FRANCE

France is quite possibly the best country in Europe for the motorcyclist. On the bike or off, it has a very great deal to commend it. Other countries may offer more in a particular area of interest, but few can offer as much variety.

The things that commend France when you get off the bike are the same things that commend it to everyone else: the food, the wine, the scenery, the history, the climate, and the sheer civilization of the place.

Some of the attractions are unexpected, too. Everyone knows about overpriced French spas: the prices are supported, to a considerable extent, by the bloated French national health service. But a few spas are incredible value, and wonderful to visit, especially after a few days in the saddle. The best we know is at St. Thomas in the Pyrenees, a few miles from the Spanish border. Nearby Llo (pronounced 'Yo') comes a close second. They're five or six Euros a head, to soak for as long as you like in a hot, sulfurous swimming pool. Llo includes a sauna and a steam bath ('hammam') at no extra charge. You get out feeling great, and with any silver you're wearing tarnished black.

Get on the bike, and you find a big, relatively sparsely populated country that is covered with roads which range from good to excellent -- everything from winding back-roads where you may not encounter another vehicle for mile upon mile (and indeed kilometre upon kilometre), to very, very fast motorways that are ideal if you want to get from one place to another as quickly as possible.

Regardless of what you may have heard, the French are not especially averse to foreigners, or unusually rude to them. It is true that Parisians have a reputation, even among the French, for being rude and grasping, but they are the same way to other Frenchmen and indeed to other Parisians. It's a bit like judging the United States if you've only ever been to New York. Besides, like New Yorkers, Parisians are rarely as bad as they are painted.

Outside Paris, you are far more likely to be met with a genuine welcome than you are to be snubbed as a foreigner. This is all the more true if you make even faltering attempts to speak French. Tell them that you speak French 'comme une vache espagnol' (like a Spanish cow -- for some reason the French find this hilariously funny) and they will forgive almost anything.

Americans, in particular, are well received. The older generation remembers World War Two and 'la Liberation' while the younger generation has the usual weakness for American popular culture; including, amazingly, even McDonalds, whose hamburger emporia are now surprisingly common. Admittedly there are plenty of objections to American ideas, from genetically modified foods to the 2003 war in Iraq, but only the ugliest of Ugly Americans is likely to encounter personal animosity as a result. Middle-aged French people are likely to be the most suspicious of foreigners.

Never tell a Frenchman he's wrong, and you're right, unless you really do want animosity. Instead, agree and then say, "But...".

Among websites, www.franceguide.com stands out for a wealth of useful information and all kinds of links: you can even, if you can find it on the French government site they link to, www.legifrance.gouv.fr download the French highway code! They also point you to www.permisenligne.com for French road signs (a 'permis' is a licence). But www.francetourism.com is as abysmal as the other site is excellent: messy, jumbled, and confusing.

Buy French maps in France, preferably in a supermarket (see below). They will be a lot cheaper that way. The only reason to buy them outside is if you want to plan a detailed route before you go. Otherwise, a very general map will do until you get there.

The big Michelin atlas -- 1:200,000, 2 km per cm, a fraction over 3 miles to the inch -- is unbeatable until it comes to very fine detail; then, you need the maps from the IGN (Institut Geographique Nationale) 1:25000 series. These are proper topographical maps with footpaths and all the good stuff, and equate to 4cm per km or a little better than two and a half inches to the mile.

The Michelin atlas is available in a number of formats, hardback, comb-bound and soft-bound. We find the comb bound edition slightly too bulky and fragile for motorcycle touring: the slightly smaller-format soft-bound version is better. Under heavy use, we do not expect more than two or at most three years' service from an atlas. The one drawback to the Michelin atlas is that it can be hard to get an overview of the country as a whole. We therefore use a cheap folding map as a bookmark: each side shows slightly over half of France.

Most large supermarkets stock Michelin atlases and surprisingly many stock the IGN 1:25000 series for their local area. The latter are alarmingly expensive -- about 5.50 Euros each in the supermarkets, 7.50 Euros in bookstores, while a whole Michelin atlas is under 20 Euros -- and they are only worth buying when you want to explore an area in depth.

Ignore the Michelin cartographers' interpretation of what constitutes a 'scenic' road. In our experience, it is next to impossible to distinguish a 'scenic' road from any other road through reasonably attractive countryside.

Ignore, too, those guide-books and web-sites that give you the impression that France is stiff with policemen who are desperate to nick you for speeding, drinking, being a foreigner, etc., and then lock you up and throw away the key. Of course you will be punished if you break the law and are caught, but that's fair enough. Overall, though, France is pretty laid back and a remarkably free country. That's why we moved there, after living (as adults) in Britain and the United States.

MOTORING AND MOTORCYCLISTS

For the most part, the French are not bad drivers. They may be fast, and (if you are unlucky) they may be drunk, but they are rarely aggressive -- and most are remarkably aware of, and considerate towards, motorcyclists. Time and again, a car will pull in to let you pass, or you will get a thumbs-up from a motorist. They are given to driving very close behind you, however.

