Groupon ‘deal’ of the month!


Hello! It’s been a while since you’ve heard from me for a mishmash of reasons which I won’t bore you with. Instead, let’s head right into the action. I discovered that Groupon is in France. I don’t know how long Groupon has been here, but I signed up right away and the daily inbox clutter began. For more than a month, the following offer kept appearing:

Glamping in France - French camp sites and accommodationSo, for the bargain price of 119€, I can hang out in a giant plastic tent that looks like it offers very little privacy with its see-through structure, and probably heats up like an ant under a magnifying glass (especially after this summer’s heatwave in France).

With all that sun streaming through, guests must be up with the sparrows. As the dome heats up, throwing off the bed linen and sprawling naked on the hot bed probably isn’t the best option — just in case someone happens to wander on past.

At night, is there a door to close or can any old animal wander in and gnaw at your feet? Is there a chance waking up with a goat on the bed? As an Australian, I have to wonder about spiders and snakes. And don’t even get me started on mosquito bites in a country that doesn’t embrace fly screens.

And what if it rains? Does water seep in underneath? Is the sound of the rain so loud that earplugs are required? Are umbrellas and boots supplied to help guests get to the shower (wherever it is) before taking a nature shower in the rain? As well as an umbrella and boots, is a torch supplied to get to the toilet during the night? I’m guessing that there are no lamps to light the way because they’d light up the dome at night too. Or maybe eye masks and earplugs are part of the deal — like sleeping on a long-haul flight.

All in all, this ‘holiday’ is my nightmare. You’d have to pay me that 119€ to spend a night in there!

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A straightforward French government website!


French logo on French websitesIf you’ve ever tried to look up information such as how to get married in France, buy a car in France or register for work in France, you’re probably familiar with the pointlessness of many French websites.

For starters, you’ll probably need a good grasp on French, with very few sites offering alternative language options. You’ll also need to have a high level of patience to navigate the sites which are typically over complicated and confusing. For example, one of the associations I have to be member of in order to pay my taxes wrote a letter telling me to go to their website and click on the link that says “My payments” (in French). The site had no link. After scouring the options for a good ten minutes, I found the link — with a totally different name — that took me to my previous payments. Well, it would have, except the site had no record of any of my payments, making the entire thing a waste of time.

This is typical in France. Don’t expect to find any equivalent to those British ‘Plain English Campaign’-inspired government websites. No. Expect opening hours that aren’t updated regularly and confusing, ambiguous text for even native French speakers.

With this in mind, I was amused when my friend Chris got in touch to say:

With the exception of the [French] website below, I’ve yet to find one that is intuitive. Even French friends struggle with French websites. They are pig to work with, especially government websites, even when they are in English, like the Australian French consulate website, which refers to other pages when you want more information and eventually lead back to the page you started on. Our friend recently tried just to find the opening hours of the Grenoble Prefecture and continually went around in circles.

Anyway, this French government website is in six languages and exceptionally easy to navigate. What is it you ask? The website for paying speeding fines online!!!

(Chris, I hope you don’t mind me quoting so much of your email. I couldn’t have said it better myself!)

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Free entertainment galore in France


La Clusaz magic festival entertainment July 2015Summer is in full swing here in France, and even in the Alps, the temperatures are unusually warm. Everyone has been enjoying the warm weather — whole businesses, in fact.

Last week, I tried calling a doctor, an accountant and a dentist, and all three were on holiday (the doc has a replacement). It’s my fault: I hadn’t noticed that school holidays had started, which is also when France all but closes down. Even in touristy areas such as Annecy and Thônes, where the three businesses I called are located, many businesses close their doors and take holidays. The trend is so popular that there’s even a name for the big return at the end of the school holidays — ‘la rentrée‘ (the return).

Although it’s frustrating for me with my sensitive tooth (and probably for the replacement doctor stuck at work), there’s one big benefit: free entertainment! There’s something free going on most days either in La Clusaz or Annecy or somewhere nearby. I’ve never lived anywhere else that provides so many freebies! Since the start of June, I’ve seen:

  • Suzanne Vega and other famous acts for free in Cluses;
  • a colour festival in Annecy;
  • fireworks in St Jean de Sixt, La Clusaz and Thônes;
    • The Minions 2 open air cinema outdoors during the Annecy Animation Festival;
  • wandering entertainment in La Clusaz (pictured);
  • live music in St Jean de Sixt;
  • wandering brass band in Thônes;
  • drumming and acrobatics in St Jean de Sixt; and
  • an hour-long show involving a crane and a giant man-made squid (see video, below).

There’s so much free entertainment here that I’ve stopped seeking it out. When I move back to Australia one day, I’m sure I’ll miss these freebies, but at least I’ll be able to visit my dentist during summer.

