Intimate France Tours e-News

Issue 11, April 2014

 

www.intimatefrance.com

 

info@intimatefrance.com

 

 

At Intimate France, we specialize in small groups - usually eight travelers or fewer, never more than 16. Read more about how we are different.

 

Netherlands-Belgium,

May 3-15, 2015

Tour priced at $4,095 per person sharing accommodation. Single supplement to be determined, but estimated at  $725.* Tour begins and ends in Amsterdam.

(more tour information)

 

Austria – Alps, Abbeys & Vienna, May 17-29, 2015

Tour priced at $4,095 per person sharing accommodation. Single supplement to be determined.* Tour begins in Munich, ends in Vienna.

(more tour information)

 

Dordogne, the Best of France, Sept. 6-18, 2015

Tour priced at $4,095 per person sharing accommodation. Single supplement to be determined.* Tour begins and ends at Bordeaux airport.

(more tour information)

 

Spain North of Madrid, Sept. 20-Oct. 2, 2015

Tour priced at $4,095 per person sharing accommodation. Single supplement to be determined.* Tour begins and ends at Madrid airport.

(more tour information)

 

* Intimate France sets single supplements to cover the cost of more expensive single accommodation. Rates will be determined closer to tour departure and are intended to cover costs only. Call us for further information – (800) 676-1247.

 

 

INTIMATE

FRANCE

BLOG

 

George Nevin

founder/owner

Intimate France Tours

 

 

How Did U.S. Fall Behind in Tech? Or, Fun With Gadgets

We Americans comfort ourselves with the thought that, no matter how competitive the world becomes, we have a decided advantage when it comes to innovation.

 

Think back on the many technical breakthroughs in the past 150 years that can be attributed to Americans:

 

The first airplane, the cotton gin, artificial refrigeration, the mechanized assembly line, television, the telephone, the telegraph.

 

Vintage telephone

 

More recently, humans on the moon, the polio vaccine, the structure of DNA, and the vast information system known as the Internet.

 

So how did we fall behind in innovations that are relatively simple but essential to the orderly conduct of business?

 

These would include the chip-and-PIN debit card, the tableside card reader in restaurants and near-universal cell phone accessibility.

 

consider cell phones. You think they are ubiquitous in the United States? Try Europe, where each child is issued a phone at birth.

 

Just kidding. Barely.

 

Not only are cell phones virtually everywhere in Europe, they work in virtually every country. This is a necessity when Europeans, and those foreigners fortunate enough to travel in Europe, may cross several borders in the span of a day.

 

In 2000, I bought my first European cell phone in San Sebastian, Spain. It worked like a charm, and I still have it, proving what a dinosaur I am.

 

At about the same time, I bought a prepaid SIM card and associated telephone number from Orange, a French cellular carrier.

 

SIM cards are what make the phone work, and they use a system common in Europe, and in many other parts of the world, but less so in the United States.

 

A couple of years later, I bought an Italian SIM from TIM, Italy's largest cell provider.

 

Two years ago I upgraded my phone to a Samsung Duos model with a nifty QWERTY keyboard and the ability to mount both of my SIM cards. 

 

 

 

Samsung Duos

 

Now I'm set. I can both make and receive calls on either number, French or Italian. 

 

The beauty of the SIM card system is that all of your vital information is contained on the card, which can be swapped between phone models quickly and easily. 

 

I've maintained this number ever since, at some considerable effort and expense, because if you don't top up the card regularly, not only does your phone credit expire, your number goes away.

 

So I do have to top up once or twice a year, sometimes buying phone units I will not be able to use, as a means of keeping my same telephone number – very important to me.

 

 

SIM card from Orange

 

And get this – they even work in the United States! This is very important, as you'll see.

 

On occasion I need to buy a rail ticket in France. Now, tickets are easy to buy through Rail Europe, a New York-based consortium jointly operated by the French and Swiss national rail systems.

 

However, compared with prices available in Europe, Rail Europe's fares tend to be higher and departures less numerous. For instance, the French railway site voyages.sncf.com may offer 18 departures daily from Paris to Lyon, but Rail Europe will only show a fraction of that.

 

Travel bulletin boards are awash with complaints that the SNCF (French railway) Web site is notoriously hard to buy from using a U.S.-based credit card.

