Five things you simply must eat when you visit France

Foods to try in France: Macarons
A macaron, not Emmanuel
Macron, not a macaron

In some ways, I’m hesitant to offer food as one of the reasons that I’ve come to love France.  I’m an American, after all, and we’ve developed a reputation for being not just rotund and undisciplined but for having very undiscriminating palates.  Sure, we’ve given the world Mcdonald’s and Taco Bell, but what other really impressive culinary feats are uniquely American?  I’m sure there are some, but I’m at a loss to name them.    So I’m at least a little embarrassed to suggest that us Americans should visit France because they have great food.

This scene from A Good Year, with Russel Crowe and Marion Cotillard, encapsulates the stereotypical image that Americans have earned, at least in the minds of some:

I don’t know many Americans that fit the Good Year stereotype, but I do know some.    Because there are French people that think all Americans fit that mold, I think those of us that travel to France should do our best to be better and to leave at least a neutral impression if we can’t make a positive one.  It’s our duty to contribute at least this much to international relations.

Whether American tourist’s reputation for bad taste and worse manners was fairly earned I can’t say.  But I can say from experience that France’s reputation for unparalleled culinary excellence is underestimated.  Naturally, you don’t have to go to France to eat the foods I’ve recommended below but there is no question that, whether they are French creations or just concoctions that the French have perfected, these are items that are best enjoyed in France when prepared by French artisans.   While food, even superb French fare, is probably not a stand-alone reason to travel to France, once you’re there for all the other really good reasons that you should go, you shouldn’t miss these scrumptious foods:

1. Macarons.  You may have tried macaroons in which case you think of them as a coconut -flavored cookie and not particularly worthy of note.  If that’s the case, you’ve cheated yourself.  Macaroons are not macarons, any more than Emmanuel Macron is a macaroon.  He is nothing less than the president of France, and macarons are nothing less than the ruling class of French confections.

And although the original macaron was probably first concocted in Italy by Catherine de Medici’s personal chef, subsequent French patissiers have raised the art of macaron creation to an unsurpassed (and probably unsurpassable) level.

I’ve been traveling to France for many years.  My brother owns property there, and I’ve stayed both with him and one of his neighbors in Provence.  I’ve worked on his property and his neighbor’s property so I don’t feel like I’m just another tourist, although that’s probably an arrogant attitude.  But for all of my French travels and my boundless francophilia, I did not taste a single macaron until 2016 during a visit to Paris.  This is partly due to the variety of tempting confections that one can find in any French bakery, but it’s more the result of my own ignorance.

At least one of the gaps in my knowledge of French pastries was filled when a friend and fellow francophile exclaimed over her love of macarons.  She told my wife and me that not all macarons are created equal, and recommended a particular patisserie in Paris that she claimed made the best macarons EVER.  Since neither of us had eaten even a mediocre macaron, we decided that we’d find her recommended pastry shop to see what the fuss was about.

I’m still not sure whether we found the exact patisserie that our friend recommended, but I am sure that my first-ever bite of a Parisian macaron was absolutely heavenly.  If there’s a better tasting macaron in Paris, it would be a huge mistake for me to eat it because I’m quite certain that I’d be as addicted as Edmund was to the enchanted Turkish delight in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

My wife and I started with a raspberry creme macaron and worked our way up to the dark chocolate.  We’d gotten a total of four for our first taste test.  From my palate’s point of view, that wasn’t nearly enough.  From a caloric standpoint, it was probably 3.5 too many.   But we were both hooked hard after that first bite.

Part of the incredible appeal of a well prepared Parisian macaron is the combination of a crunchy outer texture covering chewy and gooey innards.  But in the end, it’s the light airiness along with the incredibly rich flavors that make French macarons so scrumptious and addictive.

The ingredients are simple, just almond flour and a couple kinds of powdered and/or confectioner’s sugar along with a vast variety of potential flavorings.  The flavors aren’t typically mixed so you’re going to have to make a choice among perhaps 20 or more colors and flavors.  As nearly as I can tell, it’s impossible to choose poorly.

Since I don’t have a specific patisserie to recommend, you can read the Parisianist’s top ten Paris patisseries here.   A word of warning: once you get started eating French macarons, the memory of their gooey goodness will haunt you until your next fix.

choco pain
Choco pain

2.  Choco pain.   Those of us with a weakness for sweets should enter any French patisserie with extreme caution.  In fact, it’s wise to enter one only with full backup and only within no more than half an hour after your last full meal.

Having said that, traveling to France won’t be quite as appealing or fulfilling if you don’t indulge in an occasional chocolate croissant with un cafe au lait.   The French have perfected the sacred rite of marrying chocolate with magical croissant dough that is flakier than an American politician.  Fresh from a French bakery oven, even a mediocre (by French standards) choco pain croissant is delectable.

Choco pain is ubiquitous in France, as are the patisseries that have turned the creation of them into a high art form.  I can’t recommend one patisserie over another for these confections since they seem to be of such similar quality wherever I’ve found them.  The most important point is to consume them with a coffee as the combination of the two is at the very top of French petit déjeuner (breakfast) fare.

Escargot

3. Escargot.  Yes, I know that they are snails and that many people find the idea of them repulsive.  I used to have a similar worldview, but it disappeared after the first bite.

Escargot in the human diet has a long and venerated history.  Archaeological evidence from around the Mediterranean indicates that humans have been eating these tasty critters for at least 30,000 years.   The French have definitely advanced the preparation of them since our Neolithic ancestors roasted them over open fires.  And while you can make the case that large quantities of butter can make just about anything palatable, there is something unique and appealing about well-prepared escargot.

Modern humans serve them piping hot in a ceramic dish that keeps them hot long enough that you can linger over them and savor every bite.  Each little morsel is saturated in a concoction of garlic butter, parsley, tarragon, and sometimes chicken stock and/or white wine.  They are served with either brioche or just a baguette which is perfect for absorbing the buttery sauce.

You’ll naturally want to pair them with a nice dry white wine.  They’re mostly protein with very little fat (if you exclude the butter which of course you can’t).  They really do make a perfect appetizer for any multi-course French meal.  In case you’re thinking that they’re a rare delicacy only eaten by the eccentric, the French eat over 40,000 metric tons of them each year while American restaurants serve a cool billion annually.

You may have to move outside your comfort zone but order half a dozen rich and buttery escargot with at least one meal while you’re in France.  You almost certainly won’t regret it.

foie gras
Foie Gras?

4. Foie Gras.  It’s pronounced something like “fwah graw”, not “foy grass” if you were wondering.  Unlike macarons and choco pain, escargot and foie gras can be off-putting for some.  I understand completely since I was once put off by both, but I’m now a huge fan of them.  If I were ranking escargot and foie gras in order of my personal preference, I’d put foie gras a little ahead of escargot although I love them both.

My own transition from foie gras skeptic to enthusiastic fan came about accidentally.  I was dining with family friends who live in a small village in the Dordogne.  Our host is an accomplished chef who takes great pride in his culinary skill.  He owns a very well-stocked wine cave and makes every meal an elaborate and delicious production.   Although my wife and I had offered our help in the kitchen, we were only allowed to assist with the green salad before he shewed us out.  He served the meal in courses.  The first one included fresh bread and a dish that we didn’t immediately recognize.  We were talking and distracted so we were less curious than we might have been.  We followed our hosts lead as they smeared what we would later learn was foie gras from a local farmer that our host had befriended onto the crusty and delightful pain (bread).

Our first bites ended all conversation as we concentrated on the rich flavors of the foie gras, the bread, and the wine.  The taste of the foie gras was altogether different from anything in our experience, which makes it hard to describe.  It was buttery, rich, and so appealing that it was hard to stop eating it.  My sister-in-law is a good friend of our host and she later told us that he had set out to find the best foie gras in his local area when he’d first moved to the area.  His search was long and hard, but he knew immediately when he found it.  It was not cheap, but he accumulated a suitable supply and we were lucky enough to visit at a time when he had enough to share.

Since those first delicious bites, I’ve had foie gras both cold and seared.  These are very different experiences, but you have to try it both ways.  When it’s seared, it takes on a different character.  With a crispy outer crust and smooth interior, seared foie gras is a rare delicacy.  It’s wonderful either way, but you may find that you have a favorite.   The only way to find out is to try both ways.  Another option that’s on at least some French menus is a Périgourdine salad which usually includes both smoked duck breast and foie gras.

We’ve since traveled and stayed for several weeks in the Dordogne, including 2 weeks at Le Chesney, a foie gras farm and gite (private home/apartment rental).  Even if you’re not planning a trip to the Dordogne, Chesny is reason enough to change your mind and start planning now.  You can learn more and start the booking process here.

During my stay at Le Chesny, I was treated to a tour of the farm and production facilities.  Amelie, the daughter of proprietors and foie gras artisans Christophe and Karine Pouyau, speaks perfect English.  Contrary to the inhumane conditions that animal rights groups have claimed are standard for foie gras production facilities, Chesny was incredibly clean, spacious, and sanitary.  While I didn’t witness the gavage procedure, Amelie showed us how it was done and told us that the ducks and geese are neither injured by it nor are they traumatized.   Unlike many American chicken egg production facilities, the fowl at Le Chesney are housed in spacious outdoor pens before the 12 weeks of gavage, or forced feeding, that makes them suitable for foie gras.

I’m sure there are foie gras operations that aren’t humane, just as there are confined animal feeding operations throughout America that are cruel and unsanitary.   We shouldn’t judge an industry based on the worst actions of the worst actors in that industry.  If we did, we’d never any animal products.  The fact is that foie gras can be produced as cruelly or as kindly made as any animal-based foods.  French foie gras farms and production facilities tend to be small, artisanal operations like Christophe and Karine’s Le Chesny, so if you buy foie gras in France, you’re not supporting a cruel industry.

moules
Moules are mussels.  Not muscles.

5. Moules-frites.  Steamed mussels served with fries are extraordinarily common on menus throughout France.  It’s really a perfect lunch meal and can usually be purchased for 10 to 15 euros.

Since I grew up in western Oregon, I’ve seen mussels on Oregon’s rocky ocean shoreline since I was a kid.  I didn’t realize that they were edible by anything other than seagulls until my early 20s, but after the first couple of bites of steamed mussels, I liked them.  But I had no idea how good well-prepared moules can be.

The French produce about 80,000 metric tons of mussels each year on both their Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts.  But that only accounts for about half of the annual consumption, so they import around another 80,000 metric tons to meet their domestic demand.  Meanwhile, Americans consume over 52 billion pounds of meat per year, among the highest per capita in the world.   Whether these differences in eating habits are related to the fact that Americans spend an average of $10,348 per year on health care compared to the French, who spend an average of $4,600 is not the topic of this article, but it’s probably worth considering.   From a nutritional standpoint, mussels are relatively high in protein, low in fat, and high in omega three fatty acids.  They’re high in several minerals that your body needs, including phosphorous, magnesium, and potassium. But because they taste so good, it’s easy to forget their nutritional value.

The typical mussel shell is about the size of your thumb, so the mussel morsel inside is small and tender.  French chefs have developed several recipes that enhance their natural goodness.  Moules marinière (is among the most common preparation you’ll see on menus.  This usually consists of steaming the mussels in white wine, then adding a red sauce, sometimes with cream.  My personal favorite is any concoction with bleu cheese.  One example from a French menu is moules a la creme et bleu which includes a creamy white wine sauce with bleu cheese.  It’s beyond delicious.  And while the creme, butter, and cheese may counterbalance the nutritional benefits, at least the mussels don’t make it worse.

