Ha ha. So I did say I was going to do this series in alphabetical order. And then I started with India, forgetting that we went to France and that 'f' comes before 'i'. And 'C'yprus, come to think of it (though since we spent our six weeks in Cyprus in one place I can't, in good conscience, purport to have any insider knowledge on the country in general- apart from knowing that tahini is very affordable there).
So F. And France. The alphabet, eh? Let's all just accept for a moment that the 'i' in India is silent, then we are well on track (is everybody trying to say 'ndia' out loud now? If not, you definitely are now).
France. Ahhh the country of love, food, cobbled streets: everything decadent, romantic and post-cardy. And stripes.
My very first France hack is this: do not go in the summertime (unless you know people to stay with who have a fantastically amazing beach house somewhere wonderfully charming and secluded etc etc etc). It's packed and crowded and not that nice really. The coastal towns would be lovely in summer. But full. Full beyond imagining, especially if you are used to camping on Australian beaches in the summer. But late autumn-early winter? Why, that is the perfect time to visit! It's crisp, brisk and sunny (perfect pastry and coffee weather) and, most importantly, empty. In Paris we didn't have to line up for anything. In Paris. The most visited city in all the lands. Also if you spend time in the country at this time of year you can roast chestnuts over the fire and pretend you are in an Enid Blyton novel.
Next. Don't make the mistake we did and think 'ohh, we have an extra two weeks in Europe- let's just pop on over to France and see what it's all about shall we?'. I mean, do make that mistake. It is a very good mistake to make indeed. And the only actual mistake involved at all in that decision is the idea that two weeks is enough time to see what France is all about. Which you can definitely say about every country in the world, but it somehow seemed much more apparent in France. Maybe because we hitch-hiked everywhere we went and French people are very keen to tell you that you simply must visit their provence of origin, and in such wonderfully perfect French accents that you agree totally that it is sacrilege to leave without visiting (insert name of any area in France here). Or maybe because I wasn't really expecting to like it that much and I really did. I don't know. So anyway, plan some time there! A month, absolutely minimum. (But if you only have two weeks, go anyway. If you only have one week, go anyway. Actually, if you only have three days, go to Paris and eat every single thing you see and then plan to come back next year and eat everything you didn't.)
Stick your thumb out. This is a country where it is actually a wise planning move to rely as much as possible (I would say completely- we were only there for two weeks, but that is what we did and it worked for us) on hitch-hiking. Seriously, train and bus travel is cross-eyed gasp-inducing expensive. We chose Bordeaux as our first stop in France (essentially because it was the cheapest destination from Portugal) and planned to spend an afternoon meandering and then the evening on the train up to some small village where Will's great-aunt lives. Then we arrived and actually looked online for train tickets... HAHA is what the website said to us. It said it with its 80 euro for an hour's journey train tickets. So we had a little stress argument in the internet cafe, re-grouped, wandered around the city at dusk, spent the night in a pretty swell hostel and then wiki-hitched the best place to hitch-hike from in Bordeaux. After waiting for a few hours at a servo, we were set! (Kind of, we then had to wait at several more servos and then it was night-time and we were a bit worried but it all worked out in the end.) We got where we wanted to go and decided never to use paid-for transport in France again. We made it to Paris! So go armed with confidence, intuition, a friend and WikiHitch. And save yourself a wheelbarrow full of euros. You also get to meet a bunch of random French people with varying levels of English and stories of interest.
Think of a lot of different ways to say 'Holy shit, how old??!! That is 100/200/500 years older than all of the buildings in our country!' Because you will say that (or versions of that) a lot. Probably every couple of days. And if you are spending a lot of time with the same people- especially if they are people from another European country where they have equally old stuff- they will probs get sick of hearing it. Unless you mix it up a bit. I'm not sure how... I was with Will mostly, so we just spouted that back and forward to each other and were so amazed at the history we were strolling through that we didn't notice the repetition.
When you go to Paris, because you will obviously, don't climb the Eiffel Tower. Do go to an art gallery (but if you only have a few days don't choose the Louvre because you may suffer from an attack of French Stendhal Syndrome). Do couch-surf. If you don't anywhere else in France, do in Paris. Accommodation is expensive, crap and hard to book unless you are very organised. Couch-surfing is free, more interesting and you will probably get some wonderful local advice (and also you will be a little way out of tourism central so you can see what Paris life is like for locals... and also eat a lot of pastries because they are really cheap out there). Do walk everywhere, take every interesting looking street, pop into every curious looking shop and eat as much as you can without exploding. Don't try to get across the city in half an hour using public transport- it can't be done (unless you are a sprinter??) Do look out for pickpockets/conners. They are everywhere- if you are in a touristy area and are approached by somebody, walk away. Also if you find yourself in need of warm clothes (because even though you came to France in winter, you didn't expect it to be this cold) skip the insanely expensive shops and hunt out the opshops in Mont Marte. And if you can, give yourself at least four days in this city. It's well worth it- I am quite sure I could spend two weeks there, no problem.
Go to France before you turn 26. Everything is cheaper for the 25 and unders- galleries, museums, other ticketed destinations that receive a lot of visitors. And you don't even have to be a student! No trying to hide that date on your three year old expired uni card there.
Enjoy the cobbles, the villages, the history, the fancy, the cheese, the country-side, the art, the posh French, the Paris weirdos, the romance, the glamour, the un-glamour, the markets, the hitch-hiking, the pain aux raisins (best ever). Get swept up in France. You'll love it, I promise.