The Country Guide To France Cultural Studies Essay

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France is one of the most-loved countries in the world. It has all the tourist attractions you could ever imagine. All the ideal places you'd love to go to during the holidays - A romantic city like Paris, long sandy beaches like the French Riviera, sightseeing wonders such as The Eiffel Tower, amicable tourist spots like the Arc de Triomphe de l'Etoile, lovely sceneries and pleasant people; what's not to like? France is also a very fine place to stay. Whether, you're planning to just have your vacation for a short while in Hotel Le Mont Blanc, which is located in the picturesque village of Megeve or deciding to stay for a long drawn out engagement in Hotel Meurice, an exquisite building in the heart of Paris, overlooking the magnificent Tuileries Gardens and steps from the revered Louvre, you definitely won't be disappointed. France also has a wide range of cuisine and delicacy, be sure to try their Boeuf Bourguignon(beef stew) or their Bouillabaisse(fish soup). You're sure to find one or more that will appeal to your taste buds. And of course, let's not forget the wine. French wine is among the finest in the world. Have a sip of Champagne Laurent-Gabriel and you'll never want to taste other wines ever again. For wine aficionados, you don't want to miss out on their Wine festivals, such as the annual release of Beaujolais Nouveau, experience this ceremony and everything that comes along with it!

Paris, the city of light, sometimes coined as the city of romance, the city itself makes you want to fall in love. It's not only one of the most visited cities in Paris, but also in the world. Visit the Notre Dame Cathedral and marvel at the gothic architecture of one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Europe. No doubt, Paris is one of the greatest locations you'd want to include in your sightseeing destinations. Enjoy a refreshing Boat Tour of the Seine River, while drifting past unforgettable sites. With so many places to see and go, securing a room in one of Paris' classy five star hotels is the way to go. Not only will you get to experience how it feels like to be a resident in Paris but you'll also get to enjoy the best the city has to offer!

History

The only European country, facing both, the North Sea and the Mediterranean, France has been subject to a particularly rich variety of cultural influences. Though famous for the rootedness of its peasant population, it has also been a European melting pot, even before the arrival of the Celtic Gauls in the centuries before Christ, through to the Mediterranean immigrations of the 20th century. Roman conquest by Julius Caesar had an enduring impact, but from the 4th and 5th centuries AD, waves of Barbarian invaders destroyed much of the Roman legacy. The Germanic Franks provided political leadership in the following centuries, but when their line died out in the late 10th century, France was socially and politically fragmented.

The Capetian dynasty gradually pieced France together over the Middle Ages, a period of great economic prosperity and cultural vitality. The Black Death and the Hundred Years' War brought setbacks, and the dynasty's power was seriously threatened by the rival Burgundian dukes. France recovered, however, and flourished during the Renaissance, followed by the grandeur of Louis XIV's reign. During the Enlightenment, in the 18th century, French culture and institutions were the envy of Europe. The Revolution of 1789 ended the absolute monarchy and introduced major social and institutional reforms, many of which were endorsed and consolidated by Napoleon. Yet the Revolution also inaugurated the instability which has remained a hallmark of French politics: since 1789, France has known five republics, two empires and three brands of royal power, plus the Vichy government during World War II. Modernization in the 19th and 20th centuries proved a slow process. Railways, the military service and medical educational reforms were crucial in forming a sense of French identity among the citizens. Rivalry with Germany dominated French politics for most of the late 19th and 20th century. The population losses in World War I were traumatic for France, while during 1940-44 the country was occupied by Germany. Yet since 1945, the two countries have proved the backbone of the developing European Union.

The earliest trace of human life in France, dates back to around 2 million BC. From around 40,000 BC, Homo sapiens lived an itinerant existence as hunters and gatherers. Around 6000 BC, following the end of Ice Age, a major shift in lifestyle occurred as people settled down to herd animals and cultivate crops. The advent of metal-working allowed more effective tools and weapons to be developed. The Iron Age is associated particularly with the Celts, who arrived from the east during the first millennium BC. A more complex social hierarchy developed, consisting of warriors, farmers, artisans and druids (Celtic priests).