Final Thoughts

France is the most visited country in the world.  Those of us that love it and return as often as we can don’t go there just for the food, but it’s a huge fringe benefit.  The French have been enjoying excellent cooking since the Revolution when so many master chefs lost their jobs when their employers lost their heads.  The misfortune of the aristocrats created an opportunity for the underclasses to enjoy cuisine that only the wealthiest had tasted in ages past.  In many was the French Revolution was the event that brought haute cuisine to the western world.   Even mediocre American cuisine is better today because of French influence.

There are many, many more than five foods you should try when you visit France, but the ones I listed above are foods I’ve enjoyed time and again.  Thanks to Google Translate, you can read any menu in your native language on your cell phone.  If you haven’t tried it, you’ll be amazed.  It’s free from both Android and iOS smartphones.  Download it before you go.  When you go to restaurants in France you should definitely try my suggestions, but you’ll find many other tempting menu items at even relatively humble restaurants.

Bon voyage and bon appétit!

Four Really Good Reasons to Visit Annecy, France

Canals, Cafes, and Charm

Reason 1: Fleurissement

For those that love the French culture and the villages, towns, and cities where it flourishes, Annecy (pronounced something like Ann-see) is a jewel.   If you just like to travel but don’t have a crush on France, it’s still a jewel.  Connoisseurs of travel derive supreme pleasure from beauty in all its forms, especially when it’s something heretofore unseen or rare and unusual.  That’s one very good reason that both first-time and returning visitors are eager to come to Annecy.  

I don’t speak French nearly as well as I should but I’ve learned enough to know that there are many French words and concepts that don’t translate perfectly to English.  For example, the word fleurissement translated directly to English means flowering or blooming.  But when “fleur-EES-mon” rolls off the dulcet tongue of a native French speaker, it conjures more than just blooms and blossoms.  it brings to mind the fullness of all that flowers are, their delicate fragrances, the joy we feel in a flowering meadow on a perfect spring morning.  At least that’s how I perceive it.   And although it may not be an official word in the French lexicon, I’ve seen the word “enfleurissement” used to convey the idea that Annecy locals have taken such pride in, which is to richly adorn their already lovely town with flowers of every description and adapted to nearly every season.

Whether you’re strolling along the shoreline path that rings Lac d’Annecy (Lake Annecy) or sauntering through the vielle ville (the old town) admiring the buildings, shops, and market stalls, Annecy is awash in the vivid colors of the fleurs (flowers) that adorn virtually every window, railing, roadway, pathway and roundabout.

The elite “4 fleurs” Ville Fleurie

The denizens of Annecy are so enthusiastic about the enfleurissement of their ville that they have devoted an amazing 18 square meters per resident to green spaces.  Their skilled efforts have resulted in their hometown winning the coveted quatre fleurs (four flowers) designation as a Ville Fleurie (Flowery Town) for at least 40 straight years.  Organized by the French government in 1959, the Concours des villes et villages fleuris (towns and villages in bloom competition) is an annual national “competition” that awards communities across France for their enfleurissement efforts.


The concours fleuris is not really a competition because the participants are not competing against each other, only vying for the right to have their towns distinguished by the Ville Fleurie designation.  The Ville Fleurie award ranges from un fleur,  the equivalent of a nod for a good effort, to Annecy’s full quatre fleurs ranking, a distinction shared by only 226 out of over 12,000 towns and cities that participate.

Canals and Kodak moments around every bend

Towns that achieve this elite status are special wherever you find them.  But Annecy, located as it is in the footprints of the massive glaciers and tectonic forces that sculpted the lake, mountains, valleys, and ridges of the region, has an enormous advantage.  It is a town adorned with stunning natural beauty that is brilliantly enhanced by the liberal placement of beaucoup fleurs.  In fact, it’s hard to find a public space in Annecy that is not festooned with seasonal flowering plants of every description.  With fragrance and beauty on every street, Annecy may well be the first French city to win its cinquième (fifth) fleur if such a distinction is ever recognized.

C’est la fromage

Reason 2: Fromage (Cheese)

Most French regions are distinguished by unique culinary specialties.   In the Aquitaine, it’s foie gras, the delectable terrine made from duck and goose livers.  In Cancale, on the coast of Brittany, oysters are the tasty pièce de résistance.   And in Haute-Savoie, the smooth and flavorful local cheeses are the heart and soul of their haute cuisine.

Raclette Grill for a Delicious and Fun Meal

Raclette is served at many of Annecy’s restaurants.  It’s a dish you shouldn’t miss, especially if you’re fond of cheese.  If you’re not fond of cheese, it may be because you haven’t tasted raclette.  The dish takes its name from a local cheese but it includes more than just cheese.

It’s simple to prepare but is best served with a special apparatus (pictured above) that melts the cheese and gives it a golden crust, while warming the potatoes, peppers, and cured meats that are served with the cheese.  The raclette cheese itself is made of cow’s milk and is semi-hard.  It’s ideal for melting.  Once it becomes gooey and develops a golden-brown crust, it’s scraped onto a plate and eaten slowly with bits of roasted (or boiled or grilled) potatoes, cornichons (small pickles), and salami or other sliced and cured meats.  It’s the sort of meal that’s meant to savor and it goes without saying that it’s remarkably rich.  The Swiss are credited with its creation, but the denizens of the alpine regions of France and Switzerland have added their own twists.  Eat it slowly, and eat less than you’d like to. And wash it down with plenty of liquids, preferably wine. An unexpected influx of fat in the form of very rich cheese can play havoc on an unaccustomed digestive tract.

Don’t hesitate to give it a try at Le Freti located at 12 rue Sainte Claire in the old town.  I don’t think they take reservations, check their opening hours and go during the week if you can.  You’ll spend 20 euros or less per person on a good raclette with wine.  Important tip: drink plenty of wine or water during and after the meal.  It will help ease the passage of the raclette through your digestive system.

Fond of Fondue

Fondue is the other beloved alpine cheese dish that most Annecy restaurants serve.  If you haven’t had the pleasure of trying the Haute-Savoie variations, you’re missing a wonderful treat.  Fondue is an artform as much as it is a meal and the Annecy locals are fondue artisans of the highest order.   The trick seems to be not just in the consistency of the melt, but also in the selections of the cheeses and the wine from which it’s made.  The right combination is hard to surpass.  And once again, Le Freti has a reputation for getting it right.  Fondue is not an appetizer, it’s a full meal.  It is served with bread, but also ham and boiled potatoes.  Extremely filling and satisfying.

Tartiflette is a Savoyard specialty.  The Annecy locals have significantly advanced the science of its preparation.   As with raclette and fondue, the heart and soul of tartiflette is cheese, but in this case, it’s reblochon which is a cheese unique to the Savoy.  It’s made from the milk of very content grass-fed cows that graze happily in the high meadows of the Aravis massif.  The texture is soft and creamy.   Although scalloped potatoes may be a very distant relative of the tartiflette, you mustn’t be fooled into thinking that they’re similar. The two dishes are as distinct as aardvarks are from elephants, which are distant relatives, too.  Tartiflette is undoubtedly a comfort food, but a comfort food that’s in its own class.  When tartiflette is well prepared, it will include the finest potatoes, thinly sliced, lardons (bacon), shallots, garlic, cream, and of course reblochon.  Some twists to the basic recipe may include tomatoes as a topping.  Le Lilas Rose is reputed to prepare a decent tartiflette, but for what is purportedly the best (and most expensive) in the region, visit Veyrier-du-lac, a nearby village on the lake, to experience the 2-star Michelin tartiflette at Restaurant Yoann Conte.  Although I can’t vouch for it personally, you can find plenty of online reviews that should whet your appetite.

Honorable mention – Annecy along with the Savoie and the Haute-Savoie regions take pride in creating regionally unique pork sausages called diots (pronounced something like dee-yoh).  They are traditionally cooked in white wine, but can also be grilled or broiled.  During market days and festivals, they’re often served from stands scattered through the town along with grilled onions and a generous helping of polenta.   You can try them pretty much any time at many of the touristy restaurants in the old town, like O Savoyard.  The food there is adequate, the ambiance is nicer than the food.  They maintain lots of outdoor tables when the weather allows it which is reason enough to eat there.   O Savoyard doesn’t really cater to locals, which may be an important clue.  The prices aren’t unreasonable.

Gravity wins in the end.

Reason 3: Spectacular Geology

Stonemasons. sculptors, quarrymen, and anyone else that works with stone understand that it requires enormous patience.   The supremely patient forces of nature, under the forbearing tutelage of time itself, have created some incredible masterworks in the area around Annecy.

As an artistically illiterate layperson, I enjoy art a lot more when I learn about the artist and the techniques she or he used in their creations.  Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings took on much deeper meaning to me when I learned about the progression of his skill,  how he ordered his brush strokes, his compassion for the poor, and the migraines that may well have influenced the way he saw and thus painted the world.   In the same way, knowing about the processes that formed the incredible landscapes around Annecy should make them all the more impressive and lovely so I’m giving you a quick primer, below.

Time out of mind. It took many millions of years to create the landscape of Haute-Savoie region and the Alps beyond.  The story of their creation is not a simple one.  Unraveling the details required years of peering deep into the past and far below the ground’s surface.  What earth scientists have found fills volumes.  This “Cliff Notes” version is mercifully much shorter, but at least hits the high points:

Sacabambapsis, one of the first vertebrates. Courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris

The Tethys Ocean – Birthplace of the Alps.   The Alps and the sub-alpine region where Annecy lies were birthed in the Tethys Ocean.  If you’re checking your atlas to locate the Tethys, you won’t find it unless you’re using a very old one.  That long-forgotten sea was squeezed from existence about 65 million years ago when it found itself between itinerant continental plates that wandered into each other.  But before the “big squeeze” that dried it up, the Tethys was a very respectable ocean, at least as large as the modern Atlantic, teaming with life.

Oceans are good at accumulating thick sequences of marine sediments.  The sediments that stacked up on the floor of the Tethys ocean were produced from the land masses that surrounded it and from the organisms that lived in it.  The land masses included a large one that later became modern-day Europe and Asia (Eurasia) to the north and India, Africa, and perhaps a smaller piece or two that was also traveling northward.  These land masses were made of the same kinds of rocks of which modern continents are composed, including things like granite and basalt, as well as metamorphic and sedimentary rocks.

It goes without saying that it’s a slow process for solid rock to be broken down into cobbles, pebbles, sand, silt, and the clay that accumulate as sediments on a seafloor.   It would take a long time to produce the thousands of cubic miles of sediments that accumulated in the Tethys basin if you used an army of modern rock-crushing equipment.  But when the only process that’s doing the work is weathering caused by wind and water and freezing and thawing, it takes a really, really long time.  In fact, it may have taken most of the Mesozoic, the geologic era when dinosaurs were the dominant species on land and marine reptiles ruled the seas.  The first fish fossils are found in Mesozoic sediments, and many invertebrates species appeared then too, along with a richer diversity of plant life.

That’s going to leave a mark…(Image prepared by http://www.whoi.edu)

A grand collision.  The Mesozoic lasted for more than 180 million years, which was enough time for lots of sediments to build up in the Tethys.  By the late Mesozoic, about 65 million years ago, the Tethys had been closed by the colliding continental plates and the sediments that covered much of that ancient sea’s floor began to be warped, folded, and pushed upward as the continents mercilessly pushed and shoved each other.

