We've worked out that from the time we leave our last bed in France to the time we walk through our front door in Nambucca Heads, some 42 hours will have elapsed. This is the total of driving hours, flying hours and many other hours waiting in various airport lounges along the way. It's far too hard on people of our age and we were remiss in not breaking our journey. Unfortunately the only logical place for us to have planned a useful rest stop would been in Abu Dhabi in the UAE as we are flying with Etihad Airways. However, the last time we visited that city we decided we weren't in any great hurry to pay a return visit and experience 40 to 45 degree temperatures again!
Comments and Observations
French Prices - They're astronomical. Virtually everything in France other than bread, duck and turkey costs twice what we pay in Australia and often worse. For example, the cost of petrol averaged around AU$2.70 per litre whilst we were there. Note that when we mention Aussie dollar equivalents in this website we base it on actual real life over the counter exchange rates and not the theoretical rates mentioned in the nightly television news.
Bathrooms - On previous visits to France we cannot remember a hotel bathroom without a bidet. This time none of our eight accommodations was equipped with this device. Coincidence or has something changed in France? Our guess is that when hotels are renovating nowadays the inclusion of a bidet in all rooms is no longer de rigeur. It's also possible that nowadays reservations from anglo speakers like ourselves are being automatically treated along the lines of "bidet not mandatory".
Only two of our eight bathrooms came with a shower stall so one still has to cope with standing in a slippery bathtub with a handheld flexible shower nozzle. As to the infinite types of water release methods used in French bathroom sinks, let us count the ways. They were sometimes difficult to fathom and all suffered from one of two syndromes. Either they couldn't keep the water in or they wouldn't let the water out. Give us a cheap rubber sink plug any day. Our observations over the years is that Australia is largely out of step with the rest of the world when it comes to sink plugs but hooray for that. Long live low tech bathroom sinks we say.
The French Language - Lynn and Brian each have probably about 250 French nouns and adjectives left in their heads as a result of high school French lessons. Lynn remembers heaps more than Brian when it comes to verb gymnastics but Brian can occasionally help to interpret a difficult sign by drawing on the pitiful remnants of his 50 year old Latin lessons. The bottom line is that we kind of cope with shopping and navigation challenges and we can even frame a few useful questions when it's absolutely essential. Trouble is we rarely understand much of what is said to us in return.
The most hilarious event in the language department during this visit was when we visited a church for a late afternoon Mass in the village of Saint Chinian. It turned out that only nine of us had turned up and we were by far the youngest persons in attendance. Our (slightly late) arrival was met with delighted smiles and noddings from the other seven regular worshippers. No doubt because of the tiny attendance, the service was being held in a small closed ante room off the main body of the church and this offered a much more intimate ambience under the circumstances. When it came to the readings the Priest handed the book to the lady in front of us but no doubt in deference to our remarkable presence she turned around and honoured us by placing the text reverently in Brian's hands.... whereupon he nearly Sh** himself !! Anyhow he eventually extricated himself with smiles, sign language and a bit of pigeon French thus forcing the kind lady to do the reading herself.
French Cuisine - Most readers will expect us to have major commentary on this topic so we won't disappoint you. In the main we feel French cuisine is very narrowly based along strict regional lines. The multinational and cosmopolitan cuisine we take for granted in Australia is largely absent in France as it is in most countries of the world for that matter. By and large one finds very few menu differences between one restaurant and the next within a region. Very large servings are the norm but the food found in most cafes and restaurants is hardly memorable. In the vast majority of cafes and restaurants one should expect a short traditional menu with narrow choices and with little or no creative flair. Of course there are indeed some fabulously good restaurants in France if you know where to find them and have a fabulously thick wallet to match. We've been to a few such restaurants over the years but it's a once per trip experience because of the cost.
We found that vegetables were invariably overcooked to a disgraceful degree from an Australian perspective and this was also amazingly true in the several Chinese restaurants we discovered as well !
Of course French bread is cheap, plentiful, always fresh and sooooo delicious if purchased from a boulangerie (bakery). Almost reason enough to live in France. On the other hand the free basket of roughly sliced bread that always comes with even the most basic plated meal in France is often dried out and unappetising.