We blush to record it, but some of the worst French drivers are motorcyclists, principally on motorways (autoroutes). You can be doing 100 or 110 km/h (60 to 70 mph) in fast-moving heavy traffic, and a motorcyclist will roar through, 'threading the needle' between two lanes at 130 to 160 km/h (80 to 100 mph).

As recently as the 1980s, serious motorcyclists among the French themselves were not common outside the major cities. Elsewhere, they tended to be users of motorcycles -- especially small, overladen mopeds -- rather than motorcyclists. Even in the cities (especially in Paris) a motorcycle was often a prestige toy, a status symbol, rather than something to be ridden far.

Today, it is increasingly different. Fast, new motorcycles are encountered in many small towns, and even in the villages, though the village riders are often visiting their second homes: France has a very high incidence of second home ownership, not least because of very low prices on dilapidated village and country properties.

Helmets are a legal requirement, and in theory, they should be decorated with a strip of reflective tape. In practice, the latter requirement seems never to be enforced and a CRS man to whom we spoke said that it was extremely unlikely that a foreigner would ever be prosecuted for it. Moped riders are not required to wear helmets, and many don't. Riders of other small motorcycles sometimes go helmetless, but this is illegal.

A first aid kit is a legal requirement, and the first people on the scene of an accident are legally required to give assistance if it is needed. Do not get out of your depth with first aid, however, as you can be held legally liable if you make things worse. Daylight riding lights are compulsory. All your lights must be capable of working and you must be able to replace any blown external bulb (i.e. not instrument lights) immediately. In effect, this means you are legally required to carry a set of spare bulbs.

Even French vehicles are no longer required to have yellow headlights, and most don't, so there is no need to worry about that.

ROADS AND RIDING

The general excellence of French roads has already been mentioned, but there are a few things to note.

The fastest motorways are all toll roads, and the tolls can add up quickly. On the other hand, they are of excellent quality with numerous rest stops and they are ideal if you want to get from A to B quickly.

Main roads (including toll roads) in or close to towns can be overcrowded, especially the Peripherique (ring road) around Paris. On the other hand there are no objections to 'threading the needle' between stationary or slow-moving lanes of traffic, and most drivers will pull over for you, so motorcyclists should not usually be inconvenienced even if they see the dreaded word 'bouchon' (blockage) on the overhead signal gantries -- unless an accident has temporarily closed the road completely.

'Rainurage' (grooves) is a lethal form of drainage in which the grooves run parallel with the direction of travel. This can make the handling of a single-track vehicle very interesting, the more so as car and truck drivers do not slow down one iota (nor do they need to). But rainurage is always signposted (with that very word) and besides, it is becoming rarer and rarer.

Some rural back roads are poorly surfaced, which is a nuisance, but the process of re-surfacing can be even more vexing. Mile upon mile of road can remain closed for weeks, with endlessly complicated detours (marked 'Deviation') through even more obscure back roads.

Some really minor roads are not surfaced at all, or at least, are not tarred. A few are grassed; some are gravel; some have the remains of old surfacing; and some go from one surface to another and back again. But these roads are pretty tiny, and don't show on the majority of maps: you have to go out of your way to find them.

French speed limits are mind-bogglingly complicated, but this is much ameliorated by the fact that they are widely ignored and even treated as minima rather than maxima. On the bright side, they tend to be posted pretty often, often with 'Rappel' underneath, which simply means 'reminder'. And when a lower-than-usual limit ends, this is normally signalled by a speed limit sign with a line through it.

Broadly, the limits are 130 km/h (81 mph) on the motorway, 90 km/h (56 mph) on the open road, and 50 km/h (31 mph) in town. Fix those in your mind and you won't go far wrong. Now for the fine detail:

The maximum permitted speed, on a full-quality motorway in dry weather for an experienced driver, is 130 km/h (81 mph). In rain, this falls to 110 km/h (68 mph). If you have held a full licence for less than two years you are limited to 110 km/h (68 mph) even on dry motorways. There is a minimum limit of 80 km/h (50 mph) in the fast (left) lane of the motorway.

Other limits may be posted and may apply only to specific vehicles, normally represented by a pictogram and (sometimes) a weight limit. Thus a picture of a truck, annotated as 10T 90, means that trucks over 10 tonnes are limited to 90 km/h.

Motorways and dual carriageways that are not quite up to scratch, and urban motorways, are normally limited to 110 km/h, but this is posted. On these roads, those who have had a full licence for under two years are limited to 100 km/h.

