Practical Comparisons: France 1971 vs. 2017

IMG_0359
National Geographic Traveler’s Map of France

While cleaning out my grandmother’s home, my mom found a 1971 copy of National Geographic Traveler’s Map of France.  Both Andrew and I eagerly unfolded the yellowed map to see what National Geographic recommended to tourists in 1971. We were impressed to see that we could have taken most of their advice for which monuments to visit, though most practical information is sadly outdated.  Check out a list of comparisons below:

Under the “Hints for the Traveler” section, NG advises that a “valid passport [is] required; visas [are] needed for stays of more than three months.”  Even with the advent of the European Union and Schengen zone, this remains true.  US passport holders visiting France and other Schengen countries can stay within the bounds of this area for 90 days, before they either need to leave the Schengen zone, or hold the required visa to travel, study or work for an extended period.

 

The currency exchange information lists 1 franc as equal to 18 cents U.S.  Clearly, this has drastically changed since 1971, as France introduced euro banknotes into circulation on January 1, 2002.  I have no understanding of the buying power a franc represented (1 franc = 1 baguette? 1 coffee? 1 piece of candy?), but I would have liked to experience France pre-Euro, as currency can be a meaningful indicator of cultural identity.  As of June 27, 2017, Google Finance reports that 1 Euro is equivalent to 1.13 USD.  This should be encouraging dollar holding travelers to Europe, as in recent memory the dollar has been (de)valued to as high as 1.40 USD for 1 Euro, which is a depressing and expensive to the visitor earning a dollar-based salary to any Euro country.  Exchanging money in 1971 probably involved a more direct transaction.  Now, we recommend taking a debit card, and withdrawing money directly from your US bank account at a local ATM in France directly in Euros.  This allows you to avoid any unnecessary fees at your local branch in the US, and gives you the best exchange rate.  Don’t use the airport or train station currency exchange booths; these are truly a rip-off!  Another suggestion is to use a credit card for larger purchases, but be sure to pack a credit card that charges no foreign transaction fees.  We use a Capital One card, both in the US and abroad.

Under the “Shopping and Sightseeing” category, NG states that most shops are closed on Monday, which we found to still be accurate in Tours and the surrounding region.  Small shops and local restaurants shuttered their windows for a day off on the first day of the week, which overall had a sleepy, post-weekend sluggishness feel to it.

NG confidently assures the monolingual American that “English [is] understood at most hotels, shops, and restaurants in the larger cities.” While I’m sure this is true, venture out into the provincial capitals and smaller towns, and English is not as “on demand” as one might expect, even in 2017.  The French willingly engage in their language, too, given they sense your effort is honest, and more or less competent.

My favorite section, “Hotels,” lists the price for various categories of accommodation. The average rate for “big-city luxury hotels:  about $20 a day for a single; $35 double (without meals).  Some inexpensive hotels offer rooms for as little as $5, without private bath.” Assuredly, there are no upscale accommodations available in Paris for such a deal in 2017!  Since I have no experience with “luxury hotels” in France, let’s compare an “inexpensive” stay in 1971 with one in 2017.  In December 2009, a friend and I spent a week in Paris, and sojourned at the Hotel du Commerce in the 5th arrondissement, which I’ll use as our point for comparison.  This hotel offers a fabulous location at a budget price (walk to Notre Dame!  explore Rue du Moffetard!).  While not fancy (the shower was at the foot of the bed, spraying water into the floor, the toilet at the other end of the creaky hall, our room up 5 flights of stairs, like sleeping in Gryffindor Tower, but no fire for the winter cold), it was, and still is, affordable.  In fact, I’d stay here again, and recommend this albergue to a friend!  A stay amounts to around $70 a night for 2 people in a full bed, with a shared toilet, even in 2017.  So, a $70 room cost 59 euro in 2009, and supposedly $5 in 1971.  All indicators point toward booking a flight to Paris, right now, with such a reasonably priced establishments available.