The Romans conquered and annexed the southern fringe of France by 125-121 BC. Julius Caesar brought the rest of Gaul under Roman control during the Gallic Wars (58-51 BC). The province of Gaul prospered: it developed good communications, a network of cities crammed with public buildings and leisure facilities such as baths and amphitheaters, while in the countryside large villas were established. By the 3rd century AD, however, barbarian raids from Germany were causing increasing havoc. From the 5th century barbarians began to settle throughout Gaul.

The collapse of the Roman Empire led to a period of instability and invasions. Both the Frankish Merovingian dynasty (486-751) and the Carolingians (751-987) were unable to bring more than spasmodic periods of political calm. Throughout this turbulent period, the Church provided an element of continuity. As centers for Christian scholars and artists, the monasteries helped to restore the values of the ancient world. They also developed farming and viticulture and some became extremely powerful, dominating the country economically as well as spiritually.

The Gothic style, epitomized by soaring cathedrals emerged in the 12th century at a time of growing prosperity and scholarship, crusades and an increasingly dominant monarchy. The rival French and Burgundian courts became models of fashion and etiquette for all of Europe. Chansons des gestes (epic poems) performed by troubadours celebrated the code of chivalry.

The Hundred Years' War (1337-1453), pitting England against France for control of French land, had devastating effects. The damage of warfare was amplified by frequent famines and the ravages of bubonic plague in the wake of the Black Death in 1348. France came close to being permanently partitioned by the king of England and the duke of Burgundy. In 1429-30 the young Joan of Arc helped rally France's fortunes and within a generation the English had been driven out of France. 

As a result of the French invasion of Italy in 1494, the ideals and aesthetic of the Italian Renaissance spread to France, reaching their height during the reign of François I. Known as a true Renaissance prince, he was skilled in letters and art as well as sport and war. He invited Italian artists, such as Leonardo de Vinci and Cellini, to his court and enjoyed Rabelais' bawdy stories. Another highly influential Italian was Catherine de Medici (1562-89). Widow of Henri II, she virtually ruled France through her sons, François II, Charles IX and Henri III. She was also one of major players in the Wars of Religion (1562-93) between Catholics and Protestants, which divided the nobility and tore the country to pieces.

The end of the religious wars heralded a period of exceptional French influence and power. The cardinal ministers Richelieu and Mazarin paved the way for Louis XIV's absolute monarchy. Political development was matched by artistic styles of unprecedented brilliance: enormous Baroque edifices, the drama of Molière and Racine, and the music of Lully. Versailles, built under the supervision of Louis' capable finance minister Colbert, was the glory of Europe, but its cost and Louis XIV's endless wars proved expensive for the French state and led to widespread misery by the end of his reign. 

In the 18th century, Enlightenment philosophers such as Voltaire and Rousseau redefined man's place within a framework of natural principles, thus challenging the old aristocratic order. Their essays were read across Europe and even in the American colonies. But although France exported worldly items as well as ideas, the state's increasing debts brought social turmoil, triggering the 1789 Revolution. Under the motto "Freedom, Equality, Fraternity", the new Republic and its reforms had a far-reaching impact on the rest of Europe.

Two generations of Napoleons dominated France from 1800 to 1870. Napoleon Bonaparte took the title of Emperor Napoleon I. He extended his empire throughout most western Europe, placing his brothers and sisters on the thrones of conquered countries. Defeated in 1814 and replaced by the restored Bourbon dynasty, followed by the 1830 Revolution and the so called July Monarchy, the Napoleonic clan made a comeback after 1848. Napoleon I's nephew, Louis Napoleon, became President of the Second Republic, then made himself emperor as Napoleon III. During his reign Paris was modernized and the industrial transformation of France began.

The decades before World War I became the Belle Epoque for the French, remembered as a golden era forever past. Nevertheless this was a politically turbulent time, with working-class militancy, organized socialist movements, and the Dreyfus Affair polarizing the country between Left and anti-Semitic Right. New inventions such as electricity and vaccination against disease made life easier at all social levels. The cultural scene thrived and took new forms with Impressionism and Art Nouveau, the realist novels of Gustave Flaubert and Emile Zola, cabaret and cancan and, in 1895, the birth of the cinema.

