Download the Alternative Aquitaine France Survival Guide
Getting the most out of your holiday in France
Even though a strait of a mere 21 miles separates us from France, culturally it’s a vast gulf – after all, it’s because it’s so different yet so close that we love going there. For the uninitiated, however, arriving in France can be rather disorientating.
To help you through, here is Alternative Aquitaine’s guide to surviving a week or two in France. This guide is intended for inexperienced travellers in France, as a way of hopefully guiding you through some of the idiosyncracies of French life. For the time-pressed, in the box on the right it is distilled down to our 3 ‘Top Tips’ (you can read the rest when you arrive).
1. Buy a Map! We very much recommend buying a map of Aquitaine before you go – Michelin #524 covers the region. To avoid starting a holiday with threats of divorce, please familiarise yourself with the directions we have provided, especially the last leg, and mark them on the map before you leave! This is the most heartfelt piece of advice in this guide!
2. Learn a little French! If you are not confident in French please swot up before you go! Aquitaine is a very French part of France, with few English speakers - a little French will go a long way. Holiday French CDs for the car journey down or the week before you go are ideal. A small portable phrase book is also a must.
3. Plan Ahead for the First night. If you are arriving at a ‘normal’ time, on a Saturday around 5pm, you should have time to buy provisions for that evening and the next morning. (There’ll usually be a supermarket open until 7.30 pm nearby.) If you are arriving late on Saturday, or on a Sunday, supermarkets are only open on Sundays until midday at the latest so please factor this in and take provisions with you if need be.
We recommend you also explore the other areas of our Travel Directory, for more travel advice, tips and resources.
"I just speak my mind - which is trained in the world's best schools, and refined by a thousand years of French cultural superiority." Jacques Chirac gives us his modest view of France's standing in the world. Source: AfterQuotes
Phoning in France: most UK mobiles automatically pick up French networks, though you may need to call your network provider (eg O2, Orange, Vodafone, etc) before leaving to be certain you can make calls abroad. If using a UK mobile, you don’t need to dial the UK country code when calling home. If you are calling a French number, you need to include the country-code (0033) and drop the first ‘0’ of the rest of the number (usually starting ‘05’ or ‘06’). To call the UK from a French phone dial 0044 then drop the first zero of the area code. Mobile coverage is good in Aquitaine, except in the heavily-forested mid-Aquitaine areas, eg the Landes National Park and mid-Médoc.
Some rental homes include phones from which you can dial local numbers for free. Local numbers in Aquitaine begin 05 and should be dialled in full (10 digits).
Public phones are still widespread in France, but almost all require a phone card to operate them. Visitor phone cards, known as a télécartes séjour are available from tabacs (local newsagents-cum-cafés), and come in different pre-paid amounts starting from 10 EUR. Instructions on how to use them come in many languages, including English.
Internet Access: internet usage is not quite as ingrained into national life in France as it is in the UK or USA, but this is changing. Where we have indicated that a property has Internet access, if you wish to make use of it please let the owner know in advance so they remember to provide access details. Unless we have specified that a PC is available you will need to bring your own computer, and necessary cables and adaptors.
In bigger towns some cafés, hotels and airports have wireless Internet ‘hot-spots’ accessible by the public. You may have to tolerate watching an advert before you can connect. Internet cafés (cybercafés) are also available in most sizeable resorts.
High-speed wireless access via mobile phone (3G) is available in most towns, and 4G in larger towns. You’ll need a laptop, compatible 3G modem and a valid 3G network account to be able access it. Please contact your network service provider for more information about this.
Please be aware that in peak summer wifi and 3G and 4G services are in high-demand, browsing speeds may not be what you are used to at home.
TV, Radio, Papers: being on holiday is one of the few times you have to read the newspaper front-to-back (or if you’re male, back-to-front) so it’s understandable to want to buy English-language papers. Tabacs (newsagents) in most resorts sell many international newspapers, including those from the UK, Ireland & USA, 1 or 2 days old.
Brits missing the cultured tones of BBC newsreaders can just about tune into Radio 4 long-wave, as long as you are facing London - cricket-lovers need not miss out on TMS commentary!
If we have indicated a property has a TV with English channels, this will usually consist of 1 or 2 of: CNN, BBC World, Eurosport, etc. Please don’t expect anything like the same choice as you would have at home. If a TV is available without English channels, many clients now take a portable DVD player and standard audio and video connectors (which you’ll need to take with you).
Feeling confident in French and want to immerse yourself in some local news? The regional paper Journal du Sud Ouest will tell you everything local oyster-farmers/vine-owners/sweetcorn-growers are complaining about, and has an excellent weather forecast. To really go native, dip into le Monde – a proper, serious paper which makes you realize just how tabloid-y our broadsheets have become. News weeklies, especially le Nouvel Observateur and l’Express (the more accessible of the two) are also recommended.
Signs you’ll often see in French shops windows are: SOLDES (this means a sale is on), and ENTREE LIBRE. This latter one is strange one to English eyes, it means you are welcome to go in and browse without an obligation to buy something!
The enjoyment of food in convivial surroundings is central to the way of life in France, so it would be rude not to try it! We may well have provided some restaurant suggestions in the local guide attached to your Arrival Instructions. Also, there's a restaurant guide on our Biarritz Visitors Guide on our website and you'll find others in our online Aquitaine Tourist Guides. We advise booking in advance in high summer, especially for prestigious destinations such as Chez Hortense in Cap Ferret or Chez Albert in Biarritz.
Service is included on almost all bills in French restaurants, but it is still customary to leave a small tip.
You will probably find that at the end of a lovely meal, the hitherto attentive service you had been enjoying suddenly vanishes - all waiting staff go AWOL when you want to pay & leave. If no-one’s coming just go up to the patron and pay at the counter, it’s OK to.
Children are very welcome in most French restaurants and most offer a children’s menu or, even if not, will grill you a hamburger (steack haché – ask for it well done, bien cuit), chicken breast (blanc de poulet), or cook you an omelette. From birth, French children are used to eating out with grown-ups until quite late, and behave beautifully. The French think most other nations (especially Brits) bring up children badly so if you’re eating out en famille it is our chance to prove them completely wrong!
Take a look at our guide to Aquitaine Cuisine too.
The French Outdoors
Aquitaine is a vast, natural playground with enough to keep even the most active family busy. Here are a few important pointers to making the most of the Aquitaine outdoors:
Les Plages: Beaches
The Aquitaine coast is a fantastic coastline, but as on any beach in the world, the sea should be treated with respect – Aquitaine’s Atlantic rollers and currents can be powerful. Major beaches are supervised in peak summer only and operate a flag system for bathing (green = OK, orange = OK with caution, red = no bathing) – we recommend using these beaches if you are uncertain about judging conditions for yourself. Aquitaine’s lake beaches are an excellent alternative on days when it’s windy or there’s a large swell. This is one of the region's main attractions, particularly for families with younger kids.
Piste Cyclables: Cycle Paths
There is an extensive network of cycle trails throughout Aquitaine, especially in resorts such as Lacanau, Moliets & Cap Ferret, where cycling is a delightful way to get around. The many cycle-hire shops will hire you wheels (adults’ and children’s) for 8-10 EUR per day. A deposit is usually required, often in cash, or a passport or driving licence may be sufficient.
Pistes Randonnées: Walking Trails
There are also many lake and coast path walks which offer gentle walks and beautiful views; local tourist offices offer walking trail maps for each area. For more ambitious walkers, the major French walking routes are numbered Grandes Randonnées routes, notably the Pyrenean GR 10 and GR 8.