Another option for lodging when traveling in the countryside and through smaller towns is to book a Chambre de Hote or a Gite for a larger party.  Both offer a unique cultural experience, normally breakfast is included at the Chambre de Hote, for an outstanding price / quality ratio.  Outrageous by today’s standards, NG informs young adventurers that youth hostels cost only $1 a night in France, with a three night limit.  This chain of Auberges de Jeunesse in Paris advertises a night in dorm in Montmarte for 19 euros a person.  While 20x the amount quoted in 1971, still doable for the modern day budget conscious voyager.

Other memorable pieces of information from the 1971 Traveler’s Map of France include the advice to travel by bike – “the ultimate in inexpensive travel.  For short excursions, bikes rent for about $1.00 per day.”  No longer true as we rented bikes for 15 euros a day, but thoroughly endorse a day by bike experience.  Our pedal along the Cher River counts as a highlight from our recent trip, and continues to be a popular pastime among the French.

Also enviable was the cost of a “top-flight restaurant meal including wine and service: $20.” Blessedly service is still included (one of our favorite parts about dining out in France – the price listed is really what you pay, no 15-20% tip to be added at the end), but a nice meal out for lunch in Tours with a glass of wine cost between $55 and $70 dollars for 2.  While more expensive than Spain, considering the cost of a three-course meal with alcohol in the US (astronomical!), we thought the price quite fair.

Later this week I plan to post about the sightseeing recommendations provided by NG in 1971, which gave surprisingly similar itinerary suggestions to the one we followed in 2017.  That must mean either NG is forward-thinking, Andrew has an old soul and loves the traditional spots, or else the tourist attractions in France remain largely unchanged.

Do you have any practical information for tourists to France in 2017?  Am I totally wrong about the prices listed above?  Do you have insider’s advice to someone booking accommodations, transportation, or restaurant reservations for an upcoming trip?

Advertisements

In the beginning…

I guess it’d be only fitting to document some of our Camino adventures here. I was looking back through the archives of this blog the other day, and noticed a post from 2012, mentioning how one day we’d like to make the pilgrimage.  Less than two years later, we’ve finished our long-dreamed of adventure, and after a month off the Camino, I hope I can offer some interesting and useful insights into the experience. 

St. Jean Pied de Port

We started our pilgrimage in the traditional location, just over the border into France in the town of St. Jean Pied de Port. Situated in the historic Basque country, St. Jean espouses traditional Basque architecture highlighted by the cleanliness and care found in French villas. 

Panorama of St. Jean

We stayed our first night in a hostel here, and since it was still a somewhat novel experience, I look back on it as one of the more cozy and caring establishments in which we over-nighted. 

8 to a room, Andrew took the top bunk 🙂

Some highlights from this hostel included a get-to-know you session before dinner led by the hospitalero (those who run the hostels on the Camino) team, a vegetarian meal with curry sauces and roasted vegetables abounding, a dorm room of only 8, and a generous breakfast provided. Along the Way, commodities like these would soon become scarce, and the distant memory of a clean, well-run albergue, would surface later, reminding me I should have been more grateful for the “amenities” at the time. 

Most guidebooks, and even those who have completed the journey, warn that the first day is by far the most challenging day of walking. This is based on the fact that you climb virtually straight up for the first 20 km of the day’s hike, and complete a steep descent for the last 4km down into the Spanish hamlet of Roncesvalles.  There is only one café along the way for a warm-up rest, and the weather can be brutal, even in June.  I’d argue that the first day, while it is a test of your physical endurance, is not the ultimate difficulty described by some.  I found the first day to be full of unexpected surprises, and that the excitement and adrenaline of starting a trip you’d planned and saved for for so long to far surpass the steep inclines and aching knees on the descent. Further along on the Way, putting one foot in front of the other became not only a physical trial, but a mental one as well. Fatigue and routine are much more demanding to overcome than a single ascent. 

Some thoughts that have stuck since this day, June 4, 2014: 

Stop at the 8km mark in Orisson for a coffee

The 2 euro café con leche stop was well worth the overpriced beverage, as it was our only real rest stop between 8:00 am and 4:30 pm. 