Despite the devastation wrought by two world wars, France retained its international renown as a centre for the avant-garde. Paris in particular was a magnet for experimental writers, artists and musicians. The cafés were full of American authors and jazz musicians, French surrealists and film makers. The French Riviera also attracted colonies of artists and writers, from Matisse and Picasso to Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald, along with the wealth industrialists and aristocrats arriving in automobiles or the famous Train Bleu. And from 1936 paid holidays meant that the working classes could also enjoy the new fashion for sunbathing.

After the 1950s, the traditional foundations of French society changed: the number of peasant farmers plummeted, old industries decayed, jobs in the service sector and high-technology industries grew dramatically, and the French came to enjoy the benefits of mass culture and widespread consumerism. High prestige projects, such as the Concorde, TGV, La Défense and Pompidou Centre, brought international acclaim. Efforts for European integration and the inauguration of the Channel Tunnel aim towards closer relations with France's neighbors.

Following the break-up of the Roman Empire, the Frankish king Clovis consolidated the Merovingian dynasty. It was followed by the Carolingians and from the 10th century by Capetian rulers. The Capetians established royal power, which passed to the Valois branch in the 14th century, and then to the Bourbons in the late 16th century, following the Wars of Religion. The Revolution of 1789 seemed to end the Bourbon dynasty, but it made a brief come-back from 1814-30. The 19th century was dominated by the Bonaparte's, Napoleon I and Napoleon III. Since the overthrow of Napoleon III in 1870, France has been a republic. 

The institutions of the Fifth Republic in France are based on the Constitution of 1958, adopted by a referendum of the people on 28 September 1958. It has been amended several times and was revised in 1962, when a referendum was organized calling for the election of the President of the Republic by direct universal suffrage.

When to Go

Spring is a very popular time to visit France (especially Paris) when the weather is usually warm and prices for hotels and flights to France are affordable. Summer is peak season in the South - the beaches warm up from May onwards and tourists flock to the Cote d'Azur.

Wintertime is (obviously) peak season for skiing, both in the Alps and the Pyrenees. You can ski in the Alps from approximately December to March or April. Peak prices are around the Christmas holidays and the February half term. Winter holiday periods such as Christmas are often popular in the major cities as well, especially Paris.

Autumn time generally is off season throughout France.  Temperatures can still be warm though the days are quite short. Prices for skiing are lowest before Christmas - though snow is not guaranteed at this time and the temperatures can be excruciatingly cold - and at the end of the season (late March to early April).

France is one hour above Greenwich Mean Time, or five hours ahead of New York City. The country does honor daylight savings time, so during that time it is one more hour ahead, or six hours later than in New York. The French also celebrate several holidays, and visiting around this time can result in some good things (festivals abound and many museums and restaurants remain open) as well as, some bad things (most businesses and shops are closed).

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Airlines and Airfare

Visitors are advised to hold a return or onward ticket and proof of financial means. The borderless region known as the Schengen area includes the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. All these countries issue a standard Schengen visa that allows the holder, in principal, to travel freely within the borders of all.

British nationals must have a valid passport. A visa is not required for passport holders endorsed British Citizen. Visa exemption is for three months for passports endorsed British National (Overseas), British Overseas Territories Citizen, British Overseas Citizen, British Protected Person, or "holder is entitled to readmission into the UK", or "holder has the right of abode in UK". In all other cases, a visa is required.

Irish nationals must have a valid passport, but no visa is required.

If you visit France, one thing is certain: you will be spending money. Make sure you get the most out of your euro by going to your bank first, a day or two before your departure date, and exchange a small amount of cash, just enough for a cab ride or basic spending on arrival. That way if you get into town and an ATM machine is down, you aren't in a foreign country broke and destitute. If you failed to do that - fear not. You can still get cash through ATM machines. There are plenty of them in France, they don't charge a fee and you will get the most generous exchange rate. Do, however, check or call your bank first to be certain they don't have extra fees for foreign withdrawals. Also check to find out what your daily ATM withdrawal limit is while you're at it.