On ordinary open roads in the countryside, the limit is 90 km/h (56 mph) in the dry and 80 km/h (50 mph) in the wet. Again, other limits may be posted, and again, they may apply only to specific vehicles. Posted limits of 70 km/h (43 mph) are quite common at complex junctions, at the entrance to a town, on narrow, tree-lined roads or anywhere else that some local bureaucrat thought it might be a good idea. Those who have had a full licence for under two years are limited to 80 km/h, 50 mph.

In built-up areas (villages and towns), the limit is 50 km/h (31 mph) unless otherwise posted: 30 km/h (19 mph) is increasingly popular for town centres. You can often drive in pedestrianized areas, but if you can, the limit is quite likely to be 20 km/h (12 mph) or less. 'Roulez au pas' is 'drive at a walking pace'.

Anywhere, on any road, if it is foggy and visibility is below 50 metres (55 yards) there is a blanket speed limit of 50 km/h (31 mph).

Trailers attract no extra speed limits as long as the all-up weight of the vehicle and trailer together does not exceed 3.5 tonnes.

Note that there is rarely a speed limit sign when you enter a town or village: the town or village name (on a red-bordered sign) is considered sufficient warning that you are entering a built-up area. Likewise, the end of the village (the same sort of sign, but with a line through it) is regarded as fair warning that you are back on the open road.

As already remarked, the French themselves ignore almost all speed limits, almost all of the time. And because France isn't crawling with speed cameras, they get away with it almost all of the time. Very broadly -- and don't blame us if you get nicked -- you are unlikely to be stopped at up to 150 km/h (93 mph) or even 160 km/h (100 mph) on a toll motorway; they don't seem to blink at 100 km/h (62 mph) in a 90 km/h limit, and you'd need to be unlucky (i.e. running into a radar trap) to get nicked at 110 km/h; and in towns, if you drive at much less than 60 km/h you will be overtaken by almost everyone if there is enough room on the road. Exceed the speed limit by more than 40 km/h, however, and you may be arrested and lose your licence on the spot.

It is also worth knowing that fellow motorists (and especially fellow motorcyclists) are very good about warning you about speed traps they have just seen, flashing their lights and (sometimes) making 'slow down' gestures with their hands. This is of course illegal.

Overtaking is forbidden where it would involve crossing a double or single continuous line in the middle of the road; or where 'no overtaking' signs are posted; or when the vehicle to be overtaken is already overtaking someone else (except on three- lane motorways and the like); or anywhere that it is obviously dangerous, such as the brow of a hill, blind corners, blind intersections, etc. It is also technically illegal to accelerate when you are being overtaken, but if someone decides to overtake you while you are accelerating, that is their problem.

Parking is wonderfully simple: you can do it just about anywhere that's not going to block traffic, or where it isn't actually forbidden. You are perfectly free to park on the pavement (sidewalk) provided it doesn't unduly obstruct pedestrian access. Look at the way the French park their cars and you will see that 'unduly obstruct' is very leniently interpreted. Because parking is so easy, there is almost never any need to take any risks (parking near junctions, etc.) because there is almost always somewhere a few yards away where you can get off the road. The only time you are likely to have to go more than a few metres is in the mountains, and even then, you can usually find somewhere within twenty or thirty metres.

Parking for more than 24 hours in one place is illegal in Paris, but this seems to apply only to cars; if you want to chain your motorcycle to the railings outside the hotel for a couple of days while you explore Paris on foot or by Metro, there are unlikely to be any problems.

WHEN TO GO

A great deal depends on where you are going. Northern France has a climate much like that of southern England, though the further you go from the coast, the more continental the weather pattern is likely to be: warmer summers, colder winters.

The French themselves tend to use the Loire (about 250 miles/400km south of Calais) as the break-point between the colder north and the warmer south, but the further south you go, the warmer it gets, and even the depths of winter (December, January, February) can be tolerable along the Mediterranean coast -- though at that time of year, southern Spain and Portugal are likely to be a better bet.

By the same token, summers in the south can be very hot. Temperatures of more than 32 degrees C (90 degrees F) are common in July and August, and peak temperatures of 38 degrees C (100 degrees F) and above are sometimes encountered a few miles inland.

Remember too that altitude can greatly affect temperature. Unswept passes in the Alps and Pyrenees can remain blocked with snow from November to March and even April, and in the height of summer, an altitude of 1000 metres or so (quite common in the 'Massif Central', the mountains in southern central France) can be a lot more comfortable than sea level.

Avoid August, because France will be on holiday. Whole businesses close down for weeks at a time; resorts are crowded; prices rise; hotels are full; roads are jammed; and it's generally not much fun. It's a joke among the French that the only accents you hear in Paris in August are American.

PUBLIC HOLIDAYS

There are eleven, as follows:

PRACTICALITIES AND PAPERS

With the exception of Andorra and Switzerland all countries with which France has a land border are EC members, so (with the exception of Britain) the borders are effectively open as a result of the Schengen Accord. At most, you normally just slow down as you cross the border. Often, you don't even do that.