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Can I sleep at your place?


Antoine de Maximy in North AmericaAntoine de Maximy is a name you’ve probably never heard of. He’s a French man who has travelled the world in an interesting and brave way. With cameras all around him recording his journeys, he asks random people if he can sleep at their place. It sounds mundane but it’s some of the most interesting television I’ve ever watched. He builds connections with the most unlikely of people. Through Antoine’s camera lens, the rest of us get to experience the everyday highs and lows of people from all warps of life.

His full-length film about crossing the US in 2008 aired on French TV this week. I was hooked throughout. The unexpected generosity of strangers and the moments of sadness and reflection were remarkable, and Antoine’s choice of questions sometimes lead to the oddest of situations. “Does you wife wear stockings?” he asked a stranger in his French accent. The stranger nodded and agreed to get him a pair! He hadn’t yet explained that he needed them because his car’s fan belt had broken.

Hearing him struggle to understand ‘Trick or treat’ reminded me of so many similar French language moments for me — that awkward moment when you’ve already asked the speaker to repeat a phrase too many times, but you still don’t understand what’s going on. Seeing him apply his French “why not?”, chilled attitude (like driving right up to George Clooney’s front door just because the gate was open) reminded me of one of the aspects of French culture that I love.

Best of all, it’s on YouTube! If you have time to watch, please do (email subscribers will need to click through to to view):

Antoine has visited many countries, so if you’re wondering how he’d get on in your own country, click around on YouTube and you’ll probably find he’s already been there.

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Bastille Day celebrations or lynch mob?


Driving home from Annecy on Saturday night, I stumbled across a fete in Thônes. It was an early Bastille Day celebration and I was lucky enough to get there at just the right time for the march through town. The brass band started playing and the only lighting was via sticks on fire. I took a video (email subscribers will need to click through to to see the video).

French firemen during 14 July celebrationsWhat you don’t see very clearly on the video is the first lot of marchers without instruments. They’re sapeurs – the firemen who carry axes and wear big, thick, white gloves and everything-proof vinyl aprons. They kind of look like butchers before the blood has stained their uniform. The addition of the axes adds a different dimension altogether. I was unable to capture any decent photos on my phone camera after dark, so I found this photo (with thanks to someone called kaiserdog, who took the photo). These are some of the local Thônes sapeurs.

Maybe you had to be there, but following the parade through town, with men with axes and blood-proof aprons marching to sombre music and others carrying flames, made me feel like I was part of a lynch mob. It just felt weird. A big crowd followed the marching band around town and we ended up almost back where we started before some impressive fireworks took over from band and relieved me of the awkward lynch mob feelings.

The party continued for hours after, and everyone in Thônes was happy to celebrate Bastille Day a few days early. I did it all again last night, with fireworks and a band playing in Saint Jean de Sixt. The big celebrations will hit Annecy tonight, and locals from St Jean and Thônes will no doubt attend. Why celebrate a national day once when you can celebrate it three times?

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French word of the month: canicule


Anyone living in France at the moment will have heard the word ‘canicule‘ numerous times. Everyone is talking about the canicule – the heatwave that hit Europe last week. French TV stations are playing community service announcements about how to survive, and shutters on houses are closed to try to keep the heat out.

To Australians, the high thirties is typical summer weather. We’re used to heatwaves and I remember being bemused when a news item came on the TV in Melbourne during the nineties about the London Zoo sprinkling the animals with water because the weather had reached a balmy 30°C.

Heatwave temperatures in France 2015What I didn’t realise back then is just how different 30°C in Europe is to 30°C in Melbourne. Here in the Alps, like most of France, houses have been built to keep heat in. Once they warm up, they stay warm. On top of that, fewer homes and shops have air conditioning. During a quick visit to a clothes shop on the weekend, I overheard people saying it was too hot to try anything on. The shop had no air conditioning and lots of spotlights, creating even more heat. The staff were sweating and so were the few brave customers.

Australians can escape the heat in pools or by the seaside. Our largest cities are coastal for a reason! Some even have sea breezes late in the day. Local pools are numerous and massive in size compared with the what’s available in France. Although Lake Annecy is just down the road from here, many French citizens have to travel some distance to find a pool, a beach or a lake to cool down in. Sea breezes are limited to those lucky enough to live near a coast. Here in the mountains, there’s been no escape from the heat: overnight temperatures have finally dropped below 20° after some very warm nights last week (and remember, the houses here are built to stay warm during freezing temperatures – even warmer during hot days and nights).

With fewer places for people to cool down, all this fuss about the heatwave really isn’t that surprising. What is surprising is seeing people walking around in jeans and boots! Maybe they’re acclimatising their bodies to the heightened indoor temperatures awaiting them at home.