Airfare to Paris will be the cheapest on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursday. Roundtrip Economy flights from anywhere in North America costs around $700-$900 which include flight taxes and fees. For those who wish to travel First Class, selecting your area of departure could mean the difference between saving a lot and going broke. First class roundtrip flights from Washington DC, generally costs $3,000-$5,000. The most expensive first class flight could cost around $13,000, depending on which North American airport you choose to depart from! Flights from Mondays are popular with business travelers and weekends are key dates for holidaymakers wanting the longest trips possible - avoid these dates.

Also consider flying to London instead of Paris. To get between the cities, you can grab a spot on the Eurostar or grab a second flight.

Another possible money-saving tip is to look for flights that go through Hamburg, Germany; Frankfurt, Germany; Stockholm, Sweden; London, England or another major gateway city. This way, you get added value for your trip and you get to see other sights and sceneries along the way to your destination. Also, because there are more connecting flights within Europe on low budget airlines versus direct flights, you can save some cash. Generally for domestic flights we are looking at around 900-1000 Euros. Flights within Europe rarely exceed two-and-a-half hours. It is very common to layover in one of these main cities.

Finally, consider traveling on a lesser-known carrier. Air France, based in Paris, is the national carrier. However, more than 60 other airlines, including low-cost carriers bmi, easyJet and Ryan Air also fly to Paris and surrounding areas. If you do decide to opt for other less known airlines, you'll be saving around 100-300 Euros from your domestic flights.

The most expensive air tickets to Paris are found during peak holiday travel times and during summer Eurail season. Paris hotels book up during these time periods and the warmer months of May-September. Keep an eye out for other popular events like public holidays, festivals or sports competitions like the World Cup, which can increase prices.

Renting Cars and Driving About

If you wish to discover France by car, the options are endless. First step: Rental cars are available for daring motorists. Usually cheap flights to Paris are accompanied by car rental discounts, as low as 11 Euros a day. The expensive Car Rental Services could be as high as 60-100 Euros. So look for travel deals before purchasing your flight.

Car Rentals in France include the major cities of Paris, Toulouse, Marseilles and almost every major city you can think of. Explore the wine tasting regions, eat at fabulous restaurants and enjoy the glamorous cities of Nice and Cannes with Car Rental Services in France

These Car Rentals come with an unlimited mileage offer which means you can see the many sights of this great country such as the Loire Valley and the French Riviera at your leisure. You can start driving your rent-a-car from the largest airport in France, Paris Charles de Gaulle among many other locations. Car Rental Services in France are so flexible, that if you wish to leave the country from a different airport it is possible to make a one way journey.

Be aware that many of the roads in France are toll roads and as French currency is now the Euro it is always useful to have change on you to navigate these roads. Because it is easy to get lost in France, Most Car Rental Services now offer satellite navigation ('tom tom') systems with every car rental. Other popular optional extras are ski racks and winter chains and tires for those who are hoping to do a ski trip in the Alps. Also make sure to hire a Car Rental Service that comes with a fully comprehensive insurance including vehicle theft and collision damage waivers and liability insurance.

With so many Car Rental Services to choose from, it's possible to get a car rental starting at only 79 Euros per week and these low rates are all tax and fee inclusive! Of course, there will always be expensive ones. But if you know where to look, then you can really save a lot. That means you will never have to pay for any hidden charges or extra costs. Best of all, Car Rental chains also accept payments made via all major credit cards and there are no credit card fees for doing so. Find all these amazing offers at France Car Rental.

Driving Rules and Regulations

Priority to the right: the "Priorité à droite"

This feature of historic French driving law causes much confusion for foreign drivers across France. It is a dangerous law and should be outlawed. When applied the problem is this: when driving along a road, anyone joining from your right hand side has priority over the main carriageway on which you are driving. They do not have to stop, instead you have to slow and give way to the joining vehicle, no matter the size of the adjoining road.

This driving law is thankfully not widely used any more. The sign indicates that the road on which you are driving has priority. However, be very careful, the reality is that not every French driver follows this legislation!

There are places where you need to be extremely careful: small villages and in the countryside. You will often find that on minor roads priorité à droite is still assumed. On main national roads, there is less need to worry, as priority to the right is no longer officially used.