Andorra is full of shops selling duty-free (or at least, very low duty) goods so there are moderately rigorous customs inspections at the borders. They are principally concerned with making sure that you aren't carrying booze and cigarettes in quantities that would be hard to carry on a motorcycle. At the Swiss border, things are more casual.

If you are coming in from Britain, passports are normally demanded by the English (the French don't worry anything like as much) and at the Tunnel there are quite serious security checks. Now that hovercraft are, alas, no more than a fond memory, the choice is between the Tunnel, SeaCat, and conventional ferries. There is more about these below.

Visitors from EC countries require national identity cards or (for those nations such as Britain that do not officially have identity cards) passports. You will also need the registration document (log book) for the bike, plus a letter of permission from the owner if it belongs to someone else. You will need your national driving license, of course (an International Driving Permit or IDP is not a normal requirement). Any EC insurance is required by law to cover you for the legal minimum in France but it may not cover you for other risks including fire or theft; get a Green Card if your insurance doesn't have one automatically. Also make sure you have a constat a l'aimable.

Americans need a passport but no visa, and although an international driving permit is preferable to a state license, a state license is normally perfectly acceptable.

Between fellow EU states there are effectively no customs borders, though 'prohibited items' such as drugs, weapons and unusually vivid pornography may not be transported. There are also restrictions on the export of (very expensive) antiques and works of art -- not the sort of thing you would normally carry on a motorcycle. Otherwise, the usual customs rules apply. The 'other goods' limit is 175 euros and if you are carrying more than 7600 euros in cash (call it US $8000 or five grand in sterling) you should notify the customs on entering or leaving the country.

FERRIES, ETC. FROM BRITAIN

Unless you are exceptionally prone to claustrophobia, the Tunnel is incomparably the best: quick (35 minutes travel time, rarely worse than 2 hours from check-in to riding on the roads of France and sometimes less than an hour), free from travel sickness, easy (you just ride the bike on and put it on the side-stand or centre-stand), and far less prone to cancellation than ferries or SeaCats. It's not bad weather that cancels the trains: it's industrial action, usually on the French side. The only real drawback is that there are no seats: you have to stand beside your bike (or wander about in the vicinity) for the whole trip. We use nothing else nowadays.

The SeaCat (Dover-Calais and Newhaven-Dieppe) is quicker than a conventional ferry, and offers faster loading and unloading, but it is also very vulnerable to bad weather: seasickness in even modest seas, and cancellation in heavy seas. We have never taken a bike across in the Cat, only a car, and we weren't particularly impressed.

Sea ferries are slow, and they are not always very careful when they tie down your bike, but some people like them because they have bars and shops and restaurants on board. We have not used one in years. But if you live in the North of England, or the South-West, you may find a longer ferry journey more convenient than getting down to Dover.

Prices on the Dover-Calais route bear little relation to speed or comfort. The train may be slightly more expensive, but not much. The usual offers are one-day returns; three- or five-day returns (depending on the carrier); and 'open' returns. An 'open' return is typically twice the price of a single, which is the same as a three- or five-day return. With an 'open' return you usually have to stipulate a return time and date but it can be changed at any time for no fee.

Prices are often lower if booked in advance (anything from three days to three weeks, depending on the carrier and the discount). They can also vary with the time of day, the day of the week, and the season. Late-night and early-morning crossings are cheaper than daytime; Fridays and Saturdays may be more expensive than the rest of the week; summer may well cost more than winter; and peak periods such as school holidays, Easter and so forth may cost more than usual. If you can be flexible on your travel times and dates, make this clear to the ferry company when booking your ticket.

Note that a three- or five-day return often stipulates that you have to return on the third or fifth day, including the day of travel. In other words, if you leave at noon on Monday, 'five days' doesn't mean you can come back on or before noon on Saturday (5x 24 hours). No: it means you have to be back before midnight on Friday.

Don't worry unduly about missing the ferry unless you miss the deadline on a restricted-period ticket. Normally, unless they are crowded solid, they will simply put you on the next ferry. There may be a supplement if you are travelling at a more expensive time of day, or on a more expensive day. Only if you miss the deadline on a restricted-period ticket (such as five days) are you likely to have to pay more than a few pounds or euros.

SHOPPING AND TIPPING

Currency is the Euro but many French still think in Francs or New Francs (NF or 'Nouvelle Francs', about 6.6 to the Euro -- an evil currency conversion) and older French people still think in Anciens Francs (AF, 100 AF = 1 NF) which can really add confusion to things like bike and house prices: a million old francs is 10,000 new francs.

Hole in the wall machines (autotellers) are widespread, and may well be found away from banks, in supermarkets and the like. Credit and debit cards are very widely accepted: not quite universally, but not far off, in hotels, restaurants and filling stations. Note however that automatic petrol pumps will normally accept only French-issued cards. Occasionally, too, you may have trouble with other machines. If they realize that it's a foreign card or nothing, though, most retailers can usually make it work. Motorway tolls are most easily paid with a credit card (French or foreign) even if the amount is only a few centimes.