Continental collisions involve enormous energies, but they happen very slowly.  The average tectonic plate moves between about 2 and 5 centimeters per year, which is slower than your hair grows.  So if you have a fear being crushed between colliding continents, you can relax.  You’ll have plenty of time to step out of the way.

Competing forces. Near the end of the Mesozoic, the forces that closed up the Tethys and pushed it’s bottom to the top were in full swing.  The Alps and several other mountain chains in Europe were being created out of both the Tethys sedimentary rocks and the crystalline basement rocks that lay below them.  The result was to warp once horizontal sedimentary layers into massive folds that were thrust ever higher as they were compressed between the slow but inexorable power of huge landmasses moving in more or less opposite directions.

While compressional forces worked to shove the folded sediments and older basement rocks ever higher, the same erosional forces that created them in the first place set to work to sculpt and shape the relatively new mountains.  Liquid water is the undisputed queen of weathering, erosion, and sedimentation, but her phase cousin, ice, is another massive force that is very good at turning big mountains into smaller, but more interesting ones.

Alpine Glaciers: Rivers of Ice

Glaciers can be thought of as incredibly large bulldozers or as powerful rivers of ice.  They move much more slowly than water but they do an amazing amount of work and they do it faster than liquid water can.   Massive erosion and transport that might take water countless millions of years may take a glacier only a few millennia.   Powered by the mighty engine of gravity, they move inexorably downslope, shoving rock and earth out of their paths and scooping out deep furrows that often become lakes after the glacial ice melts, like Lake Annecy.

Geologic time is divided into eons, eras, epochs, and ages.  The Tethys Ocean existed during most of the Mesozoic Era.  The Mesozoic is the time of “middle life”, the era of the dinosaurs.  The final Mesozoic Epoch was the Cretaceous, the end of which was marked by the extinction of the dinosaurs.  The Mesozoic started about 260 million years ago and ended about 65 million years ago, around the time that the Tethys was squeezed shut and the Alpine Orogeny (mountain building) began.  The building of the Alps has continued throughout the 65 million years of the Cenozoic Era (sometimes called the Age of Mammal)s.  Enough pressure probably still exists beneath the Alps today to continue to force the mountains ever higher, while ice, water, and gravity work to make them shorter.  In other words, after 65 million years, the Alpine Orogeny is not done.

The Pleistocene Epoch started about 2.1 million years ago in the late Cenozoic Era.   Throughout much of the Pleistocene, the climate was considerably colder than it is today.  In fact, earth scientists think that the there were as many as 30 distinct glaciations or ice ages during the Pleistocene and that many of the interglacial periods of warming, like the one we’re in now, were shorter than the glacial periods.

During the coldest parts of the glacial periods, up to 30 percent of the earth was covered with ice.  Much of that ice has been in the form of glaciers (hence term “glacial period”).   And even though only 10%  of the earth is currently covered by ice, some of that 10 percent is still in the Alps, including a number of very active glaciers which have been among time’s sharpest tools for mountain sculpting.

Glaciers move in two distinct ways.  The first is by internal flow.  This happens when sufficient snow accumulates in a location where the temperature doesn’t rise above freezing year round.  When the pressure of the overlying snow becomes high enough, the individual snowflakes re-crystallize to make ice that is much denser than just packed snow.  The new crystal structure is plate-like, causing the ice to respond to gravity be deforming.  When this happens, the internal plates flow past one another with relative ease.  Internal flow is also called “creep”.

The second mechanism of glacial movement is basal sliding.  This happens when the pressure and temperature at the bottom of the glacier are sufficient to melt some of the ice.  The meltwater lubricates the glacier, allowing it to slide over the ground.  In conjunction with internal flow, basal sliding provides the mechanism for glaciers to move billions of tons of ice and rock over long distances.  The results are nothing short of spectacular.

Pleistocene glaciers have been whittling away at the Alps and other high ranges for the last 2 million years.  They’ve carved and transported billions of tons of ancient Tethys sediments and any other rocks that got in their paths.  They’ve exposed the older granites and other crystalline rocks that were once deep below the continental shelf of the ancient Tethys sea.

The handiwork of time  When you look south from the northern shoreline of Lac d’Annecy, you can see lots of evidence that glaciers have been busy in Annecy’s neighborhood.  The lake itself is a combination of glacial scooping and large-scale faulting.  The axis of the lake more or less follows a strike-slip fault, the same sort as the San Andreas fault in California.  The ridges to the south, including Mt. Veyrier and Mt. Baret, are composed of Tethys sediments that are large upward folds called anticlines.  They were folded by the collisions of the continents that closed the Tethys. then carved by ice, wind, and water.  Mont Parmelan, a little further south, reaches a just over 6,000 feet above sea level.   The white rock that caps Parmelan is limestone, a remnant of the Tethys.  The cliffs of Mt. Veyrier and the Dents de Lanfon (Teeth of Lanfon) are also ancient marine sediments.  These ridges are recreational treasures.  Outdoor enthusiasts, including hikers, cross-country skiers, rock climbers, paragliders and hang gliders are drawn to these landforms year round.

Gorges du Fier: On of the natural wonders of the Haute Savoie

Gorges du Fier.  This incredible geologic feature could and does stand alone as an excellent reason to visit Annecy.    In the end, no mention of the region’s geology would be complete without including this fascinating little gorge.The Fier River flows across a plain of glacial debris that is underlain by molasse, sedimentary material that accumulates in basins in front of rising mountain chains, in this case, the Alps.  As the mega forces that formed the mountains continued to push them higher and higher, weathering and erosion carved off the material that would form the molasse into the basin in front of the new mountain range.  This material was deposited in a shallow sea during the Cretaceous and is probably over 100 million years old.  Known locally as the Urgonien limestone, it’s found in Belgium and parts of southeast France.  

Urgonien limestone is well-cemented and difficult to erode.  And yet the vigorous little Fier River managed to cut a deep, narrow notch right through it in a remarkably short period of time, probably less than 20,000 years.

The limestone is broadly folded into an upward arch or anticline and the gorge is cut at right angles to the fold.  At it’s deepest, the gorge is about 120 feet deep.  But it’s narrow, in many places only 5 feet wide.  The walkway that allows visitors to stride through the very heart of the gorge is an engineering marvel.  The design of the walkway, though, was nothing compared to the construction of it.  The building and maintenance crews must have nerves of steel since it’s secured to the sheer walls of the gorge between 60 and 80 feet above a narrow but sometimes violent torrent.  Just walking on it requires a fair bit of nerve.

Gorges du Fier walkway

The limestone is smoothly sculpted throughout, with many strange and intriguing shapes carved into the ancient stone.   The total length of the walkway is around a third of a mile, so the round trip is under a mile.  But it’s a pretty cool mile.

Getting there.  The gorge is just 7 miles from the Annecy’s vielle ville (old town).   If you don’t have a car, you can to the gorge on a public bus for a couple of euros.  The nearest bus stop is a little over half a mile from the gorge entrance, but it’s a lovely walk.  You can find directions, including the bus routes,  and opening hours here.    The entrance fees are about 6 euros for adults.

A visit to Annecy is not complete without seeing the gorge.  A word of caution:  on my last visit, 4 buses carrying students arrived shortly after we did.  Although we initially had the walkway to ourselves, several waves of teenagers came bounding down the walkway after we’d made it about halfway.  I didn’t read the engineering specifications for the walkway, and I’m sure it was designed with lots of extra load-bearing capacity, but I was still a little unnerved by the vibrations and creaking as the torrent of teens swarmed around us.  If you have a choice, avoid visiting during school tours.

Reason four: Retour des Alpages festival.  On the second Saturday of October, Annecy celebrates the end of summer with a rousing celebration that they’ve held annually since the middle ages.  It’s the Return of the Alps, also known as the Descent of the Alps.  Historically, it marked the return of the cattle and other livestock from the higher alpine pastures to lower ones.

Although the festival is celebrated in Annecy, it includes many surrounding communities.   It is an extremely well-attended event, and for good reason.  The Savoyards know how to celebrate.  They line their streets with food, drink, and craft booths.   They sell diots (the local pork sausage specialty) with savory polenta by truckloads along with all sorts of local cheeses and other delicacies.  They sing.  They dance.  They have fun.  Lots of it.

Coming down from the alpine meadows

The local mountains, valleys, and gorges may reveal millions of years of geologic history, but the Retour des Alpages and the ancient cobbled streets of Annecy’s vielle ville reveal at least hundreds, maybe over 1,000, years of human history.  The traditions that sustained the ancient Savoyard communities have not been forgotten.  And many of them continue to sustain the mountain residents if for no other reason than the tourists that flock to see how life once was in the Haute-Savoie.

Where to Stay

There are lots of possibilities for lodging in Annecy, including an Hotel Mercure near the city center.  On our most recent visit, we stayed in a flat near the lake (within about 700 feet).  It was a two bedroom with a well-appointed kitchen, small balcony, and a secure bike room for the bikes we rented at Roul ma Poule (meaning “roll my chicken”, I think – it provides lots of opportunity for making stupid rolling chicken jokes while you’re biking around the lake).  They rent by the week, a great deal.  You’ll REALLY need bikes because the trail around the lake is irresistible on a sunny day to even a casual biker.

Roul ma poule bike and kayak rental

The flat is close enough to everything to make it pretty much perfect for a long stay in Annecy.  You can book it through Homeaway.com, here.  We only met the owner’s daughter in law, she is delightful.  Besides being a fascinating person, she is extremely helpful and made lots of great recommendations.

Final Word

Annecy is a French treasure not just for the ancient city and the old chateau, but for the exquisitely lovely and ancient mountains, valleys, and gorges that surround it.  There are endless recreational opportunities on the lake, a bicycle path that encircles the lake, hiking in the nearby mountains and ridges, rock climbing on the sheer rocky prominences overlooking the lake, and paragliding from the steep slopes above the lake.

I’ve only visited in the summer and fall.  I fell in love with both the town and the area.  There are lots of nearby ski resorts if you’re interested in a winter getaway, but I don’t know enough to recommend them.  Because Annecy is a Ville Fleurie, a spring visit is would probably present too many photo opportunities to count.  Geneva, Switzerland is a little over half an hour away, and Chamonix is just over an hour.   If you’ve considered booking a trip there, don’t hesitate.  There’s isn’t a downside, at least not one that I’ve encountered.

Bon voyage!

Exploring the Haute-Savoie: Charmed by Chamonix

Chamonix-Mont-Blanc from above
Chamonix from the Ski Lift

How I Learned to Stop Sweltering and Love Chamonix

I first visited the Alps of France (the Haute-Savoie region) during a sweltering Provencal summer in 2005.  If you’re not familiar, it’s in the southeastern portion of France, near the borders with Switzerland and Italy.  We were staying at my brother’s house near Montelimar with our daughters who were about 10 and 12.  My brother’s house is a lovely and secluded hillside retreat.   It was under construction, and very much a work in progress.  It lacked amenities, including essential ones like air conditioning, but it has a breath-taking view of Mont Ventoux and the rolling hills of the Ardeche region.  We loved it, and normally, we’d have been unfazed by a minor inconvenience like no AC, but it was early August and afternoon temperatures were hovering around 40 degrees Celsius (over 100 Fahrenheit).  We sweltered.

Alpine charm

Lorrie (my wife, partner and only S.O.) is steeped in the wit and wisdom of Rick Steves.  She owns most of his books on France and has watched many of his shows.  Rick’s descriptions of the French Alps had caught her attention during our months of planning for our trip.  She had been looking for an excuse to visit the Haute-Savoie region and since we were less than four hours away, it wasn’t a hard sell.  When she pointed out that the higher elevations would mean cooler temperatures, we were eager to go.