Before the rain began

I am shocked by how cold we were on June 4th. Lulled by the warmth of the beginning of summer vacation in the states, this is still technically Spring, and we shivered and shuffled our way through blasting wind, forty degree temperatures, razor like rain on our faces, and foot-deep mud-ravines. None of us was prepared for these types of conditions. 

Near the top of the ascent. Frozen, angry red knuckles from the wind.

The omelette sandwich prepared for our lunch by the hospitaleros was the grossest baguette and egg concoction I have ever eaten. Hungry, cold, hoping to warm up in the emergency shelter located on the Spanish side of the mountain, I am sure my body temperature dropped even further when I quit moving. The lunch was supposed to give me energy to continue, but it only made me feel worse! My jaws couldn’t chomp through the chewy, tough resemblance to bread, and my throat wanted to spew up the dryness of it. 

On the way down the “easy” path

Why did the sign tell us that the upcoming descent was the “easy” way down? 

Bone grating against knee bone. Lots of mud.

Have you seen the movie the Way? Where Emilio Esteves’s character dies crossing the Pyrenees the first day of his pilgrimage? I scorned this story-line, ensuring others that there is no way you could die on the Camino by getting lost or falling. I now understand perfectly well how this could take place. Fog, rain, little to no visibility, and fatigue could all lead to wandering off the trail and never finding it again. Take my word for it, it is definitely a plausible story line. 

Why did it take us so long to finish this stage? 8:00 am to 4:30 pm, really? 

My legs don’t hurt quite as badly as I thought they would. 

Historic monastery, our albergue for the night

I don’t have to sleep in a bunk bed tonight?  What a deal!

Third floor dorm room

Where is the advil? 

Making Friends in Trier

After we had lunch near a stream in the incredible gorge that divides Luxembourg City, we stumbled upon a behemoth medieval castle in a neighboring town. Of course it was locked up tight, surely holding a sleeping beauty inside, but even from the exterior it seemed like it was straight out of a scene in Robin Hood. We admired the castle and then set off to cross the border into Germany, land of sausages, beer, Riesling and Angela Merkel (Is she still the Bundeskanzlerin?). Beside getting to brush up on my German, (Noch einmal, bitte?) I love the food, the beer, the sport, and even the organization that comes with lodging on German territory.

Castle in Vianden

Andrew, feeling good about finding the castle in Vianden

We spent the first night in Trier, a seat of ancient Roman civilization. While I dwelt momentarily on the feat of domination the Romans had accomplished back in, oh, 16 BC or so, I think I was more excited about the luxury B&B we chose to stay in. I’m positive it is the most we have ever personally paid for a night in a hotel and I remember the exact price, too – 92 euros a night. We only stayed one night. Besides a gourmet breakfast and brand-new modern installations, there was a fairy lit garden behind the building where I may have tried a Hefeweizen (or two).  Mostly I remember our interactions with the proprietors, though, as they probably thought we were a little bit nutty.

When we first arrived, the receptionist personally showed us our room and after she was sure we were happy with the room, left us alone with the key. And then she promptly vacated the hotel premises. Which would have been as well, but we needed to get the rest of our travel gear out of the car and back up to our room on the 4th floor. Everything was going fine until we climbed back up the stairs, tried to unlock our door and figured out we couldn’t get it open. About the same time we realized we were locked out of our plush room and shining Badezimmer, Andrew decided all the sudden he had to go to the bathroom. Emergency status. Red-faced and nervous. Can’t get in the room, no communal bathroom near the reception. I dialed the number for the owner and prayed for the cheerful “Guten Abend!” I’d been greeted with earlier in the day. Thankfully, she picked up and was ready to help. Her particular helpfulness reminded me how efficient and succinct German ways are. As I told her how we were unable to open the door to our room, she calmly began going through a detailed list of the different things that might have been wrong. “Do you have the key?” “Um, duh.” “Does it have a heart with the number 7 on it and is it brown?” “Yes. The exact one the lady gave me 15 minutes ago.” “Are you standing in front of the door with the number 7 on it?” “Hello? I made sure to check that before I called you. I will not be scorned for pure idiocy in Germany.” “Were you able to unlock the door?” “Yes.” (All the time she is patiently, methodically ticking off her list, I am thinking, this better get the door open soon, because Andrew can’t hold on much longer. He has also run down four flights of stairs to double check he didn’t miss the public bathroom and is back upstairs, pleading me to figure this mess out with fear entering his eyes.) And finally, she gets to the root of our issue, “Well, you know, its funny, I’m not sure how you say this in English, (Oh, spit it out!) but it, uh, is a fire safety feature. Have you tried pulling the door toward you just a little when you turn the knob?” “If I’d have thought of that, I’d already have done it, lady!” In the nick of time the door pops open, keeping our momentary “fire” at bay and I marvel at the logical thought process of the German woman and muse that in Spain, a crusty woman with a deep smoker’s voice would have barked at me, as though I must have a tic-tac for a brain, “Pull the dumb door toward you, hija!”

