1. Pace yourself
Today, the 17th of our 32-day adventure, Kathy and I sat by the pool of our lovely mountain chalet, Les Skieurs in the Chartreuse Mountains above Grenoble, and read. Then we took an hour walk, stopped at an outdoor cafe for a glass of wine, had a light dinner on the deck downstairs and called it a day. It was rejuvenating after a week of too much driving and too fast a pace: two nights in the village of Sarlat in the Dordorgne, two nights in the city Montpellier and two in Ansouis in Provence's Luberon Mountains.
As a rule, we find it's best to stay three nights at each stop -- the first day to arrive and get our bearings, the second to unwind and take in a sight or two, the third to poke around and map out our next day's travels. Two-night stays can work, but it's best not to bunch them as we did this week.
A series of one night stays means too much tension, too much driving and too little time to explore. As a rule, see less and stay a little longer at each stop.
2. Use maps, not a GPS
A GPS can get you from here to there, but it doesn't tell you what you're missing along the way. Michelin maps are the best and, of these, the yellow maps give the most detail.
3. Be open to diversions
The best moments on any vacation invariably are those that are unplanned. We spent more than an hour at Rocamadour Fermier, a lovely goat farm in the Lot countryside we didn't know existed. Had we been hellbent on getting to the hillside town of Rocamadour, just a few miles further down the road, we'd have missed it. And despite its dramatic cliffs and photo ops, Rocamadour was a bit disappointing because of its crowds of tourists. The only crowd on the farm was the goats and geese.
4. Try your hand at the language
The French may correct you or answer your most carefully crafted French question in English. But trying to speak their language opens doors, especially outside of Paris. Here at Les Skieurs, after we had a brief chat in French with Madame Jail, the owner, she offered suggestions on where we might eat and stay in Chamonix, two stops down the road on our trip. (She also promised that next time we visit, we'll rate a room with a balcony.) At Un Patio en Luberon, our B&B in Ansouis, conversation came out in a melange of English, French, German and Italian as guests from four countries found a way to share stories as well as a three-hour meal. On this trip, my 10th or 11th to France, we're finding many more intermingled French and English conversations than ever before, perhaps because English increasingly is the international language, but the French remain enormously proud of their own. We keep speaking French, even when the answer comes back in English and even though we're far from fluent.
5. Don't overeat
This is easier said than done in this country of gastronomy. But eating full meals at lunch and dinner is tantamount to divine death (I'll spare you the digestive details). Often we skip hotel breakfasts, saving money at a local bakery by grabbing a croissant and an espresso (these cost half of an American coffee with milk). Or on getaway days we'll pay the $10 or $12 each for a hotel breakfast while Kathy saves enough rolls to carry us through lunch. We eat one big meal a day, either dinner or lunch, depending on where our travels are taking us. Which leads me to No. 6.
6. Walk every day
It's not just a guilt thing for eating so much rich food. On days that we take a substantial walk, we feel better. On days when we go from a long car ride to a big dinner, as we did our first night at Skieurs, we feel like blobs. After three types of cheese and three desserts -- part of the evening meal that followed a foie gras entree and duck in orange sauce, we kept walking in circles around the hotel -- to the amusement of one of the waiters who had stepped out for a cigarette.
7. Don't walk and read
OK. So you think you're smart enough to read maps or guide books and make your way down the street? Think again. I've had to spare Kathy more than once from taking a header because she inhales all reading material. This is not wise while walking in towns and cities with cobblestone streets, steep hills, dogs that pretty much crap as they please and all kinds of other obstacles. If you want to read about something, stand still.
8. Stay in smaller towns and smaller places
Many French hotels and bed and breakfasts that carry a two-star rating are superb. The rooms are small but clean and the beds good. These are the places where you will meet French travelers instead of hordes of Americans. And with the dollar relatively strong versus the euro right now, these smaller hotels and B&Bs often cost less than $100 a night, breakfast included. By staying largely in places off the big tourist routes -- towns such as Ansouis in the Luberon and Le-Sappey-en-Chartreuse in the Chartreuse Mountains, we've yet to run into another American tourist at a place we've stayed. No offense to my countrymen, but I like foreign travel better that way.
9. Carry eight days of clothing
Most vacations last one to three weeks. By bringing an extra day of clothing, you'll save one round of pouring coins into the machines of hot, crowded and expensive French laundromats.
10. Be prepared for something to go wrong
It always does. As the French might say, "La vie n'est pas parfait." And they would be right. Life is never perfect. Neither is travel.