Overlooking Lyon

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After two months of travelling in France we’ve learned some surprising things. Some good, some bad and some pretty damn curious…

When you think of experiencing different cultures do you think of distant locations on the other side of the world? I know we do. At the beginning of our England to India bike tour we pretty much wrote off all of Western Europe and decided to put our heads down until we got to more ‘interesting’ countries. Why did we write-off Western Europe? Firstly, because of the high travel costs but, honestly, because we thought it would be too similar to England with not enough new cultural experiences.

As kids we visited France plenty of times, went on French exchanges, had French language students stay with us, learned the language in school and frequently ate croissants and French baguettes. Needless to say we felt pretty familiar with France; too similar to England and not enough new cultural experiences. Boy were we wrong.

(well, we were right about the travel costs, it has been bloody expensive!)

What was meant to be a two week stint through France has already turned into two months and we’re not done yet. We’ve been lured in by the beauty of this country, its charming people and welcoming ways. And, though we do seem to share many of the same values there are still so many unique differences in every aspect of life.

After cycling in France for over 800 miles from North to South I feel pretty confident in saying it’s been an authentic experience. Instead of hostels and hotels we’ve spent the vast majority of our time staying with French cycle hosts and families. Instead of sitting around a hostel bar with travellers from all over the world we’ve spent our evenings sharing food, wine (lots of wine) and conversation with locals; learning about their ways, thoughts and cultures. Instead of big touristy locations we’ve been peddling through tiny villages and university towns. You get the picture, I think.  

Over the last 2 months we’ve experienced or learned something new every single day. Some good, some bad and some pretty damn curious. Here are just some of those things…

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We learned more than just wine varieties travelling in France

11 Surprising Things We Learned After Travelling in France for 2 Months

1 – Taking your cats on holiday is a thing

Does this happen in your country? We’d never heard of this before but taking cats on holiday definitely seems to be a thing. I don’t think it’s hugely common but whilst travelling in France we’ve met two families who take their furry friends away with them. Both times they’ve made it sound like a completely normal practice. Would you take your cats on holiday? 

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‘When are we going on holiday!?!?!’

2 – Terrible French accent? No problem

First of all, I’ll say we never expect people to speak English. If anything we prefer countries that don’t so we can try to pick up the local lingo. But, in some countries it’s harder than others. 

Some countries are very forgiving of foreign visitors not speaking, or poorly attempting, to speak the local language. Others really are not forgiving and prior to this trip I thought France was one of them. Now I can safely say this is not the case.

Whilst we have been trying to learn along the way (thanks Duolingo) our French is still pretty abysmal. Even if we know the words nobody is going to understand us because our accent is terrible. I also have the bad habit of throwing in a few Spanish words by mistake too…

Despite our terrible language skills people have been awesome in trying to communicate with us and letting us practice. Often in other countries when someone realises you’re an English speaker they’ll respond in English if they can, in France they give you a chance. People have really humoured us by letting us practice some sentences, with a few confused minutes of charades and terrible pronunciation.

These chances to practice are hugely appreciated and the welcoming approach makes day-to-day encounters friendly, albeit often confused. 

3 – Bicycles and motorists seem to be friends… even in Paris!

In England there’s a reputation of Parisian drivers being pretty mental and accordingly we were bricking it about cycling across the capital. After cycling in Paris during rush hour, I couldn’t say it was a pleasant experience but it was MUCH better than expected. There was a lot of hooting and beeping but it didn’t seem to be directed at us and even after going the wrong way round a roundabout drivers seemed to look at us in confusion rather than anger.

Outside of Paris and cycling has been an absolute joy largely because, thanks to the huge cycling culture, you don’t feel like enemy No.1 on the roads. This means most drivers are incredibly tolerant of two cycle tourers wobbling around on the side of the road, something we’re very grateful for. Motorists aside, the cycle paths are pretty damn good too. There are heaps of designated, well-maintained routes going from place to place and often you’ll find cycle paths taking up nearly equal space to roads. 

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Cycling in France has been a dream!

