bit small, and it’s quite close to Paris. This may be a factor during a weekend, as I’m sure the Parisians must like to stay there overnight. We didn’t stop to taste because champagne’s not our favorite drink and we were starting to get a bit tired. We did, however, pick up a picnic lunch in lovely Epernay and ate it in a little picnic stop overlooking the champagne vineyards (baguette, camembert, Lyon sausage, Cavaillon melon, and chocolate gateau - sigh).

I liked Alsace better because of the variety of sightseeing options available. There was the Route des Vins, which is a long chain of lovely and accessible picturesque villages running north and south through wine country. We liked the villages of Bergheim and Requehir (sp?) best. This area produces stellar gewurtztraminer and riesling. Haupt-Konigsberg is a gorgeous hilltop castle overlooking the Route des Vins and is a must-see. We didn’t stop in Colmar, because we had spent all our tourist energies on the wine villages. The Holiday Inn with AC was important to us, because it was in the 90s the week we were there!

Like I mentioned, it’s fun to pop over to Germany. The old spa and resort town of Baden-Baden is quite close to Strasbourg, and it’s a pricey, elegant, beautiful place nestled in the Black Forest. The German people were very pleasant and the town full of upscale shopping. If you go, try “Riegeler” or “Alpisbacher” beer.

However, the Alsace region is famous for its heavy cooking: lots of choucroute, sausages, cheese, smoked meats, etc. I was always on the lookout for restaurants which specified French cooking, as I was getting a bit bloated - like I said, it was in the 90s. Urp.

We’ve driven around France, but our most recent trip we just trained it (most of our time was in other countries, and we flew out of Frankfurt, Germany.)
I would think that in the fall you would be able to do more of a seat-of-your pants thing.
Here is the hotel (charming staff, unbeatable location) where we stayed in Strasbourg, I city I heartily recommend; the European Parliament is fascinating, the Cathedral magnificent, Petit France is fun, and the pedestrian area is charming.
Hotel Cardinal de Rohan