The Porta Nigra

The view from the Porta Nigra onto the Street

Cathedral in Trier

Palace of Trier

We toured the city of Trier, saw the Porta Nigra, the ancient Roman gate, and lounged in our incredible room. Also, Karl Marx’s home is in Trier, and we saw it, but I won’t be able to prove that to you with a picture. As we went to check out the next day, I was feeling quite bolstered by my interactions in German as of yet, and was ready to try out a compliment on the receptionist, a sure fire way to get someone to tell you how wonderfully you speak their language. So I opened my mouth to say how wonderful our experience at the hotel had been (Alles war sehr toll) and instead I said “Everything was really expensive.” (Alles war sehr teuer). The quizzical look that crossed her face made my own cheeks burn and we hightailed on to our next destination.

Going out with a bang

The last stop on our final weekend hurrah in Spain was a city that Andrew had been dreaming of all year long. I think his year in Spain would have been incomplete had we not gotten to spend a day visiting Cuenca. Andrew seems to only gain energy on weekend trips, returning home ready to face a week of work, while I start off eager to escape, only to be worn out with the thought of getting home and doing the laundry we’ve accumulated by the end.

Cuenca itself is interesting enough and definitely merits a visit, especially if you are looking for a day or two trip from Madrid. We traipsed around the old town, which is fairly small, gawked at the Casas Colgadas, houses built into the side of a cliff, literally “hanging houses,” admired the brightly painted houses in the center square and toured the Cathedral. Also worth checking out is the Parador de Cuenca, an ancient convent turned government-owned luxury hotel. An iron bridge connects the old town and Casas Colgadas to the Parador across a deep gorge in the middle of the city. Walking across the bridge was definitely not my favorite part of our visit to Cuenca.

What I remember most about our time in Castilla-La Mancha, though, is the extraordinary hospitality that we received from the family run hotel and restaurant we stayed at for the night. The hotel itself was located a few miles outside of the city, per Andrew’s bargain hunting requirements, so when we pulled in the gravel parking lot to the establishment, we were surprised to find a full parking lot and people spilling out of the entrance way. Already, I felt intimidated by the amount of boisterous Spaniards blocking our path to the check-in counter and began to second guess Andrew’s choice of accommodations. The check-in counter was conveniently located right inside of the restaurant area, where a large group of people was indulging in an aperitif and socializing before the lunch hour. I generally hate to tromp into a group of Spaniards when I’m not expecting to, mostly because they always are dressed fabulously and have their makeup perfectly in place and on a normal travel day I’m dressed in flats or tennis shoes (heels or boots are really the only acceptable footwear for stylish Spanish ladies) and wearing minimal makeup. This phenomenon is only exaggerated on Sundays, when everyone puts on their best face and outfit and prances out onto the streets, into the bars and restaurants, to see and be seen. Of course, we showed up at prime time cocktail and tapas hour on a Sunday, the last day of our trip. I look ragged and tired, the ladies at the bar were polished and styled. Needless to say, I felt as though we were on display as we waited patiently and rather nervously at the counter: the under-dressed and awkward Americans. Thankfully, this situation played out in under 5 minutes and once we met the sweet lady who checked us in, we both felt right at home.

