Some General Observations – October 2019
I have traveled to the European Continent each year during the fall. Surprisingly, I was unprepared for fall in France. What were my surprises?
I visited Normandy and drove south to the border with Spain during October. I found it difficult to rouse myself in the mornings as the sun was not rising much before 8 to 8:30. Daylight Savings did not set the clocks back until the last Sunday of the month. Days were short with little more than 10 hours of daylight before the time change on 27 October.
Spending a week touring Normandy was all I had hoped and more.
However, France considers October as end of season. This may be good for prices and crowds, though I didn’t really experience that. What it means is that many sites are operating under restricted hours or not open at all. While visiting Sainte-Mère-Eglise, the village was virtually a ghost town with few restaurants open. A couple big disappointments was the inability to cruise the Canal du Midi or take tours of wineries.
It was also a wet season for France. Even the French were complaining, but then they tend to complain a lot about things. I did’t like it either and got lots of use from my otherwise unused umbrella.
The French love their en grève. SNCF railways was “on strike” several days while I was there, one of which was totally unexpected by anyone. However, I have to give them credit as their staff was friendly and extremely helpful in getting me to my destinations.
There is actually an APP and web page that will keep you informed about strikes. Both are helpful. “World in Paris” is very good as is the downloadable APP “C’Est La Greve.” And when booking any reservations, sign up for notifications!
Here’s the thing with the railroad: I had tickets for a destination. My regional train was cancelled because of a strike. The SNCF staff told me to board a TGV direct in order to get me to my destination. Thank you, SNCF.
For my second experience, my TGV direct high speed train Toulouse-Paris was sort of cancelled. Because I had booked tickets using their excellent oui.sncf.com APP and signed up for notifications, I was notified the night before that “We regret to inform you that your train 8504 on 29/10/2019 will not be stopping at TOULOUSE MATABIAU due to the Atlantic TGV maintenance center’s strike.”
So, what did that mean?
The staff at the train station, swamped with others in the same situation, were wonderful. The kind gentleman rescheduled me on another train to Bordeaux where my scheduled train was departing. No cost. In Bordeaux, we caught our original high speed train using the original tickets to Paris, arriving exactly on time.
The French may love to strike, but they also know how to run a rail system. However, I have to say that train schedules are not the best in this part of France and getting to some cities are easier done by bus.
I was also happy to discover than my pin-less credit card worked in the rail station kiosks when buying tickets. These kiosks, and most around France, read contactless cards also. I had a little more problem with some petrol stations, but when using the larger name-brand stations, my card was accepted without a pin. This was also true of the toll road. In general, I would say be prepared for rejection, carry backups and when in doubt, use cash or find a human.
I rented from both Alamo/Enterprise and Styx. Both were good experiences. With Alamo, it was the first time a person explained and demonstrated how they evaluate any scratches or nicks on the car. Not bigger than this round circle – no problem.
There was no problem driving a rental car from France into Andorra. I was asked by the rental agency for proof that I had insurance and a simple printout of my credit card coverage was adequate. I had an International Driver’s license but was not asked for it; it is not the rental companies who care but the police if you are stopped.
Eating a meal even close to my time schedule, about 5-6, was impossible. The French eat before 2 pm. I am usually not hungry for a full meal. However, any place serving hot food closes down their kitchen after 2 and does not reopen before 7-7:30. I learned to adapt or starve.
The French are incredibly polite for pedestrians, though I have to exclude Parisians from this generalization. I had cars stop to allow me to cross the street even when the “Do Not Walk” sign was red. Certainly, everyone stopped for pedestrians in the streets. Impressive! I remember when in Paris in 1972 that the drivers appeared to aim for me as I stood at the street corners. I think in Paris, they might still do this.
Many museums, especially around Normandy, have free WiFi and even downloadable apps to use while visiting. There are coupons available that will save you a euro or two on admissions, which can add up if you visit several sites. Most private museums, which often cost more, do not offer coupons. I visited well over twenty museums and didn’t find a poor one in the lot.
My offline Google maps on my iPad were adequate to get me all over France. Directions were near perfect and I could not have found a few places without these map directions. Also, having downloaded the maps while on wifi before leaving home and also creating my driving directions ahead of time, I had little problem reaching my destinations. I still purchase a cellular data plan for a month in case of emergency but managed very well with the offline maps.
The Euskotren from Hendaye/Hendaia to San Sebastian/Donostia and on to Bilbao was excellent. It is modern, prompt, inexpensive and convenient.
Donostia, as the Basque call San Sebastian, is one of the best cities in Spain. It has most everything. Probably the best it has to offer is the Pintxo, their exceptional version of the Spanish tapa. I think the food in Donostia was the best on the entire trip. They have excellent sea food and Rioja wines. I would have liked to stay longer just to eat more. And it was a hard decision every day whether to eat a dinner or just do a Pintxo bar crawl.
Cities not to be missed in France were Rouen, Carcassonne, Saint-Émilion, and Saint-Malo. In Spain, Donostia is a must. And my drive into Andorra was spectacular with scenery and fall colors.