 

For me, that's no problem – I've had a French bank account and associated debit card for almost 15 years. Using this card, it's easy to buy tickets for myself.

 

Ah, but there's a catch, and this is where technology comes in. My French bank, BNP Paribas, has a security feature in which Internet purchases (such as train tickets) require an enabling code to be texted from the bank to the cardholder.

 

So here's how it works – I use my French debit card to buy the tickets, then turn on my French phone in my office in California and get a code from my bank. I enter the code, complete the transaction and download the train tickets.

 

Easy, really, but at the same time something of a miracle.

 

It turns out that my French phone can get a signal here in the East Bay hills when many of my neighbors complain their domestic cell phone don't work!

 

 

A French railway ticket

 

Actually, even obtaining a BNP bank account was a minor miracle. My California friend Priscilla, who lived for a while in Carcassonne (southern France), tells of being invited to a party soon after moving there a number of years ago.

 

She was chatting with the other guests when the hostess came up to her.

 

"Priscilla, I'd like you to meet the manager of our local bank," she said, presenting a distinguished-looking gentleman.

 

They shook hands and chatted briefly. After the party, Priscilla thought no more of the encounter.

 

A couple of weeks later she went into the bank branch and asked to open an account. The employee flatly refused – Priscilla, not being a French citizen, wasn't entitled to an account, as far as the employee was concerned.

 

"Ah, but I've met your bank manager," she told the woman.

 

And that made all the difference. Having encountered the manager socially, she was suddenly acceptable.

 

This brings to mind a memoir-cookbook, "The Sweet Life in Paris," by American pastry chef David Lebovitz. 

 

 

 

 

In it, he tells of the near-impossibility of opening an account – a necessity for obtaining permission to remain in France.

 

After being rebuffed repeatedly, he had an idea – he returned to the bank and showed the suitably impressed employees a copy of his first cookbook, crammed with full-color images of desserts, and explained that this was his profession.

 

The head banker, he reported, became "visibly flushed" as she started flipping through the luscious images. Then she turned on her computer and opened his account.

 

My path to banking success in France was considerably easier. I had an existing account at Bank of the West, an affiliate of BNP Paribas.

 

My branch had on its staff a French-born banker who greased the wheels for me with BNP.

 

CONTACT
INTIMATE
FRANCE

 

(800) 676-1247

 

 www.intimatefrance.com

 


INTIMATE FRANCE:

HOW WE ARE DIFFERENT

 

    After 25 years of travel and research, we founded Intimate France in 1994 to share our accumulated wisdom and exciting discoveries with you. In the years since then, we’ve taken hundreds of Americans to France, Italy, Spain, Croatia, Belgium, the Netherlands and the Alps.

 

    Our small groups (never more than 16) assure the utmost in personal service, attention to detail and flexibility.

    Our small group size allows us to take care of you and your needs the way you deserve. Our long familiarity with Europe has taught us the hidden, authentic visits and sights not in any guidebook.

 

    Our cheerful, experienced, bilingual guides love Europe with a passion and want to share this feeling with you. Our carefully planned itineraries feature a multitude of enriching visits – all included in the tour price. Optional excursions at additional expense are virtually non-existent.  

 

    At Intimate France, we believe that cookie-cutter hotels, tourist-oriented restaurants and fast-paced sightseeing are barriers to enjoying the real Europe.   

 

      Over time we have discovered small, family-run hotels, local bistros and insider sights. You’ll visit the top attractions in each town while also having experiences that are more typically European.

An occasional newsletter from George Nevin, founder/owner, Intimate France Tours

 

 

'POISSON D'AVRIL' – APRIL FOOLS DAY

Vintage French postcard with "April First" spelled out in fish

 

April Fool's Day has come and gone in the U.S. and in France as well, where they celebrate it as 'Poisson d'Avril,' or April Fish day.

 

The origin of this name is lost in antiquity, although some sources contend it dates to the reign of Charles XIV, who in 1564 adopted a calendar reform that moved New Year's Day from late March-early April to January 1.

 

As news was slow to spread in those days, many French people didn't hear of this for quite some time. Those who continued to celebrate the New Year around April 1 were made fun of by being called "Poisson d'Avril," perhaps the renaissance equivalent of "you idiot." 

