France, one weekend at a time
April 16, 2017 6:39 AM   Subscribe

I'm a Canadian spending three months in France, nominally working a 9-to-5 job but with some flexibility and with my weekends (and long weekends) entirely free to explore this part of the world that I'm not very familiar with. Where should I go, what should I do, and how do I convince myself to get out there when all I want to do is hang out in my apartment eating cereal?

From now unti the end of June I am based in Poitiers, where the standard advice for what to do on weekends seems to be "um, go somewhere else". I would like to plan some number of 1 or 2-night weekend/long weekend trips to make the most out of my stay - this is the first time I've been abroad for such a long period of time while relatively unencumbered with responsibilities, and I don't know when/if I will get the opportunity again in the future.

I am aware of travel guides like Lonely Planet and in fact have one with me, but the sheer number of possibilities is a little overwhelming right now. I have no car so would be traveling by train (am considering getting a TGVmax pass for either May or June) though the covoiturage via blablacar sounds interesting too.

I confess that I am not very good at appreciating historical sites and monuments (and all cathedrals look pretty much the same to me), though I do enjoy scenic walks and the occasional museum. Interesting cultural events and festivals would be cool; I've been trying to see if any bands I like are touring with stops in France and planning trips around shows, but no luck so far. My French is "functional" in that I can get around with little trouble but extended social interaction isn't really possible, so stuff where I could just hang out and chill on my own would be best. Merci d'avance!
posted by btfreek to Travel & Transportation around France (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Go to Paris, obvs. You could easily go to Paris every weekend and still have things to do.

Flying inside Europe is really easy and often pretty inexpensive. It looks like Ryanair and maybe Easyjet services Poitiers. So where do you want to spend a weekend? Berlin is an awesome city. Prague? Rome? London? Barcelona? Go to them all!
posted by dis_integration at 7:48 AM on April 16, 2017

My typical advice for extended stays abroad is to enrol in a course for something you like - or have always wanted to learn. This will structure your time off, allow some interaction with local people and even allow you to pick up some friends and French.

Learning French is the obvious candidate, as is local cuisine (cuisine poitevine), horse riding, kayak, paragliding, flight school etc.

Of course, don't forget to spend a day at the Futuroscope
posted by Kwadeng at 8:23 AM on April 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Lyon is fabulous, the gastronomic capital of France and a really interesting city. I would also highly recommend Annecy, which is close to the Swiss border. It has a beautiful old town and a gorgeous lake where there are water sports in the summer.
posted by essexjan at 8:32 AM on April 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

Nantes and Bordeaux are both fun interesting cities with a lot of young adult culture thanks to the universities there. If you want more countryside fine-hotel-and-dining, both the Loire and Dordogne regions have a lot to offer. But those are a long way to go without a car if you're not specifically into the idea.

I would start by figuring out where you can get easily on a train.
posted by Nelson at 8:35 AM on April 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

One obvious destination would be the town of Bordeaux, which is a major cruise ship destination and has a beautiful waterfront promenade. It's a two-hour train ride from Poitiers, according to the excellent TrainLine (formerly Capitaine Traine). It's far superior to the SNCF site, and lets you easily see your options at a glance, including some long-distance buses when available.

The town of Périgueux is a three-hour train ride (so only a half-hour longer than driving) and the center of the Perigord region, which is known for its truffles (the season for fresh is November to April, unfortunately) and duck/goose products such as foie gras. The (replica) caves of Lascaux are another 90 minutes by car.

Plus, of course, you can be in Paris in an hour and forty-five minutes. If you've not traveled by train in France, it's hard to express just how convenient and pleasant it is. No need to show up more than 15 minutes before the train departs, often surprisingly decent and affordable food and wine onboard.

For more of an overview, you can see the French rail lines on an interactive map.

Ryanair does have an ideal and inexpensive flight ($70 round trip) to London's Stansted airport, leaving Poitiers at 17h and returning about 48 hours later. Be aware of their disgusting charges for everything, particularly printing boarding passes and checking luggage without advance reservation. But it's about 1h15 into downtown London. The Eurostar train via the Chunnel is about 6 hours (versus 4 door-to-door flying) and a lot more expensive, but if it were me I would probably take it one way just for the experience.