The long lunch is alive and well in France; only in the larger cities (or in a few of the larger supermarkets in smaller cities) can you expect places to be open at lunchtime. Most shops open at 0800 or 0900 (bakeries often open earlier); close at noon or 1215-1230; re-open at anything from 1400 (unusually early) to 1600 (unusually late); and then remain open until 1900, though some may close as early as 1830 and others at 1930 or later.

Surprisingly many small bars and cafe-bars close quite early, at seven, eight or nine o'clock, though others stay open until midnight and beyond. It is impossible to guess which will close when, though they tend to stay open later in big cities and to close earlier in small villages (especially during the winter). Bank hours vary widely: reckon on 0900 to 1600 or 1700 if you are lucky. There may also be a long lunch break (anything up to 3 hours, 1200 to 1500) and it is quite common for banks to be closed all day on Sunday and Monday, as well as Saturday afternoons.

Tipping is modest. If a 'menu' (see 'Food and Drink', below) says 'Service Compris' (Service Included) then strictly there is no need to leave a tip but 10 per cent will be appreciated. Look carefully at the foot of the menu, though: sometimes they will say something like 'a 15 per cent service charge will be included for parties of 6 or more'.

FUEL, OIL AND REPAIRS

The normal petrol grades are Super (lead replacement fuel) and SP ('Sans Plomb' or 'without lead') in two grades, SP95 and SP98. All are widely available and are sold by the litre. Prices are significantly lower than in the UK, maybe around 10 per cent, but two or three times as high as in the United States.

The lowest prices, by quite a long way, tend to be at supermarkets. It is not unusual for the cheapest supermarket price to be 20 per cent lower than the highest prices at service stations on the autoroutes, and small, rural stations may be more expensive still.

Beware of supermarkets that advertise petrol '24/24'. In order to buy petrol out of hours you will need a French credit or debit card: English and American cards simply will not work.

Oil is much cheaper in supermarkets than at gas stations: quite possibly, half the price. If you have an older machine with a taste for oil, this can make a big difference.

Repairs are roughly commensurate with the rest of affluent Western Europe, though the high VAT rate (20,6 per cent) pumps them up a bit. If you are riding an older bike, look out for a mechanic who describes himself as an 'artisan'. It normally means that he knows what he's doing.

MOTORCYCLE HIRE

There are numerous companies hiring motorcycles of all sizes in France. Here are some of them:

POLICE, ACCIDENTS AND EMERGENCIES

In our experience, the French police are very much like the traditional friendly British bobby -- which the modern British policeman rarely is. For the most part they are genuinely helpful, though they very seldom speak even a word of English.

For example, we fell off on a slippery roundabout, out in the country: no injuries, no real damage. The next vehicle that passed was a police car. They stopped; asked us if we were all right; asked if we needed any help; and when we said they were OK, they left, without any busybodying, taking of addresses, demanding of documents, or anything else. Mind you, it helped to be middle-aged with reasonably fluent French. But in general, if you don't bother them, and don't ride like a complete maniac, they won't bother you.

There are random vehicle checks from time to time, but foreign-registered (and especially British-registered) vehicles are usually waved through.

The police can demand identification, and you may be in trouble if you cannot produce it, on the spot. Your passport is fine. They can also levy on-the-spot fines and they can demand refundable deposits against future court fines. There are hefty discounts for paying on the spot or within 24 hours.

Always be very polite to the police, and they will normally be very polite back. Call them if someone is injured (other than very, very slightly); or if the flow of traffic is impeded; or if you think the other guy is drunk. Otherwise, no need. If there is another vehicle involved, each party must complete a constat a l'aimable, an agreed version of what happened, on the spot, at the time. Vehicles must not be moved until this has been done.

If you cannot agree, you will need a written statement from a 'huissier', a sort of bailiff or professional witness. Bystanders should be able to tell you where to find one, though their services do not come cheap: reckon on at least 100 Euros unless he's feeling helpful and the accident was right in front of his office. But if an accident is this complex, the police may come (if called) anyway.

The emergency numbers are:

From a mobile 'phone 112 will summon any of the three. A single call to the sapeurs-pompiers will often get an ambulance too.

For breakdowns, use your own club or insurance except on the motorways, where you are obliged to use the orange emergency phones and pay the government-regulated fixed fee. In late 2003 this was 68.60 euros, call it US $75 or about GBP 50, and it covered up to 30 minutes on-the-spot repair work and/or towing to the nearest exit. If you are insured, your insurance company will pay this. I know: I've tried it. With a Land Rover, not a motorcycle. There's a 25 per cent surcharge at night.

FOOD

Food is one of the great glories of France, and it is frighteningly easy both to spend and to eat more than you intend.