Drink driving Laws in France

France has very strict drink driving laws. You are allowed a maximum of 0.5mg/ml of alcohol per liter in your blood, compared to 0.8mg/ml in the UK.

If you have more than 0.8mg of alcohol in your blood, you will have to take your test. The policemen have the right to stop any driver at random to check a driver's papers and carry out an alcohol test.

The same penalties apply as for driving under the influence of alcohol. The quantity of drugs consumed cannot be measured, only tested for.

Breakdowns

If there appears to be something wrong with your car you should pull into the emergency lane and switch on your hazard warning lights. You are now bound by law to bring with you a red warning triangle, most people have this attached to the interior of their vehicles' boot. It is the same for high visibility jacket, so that you can be clearly seen at night if you break down.

Please note: The triangle has to be placed at a distance of 100m (109 yards) from the car on motorways and 30m (32 yards) on other roads. If not possible (towns for instance), the distance can be reduced.

There are orange SOS emergency phone located on the side of the road every 2 kilometers on all auto routes (motorways). There are road patrols on all sections of the auto routes if you are worried about leaving your car unattended.

Accidents

If you require an ambulance or assistance, you can use the orange SOS phones, which are located at the side of the road, much like in England. You must also call the police or Gendarmes.

If your vehicle is damaged you should write down the extent of the damage to you or the other person's vehicle, ideally getting the document signed by the other party, you should also swap personal and insurance details with the other party. Your insurance company/provider may have issued you with an "European Accident Statement" form for these purposes.

In France you are required to carry proof that your car is insured.

Public Transportation

Metro

Let's face it. If you're planning a trip to France, chances are you're probably going to Paris. The metro is the ideal way to get around fast and easy. There are 16 lines (including 2 "bis") traversing the city. Each line has a different color and number. So even if the abundance of lines appears overwhelming when you first look at a metro map, it quickly becomes easy when you understand how it works. At any given Metro station each Metro line will have 2 platforms, one for each direction.  Each direction is marked by its terminus station, the last station on the line. 

Upon descending into a Metro station line platform, find a Metro map located on the platform wall.  Find the current station you're at and then find the station you're traveling to.  Once you find the destination station on the map, follow the Metro line to its end, the terminus, which will be the direction name you're after for this Metro line.  By keeping the terminus stations in mind when switching Metro lines, you'll know which lines and in which directions you must travel to get to your destination.

A table with current metro ticket prices can be found below, but as the table indicates it gets cheaper if you buy 10 at a time (local's call it a "carnet"). Then you have a large choice of different passes (1 or several days, 1 week, or even 1 month: La carte orange) which are really convenient and cheaper than purchasing individual tickets. Note that, if you don't have a pass, each ticket is valid only for one trip (including changes within the Metro system).

Metro, Bus and Tram Tickets                                  

Euros

1 ticket

1,60

Carnet of 10 tickets full fare

11,40

Carnet of 10 tickets reduced fare

5,70

Zones

The Ile de France region is divided into 6 concentric zones. The Paris metropolitan area fits into zones 1-5. CDG airport is in zone 5, Orly and Versailles in Zone 4. The city of Paris, within the Périphérique, is Zone 1. A RER Ile-de-France zone map can be found online.

The validity range of a single ticket depends on the transportation you are using.  

On the Métro :  a single ticket is valid for any trip, even to the terminus stations outside Zone 1. Transfering to a bus or tram with the same ticket is not permitted.

On the RER : a single metro ticket is valid only inside Zone 1 (within Paris). Don't be fooled if there is a "2" on your ticket, it does NOT mean Zone 2, but is simply a thing of the past (it actually means 2nd class, at a time there were 2 classes on the Paris Metro).

On the bus and trams: a single ticket 't' or 't+' is valid for 1 hour and 30 minutes, in a single direction, with interchanges to other buses/trams as long as the ticket was not purchased on the bus itself and is marked "sans correspondance". Certain bus lines (Balabus, Noctilien, Orlybus, Roissybus, and lines 299, 350 and 351) are not valid with Ticket t and require tickets priced according to the length of the trip, available for purchase at the point of departure.