4 – Toilets can be pretty interesting…

Boy, have we had some interesting toilet experiences to say the least. Nothing dodgy, promise.

One of the first things we noticed travelling in France are all the unisex toilets. These have resulted in a lot of moments double checking you’ve not walked into the wrong room. Another funny thing are the men’s urinals you’ll stuck on the outside of toilet blocks. Not tucked behind a corner or behind a closed door, just stuck there like the rest of the outer walls have fallen away.

But, it’s our toilet experiences in Lyon which have been the biggest learning curve. All across the city you’ll find large, futuristic looking toilet pods. They are automated and electronically open, locked, flushed and also self-cleaned. This cleaning process takes 3-4 minutes each time and means you get some seriously long queues. Because the toilet doors open electronically it also also means you’re at the mercy of technology. 

I had the toilet door open whilst I was sat down, midway through, and a very unfortunate tourist walked in and only realised once he was almost standing on my toes. I’ve never seen such a look of terror on someone’s face before.

5 – The French are some of the most welcoming people we’ve met

After travelling 30+ countries France really has to be one of the friendliest we’ve experienced. Passersby greet you with smiles and welcomes, random conversations on the street are commonplace and when people see us travelling with our bikes we’ve literally had queues wanting to chat about the journey.

We’ve also been invited in to many lovely peoples’ homes, given food for our travels and had water bottles filled. Yes, this can happen in any country but during our stay in France this happens ALL THE TIME.

Check out some of these stunning French landscapes!

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Our cycle hosts greeted us with vegan pizza and cookies. They knew the quickest way to our heart!

6 – Don’t mess with mealtimes

Some countries eat as a necessity but in France eating is a process and a ritual, something which must be respected and can’t be rushed. Meals are when families, friends and colleagues can take a break from their day, share conversations, delicious food and great wine. Even observing a group at a restaurant, entrenched in conversation, is a nice sight in itself.

As cycle tourers the majority of our meals are picnics in parks or simply scoffing food outside supermarkets. Almost every person that walks passed will wish bon appetite.

When we’re weather worn and smelly, sat on the floor eating outside a shop, in many countries people would scorn or make you feel like you’re not in the right place but not in France. In France people see us and think ‘they need a good meal’ and wish us well. 

Unfortunately this cracking food culture is not perfect, which leads us on to our next point…

7 – It’s pretty shit for vegans. Actually, it’s really shit for vegans

We didn’t come to France expecting to find a vegan paradise but we were expecting it to be better than it has been. France is known for having fantastic food and culture, albeit very meaty, so you would think this would rub off with some vegan dishes. Unfortunately it hasn’t.

In restaurants almost every dish is based around meat OR is cooked with eggs or diary, vegan restaurants are slim pickings and haven’t been the best quality or value and in supermarkets vegan alternatives are almost non-existent. It has surprised us considering the vegan revolution-like uprising in places like the UK, Germany and Italy to name a few.

With all this being said there doesn’t seem to be any prejudice towards the lifestyle choice, and the term ‘vegan’ is relatively well understood. Unfortunately this just seems to be so restaurant or shop owners can say ‘no vegan food’. But generally with a smile on their face. 

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So many restaurants, so little vegan food

8 – You need to start conversations politely

In many English speaking countries, if you needed to ask a stranger a question you would just come out with it. At the bus stop ask ‘what time does the train leave’, at the market you might ask ‘how much is this’ or ‘do you have the time’ to someone on the train (though this would be a rare thing in England). In France you must greet someone first, with a bon jour or bon soir and then ask your questions.

One of our hosts, French speaking but not native, told us a story of them at a train station panicking to find the right train on time. In a rush they saw a conductor and asked ‘when does this train leave’, the conductor didn’t respond, ‘when does this train leave’ they asked again, with no response. Finally they stopped and greeted the conductor, he then told them when the train left.

Although it would probably be frustrating in this situation, it’s a nice touch which makes meetings very friendly and civilised. You’ll notice even short encounters have a structure of welcomes, a few questions, then they’ll ALWAYS say goodbye and wish each other a good day.