We found rooms in Chamonix-Mont-Blac (usually just abbreviated Chamonix).   It’s a village near the base of Mont Blanc, about 995 meters (4800 feet) above sea level.

Chamonix in August was several notches above delightful on our memory meters.  The mild temperatures were a huge relief after the suffocating heat in the Ardeche area.  We’d visited Vaison la Romaine while we stayed at my brothers but as much as we enjoyed the town, the weather sapped our energy and enthusiasm.   When we stepped out of the car in Chamonix, the air was cool and invigorating.

Chamonix is small enough to navigate easily on foot.  The total year-round population is around 9,000 but seasonal visitors can easily double that number in both summer and winter peaks.   The town feels friendly.  It’s a community that thrives on recreation and tourism, and the locals treat visitors as though their livelihoods depend on repeat business.  I’ve noticed that some tourist destinations can have a facade of welcome that covers a core of resentment.  Chamonix is not one of those places.

Map of Southeast France – the Haute-Savoie

The town is on the slopes of the central French Alps.  Torino (Turin), Italy, lies 80 miles to the southeast and Geneva, Switzerland is about 60 miles to the northwest.  Nearby Mont Blanc stands at 4807 meters (15,770 feet) above sea level and is the highest peak in Europe.  It’s part of the Mont Blanc massif, a range within the Alps that includes 11 peaks that are over 4,000 meters (13,700 feet) high.  To describe the area as spectacular doesn’t do it justice.  It is absolutely breathtaking and among the most scenic places I’ve visited.

Not just a pretty place

Naturally, all of the foregoing makes Chamonix and its surroundings a top tourist destination, and not just because of the scenery.  Skiers and snowboarders come from just about everywhere to enjoy legendary slopes and perfect powder.  One of the fabled ski runs near the town, the Vallée Blanche, stretches for a knee-wrenching 20 km and drops over 2,800 meters (over 9,100 feet).   Rock climbers love the area for it’s challenging but piton-gripping rock faces.  Paragliders are partial to the ridges and updrafts;  their colorful canopies are as common as dandelion fluff in summer.  There are lots of trails for hiking and cross-country skiing.  Ice skaters can sling their blades all year long.  But if you’re in Chamonix during the summer, the luge is an exhilarating ride that you really shouldn’t miss.

Chamonix Luge

The newest luge runs are on rails.   They’ve been introduced at ski runs everywhere to give lift operators a year-round source of revenue.   Riders can choose between a one- or two-person “sled” that sits on a slotted concrete track or metal rails so no steering is required.  The You’ll be glad to know that brakes are included (usually).   Gravity the only power source, and it’s more than enough.  A lift gets you and your sled to the top of the 1,300 meter (4,265 feet) track where you strap in and take off down the rails.

At 5.50 euros for a single ride, the luge is a great value.  A word of caution though: A single ride will only whet your appetite.  There are discounts for multiple riders and multiple rides.   It’s open year round, and it’s a blast.  Don’t miss it.

The main luge is operated at an amusement park, Park d’Attractions.  It’s part of the Les Planards ski area and has lots to keep kids of all ages happy for hours, even without the luge.

Aiguille du Midi

Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi

The luge was thrilling and all of us loved it.  My daughters couldn’t get enough of it, in fact.  But the pièce de résistance of our visit to Chamonix was our visit to the Aiguille du Midi, a rugged mountain peak that stretches to 3,842 meters (12,605 feet) into the heavens.

Aiguille means “midday needle”.  Wikipedia says that this name was derived from the fact that the sun appears directly above the summit at noon.  At least, it does during certain days of the year.  But only if viewed from a particular church.  If that’s true, I missed it.   But the peak itself is lovely from just about any angle.

The locals first proposed building a téléphérique, a cable tram, to the summit in the early 1900s, but the extraordinary project wasn’t completed until 1955.  For twenty years after it was built, the Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi held the title of the World’s highest cable car, and with a total elevation gain of over 2800 meters (9,186 feet), it remains the cable car with the greatest vertical span in the world.  Somewhere, there is apparently a cable car that spans a greater horizontal distance, but I don’t know where it is.  I do know that it can’t span more stunning scenery than theTéléphérique.

Having researched the Chamonix, Lorrie knew the specifics of the Téléphérique while I knew only that it was a cable car that took visitors to an observation point high in the Alps.  I was puzzled when she refused to accompany my daughters and me up the mountain.  As far as I was concerned, it was a rare opportunity to see alpine geology up close and to get a bird’s eye view of Chamonix and its surroundings.  The girls shared my enthusiasm, so we left Lorrie in town while the three of us ascended the Aiguille.  I can’t remember what the fare was, but it wasn’t cheap.  Today, it’s 61.50 € for adults and 52.30 € for children under 12.  Both fares are round trip.  It’s a little cheaper for one-way tickets, but you have to be pretty fit to make the trek down on foot.

The ride on the Téléphérique was thrilling.  Which is to say that it was terrifying.  And that’s despite the fact that in my younger days, I was a hang gliding enthusiast.  I’ve logged many hours high aloft with nothing between me and the earth but a flimsy harness strapped to a cloth-covered aluminum frame.  I love flying, but I didn’t love dangling thousands of feet above granite outcrops and boulders.  I know that my terror wasn’t necessarily rational but that didn’t make it less terrifying.  My daughters, by contrast, thoroughly enjoyed the experience and the incredible view.

The first segment of the ride was fairly tame.  The gondola was crowded, which was both comforting and claustrophobic.  It stayed about 100 feet off the slope and ascended slowly enough that our ears popped but it was not uncomfortable.

Stunning

The second leg of the ascent was much steeper.   At one point the gondola was at least 1,000 meters (over 3,000 feet) above the very unforgiving rocky crags of the Aiguille’s midsection.  I think I’d have been alright if the gondola hadn’t begun to sway, although even that didn’t faze my daughters.   A few of the other passengers seemed at least a little uncomfortable but it was a gentle motion.

Reaching the summit was a huge relief.  The views were remarkable although that’s so inadequate.  The clear air made every detail crisp and sharp.  The peaks of the Mont Blanc massif, including Mont Blanc, looked close enough to touch.  I could see at least three active glaciers and the features that they have carved into the sturdy granite ribs of the massif.  Many of the peaks were topped by sharp horns, like the Aiguille.  A map table on one of the observation decks named the peaks and gave a sense of the scale of the panorama.  France, Switzerland, and Italy were all within view.  I forgot all about the terror of the ascent as we drank it all in.

There are a cafe and snack bar at the top.  We didn’t sample the food or drinks so I can’t vouch for them.  The view was quite satisfying enough.

Although our visit to the Aiguille was before the construction of Le Pas dans le Vide (A Step into the Void)you should certainly consider it if your nerves and your tolerance for height are stronger than mine.  Just thinking about it makes me dizzy.  According to the description at www.chamonix.com, Le Pas dans le Vide is a glass cage that allows you to walk on a glass walkway that’s suspended over a 1,000-meter (3,000 feet) vertical cliff.  If you survive you’ll have a great story to share with just about anyone that will listen.

The téléphérique from Chamonix is not the only tramway that serves the Aiguille du Midi, by the way.  If you’d like to visit Italy during the summer months, the Vallée Blanche Cable Car will take you to Pointe Heilbronner, a peak on the Italian side of the border, that is also served by a third cable system, Skyway Monte Bianco, that will take you to Entrèves near the Italian town of Courmayer.  I haven’t done it, but the peak-to-peak ride takes 50 minutes and crosses several glaciers.  I can’t imagine a more exhilarating ride.

Among the clouds

There’s lots more to know about Chamonix than I’ve shared here.  If you’re considering a visit, don’t hesitate.

Is it safe to visit France?

Is it safe?

I frequently see this question posted on forums and social media.  And I hear it from friends and family that would love to travel to France but are spooked by the media coverage of terrorism and cultural clashes.

I’ve been traveling to France for about 4 decades now.  It’s changed, just like the rest of the world.  But it safe to visit France?  In all of my visits, including those within the past 2 years. I’ve never been or felt threatened, nor was I  the victim of a crime or terrorism.   That’s anecdotal, of course.  And I’d be less cavalier if I’d been on the Promenade de Anglais on Bastille Day in 2016, or if I’d lost friends at the Bataclan Theater in Paris in 2015, or if that homme très gentil on the Metro hadn’t handed my wallet back to me when I dropped it, unnoticed, at his feet.

Headlines like “Paris region loses 1.5 million tourists over terror fears”  give the impression that wiser travelers are staying away.  Lots of other headlines draw attention to the successful and thwarted terror attacks that seem to happen with such grim regularity.  The influx of refugees and other immigrants garners lots of press attention, all of it consistent with media’s adherence to the “if it bleeds, it leads” marketing strategy.  These are all newsworthy and deserve our attention for many reasons.  But should we join the 1.5 million would-have-been-visitors-to-Paris and stay home?

The short answer is no, absolutely not.  Fewer tourists make this a great time to visit France.  The long answer is, well, longer.  But as you’ll see, the long answer may be exactly what you’ll need when you tell your timid family members or coworkers why you’re not afraid to book your next trip to France this year.

Weighing the risks

Weighing Risks

All travel involves some risk.  You’re more likely to get sick when you travel.  Just driving to the airport involves risk, since about 1.3 million people die in traffic accidents each year, and another 20 to 50 million are injured in automobile accidents globally.  You may find it troubling to learn that you’re a little more likely to die of poisoning than you are to die in a traffic accident.  You’re just a little less likely to die as a result of a fall, which is the leading cause of death for Americans over the age of 71.  According to NBC News, your risk of dying by choking on your food is higher than the risk that you’ll be killed by a terrorist.

Hopefully, reading this won’t paralyze you with fear.  But the truth is that danger is all around us.  Having a realistic understanding of the dangers we face in our day to day lives keeps us grounded in reality and gives us tools for making big and small decisions, like where to go on our next trip abroad, and when to go there.

“Due to the threat of terrorism, the national security and armed forces are on elevated alert”

This poster started appearing on public buildings in 2016 or so.  It’s not uncommon to see armed soldiers on the streets of Paris and at popular tourist destinations.  They’re a reminder that chaos is out there, kept at bay (mostly) by vigilance and bravery.   And lots of money to pay for the bravery.

Risk in France compared to the U.S.

Nationmaster.com has an easy to read table showing relative rates of various crimes in France and the U.S.  For Americans, the bad news is that you’re far more likely to be murdered in your home country, which has a murder rate of 5 per 100,000 people.  In France, the murder rate per 100,000 people is just 1.31.  If you’d rather not be raped, staying in the U.S. may be a worse option than traveling to France, since America’s rate of rapes per 100,000 is 27.3, about 69% higher than the rate in France, which is 16.2.

Overall, more crimes are committed in France than in the U.S., with France ranked 14th in the world for overall crimes committed.  America is ranked 22nd in this category and underperforms France by 48% (61.0 total crimes per 1,000 in France vs. 41.3 per 1,000 in the U.S.).

Statistically, though, France is considerably safer than the U.S. in terms of violent crimes. And if you’re planning to rent a car during your visit to France, you’ll be pleased to know that France has about half the number of traffic fatalities per 100,000 residents as the U.S. at 5.1 per hundred thousand vs. 10.6 in the U.S.  If you suspect that fewer people drive in France, you’ll be even more pleased to learn that France STILL has lower numbers of traffic fatalities than the U.S. based on the number of CARS on the road, with France sustaining just 7.6 deaths per 100,000 vehicles while the U.S. suffers 12.9 deaths per 100,000 vehicles.