As an example, if going to La Défense (located in Zone 3) on the Line 1 of the métro, a single ticket is enough. If you ride the Line A of the RER, you have to buy a slightly more expensive ticket.

Paris A La Carte (International Visitors Card)

If travelling from overseas, one of the cheapest methods of travel may be the Paris Visit Card. This card lets you travel as often as you wish and varies in cost depending on the number of days and zones you are going to be travelling. Most importantly, unlike the Passe Navigo/Carte Orange, these are valid from the first day of use (rather than from Monday to Sunday). It can therefore be purchased in advance to avoid last-minute queuing.

Paris Visit Card is on sale in all metro stations, RER stations, sales agencies, bus terminal booths, SNCF Transilien stations, Paris airports and in all Office de Tourisme de Paris. Abroad, it is sold by travel agents and tour operators.

Fares for Adults as of Nov 2010 (still the current fares online) were as follows while children (4-11) fares are approximately half the adult price. The card also provides a number of 2-for-one offers and discounts, the added benefits can also make it well worth the purchase of the Paris Visit Card.

Zones

1 day

2 days

3 days

5 days

Adult

Adult

Adult

Adult

Euros

Euros

Euros

Euros

1-3 8,50

14,00

19,00

27,50

1-6 18,00

27,50

38,50

47,00

The Paris A la Carte or the Paris Visit Card can be pre-ordered as a Redeemable Voucher or conveniently sent to your home.

Buses

Buses are also a great option as they allow you to see and enjoy the city while moving around. There are so many buses in Paris, you can go almost everywhere by bus. The only issue is to find where they stop! Bus stops are trickier to find than metro stations. Tickets are the same as the ones you use in the metro.  The bus fare structure was recently (July 2010) changed to allow limited transfers between buses.  A "t+" ticket (which is what you will receive if you buy a carnet in a Metro station) allows transfers among buses for up to 90 minutes from the first trip.  However, if you buy a ticket on board the bus, there are no transfers.   Also, there are no transfers between bus and metro.

Keep in mind that the Parisian metro stops between 12.30 and 1 am, and buses usually stop between 9 and 10 pm, with reduced service continuing with night buses and Noctilien buses.

RER

The RER is also a good way to get from one point to another very fast. The lines are fewer though, so are the stops. It's mainly used to travel to nearby suburbs, but can be convenient to cross the city in minutes. Although the Eiffel Tower has a metro station at Bir-Hakeim on Line 6, the closest access is through a RER stop (Champ de Mars - Tour Eiffel). Tickets are the same as metro tickets, but you must be careful if you go outside of Zone 1 around the city, which requires a billet Ile-de-France rather than a normal Ticket t.

Commuter rail (Trains de banlieue in French)

If you need to go in suburbs that are located a bit further from Paris, or just not reachable in RER, you may need to use SNCF commuter trains. All of the 6 Paris train stations have trains for the suburbs. (Gare Saint Lazare: western and south-western suburbs; gare de l'Est : eastern suburbs, gare du Nord: northern suburbs, gare de Lyon: south-eastern suburbs, gare Montparnasse: south-western suburbs, gare d'Austerlitz: southern suburbs).

Some TER trains that serve the cities outside Île de France overlap with commuter trains (e.g. those to Vernon for Giverny, Fontainebleau, or Chartres).

Boats

A fun and original way to get about in Paris is the boat. The Batobus is a unique line with 8 stops along the Seine. Batobus stops at every relevant monument in the city (Eiffel Tower, Orsay Museum, Louvres, Notre Dame…). A one-day pass is 11 Euros for an adult.

Trains (Mainline - Grandes Lignes in French)

There are 6 train stations in Paris: gare Saint Lazare, gare du Nord, gare de l'Est, gare de Lyon, gare d'Austerlitz and gare Montparnasse. Each of them serve a different part of France, and some of them also serve other countries. There are RER or metro services to access all of them.

Gare Saint Lazare is located in the Grands Magasins area, near the Opera Garnier, in the 8th arrondissement. Its trains serve western and south-western suburbs of Paris and Normandy.

