Traveling in France: Yes, we can!
Traveling in France is what I have been doing since the end of June. I plan to take more trips, cautiously, yet resolutely, through the summer. I often get asked what it is like, these days, to travel around France. Here are some answers.
On May 14, 2020 as France entered its “déconfinement” phase (the progressive end of the lockdown) then-French PM Edouard Philippe encouraged the French to start making summer travel reservations… in France. Cafés and restaurants, museums, public parks and gardens had not even reopened yet. Still reeling from two months of strict lockdown (and by “strict”we mean REALLY strict, the kind of lockdown where you can’t leave home without a permission slip, where you can only spend up to an hour a day outside to stretch your legs or walk your dog, where you can’t stray more than 1 kilometer, or 0.6 miles, away,) the French breathed a sigh of relief. I was one of them. In the face of so much uncertainty, traveling in France was still a possibility. We were desperate for normalcy. The sacred French summer vacation might still be saved, and with it, the opportunity to make plans, something to look forward to, at long last!
As it turns out, it would take weeks before life as we knew it resumed. Here in Paris, deemed a higher-risk area, this meant gradually getting our beloved café and restaurant terraces (and their restrooms!) back. It was weeks before we were allowed to travel more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) away from our main place of residence. To make things worse, many of us just did not feel comfortable stepping outside, let alone riding public transportation again, after being cooped up in diminutive living quarters for so long. New routines had grown familiar. In many ways, even isolation seemed comfortable, as an invisible threat lurked outside.
Traveling in France once again would be the greatest luxury of all, for those willing to take a chance once the epidemic was declared under control.
Traveling in France: still a good idea?
Each year, close to 60% of French holiday makers take at least two weeks off in the summer months, and in France. By the end of May 2020, a poll revealed 44% of the French were planning a vacation, and over 70% would stay in “l’Hexagone” (Metropolitan France.) According to some, going on vacation had become a civic duty: Go and do your part to support ailing local economies!
Besides, who needs to fly anywhere? Hasn’t France been the world’s favorite playground for more than 30 years with close to 90 million foreign visitors a year? No major crisis, terror attacks, strikes, or Yellow Vests protests have been able to change this for long. These days, every time I ride public transportation around Paris (a face mask on, it’s the law!) I am reminded of how good we have it. The French government has launched a nationwide-campaign to rescue the endangered tourism industry, “Cet été, je visite la France” (This summer, I visit France.) Posters featuring attractive French destinations serve the dual purpose of promoting regions while teaching us about geography (What’s the two-digit number of the “département” again? What administration région is it in?) Not to mention that in the great tradition of creative French advertising, many captions offer endless puns and opportunities to dream, and smile.
Long live the TGV!
Looking at French roads this summer, you would never know the country’s life came to a standstill just a few months ago. Reports about traffic jams during peak departure weekends in July show French autoroutes (toll roads) heading south have been as congested this year as in the past. France reopened its borders to several European countries earlier this month. Traveling in France is a thing, once again. For an update on who can visit France, see this link. Each year, 80% of foreign visitors are Europeans, and bring close to 70% of tourism revenue. It appears Europeans are back.
Everyone knows beautiful, efficient French roads will get you where you want to go. I miss my days traveling around France in a spacious air-conditioned coach with groups of North-American travelers for Rick Steves Europe. When going solo, I prefer to travel by train. Even if the French love to complain about the SNCF (national state-owned railway company,) I am happy to confirm they offer excellent value, and swift, comfortable and reliable trains to zoom across the country. All my reservations and trips are handled via the Oui SNCF app on my phone. This summer, while visiting relatives and friends, I have been making the most of the SNCF “Weekend Pass.” It offers 30% discounts on most routes, as long as I spend one weekend night at my destination.
Train travel tips: Face masks are mandatory at all times, in the train station and onboard, but only if travelers are 11 and older. I recently traveled with a group of girl scouts who weren’t wearing any. There was nothing I could do about it. Conductors and SNCF staff are pretty strict about compliance. Expect to be fined if you don’t wear a mask in all public indoor places as of July 20 (135 Euros, 155 USD.) I bring my own hand sanitizer and wipe down the tray table as soon as I get on board, as always. It can’t hurt. Expect someone to sit next to you. Avoid the dreaded “carré,” (four-seat arrangement) when making your reservation: You may face another traveler for several hours, and that makes some people nervous right now. When booking First Class, try and get a “Solo” seat (they go first, especially these days!) If social distancing is a big peeve of yours, you may not appreciate navigating French train stations in the summer months. Marks on the ground seem to serve mostly decorative purposes. I suggest you do your best to keep your distance, wherever you go in public.