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You’ve got to say hello first

9 – People drink tea from bowls and don’t use plates

Whilst having breakfast in a host’s house we had a bowl and a knife in front of us; on the table was bread, preserves, a pot of coffee and some fruit. Not asking any questions we started using the bowls as plates, spreading preserves on the bread and cutting the fruit with all the mess going in the bowls. Our hosts looked at us in amusement and then poured the coffee into their bowls.

This didn’t happen on only this occasion, many locals will drink hot drinks, particularly infusions, from bowls and for breads at breakfast won’t use a plate. What about all the crumbs!?!?!

10 – The French are seriously proud of their country but in an enjoyable way

Unfortunately, in these times of Brexit, it’s not often you see national pride in an enjoyable way and particularly in England. That’s not the case in France, but it’s not in the ‘our country is better than yours way’, it seems to be shown in honesty and love, making it hard not to agree that it really is a pretty cool country. 

Do you want to know how to make a French person happy? Compliment their country. When we’ve told newly made friends how much we’ve loved France they’ve been over the moon. When we say how hospitable and welcoming everyone has been they’ve felt proud their country has treated us so well. 

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It’s hard to argue, travelling is France is pretty awesome!

11 – There is wine everywhere – it’s dirt cheap and delicious

One of our favourite things about travelling in France is the wine (it’s probably going to be one of your favourite things too). The wine is out of this world and it’s so cheap. Every supermarket (or even little market) is full to rafters with French produced wine, generally separated region-by-region and most are much less than €10. We’ve never bought a bottle for more than €5 and they’ve been shit hot. The last bottle was proudly vegan, only cost €2.47 something and was seriously tasty.

Unfortunately the rest of the food is pretty expensive. When you can get a nice bottle of wine or a couple of apples for the same price, we’ve normally been going with the wine.

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11 Surprising Things We Learned After Travelling in France for 2 Months

These are just some of the surprising things we’ve learned whilst travelling in France. Like we said, some good, some bad and some damn curious.

Have you been to France and noticed any of these things, or learned anything different? Tell us in the comments below!

Keep exploring…

How to Get From England to France Without Flying

A First Timer’s Guide to Bouldering in Fontainebleau

Accommodation in France for Outdoor Pursuits and Adventure

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  1. Great article. My husband and I toured in France in 2015, and learned many of the same things. We also learned that walk signals don’t mean ALL the way across the road – only to the next “island”. Make sure you know how far your signal takes you! 🙂

    We are taking some friends back with us to France next month. I’m going to share this article with them right now.

  2. Ha, yes the road signals are quite interesting. We also find it funny that it may be a green man to walk but also a green light for cars…

    Where did you go on your tour? Did you also find the cars very tolerable of cyclists?

  3. We started in Paris and left via our imaginations. When we reached Versailles, we discovered a route called Veloscenie, and we started following that. We followed that to Mont St. Michel, then took a train to Nantes and then followed EV6 east. We definitely found the cars very tolerable of cyclists – even in Paris! I was so pleasantly surprised by that. I’m a huge chicken about cycling in traffic.

  4. Love this! It’s so good to read such a positive take on France, so often travellers complain about how rude people are (not true), how unfriendly (not true) etc. All the things you’ve proved wrong. I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed your time in my adoptive country and I agree with everything that you’ve said. Even the cat thing! (I’ve been in France for 22 years, married to a Frenchie and run a gite, that doesn’t accept cats!!) Good luck with your big bike trip, bon voyage!

  5. Wow, we would have liked to see Versailles, it seems like something from a story book. We actually just followed the ViaRhona for about 200 miles and it was incredible. It was the first designated cycle route we’ve cycled for a long period of time and the surroundings were breath taking.

    Interestingly, we crossed the Pre Alps, through Switzerland and back into France and closer to the Swiss border the drivers were much less friendly!

  6. We’ve loved everything so far, besides the vegan options but the ingredients have still been deeeelicious! Where abouts in France are you? It’s been fascinating cycling across the country and comparing the different regions. We’re currently just north of Geneva and there seem to be noticeable differences – so much to experience!

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