Look for 'menus'. A 'menu' is a fixed-price meal with limited choice (sometimes, no choice at all) and it generally represents superb value, especially at lunch time. The cheapest lunchtime 'menu' (or 'repas' -- 'meal') in a village restaurant is typically 9.50 to 11 euros and at its best will include 5 courses (salad, fish, entree, cheese, dessert) and unlimited wine -- the latter a European wine-lake special, it's true, but normally still drinkable, especially at the price. More often, you'll only get three or four courses (starter, main course, cheese and/or dessert) and you may get no wine at all or only 1/4 litre per person.

These 'repas' are normally served at lunchtime only, about 1200 to 1400 (you may be lucky later), on work-days, which may or may not include Saturdays. On Sundays and 'jours feries' (holidays, fairs and festivals) they are usually not served.

For an example of a first-class 'repas' the Cafe de la Poste in Bossay-sur-Claise (Indre et Loire) is unbeatable. There's no choice at all -- you eat what they bring -- but a typical meal might be a salad with a little 'charcuterie' (ham, sausage, etc.), some poached salmon with a white sauce (on one memorable occasion, huge amounts of mussels), roast pork and 'haricots verts' (green beans), cheese (a platter of half a dozen or more varieties is left on the table; it is considered good manners to restrict yourself to modest amounts of perhaps three kinds) and an apple puree. All with unlimited wine and ice-water; the wine is replenished automatically but you may have to ask for more water.

The water, incidentally, is perfectly safe through pretty much the whole of France though the French themselves warn you about the water quality in parts of the far South -- as they do in New Orleans in the United States.

In the evening, or on weekends and 'jours feries', the cheapest menu is likely to be anything from 13 to 18 Euros. On any day, too, there will be other menus that are a lot more expensive -- 30 Euros and more per head, with wine extra. They still tend to be excellent value. The cheapest wine is normally 'en pichet' (by the jug, with jugs of 1/4, 1/2 and 1 litre) or there should be a house wine at a fairly modest price.

Wine prices in restaurants do however vary enormously. At the cheapest, you can pay 4.50 euros a litre for a perfectly drinkable local wine 'en pichet', while at a Moroccan restaurant you can be stuck anything from 9 to 13 euros for an indifferent bottle of Moroccan plonk. This makes the delicious and (usually) plentiful 'tajines' and 'cous cous' unexpectedly expensive unless you are a non-drinker.

Beer and cider are often surprisingly expensive in restaurants, at least to British eyes, comparable in price with wine.

Because a cheap mid-day 'repas' offers such a massive and usually well-balanced meal, it may represent better value than a picnic. Indeed, it is quite easy to spend more per head on a picnic than on a 'repas', especially if you buy a couple of luxuries such as some smoked duck or cooked artichokes. On the other hand, if you can restrict yourself to a bottle of cheap wine (about a euro), a loaf of bread (rather under a euro), a bottle of mineral water (about the same as the bread) and some cheese, two people can eat very well for five or six euros. You also have the advantage of a lighter meal that won't make you so sleepy.

Remember however that the supermarkets are likely to close at around noon, so don't leave it too long to buy the components of your picnic. If you want better food than the supermarkets offer, try a local 'boulanger' for the bread and a 'charcutier' for some meat: 'rillons' (slow-cooked, ultra-tender pork ribs) are a particularly good bet, or look for various 'pates' (especially 'du lapin', rabbit) or 'rillettes' (fatty, pounded, tender pork or goose, oie) to eat with bread.

Do not eat breakfast at a hotel or guest-house unless it is included (and inescapable). It will cost 5 to 7 Euros a head, which is a lot to pay for coffee, a croissant, some bread, butter and jam -- though admittedly, you get a lot of coffee, so it may not be a bad deal if you are a real caffeine head. If you don't drink coffee (I don't) it's a real rip-off.

Breakfast for two people can add 25 to 30 per cent to the price of the room. Far better to stop at a 'boulanger-patissier' and buy a croissant or pain chocolat (or two) at 30 to 75 centimes a piece and then stop at a cafe where they will not blink if you eat your breakfast accompanied by their coffee -- two and a half euros at worst, for a really big one. Or a little later in the day -- elevenish, say -- go to a cafe and buy a 'croque monsieur', ham and cheese on toast (a 'croque madame' adds egg).

DRINK

The French drink far less than they used to, but they are still (as a nation) extremely fond of a dram. Drinking in restaurants has already been covered, so here, we are concerned first with picnics and then with bars and cafes.

Wine is of course the national tipple, and the cheapest drinkable wine in a supermarket (or better still, the German-owned Lidl chain) is under a euro a litre. Two or three euros should see something quite tolerable: after that, the sky is the limit. The cheapest decent sparkling wines are likely to be 3.50 Euros or so: maybe a fraction less, maybe up to a euro more. In the last ten or twenty years, the practice of recycling wine-bottles (against a deposit) has all but died out.