Heatwave brochure in France 2015

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How sport is done in the French Alps


There’s no shortage of sporting challenges in the French Alps. There’s the standard snow-related sports in winter, and cycling and running in summer, but some other sports that aren’t quite so obvious. Let’s start with Le Grand Bornand, where families can enjoy air rifles!

Air guns in Le Grand Bornand

The description in English starts off well enough:

Discover biathlon, shooting on 10 metres away target with air rifles.

Then it gets weird.

Funny activity for family. It allows you to improve your concentration and your way to handle stress.

Right, so it’s a funny activity and a great way to handle stress. I’m not convinced handing a gun to a stressed person is the best way for them to handle stress. It might be a stress release, but handling the cause of the stress might be better than handling a gun (especially if the cause of the stress is standing nearby).

Differents (sic) options possible: 1 hour shooting initiation…family pack…team building challenges.

Team building? Wow! Let’s hope there’s no-one in that team who holds a grudge and is looking for stress relief, eh?

Meanwhile, Morzine is hosting some sort of the Alpine version of beach volleyball. It’s strip beach volleyball! Here’s what they say about it:

Every time a point is lost, participants have to take off a piece of fancy-dress or wacky clothing provided by the organisers.

Family-friendly strip volley ball in MorzineWacky indeed. Best of all, this activity has Famille Plus status. This is a French tourism accreditation for entertainment for families with children. Yes, bring your kids so they can watch grown-ups strip!

Back to serious sports. Le Bélier is a proper endurance race. It involves running up and down a number of peaks in La Clusaz, with some parts of the trial barely wide enough for faster runners to pass  slower ones. The locals take it seriously. Well, most of them do. Local cross-country World Cup champion, Vincent Vittoz, who has also won Le Bélier before, is probably so fit that he doesn’t need to take it seriously. So, he dressed up as a local Reblochon cheese this year to promote a different competitive angle, as seen in this YouTube video:

Basically, people from the Reblochon cheese-producing region in the Alps (from these parts) are going to run against other cheese-producing regions during Le Bélier. In the video, Vincent is the local cheese and the hero. Cheesy (pun intended) and not of the highest production standards, the video shows both the competitive side of the locals here, as well as the humour, which is always somehow related to local produce or specialties. For example, Candide Thovex (fake-)jumped a cow (and another cow took her revenge). Even the cows have a sense of humour here. You kind of have to when you’re dodging air rifle bullets, burning your eyes on beach volleyball strippers, and being chased by men dressed as cheese.

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“I’m just popping over to Italy”


Lake Maggiore islands. Copyright Le Franco Phoney
When I was growing up in Australia, I was impressed whenever someone said they were “going overseas”. Indeed, the only way to leave the country is to fly over seas (and usually oceans too). Other countries are a long way away.

Years after moving to France, it’s still a novelty to me to be able to switch countries without getting on a plane. And I’m not the only one. When family visited from Australia last month, they were keen to visit Lake Como in Italy. We left the morning after they finished a quick European cruise. One of them remarked how in 24 hours, they had been in the Netherlands, Switzerland, France and now Italy. Four countries in such a short time, and three of them by car! We were all impressed.

Despite bordering France, Italy retains its own strong identity, and we embraced the plentiful food, the friendly hospitality and the laid-back lifestyle. Before reaching Lake Como, we stayed around Lake Maggiore and Lake Lugano. I found myself comparing them to Lake Annecy, where people were already swimming and enjoying a variety of sports on the water. Yet on these three lakes, there were nothing but boats. Maybe the Italians like to wait for the water to warm up, or perhaps I now take Lake Annecy for granted.

Of the three lakes, Lake Maggiore won my heart. We did the touristy thing of visiting the islands on the lake. Arriving four hours after leaving France, we ate lunch before buying our tickets and discovered we’d run out of time to visit all three islands. No problem – the two we visited were small and near each other, giving us a relaxing afternoon of eating gelati, meandering around the shops and enjoying the views from garden benches.

Sant Anna church and surrounds. Copyright Le Franco PhoneyIn the evening, we were lucky enough to reserve a table at the Risorante Grotto Sant Anna, right behind the old church and bridge. Intimate, relaxed, delicious, picturesque and welcoming, this restaurant was the perfect place to spend a warm Italian night, dining al fresco. The church in front of the restaurant overlooks a pretty watering spot where a mountain river expands and slows down on its way to Lake Maggiore, and this is a perfect place for a pre- or post-meal walk.

Moving on to the next two lakes was enjoyable, but Como lacked the natural beauty that we found around Lake Maggiore, like the rock formations under the Ponte dei Salti in Verzasca (at the Swiss end of the lake). Again, we were tourists, detouring past George Clooney’s place (sparking a round of “Is that it?” “Maybe it’s this one.” “Oh, I reckon it’s there with the security cameras.”), then opting to use the ferries to get to the main tourist villages and enjoying lunch with the sounds of the water lapping just a few metres from our table. It wasn’t a bad experience. It just wasn’t Lake Maggiore.