 

Today it's a custom of French schoolchildren to surreptitiously tape a picture of a fish on the back of a classmate, then cry "Poisson d'Avril!" when the prank is discovered.

 

WHEN WILL U.S. CREDIT CARD ISSUERS

CATCH UP WITH CHIP-AND-PIN?

My favorite travel magazine, International Travel News, often polls its subscribers on travel-related issues, then devotes significant resources to their findings. In March 2014, ITN published a series of reader responses to the questions "Do you have a true chip-and-PIN credit or debit card? Where did you get it? How does it work for you?"

 

Of the readers who responded, most reported success with cards from Andrews Federal Credit Union in the Washington, D.C., area. Others said they obtained chip-and-PIN cards from USAA Federal Savings Bank.

 

For the uninitiated, most cards issued by U.S. financial institutions contain account information on a magnetic stripe, which is swiped at the point of sale. Many foreign banks, however, use chip-and-PIN, in which the account information, encrypted, is contained on a machine-readable chip embedded in the card. To use it, the card is inserted into a reader and the owner types in a four-digit PIN, authorizing the transaction.

 

As these cards are the norm in Europe, merchants there have adapted to them to the extent that some ATMs, transit ticket dispensers, freeway toll stations and filling stations will accept only these cards, not the magnetic-stripe variety.

 

 

 Chip-and-PIN card, with the chip (gold oval) at left

 

Some ITN readers said that they believed they were getting chip-and-PIN cards from U.S. institutions (JP Morgan and others), but actually received chip-and-signature cards, which functioned abroad similarly to conventional U.S.-issued cards – that is, they required a signature. That made many of them unusable at unmanned pay stations like gas pumps and automated toll booths.

 

American financial institutions are committed to upgrading to chip-and-PIN technology, but because of the higher cost of producing these cards, the change has been slow to come. The current target date is October 2015, after which most U.S. cards will come with a chip. However, even then, some companies won't routinely issue PINS to users, who will continue to sign their charge slips.

 

A FEW THINGS WE'VE LEARNED

IN 40 YEARS OF TRAVEL

 

Intimate France's George Nevin on

Wit & Wisdom Gleaned From the Road

 

Forty-plus years of traveling to Europe inevitably teach you a lot. Here are some of the things I have picked up on the way. Maybe there are no cosmic revelations here, but perhaps some points to ponder.

 

 

WHEN TO RESERVE YOUR HOTEL ROOM

Early in my Intimate France Tours career, I arrived in Paris in mid-October without a hotel reservation. It was off-season, and as I only needed one room, a hotel should be easy to find, right?

 

Wrong.

 

Turns out October is incredibly busy in the French capital, with conventions and conferences galore.

Several hours of slogging around my neighborhood of choice – near Ecole Militaire, in the 7th – failed to turn up a single vacancy.

 

Finally, a nice lady at one full-up hotel offered to call around to nearby colleagues, and I found a room for two of the five nights I needed. Those two days gave me time to locate another hotel, at the distant Place d'Italie, for three nights. What a hassle, and so unnecessary!

 

THE TAKEAWAY – Unless you have it on excellent authority that you're truly traveling off-season and that reservations aren't necessary, make them.

 

Exception – When you're in the European countryside in spring or fall, and you're not on a fixed schedule, you can probably wing it.

 

 

 

WHEN TO BE SMART ABOUT ALLOWING

ENOUGH TIME FOR A CONNECTING FLIGHT

When your travel agent or online booking service assures you that 45 minutes is plenty of time to make a connecting flight at a busy European or American airport, think long and hard before you click BUY or give the agent your credit card information.

 

Do you ever cruise through the on-time statistics for flights you're considering? It can be an eye-opener. When a given flight arrives late 50 or 60 percent of the time, the handwriting is truly on the wall.

 

At large, disorganized or notoriously delay-prone airports (think Chicago in winter or Charles de Gaulle or Heathrow at any time), give yourself one, two or more hours to transition from one flight to the next, particularly when you have to clear customs or immigration first.

 

The airline industry has so-called minimum connecting times for given airports. I for one would never go with the minimum, unless it truly doesn't matter if you arrive at your final destination on time – or even on the correct day!