Hotels or apartment rentals?
The big issue when traveling around the world this summer is going to be: How clean (and sanitized) can you you expect your accommodation to be when you arrive? The choice was easy for me when I recently spent two weeks in the beautiful Morbihan, Southern Brittany: I stayed with relatives who generously gave me access to a spacious apartment they rent out via AirBnB on the top floor of their house. The apartment had sat unused for several months, yet guests were scheduled to arrive throughout the summer. I can vouch the space was cleaned thoroughly when I left following the new COVID-19 protocol endorsed by AirBnb. The question is: Are all apartment owners as trustworthy?
My answer: Probably not. Some of the places I have rented in the past have been hit and miss. Why would the odds be better now? For that reason, as I travel around France this summer, I will prioritize hotels over rental apartments. While staying in Nantes, Western France, last weekend, I felt reassured the hotel had strict rules and enforced them. There were ubiquitous hand sanitizer bottles all over the property. Guests were expected to use them upon entering the lobby, and in all shared areas. The breakfast buffet prominently featured disposable gloves. Guests had to put on a pair whenever they approached the food (good thing I hardly go back for seconds!) As a traveler, I found these safety rules reassuring (in spite of minor inconveniences.)
Traveling in France: Final musings
I have been traveling in France again since late June, on and off, with more trips scheduled in August. I will stay with friends and relatives whenever possible, and at a couple of hotels along the way. Here’s what to expect if you plan to do the same…
Face masks: A reminder that as of July 20, face masks are mandatory in France in all public indoor places. This includes museums and public transportation where rules are mostly followed in my experience. Why? The French can be as undisciplined as your fellow countrymen, but fines are steep for those who don’t comply. Note face masks are only recommended outside, and many locals and visitors choose not to wear any while walking around.
Rules are subject to change. This week, the mayor of a touristy destination, la Rochelle, in Western France, announced face masks would be mandatory on the streets as well because of large summer crowds, a controversial decision with locals and visitors. It’s always a good idea to inquire about local rules when you arrive at a new destination.
I prefer fabric masks, and I wear them in Paris. Sometimes, I spot a nice one in a shop window at a good price (my budget is about 5 Euros,) and I buy it. Surgical masks, on the other hand, join me on my travels when I don’t have access to a washer. A box of 50 single-use masks can be purchased in many stores. Prices can range from 22 to 50 Euros. Face masks are here to stay, and it wise to shop around.
Social distancing is tricky: Many restaurants and cafés try to enforce it, with terraces sprawling along sidewalks and on the street. Businesses announce rules on their front door, always in French, and indicate how many people can be in the shop at the same time. Churches, museums and public landmarks have strict rules as well. The real problem? The general public.
Crowds: Don’t listen to all the reports you read in the media (in social media in particular.) Some would have you believe Paris has turned into a ghost town, reserved for its privileged residents. It has not. Paris, these days, can be quiet (nothing unusual, mind you, between July 15 and August 15.) It can also turn into its loud, crowded self in a heartbeat, depending on the time of day, and the neighborhood. The same scenario repeats itself all over France at popular destinations.
If you come to France this summer, expect crowds. You will be wise to avoid them, as I always try to do, in Paris and “en province.” Realize it’s not always possible. There’s a reason visitors and locals flock to European villages, or cities’ historical centers: They are quaint, desirable areas. The way of life in many European neighborhoods embodies the concept that small (and crowded) is beautiful. Narrow streets, restaurant tables sprawling over the pavement, leaving little room for pedestrians, await. If you find the photos below “upsetting” (to quote a reader on one my social media accounts,) I recommend you wait before you start traveling in France again.
What’s next? This summer, I continue reporting from Paris and from the road, a face mask on. I seek quieter places whenever possible, tell lesser-told stories, and hope for the best. The new job I created for myself when I lost tour guiding assignments in the spring involves sharing original Paris and France content virtually with francophiles around the world. I am grateful traveling in France offers an endless source of inspiration.
(*) Intro photo translation. Telerama cover. “Is tourism a bygone world?”
One last thing…
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