Watch out for things

Things to avoid 

Most sane adults understand that there is no such thing as a perfectly safe country or city.  We all know places in our local areas that are better avoided for one reason or another.  France is no different than any other place where people live.  There are always predators.  Below are some helpful tips to keep you from falling victim to them.

Paris.   Paris is cool.  So cool that over 14 million people visit the city every year.  And since France is the most visited country in the world, with over 85 million visitors annually, Paris is the most visited city in the most visited country on earth.  Naturally, that makes Paris a target of opportunity for hucksters, pickpockets, scammers, and thieves of all sorts.

Don’t let that tidbit change your travel plans, though.  These same parasites operate everywhere there are throngs of people.  You need to avoid them wherever you go, including the City of Lights.

Paris Arrondissements

If you’re planning on booking a stay in a hotel or a rental, and especially if it’s your first time in Paris, concentrate your search on the 1st through the 7th Arrondissements (Districts).

The red line on the map above is the Peripherique, the main traffic artery around the city.  You may find cheaper accommodations outside of it, but the inner Arrondissements are generally safer and certainly much closer to the main attractions.

Places to avoid in Paris.  During daylight and early evening, most of the city is safe.  After dark, here are some important places to avoid:

  • The 16th, especially the Bois du Boulogne (a 2,200-acre forest park) in the late evening.  It’s not that the 16th is altogether seedy (former French President Nicolas Sarkozy lives in a comfortable chateau there), but parts of it are a bit rough.
  • Les Halle – It’s a hangout for teens, homeless, and some unsavory sorts.
  • Saint-Denis – It’s a separate arrondissement on the north side of the City.  It’s not necessarily unsafe, but it’s run down.  Far from the best of Paris.
  • Boulevard de Clichy – it’s on the north side of the 9th, near Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge.  There are lots of strip clubs rumored to be good places to be beaten and robbed.  It’s fine during the day, but the later it gets, the dodgier it gets.
  • Barbes Rochechouart – a major Metro station near the Sacre Coeur, it’s a hangout for hucksters, many of them recent arrivals from distant lands, to sell cigarettes and fake Rolexes.  They’re generally congenial but can get pretty aggressive.  Darkness seems to bring out the worst in them.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these are pretty well-known areas that locals and seasoned visitors avoid after dark, especially late evenings and early mornings.  There are points of interest near all of them, and millions of people make daylight visits every year.  I’ve taken my wife and young daughters on the Metro and visited most of the places on this list.  We’ve never had even the hint of trouble in daylight, although we’ve seen some interesting characters and encountered somewhat aggressive scammers.

Scams and scammers

Common Scams in Paris  

  • The “Phony Petition” scam. When you’re near the biggest tourist attractions, like Notre Dame and the Louvre, it’s not at all uncommon to be approached by one or two women (usually) with clipboards asking if you will please sign a petition for some worthy cause, like ending child hunger.  If you take the bait, they’ll immediately demand money.  In one variation, the scammers will pretend to be deaf and or mute.  The best defense is to curtly refuse or to just ignore them.
  • The “free” rose. A friendly guy or gal approaches with a bouquet of roses and a smile, offers you (or your female companion) a rose as a token of friendship and love, then demands payment even if you return the rose.  The best defense is to NEVER take anything from a stranger.  Also, it’s almost always best to ignore anyone that approaches you aggressively.
  • The “gold” ring.  A very friendly Roma woman walking near you suddenly exclaims loudly, then reaches down to pick up what appears to be a gold wedding band.  She offers the ring to you, after proclaiming it to be solid gold, and making some stupid excuse about why she can’t or won’t keep it herself.  Those that accept the ring are then cajoled or bullied into paying her a few euros to show gratitude.  Again, the best defense is not to take anything offered to you by strangers.
  • Pickpockets.  In areas with high tourist density, like the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, a variety of pickpockets ply their trade with great skill.  It is rumored that the very densely packed throngs in the gallery that houses the Mona Lisa is a particular favorite of the best pickpockets, many of whom are children or at least teens (a la Oliver Twist).  They use many tactics, most are a variation of a team of at least two where one distracts while the other robs.  A spilled drink, an inadvertent bump in a crowd, or a “friendly” approach to ask directions are red flags.  The best defense is never to carry a wallet or other valuables in a hip pocket or in a backpack that’s not pickpocket proof.  Keep a copy of your passport in your possession and leave the original in the hotel or rental safe.  If you carry a purse, make it a small one and keep the strap on your shoulder or wrist.
  • The “friendship” bracelet.  This is a pretty vile scam, usually carried out by Africans.  There are variations, but the main theme is an approach by a smiling character, usually a man, who offers you a hand-woven friendship bracelet made of colorful string or yarn.   If you accept, they’ll tie the bracelet so tightly that you can’t easily get it off.  They then begin to badger you for money, and could even try to force you to accompany them to an ATM where they’ll coerce you into making a large withdrawal.  Many if not most of the perpetrators are Africans that give themselves away by walking around with handfuls of colorful handmade bracelets.  This is reportedly common around the Montmartre although I haven’t encountered it there.  Your best defense is to refuse bluntly and to walk away.
  • Street vendors.  They are ubiquitous at the most popular tourist destinations.  You’ll find them (or they’ll find you) hawking everything from light-up plastic Eiffel Towers to flying ornithopters and French flags.    As I mentioned, there are lots of fake fashion-label products like Rolex watches, Ray-Ban sunglasses, and Gucci handbags, especially in the area around Barbes Rochechouart.  Most of this stuff is junk that will fall apart before you get to the airport.  And if you make the mistake of buying one thing, you’ll likely be hounded mercilessly to buy more crap, usually at a discounted price that will make you realize how badly you’ve been had.  Just say no, and say sharply if they don’t take the hint.
  • Counterfeit euro notes.   Counterfeiting euro notes seems to be a growth industry.  Many merchants use scanners to make sure they’re getting the real thing.  But there are some unscrupulous merchants that will try to claim that your notes are counterfeit when they’re actually palming your real currency and returning phonies after claiming that you’ve tried to scam them.  This is not common but at least you’re now aware of it.  If you’re concerned, you can get the Genuine or Counterfeit app for your smartphone that will allow you to scan euros for authenticity.  Cool.
  • Theft of smartphones from sidewalk cafe tables.  When the weather allows it, and even when it doesn’t, Parisians and visitors love to sit at sidewalk cafes to enjoy some of the finest cuisine, coffee, libations, and people watching in the world.  And because we rely on our smartphones for everything from selfies to translating menus, it is a common habit to set them casually on the tables beside us.  Many tourists report that view of their smartphone being the last one they had of it since thieves passing by are known to grab them and disappear into the crowds in the blink of an eye.  I can’t find statistics for smartphone theft in Paris or France, but in the UK, over 2,000 smartphones go missing each day.  The numbers in France are surely comparable.  Beyond cafe tables, some visitors to Paris have reportedly had their phones ripped from their hands while they were using them.  Don’t leave your phone lying on tables, chairs, or benches.  Use it sparingly in public, since once a thief knows you have it, he or she will look for opportunities to take it.  If you can’t afford to lose it, insure your phone for breakage, loss, and theft with a reputable company before you travel.
  • Unsecured public wifi.  There are lots of public wifi hotspots in Paris, and France in general.  Many are free, some are for hotel and restaurant guests.

In general, you can avoid scammers by paying attention to the people around you.  It’s usually easy to tell when you’ve been singled out.  A stranger who focuses their attention on you and starts moving in your direction probably doesn’t just want to be your friend.  When you see them coming, move away.

I can nearly always discourage them with a scowl and a headshake or a firm “No.”  The biggest deterrent is body language that declares “NO, I’m NOT interested.”

The Paris Prefecture of police makes sure there’s a large contingent of gendarmes throughout the city.  They have a number of public contact points, including 20 police stations in more or less convenient locations.  You can call them at 17 or through the EU emergency number at 112.  They’ve provided an English pamphlet with advice for visitors to Paris that worth reading here.

Finally

If you’re a Francophile, or you think you might like to become one, fears of terrorism or violent crime should not deter you from completing your French travel plans.  France is a first world country with excellent healthcare, great infrastructure, a very efficient and professional police and security apparatus, and some of the best restaurants in the world.

If you pay attention to what’s going on in the world, you know that the human race has some problems.  Terrorism, mass shootings, road rage, etc. are not uncommon.  And yet we have plenty of reason for optimism.  In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Dr. Steven Pinker points out that however bad you think things are now, they have been much worse in the past.  And even though there are more people alive today than at any time in history, we’re finding better ways to get along with each other.

 

Danger everywhere

Is it safe to visit France?   In a very real sense, it’s not safe to stay home.  After all, nearly 18,000 Americans die each year from accidents that take place in our homes, while an average of only 827 Americans die abroad annually.

 

But then, most of us don’t travel because it makes us safer, we travel because it broadens our minds, enriches our hearts, and satisfies our yearning to see and experience the world in new and different ways.  It makes us alive in ways that we relish.  It deepens our appreciation for beauty.   It exposes us to new ideas and lifestyles and cultures.  And for the Francophile, travel to France epitomizes all that’s good about travel.

As one wise traveler puts it, “Adventure may hurt you, but monotony will kill you.”   So stop fretting, book your flights, map out your itinerary, and reserve your rooms now.  Then drop me a note, and I’ll meet you in Paris for a café au lait or a verre de vin rouge. 

 

Great French Blogs

Ok, this is going to start out as a very short list, but I’ll add to it as I find more.

The first one is http://www.escapingtheemptynest.com/


Yvonne has successfully undertaken the monumental task of completing the paperwork required for French visa and is living her dream in Paris.  Her posts include great insights and photos.  As a bonus, she’s witty and inspiring.  Bookmark it now.

And be sure to visit https://www.livingafrenchlife.com/ if you’d like to get the straight scoop on what it’s like to live, laugh, work and love in France.  Karen is a wealth of information and great wordsmith.

 

Must See Attractions in Paris: Musée Jacquemart-André

Often Overlooked Musée Jacquemart-André

The Louvre, the Musee d’Orsay, the Jus-des-Pommes, and the Musée de l’Orangerie are among the best known and most visited art museums in Paris, which means they are among the top art museums on planet earth.  These and many other Parisian art museums are more than worth a visit.  But there are at least a few world-class art museums in Paris that many visitors overlook, and the Musee Jacquemart is one of them.

Located a few blocks north of the Champs Elysees in the 8th arrondissement,  it’s easy to get to.  And although the museum is home to a beautiful collection of varied works from such masters as Delacroix, Rembrandt, Tiepolo, and Van Dyck, it often displays guest exhibits.  Between March 3 and July 10, 2017, the Museum is hosting a collection owned by Alicia Koplowitz that includes works by Tiepolo, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, and many other brilliant artists.

Jacquemart’s Mansion Converted to Museum

The Backstory

The museum’s history alone makes it worth a visit.  Edouard Andre owned the original property.  Edouard was born in 1833.  He was the only son of Ernest André and Louise Cottlier, a wealthy and influential Parisian couple.   Since both his mother and father had fortunes of their own, Edouard’s only-child inheritance was enormous.

Edouard’s Military Livery

Edouard inherited more than money and land.  His taste for fine art was among the intangibles that his family bequeathed him.  After trying his hand in politics and later in the military, Edouard became disillusioned with the gamesmanship and intransigence of the political class.

