Aquitaine Survival Guide

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French flag icon  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



The glorious tricolour! Rights of Use - Copyright MDLF/Cédric Helsly

That familiar icon of France, the 'deux chevaux' 2CV. Rights of Use - Copyright MDLF/Cédric Helsly

Signposts in French towns are plentiful!

Acclimatising yourself
Forget liberté, égalité, fraternité. Before setting foot on ‘la Patrie’ (as patriotic natives refer to it) the four essential characteristics of France worth memorising are the ones below – these can help to explain and understand better much of the strangeness of what’s going on round you:

France is a country of unlikely contrasts. There is a strong sense of tradition, and that certain ‘old-fashioned’ values and ways of life are worth preserving. At the same time progress is by no means a dirty word. A visit to Bordeaux provides an excellent example of this combination of modern & traditional, a gleaming 21st century tram winding it’s ay amongst the city centre’s beautifully restored 18th century architecture - something locals are very proud of.

France is a very proud nation. For example, long after we ditched our Rovers & Austins, Renaults, Peugeots and Citroens still clog French roads. One reason for their pride is that the French see themselves as a last beacon of civilization in this globalised, dog-eat-dog world. As not everyone shares this view, the French can be a little defensive, and sensitive to criticism.

France is essentially a Communist country; think Soviet-era central-planning, not Anglo-Saxon ‘flexibility’ (‘liberalisation’ is a detested word in France). This means the waitress and CEO are treated as equals, and officialdom are unforgiving. Another consequence is that ‘have-a-nice-day’ style service is still uncommon in France, and can result in you feeling you’ve been dealt with rather abruptly – please don’t take it personally.

By their own admission, the French can be rather unruly, which, unfortunately, means there are myriad and vehemently enforced regulations in every corner of life, even extending to which side of the street you can park on on certain days of the week. Unfortunately the same rules apply to visitors too, there’s no point in arguing about it.

It’s a unique mix, very different from the average Anglo-Saxon’s outlook on life. Although it may leave us sometimes feeling baffled it’s worth remembering that this combination of tradition and modernity, pride, regulation and control go a long way to preserving so many of the aspects of France we love - and often feel we have lost ourselves.

Driving in France
Good luck! Naturally we do a lot of driving in France and whilst most of it is blissful and carefree, there are times when you're left wondering if there's such a thing as a driving test in this beloved country. 

It seems as though indicators are an optional extra which most French motorists feel they can do without. We've often considered it safest to be a on a bike in France as the French have the utmost respect for cyclists; many's the time we've observed a motorist slowing down behind a pack of cyclists, indicating and pulling out carefully - before carving up another driver at the next roundabout...c'est la vie!

The following is a Bluffer’s Guide for the newcomer's first venture on French roads. The information we provide here is kept up-to-date as best as possible but we recommend that you contact a relevant, authorative body such as Driving Abroad, the AA or RAC before travelling.

For route planning and distances, try the AA Route Planner.

Rules & regulations.First & foremost, serrez à droite! (drive on the right). There are many such signs on the way out of channel ports, but few in Aquitaine itself.

French road network. It's divided into autoroutes (motorways), indicated by an A then a number; routes nationals (main trunk roads, often dual carriageways, like our A roads), indicated by an N and a number; routes departementales (secondary routes, like our smaller A and B roads), indicated by a D and a number. There are also country roads with no number.

Péages. Most autoroutes charge tolls (péages); you’ll find péage stations occasionally in the middle of the motorway or when you exit. Péage channels and queues are divided into ones which accept coins, credit cards (most cards accepted), and ‘télépéage’ - a system for regular motorway users, avoid!

Safety. All cars on French roads must be equipped with: reflective triangle & yellow security vest - the latter should be kept in the car, not the boot. Drivers should carry the registration certificate, valid driving licence and insurance documents. Drink-driving limits, seat-belt laws, child seat regulations are all similar to the UK. The Driving Abroad website contains a useful guide to French road signs. Motorists should be aware of new regulations being introduced in France. The latest one for instance is the requirement to carry a reflective safety jacket and warning triangle (applies from 1 July 2008).

The decree requiring vehicles to carry two alcohol breath tests applies as of 1 July 2012. (According to the decree, the obligation is to have one breath test in the vehicle but if the driver tests himself , drivers will need to have a second breath test – unused - in order to comply with the law.) The fine of € 11 if the driver does not have such breath test in the vehicle is only applicable as from 1 November 2012.

