Welcome to Travel Planning 101. Find country specific information about where you are going and what to do to prepare to get there!
- Travel highlights of the country.
- Fun facts and background information.
- History notes, facts on currency, health, holidays and transportation.
- Pre-departure tips, when to go, and visa information.
- Information on weather and electricity plugs.
- Suggestions on things to do if you have extra time to explore on your own.
Places To See
The Tour Eiffel faced massive opposition from Paris' artistic and literary elite when it was built for the 1889 Exposition Universelle (World Fair), marking the centenary of the Revolution. It was almost torn down in 1909 but was spared because it proved an ideal platform for the transmitting antennas needed for the new science of radiotelegraphy.
The Eiffel Tower, named after its designer, Gustave Eiffel, is 324m (1063ft) high, including the TV antenna at the tip. This figure can vary by as much as 15cm, however, as the tower's 10,000 tonnes of iron, held together by 2.5 million rivets, expand in warm weather and contract when it's cold.
Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux
Here it is, the world-famous Bayeux Tapestry recounting the dramatic story of the Norman invasion and the events that led up to it (from the Norman perspective). It is housed in the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux along with other treasures of the region.
Château de Versailles
The splendid, enormous Château de Versailles was built in the mid-17th century during the reign of Louis XIV - the Roi Soleil (Sun King) - to project the absolute power of the French monarchy, which was then at the height of its glory. Its scale and décor also reflect Louis XIV's taste for profligate luxury and his boundless appetite for self-glorification.
The chateau at Versailles counts 700 rooms, 2153 windows, 352 chimneys and 67 staircases under 11 hectares of roof set on 800 hectares of garden, park and wood, including 200,000 trees and 210,000 flowers newly planted each year. There are 50 fountains and 620 fountain nozzles. The walls and rooms are adorned with 6300 paintings, 2100 sculptures and statues, 15,000 engravings and 5000 decorative art objects and furnishings.
When to go?
Spring offers the best weather to visitors, with beach tourism picking up in May. Temperatures aren't too bad in autumn, although the short days mean limited sunlight and the cold starts to make itself felt towards the end of the season, even along the Côte d'Azur. Winter means playing in the snow in France's Alps and Pyrenees, though the Christmas school holidays send hordes of tadpoles in uniform scurrying for the slopes. Mid-July through to the end of August is when most city dwellers take their annual five weeks' vacation to the coasts and mountains, and the half-desolate cities tend to shut down a bit accordingly. The same happens during February and March.
Travel Visa Overview
For up-to-date details on visa requirements, see the French Foreign Affairs Ministry site (www.diplomatie.gouv.fr) and click 'Going to France'.
EU nationals and citizens of Iceland, Norway and Switzerland need only a passport or a national identity card in order to enter France and stay in the country. Citizens of Australia, Canada, Israel, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, the USA and many Latin American countries do not need visas to visit France as tourists for up to 90 days.
Other people wishing to come to France as tourists have to apply for a Schengen Visa, named after the agreements that abolished passport controls between 15 European countries. It allows un- limited travel throughout the entire zone for a 90-day period. Application should be made to the consulate of the country you are entering first, or that will be your main destination.
European plug with two circular metal pins
France has a predominantly temperate climate, with mild winters, except in mountain areas and the northeast. The Atlantic has a profound impact on the northwest, where the weather is characterised by high humidity, often violent westerly winds and lots of rain. France's northeast has a classic continental climate, with fairly hot summers and cold winters. Midway between the two, the Paris basin boasts the nation's lowest annual precipitation, but rainfall patterns are erratic. The southern coastal plains are subject to a pleasant Mediterranean climate: frost is rare, spring and autumn downpours are sudden but brief and summer is virtually without rain. The south is also the region of the mistral, a cold, dry wind that blows down the Rhône Valley for about 100 days a year. Relentless and unforgiving in spring, it is blamed for sending people into fits of pique.
History and Culture
Pre-20th Centure History
Humans have inhabited France for about 90,000 years. The Celtic Gauls arrived between 1500 and 500 BC; after several centuries of conflict with Rome, Gauls lost the territory to Julius Caesar in 52 BC, and by the 2nd century AD the region had been partly Christianised. In the 5th century the Franks (thus 'France') and other Germanic groups overran the country.
The Middle Ages were marked by a succession of power struggles between warring Frankish dynasties. The Capetian Dynasty was a time of prosperity and scholarly revivalism despite continued battles with England over feudal rights. During this period, France was also embroiled in the Crusades, a holy war instigated by the Church against non-Christians. The Capetian Dynasty waned by the early 15th century as France continued to fight England in the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453), which featured 17-year-old firebrand Jeanne d'Arc.
Religious and political persecution, culminating in the Wars of Religion (1562-98), continued to threaten France's stability during the 16th century. In 1572, some 3000 Protestant Huguenots were slaughtered in Paris. The Huguenots were later guaranteed religious, civil and political rights. By the early 17th century the country was held in thrall by Cardinal Richelieu, who moved to establish an absolute monarchy and increase French power in Europe.
Louis XIV (the Sun King) ascended the throne in 1643 at the age of five and ruled until 1715. Throughout his reign, he hounded the Protestant minority, quashed the feuding aristocracy and created the first centralised French state. But as the 18th century progressed, the ancien régime (old order) became dangerously out of sync with the rest of the country, and was further weakened by the Enlightenment's anti-establishment and anticlerical ideas. France's involvement in the Seven Years' War (1756-63) and the American War of Independence (1776-83) was financially ruinous for the monarchy, and the latter provided ammunition for opponents of French absolutism.