Still single at the age of 35, the very eligible Parisian bachelor set about building the mansion that is now the museum on Haussmann Boulevard.  It was a project that would take around eight years, but the finished product was indeed impressive, even in a neighborhood of impressive buildings.  His new residence gave Edouard ample room to store and display his growing collection of “knickknacks” that soon began to include works of such stalwarts as Delacroix.

Supported by his family’s fortunes, Edouard had few impediments to his ambitious plans to expand his collections.  While the mansion was still under construction,  Edouard commissioned a portrait of himself in 1872.  The painter he selected was Nélie Jacquemart, who by this time was 31 years old, and still quite unattached.

Nélie’s social status was far beneath that of Edouard.   Her family was poor and on the opposite end of the Andre family’s political and social spectrum.   Nélie nonetheless had the good fortune to have become the protege of Madame de Vatry, a wealthy member of the Parisian aristocracy which by this time had recovered from the Revolution.   Madame de Vatry sponsored Nélie’s tutelage at a popular school of arts, where Nélie became an accomplished portraitist.

Edouard and Nélie

Her skill at capturing nobility on canvas vaulted Nélie into social circles which would otherwise exclude her.  Although she was plain-featured, she was witty,  well-traveled, and a good conversationalist.   The details of their courtship are sketchy, but we do know that Edouard married Nélie in 1881.  On paper, it was an unlikely union.  In practice, it was by all accounts “happily ever after” matrimonial bliss.

The couple’s shared interests buoyed their relationship.  Edouard’s financial resources financed their extensive travels, while their enthusiasm for fine arts and Nélie’s education guided their penchant for collecting works by some of the world’s most famous painters and sculptors.

Musee Jacquemart-Andre Displays

Through Nélie’s connections in the world of portrait painters, she had received an invitation to Villa Medici in Italy in the early 1860’s.  This visit seems to have sparked Nélie’s passion for paintings of the Italian Renaissance.  She and Edouard traveled extensively throughout Italy, taking those opportunities to visit art auction houses and shops of antiquity where they continued to add to their collection.

Bas-Relief from Middle Eas

The couple was also drawn to the Middle East, making several trips to Cairo, Beirut, Constantinople, Aswan, and Athens.  Their eclectic travel tastes are reflected to this day in their collection and the decor of Edouard’s magnificent mansion on Haussmann Boulevard.

The André’s travels were inspired in part by Edouard’s failing health, which he attributed in part to the climate of Paris.  Alas, in 1894, Edouard succumbed to an unknown malady, and Nélie, who was childless, was left a widow and Edouard’s only heir.  A court battle with Edouard’s cousins ensued in which the cousins unsuccessfully attempted to wrest control of Edouard’s wealth from Nélie.  After she prevailed, she resumed her travels and stepped up the pace of her art collection.

Nélie’s taste for travel and adventure did not altogether dissipate after Edouard’s demise.  She made her way to the Indies, where she befriended some maharajas and was about to embark from there to China and Japan when word of the sale of Madame de Vatry’s Chaalis Abbey reached her.  She returned to Paris in time to purchase the abbey.  Her devotion to the collection did not waver, and when she died in 1912, she left the mansion and its contents to Institut de France which retains ownership.

Ceiling Mural

The Musée Jacquemart-André Today

The museum continues to be a leading light on the Parisian art scene.  Although it is more intimate than many of the other Paris museums, a visit to 158 Boulevard Haussmann is not exhausting or overwhelming.  It’s part time travel and part spiritual journey through a dense forest of artistic treasures that have been lovingly selected and expertly preserved.

Wandering through the grand halls and rooms with an audio guide that patiently explains the history and context of the mansion and it’s treasures is a great way to spend a couple of precious hours in Paris.

Because the museum and the Institut are committed to maintaining the quality of the exhibits and the artistic passions of Edouard and Nélie, they routinely schedule exhibits like the current Koplowitz exhibit.   In 2016, the museum exhibited around 40 works by Rembrandt.  The event included daily showings of films explaining Rembrandt’s inimitable style.

If you’ve not visited the home of Edouard and Nélie Andre, you’re in for a treat.  Don’t miss it the next time you’re in Paris.

Boldly Tasteful

How and When to Go

The museum is open every day, including public holidays, from 10:00 am until 6:00 pm.  During exhibitions, the museum is open on Monday evenings until 8:30 pm.

Located at 158 Boulevard Haussmann, it is a short walk from the Champs Elysees.  It’s accessible by every mode of public transport, including the Metro, RER, buses, and has a nearby Vel Lib (bicycle rental) station.  For more information, visit the museum’s website here.

 

Brittany: What Lies Beneath Part 1

The Côtes-d’Armor

A Certain Something… I Don’t Know What

The Brittany coastline has more than it’s share of the usual appeal of scenic seashores.  Painters of the impressionist’s era, including Emile Bernard and Paul Gaugin, made pilgrimages to Brittany and it’s spectacular coast where they strove to capture Brittany’s essence on canvas.  It’s a tough assignment, whether you try it with a brush, camera, or keyboard because there’s so much more to Brittany than pretty scenery.  There’s a sense of the primal, a feeling of deep pre-history that words can’t describe and images don’t express.

Je ne sais quoi is a French idiom that English speakers often attempt to coopt.  It literally means “I don’t don’t know what.” It can be used to convey a sense of mystery, as in “Susan has a mystique, a certain je ne sais quois that other girls don’t have.”   To me, at least, Brittany has this thing, this “I don’t know what” mystique that I can’t quite pin down or put into words, but it’s real and alluring.

Much of Brittany’s mystique is tied to its ancient landforms.  The peninsula was fashioned by time itself.  Not a few thousand or even a few million years, but eons, and epochs, and eras were needed to sculpt the peninsula and its rugged shores.

To get a sense of Brittany’s age and the forces that created it, you need some geologic backstory.   It’ll only take a few minutes to summarize the best parts, and if you spend those minutes now, your next trip to Brittany will have some added dimensions and a certain je ne sais quois…

Assembling Brittany – A Geology Primer

From our human perspective, the earth seems stable, immutable.  But if the earth could look into a mirror, it wouldn’t recognize its modern self from its youthful self.   The features that are so familiar to us today, like the shapes and locations of the continents, have not only changed, they’re totally different than they were just a short few hundred million years ago.

About one-fifth of the earth’s surface has managed to rise above sea level to form continents and islands.  Thanks to earth’s tectonic system, these landmasses have traveled more extensively than the average flight attendant.

In various turns, the continents have traversed the earth as one or two big pieces, while at other times the pieces have broken up and done their tectonic sightseeing in many continent-sized chunks.  Our modern distribution of continents is in flux, although it will take a few million years to see much change.

Earth’s Tectonic Plates – Credit U.S. Geological Survey

If you’re not familiar with the concept of tectonics, or plate tectonics, it’s the very well-supported theory that the earth’s surface is a patchwork of moving pieces called plates.  The plates move about on “conveyor belts” within the crust that are powered by convection.

Cross-sectional Representation of Tectonic Spreading Source: U.S. Geological Survey

The convection that drives the motion of the earth’s plates is the same process that produces ocean and air currents.  Magma from the earth’s interior is less dense than solid rock, so it rises through the cooler surrounding rock until it reaches the surface as a volcano.  About 80% of volcanos erupt below the surface of the ocean.  Many of these volcanoes are aligned in ridges, like the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, that act as “spreading centers.”   The oceanic crust on either side of the ridge is forced away from the ridgeline by rising magma.  These spreading centers are the drivers of tectonism, alternately pushing continents around the globe, then tearing them apart and shoving them back together again.

Tectonism is a slow but inexorable process.  It works because portions of the earth’s crust have different densities.  The ocean floor, which covers four-fifths of our globe, is mainly a volcanic rock called basalt.  The continents are made of many different kinds of rock, but the bulk of them are the composition of granite, which is less dense than the basalt sea floors.  The lighter continents ride atop the heavier oceanic plates, which are pushing outwards from the mid-ocean ridges.

Taken from Paleozoic Assembly of the Armorican Massif, University of Rennes, France, 2008

About 500 million years ago the portion of the earth’s crust that is now Brittany was part of a relatively small chunk of crust that geologists call a microcontinent, in this case, the Armorican Terrain Assembly or ATA.  It was likely an archipelago composed of bits of land that broke away from a much larger landmass.

Named after the ancient Gaulish moniker for Brittany, Armorica was traversing the globe in a pattern that had taken it to what is now Antartica, from whence it made its way slowly northward.

Meanwhile, what we know today as South America, Africa, Australia, Antarctica and a few others pieces of continental crust were all a part of a much larger “supercontinent” that geologists call Gondwana (the likely original source from which Armorica broke free).  Other smaller landmasses including Laurentia, Baltica, and Avalonia were floating along on their tectonic plates while dramatic changes occurred on both land and sea.   The years ticked past, and the Cambrian Period gave way to the  Ordovician Period.   As geologic fate would have it, the itinerant land masses lumbered into each other in a titanic collision that would reverberate for millions of years, reshaping global geography and geology, as well as the plants and other organisms that lived on the various colliding parcels.

By the time the collisions began, Armorica was already old, probably over 100 million years.  At this advanced age, it had the misfortune of being wedged between as many as four larger pieces of crust that had converged on it.  The collision would forever transform the ATA, but the transformation took a while.  The microcontinent’s Big Squeeze spanned the period from about 416 to around 359 million years ago.  Fifty-seven million years may not seem like a long time in geologic terms, but a lot can happen in few million years.

As Armorica endured the tortuous pounding of the collisions, parts of it began to fold under the huge pressures.   Much of Armorica’s ancient interior was raised from the depths through folds and faults.  These ancient rocks have since been exposed by weathering and erosion, giving us the benefit of having access to some very old and intriguing geologic formations from the ancient depths.

Brittany Rocks

Lovely and unusual rock formations were created by the herculean forces to which Armorica was subjected.  The mountains and uplands that rose from the folding of the little continent’s broken spine became the source of thick sequences of sedimentary and metamorphic rocks, as well as some of the rich soils of Brittany’s green and productive interior.

Earth’s deep interior is usually hidden from us by countless megatons of rocks and soil.  The wreckage of Armorica’s smash up exposed some very interesting features of the earth’s internal anatomy.  Some of the more intriguing rock types and formations include:

Ophiolites: This is not a rock type, but a sequence of rocks.  Ophiolites are pieces of oceanic plate that have been pushed upward (obducted) onto a continental plate.  In most cases, the denser oceanic plate is subducted or pushed downward beneath continental plates.  That’s why the rocks that make up ophiolites are not common at the earth’s surface.

Ophiolites include peridotite, which is the main component of the upper mantle, and the oceanic crust.

Typical Ophiolite Sequence, Courtesy Oregon State University Dept. of Geology

As drifting plates collide, upper mantle and oceanic crust can be lifted out of their deep realm by compression.  The cross-section below depicts the process.

Creating Ophiolites – Courtesy Oregon State University

If ophiolite sequences are produced as shown, it makes sense that they would be found in areas where pieces of earth’s crust collided.  Ophiolites may well mark the “suture zones” where two landmasses were joined together.

In Brittany, you can find ophiolites near Nantes, on the Bay of Audierne.  The sequence has been metamorphosed, both by the high temperatures and pressures of the tectonic collisions, and long exposure to seawater.  The Bay of Audierne is exquisitely scenic, with miles of hiking along rocky trails.  If you have time while you’re exploring Brittany, stretch your legs on the GR34 hiking trail, which has spectacular views of the bay along with some amazing examples of ophiolites.