 

THE TAKEAWAY – Give yourself plenty of time at larger airports, and consider asking for wheelchair assistance, even if you don't really need it, if you have the sense that a particular connection will require covering long distances or could be tight. Wheelchair attendants know all the shortcuts and will do their best to get you to your next gate on time.

 

 

THAT PESKY CAR RENTAL COMPANY

Consumer and travel advocate Christopher Elliott writes an excellent magazine and newspaper column on travel snafus, mishaps and scams, and maintains a formidable website.

 

Glancing through what he's written about over the years yields a large number of problems with car rental companies.

 

So, how to avoid coming out on the short end of a dispute with a rental organization?

 

There are no blanket answers, but two things come to mind:

 

• Work with a rental agent (as opposed to directly with the rental company) that both warns you about rental pitfalls in advance and takes your side if there is a dispute.

 

A few years ago I started working with Gemütlichkeit, a small (as far as I can tell) company based in Oregon that I have found to provide superior service.

 

I've used the company for rentals in several European countries. It appears to specialize in Germany, Switzerland and Austria (gemütlichkeit means "coziness" or "friendliness" in German) but also operates in other European countries, and handles air tickets, travel insurance and rail tickets as well.

 

(Disclosure – I have no connection with this company other than as a customer.)

 

I have not had to have Gemütlichkeit go to bat for me over a rental dispute, but from their regular customer service, I believe they'd be valuable allies in such an event. As a bonus, their pre-tour planning materials are simply superb.

 

• Document your rental car's condition upon pickup. Many of Christopher Elliott's correspondents complain of being billed improperly for rental car damage.

 

One way to avoid this is to inspect the car carefully before leaving the agency lot, and take digital photos, date stamped if possible. Try to get a rental company employee to accompany you to the lot, and include that person in your photos. You'll be in a stronger position to assert that you pointed out damage.

 

THE TAKEAWAY – Like companies in most industries, car rental firms are always on the lookout to increase their bottom line. I'm convinced that some charges are not legit, and that all customers need to protect themselves from unwarranted fees.

 

 

 

Dinner at the Michelin-starred Auberge du XIIeme Siècle, in the Loire region of France

 

WHEN TO RESERVE YOUR MEAL

Especially for dinner, and especially in larger towns and cities, try to reserve you meals. Reserving helps the restaurant plan to best meet your needs and those of your fellow diners, and potentially saves you the disappointment of not being able to get into your preferred restaurant.

 

Reserving is also a sign of respect for the restaurateur. There's a very funny and well-written book, Extra Virgin, about the adventures of a pair of young British women who move to Liguria, near Italy's border with France.

 

They write about the couple who runs the village's only restaurant, and who would (and did) turn away diners who lack reservations – even when the restaurant is empty and there are no pending reservations! For them, respect for their profession was more important than cash business.

 

With email and Web-based reservation services, not to mention online translation services, reserving today is easier than ever. Even reserving a few hours ahead of time, or the day before, can be enough (except in top places).

 

THE TAKEAWAY – Reserve virtually all dinners, as well as important lunches at popular restaurants.

 

Exception – Lunches at simple bistros, brasseries or cafés need not be reserved.

 

 

The skinny on enjoying a fine French meal.

Jake and Maureen (Mo) Dear of Marin County, Calif., travel frequently to France, enjoy good food and wine (probably more than they should) and maintain an online travel diary. Their "Une Douzaine Restaurant Tips" are highly recommended.

 

TOURS IN 2014 ARE FULL

    We have filled all 2014 tours, but if there are dropouts, you may still have a chance. Call us at (800) 676-1247 or email info@intimatefrance.com if you'd like to be on our no-obligation wait list in case vacancies open up. Details of 2014 tours.

 

OUR 2015 DEPARTURES
ON SALE BEGINNING THIS SUMMER

 

SPRING 2015 IN NORTHERN EUROPE

 

• Netherlands and Belgium, May 3-15

Austrian Alps, Abbeys and Vienna, May 17-29

 

FALL 2015 IN CENTRAL & SOUTHERN EUROPE

 

Dordogne, France's most beautiful area, September 6-18

Spain North of Madrid, September 20-October 2

 

HOW TO SIGN UP FOR A 2015 TOUR

Keep reading our e-Newsletter for updates on when we will begin taking reservations for 2015 (sometime this summer). Once we announce a schedule, call us at (800) 676-1247 or email  info@intimatefrance.com for an idea of which tours are proving popular. Every year, some would-be travelers get left behind.

