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Jennifer Ditchburn visited the southwest of France with her husband and children in June 2016 and she comes on the show today to share some of the highlights of their experience. Jennifer is the Editor in Chief of a magazine called Policy Options in Canada, she speaks beautiful French and has visited France on several occasions. But, this is her first time in France with her children, so they selected child-friendly activities. Because we recorded this episode the day the results of the Brexit were announced and because Jennifer is a political junkie, we discuss this news event at the beginning of the show as well.
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Recommended in this Episode
Hotels Recommended in this Episode
People often ask me to recommend a hotel in Toulouse, and it's hard for me to answer because in Toulouse I sleep in my own bed! I recommended the Novotel Compans Caffarelli to Jennifer and her family because it's close to everything at a reasonable price and has a good reputation. Jennifer and family liked it very much. I would also recommend you look at the Mercure Compans Caffarelli because that's where Airbus sends a lot of business visitors and they all seem happy with it.
Differences between Canadian French and France French
[Starts at 5'20"] In France you say "pardon" if you want to get past someone, en Canada you say "excusez-moi". In Quebec, the "vous" form is not used very much, whereas in France it is still prevalent (not as much as it was 50 years ago and losing steam with young people).
[Starts at 7'10"] This was a shocking decision because it's unusual for people to challenge the status quo, even after a very emotional referendum. Many French politicians are saying that the EU marriage with the UK was always a bad marriage, that they were never all in. We also have far right politicians in France who are renewing calls for a possible exit for France as well.
We note also that many Europeans do not take elections for the European Parliament very seriously and they use the opportunity to make a protest vote. For example, France sends many far-right candidates to the EU Parliament (the party of Marine Le Pen). These representatives of the French people at the European Parliament don't even want to be in the EU and do whatever they can to sabotage the effort. So until people take European elections seriously, it can't work.
Southwest of France
[18:38] You can have all sorts of factual information about a place and still don't know if you're going to like it there. Will it be welcoming? Will your children be excited to be there? Will it be comfortable? That's why listening to this podcast is valuable for many people: it lets you get a feel what it's like to go there from real people and not public relations campaigns.
Montpellier, Plage de l'Espiguette, and Aigues-Morte
The weather was great in Montpellier, the city had a beach feeling to it. The old part of Montpellier also reminded Jennifer of Barcelona. One day they went to the Plage de l'Espiguette and Aigues-Morte on the same day. The beach was really nice, not crowded at all, not nudist, and there is a free shuttle between the parking lot and the beach. The water was cold, but going in June has lots of advantages. Later they went to Aigues-Morte for a lovely half-day visit. Note that we did an entire episode on Montpellier as well. Jennifer's husband made a very astute observation which I didn't get on tape: he said the newer parts of Montpellier (pictured below) seemed fake to him, a sort of French Las Vegas. I have to say even though I enjoyed Montpellier a lot, he has a point!
Sète and the Plage de la Corniche
Sète was busier than Jennifer thought it would be. Jennifer didn't try the Tielle but a rouille de sèches which she liked, but wasn't crazy about. It's a nice place to stop for a few hours.
The Arriège, Foix, and the Grotte de Niaux
Jennifer and her family fell in love from the Arriège. They stayed in Foix.
On the way between Sète and Carcassonne, they stopped by the walled city of Carcassonne, but decided to only look at it from the outside because it was extremely hot and they didn't have a good feeling about this. When traveling, especially with children, it is really important to follow your gut instinct and only do something if you feel like it. There are no mandates!
The drive to Foix via Mirepoix is lovely and scenic via small roads. In Foix, Jennifer stayed at a B&B called Surya Pyrénées which they really enjoyed. The view was gorgeous, they have a pool, a trampoline. They stayed for 3 nights and were sad to leave.
They went to the Grotte de Niaux which the children loved because the visit feels like an adventure. You don't have to be in great shape to visit this cave, but you have to have good balance and not be afraid of the dark. Not recommended for children under 6. Must reserve in advance!
The Arriège Is One of the Least Touristy Areas in France
Arriège has a lot of activities that are NOT documented in any guide books probably because it is one of the least "touristy" areas of France. We know it for cycling since the Tour de France goes through there almost every year, but not much else. In reality, there is so much to do there!
The B&B host had recommended an easy hike to a waterfall called L'Artigue, but they didn't find it. This site (in French but with lots of pictures) gives detailed instructions on how to get to L'Artigue if you'd like to try it. The site also suggests other hikes in the same area.
Port de Lers
Instead of going to L'Artigue, they ended up going to Port de Lers near Col d'Agnés and Étang de Lers. The nearest village is Aulus-les-Bains (Jennifer says near Ax-les-Termes, but I think she didn't remember it correctly as it is almost an hour and a half away from Lers). The view is gorgeous around there, even from the car!