Around the bay, you will see some great examples of the deformation and metamorphism that resulted from ancient collisions of Armorica and Gondwana.  Look for outcrops of dark colored, especially dark green rocks.  These may well be part of the ophiolite sequence that has been dated at over 400 million years in age.  These rocks may have been part of the earth’s outer mantle or deep ocean crust.  The green minerals are likely olivine, a combination of magnesium and/or iron with silicon and oxygen.  Olivine weathers relatively quickly, which is one of the reasons that geologists carry hammers.   Breaking open a rock with a weathered exterior often reveals the more or less unweathered mineral matrix.  Below is a close up of peridotite.  If you find an outcrop, a pocket-size piece will make a great souvenir of your time in Brittany.

The green color comes from olivine, which is sometimes used as a gemstone.  You may be more familiar with the gemstone name peridot, but it’s the same mineral.  Egyptian pharaohs were fond of it.

Blueschists:   Metamorphic rocks are common in Brittany, thanks to Armorica’s tortured history.  Metamorphism occurs when existing rocks, either igneous, sedimentary, or some previously metamorphosed version of them, get heated and squeezed by the sorts of processes and forces that result from tectonic collisions.

Ile de Groix

The Ile de Groix near Brittany’s south coast is made primarily of blueschists.  In geologic terms, the little island is the emerged portion of a band of high pressure, low-temperature metamorphic rocks that were produced about 400 million years ago, during the early Devonian Period.

Blueschists start out as basalt, a volcanic rock that’s common near the margins of continents and oceanic volcanos like the Hawaiian Islands.  When it’s subjected to high pressures and relatively low temperatures, the minerals in basalt re-form into new ones, including glaucophane, lawsonite, and garnet.

Blueschist

Blueschist is a gorgeous rock.  The chance to find a couple of nice specimens is more than worth a trip to Ile de Groix.

Rose Granite:  The Pink Granite Coast, or Cote Granit Rose (which sounds much nicer), is among Brittany’s most compelling attractions.  If you’re not familiar with this coastline, the name is a good summary.  It doesn’t tell you all you need to know, though.

The granitic rocks that are exposed on and near the shoreline are not only colorful, they’re sculpted and shaped into shapes and configurations that both defy and stimulate the imagination.

Weathered Rose Granite

The granites that are exposed along much of the Cote d’Armor originally cooled at some depth beneath ancient Armorica.  They’ve been exposed on the coastline by both the uplift caused by the plate collisions and subsequent erosion.   It’s likely that the granites that underlie portions of Brittany extend to 20,000 or more feet below the surface.  The exposed portions on the Cote Granit Rose have been weathered and eroded to produce a jumble of sculpted megaliths that few human artists could conceive, let alone create.

Closeup of Brittany’s Rose Granite

The rose color after which the granite was named comes from feldspar, a common mineral.  Potassium feldspar is a less common variety, and that’s what imparts the pink hue to these beautiful rocks.  Rose granite is relatively rare and is found only on Brittany’s coast, in China, Brazil, and Corsica.

Under a hand lens, the individual mineral grains can be easily discerned.  The white or gray translucent mineral is quartz, the pink grains are potassium feldspar, and the black ones are biotite or amphibole.  The individual mineral crystals are large, which is a function of the relatively slow cooling process that the granite underwent when it was originally emplaced in earth’s crust.   Not surprisingly, the folding and faulting associated with Armorica’s collisions provided the opportunity for the granitic magma to inject itself into the subsurface.  That makes the rose granite between 400 and 280 million years old.

To get some great views of the weathered rose granite, plan a half day to hike along the coast between Perros-Guirrec and Ploumanac’h.  It’s the GR34, a trail once used by customs officers to patrol for unauthorized cargo.  The tax man always cometh.  Fortunately, the nearby Traouïero Valley provided a refuge for smugglers hoping to avoid the vigilant customs officers.  Read more about the GR34 trail here,  and download a helpful English-version pdf guide to Perros-Guirrec and its environs here.

As you walk the GR34 trail, you’ll be overwhelmed with photo opportunities.  Time, wind, waves and chemical weathering have worked together to shape some spectacular artworks.  You may see Napoleon’s hat, a stack of crepes, or a stranded granite whale nearby or in the distance.  Make sure you’ve got plenty of storage and a full battery on your cell phones and/or cameras.  And be sure to collect a specimen of rose granite.  It’ll be a durable and lovely souvenir of your trip.

Mots Finaux

I’m an unabashed francophile.   I haven’t visited any part of France that I didn’t like, but Brittany is at the top just about all of my lists.   While Brittany has “je ne sais quois” it also has enough breathtaking scenery, culinary delights, and intriguing historical artifacts and monuments to satisfy every traveler.

You don’t need to know anything about Brittany’s recent or distant history to appreciate it’s beauty and allure.  But the more I learn about the factors that created it, the more attractive it becomes.

We’ve barely scratched the surface of Brittany’s geology, and the forces and factors that have shaped it.  In Part 2, we’ll explore even more fascinating facts, along with some idle speculation, about Brittany’s recent and distant past.  I hope you’ll join us.

Paris Tip: What to Do When Your Cell Phone Battery Dies

Most travelers have a symbiotic relationship with their smartphones.  We use them to find directions, translate foreign languages, reserve cars, flights, and rooms, and to capture the images that will preserve our travels for posterity.

As dependent as I am on my iPhone, I sometimes forget to make sure it’s fully charged before I begin a day of travel adventure.  During a trip to Paris in October, I learned a valuable lesson.

In my eagerness to visit the Jardin des Plantes and the nearby museums of Geologie,  Histoire Naturelle, and the Gallerie of Paleontologie, I foolishly left my rented flat with a half-charged phone.

Our flat was in the 3rd arrondissement, about 2 miles from the Jardin and museums.  As we walked, we passed the Place de la Bastille and the Bassin de l’Arsenal.   I couldn’t stop snapping photos and recording videos.  Everywhere we looked was a postcard perfect scene.

By the time we reached the Jardin de Plantes, my battery was approaching 30%.   I hadn’t thought to bring a charger.  I was about to enter the Grande Galerie de l’Évolution in the Muséum Nationel d’Histoire Naturelle with a dying phone after yearning for years to visit there.  It was a grim prospect.

When I said that I rely on my iPhone for a lot of things, it was an understatement.  It’s my travel essential, and I’m quite literally lost without it.

My Rosetta Stone French is weak, at best.  But with Word Lens on my iPhone, I can read anything in any language. Without it, I’m flying blind.

Word Lens – Not Perfect But Very Helpful

And, although I’m ashamed to admit it,  I could probably use a pair of reading glasses.  With my iPhone,  I use the magnifying app to increase text size so I can read it comfortably.  Without it, I can read headlines, but not much else.

Fortunately,  the day did not spiral downward into the disaster that I feared it would.  By using my power-saving mode, I managed to coax my dying phone into translating the most interesting plaques and information sheets.  And I snapped over one hundred additional photos of some of the most amazing exhibits I’ve ever seen.  The phone’s battery lasted until just after 5:00 when the Gallerie of Paleontologie closed for the day.  It was a big relief.

Unfortunately, I had a new problem.  We were over 2 miles from our flat, with a smartphone that was no longer smart and only a vague notion of how to get home.  I had planned to use the City Mapper* app to chart our course home but with my phone in dumb mode, we were more or less screwed.

Thankfully, we were in luck.  At least, we were in Paris, and while Parisians may not think of everything, they have thought of some useful conveniences.

While walking in what we hoped was the general direction of our flat in the third arrondissement, I noticed a young Parisian girl sitting at a streetside bus stop with a charging cable running from her phone to a USB port that was built into the bus stop marquis.    Bus stops are everywhere in Paris, so we soon found another, plugged in my phone, and voila!  We made it back at our flat before 6 with a little battery power to spare.

Paris Bus Stop Phone Charger
Paris Bus Stop

The ports are located on the side of the marquis behind the bus stop benches.

Paris Bus Stop Phone Chargers

 

The City of Lights has some powerful conveniences.   Paris’ bus stop USB ports are just one of many friendly gestures that Parisians offer to visitors.

If there are morals to this story, they include:

  • Always carry a phone charger and/or a backup power supply when you’re traveling.
  • Even if you forget your charger, don’t forget your USB cable or you won’t be able to use the bus stop charging stations.
  • Paris is cool.

Everyone knows this, but it bears emphasis:  Paris is a photogenic city.  Every block has some intriguing sight that you’ll want to preserve.  Carry your camera or smart phone at the ready, and make sure you have lots of available storage.

Bon Voyage!

  •  The City Mapper app is indispensable for navigating Paris.  With a couple of taps, it gives you the shortest, quickest, or cheapest route between any two points by foot, Metro, bus, car or bike.  It’s free and works on IOS or Android.

How to Get Around in France

 

Stop sign in France
Unmistakable in Any Language

Planning Your French Getaway

If you’re planning a trip to France, you’re probably overwhelmed with the number of decisions that you have to make.  Unless you can spend at least a year there, you won’t be able to see or experience a fraction of all that France, the most visited country in the world, has to offer.

One of the biggest decisions is how to get around once you arrive. And, like most of the decisions involved in planning a trip to France, it won’t necessarily be an easy one.

There is one obvious decision to make, though:  If you’re planning to stay in Paris for all or part of your trip, don’t even briefly consider renting a car while you’re there. The public transportation system in Paris is exceptional, while the driving and traffic conditions are a nightmare for non-Parisians.  Parking is expensive and nearly impossible to find anywhere near where you’ll want to park.

Using public transportation in Paris is a snap with the Citymapper, an app for Android and iPhones.  Citymapper is the app that Parisians use to navigate the City of Lights.  Citymapper shows you how to get where you want to go on foot, by the ubiquitous rental bikes  (Velib’),  by Metro, bus, or taxi.  It’s easy to use, and won’t take up any room or weigh an extra ounce in your luggage.

The Pont du Gard near Nimes

When to Rent a Car in France

For travel outside of Paris, a rental car can open many opportunities to experience France in ways that you’ll miss if you travel by train, plane, bus, or some combination of them.

For instance, I took the train from Antibes to Nimes last year. The train ride was great: lots to see, very comfortable, and remarkably fast. Nimes is an intriguing city with lots of remnants that are at least a couple thousand years old, a town artisan and farmer’s market that stretches for blocks, and an ancient town center that is lovingly maintained for countless centuries by the Nimois.

The train ride made the trip stress free and gave me an opportunity to watch Provenance flash by as we sped to our destination.  But the Pont du Gard, a nearby Roman aqueduct built around 2,000 years ago, is one of the most photographed sights in the region, and one that I didn’t want to miss.  But there was no easy way to visit without a car. Not only did we miss the Pont, but we also missed market day in the Place aux Herbes in Uzès.  Rats.  All because I didn’t rent a car.

At the same time, I didn’t have to worry about parking on the narrow streets of Nimes, or getting sideswiped in a tight parking space by a careless driver.   There are trade-offs to car rental, but there are also times when it’s imminently sensible.

Autoroute in Provence
Highway along the Cote d’Azur

If you’re traveling with children, even teenagers, renting a car in France is almost a necessity.  I’ve traveled in France with my two daughters from the time they were toddlers through their late teens.  The extra luggage they needed as they got older and their restless energy as teens would have made public transportation a nightmare.  And balanced against the expense of purchasing four train tickets for multiple destinations, the difficulty of shepherding children on foot through busy towns and cities, and the sometimes long hikes to get to and from a train station and a point of interest, renting a car can save time, money, and many headaches.