Nantes, Limoges, these are all pretty close and supposed to be good to visit.

Lyon is great but I think a bit far for a weekend trip. If you need motivation, just book the train tickets in advance (which you should do just to save money).
posted by wnissen at 8:38 AM on April 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

Nthing Lyon. It's about 4-4.5 hr by train with one connection. Might be a bit far for a weekend, but a three day weekend? There is definitely enough to do in Lyon to keep you occupied for a long weekend, or you could tack on a daytrip to Annecy (about another two hours).

Normandy and Brittany are beautiful for scenic walks along the sea. Bring a raincoat.

Orléans has a big Jeanne d'Arc festival every year in early May.

For concert/show tickets, check FNAC
posted by basalganglia at 9:13 AM on April 16, 2017

Come to Paris and have a mefi meetup! Wanted to add that the train can get expensive so frequent traveller tickets are a good idea. I've used BlaBlaCar several times and really like it. Also you can get cheap Eurostar advance tickets if you haven't been to London before/a lot.
posted by ellieBOA at 10:49 AM on April 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'd watch Jeremy Clarkson - War Stories: Commandos and go to St. Nazaire.

There's geocaching to explore your city and your day trips. You can sort by popularity and start with the highest rated ones.
posted by exois at 4:15 PM on April 16, 2017

The cave paintings at Lascaux!!!! We were there as part of a wedding group so I have no idea about the logistics but it is an incredible experience. There's a Werner Herzog documentary with lots of additional context. If I go back to France, I'm skipping Paris and just touring the caves.
posted by TheLateGreatAbrahamLincoln at 4:40 PM on April 16, 2017

Wait, I didn't realize just how close you are the Loire. That is château country! Plus, the best chenin blanc in the world is grown in the Loire. And, arguably, the best chenin blanc in the Loire is grown in Montlouis-sur-Loire (note that there's another town in France called Mont-louis). Like Chablis, chenin blanc is sadly unappreciated in the U.S. but if you like flavorful, refreshing white wine, there's nothing like it. It's an 8 minute / 600 m walk from the Montlouis-sur-Loire train station to the start of two different walking loops. The shorter one [PDF, French] is the town and river, with an easy, flat walk of 4 km. You could even stay in one of the smaller châteaux for about €100 a night.

If you're feeling more ambitious, there's a longer 17km walk [PDF, French], listed as 4 hours, that will take you up the slopes of the vineyards, and right past perhaps the best Montlouis domaine, open without appointment, run by Jacky Blot, featured in *** Paris restaurant l'Arpège. While the wines are white, there's a variety from sparkling, dry, to sweet.
posted by wnissen at 4:41 PM on April 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Limoges is a charming cathedral city and well worth a visit. We have flown to Poitiers from London to get to the Limoges area, it isn't hugely far and depending on trains you could do a day trip and still have a weekend day to eat cereal and watch TV, or an easy overnight.

Agreed that there are lots of chateaux that are worth exploring.

I would also pick up your local newspaper and see if there is an online group, there are all sorts of "charming" events in small towns in the area, from wine fairs to "well-being fest" to "fete de music". It will give you a taste of small-town France.

It is also worth going to Paris, probably sooner rather than later so you can figure out if you want to go several times.

Ryanair/Easyjet flights to London aren't so bad if you just pack carryon, although they each tend to do only one flight a day so you're captive to their timings.
posted by lettezilla at 9:45 AM on April 17, 2017

Just like to recommend a massive theme park that I had no idea existed until I went there. It's called Puy du Fou. There are no rides, but it's an amazing day out/experience that nobody should miss - truly some of the most spectacular shows I've ever witnessed.
posted by thingonaspring at 11:24 PM on April 17, 2017

My partner went to school near Poitiers, and between his friends there and work trips I’ve actually spent a fair amount of time in the area—Vienne is lovely, especially this time of year! But I hear what you’re saying about the relatively limited opportunities for getting out & about: the centre of Poitiers is gorgeous, but after about two weeks you’ll have seen most of what there is to see, and when you’ve a limited social circle it can get old.

