Help me plan my trip to France!
November 11, 2012 9:18 AM   Subscribe

I’m currently based in Andalucía, Spain, teaching English for the school year, and am planning to visit neighboring France during Christmas vacation. France fascinates me and will be the first country I visit outside of Spain during my time in Europe, but to be honest: I know nothing. I have approximately 13 days to spend in the country, I would like to see Paris and a few other sites in the northwest, and I will probably enter the country on the Mediterranean coast (from Spain) and leave via the Basque Country (to return to Spain). What should I see?

So, this year I’m teaching English in the town of Úbeda, east of Córdoba and north of Granada. Buses run from here to Valencia & Barcelona and the nearby Linares-Baeza train station goes north to Madrid on the “slow” Talgo train and northeast to Barcelona on the overnight Trenhotel.

Christmas vacation starts (for me, at least) on Friday, December 21st (or the night of Thursday the 20th), and I have to be back in town by Tuesday, January 8th. However, I’d like to return no later than Saturday the 5th so I can crash, unwind, sleep, do laundry, etc. before going back to work. Budgeting a good day on both sides just to get out of Spain, that leaves me with 13 days around France.

I’m probably going to take the Trenhotel to Barcelona, but I’m at a loss of what to do next, mainly because I have no idea what to see in France, or how to get there from Spain.

Ok, ok, I do know that I want to see Paris (& Versailles) for ~4 days, the Bayeux tapestry, Mont-St-Michel, and Fontevraud Abbey (where Eleanor of Aquitaine & Henry II were *once* buried). Maybe Pau in the Pyrenees. Don’t care about the WWII beaches of Normandy (nothing against veterans…I’m just not interested). I just don’t want to take the overnight train to Paris from Barcelona if something in Provence or Burgundy stands out. I don’t have any preference about staying in Paris over Christmas or New Year’s Day (and would probably rather not be there then ha!).

TL;DR — help me plan a 13-day trip in France, entering the country in the south from Barcelona, making a circuit up to Paris and back down again, leaving through the Basque Country (or thereabouts). Budget travel style, four days in Paris, Rick Steves’ guidebook in tow, beginner’s level of French.

Thank you all so much for your help!!! I can’t wait to finally set foot in this beautiful country.
posted by huxham to Travel & Transportation around France (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Well Strasbourg and Colmar are beautiful that time of year and Strasbourg has a renown Christmas market that runs past Christmas as well so you could travel there in the time between Christmas and New Year's. Friedberg just over the border in Germany also has a fantastic one.

If you can get to Toulouse easily from where you are i would look into a TGV (high speed train) to get into Paris. When is comes to rail travel in France (at least where you want to go) all roads lead to Paris.

I have some more information about Normandy from an email that I sent to a friend that I will copy paste and memail onto you.
posted by raccoon409 at 9:40 AM on November 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh! Another thing, most likely the cheapest way to get to Paris is to look for flights on discount air carriers like easyjet, Ryan Air, etc. and then just start traveling from Paris.
posted by raccoon409 at 9:50 AM on November 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Saint-Malo is a walled port city in Brittany in northwestern France on the English Channel - beautiful architecture and seascapes, fascinating history, definitely worth visiting.
posted by jammy at 9:55 AM on November 11, 2012

Toulouse! Amazing, beautiful city. Fantastic food.
posted by rtha at 10:29 AM on November 11, 2012

My experience of Paris over Xmas was that is was too cold, with most things closed and not much to do except sightseeing in the rain ... but that was Dec 24-26 in the early '80s, so things may be different now.
posted by anadem at 10:52 AM on November 11, 2012

Best answer: Nthing Saint-Malo. It's beautiful. Check out Chartres, a day trip from Paris. I also enjoyed hanging out in Rouen (Joan of Arc! Monet! Flaubert!) and Rennes is OK for a day. In general, my fondest memories of France aren't in Paris (except the museums, which are boss), but the mid-sized towns and villages.
posted by Beardman at 10:54 AM on November 11, 2012

Best answer: Train tickets for the whole journey you're thinking of can work out very expensive, so I'd second the advice above to look at the budget airlines. They mostly specialise in flying out of smaller airports, so there's a good chance that you can fly out of somewhere closer than Barcelona. Ryanair, for example, list over 20 Spanish airports. Some of their Spanish flights are seasonal, and they don't fly to Paris from all the airports listed, but I think you should be able to fly with Ryanair from Valencia or Malaga to Beauvais (outside Paris). Other budget airline may offer flights from Alicante or Murcia or wherever.

Flying from Valencia to Paris, and then spending the 14 days touring just northern France would still give you an enormous amount to see.

Plan to settle in one place for 3 days over Christmas itself: while only the 25th is an official public holiday, in practice most things are likely to be closed on the 'Regional holiday' of the 26th as well.
posted by Azara at 11:47 AM on November 11, 2012

Best answer: Paris over Christmas is much like anadem recalls in the 1980s (hai, I live here). If you are part of a social network or have other friends-of-friends who will take you in for the holidays though, it can be a great cultural experience. Last year I did Christmas in the País Vasco with a family!

People saying doing the whole trip by train could be pricy are right! Definitely look for budget airlines, and also consider car-sharing. Check out (do most reservations online by bank card, original and biggest site) and (pay by cash, an upstart responding to the original's move to bank card and fees). It requires a mobile phone and usually basic French.

My friends traveling in-and-out of Spain take the trains to the border (Irun, Hendaye, Perpignan) and then switch. I have taken the trenhotel Paris-Barcelona twice, each time arriving two hours late. There are also buses to Paris from Bilbao (must be Eurolines), and maybe the other cities as well. SNCF (French train monopoly) has recently started their own bus service as well, I don't have any personal experience if the service is competitive/economical: iDBUS.

Where to go?? You have a good schedule. Saint Malo is a natural addition to Mt Saint Michel, which you should not miss. Glad you are not interested in the beaches because it will be fucking cold and they are difficult to do by public transport. I have heard wonderful things about Bordeaux (city) and Strasbourg (Christmas markets). Toulouse did not impress me that much. And I always advocate going to Belgium because it is nearby and awesome. Not Brussels, but some of the other cities especially in Flanders.
posted by whatzit at 12:13 PM on November 11, 2012

Best answer: To my mind, Strasbourg is a little off the track for you (and I love Strasbourg): I agree with Saint Malo and Mt Saint Michel, and would generally suggest that you stick to the west part of France this time (and get back for the rest some other time). Carcassonne is strangely fascinating, on your way up, also please visit the amazing cathedral in Albi, and by all accounts, you should go via Bordeaux on your way back (I haven't been there and feel it was a huge mistake).
I loved Quimper when I went there, but I have no idea how to get there with public transportation. Rennes is good too.
And yes, most of France is cold and damp in December. Prepare for that.
posted by mumimor at 2:30 PM on November 11, 2012

Thinking further about the weather, if you get an equivalent holiday at Easter, I'd be seriously inclined to stay in southern Spain for Christmas and leave northern France for Easter. Remember that Paris is further north than Maine so the daylight will be very short by American standards.
posted by Azara at 12:49 AM on November 12, 2012

The catacombs in Paris are a must.
posted by JJ86 at 5:55 AM on November 12, 2012

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