Things to Consider

Shop before you reserve.  Rental fees vary considerably.   I use favorite travel websites, including Expedia and Travelocity and then compare on the websites of the big name rental car companies.  My favorites are Alamo and Avis.  They’re not always the cheapest, but they’re usually within a few bucks, and I’ve never been scammed by hidden fees or charges when I’ve used them.  I can’t say the same for some of their competitors.

The displayed prices that some companies use to are a fraction of what they charge you when you show up at the rental counter.  Damage waivers are expensive, and you will almost certainly need one.   They’ll add at least $15 to your daily rate, depending on the coverage and the company.   But they also add a lot of peace of mind.

Choose the right size rental car.   The number of people traveling with you is not the only criteria.  A subcompact may have an inviting rental fee, but if you’re planning to use the auto routes (France’s network of toll freeways) where the maximum speed can range up to 80 mph (130 kph), you may live to regret not choosing a mid- or full-sized car.

Do you need a damage waiver? My auto insurance is with State Farm in the US, and they’ve assured me that they do not extend insurance coverage to rental cars outside of the continental United States.  Your insurance company may be different, particularly if you live in the UK, so definitely check with them before you pay for the waiver.  Also, some credit card companies offer rental car coverage, but there are caveats.  If you decide to rely on your credit card for insurance coverage, make sure you understand what the restrictions and benefits are by contacting your card company and asking them directly.

In general, you plan on buying the damage waiver.  During my last trip to France in October 2016, I rented a car through Sixt to travel from Annecy in the Alps back to Charles de Gaulle near Paris.  I was stunned to find that the actual rental fee was double the price that I’d found online when I reserved it.  The new price did include the damage waiver.  After I had returned to the US, Sixt contacted me to claim that the car had a scratch sustained during my rental.  I had not caused any damage to the car, but there were some stressful exchanges with Sixt as I explained this to them repeatedly.  In any case, the damage waiver paid for the repair.

One more anecdote: We have friends that often travel to France and always lease a car through either Europe by Car or Renault Eurodrive.  The fee includes liability and physical damage insurance.  During one of their stays in Nice, their beautiful new Renault was sideswiped while it was parked on the street overnight.   The accident was hit and run, so our friends were stuck with the damages.  The leasing company honored their insurance policy, though, so they weren’t required to pay anything for the extensive repairs.   Hit and run accidents are not uncommon in France or anywhere else, so make sure you have adequate insurance coverage before you drive off in your rental.

Should you rent a gasoline or diesel car?  I’ve rented some turbo diesels, some Peugeots, some Renaults.   I recommend a turbo diesel, with Peugeots 3008s near the top of my list.  They get excellent gas mileage, and they’re fun to drive.  The proximity sensors are very helpful in tight parking areas.

Petroleum, both gasoline and diesel, are expensive in France, typically well over 6 U.S. dollars per gallon.   A mid-size turbo diesel Peugeot will get between 30 and 40 miles per gallon, which takes some of the stings out of the high prices.

My personal favorite is a Peugeot TDI.  The newer models, like the 3008, are impressive.  Lots of electronic bells and whistles, including proximity sensors and backup cameras to help with tight parking spaces (which most of them are).  Also, the adaptive cruise control has some great features that make driving the auto routes less stressful and much safer.

Do you need to rent a car with GPS?  If you have an iPhone another smart phone with GPS built in, you don’t necessarily need to pay extra for GPS.  There are a few things to consider, though:

  • If you choose to rely on your phone for GPS, you could rack up big roaming charges if you have a U.S.- based carrier. Make sure your phone is GSM (global system for mobiles) and not CDMA (code division for mobile access).  AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM, which is the standard in Europe.  If your phone is CDMA, it won’t work in France, or anywhere other than the US.
  • If you do have a GSM smartphone, make sure that it’s “carrier unlocked.”  If you have an iPhone, check the settings to see if you have a category named “Mobile Data Network” or “Cellular Data Network.”  If you have one listed in Settings, your phone is unlocked.  Otherwise,  contact your carrier to find out.
  • If you have a smart phone that’s carrier unlocked, or an iPad or another tablet with GPS and GSM cellular data, you can get a prepaid mobile data SIM card when you get to France.   Orange, SFR, and Bouygues are the big providers; you can get a SIM card at any of their thousands of retail stores.
  • Using a French prepaid SIM card will lower your cost of phone and data service while you’re traveling, but your cell phone won’t receive calls to your U.S. number, and it’s not exactly convenient to sway SIM cards frequently.  If you’re traveling for two weeks or less, check with your service provider to see what kinds of roaming phone, text, and data plans they offer.  My carrier is AT&T, they had an unlimited texting plan with 3 GB of data and reduced calling rates for a flat fee.   Once you exceed the 3 GB, the price of data is extremely high, so be very cautious if you use this option because GPS services use lots of data.

Bottom line: in my experience, most newer rental cars in France have built-in GPS for no extra charge.  It’s usually easier than hassling with mobile phone plans, but if you’re not fluent in French, make sure you have the rental agent set the unit’s language to English before you drive away.

Will you be able to read French traffic signs?  The short answer is yes, for the most part.  Even if you don’t speak or read French,  road signs are pretty universal.  Stop signs in France are just like stop signs in Ohio, and traffic lights are red, yellow, and green with each color meaning the same thing it means in Seattle and Kennebunkport.

Speed limits are round with red borders, like this one for Meursault:

Meursault Speed Limit Sign

The end of a speed zone is denoted with the same round sign in gray, with a slash through the designated speed limit.

No Parking

The No Parking symbol is shown above, in this case with the stipulation that the area is reserved for buses.

Do Not Enter – Detourstr

The Do Not Enter sign is universal.   The above sign instructs drivers not to enter, and to detour to the right.   You don’t need to know that “contrôle routier” means “road control,” the symbols and colors are sufficient.

Rappel – Falling Rock

No need to ask Siri for a translation of this one, it just means “Caution, Falling Rock.”

Most of the road signs you’ll see in France are this easy to interpret, whatever your native tongue. Thanks to the EU, standards for traffic control and road signs are pretty universal throughout Europe.  Between smart phones and GPS units with voice prompts, navigating French highways and byways is remarkably easy.

The Bottom Line

Traveling through France by car is one of the best ways to see more.  In places like Brittany, where the coastline is a geologic marvel and the biggest Kodak Moment on planet earth.  Without a car, you’ll see a fraction of Brittany.  With a car, you can explore at leisure.

France has countless nooks and crannies full of serene beauty.  You can see lots of them whether you bike, take trains, cabs, or buses.  A rental car will usually let you see and do far more than any other mode of travel.

Driving in France is a snap if a little on the expensive side by North American standards.  Don’t let your fear of driving in an unknown place hold you back.  France is purely fantastic, and a rental car will help you discover it.

Brittany’s Mysteries: Carnac Stones, Megaliths, and Other Puzzles of the Past

Megalithic Structures of Brittany
Carnac Stones – Megaliths, Menhirs, and Weird Rocks Near Carnac

The Megaliths of Carnac

I’m a geologist.  So I’m predisposed to like rocks, and anything ancient.  A visit to the Carnac Stones was at the top of my list when I traveled around Brittany this fall, and it stands out among my many outstanding memories of the trip.  If you’re not familiar with them, or if you’re not a lover of rocks or things ancienne, don’t stop reading just yet.  Not only is Lorrie (my wife and traveling companion) not a geologist, she’s pretty ambivalent about rocks generally, and old things particularly.  And while I sometimes think she takes me for granite, she was nearly as enthralled with the megaliths at Carnac as I was.

When we look into the night sky,  astronomers tell us that we’re looking backwards in time.   When we look at the megaliths in Brittany, we’re also peering backwards in time, literally thousands of years, into a mysterious part of human history.

Megaliths are ancient stone monuments.  The most familiar examples are at Stonehenge and Easter Island.   Megaliths are found around the globe in various shapes and sizes, but all of them speak of an age of human history about which we know little.

The megaliths in the Carnac area were dubbed “menhirs” (meaning “long stones”)  by the French archaeologists that originally studied them.  At first glance, the stones in question may not seem very strange.  They’re just a bunch of shapeless, gray rocks sticking out of fields and numbering over 3,000 in total.  A closer look shows that they’re not  shapeless.   As the name menhir suggests, they’re roughly rectangular, or at least longer than they are wide.  The stones were shaped by human hands, not very precisely but with enormous effort.

The stones are standing upright, with their long axis perpendicular to the ground’s surface.   They’re mostly arranged in rows, some extending for several hundred meters, and including, in at least one “alignment“, over 900 individual stones, some of which weigh over 30 tons.

Carnac Stones
Carnac Tumulus

Archeologists and anthropologists know almost nothing about the people that erected these stones, aside from the fact that they were numbered among the Neolithic people of Northern Europe.  From archaeological studies, it’s safe to say that the people of the Neolithic period were characterized by the technological developments of stone tools, domestication of animals, and  settlement in agricultural communities.    It followed the Paleolithic Period, or the Old Stone Age.  I know only enough about all of this to know that it’s interesting and intriguing.  Maybe I should have been an archeologist.

The information that archeologists have assembled does suggests that the oldest megaliths in the Carnac area were erected around 6,000 years ago, at least 1,000 years before the pyramids of Egypt.  Archeologists believe that the stones had to have been transported to their current locations over distances not less than 6 miles, since outcrops of the type of granite from which they were hewn don’t exist any closer.

Geant du Manio Near Carnac

What would motivate a group of people to hack huge blocks of granite out of the ground with crummy stone tools,  then haul over 15,000 tons of them more than 6 miles, dig deep holes in hard, stony ground, and set the massive stones upright in rows and columns?

The pyramids of Egypt were mostly built by slave labor.  No one knows whether slaves were used in Carnac, but there was some extraordinarily powerful motivation for a people that must have struggled to grow, hunt, and gather enough food to survive winters, and to build shelters to keep them out of the harsh Brittany winter weather and safe from predators.

The work would have taken generations to complete, and was likely done over a span of hundreds of years.  And by a relatively small group of people that probably had short life spans, meager sustenance, and almost no technology.

Since there probably weren’t enough of them to control a large group of slaves over several generations, the work must have been somewhat voluntary.  Religion may be the best explanation, but there are literally no clues to as to what these industrious folks might have worshipped.  There is speculation that the stones are aligned with some astronomical precision, but I haven’t found an ironclad case supporting this.

Some of the stones are arranged as tumuli, which are tombs or burial sites, but most them them are simply big stones standing upright.

Carnac stones video

Putting all of this together, I’ve so far come up with far more questions than answers.  But they’re intriguing questions, and while the answers may never be found, it’s great fun to imagine what the Carnac area was like 6,000 years ago, and what the people were like that spent so much time and effort to create these strange monuments.

Carnac and the megaliths are just one of the many really good reasons to visit Brittany.  The whole peninsula is a photo gallery of stunning seascapes, rugged coastlines,  ancient villages,  sand geologic wonders.  Throw in some great seafood, excellent restaurants, town markets filled with the bounty of the region, and a friendly, eclectic mix of independent Bretons, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a better place in the world to explore.

Geology of Brittany
An Unconformity Near Crozon, Brittany

 

Crevettes in Brittany
Brittany’s Cuisine
Brittany Escargot
The secret to escargot is the garlic butter. Don’t tell anyone – it’s a secret.
Crozon, Brittany