 

Remember, most tours max out at eight travelers, meaning no Big Bus Blues for you! That also means that our groups can fill quickly, and well in advance.

 

2015 Tour Lineup

 

 

Magnificent tulips, Keukenhof Gardens, Netherlands

 

Netherlands & Belgium - May 3-15, 2015

 

Tour priced at $4,095 per person sharing accommodation. Single supplement to be determined but estimated at $725 (see note*, bottom). Discounts available. Tour begins and ends at Amsterdam Airport.t.

  • The gardens of Keukenhof, a riot of spring flowers

  • Stately Amsterdam’s atmospheric canals

  • Fine art (Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Rubens, Vermeer)

  • Lovely, medieval Bruges

  • Pretty Ghent’s canals and soaring cathedral

  • Lively Brussels and its many museums

  • Authentic Dutch towns – Delft, Haarlem

  • Girl With a Pearl Earring at the Mauritshuis Museum, the Hague

  • The magnificent modern art collection at the Kröller-Müller Museum, eastern Netherlands

  • Exciting port of Antwerp, and its Rubens museum

How to sign up for this tour

 

 

Hallstatt, on its lake south of Salzburg, is an ideal village.


Austria – Alps, Abbeys & Vienna,

May 17-29, 2015

 

Tour priced at $4,095 per person sharing accommodation. Single supplement to be determined (see note*, bottom). Discounts available. Tour begins at Munich Airport, ends at Vienna Airport.t.

  • Magnificent, imperial Vienna, capital of an empire

  • Baroque Salzburg, home of Mozart

  • Stately Innsbruck, Alpine capital

  • Outstanding rococo churches

  • Soaring Alps, thundering waterfalls, deep valleys, icy glaciers

  • Medieval Dürnstein, on the Danube

  • Lakeside Hallstatt, one of Austria's most beautiful villages

  • Explore an ancient salt mine

  • Crystalline lakes of the Salzkammergut

  • Baroque abbey of Melk

  • Cathedrals, castles, markets, cafés, art, fine dining, exceptional wines

How to sign up for this tour

 

 

Château of Les Milandes, once owned by Josephine Baker.

 

Dordogne, the Best of France - September 6-18, 2015

 

Tour priced at $4,095 per person sharing accommodation. Single supplement to be determined (see note*, bottom). Discounts available. Tour begins and ends at Bordeaux Airport.t.

  • Château visits
  • Winery tour in the fabled Médoc region of Bordeaux
  • Picnic with local produce
  • Fabulous outdoor markets
  • The fine wines of St. Emilion
  • Some of France’s loveliest villages – Domme, Beynac, la Roque-Gageac
  • Cave paintings and artifacts from 500,000 years of human habitation
  • Outstanding market at Sarlat
  • Lunch in a Michelin-starred restaurant
  • Les Milandes, a château once owned by American singer-dancer Josephine Baker
  • Périgueux, bustling régional capital
  • Lascaux II, reproduction of the cave considered to have the best prehistoric art
  • Roque St. Christophe, a rocky fortress from medieval times

 

How to sign up for this tour

 

 

The Roman aqueduct of Segovia, UNESCO World Heritage.

 

Spain North of Madrid - September 20-October 2, 2015

 

Tour priced at $4,095 per person sharing accommodation. Single supplement to be determined (see note*, bottom).  Discounts available. Tour begins and ends at Madrid Airport..

  • Palace of El Escorial
  • Gardens of la Granja de la Ildefonso
  • Segovia, with its spectacular Roman aqueduct
  • Medieval Avila
  • Duero wine region
  • Burgos and its UNESCO-listed cathedral
  • Salamanca, Spain’s most picturesque city
  • Hilltop Toledo
  • Cuenca, Albaracin, Tereul, Leon
  • Palace, garden of Aranjuez

* Intimate France sets single supplements to cover our cost of providing more expensive single accommodation. Rates will be set closer to tour departure, and you will be notified prior to signup. Call us at (800) 676-1247 for further information.

 

How to sign up for this tour

Make an Intimate France tour your best trip ever.