There's also a useful guidebook - 'Your Glove Box Guide to Trouble Free Motoring' - on the subject of driving in France which you can buy from AllRich Publications

Traffic information reports. Can be found at the Bison Fute website.

Services. Autoroutes and some dual carriageways have regular 'aires' - service areas. There are two types – aires de repos, essentially just a toilet & picnic table, and aires de service, offering the full works: petrol station, restaurant/cafeteria, and often a hotel. In Aquitaine the Bordeaux-Cestas (nr Bordeaux) and Labenne (nr Biarritz) service areas are recommended!

Speeding. Traffic police have the power to impose on-the-spot speeding fines, and are not afraid to do so – we talk from experience, trying to catch a plane! Please respect speed limits, and remember they are in kmh!

Phones, Internet, TV, Radio, Papers
Much of the information below involves use of electrical & electronic appliances, so a note on plug adaptors is worthwhile – if you’re taking any of this kit, please remember adaptors! French sockets take round two and three-pin plugs; one of the configurations in a standard European multi-adaptor from Boots will work.

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.

One of the many pleasures of visiting France is to shop, whether it’s amongst the amazing range & quality of things in an Auchan hypermarket or the vivid smells, colours and sounds of the local marché: if you’ve time, all are worth a try! Here are a few tips on shopping in France:

Markets: most towns & resorts have at least a weekly market in summer, selling food, clothes, shoes, gifts, etc. They are usually open mornings, 8.30-ish to 1pm-ish. Please check locally for days & times: property owners, residences reception staff or local tourist offices will have the information.

Supermarkets are very convenient, especially for shopping at the start of your stay to buy the basics. Most are open 9am to 7.30 pm Monday-Saturday, but beware of 3 hour + closing at lunchtime (approx. midday to 3 or 3.30). Because Saturday is changeover day in July & August queues on Saturday afternoon can be long. An increasing number are open Sunday morning too so if you can manage until then (get there early!) you’ll save a lot of time standing in line. Don't forget the rule in the fruit & veg section of French supermarkets - you need to weigh your own.

Boulangeries (bakeries): are open mornings and late afternoons/early evenings. If you really want to go native you’ll buy fresh baguettes, croissants etc in the morning for breakfast, then fresh bread again in the afternoon for that evening’s dinner. French bread is deliciously fresh, but goes stale very quickly!

Entering & leaving: French shop-keepers, stall-holders, etc, appreciate politeness – even if you’re just browsing, it’s customary to say bonjour and au revoir.

Banks are typically open 9am – midday, 3.30 pm – 6pm. French cashpoints are found at banks and large post offices (indicated by a yellow La Poste sign); they accept most UK bank cards, and give you the choice of using English language settings. Credit cards are widely accepted in Aquitaine, except by most market stallholders, and, curiously, in Cap Ferret where many of the shops & restaurants shun this modern convenience.

Most other shops are open Monday to Saturday with a mid-week closing day that varies according to local custom, the weather, etc. They are generally open mornings until about midday, then in the afternoon from between 3 and 4 until between 6 and 7.30 pm.

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!

Eating Out
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.

Medical Information, Insurance, Emergencies
For latest travel news and advice on visiting France, please consult the Foreign Office website

Obviously we very much hope you won’t need to consult this section, but in case you do here are a few pointers:

If you are an EU resident you can apply for a European Health Insurance Card (obtainable in the UK from post offices or online), which will allow you to claim for state health service treatment in France in hospitals and local medical centres and doctors’ surgeries.

We strongly recommend you also take out a suitable travel insurance policy for the duration of your stay for extra peace of mind. Please contact us if you’d like help identifying suitable insurers.

If you are involved in a road accident or the victim of a crime you must inform the local police (gendarmes). The emergency number is 17 (calls are free).

For a medical emergencies you should dial SAMU (the French ambulance service) on 15; for the fire service (sapeurs pompiers) dial 18. The main city hospitals in Aquitaine are in: Bordeaux, Bayonne and Pau.

For medication you’ll see pharmacies throughout France – the French are Europe’s leading pill-poppers! Pharmacists are very helpful, and most pharmacies will have at least one English-speaking member of staff.

We hope that you find this guide useful. We will continue adding to it throughout the year and welcome any suggestions on how to improve it.

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