Cheap spirits start at around 9 euros a bottle, maybe a little less. If you've never tried it, Calvados (apple brandy from Normandy) is a tremendous restorative: reckon on 10 to 12 euros for a young one. An old ('vieux') Calva (it's often abbreviated) can cost a fortune. If someone doesn't understand when you ask for a Calva or Calvados, try repeating it with extra emphasis on the last syllable: Calva-dose.

Beer in supermarkets (or again, Lidl) ranges from very cheap generic 'biere blonde' of about 4.6 to 4.9 per cent alcohol to very expensive specialist beers, especially from Belgium. A case of 24 tiny (250ml) bottles of 'biere blonde', a total of 6 litres, is likely to be under 6 Euros and may well be under 5.

Many foreigners are afraid of bars and cafes, having been regaled with horror stories about five pounds, or ten dollars, for a coffee on a sidewalk cafe. While we won't deny that this can happen, in the worst kind of tourist trap in the heart of Paris, things aren't like that generally. If you are worried, hunt around until you see the 'tarif de consommations' which is normally posted with a full list of what is available, and the prices.

Traditionally, there are up to three prices. The cheapest is at the counter or 'zinc' (pronounced 'zank'); there is an intermediate price in the bar/cafe itself ('salle'); and there may be a surcharge on top of that for a table outside on the sidewalk (trottoir). This really isn't so different from the English Saloon Bar/Public Bar divide, where the beer is a penny or two more expensive in the Saloon, where they have carpets on the floor. The price difference may however be surprisingly large in France: 1.80 euros for a beer at the zinc, 2.50 euros on the pavement.

Increasingly, though, the tendency is to one price, with perhaps a discount for regulars at the zinc. Traditionally, too, you pay for the lot when you leave, though a few places have adopted the English custom of paying when the drink is bought to the table.

Typically, a small coffee will be a euro, and a big one, a euro and a half or two euros, rarely two and a half. A glass of wine will range from 50 centimes (rare, nowadays) to a couple of Euros; a pastis (aniseed aperitif, like Pernod), a euro or two; a beer (typically 250ml or 330 ml, 8 or 12 oz), a euro and a half to two and a half euros; a kir, about the same as a beer. Kir is white wine mixed with 'creme de cassis' (blackcurrant) or other alcoholic cordial such as peach (peche) or blackberry (mure).

The French recognize two blood alcohol limits: 50 mg/l, which is less serious and attracts a fine, and 80 mg/l, which normally attracts a ban. Technically, being on a public highway at all when drunk -- even walking -- is an offence, but the standards of drunkenness for pedestrians are rather higher than for motorists. It's also an offence to keep pouring booze into a minor until they're drunk, but as long as they're not drunk, it doesn't matter.

As already noted, most cafes are perfectly happy for you to buy a 'croissant' or a 'pain au chocolat' at a nearby 'patisserie' to eat (at the cafe's table) with some coffee. Actually, I like a kir, as described above. The French see nothing wrong with drinking in the morning, and you'll see old boys coming in for a 'heart starter' of calvados while you're having breakfast. A few cafes even provide croissants and pains au chocolat at prices little higher than the patisserie's, though this is rare.

ACCOMMODATION

There is an enormous variety of accommodation available in France, at an enormous range of prices. Wherever possible we stay in an hotel-restaurant, where we can eat and then just roll up to bed. We almost never stay in chains, partly because there aren't many anyway (but look out for Ibis, Campanile and even Best Western) but mainly because the chains are rarely as good value as independent hotels.

The main thing to watch out for is if you want a private WC. The French have an extraordinary talent for equipping rooms with showers, bathtubs or bidets, but still having the WC down the corridor. Do not assume that if it says 'Douche/Bain' (shower/bath) then it automatically includes the WC as well.

Most (though not all) hotels post the room rates outside, with a description of what the facilities are: 'Bain/WC', 'Douche/WC' etc. A few actually list the rooms by number, with individual prices and lists of facilities. More than in most countries, it is worth asking to see the room before you take it: we always do. Or almost always, except in automated hotels, as described later.

The biggest bargains are out in the country, or in the small towns and villages, where a really good room in a three-star hotel, with private WC and shower or (if you are lucky) bathtub, can quite often be found for 35 Euros, and rarely exceeds 50. The cheapest one-star hotels can still (occasionally, if you are lucky) cost under 20 Euros and are quite often under 30. You won't get a private bathroom, and the room itself may be dark and old-fashioned, but it will be clean and serviceable. Move up to two stars and you may or may not get a private bathroom; the price range is likely to be 25 to 45 Euros.

In the bigger cities, prices are normally (though not invariably) higher -- but even in central Paris, you can find a perfectly comfortable room with en-suite facilities for 70 or 80 Euros. Of course, if you are prepared to spend more money, it's easy: France contains some of the most expensive hotels in the world.