The sign of a great family run hotel establishment has to be that when the required information for the transaction has taken place, credit card number given, passports checked, room key handed over, breakfast time confirmed, the person working at the desk has the courtesy to ask if this is a first time visit to the area. The check in girl at El Rento, the place we were lucky enough to stay, promptly pulled out a map of Cuenca, slapped it down, proceeded to explain directions to the center, the best place to park and pointed out the highlights of the city. I am always appreciative whenever this happens, since it means we won’t have to search for the tourism office and won’t have to drive around guessing where we can park. This is also the perfect time to ask for restaurant recommendations so you don’t have to spend precious time scrutinizing menus and looking for a place that isn’t too expensive in a city you’ve never visited before.

The whole time we spoke, the lady we later learned was the proprietor’s daughter, patiently answered our questions and treated us graciously, genuinely glad we’d decided on El Rento for our stay in Cuenca. A little hospitality really turned our one night stay in Cuenca into wishing we had time for another night. We ate all our meals at their restaurant and we especially enjoyed our Sunday night dinner. Around nine o’clock in the evening we returned from the city, hungry from walking. We ventured back into the dining room that had earlier been packed with a huge family celebrating a first communion. Now it was filled with old folks from the community, taking part in their Sunday night ritual of eating at El Rento and watching TV together. A hushed silence dominated the tone of the room, unusual enough for chatty Spanish folks, as the guests eating at the restaurant watched an old black and white movie on the flat screen TV. We both felt priveliged, at least I did, to be in the middle of a weekly tradition that must literally be dying out as all the people surrounding the tables eating salad and deep fried croquetas were in the seventy plus category. The most endearing moment, though, had to be when a tiny, hunched over, elderly man burst through the front door, so triumphiant he’d made it another week that he raised his fists above his head, shook them and shouted a greeting to all his friends.

Staying at El Rento left an incredible impression of true familial hospitality in my mind. For a generation where everything should be done as efficiently as possible and which places personal boundaries even higher and closer, afraid of letting others in or revealing how his or her life is lived out each day, El Rento allowed us a glimpse into what it would be like to be a part of a Spanish family, if only for a few happy hours.

Saint Emilion

Our first night in France, we stayed at a family run hotel and restaurant combo. Andrew and I both really respect the work of a locally owned and managed establishment like this one. Friday night we were treated to a jazz concert and three course meal, slept soundly in a comfortable room and woke Saturday to a basket full of fresh pastries and jam. It was obvious the owner was doing the bulk of the work, aided heavily by a competent and friendly staff: he met us at check in, took our orders for dinner, served breakfast and waved goodbye as we payed the bill. And, for all that, not a detail was overlooked. In an area of France where many well off travelers opt for a night in an 18th century chateau and don’t bat an eyelash at the hundreds of euros calculated on the final bill, Le Bon Duq offers a comprable service for a fraction of the price. If you want to check out the vineyards of Bordeaux and le entre-deux-mers, but are on a tighter budget, please, stay here.

From our hotel in Les Billaux/Libourne (a 40 minute or so drive from Bordeaux) we set off to discover the popular (for good reason) and well preserved wine town of Saint Emilion. We arrived fairly early, so the first half hour of exploring, we had the streets blissfully to ourselves. Birds chirped gleefully, baby lambs nuzzled mamas, the sun sparkled in the cool morning air and French grandmas tended their flower boxes. It was a scene from a movie. Surrounded entirely by vineyards, the buildings of the town are made of more gorgeous blonde stone. Wine vendors dotted the store fronts and servers at cafés set tables outdoors for lunchtime. After traipsing around St. Emilion for a while and dreaming of buying our own little cozy home in town, we headed off to find a winery open for tastings. Easier said than done. Ultimately, our mission failed, but we did have the opportunity of meeting a former vineyard and winery owner who had recently sold his business and property to new Chinese owners. The Chinese flag waved next to the European Union and French flags out front. They didn’t open for visitors.

From the countryside we drove towards the Dordogne region, stopping for a quick walk in Bergerac. Even though it is the main hub town of this region, we wouldn’t recommend a stop. There are more beautiful views of the Dordogne and more tastefully restored timber homes elsewhere.