Nthing recommendations to visit the Loire Valley: Tours is not far from where you are and is a great base of operations for exploring surrounding vineyards, châteaux (not to metion da Vinci’s house, near Amboise), some pretty stunning nature walks, etc. (It might seem sort of out-of-the-way today, but Tours and its environs actually served as the official royal capital between 1450 and 1550, and I find it really shows in the quality and diversity of the architecture.) I can’t tell what age group you belong to from your post, but if bars/nightlife are your thing the city centre boasts a good selection of pubs and bars situated all along the quirky/old-fashioned/meat-market/chic spectrum. Not necessarily enough for any sort of ongoing social life but certainly fun for a Saturday night out. (Unlike certain other places this isn’t necessarily a town where you’d need to stress a lot about your language proficiency: I went out there once with a friend who spoke virtually no French and we wound up having a great time with local students/young professionals who were more than happy to practice their English for an evening while drinking, playing darts and generally goofing off.)

Further down the coast, absolutely take a weekend, preferably a long weekend, to visit Bordeaux. I’m pretty jaded after living in France for several years but Bordeaux still knocks me out whenever I go: the architecture, food, surrounding landscape, cultural offerings (especially in late spring/early summer)—and, obviously, the wine—really drive home why living in this country is a huge privilege. Eat all the things, drink all the things, see all the things, you basically cannot go wrong.*

If/when you decide to visit Paris I recommend coming with at least a general idea of what you want to accomplish. Think quality over quantity; otherwise IME a lot of visitors can get bogged down trying to navigate between the endless “must-see” items, which gets frustrating fast, especially if the weather isn’t cooperating. Appropriate non-Louvre-type suggestions are really going to vary depending on what interests you, but honestly the Mairie de Paris’s website has loads of suggestions which are sometimes quite good: (Seems only to be available in French I’m afraid, but if you’re basically proficient you can probably decode the essential details.) In terms of English-language guides the EN version of TimeOut Paris ( has generally reliable recommendations for what to eat/drink by arrondissement. (Feel free to drop me a memail if you’d like more specific info!)

Other people have already done a great job covering other cities like Lyon and Limoges; if you want to venture farther afield Strasbourg is in my opinion one of the loveliest cities in Europe and one of the most underrated ones in France, with great food, fascinating history, loads of hiking/cycling/outdoorsy opportunities, etc. It’s a bit far from Poitiers by TGV but well worth the trip. (PS: I noticed you mentioned the TGVMax pass—just be aware only people under 28 are eligible.)

Anyways this is already a book. Again, feel free to drop me a DM if you’d like more specific info, and if you decide to do a MeFi meetup let us know! When you’re based in a small town in province living here can feel sort of disorienting, but I promise the experience is worth the effort—profitez !

*Obviously you are smart enough to know to stay away from kitschy theme restaurants/bars, especially the ones vaunting their supposedly authentic USian/Canadian credentials. But you’re not here for that anyway.
posted by TinyChicken at 6:49 AM on April 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

So much great stuff here - exactly what I was hoping for when I asked this question. Thank you everyone!
posted by btfreek at 1:08 PM on April 19, 2017

I did an internship at a nuclear power plant near Lyon. I lived in France for 4.5 months, and traveled basically every weekend.

I was just back in (the suburbs of) Lyon this weekend visiting family and enjoying the amazing food.
  • Paris is an obvious must.
  • Lyon is incredible. Great food, cool city to wander around in. OL was pretty good when I was there, which was fun. Go see a rugby game in Bourgoin-Jallieu if you have the chance!
  • Alsace-Lorraine is a unique part of France that I enjoyed. Lots of complicated history there, but French food and German beer are a nice combination.
  • Normandy has great food and the WW2 history was very moving. I meant to spend 1 day there and spent 4.
  • The Loire valley is great for wine and there are many incredible castles.
  • Provence was beautiful. Let's put it this way: French chefs making mediterranean food. Amazing.
I hated Marseille. The fried seafood was delicious, but I thought I was in "the wrong part of town" the entire time I was there.

I'm sure that I'm forgetting something. Feel free to MeMail me if you like.
posted by KevCed at 7:52 AM on May 10, 2017

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