When the king tried to neutralise the power of reform-minded economists, the urban masses took to the streets. On 14 July 1789, a Parisian mob attacked the Invalides, seized weapons and stormed the Bastille prison, the ultimate symbol of the despotism of the ancien régime. At first, the Revolution was in the hands of moderates, but from this milieu emerged the radical Jacobins, led by Robespierre, Danton and Marat. They established the First Republic in 1792, holding virtual dictatorial control over the country during the Reign of Terror (1793-94), which saw mass executions and religious persecution. Ultimately the Revolution turned on its own, and many of its leaders, including Robespierre and Danton, were pruned by Madame la Guillotine.
Buoyed by a series of military victories abroad, mercurial Napoleon Bonaparte assumed domestic power in 1799, sparking a series of wars in which France came to control most of Europe. Ultimately, a disastrous campaign against Russia in 1812 led to Bony's downfall - he was banished to the tiny Mediterranean island of Elba. His escape and reinstallation as Emperor lasted 100 days before he was defeated by the English at Waterloo. The English exiled him to the remote South Atlantic island of Saint Helena, where he died in 1821. Napoleon is remembered as a great hero not so much for his military gusto but because he preserved the bulk of changes wrought by the Revolution and promulgated the Napoleonic Code, which remains the basis of the French legal system.
During the 19th century, France was characterised by inept government, quixotic wars and the founding of the Third Republic (1870). The importance of the army and the church was reduced, and separation of church and state was instituted. Around the same time, the Entente Cordiale ended colonial rivalry between France and Britain in Africa, creating a spirit of cooperation.
France's involvement in WWI came at high cost: over a million troops were killed, large parts of the country were devastated, industrial production dropped and the franc was seriously devalued. The country fared little better during WWII, when it capitulated to Germany and the lackey Vichy government was installed. General Charles de Gaulle, France's under-secretary of war, set up a government-in-exile and underground resistance in London. France was liberated by Allied forces in mid-1944.
De Gaulle returned to Paris and set up a provisional government, but resigned as president in 1946. Emboldened by American aid, the French reasserted colonial control in Indochina, but their forces were defeated by Ho Chi Minh's cadres at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. France also tried to suppress Algerian independence. De Gaulle returned to power in 1958 and negotiated an end to the war in Algeria four years later; in the meantime, almost all of the other French colonies in Africa had achieved independence.
In May 1968, student protesters and striking workers surprised themselves and the world at large by bringing the country to a standstill. Just as anarchy was poised to engulf France, De Gaulle went on national television and told everybody to calm down, go home and leave the running of the country to him. And they did. The government then reformed the higher education system, and De Gaulle resigned as president the following year.
Resilient socialist François Mitterand was France's president from 1981 to 1995. In May 1995 he was succeeded by Jacques Chirac, who defeated the demoralised socialists and Jean-Marie Le Pen's anti-immigrant Front National (FN). A series of bombings in Paris and Lyon from July 1995 by terrorists protesting French support of the Algerian government contributed to anti-foreigner sentiment and lent a false legitimacy to the FN's racist stance.
Chirac strongly endorsed the European Union (EU), which raised his popularity, but his decision to conduct nuclear tests on the Polynesian island of Mururoa towards the end of 1995 was met with a local and international outcry. France's Pacific and Caribbean colonies have beefed up their independence rumblings, with Tahiti a recent site of particular agitation. Domestically, limits which Chirac imposed on the welfare payment system resulted in the country's largest protests since 1968. Strikes throughout the public sector over several weeks in late 1995 brought Paris to a standstill and affected the economy so badly that France's qualifications for joining the EU looked dubious.
Chirac called a snap election early in 1997, under the pretence of seeking a mandate for the final push towards meeting economic monetary union (EMU) controls. However, he did not count on the fickleness of the French people and his RPR party was ousted from government (though Chirac remains president) by an unlikely alliance between the socialists, communists and Greens.
The nation was thrust into the international spotlight with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in a car accident in Paris in August 1997, and the country's first-ever World Cup victory (3-0 over odds-on favourite Brazil) in July 1998.
Presidential elections in 2002 were a shocker with racist demagogue Jean-Marie Le Pen of the FN claiming 17% of the national first round vote. In the run-off poll left-wing voters - without a candidate of their own - went for 'lesser-of-two-evils' Chirac to give him 82% of votes.
In early 2003 France was once again in the world spotlight when it insisted it would veto any UN security council resolution to go to war with Iraq. The US was rather miffed by this, and relations between France and the US remain cool.
In May 2005, a national referendum on the proposed European Constitution was soundly rejected by French voters, causing huge embarrassment to the government, and placing a considerable question mark over the country's resolutely pro-European future.
In October and November 2005, the country was rocked by several weeks of violent clashes between police and gangs of disenfranchised young people across France. The riots were sparked by the deaths of two teenagers of North-African descent who were electrocuted while apparently attempting to hide from the police, and began in the poor, ethnically-diverse banlieues (suburbs) of Paris, but quickly spread to several of the country's major cities.
In May 2007 conservative Nicolas Sarkozy convincingly defeated socialist Segolene Royale in the presidential election. Sarkozy's first period in office has been dogged by controversy, especially thanks to his infamous split with his second wife in order to marry chanteuse and supermodel Carla Bruni.
But beyond Sarkozy's high-profile private life, there have been some major political developments too, including the banning of smoking in public places in 2007, and the ratification of a new EU treaty in 2008.
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