Our final stop for the day was in Sarlat, a town we’d visited in December when it was gray and raining. It was lovely even in the wet and cold weather, but Springtime turned it magical. More later…

Costa guipuzcoana + Côte Basque Française

After a day of art and soccer in Bilbao with Bryan and Denise, it was time to head up the Basque coast towards San Sebastián and the French frontier. Though I wouldn’t admit it in certain Castilian company, the Basque country has some of my favorite coastline in all of Spain. This time we covered a short bit of coast just west of San Sebastián. It’s pretty slow going on the curves and narrow lanes, but the scenery rewards the patient.

Arrival in San Sebastián marks a different world from the beaches and fishing towns elsewhere in the Basque country. Though still coastal, San Sebastián retains an air of the Belle Époque, while sporting a modern cosmopolitan and posh population as well. This time around we made it up to the top of Monte Igueldo at sunset to catch the last daytime view back on the Playa de la Concha. It’s a cliché vista, but it’s spectacular nonetheless. I would say it really topped off our day in the city.

Descending from Igueldo, we booked it to our rural accommodations about 11 km from San Sebastián, Hotel Gurutze Berri. Gurutze Berri was really a treat in and of itself. It was truly a multi-generational, family-run operation. From the rooms’ balconies, you could see down to San Sebastián in the distance. It’s also just a stone’s throw from the French border, which made it a great place to spend the night before heading to up to Biarritz and Bayonne.

After a good night’s sleep at the hotel, we hit the road towards France. It’s kind of exhilarating still to see that sign saying FRANCE as you cross the open border. But the exhilaration turns quickly, admittedly, to a bit of grumpiness on my part when the first Frenchman I meet is an impersonal toll collector for the state-run highway. At any rate, Biarritz was a new stop for Amanda and I. It’s similar in many respects to San Sebastián. Though only a few kilometers from Spain, and still part of the French Basque country, it’seems much less Basque and much more thoroughly French. I suppose that’s the effect of Paris’s long-time centralized grip over the entire country. Regardless, Biarritz is situated with a beautiful beach and some charming streets. We enjoyed a nice stroll through the town and then made our way to enjoy French cuisine.

Our last stop was Biarritz’s neighbor town of Bayonne. While not one of France’s must sees, I liked the understated atmosphere and somewhat unpolished old town. A quick stop was sufficient for us, but I think it has its merits with a French Gothic cathedral and colorful shutter-adorned row houses.

It was a great time in the Basque country all in all. Unfortunately, we had to get back to class, so back to Spain we went.

León

Last weekend we made a visit to the historic city of León. It was a Valentine’s day getaway, where we dined, relaxed and enjoyed the architecture of its Gothic old town. León dates back to Roman times, but grew to prominence in the Middle Ages as a stop along the Camino de Santiago. It’s classic Gothic cathedral is undoubtedly one of the most impressive in Spain.

The Gothic masterpiece of León draws many comparisons with its predecessor cathedral in Burgos. Both are stunning, yet have their own unique merits. While the Burgos church is larger and in my opinion more ornate from the exterior, the León cathedral has a some of the best stained glass windows on the continent. If I had to rank the two, I would probably put the cathedral of Burgos slightly ahead of León’s, but not by much. Both deserve attentive visits.

Beyond the cathedral, León has several other noteworthy monuments that give the city almost a regal atmosphere. Most prominent are the Hostal San Marcos, which sheltered pilgrims centuries ago en route to Santiago, as well as the Casa Botines, one of only three works of Antonio Gaudí outside of Cataluña. Though not as experimental of some of Gaudí’s work, it’s location in León lets you get close and really enjoy the architecture, without the traffic, noise, and tourist hordes prevalent in Barcelona.

León is one of my new favorites in northern Spain. You can see the city comfortably on foot at a relaxed pace while enjoying some great architecture from various eras. If you are looking for a place to stay, the Posada Regia is highly recommended. It was a bit of a splurge for us, but is priced reasonably by European standards and offers great service in a preserved old-town building. While up on the meseta, a stop in León is well worth your time.