We found that good seafood was plentiful throughout all of southern France (east, middle and west). Prices were around double the Aussie price in line with most other commodities. However, that makes French seafood much cheaper than in most other places in Europe.
As to ingredients, by and large supermarket meats are rarely up to the Australian standard. Fruit and vegetable quality in supermarkets is patchy with the exception of the potatoes which are always fantastic. On the other hand, all significant towns have very well supported farmers markets once or twice weekly where the produce looks much fresher and in its prime.
The cheapest meats in the supermarkets are duck, ham and turkey. Extremely large portions of the meat displays are devoted to these three items. The strange thing is that whilst duck and ham relentlessly appears on every restaurant's menu, the same is not true for turkey. Perhaps turkey has a very low-brow image in France. It's certainly cheap though.
Confit (stewed meat, usually duck or pork, preserved in its own fat) is amazingly popular. However, given that Brian had a difficult stomach condition for much of our tour, we avoided this particular delicacy particularly as it was super greasy and sometimes on display without refrigeration!
We must admit to being not great lovers of fast food which is just as well because the French must have a similar view. Fast food is pretty much confined to pizza, crepes, baguette or panini sandwiches. Toppings or fillings are almost always confined to ham, cheese and tomato or some near variant. However, it must have been slowly getting to Brian because right out of the blue one day he said, "I'd give my right arm for a meat pie, a spring roll. a lamb kabab or some battered fish pieces right now!"
French People - With very few exceptions they were relaxed, happy, fun loving, friendly and helpful just as we've found on previous visits. We're talking now about villages, small towns and cities up to perhaps 30,000 persons. Paris in particular and other large French cities can be a totally different story and that's just one of the several reasons we usually avoid large cities whenever we travel in any country.
Good Luck - We had more than our share. The weather was mostly excellent and the majority of our hotels were much better than expected. We experienced no nasty surprises during our trip. And fluking our arrival in St Jean de Luz during the Annual Basque Festival was an incredibly fortunate outcome which really put the icing on our vacation cake.
Driving - French drivers are usually very courteous and law abiding, almost to a fault.... except when it comes to parking where anything goes. Incidentally they must put some special additive in French gasoline nowadays because it really stinks. I'm sure it would stop even the most hardened petrol sniffer.
Public Toilets - Not very plentiful and often in obscure locations like under old stone bridges. About 50% of public conveniences require that you straddle a hole at floor level. It's an acquired skill that we still haven't acquired. Elevated public toilets rarely have seats. Furthermore, as at least half of the public WC's we encountered do not have any toilet paper it was essential to have our own personal supply and not go anywhere without it. Overall, France is an extremely civilized nation but we wish they'd lift their game in this particular department.
Police - We drove almost 2,500 kms through southern France over the course of a month. We never saw a police vehicle on a rural road or highway. Even spotting a policeman in a town was an extremely rare event. We didn't see more than 8 police officers during the month and six of those were simply watching over the festival crowds at St Jean de Luz. We never saw a single confrontation.
Over Enthusiasm - Some people set out to create a simple little website newsletter containing a few photos. Somehow it ends up as a major project devouring at least 30 man hours!! Haven't we encountered this syndrome somewhere before?
Scenery - There's so much great scenery in France and most of it is totally unlike what we have in Australia. We think that's a good enough reason alone to visit this charming country. As if one really needed a reason.
Wine - We had a lot of cheap rough stuff. And when we lifted our sites to around AU$20 retail it was still pretty rugged. The one and only good wine we had cost us the equivalent of AU$70 in a restaurant. I don't know what one would have to pay for really high calibre French wines but I'm sure it is more than we can afford.
Airline Travel - It sucks, it always has sucked and it always will suck.
Doing it Again? - Currently we are in a "that's it, all finished" swan-song frame of mind. Still, who knows.... maybe sometime in the future?? Ask us again in 18 moths time.
Au Revoir - Thanks for your "company" and your own newsy emails throughout this trip and farewell until...... next time???