In Arriège Bring Your Food for the Day
In areas like the Arriège you have to think like French people and bring what you need in food and drink for the day. There are restaurants in the Arriège, but only in the bigger cities like Foix. As you go out and explore, the most you will find are food trucks on the side of the road that have limited hours. Jennifer mentions there was one at L'Étang de Lers. So be French and bring your picnic! Buy sandwich supplies at the grocery store near your hotel or B&B even if it feels like it's too early to worry about that. There is a good size grocery store at the entrance of Tarascon-sur-Arriège, but it closes for two hours at lunch.
You have to understand that there are a lot of villages in the Arriège, but most have around 100 inhabitants, if that. Some have a bar or a bakery or a tiny grocery store, but most have no businesses whatsoever. Locals sometimes drive 30 minutes or more to the nearest good size grocery store. So, save yourself some hunger pains and buy your picnic before you set out for the day!
Château de Roquefixade
The Arriège has a lot of old Cathar Castles in various states of ruin. The most famous of them is Montségur where you have to pay a few euros to get in and there are opening and closing hours. In the same area you also have the Château de Roquefixade, which is also on top of a steep outcropping, but this one is free. The castle is near a very small village (also called Roquefixade) and not well-marked, so it was a bit of an adventure getting there. In the village there was a sign saying "attention voie vertigineuse" which means this is a steep road, you may get vertigo. To make matters worse, there were big rocks on the dirt road and a very steep drop on the side. They found a place to turn the car around and park, then hiked 25 minutes up the hill. When they got to the top it was closed off because the castle is not structurally sound. This wasn't a problem because the view was so beautiful, they had a great time anyway. They could have gone in regardless because all there was stopping them was a chain, but Jennifer didn't feel comfortable taking her kids into an unsafe area. I probably wouldn't have either.
WARNING: French people will sometimes send you on wild goose chases just because they are cheap and don't want to pay an entrance fee. Also, French people are also used to going in to undeveloped historical sites. Steep drops and unsound walls don't faze them, but if you're used to the way the National Park Service runs sites you will be shocked as a North American!
Château de Roquefixade photo Patrick Subotkiewiez
The Mirepoix historical center is small and beautiful. It will probably take no more than one hour to see. The people are really friendly. Episode 81 was all about Mirepoix, the history and highlights of what you can see there.
Toulouse or Montpellier?
Jennifer and her family enjoyed Toulouse more than Montpellier. Her husband told me (off tape) that the new part of Montpellier reminded him of Las Vegas because it seemed fake. I think he makes a great point! It does seem fake to a lot of people.
Jennifer thinks that Toulouse is a great place for shopping. But when you're traveling children, shopping, museums and beautiful buildings are not enough. They also need fun activities: a hike, a park, an exciting cave.
Paris with Children
Without going into details about Paris, Jennifer mentions that she and her family visited a few things in Paris and what worked well with her daughters. They stayed in an area called le haut Marais, on rue de Bretagne which she finds ideals because it is not as touristy yet extremely well situated.
- Musée des Arts Forains
- The Luxembourg Gardens
- The Eiffel Tower
- Canal Saint Martin is where young people go to enjoy their beers at night, but the Canal itself is not clean
How to Order Coffee in France
Café au lait has a lot of milk in it and costs a lot more. Noisette comes with a tiny dollop of milk and costs the same as a regular coffee. Café crême has a tiny bit of frothed milk in it. Noisette is a tiny bit of un-frothed milk.
How to Dress in Paris
You cannot go wrong with simple monochromatic clothes. Nice sneakers or black shoes, nice jeans with a solid color shirt. No sandals (unless it's a beach town), no loud patterns, no floral patterns (unless it's a wedding), women don't wear a lot of makeup. In Toulouse it's a lot more relaxed, you will find more shorts and summer dresses.
French Tip of the Week
When I started college in the US I was surprised to hear common French expressions being used in high registers of speech, often in written form. One such expression "faute de mieux" [for want of a better alternative] was used recently by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a Supreme Court opinion. In France you will hear "faute de mieux" in all sorts of circumstances, we're not all lawyers! You will also hear the expression "faute de grive on mange des merles" [if you can't eat thrush (a type of bird) eat a robin (a less tasty type of bird"] in other words [make do with what you have]. We don't eat thrush or robin in France these days, but the expression have remained: faute de grive on mange des merles, which is a little bit longer version on the expression "faute de mieux".
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Discussed in this Episode
- Canadian French
- Château de Roquefixade
- Grotte de Niaux
- How to dress in Paris
- How to order coffee in France
- Musee des Arts Forains Bercy
- Paris with children
- Plage de l'Espiguette
- Plage de la Corniche
- Plage de l'Espiguette