After a quick stop in Milan on our final day, we were home in time for dinner. Lake Annecy still tops all three lakes in my proud residential opinion, but being able to drive between countries is still the best of all.


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Unsafe road safety in France


Roadsigns in France, copyright Le Franco PhoneyJust in case it wasn’t obvious that there’s some roadwork going on, here’s some overkill.

This cluster of road signs is right here in Saint Jean de Sixt. It starts with a roadworks sign, then a ‘circulation alternée‘ (changed traffic circulation) sign, followed by a sign to give way according to the traffic lights ahead, then a no overtaking sign, then a speed limit of 50 (which is the impossible speed limit on this windy back road anyway).

And if all those signs don’t take your concentration away from the road long enough to cause an accident, that A4 piece of paper might.

The traffic lights are typical of French roadwork. Oddly, the green light is never activated. You stop on red and you go when the orange starts flashing. This rightly confuses foreign tourists, who, waiting for a green light, don’t know whether to go or not until impatient locals overtake them. It’s not really a problem because anyone left in the queue when the light turns red again simply drives on regardless. The queue stops again when the next confused tourist pulls up.

The locals have it right: ignore all the road signs to improve road safety!

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The best way to visit Versailles Palace



Summer is coming and that means tourists are already flocking  to the Chateau de Versailles on the outskirts of Paris. Getting there is easy once you’ve boarded the right train, but the place itself is so big that further transport is available once you’ve made it there. Here are my top tips for spending a day at Versailles.

1. Do your research before visiting Versailles

Make sure you check the palace’s ticket website to see a full list of ticket options, as there are plenty of options. There are also maps and information on each of the options. Know what you want to see before you go so you don’t waste time deciding once you get there.

2. Go early

You can book pre-book tickets online but if you aim to get to the palace early, you can beat the queues regardless of whether you’ve pre-booked or not.

3. Prepare for crowds

The palace rooms are extensive, and you could spend hours observing the interiors and listening in on the passing tour guides telling interesting stories to their tour groups. Information boards provide basic information and audio guides are available, so a guided tour isn’t a must (but a nice bonus). Many of the rooms get crowded quickly, so prepare to be pushed by impatient people trying to get through the slow traffic. Don’t stress — it’s part of the Versailles experience.

4. Know your Versailles Palace garden transport options

versailles-statueThe Versailles gardens are vast. Save your energy for the visits and walk in the gardens at the end of the day if you’re not too tired. The mini train is cheap and provides a regular service between all four stops. However, that queue that looks short will take a long time to get through. If you don’t mind paying a bit extra, walk past the train and rent your own electric vehicle instead. You can also hire bikes from the North end of the Grand Canal (along with row boats, which won’t get you far), or do a guided Segway tour, which starts at the South end of the Grand Canal. Some of these options aren’t well advertised within the gardens. If you hire a bike, you will have to leave them at the entrance to the Trianon area and go in on foot.

5. Check lunch options before you go

Eating options are spread out and the prices aren’t always competitive. There are a few restaurants and lots of snack bars which you can see on the interactive map. With some distance between options, it’s worth knowing the location of places before you go, so you don’t spend half the day finding a place everyone is happy with.  A tasty alternative is a picnic, presuming there’s someone in your group who doesn’t mind carrying around a backpack of food. Grab a baguette, some cheese and anything else you like and stop for a coffee later on when your legs have stopped working from all that walking.

6. Don’t miss the last train back

The gardens at the palace are extensive, and the walk back to the train station will be significantly longer if you miss the last mini train back to the palace. Make sure you’re not left stranded by checking out the timetable before you go!

7. Don’t drink the water.

versailles-fishDead fish ahoy!

Do not drink the water from the ponds. I don’t know what’s in there, but the sign confirmed what the dead fish indicated when I visited a few years ago: the water is nasty. Stay away from it.

This was definitely the low point of the visit. It would have been lower had I taken a dip in the water, presumably.

8. Read even more tips

The Chateau de Versailles official website contains an abundance of useful tips right from the horse’s mouth. Spend ten minutes and save time, confusion, stress and money during your visit.

9. Visit Versailles for free!

Like a huge number of museums and monuments all over France, Versailles Palace is open for free on the first Sunday of each month from November to March. Some of those days are likely to be uncrowded too! Check the website’s peak day planner to avoid the crowds no matter what day or month you go.

10. What’s yours?

I’m sure some of my readers have some great tips to share too! Feel free to add them in the comments below.

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France Vegatarian - website for vegetarians and vegans in France

Website for vegetarians and vegans in France