Gare du Nord is located in the North of Paris, in the 10th arrondissement. In addition to all the northern cities of France, it serves London (Eurostar), Brussels, Cologne and Amsterdam (Thalys), Berlin…

Gare de l'Est is right next door to gare du Nord, in the 10th arrondissement. Its trains mainly serve eastern suburbs of Paris, and cities in the east of France. But there also are some international connections for Luxembourg, Germany and Central Europe (Orient Express).

Gare de Lyon is located in the east of Paris, in the 12th arrondissement. It covers the south-eastern suburbs of Paris as well as Lyon, Burgundy, Franche-Comté, all the south-east of France (TGV Méditerranée), but also Switzerland and Italy.

Gare d'Austerlitz is located in the south-east of Paris, in the 13th arrondissement. It covers the center of France. You can also find old night trains for Portugal and Spain there.

Gare Montparnasse is located in the 15th arrondissement, in the south west of Paris. It mainly covers western and south-western suburbs of Paris, but also all the west and south-west of France by TGV.

Velib/Cycling

 The almost free bicycle system in Paris, called VELIB (a contraction of Velo = Bike, and Libre = Free), is an excellent way to get around Paris, particularly for short trips.  You can find more information about the system on the official website, or at their wikipedia page (perhaps easier for English speakers).  Basically, all you need is a visa or bankcard, get yourself a short-term membership  (one day, or 7 days), and you use your membership code to check-out bikes from the many stations around the city and return them when 

you're finished.  The bikes are sturdy and strong, with 3 gears, like the ones they ride around Amsterdam. Many of them have problems with the tires, chains, brakes, or seats, so have a good look at the bike before you take it out.   The bikes also come with simple locks that you can use. Just pop the end of the lock into the slot and you can take the key with you. But usually there are enough stations around the city that you can just return the bike right away, and hop on another one when you need to.

The Velib stations all have handy maps of the area, which also show the location of the other nearest Velib stations - which is useful as occasionally the whole station will not be working - no bikes will be left to take out, or in some cases, there are no free spaces left to return the bikes!  Cycling around Paris is remarkably easy. The busy streets are wide enough for cars and buses to pass you by, there are many bicycle lanes, including a beautiful one alongside the Seine. The only difficulty is figuring out the many one way streets in the centre or riding into a busy pedestrian area.   

Observing the Velib system is also a fascinating way to see the ebb and the flow of the city. Why are some stations empty of bikes at certain times of day? Why are some stations practically unused?    A last recommendation: riding a Velib to see Paris at night is astounding: passing by the Musee d'Orsay, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre - during the summer between 9pm and midnight is good for this. A very late ride is fun too - as the streets are quieter but not that quiet, it's still Paris!).

Or you could just walk!

Economy

France is gradually moving from a well-to-do modern economy with extensive government ownership and intervention to one that is driven by market dynamics. More and more industries and services are being privatized including large companies, banks, and insurers.

With a GDP of $2.66 trillion, France is the world's fifth-largest economy. It has substantial agricultural resources, a large industrial base, and a highly skilled work force. A dynamic services sector accounts for an increasingly large share of economic activity and is responsible for nearly all job creation in recent years. Real GDP fell by 2.5% in 2009. While growth picked up in the course of 2009, with 1.2% growth in the third quarter and 2.0% in the fourth quarter, it slowed down through the first quarter of 2010 (0.1%). The European Commission, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and International Monetary Fund (IMF) has a forecast GDP growth between 1.3% and 1.7% by the end of 2010; they estimated slightly higher growth for 2011, between 1.5% and 2.1%.

The government maintains a strong presence in some sectors, particularly power, public transport, and defense industries. The telecommunications sector is gradually being opened to competition.

With at least 75 million foreign tourists per year, France is the most visited country in the world and maintains the third largest income in the world from tourism. France has an important aerospace industry and is the leading agricultural producer and exporter in Europe.

The tax burden, however, is still one of the highest in Europe (nearly 50% of GDP). Despite having high productivity, France suffers from the after-effects of about thirty years of massive unemployment, which has significantly reduced the size of the working population.

