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How to be a tourist in France

Main street, Mont-Saint-Michel, Normandy

We once went to Bayeux. I never saw the tapestry. Had tripe a la mode de Caen, instead. It was a Bayeux Travesty. The moral of the story: There’s too much to do in France. You can’t see it all says American tourist in France Mike Zampa…

Here’s a list of what I haven’t seen:

    • Mont Saint-Michel
    • Versailles
    • The Moulin Rouge
    • Chestnuts in blossom
    • 99.5 percent of the paintings in the Louvre

I haven’t even seen Lascaux, and we have a house 40 minutes away, for heaven’s sake. Beauty, history and macarons everywhere. Too little time to take it all in. That’s France.

However, we’ve developed a prioritized tourist strategy. It includes must-sees – Strasbourg; nice-to-sees – Victor Hugo’s house; and next-lifetime – Euro Disney. We haven’t hit any of those targets yet. France keeps getting in the way.

Like children with shiny objects, we’re drawn to whatever looks nice.  We bought a house in the Perigord. Breathless to take ownership we raced south from Charles de Gaulle Airport. Halfway there, we found a sleepy village whose most famous descendant was a botanist. But it had ancient stone houses dangling over a shimmering river. “Oooooh,” we exclaimed. We spent the night.

This happens a lot in France – we’re waylaid by the unexpectedly beautiful. We can go out for eggs and not come back till next week. That’s why we make sure the oven is off.

We headed for Rocamadour, the centuries-old pilgrim shrine. We found Gouffre de Padirac, a 340-foot-deep chasm with an underground river. There were illuminated stalagmites (or stalactites, whichever one comes from the top). Mysterious and beautiful.

Imagine a rock dropped in a still pond, generating concentric circles. That’s how we approach the sights of France.

We start in circle one, walking distance tours from our house. It has ancient cliffside dwellings and a 14th-century castle.

Circle two is driving tours an hour away. They include a 12th century church and Bordeaux vineyards.

Circle three is everything else.

We take trains for long-distance touring. They’re clean, comfortable, efficient.

You’re probably not an experienced French tourist like me, so here are helpful hints to ensure a rich cultural experience:

  • Ice cubes and full-size refrigerators are possibly outlawed in France. Carry soft drinks in an insulated fanny pack. No one will make fun of you.
  • Don’t be banal. Say incroyable, magnifique or tres jolie. They all mean “wow, get a load of that,” but sound better.
  • Don’t ask “what’s in this?” while eating French food. You wouldn’t do that with a hot dog, would you? Though you should.

Ninety-nine percent of the world’s postcards are of French churches or museums. So, you’ve seen what’s on offer. But I wanted to know what French tourists fancy when they travel. So, I asked Marguerite.

Our neighbor Marguerite lives in the exquisite village of Vitrac. Her magnificent country home is a postcard. But she likes Alsace. Bordered by Germany and Switzerland in the Rhine Valley, the French and Germans historically swapped Alsace. You you can get both beer and wine in any restaurant.

Alsace is fertile, buoyant and affluent, Marguerite reports. I once sought the same on a dating site. Alsace also has Colmar. It appears to be at worst, the second most beautiful place on earth. Half-timbered houses, canals, red geraniums…

Here’s the problem: Colmar is next to Strasbourg, which is already on my list. As I was saying, you start out looking for one thing, they throw another at you. It’s the unmitigated Gaul of the French.

Mike Zampa is a communications consultant and retired newspaper editor and columnist splitting time, along with his wife, between Southwest France and the San Francisco Bay Area

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