Go to France and you do more than visit a foreign country. You take part in a way of life, evolved by a people with a genius for living well. From the moment you break into an oven-warm baguette in the morning, to the last generous cognac after a five-course dinner, French style has you in its seductive embrace. This, more than anything else about the country – and there is much else – is what draws Francophiles back time after time: they need to delve a little deeper into the nature of their addiction.
French style is difficult to define, but impossible to miss. It is not just about stripey shirts and berets, food or culture; it is a common appreciation of the good things in life which crosses barriers of class and opinion. The dauntingly chic Parisian office worker with her Chanel shoulder bag has no more money than her counterparts the world over; but she takes added pride in her style. The traditional French café is both the natural preserve of the sophisticated and well-educated as well as the village parlour and unofficial youth club.
Enjoyment of good food and wine is of course a key element of the French way of life. The national passion for la cuisine burns throughout the land, from the temples of Bocuse, Robuchon and Meneau to the humblest farm kitchen, and of course in the local market place, perhaps the best place of all to begin a love affair with French cooking. The stalls will be piled high with the freshest local produce – huge beef tomatoes, a dozen different types of salad leaf, peaches and plums, melons and apricots. Don’t forget to stop by the fromagère with his wares laid out in the shade – fresh goats’ cheese wrapped in leaves, heart-shaped Neuchâtel, blue-coated roundels of Saint-Marcellin, nutty Cantal. Then visit the charcuterie for salamis, pâtés and carrot salad en route to the boulangerie for bread, croissants, brioches and delectable tartes aux fruits, reflecting the changing seasons with strawberries, figs and bilberries.
It is a common misapprehension that the French are unfriendly. Not true, unless you mistake for disinterest their respect for your privacy and a certain formality required of la poiitesse. Given a chance, the average French man or woman will open up with enthusiasm after the introductions have been made and the pleasantries exchanged.
Travelling in France is a mixture of major events – grand scenery, inspiring cathedrals, grandiose châteaux – and of small pleasures. Often it is the little things that you remember longest: picnicking in a field where seven different types of orchid grow wild; or visiting a small-scale château in the Berry where labradors waddle out to meet you and there are family photographs on the piano.Here are three useful tips for making the most of travels in France:First, don’t visit tourist traps such as villes perchées by day when the coachloads are there too. Plan to dine there, or to stay the night when you can see them at their best.Second, enquire of local hotels or tourist information offices about local events such as festivals, bullfights in the south, Christmas markets in Alsace, or pardons in Brittany, which offer a unique opportunity to experience first-hand, even to get involved in, local life and traditions.Third, do try to visit at least one major restaurant on a trip. Many are expensive, but I still think they are worth every centime, and you can save money by economizing on accommodation – there is more simple, comfortable and relatively cheap accommodation in France, including chambres d’hôte or bed-and-breakfast, than any other country in western Europe. Some people forget that it is actually quite easy to eat bad meals and stay in over-priced, poor hotels in France; they are a contradiction of everything that is good about travelling in France, and can spoil the experience. So follow the recommendations in this guide, wisely spend some money from time to time, and you will protect your overall investment in the trip, returning with some life-long memories.One of the greatest French bargains of all is the countryside, and one of the greatest pleasures is driving the backroads. Do all you can to stray from the autoroutes; this book will show you how.One final piece of advice: accept that you will have to go back, again and again. In European terms, France is a big and tremendously varied country. Getting to know it is a lifetime’s work.