France has been very successful in developing dynamic telecommunications, aerospace, and weapons sectors. With virtually no domestic oil production, France has relied heavily on the development of nuclear power, which now accounts for about 80% of the country's electricity production.

Currency, Banking, and Credit Cards

Currency exchange

Visitors should also look for the Crédit Mutuel or Crédit Agricole. Shops and hotels are prohibited from accepting foreign currency by law. Many UK banks offer differing exchange rates depending on the denominations of currency being bought or sold. Travellers should check with their banks for details and current rates. Some first-class hotels are authorized to exchange foreign currency.

Credit & debit cards in France

American Express, MasterCard, Diners Club, and Visa are widely accepted. Check with your credit or debit card company for details of merchant acceptability and other services which may be available.

Travellers cheques

In 2002 the Banque de France stopped dealing in foreign currencies so therefore no longer handles travellers' cheques.

Banking Hours

Monday-Friday 0900 hrs -1200 hrs and 1400 hrs - 1630 hrs.

Some banks close Monday and some are open Saturday. Banks close at 1200 hrs on the day before a bank holiday, in rare cases, they may also close for all or part of the day after. Some banks in Paris are open Monday-Friday 1000 hrs - 1700 hrs.

ATMs

French ATMs look very much like those in the US, see below, and are easy to find. Just look for the sign of the hand holding a card. They distribute anywhere from 10 to 200+ euro at a time. Just about all banks in France have an ATM either inside the bank itself or on the street. In France there are now ATMs that let you select your language, so using an ATM in France should not be difficult. The only problems that could arise are hidden transfer fees (ask your card issuer) and the fact that French ATMs only accept a four-digit pin number.

For information on exchange rates ask inside the bank of the ATM you are using. Also some credit cards charge a processing fee when used in selective countries so you might find out if yours does before using it in France.

Telephones, Cell Phones, and Internet

Telephone

Card-only telephones are common, with pre-paid cards bought from post offices and tabacs; coin boxes are being phased out throughout the country. International calls are cheaper between Mon-Fri 1900-0800 and all day Sat-Sun. Calls can be received at all phone boxes showing the sign of a blue bell. Although it may be more convenient, avoid making long-distance calls through your hotel. Hotels always add additional surcharges when placing the call for you. A typical telephone call from France to the United States shouldn't cost more than a dollar per minute. (around .70 cents per additional minute)

Cell Phone

For most people arriving in a new country, keeping connected with a phone or mobile is a high priority. Be careful about using roaming with your non-French mobile - it can get very expensive quickly! On the other hand, roaming agreements do exist with most international mobile phone companies and the coverage is excellent. Ironically, the most common way to obtain cell phone access in France--renting a cell phone--is also the most expensive and inconvenient. There are many cell phone rental companies that offer service for France. Typically, you will need to rent a handset for the required amount of time plus pay for the airtime usage. Airtime rates do vary but they average approximately $1.50-$2.00 per minute for incoming calls or calls placed within France, with calls placed internationally running slightly higher. With your rented phone, you'd receive an international phone number, usually from the UK. You will need to sign a contract with the cellular rental company plus leave a deposit. Cell phone rental agencies are commonly found in most international airports. Renting a cell phone may be a practical solution for those who decide they need a cell phone at the spur of the moment and for those who didn't have time to make other less-expensive arrangements.

Internet Access

These days, it's hard to go without checking our e-mail for very long. While you are visiting France, there is no need to suffer the low-tech lifestyle. Find out how to take your laptop, get access at your hotel or locate a cyber cafe. Unless you plan ahead, it might be a worthless piece of equipment you end up lugging around. Be sure you have everything you need to make it work. Also, if you visit a cyber cafe in France, you may be surprised to find letters in all the wrong places on the keyboard. That's because the layout is different, which can really slow you down (all the while you are paying by the minute to go online). Prepare yourself before you get there. These are just the possible predicaments you might encounter when trying to go online. On the other hand, internet access is free in some public areas of hotels and local establishments. (You just need to ask for the password). Internet Café rates usually vary from place to place, usually around 2-4 Euros an hour.

Enjoy!

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