'Auberges et Logis de France' is a really useful book, available from the French National Tourist Office, that lists one and two-star hotels, and some no-star hotels, all over France. Inclusion in the book normally means that they cost a bit more than other, non-listed hotels, but they still aren't expensive. This is an association, rather than a chain. Most (possibly all) are hotel-restaurants. Automated hotels are extraordinary things, where a credit-card slot takes the place of a front desk. You put in your card and are given a room code. Punch this in to the door, and you gain access to the room. You may also need this before you can get into the parking lot, so you have to leave the bike outside until you have checked in.

The rooms are extremely basic, though quite well designed and normally very clean. They always have a shower and WC (baths are rare). There is normally a double bed, with a single bunk-bed mounted crosswise above the head. At the bottom end, the bathroom may be a plastic drop-in module, with the shower stall, hand-basin and WC pedestal moulded in; in the more expensive ones, there are conventional fittings.

There are several chains of these hotels in France, such as Formule 1, Village Hotels and more. Often, they are visible from the motorways, or are well signposted from other roads, and the prices are typically posted outside in very large letters, along with the reminder that this is the price for 1, 2 or 3 people. Bizarrely, there is a whole village of them on the outskirts of Paris, near Evry. This may be a good place to stay on your way into or out of Paris.

Prices range from little over 20 Euros for the cheapest chains in the cheapest locations to around 60 Euros for the most expensive chains in the most expensive locations, but generally, you can reckon on 30 Euros or less. Remember that this is for one, two or three people.

The biggest drawback to automated hotels is that they are often in industrial areas some way from the nearest restaurant -- beyond walking distance. If you want more than one or two glasses of wine with your meal, never mind a 'digestif' (a glass of spirits to help you digest your meal) or 'pousse-cafe' (literally, a drink to 'push the coffee') afterwards, this can be a nuisance.

A 'gite' (pronounced 'zheet') is self-catering accommodation that is normally taken for a more or less extended period: anything from a long week-end to several weeks. For a group of people that wants a base for exploring a given area, they can be very cost-effective.

Some gites are let only as a unit -- one or more bedrooms, plus cooking facilities and bathroom -- while others are let by the room, so if (for example) there are three rooms and you rent one of them, you may end up sharing kitchen and bathroom facilities with other people if they rent another room or rooms.

Lists of gites are available from regional tourist offices and from the French National Tourist Office. Others are available from ferry companies and from private individuals: the British are particularly fond of offering their holiday homes as gites.

Prices vary widely across the year. Except during August (and to a lesser extent July) there is a wild oversupply, and prices can sometimes be negotiated very low. During August they are generally jammed solid, at ultra-premium prices, by the French themselves. Chambres d'hote are equivalent to a British bed and breakfast, though breakfast may or may not be included. They are rooms in private houses, often farms, and they may or may not have private bathrooms. Food -- table d'hote -- is normally by arrangement.

At their best, they are apparently superb: excellent value and (if you want it) excellent food. At their worst, they can be pretty bleak. We have to admit that we never use them, preferring small hotels.

For a list of youth hostels, contact the Federation Unie des Auberge de Jeunesse, www.fuaj.org. We have never used them but we understand that they are pretty good. Prices certainly start low enough, at 7.35 euros (a fiver, eight bucks) for a bed in a dormitory room at the cheapest places, but that doesn't include breakfast (3 euros) or sheet hire (2.75 euros). These are included at some sites, though. Top whack is 12.70 euros, call it US $14 or GBP 9. Camp-sites are very numerous in France, and are officially graded from one to four stars, with corresponding variations in facilities. Many are municipally owned, and inexpensive. 'Wild' camping is legal, provided you have the land-owner's permission. On public land, get well out of sight or the police may roust you.

LANGUAGE

The French have a big chip on their shoulder about their language -- and not unreasonably. Until maybe 100 years ago, it was a more common second language among cultured and literate people than English; it was very much the language of diplomacy. It has been losing ground ever since.

In practice, the French speak far more English than they let on. They pretend not to speak it partly for reasons of national pride, but also for the same reason that the English are unwilling to use their schoolboy French: they don't want to make fools of themselves. If you are willing to make the fool of yourself first, by speaking French, they will very often be willing to try their English on you too.

ROAD SIGNS

Blue signs refer to motorways; green signs to main roads; white signs to most other roads; and yellow signs to temporary deviations.

Beware of any French sign that says somewhere is 'two minutes' away. Even at 100 mph you would have difficulty in doing this. Allow 50 to 100 per cent longer than they say, at least.

CAPSULE VOCABULARY

DISCLAIMER

This information has been verified as far as possible but should not be taken as definitive. You alone are responsible for your safety on a motorcycle (or elsewhere) and should always ride and behave accordingly. Click here for the Official Health Warning.

last updated: 10/11/03

© 2003 Roger W. Hicks